11 October 2016
Catherine McAuley calls on us to “never speak with contempt of any nation, profession, or class of people.” In her day, there were few groups in society viewed with greater contempt than women and girls in prostitution. Sadly, cultural attitudes to these women and girls have generally evolved little since then.
As a society we all too often deride and dehumanise those in the sex trade. They are the butt of jokes, a target of mockery and derision, a class of people wholly removed from our daily lives. Profane euphemisms for 'prostitute' are used to insult and disparage women. Historically, this attitude became entrenched because of the association of overt sexuality with immorality; women in prostitution were using their sexuality to lead otherwise upstanding men astray. They were commodifying their sexuality to profit from immorality. And yet, everywhere you look today you see the commercialisation of female sexuality for profit.
Women are sexualised to sell everything from chewing gum to sports cars. This kind of imagery can even include strong elements of violence against women, trivialising sexual and violent abuse and exploiting it to make money. This is the social context in which the sex trade happens, and, by extension, human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
If we are to understand the nature of this trade in human beings, we must understand the broader context of gender inequality in which it occurs. This was the main theme of one of the workshops attended by participants of the recent Young Mercy Leadership Pilgrimage in Baggot Street. For the 69 young people from Ireland and America, most of whom were women, the reality of our highly sexualised society poses problems, even dangers, on a daily basis.
During the workshop, the pilgrims were challenged to examine the sex trade as a point on a spectrum of gender inequality on which all women and girls are placed. Can it be surprising that in a society that normalises violence against women to sell designer shoes, one in four women will experience violent abuse at some stage in their lives? Can there be no link between the fact that we are constantly bombarded by images of women as primarily glamorous sexual objects, and the fact that when a woman achieves a high political office she is scrutinised for her outfit as well as her policies?
Considering these questions, the pilgrims had lively discussions about the kind of abuse women experience on the street and online, and the pervasive 'rape culture' that has become more prevalent in recent years. Such conversations are key to understanding and addressing the sex trade because as long as we continue to 'other' those in prostitution, and see the attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate the sex trade as something wholly removed from ourselves and our experiences, then we will never tackle the inequality that is the root of this sexual exploitation.
Mecpaths Campaign Manager