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Men Create the Demand; Women Are the Supply

Lecture on Sexual Exploitation

Queen Sofia Center, Valencia, Spain

November 2000

Donna M. Hughes
University of Rhode Island


Control and Abuse of Women and Girls’ Sexuality

The control and abuse of women and girls’ sexuality creates and maintains women’s oppression all over the world. Men hold the important decision making positions in all social, political and religious institutions that organize and control society. Through this institutional power, men construct culture, pass laws, and enact policies that serve their interests and give themselves the power to control women and children in public and private spheres. Men’s definition and control of female sexuality constructs and regulates women and girls’ sexual activity. Voluntary, as well as involuntary, violations of society’s man-made rules mark women as tainted and immoral, and bring dishonor to the family.

Repression and Exploitation--Complementary Forms of Control and Abuse

Repression and exploitation are different, but complementary, forms of control and abuse of female sexuality. Women and girls’ sexuality is repressed by strict control on sexual activity through such customs as placing a premium on girls’ virginity, basing family honor on the sexual control of daughters and wives, exacting severe punishment for adultery, preventing equal access to divorce, and segregating girls and women from boys and men.

Patriarchal religions, which mold most of the cultures of the world, subordinate women and girls to men. Fundamentalist movements, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Islamic, advocate the repression of women and girls’ sexuality. Women and girls’ interaction with men and boys is closely monitored and restricted and their bodies and hair covered in a way deemed to be modest. For example, under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, women are required to wear full body coverings, such as chadors and burqas. Punishment for sexual misconduct can be severe, as in Iran, where women can be legally stoned to death.

The other form of control and abuse of women’s sexuality is exploitation, in which women and girls are used for men’s sexual gratification or profit. Women and children are sexually exploited when they are subjected to incest, rape, sexual harassment, battering, bride trafficking, pornography, and prostitution.

In private, all forms of sexual exploitation exist all over the world. The public sexual exploitation of women and children is more varied; in some places it is actively suppressed, while elsewhere it is legalized or regulated.

The repression and exploitation of women and girls’ sexuality often occur simultaneously. For example, in Iran under fundamentalist rule, women’s activities in the public are segregated from men and full body coverings are required. At the same time, fundamentalists worsened sexual exploitation by lowering the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 9, and renewing the practice of temporary marriage, in which a man can marry a woman for as short a period as one hour, allowing a state sanctioned form of prostitution.

Men often use the repression and exploitation of women and girls to represent their political victories and power. For example, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, victory over Western influence is measured by the level of repression imposed on women, as happened in Iran and Afghanistan. In other cases, victories over state control and censorship are celebrated by availability of pornography, as happened in the Soviet Union during perestroika, or the United Arab Emirates when the Internet is used to access pornography.

Prostitution and Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

Prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession, as is commonly said, although it is probably one of the world’s oldest forms of men’s violence against women and girls. It seems old because men’s sexual exploitation of women and children is ancient and defended as a part of men’s natures that they have to have sex, even if it is purchased, forced or with a child. Prostitution is not natural or inevitable; it is abuse and exploitation of women and girls that results from structural inequality between women and men on a world scale. Prostitution commodifies women and girls and markets their bodies for whatever acts men have sexualized and want to buy. Rarely are adult men treated this way.

The majority of girls enter prostitution before they have reached the age of consent. Each year for the past decade, the average age of girls in prostitution has declined, especially in Asia and Africa where men have created a demand for young girls, assuming they are free of HIV. Girls are sold into prostitution by relatives. Pimps recruit them after they run away from home. They enter prostitution after enduring incest, abuse and rape by acquaintances, which accommodates them to violence and exploitation until eventually they think this is their role in life.

Poverty, desperation to support family members, and drug addictions compel women into prostitution. When the social infrastructure collapses as a result of war, famine, and economic crisis women turn to prostitution as a last resort.

No matter how women and girls get into prostitution, it is difficult to get out. Pimps and brothel owners use violence, threats, and addictions to drugs and alcohol to control the woman, sometimes keeping them in slavery-like conditions. Often women can leave prostitution only after they are used-up, become ill, and no longer make money for the pimps. Women in prostitution are further burdened with a stigmatized identity that is impossible to escape, unless their pasts are kept a secret.

There is no dignity in prostitution. Many of the acts of prostitution, including those that are photographed in the making of pornography, are intended to degrade, humiliate and express domination over women. They are acts of misogyny, not respect or affection, and have nothing to do with love or intimacy. Women don’t emerge from sexual exploitation into positions of power, respect or admiration. They remain powerless as individuals and an underclass as a group.

Most laws aimed at suppressing prostitution are based on the sexually repressive doctrines of patriarchal religions that view prostitution as immoral activity, with women being the most immoral participants. In this view, men give in to the temptation offered by immoral women. Men have traditionally condemned prostitution in public, while ensuring its continuation in private. Where prostitution is illegal, it is usually the women who are punished; pimps, traffickers, and men who buy women in prostitution are seldom punished. Being bought, sold and enslaved in prostitution is a condition for which women and children can be arrested, imprisoned, deported, and sometimes executed.

Trafficking is the practice that delivers women and children into sexual exploitation. The number of women trafficked for this purpose is unknown, although conservative estimates put the number in the millions. Women do not voluntarily put themselves in situations where they are exploited, beaten, raped and enslaved. Women do not traffic themselves. Criminals who recruit, buy and sell women and girls are the crucial intermediaries for delivering women into prostitution. Traffickers supply the necessary elements for travel, such as money, documents, and connections in other countries. Traffickers are paid a sum of money for each woman and girl they deliver to a brothel or pimp. They use force, coercion, seduction, deception, and any other techniques that are effective in controlling the women and girls they are trading.

Criminals traffic women and girls within borders, from rural areas to cities, and from town to town on circuits to provide new faces and bodies to men who want variety. They traffic them to large sex industry centers for men’s nightlife entertainment, to migrant labor camps for men’s hometown comfort, and to immigrant communities to provide sex for men who want women from their own nationality. They traffic them to rural areas for farmers who want wives, and to the US, Australia and Western Europe for men who want non-feminist wives.

Global Sexual Exploitation--Supply and Demand Markets

Prostitution and trafficking in women and children are global phenomena. They occur all over the world and the activities are carried out transnationally. There is a global culture of sexual exploitation in which women’s bodies are used to market consumer products and where women and girls themselves are products to be consumed. Currently, the global sex industry is estimated to make US$52 billion dollars a year. To keep the sex industry in business, women are trafficked to, from and through every region in the world. The value of this global trade in women as commodities for sex industries is estimated to be between seven and twelve billion dollars annually.

The global sexual exploitation of women and girls is a supply and demand market. Men create the demand and women are the supply.[1] Cities and countries where men’s demand for women in prostitution is legalized or tolerated are the receiving sites, while countries and areas where traffickers easily recruit women are the sending regions.

Sending countries or regions are characterized by poverty, unemployment, war, and political and economic instability. These conditions facilitate the activity of traffickers who target regions where recruiting victims is easy. In sending countries, such as Vietnam, the rise of consumerism has led families to accept loans for material goods from traffickers in exchange for the of use their daughters. In many parts of Asia, daughters are culturally bound to repay their families for their up bringing, and a daughter in the sex industry is sometimes the main financial support for families in impoverished areas. Women and girls become vulnerable to traffickers as a result of family pressure, poverty, family violence, and community conflicts. Traffickers procure women and girls when their families say, “Go,” or when women say to themselves, “Anything is better than this.”

In receiving countries or sites where men’s demand for women and girls in prostitution exceeds the supply in the local area, women and girls must be recruited and imported. Sex industries use up women, physically and emotionally, necessitating fresh supplies of women, which keeps the trafficking of women so profitable.

Criminals and organized crime groups have always been the organizers and moneymakers of the sex industry. In the United States, they were the founders and controllers of the pornography industry for decades. Sex industries contribute to secondary illegal activity, such as money laundering, which is needed to convert illegal cash into useable funds. The criminal networks that traffic women are fully transnational. Some are composed of a few loosely connected individuals, while others are highly organized crime syndicates, such as the Mafia, the Yakuza, Triads and “Russian” crime groups.

The Internet has become a site for the global sexual exploitation of women and children. In the past five years, sex industries have been the leaders in opening up the Internet for business. The Internet is almost without regulation because its international reach has made local and national laws and standards either obsolete or unenforceable. In addition, governments, such as the United States, decided on a “hands-off” policy to allow the sex industry almost unfettered operation on the Internet. With new types of technology, pornographers have introduced new ways to exploit and abuse women. With the techniques of videoconferencing, live sex shows are broadcast in which men dictate the performances of the women.

In 1999, the revenue from pornography and live sex shows on the Internet was US$1 billion dollars and comprised 69 percent of the Internet content sales. Pornographers in the United States garnered a majority of the money. By the year 2003, these sales are predicted to triple and generate half the revenue of online content sales.

Intense competition on the Internet has led pornographers to attract buyers with more extreme images, such as bondage, torture, bestiality and child pornography, leading to increased violence against women and children as more degrading and violent images, videos and live performances are made and marketed. Last year, an American in Phnom Penh, Cambodia set up a live video chat site to broadcast the pay-per-view rape and torture of women.

The Harm of Sexual Exploitation – From the Individual to the State

Global sexual exploitation is a human rights crisis for women and girls. It is also a crisis for democracy and the security of nations. The harm of sexual exploitation extends from the individual to the state.

The rape-like sex acts of prostitution cause harm to women and girls’ bodies and minds. Women contract sexually transmitted and other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. They suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. Under these conditions women make the best choices they can. Rarely do these choices approach true consent. With few options, women comply in hope that eventually they will earn enough money to buy their way out of debt bondage or find a way to escape. When escape is not possible, they use drugs and alcohol to numb themselves from the emotional distress and assaults to their dignity and bodily integrity. Most women and girls emerge from prostitution ill, traumatized, and as poor as when they entered. For increasing numbers of women and girls, prostitution is a death sentence when they contract HIV. In some regions, more than fifty percent of prostituted women have HIV/AIDS.

The sex industry targets and consumes young women, usually under age 25. When a state permits prostitution or trafficking to flourish a certain portion of each generation of young women will be lost. Some might argue that prostitution is the work of women, a way of making a living unique to their gender, but in fact, prostitution is the position the dominant class puts the subordinate class into, in order to use them as they desire. Prostitution creates an underclass of women whose purpose is to sexually serve men. It is a degraded status, everywhere. No form of sexual exploitation leads to the liberation or empowerment of women, or enhances the rights or status of women.

Prostitution and trafficking are extreme forms of gender discrimination and exist as a result of the powerlessness of women as a class. Sexual exploitation is more than an act; it is a systematic way to abuse and control women that socializes and coerces women and girls until they comply, take ownership of their own subordinate status, and say, “I choose this.”

Prostitution and trafficking restrict women’s freedom and citizenship rights. If women are treated as commodities, they are consigned to second-class citizenship. No state can be a true democracy, if half of its citizens can potentially be treated as commodities.

In addition to harming the individual and creating an underclass of women, trafficking and prostitution operate through criminal activity and corruption that threaten the stability and security of nations. Due to relatively low risk and high profits, the trade in women is increasingly replacing the trade in drugs and arms as the preferred activity of transnational criminal networks. When officials are bribed or collaborate, they use their authority to protect criminals and profit from the sexual exploitation of women. As the influence of criminal networks on law enforcement and governments deepens, the corruption goes beyond occasionally ignoring illegal activity to providing protection by blocking legislation that would hinder the activities of the traffickers and pimps. As corruption and collaboration increase, the line between the state and the criminal networks starts to blur. This merging of criminal networks and government has occurred in many of the former Soviet republics, which are the major suppliers of women to the brothels of Europe. Reports from the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, indicate that legalized prostitution does not solve these problems, but leads to increased prostitution, trafficking and organized crime.

Resistance to Sexual Exploitation

If women and girls are to live in this world with dignity and equality, their bodies and emotions must belong to them alone. They cannot be commodities to be bought and sold. The sexual exploitation of women is justified or condemned by so many different perspectives and ideologies it is difficult to get people to see and understand the harm to women, individually and as a class.

There is a double battle to be fought against the abuse and control of women and girls’ sexuality. The first is against the repression of women and girls’ sexuality; the second is against the exploitation of women and girls’ sexuality. In the case of prostitution, the challenge is to end the discrimination for being in prostitution, while at the same time, ending the oppression of being used in prostitution. To do this we need to decriminalize prostitution for women, so the state is no longer punishing women for being exploited and abused. We need services that assist victims who are suffering from trauma, poor health, and physical injuries. States need to provide assistance to women and girls in the form of shelters, hotlines and advocates.

At the same time, we have to oppose the legalization and regulation of prostitution and trafficking, which allow women to be exploited and abused under state determined conditions, and the decriminalization of pimping, trafficking and buying women in prostitution. We must focus more attention on the legitimacy of the demand by men to sexually exploit women and girls. We have to hold the criminals and perpetrators accountable for the harm they do.

In addition to ending the harm to women and girls, successful opposition to sexual exploitation offers countries of the world a breakthrough for global justice and democracy. Successful prosecutions of individuals and criminal networks that traffic and pimp women will eliminate a signification portion of transnational organized crime and corruption that are destabilizing governments all over the world.


[1] This dynamic is the case for heterosexual prostitution. Exceptions are gay prostitution, men’s sexual abuse of boys, the occasional sexual abuse of children by women and the almost non-existent prostitution of men by women.