In an era of ambiguity and ambivalence on issues, Convocation speaker Norma Ramos, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), offered a contrast. Ramos spoke strongly and decisively about the need to abolish all forms of sex-trafficking and prostitution—which she called “commercial rape”— in her Convocation address to the campus April 9.
Above all, Ramos viewed prostitution as inherently oppressive, stating that prostitution was not the “world’s oldest profession, but the world’s oldest oppression.” Ramos identified gender inequality as the root of prostitution and sex-trafficking.
“Gender inequality is the cause, and poverty makes it worse,” she said. For this reason, she stated that prostitution was not inevitable.
While not inevitable, prostitution is extremely harmful according to Ramos and needs to be universally abolished. Prostitution, she said, is “violence against women,” and the act of prostitution is nothing more than “broken human beings being sold.” Therefore, a zero-tolerance approach to sex-trafficking is crucial to Ramos’ viewpoint. She identified CATW as the “world’s leading [prostitution] abolition organization,” and said they were committing to working against all labor and sex trafficking, from an “abolitionist standpoint.” Ramos is now in her twenty-second year at the organization.
Ramos also described the worldwide alliance against trafficking in which she took part, saying the anti-trafficking movement has “kind of gone mainstream.” She did describe, however, the challenges that an organization against the trafficking of women and girls had compared to an organization solely against the trafficking of children.
“If you fight only ‘child trafficking,’ you’ll find that the funding is much richer,” she said. “Well, if she isn’t there by choice as a child, what difference does it make whether she is 16, or 18, or 20 then?”
This point brought her to perhaps the most controversial part of her lecture: her discussion on choice and agency within prostitution. The education that Ramos does, she said, is “to get people to understand” that there “is no such thing as freely-chosen prostitution as compared to sex trafficking and forced prostitution.”
She recalled Women’s Studies Heads of Departments at other colleges who debated with her on this point, and who claimed that one could choose to go into prostitution on one’s own accord. Ramos said she often responds, “Ever notice who is doing the choosing? I notice that you’re not choosing to be a prostituted woman…”
“Prostitution,” she continued, “is not a function of choice but of lack of choice.” To demonstrate this lack of choice and that prostitution should be an identity, Ramos did not use the word “prostitute” in her speech, but rather the term “prostituted woman.”
On this note, Ramos rejected an academic approach that says prostitution is empowering. Rather, she wanted to “make public policy off the 99 percent of women who didn’t have a choice in becoming prostituted.” Girls, said Ramos, “don’t grow up and want to be a lawyer or a judge, or a prostituted woman.”
Ramos dismissed the term “sex work,” often used to show the agency of those in prostitution.
“Human sexuality is not work,” she said, and added, “Prostitution is not sex work.”
Ramos also discussed the disproportionate number of women of color in prostitution, and said that “to support prostitution is to support racism.”
Although the situation regarding women and girls is troubling, she was also hopeful.
“More and more people are not accepting that prostituted women and girls will be sold and abused. We can and will live in a world of gender equality rather than gender inequality,” she said.
To get to this point of equality, she encouraged men’s participation.
“Think about how you contribute to gender inequality,” she told the male members of the audience. In particular, she suggested looking at practices like bachelor parties.
“Can men please be more creative about how to celebrate getting married without buying the body of another woman?” she asked.
She also presented a slideshow of examples of how sexuality has been impacted by “sex-industry norms.” Images included Lady Gaga, Beyonce and a photo of Rihanna receiving a lap-dance at her birthday party, concluding that this image showed “how insidious the porn industry is at normalizing porn.” Regarding Lady Gaga, Ramos said that pressures for a female musician to be “fully exposed” to be “socially accessible” was a “tragedy before our very eyes.”
Critiquing these norms of the sex-industry, therefore, was one way Ramos envisioned moving forward. She also called on men to stop playing games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” in which players must kill prostituted women for points. Ramos called the game an “insidious, socializing agent of our children.”
Ramos concluded with a slide showing that without ‘deMANd’ there was no ‘supply’ for prostituted women or sex-trafficking, and challenged audience members to take a stance.
While the opinions of Carleton students may not be as clear as the abolitionist view on prostitution articulated by Ramos, the Convocation certainly sparked interest. On Monday night April 12, over 30 students gathered in the Gender and Sexuality Center to discuss their reactions to and reflections on the Convocation. And clearly, the conversation is far from over.