Contributed by: Lisa Thompson
Recent experiences in brothels and strip clubs: the connection between human trafficking and sexual ethics
My apologies for the somewhat raw, visceral and melodramatic nature of this reflection on my experience in week two of The ABOLITION PROJECT:
Last Tuesday workers from S.A.G.E. (Standing Against Global Exploitation) spoke at our ABOLITION Project meeting about their work supporting victims of human trafficking in San Francisco. I learned that 43% of trafficking victims in California are transported through the Bay Area. Cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas function as regional trade hubs for women seduced or coerced into prostitution. Mollie, trafficking project manager for S.A.G.E, explained that there are myths surrounding sex and prostitution that perpetuate the exploitation of women. One myth is that women voluntarily choose to go into prostitution because they enjoy having anonymous sexual encounters or because the work is financially lucrative. She said that most, if not all of the women who enter their program became involved in prostitution through force, manipulation, financial desperation or addiction. S.A.G.E. recognizes these women as human trafficking victims, whether they have been transported across international borders or were domestically coerced into prostitution by a family member or a boyfriend.
A second myth relates to men who feed the demand for sexual services. S.A.G.E. operates a recovery program for men incarcerated for soliciting sexual services. These men come from the entire spectrum of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. A male representative from S.A.G.E. suggested that many of the men have a mistaken notion of masculinity, believing that having sex with multiple partners makes them more virile or manly. I was so stirred by what I heard that I quickly scrawled a facebook update:
“An important aspect to addressing sex trafficking is confronting our cultural myths about manhood and sexuality– woman want to be loved and cherished– not objectified. Real manhood is not about multiple sexual conquests– but honor and fidelity. This means, for instance, that pornography is not only an issue of personal morality but also of justice and human rights.”
After the talk Sarah Montoya retold the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. This Samaritan woman had been the victim of a male oriented society where women were easily divorced and made vulnerable. Left with no other options for protection and survival, she was living intimately with a man she wasn’t married to. In her society she would have been scorned as unclean and was, most likely, at the well in the heat of the day because of her outcast status. Jesus did something radically counter-cultural by talking with her as an equal and affirming her dignity and worth. Following this reflection we were invited to go out into the streets in search of the woman from the story (someone on the margins involved in the sex industry).
* * *
Adam and I leave the building and quickly walk toward the intersection of China Town and North Beach. In a few minutes we find ourselves standing in front of a Thai Massage parlor. I hesitantly push the doorbell on a locked metal gate. Shortly the latch “buzzes” and we make our descent down a set of stairs, around a blind corner and into a makeshift waiting room hidden from street view. We wait awkwardly for several minutes in the pink neon glow of a space containing chairs and a magazine table facing a small curtained window and heavily bolted door. We hear music and faint chattering. Eventually a Thai woman, about my mother’s age, opens the door and greets us in broken English, wearing a lingerie top, high heals and heavy make-up:
“You want massage? Fifty dollars for half an hour. Come on in. We take you both right now.”
I stammer for a moment, not knowing what to say, and surprised that we are so quickly invited into a transaction for sexual services. Another woman appears, of equal age and attire, and says, “You come for massage? We have many pretty girls for you.”
To deflect their solicitations, I ask, “How late are you open?,”
“Anytime. You come back anytime. We have many, many pretty girls for you.”
“O.K. Thank you.” Adam says, as we quickly ascend the staircase and rush out through the gate. After the gate clicks behind us and we reach the sidewalk, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. My heart is beating fast. Who would have known that it would be so easy to enter the domain of sexual slavery– to stand feet away from girls, likely trafficked, and kept hidden behind locked doors– a door that had been opened to us?
A few minutes later, two women from our project ring the door bell of the same massage parlor; except they are told, “We are busy and can’t help you” and are abruptly sent on their way (suggesting that the true nature of this massage business was sexual rather than therapeutic).
“My heart is breaking” I tell Adam as we make our way toward the strip of sex clubs at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway. When I’m in this part of town at night I usually walk briskly past the burley doormen aggressively inviting male passersby into the clubs. But tonight we are in search of the Samaritan woman, and believe she is behind one of these velvet curtained doorways. Adam and I approach when one of the doorman is giving a pitch to two other men. I notice a sign on the sidewalk that says, “LAP DANCES ONLY $10 EVERY NIGHT.”
“Good evening gentleman,” the other door man says, “would you like to come inside?”
“What’s the deal?” Adam asks.
He replies, “This is a fully nude, topless and bottomless club. Now it’s normally a ten dollar cover, but I can let you two gentlemen in for five dollars a piece tonight. And, you will receive a hand stamp for free entrance to a topless club that serves alcohol around the corner.”
“Is there a city regulation about nude clubs and alcohol?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies, “For the whole state of California, bottomless clubs are not allowed to serve alcohol. If they were, all the topless clubs would go out of business! I suppose the state feels like it’s not a good idea to have men drinking around under aged naked women. You see many of our girls are only eighteen. So what guys do is pay the cover, get a drink at the club around the corner and go back and forth between the two all night. What do you say?”
“Um Thanks….but right now we’re just checking out the scene.” As I say this, two gangly Latin girls, who barely look eighteen, appear from behind the velvet curtain and stand by the doorman. I look into their eyes. Despite the high heels and mini dresses, they carry themselves like self-conscious high schoolers from Modesto, wearing heavy make-up to cover lingering teenage acne.
Along the sidewalk we watch other girls going back and forth between the strip clubs and the motor inn across the street. Two girls on break walk past carrying costume bags and duck into the Taqueria next door. Around the corner the doorman at the Condor calls out to us. This is a world famous strip club where Carol Doda first danced topless in 1964. We hear the pitch and the doorman abruptly says, “Tell you what gentlemen, just come inside to see what you think.” He parts the velvet curtain and we follow him into a space where men and couples sit at tables nursing cocktails. And there we find the Samaritan woman, a girl scarcely older than my daughter, with ample thighs and a sad face, crawling seductively across the stage in a black t-shirt and g-string panties.
My heart is breaking. My heart is breaking because I live in a city where fifty dollars can fetch you thirty minutes of pleasure by the hands of a scared undocumented woman. My heart is breaking because I live in a town where, for less than the price of a movie rental, you can watch a live eighteen year old girl strip away her dignity. My heart is breaking because I live in an age when you can vicariously participate in any of these activities for free, in the privacy of your own home, from any computer or phone with internet capability. My heart is breaking because I know that I am pulled between honoring, objectifying and despising the Samaritan woman. My heart is breaking because I realize that the root of human slavery is the human heart, wanting to possess what it has not earned by love, trust and fidelity.
We gather back as a group at Cameron house, where we began the evening. As we recount the tales of our encounters with the woman at the well the emotional pitch in the room becomes palpable. A few of us begin to cry and together we pray: safety, freedom, restored image of the beloved. We weep for the Samaritan woman beyond the velvet curtain and behind the locked gate. Some of us weep because we are facing our own impulses to regard people as objects. Some of weep because we know what it is like to be that vulnerable boy or girl whose dignity was stolen by an act of greed.
The house where we meet in China town is named for Donaldina Cameron, a courageous young woman who began rescuing girls trafficked to San Francisco for prostitution in the 1870’s. At the close of our meeting we descend down three flights of steps toward an underground tunnel where the girls were kept hidden when their “owners” or pimps came looking for them. We take turns crawling up into the narrow passage way to see where liberators who came before us welcomed, protected and cared for the Samaritan woman.
This message is forwarded to you by: IAST
Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking