As of late, there has been a lot of talk about sexual exploitation around every turn. Namely, we are seeing it in politics, social justice movements, and now even in Hollywood. But there is still a very grey area and that is what I want to talk about.
First, what is exploitation? According to Miriam-Webster Dictionary, exploitation is the act of exploiting. Exploiting is defined as: to make productive use of: utilize, or to make use of (something or someone) meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage. I think we can agree that it is clearly exploitation when someone is forced to use their body or sexuality to benefit another party. An example of this would be the relationship between a hostile exploiter or pimp and the victim who goes by a pseudonym and used as a commodity repeatedly. Most can agree that this relationship is black and white and is wrong. There is no grey there. We can also agree as “woke” people that child-sexual-exploitation is a black and white issue. Most of society is not yet desensitized to these truths.
So what is the grey area?
Let me share a short story with you, to get our minds turning…
There was a woman in her 50’s on a date after her divorce. At the end of the date, the man she was with asked her something that might be considered grey depending on where you stand. This is how she explained it to me:
“He said to me…’I am a married man. I have been in a pre-arranged marriage, and we are not happy. We do not want to divorce because of our son but we both agree to have our separate lives. I have been watching you for a while and I decided that you are the one I want. I will pay you $3000 a month to meet me at that hotel at lunchtime 2 times a week. No strings attached.’ Ha! I asked him ‘Are you asking me to be a prostitute?’ He said ‘No, not at all, more like a girlfriend who is well compensated for her time and affections.’ I turned him down, of course, was he asking me to exploit myself?”
Well…was he asking her to exploit herself? Or was he just aware of his situation and trying to make the best of it? If she agreed to the arrangement is that still exploitation? And, if it is, why is it more acceptable and even glorified (think about the Girlfriend Experience) in the eyes of society to participate in this form of exploitation than street prostitution?
This is the grey area I am talking about. Is it still exploitation when someone exploits themselves?
Lets look a little deeper.
As a survivor-leader and advocate, myself, I believe I might have a unique perspective on this topic. I believe first we have to acknowledge three major truths. Number one, no one wants to exploit themselves in the beginning. Number two, if a woman is exploiting herself, she may not acknowledge that or even believe it herself. And number three, the psychological effects of “self-induced” (these things never happen in a vacuum) sexual exploitation have been proven to be very similar to those of second party exploitation.
No one wants to exploit themselves in the beginning. The many factors that play into the reasons why women exploit themselves are too vast to cover in a simple blog. However, we can at least scratch the surface. I encourage you if you really want to understand this topic more, to dig into some good books about sexual abuse and trauma. To sum up, exploitation—even self-induced—is often a gradual process. No one aspires to be a sex worker. In most situations, it is a mixture of childhood trauma and, in many cases, sexual abuse. It can be as simple as being introduced to porn at a young age or having an absent father, and as severe as growing up in an abusive home or being sexually abused or trafficked as a child. Many times women who are victims and survivors of sexual exploitation share the common denominator that there was some form of trauma in their childhood.
Second, if a woman is exploiting herself, she will most likely not acknowledge this or admit it while it is still ongoing. If you are familiar with the way a pimp and prostitute relationship works, then you know it is manipulation and survival as well as misguided loyalty and devotion. When one is exploiting oneself they become their own pimp. Often times, this is an attempt to be in control of one’s body and circumstances when they may not have been previously. It all depends on the root fear that drives the person to do what they feel necessary to cope and survive. This driving force could be scarcity- not having material things that they are accustom to, survival-based- not having necessities and basic needs, or other things. Many times when you are in a place of self-exploitation you have convinced yourself that you enjoy what you do much like addicts will convince themselves they are not addicts.
Regardless of the form of exploitation, the psychological effects seem to be similar across the board. Most women who come out of the life and are in recovery, myself included, are recovering from childhood trauma, sexual trauma, and /or some form of addiction. Most of the time they have co-occurring symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation or actual attempts. They also seem to have a pattern of re-victimization, which seems to confirm the lie that they really want this life and enjoy what they do.
Given the facts above, and according to the definition of exploitation, it is fair to say that self-exploitation is a real thing and is sexual exploitation by definition. Yet, it is still very much a grey area and glorified in many ways. Other forms of exploitation are criminalized and frowned upon for the most part. We can accept the “gold diggers” as ambitious women, but we put prostitutes feeding their children in jails. We would never encourage our daughters to sell themselves, yet we say things like “You better marry a rich man” and encourage our girls to chase comfortable living and ease rather than character and love. This grey area is not as grey as it appears after it is put under some light. It is a black and white issue. If we could look past society’s standards and mixed messages and look deep into our own convictions and see all humans as humans, we might begin to see the grey areas are darker than they appear.
So what do you think? Is self-exploitation really exploitation?