By guest writer Timothy Gallagher
Masculinity is a very nebulous concept, difficult to define and tricky to pin down. The defining feature of masculinity is that it cannot exist without femininity - it is the contrast between them that creates them both.
Both masculinity and femininity are archetypes rather than realities. Masculinity is an ideal which people strive to live up to and embody. Masculinity is a particular way of performing gender and of being a man.
Nor is there one kind of masculinity. Sociologist Raewyn Connell developed a theory that there are multiple masculinities, which are all contingent on different factors like social class, race, and sexuality.
Masculinity is performed differently for working class men, or black men, or gay men. To understand how masculinity shapes the sex trade, we need to understand what masculinity is being performed? Where does it come from? And how does it shape the experiences of women who have been trafficked?
The Lion Within: Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak is a collaborative immersive audio piece produced by Equality Now and The Sophie Hayes Foundation. It features the experiences of three sex trafficking survivors using their own words, with their testimonies jarringly juxtaposed against comments made by men on a website where punters post explicit reviews about women they have paid to have sex with.
The harrowing accounts of the women describe a life of fear, control and violence. They talk about physical abuse, exhaustion and psychological detachment, and convey how their existence was shaped by their captors and patrons.
One woman, Rebecca, describes the hypocrisy of the men who bought her. The way some tried to engage her in conversation and come across as a ‘nice guy’, or pretend what they were doing was not abuse. She describes how punters do this in order to distinguish between themselves and the ‘bad’ men who abuse women. Rebecca concludes that there is no non-violent way to buy another human being.
A common theme amongst the women is the need to separate mind and body. They describe the necessity of keeping personal information private and remaining detached to ensure survival.
Rebecca: “Lots of men that talk, they kind of talk in a way that is like they’re pretending that it’s not really happening, what they’re doing, or they’re trying to pretend to themselves that they’re the good guy, you know. They usually use that as a way of mentally abusing the prostitute, by trying to ask really personal stuff and trying to get under her skin. And it’s like, one of the ways you survive prostitution is by not saying anything personal about yourself.”
“What I didn’t like was the dishonesty and the hypocrisy of these men, who were, like, pretending that they were the nice guy when you’re not a nice guy if you’re buying a human being for sex.”
In contrast the male narrative is one of price and evaluation. All the comments express dissatisfaction with the women’s lack of effort, reluctance to engage with them, or inability to sexually gratify them. All of their comments sound as though they are dissatisfied after purchasing a service, they are disconnected from the reality that they have purchased a human being whose entire life is consumed by what, for the men, is a singular experience.
Contrasts are what make things clear. Black and white, night and day, male and female.
Masculinity and femininity need each other to make sense. The men participating as customers in sex trafficking are performing what many would consider traditional masculinity- sexual dominance over a woman. Masculinity is dominant and femininity is submissive.
In contemporary British society this kind of masculinity is considered unacceptable in the public sphere. Feminism and public narratives of equality and consent have thankfully pushed it to the periphery.
However patrons of the sex trafficking industry clearly believe that for a price they can demand what they want from women and perform this kind of masculinity. They believe that transforming sex into a commodity transforms sexual relations into a service/buyer relationship and dissolves consent. Once given the status of customer they can perform an ‘ancient’ kind of masculinity of dominance and objectification.
Ironically, and tragically, it is this same service/buyer relationship which enables the same men to perform a traditional ‘protective’ masculinity. The hypocrisy described by one survivor - of men lying to themselves about being a ‘nice guy’ - is made possible by the horrific position which sex trafficked women are in. Their necessary psychological and emotional detachment creates a disconnect between their experiences and the men’s experiences, and this facilitates the hypocritical paradox of masculinity.
Rebecca: “A norm in prostitution is to be moved around to many different forms of prostitution, or aspects of the sex trade. All of that to me at the time felt like a muddle, but looking back, it’s all interconnected. And it’s all about making sure you never know how to be safe, and never know where a safe place is.”
“I think that to disconnect prostitution from trafficking is a really good way of letting men think that, well, what I’m doing is okay. It’s what those other men are doing that’s so terrible. It’s always the others that are awful. But we’re doing the legal stuff, we’re doing the non-violent stuff. You know, there’s nothing non-violent about buying another human.”
The masculinity performed by the women’s captors is the same kind of ‘traditional’ dominance as their buyers, except is it geared more towards violence and psychological control. However, it is still rooted in contrasting ideals of masculinity/femininity, domination/submission.
Understanding how masculinity is formed and performed is essential to understanding how it shapes the sex trafficking industry. Traditional ideas of dominance and submission shape the attitudes of the men involved and the experiences of the women who are trafficked.
This is not to say that all men are responsible or that all men are performing in this way. Conflating men with ‘traditional’ masculinity is an error. There are many ways to perform masculinity and it’s generally accepted that this form of expression is unacceptable. It is significant that its performance by patrons is only possible in a secret space through the medium of a financial transaction.
There are plenty of secret spaces in every strata of society which enable this performance- the Harvey Weinstein scandal has highlighted that. Moving forward it’s essential to highlight the experiences of victims, but it is also essential to explicitly say exactly what is wrong with what these men are doing.
In a recent interview actress Emma Thompson stressed the crisis of extreme masculinity and of gender dysfunction which enables sexual predators. A discussion of dysfunctional gender roles, and an emphasis on masculinity in this discussion, can show men that performing in this way is wrong, and help survivors of sex trafficking too. Identifying the root of a problem is the only way to solve it.
About the author:
Timothy Gallagher writes about sexuality and gender and is a Social Anthropology graduate from Manchester University.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy.