Berenger: And you consider all this natural?
Dudard: What could be more natural than a rhinoceros?
Berenger: Yes, but for a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question.
Dudard: Well, of course, that’s a matter of opinion… - Eugene Ionesco
In Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist play Rhinoceros (filmed in 1973 with Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Karen Black), the inhabitants of the characters’ town begin turning into rhinoceroses. Though the cause is not explained, there is a strong implication that the transformation is at least partially voluntary, because the more people change the more others join them. At first the townspeople are outraged, but by the end of the play everyone has become a rhinoceros except for the protagonist, Berenger, who considers joining the rhinos but just can’t force himself to change. The play is generally interpreted as a political allegory; no matter how ridiculous a mass movement is (Ionesco probably had fascism and communism in mind), nor how ugly and destructive it makes its adherents, it will often continue to grow in popularity until many who once opposed it now defend and may even join it.
The metaphor popped into my head on January 5th while reading the comments on Laura Agustín’s column of the previous day; one of the commenters stated that she knows a sex worker who accepts some of Melissa Farley’s monstrous lies, and I replied:
A lot of sex workers buy into the “trafficking” mythology as well; I’ve read many comments and emails from such women who look around for where the “anti-trafficking” fingers are pointing and fail to realize that the supposed “sex slaves” are them and their friends and associates. It rather reminds me of Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros, in which the people who haven’t turned into rhinoceroses begin to perceive themselves as ugly outsiders.
It should be obvious that moral panics, like Ionesco’s “Rhinocerism”, are psychologically contagious; most people who are exposed to them are essentially brainwashed into accepting them, the victims of their own herd mentality. And so insidious is their influence that even some people who should know better are drawn into them, making whatever rationalizations are necessary to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict of their knowledge and their desire to go along with the crowd. Thus many escorts, who intellectually know that the notion of prostitutes as coerced “sex slaves” is ridiculous, accept the “trafficking” hysteria by rationalizing that there is indeed an epidemic of “human trafficking” in other countries, or among streetwalkers, or in other places they conveniently never visit. Some of them even accept the outrageous claims of numbers and ages, egotistically assuming that they are part of some supposed elite of “free” hookers despite the fact that every other whore they know is equally “free”. Some even spin idiotic conspiracy theories in which there is a secret network of pimps who magically “get” girls and secretly control them without clients or other escorts being any the wiser. Many clients, too, are caught up in the hysteria; they worry that girls they hire might be secretly “pimped”, and that patronizing them somehow contributes to that prohibitionist devil, “demand”.
There is only one way to fight this contagious fantasy, and that is by rejecting the entire “trafficking” paradigm. In a September 2010 essay entitled “Willing Brides and Consenting Homosexuals” Cheryl Overs pointed out the danger of ceding any ground to the prohibitionists on this issue:
…I have noticed emergence of a new term “willing sex workers”. The danger here is that this term signifies that even those who support decriminalisation of sex work are now accepting the trafficking paradigm by repositioning willing sex workers as a subset of this broader category “sex worker/victim of trafficking or sexual exploitation”…The implications of this slow but clear shift are enormous. Health and human rights promoting programmes…can now be seen as applicable only to “willing sex workers” while “unwilling” sex workers deemed to be trafficked or sexually exploited need raids, rehabilitation and anti-trafficking programmes.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about this is that sex workers themselves and other well-meaning folks are buying into the trafficking paradigm…I am not going to argue about how many people are forced into sex work, but even in that overstudied “hotbed of sex trafficking” Cambodia, the only credible study [showed that] less than 2% of sex workers say they had been sold or coerced (CACHA 2008). How might this compare to the percentage of married women who were forced into marriage – even in the “hotbeds” of forced marriage? What percentage of gay men have been forced into sodomy? We don’t know, but clearly both happen. But it would be absurd to preface the words “bride” and “gay man” with “willing” or “consenting”. Can you imagine reports that say that condoms should be distributed to “consenting homosexuals”? Can you think of anything more absurd, more homophobic or more stigmatising? Can you think of anything more absurd than describing Kate Middleton as a “willing bride”? Positioning “willing” and “unwilling” doesn’t contribute to justice for people who have been raped, beaten [or] imprisoned in the course of either marriage [or] homosexuality and no one would suggest that. Nor would anyone suggest that rejecting the terms “willing brides” and “consenting homosexuals” amounts to a denial that those things happen. Yet this is exactly what the trafficking paradigm sets out for sex workers…
Perhaps the highest priority for the sex workers rights movement should be…to reject the entire paradigm of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Only by doing this can we focus on convincing the public and policy makers that public health, human rights and social development outcomes for sex workers depend on justice for all…our slogan says it perfectly – “only rights can stop the wrongs.”
Those with long memories may recognize her point as essentially similar to the one I made in my New Year’s Day column for 2011: “It isn’t necessary to have an adjective to describe every way in which a given person isn’t unusual; we assume the usual unless something different is specified, not vice-versa.” The vast majority of sex workers take their jobs as willingly as anyone takes any job, and it’s no more necessary to say “willing sex workers” than it is to say “willing doctors”, “willing teachers”, “willing cops”, “willing maids” or “willing cashiers”. The trafficking paradigm is an ugly fantasy which flies in the face of both reality and human nature, and must therefore be rejected completely in order to avoid being swallowed up by it; anyone who claims that the unnaturalness of a man becoming a rhinoceros is “a matter of opinion” is well on his way to becoming one himself.
One Year Ago Today
In “The Specialist” we meet Wanda, a call girl who specializes in clients of a most unusual (and exceptional) nature.