International AIDS Meeting Ambushed by the Ruling Plutocracy on the Question of Prostitution
July 29, 2012
I just returned from the International AIDS meeting in Washington D.C., where 26,000 people from all over the world convened to discuss the science of HIV and social/political issues relating to ending the HIV epidemic.
The meeting was one of the most bizarre meetings I have ever attended. Here's why.
One of the main themes of the meeting was that prostitution is as normal and legitimate and proper an occupation for a woman as any other occupation, in no substantial way different from teaching or nursing or factory work or hairdressing; that prostitutes should be referred to as "sex workers" and their occupation referred to as the "sex industry," just like any other industry.* The people attending this meeting routinely use phrases and acronyms to refer to different kinds of people: MSM for men who have sex with men, and PLHIV for people living with HIV, etc. The reasonable way to refer to prostitutes would be something like "People forced into prostitution" (PFP). But no, the people in charge of the meeting insist on "sex workers" in the "sex industry."
One of the sessions was titled, "The Oldest Profession: Is Sex Work, Work?" And the answer was a resounding "Yes." At the Netherlands booth they displayed tiles in the classical Dutch design in traditional blue and white colors, but with HIV-related drawings and words. One tile had a drawing of a woman prostitute standing in the street under a lamp post, and the words, instead of saying, "Woman forced into prostitution," said instead, "Working Woman."
I was curious what ordinary people attending the meeting thought about this. So I decided to strike up conversations with everybody I could to find out. I asked people if they would care to hear my opinion about an issue related to the meeting and let me know how they felt, and if they agreed I said (essentially) the following:
"I think it is immoral for this conference to refer to prostitutes as 'sex workers' instead of the more appropriate phrase, 'Women (or people) forced into prostitution.' According to one of the talks given here, 85% of women prostitutes are forced into it by economic hardship, in other words by extreme economic inequality. In a study reported here, women prostitutes in scientifically conducted interviews said they felt humiliated by having to prostitute themselves, and they feared their children finding out. Calling them 'sex workers' covers up the injustice of the economic inequality that forces** them into prostitution. It is as bad as if, in the 1800s during slavery in the United States, people had insisted on calling slaves 'agricultural workers.' Had this happened, slavery would have been normalized and there would not have been an abolitionist movement to abolish slavery. We need a revolution to abolish the economic inequality that drives women into prostitution; we should not be legitimizing a social injustice by calling the modern equivalent of slavery 'sex work' in the 'sex industry.'"
To my pleasant surprise most of the people at the conference responded that they agreed with me. Some said they hadn't thought about it until now, but that what I said was absolutely true. When I raised the question at the table in my hotel where other delegates to the meeting and I were having breakfast, everybody agreed with me: a man from Belgium, a man from China and a man from Africa.
Not everybody at the conference, however, agreed. There was a hard core who defended the "sex worker" phrase, saying that its purpose was to avoid stigmatizing prostitutes. But when I pointed out that "people forced into prostitution" only stigmatized the forcing of people into prostitution, not the woman herself, they typically changed the subject. They said that some women engage in prostitution because they want to, and are not forced into it. I replied that there may indeed be such women, but they are the small minority in the world, and to use the existence of such women as an excuse to cover up the injustice that forces the great majority of prostitutes, just in order to survive economic hardship, to have sex with strangers and suffer humiliation and shame before their own children, is immoral.
The hard core types sometimes said, "But prostitutes want us to call them 'sex workers' instead of 'prostitutes.'" I replied that the proper question, which the prostitutes were never asked, would be, "Would you rather be called a 'person forced into prostitution' or a 'prostitute.'" (Now that I think about it, an even better phrase would be, "person unjustly forced into prostitution.")
The bizarre nature of the conference was this. It was in large part organized to promote the idea that prostitutes should be called "sex workers" and what they do should be called the "sex industry," but most of the people attending the meeting, when they thought about it, strongly disagreed.
What Explains the Bizarreness?
When something bizarre happens, there is usually an explanation. In this case the explanation, I believe, is that the people who funded this AIDS meeting were Big Money, and Big Money does not want economic inequality identified as a social injustice that should be abolished.
The conference was dominated by corporate wealth. Corporate logos were everywhere. The "pocket programme" everybody used to tell where and when the zillions of different topics were being discussed had the Merck logo. The ribbon used to hang our admission badges around our necks had "Bristol-Meyers Squibb" printed on it twelve times. The bag we were given had "Levi Strauss Foundation" emblazoned on it.
Furthermore, the people invited to give the big 'plenary' (to the whole meeting) talks included Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Jim Kim (the president of the World Bank). These individuals work for and represent the plutocracy that rules our society, the very people whose wealth and privilege and power depends on maintaining economic inequality--the cause of women being forced into prostitution.
There is no way that the Big Money corporations and the plutocracy that controls them, or their servants in the White House and World Bank (whose president is appointed by the U.S. president), would fund people who identified economic inequality as a social injustice that was not only driving women into prostitution but, in so doing, furthering the spread of the HIV virus. And they most certainly would not fund people who aimed to abolish economic inequality.
If people at this AIDS conference had decided to drop "sex worker" and use "person unjustly forced into prostitution (PUFP)" instead, then for sure the Big Money agents would have said (ever so diplomatically!), "No."
Who Funds AIDS Research and Treatment, and Why?
The thousands of people who are motivated by the terrific goal of ending the HIV epidemic and who attended this meeting, and the many more thousands of such people who did not attend (prostitutes were denied visas to attend) know that wealth and power in the world are in the hands of the few haves and not the many have-nots. The few haves control what efforts against the HIV epidemic get funded, and what efforts don't.
Funding for AIDS research and treatment comes from billionaires like Bill Gates with his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or the U.S. government, or a fund headed by Bill Clinton. Bill Gates did not become the richest man in the world by trying to make the world more equal and democratic. The U.S. government is the agent of mass murder of innocent civilians in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously told Leslie Stahl that she thought the killing of 500,000 Iraqi childen by the U.S. imposed sanctions "was worth it." The purpose of the sanctions, according to pentagon documents, was, "to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq" knowing that this would lead to "increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality." Here is how the Pentagon described its mass murder of Iraqis under Bill Clinton's authority:
A January 22, 1991, Defense Intelligence Agency report titled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” noted,
"Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline.... Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.... Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.
• The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated in early 1991 that “it probably will take at least six months (to June 1991) before the [Iraqi water treatment] system is fully degraded” from the bombing during the Gulf War and the UN sanctions.
• A May 1991 Pentagon analysis entitled “Status of Disease at Refugee Camps,” noted,
Cholera and measles have emerged at refugee camps. Further infectious diseases will spread due to inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation."
When funding for AIDS research and treatment comes from people like this, you can be sure there are serious strings attached. People like this do not give a damn about the welfare of HIV-infected people any more than they gave a damn about Iraqi children. Their only concern for HIV-infected people is the fact that their infection poses a threat to the wealth and power of these ruling elites.
To see this, let's look at why, under Bill Clinton's administration, the U.S. government declared AIDS to be a national security threat. When Samuel Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor, was interviewed and asked why AIDS was a national security threat, he explained that:
"The AIDS epidemic has reached such proportions… Some of the statistics that you cited earlier, 50 million people in the world now infected with HIV, in some countries, in Africa 20 percent infected with HIV. In 1998, 200,000 people in Africa died from war; 2.2 million died from AIDS. In some countries now we have 30 percent of the military, 40 percent of teachers who are suffering from HIV. So what you have is an epidemic now which is eating at the very civil society of nations, their potential for economic prosperity. ...
"When you have large parts of the developing world whose capacity to grow, whose capacity to have militaries that can maintain stability, whose capacity to teach their children is really being called into question… In fact indeed their capacity to govern ultimately being called into question, a few ounces of prevention at this point will be I think well spent compared with what we could face in the future if we don't deal with it."
The AIDS epidemic frightened the American ruling elite because it threatened African nations' "capacity to have militaries that can maintain stability." The "stability" included the infamous "structural adjustment" conditions imposed on these nations by the World Bank, in which dictators agreed to loans on terms that resulted in huge debts to the rich nations, debts that could never ever be repaid and which were used as the pretext for dictators to extract even more from their increasingly impoverished populations.
The wealthy few who control AIDS research and treatment funding have a concern for HIV-infected people that is akin to the concern that a farmer has for his livestock. The farmer wants his animals to be healthy, but he sure doesn't want them to escape from the process that leads them to the slaughter. The Big Money behind AIDS research and treatment wants to make sure that the HIV epidemic does not become a disruptive force they cannot control, but they sure don't want its treatment to involve anything that threatens the inequality and lack of real democracy in our world.
A Revolutionary Outlook is Needed
The reason that so many people at this international AIDS meeting did not realize how immoral the use of "sex worker" was until I raised the issue with them is this. We don't have a large revolutionary movement today. A revolutionary movement would provide the ideological "space" for people to think about how things ought to be.
Absent such a revolutionary movement, people are hemmed in by meetings (like the international AIDS meeting) and institutions that are controlled by the ruling plutocracy. These meetings and institutions impose a framework and a vocabulary intentionally designed to make people accept, as permanent and natural and uncontroversial, wrongs (like economic inequality that drives women into prostitution) that it will take a revolution to make right.
With no light shined on the wrongness, and the acceptance of the wrongness seamlessly incorporated into the entire top-down-approved discourse, people are typically not even aware that they are embracing things that, when they think about it, they believe to be immoral.
The ruling plutocracy has reasons of its own--bad reasons--for wanting to be able to control everything that has any consequences for their grip on power and wealth and privilege. They want to control the production and distribution of food, which they sometimes restrict and use as a weapon. Herbert Hoover, for example, was in charge of using food as a weapon against Communist revolution. We saw above how Bill Clinton used control of Iraq's water supply as a weapon.
The plutocracy does not want anything with social/political consequences, be it the weather, human behavior or disease-causing viruses, to be out of their control. This is why they fund research into treatments for HIV, to have control over the virus. They may want to limit or end the epidemic also, but for reasons akin to those of a farmer who calls in a veterinarian when his animals are sick.
People who have good reasons for wanting to end the HIV epidemic find themselves dependent upon the good graces of the plutocracy for funding of their cherished research or treatment projects. The choice seems to be limited to working within the parameters laid down by the plutocracy, and keeping mum about any objections to things like economic inequality driving women into prostitution and thereby making it harder to stop the spread of HIV.
But there is another choice. That choice involves allying with the have-nots against the haves; building a revolutionary movement that fights to make the world be as it ought to be--democratic for real, and equal. Even when such a movement is merely picking up steam, it will frighten the plutocracy immensely, and good people will for once have the power to make demands on the plutocracy, power that we simply do not have today. For discussion about how we can build a revolutionary movement, please see Thinking about Revolution.
* One example of the logical consequences of normalizing prostitution as work in no way different from any other kind of work is this: a society that provides unemployment benefits for people who are unemployed as long as they agree to interview for and accept any legal job offer, would have no reason not to require that a woman interview in a brothel for a job as a prostitute and accept the job if offered, or else lose her unemployment benefits. Whether this has actually happened or not is not the point; if it has not happened it is only because governments know that the logic of "prostitution is just like any other job" leads to policies that most people think are morally wrong, and governments want to avoid being associated with such policies.
** In a NYT opinion piece September 22, 2012, Noy Thrupkaew reports that, "Nearly 90 percent of the minors profiled in a John Jay College study indicated they wanted to leave 'the life' — but cited access to stable housing as one of the biggest obstacles." A 2003 study first published in the scientific Journal of Trauma Practice found that 89 percent of women in prostitution (in nine countries) want to escape. [Farley, Melissa et al. 2003. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74; and Farley, Melissa. ed. 2003. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, New York]