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Sexual Exploitation, and “Having It All”

The commercial sexual exploitation of females has grown exponentially in the last period. Human trafficking, which includes trafficking people for labor, is a thirty-two billion dollar international industry.

Many U.S. women do not see commercial sexual exploitation as their problem; they imagine it mostly affects women in other countries. In fact, it is a huge and growing domestic issue. In the United States approximately a hundred thousand children are being sold for sex—most of them coerced into prostitution between the ages of eleven and fourteen. The primary targets are poor Native, African American, and Latina teenagers. Because of racism and classism, society does not protect poor children of color the way it protects middle- and owning-class white children. And because of racism, people often mistakenly assume that girls of color are older than they are.

Oakland, California (USA), where I live, is a top hub for domestic trafficking. Twenty percent of all domestically trafficked people go through here. I am an elementary school teacher in a poor, predominantly Latino/a neighborhood, and my school faces the street where much of the prostitution takes place. Students walk by as multiple times a day girls not much older than themselves are solicited by adult men.

Another contemporary women’s issue is the widespread denial of sexism along with the belief that women can now “have it all.” “Having it all” is defined by the dominant middle-class heterosexual white culture as having a societally respected, well-paying career; being married, having children, and owning a home; and being beautiful, active, and healthy. Anyplace we struggle or have not attained these things is viewed as our personal failing, whether or not we want these things or they would move our lives forward.

This notion of “having it all” is confusing for women who grew up after the women’s movement. We were raised with the idea that because of the gains made by the movement we could be anything we wanted to be. There were real gains, and I appreciate the difference this has made for me personally and in general. However, the oppressive society has co-opted many of the gains. Sexism remains in a slightly new form, and often with less traction to name and fight it. And though many professional fields have opened up to women, the devaluing of women’s traditional work has not been successfully challenged. This work that is critical to society is still either unpaid or paid very little.

The ideal of “having it all” divides and separates us as women. We compare ourselves to and feel jealous of each other and blame ourselves and each other in relation to where we have “succeeded” or “failed” in attaining the ideal. In Co-Counseling, women and men sometimes confuse “a life of no limits” with this more proscribed ideal. We all need to work on our relationship to the ideal and challenge where we feel better or worse than other women because of what we have and how we live.

In addition, the ideal is not workable in the oppressive society. Women are expected to work outside the home while still doing most of the work inside the home, including the raising of children. When middle- and owning-class women with full-time professional careers try to reach the ideal, it often means exploiting poor working-class women of color. These women do much of the child raising, housecleaning, cooking, and other unseen work so that busy middle-class families can have the conveniences they rely on.

I also think that we women of child-raising age who are not yet mothers need to work systematically on whether or not we want to do the work of raising a child. We can challenge any feelings that our goodness and worth are connected to whether or not we are mothers. We can fight for the perspective that we as females are valuable beyond any measure. We can challenge our own and other people’s assumption that we will of course have a child. And we can face that if we do decide to, we are deciding not to do other things. This doesn’t mean that as mothers we have to give up on a life of no limits. But doing the work of raising a child does mean we will not be able to focus our time and attention on other projects in the same way. Raising a child will be our priority.

We can all work on what a life of no limits means for us. It doesn’t make sense to try to fit into the ideals of an oppressive society, and it also doesn’t make sense to “settle.” There are limitations and we have to make some compromises, given the current system and its collapse. We can remember, however, that the compromises are temporary, as we actively organize to eliminate sexism and all oppression and transform society so that every female gets to live a life of no limits.

Micaela Morse

Oakland, California, USA

(Present Time 184, July 2016)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00