Different Names for the Same Thing

(If you thought this was going to be about a Deathcab for Cutie song, I apologize. Now read on.)

Q: What is survival sex?

A: prostitution

B: an economic transaction

C: rape

Perhaps you’ve never heard the term “survival sex”, or if you have it was likely in the context of homeless or impoverished individuals who engage in sex in exchange for basic necessities– food, shelter, the things we need just to stay alive. Many people have referred to “survival sex” as a form of prostitution. The Video Journalism Movement offers this definition:

“Survival sex refers to a type of prostitution that goes beyond simply trying to earn a living. Throughout the world, regardless of the north/south divide, there are women and men who are forced to prostitute themselves as a matter of course: their very survival depends upon it. ”

(The VJ Movement also has a series of videos on “survival sex” related topics here.)

A synonym for survival sex, according to the United Nations, is “transactional sex”. Impoverished individuals are pushed to the point of “exchanging sex for basic needs” (e.g. food, shelter). Through the use of this language, which conjures images of economics and trade, the UN has portrayed sex as a commodity. UN workers have been using the concepts of “survival sex” and “transactional sex” to describe the abuse that many female Haitian refugees were and are enduring in the aftermath of the earthquake. The problem with calling survival sex a “transaction” is that it implies that there is consent; the woman has the right to say no, she doesn’t have to have sex if she doesn’t want to, she does it for an exchange of money or basic necessities, therefore it is a “transaction”.

Survival sex has been called “a survival tactic”, likening it to conserving water in the desert or a opossum playing dead. This is reprehensible: instead of identifying “survival sex” as a form of violation, it paints it as a legitimate way to protect one’s self from “environmental hazards”. Another human being, though, is not an environmental hazard. Human beings, barring certain excluding factors such as mental illness/impairment, etc., are actors with control and choice. Individuals are agents with the power to choose to do something, or to refrain from doing something. By insisting on the term “survival sex”, users of this language are reinforcing the notion that someone who violates another person is not a decision-making agent, but is merely one hazard in a landscape full of potential hazards.

Let’s return to Haiti to examine why this is ridiculous. The UN, themselves, have depicted Haitian women in camps (and many other encamped survivors and refugees all over the world) as left with no alternative. The conditions in their camps were and are intolerable, with little or no security or privacy. Moreover, many families did not have food or shelter for themselves or their children. The UN repeatedly cites many examples (and even directly quotes) many women who have been “left with no other choice”. They use phrases like, “she was forced to turn to prostitution”, “she was forced to engage in sex for food”, “without survival sex she could not have provided for her children”, “she was forced to submit for basic survival”, etc.

How, after describing someone’s desperate situation as being without alternative, they can still call this sex is completely outraging. These women are living in a world completely devoid of consent. To obtain basic necessities, they have been exploited and violated to the most deplorable degree. Someone needs to sit the UN down and explain to them that this is rape and that to refer to it in trivializing terms demeans the experience of the survivors and casts them as pitiful, even deplorable. To continue using the terms “survival sex”, “transactional sex”, and so on disguises what is really happening. Repeatedly in the UN study, Haitian women say that they feel invisible. They have been marginalized, and the UN’s patriarchal, trivializing language continues to marginalize them. And by creating this as an “exchange”, as if it is happening in a marketplace, completely disempowers the survivors to sue their rapists.

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