Meet Co-founder of Sari Bari, Sarah Lance
Sarah runs a business that seeks the sustainable restoration of red light communities and the prevention of the exploitation of women and children in the commercial sex trade.
I had the privilege of working for Sarah during my few months in Kolkata back in 2012. Recently Sarah Lance was awarded the OPUS prize for humanitarian social entrepreneurship for her work at Sari Bari.
Sari Bari was the beneficiary of a cool $1 million. No big deal.
And today she’s graciously allowed me to poach an old post from her blog that I hope might reshape some of our thinking of those in the sex trade.
Why I Don’t Know Any Prostitutes by Sarah Lance
I am not a big fan of labels.
Of easy words that make it possible to classify and categorize people into the good ones, the bad ones, the one’s that we like and the one’s that are harder to like because we find them different.
Labels seem like an easy way out of understanding how complicated and complex we are as human beings. We are complex, layered, intricately woven and not completely understandable, even to ourselves much of the time.
My time in India amongst people who are poor and among women who prostitute or are prostituted has reframed my paradigm of labels.
I was once asked, by some visitors to Sari Bari, “How many prostitutes work here?” My response was “none, no prostitutes work here. And in fact, I do not know any prostitutes.”
Prostitute is a label I find abhorrent.
Because I only know women, mothers, daughters, sisters and friends who have been involved in sex work for one reason or another. They have in fact been prostituted by poverty, exploitation, and the greed of other human beings. The women I know are intricately woven works of God art. Within them are darkness and light, pain and joy, beauty and ugliness.
We would like to draw a line between women and men who are prostituted; women and children who have been trafficked; and others who we see as making a choice.
Much of the western paradigm of prostitution carries with it the stigma of a person who has made poor choices and therefore does not deserve the dignity of person-hood. Some lightly dismiss the women whose weary faces may appear in the newspaper on arrests for prostitution…somehow this feels like justice to us.
I have read through these pages many times and what I see are women destroyed by addiction and often controlled by a pimp. Women arrested for prostitution 60 times did not make that choice. She has been victimized. She is likely to have been abused (95% of all those engaged in the act of prostitution internationally have been sexually abused) and whether it is an addiction, or pimp that is keeping her enslaved, this is and was not the life that she chose for herself.
And to choose to find freedom requires a tremendous amount of resources that may or not be available to her. She may be 35, if she is under the control of a pimp, she may not even able to decide when she is able to use the bathroom. So she may not actually be able to make the smallest choices for herself. There is a requirement of safety and the basic needs of life being met before she can even begin to take a step in the right direction.
If we call her a prostitute, we can easily dismiss responsibility for walking with her. If we see her as a woman, a mother, someone like us, it becomes much harder to dismiss and hopefully much easier to want to help.
It’s not only the word prostitute that bothers me.
It’s any label that prevents us from seeing others as whole human beings.
The word victim is not among my favorites either.
Many have been victimized by human trafficking. But simply labeling men, women and children who have been trafficked as a “victim” limits how we see them. Words like victim might help raise money for causes but fail to consider the human being who has a complex story. And though victimized yes – can and will move beyond a label as their story moves forward.
I heard Luis CdeBaca, anti-human trafficking ambassador, speak a years ago. His words continue to ring in my mind when I hear the word victim.
“People who have been trafficked are vulnerable because of poverty and other circumstances. But often those who are trafficked for labor or sex, are the ones who believed that opportunity and taking a risk for that opportunity is worth it. Unfortunately taking the risk did not pay off and when rescued, we should not count them as victims for long because they will again make a new way to a new life.”
Many have been victimized – but we should not dismiss the complexity of who they are by calling them victims. Can we change the way we use our language to something more humanizing?
Instead of saying victims of human trafficking, can we say women and children who have been victimized by human trafficking? Instead of calling women engaged in prostitution, “prostitutes”, can we say women who are prostituting or women who have been prostituted?
The words victim and prostitute are nouns. Indicating a person, place or thing. Prostituted and victimized are adverbs or adjectives that describe what has happened to living, breathing, complex and complicated human beings.
When I describe the women that I know at Sari Bari, it will never be with the words victim or prostitute because that is not their identity.
I know women who have been victimized, trafficked and prostituted. I know their names. Their stories of trauma. And their stories of new life. I see their darkness and their light, their good and their bad.
And they see mine.