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Les Mis Isn’t An Anti-Trafficking Bible

A grisette, a young 19th century working-class French woman, like Fantine ("La Grisette" by Robert Richard Scanlon, image part of public domain)
A grisette, a young 19th century working-class French woman, like Fantine (“La Grisette” by Robert Richard Scanlon, image part of public domain)

Les Miserables translates roughly as “The Downtrodden.” Fantine is one of these downtrodden, a young working-class grisette who hides her out-of-wedlock child to obtain respectable employment. When her secret is discovered, she is thrown out of the factory. In desperation, she sells her hair and her teeth, and finally, reluctantly, she sells sex. (Incidentally, she may not be the only major character in the novel who is involved in the sex trade: It is implied several times in the novel that when M. Thenardier involves Eponine in his criminal exploits that this includes pimping her out.)

A contemporaneous researcher surveyed Parisian sex workers, and while he goes on at length about his own prejudices, he also gives some data, including reasons cited for getting involved in sex work. This data doesn’t really confirm his biases,which might indicate its validity, at least insofar as he believes laziness, vanity, parental “corruption” and women forgetting “their most sacred of duties” (huh?) are to blame for prostitution. In any case, Fantine’s story (“brought to Paris and abandoned by soldiers, clerks, students, etc.”) was commonly cited—by a little less than 10% of respondents—and the bulk of the rest were orphaned, or kicked out/ran away from home. The single most commonly cited reason for turning to sex work, though, was poverty (i.e. doing it for the money, duh).

Today, many confused feminist commentators, including Anne Hathaway, refer to the character as someone caught in “sexual slavery,” linking Fantine’s plight to the term “sex trafficking.” But Fantine is not a sex trafficking victim and to call her such is to profoundly miss the point of the story. In fact, the co-option of a survival sex worker’s story to fit an agenda that leads to the oppression of all sex workers is itself exploitative. You might note, as quoted in the article linked above, that Victor Hugo also refers to Fantine as a slave, but I believe this is more clearly metaphorical on his part, since he explicitly names “hunger,” “cold,” “loneliness,” “abandonment,” and “privation” as the “slavers.” Interestingly, Hugo himself was rather well known for his sexual exploits with his wife, long-term mistress, short-term mistresses, his maids, and, yes, with many sex workers. So, Hugo was himself a client–a fact which those who would use Les Miserables as an anti-trafficking text are presumably unaware.

Misérable Politics: Why Anne Hathaway Should Go-Away

Image from LesMeanGirls
Image from LesMeanGirls

In last year’s Les Miserables, a movie with a lot of famous people in it that will probably win some Oscars, Anne Hathaway plays Fantine, a single mother struggling to provide for her child. Fantine turns to prostitution in a moment of ultimate desperation, having already sold her hair and teeth—I know I’m not the only hooker whose first response to that was “Wrong order, girl”, but whatever—and she and the audience feel very sad. Then she’s saved, and we feel happy, but then she dies of tuberculosis, and we are sad again. At least she’s not a hooker now though. Phew!

No one is more concerned about Hathaway’s Fantine, however, than Hathaway herself, as evidenced by her various comments during the lead-up to the film’s release. One of the most circulated quotes has Hathaway outlining her research “into the lives of sex slaves, which are just unspeakably harrowing,” and her attempts to “honor” the experiences of women who are “forced to sell sex”:

 I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now, probably less than a block away.  This injustice exists in our world.  So every day that I was her, I just thought ‘This isn’t an invention. This isn’t me acting. This is me honoring that this pain lives in this world.’ I hope that in all our lifetimes, we see it end.”

American Courtesans (2012)

The tagline for American Courtesans describes it as a “documentary that takes you into the lives of American Sex Workers” and telling “a different kind of American story…” The film is (thankfully) less ambitious in scope, focusing on high-end escorts instead of the entirety of the sex trades. What American Courtesans does, and does powerfully, is offer an intimate perspective into the lives of its subjects, giving them a space to talk about their lives and work. The women share stories of both triumph and trauma, showing that there is no single or simple story about work in the sex industries. With exceptional production quality and sincere, candid interviews, American Courtesans moves us further towards changing the popular conceptions of sex work.

The film weaves the stories of eleven current and former sex workers together through interviews and casual conversations with Kristen DiAngelo, the driving force behind the project. Though all of the women ended their careers as independent escorts charging high rates, their backgrounds up to that point are extremely varied. The majority of the women are still working, and quite a few illustrate the fluidity of the sex industries as they describe their experiences in pro-BDSM work, porn, stripping, and other fields of sex work than escorting. The women in the film give the audience a diverse set of experiences in the sex industries. From Juliet Capulet in San Francisco, who talks about escorting as a way to explore her identity as a sexual being, to Gina DePalma in New York City, who was working on the streets as a thirteen-year-old runaway, the audience is reminded that sex workers belong to and come from all communities.

Anti-Sex Worker Activists Are Behind #50DollarsNot50Shades

image via 50 Dollars Not Fifty Shades on Facebook
image via 50 Dollars Not Fifty Shades on Facebook

There’s a new campaign circling social media encouraging people to not only look into the abuse and lack of consent within the book Fifty Shades of Grey, but to also boycott the movie, with a philanthropic twist. According to their Facebook page, “#50dollarsnot50shades is a grassroots, women-led campaign, encouraging people to boycott the 50 Shades of Grey movie & give a $50 donation to [a] domestic violence shelter or agency. The money you would have spent on movie tickets and a babysitter or movie tickets, popcorn and drinks will go towards serving victims of abusive relationships like the one glamorized in the 50 Shades series. Hollywood doesn’t need your money; abused women do.”

As someone who not only practices BDSM professionally and personally and dislikes the poor excuse for BDSM erotica that is the Fifty Shades franchise, I thought that this idea was actually quite clever. Instead of supporting a movie and book series whose leading man doesn’t talk about consent with newbie Ana while also meeting all of the signs of being a domestic abuser, why not make a donation to a local women’s shelter for domestic violence? Brilliant.

Or maybe not. The campaign is not as grassroots as it claims, but instead is run by anti-pornography activists. 50 Dollars not 50 Shades is sponsored by the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), and Stop Porn Culture. It is also affiliated with PATHS of SaskatchewanAntiPorn.org and Pornography Harms which is apparently part of the NCSE.

The Manor (2013)

Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions
Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions

In one of this film’s first scenes, a manager tells a stripper “I’m fining you $20 because I’m so pissed at you,” while handing her a $40 payment for a shift. She tells him she was scheduled for one shift, she showed up for it and he couldn’t “fine her” or withhold her pay. “I can do whatever I want,” he says. 90 seconds in, and I already have a grudge against the people running this strip club.

Director Shawney Cohen tells us that The Manor, which opened the 2013 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, is not a documentary about the titular strip club—it is about his family. Shawney’s parents bought the Manor, a combination strip club/downmarket residential hotel in Ontario, when he was a child, and now it’s run as a family business with their two adult sons. The film is more mystifying than revealing, as it cites connections between family disorder, dysfunction and the running of a strip club which are never really clarified.