I am not a big fan of labels. Of easy words that make it easy to classify and categorize people into the good ones, the bad ones, and the one’s that we like and the one’s that are harder to like because we find them different. Labels to me to seem like an easy way out of understanding how complicated and complex we are as human beings.
There are few among us who are all dark and no light, all good and no evil. We are complex, layered, intricately woven and not completely understandable, even to ourselves much of the time.
My time in India, in Kolkata particularly among people who are poor and among women who prostitute or are prostituted has helped my reframe 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 that 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 who are prostituted, say men, women and children who have been trafficked and the others who we see as making a choice. Much of the western paradigm of prostitution carries with it a stigma of a person who has made poor choices and therefore does not deserve the dignity of personhood. Some lightly dismiss the women whose weary faces may appear in the newspaper on arrests for prostitution…somehow this feels like justice to us for their crimes to be listed for all to see in a newspaper. I have read through these pages of newspapers 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 is not only the word prostitute that bothers me. It is any label that prevents us from seeing others as whole human beings. The word victim is not among my favorites. Many have been victimized by human trafficking and calling women and children who have been trafficked a victim limits them. Words like victim help causes raise money and may fail to consider the human being who has a complex story and who though victimized will move beyond a label as their story moves forward. I heard Luis CdeBaca (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/biog/124083.htm) the Anti Human trafficking ambassador speak a couple years ago and his words have continued to ring in my mind when I hear the word victim. This is my paraphrase of what he said: “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 we should not dismiss the complexity of who they are by calling them victims.
Can we change they 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 I do not know who that is. I know women who have been victimized and 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.
What are some more labels that can be reframed with dignifying language?