Last week, four episodes of a film entitled Prostitutes of God were posted on VBS.TV, which is owned by Vice Magazine. Prostitutes of God producer Sarah Harris, spent time with members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (meaning ‘Prostitutes’ Freedom from Injustice’) or “VAMP,” and let her into their lives, their families and their workplace. The result? Films that are inaccurate and misrepresentative, and insulting to the people who agreed to participate and to the Hindu culture.
VAMP was formed in 1996 and now works with more than 5000 women, men, and transgenders in sex work to promote and protect their human rights and health. The group covers six districts in Western Maharashtra and two in North Karnataka. VAMP has been internationally recognised by groups like Human Rights Watch for their contribution to human rights and for their work in HIV/AIDS prevention.
However, you would not know any of this from Harris’ film, which is full of stereotypes and representations of Indian culture that are designed to mock and belittle. In addition, Harris’ film puts people in danger– of stigma, discrimination and misinformation—through her uninformed and judgemental editorial lens. In a recent interview of Harris in the UK Independent (LINK)—in which she describes her interest in sex work as having originated when she spent time as a volunteer “with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking—Harris recounts someone who told her that HIV/AIDS is like “plucking a bunch of grapes. As soon as a woman is infected, then her whole family becomes infected.”
This ignorance and irresponsibility runs rampant throughout Prostitutes of God. One case in point is that of Belavva. The film maker wrongly states that the “Devadasi” religious ritual demands that poor families traffic their daughters into prostitution (that is dedicate them to the goddess Yellama). She then states that when Belavva was young her family sent her to work for a landlord who asked her parents to dedicate her – or pimp her out. This is stated, not implied. It is not true, neither in the instance of the individual concerned, nor with respect to Hinduism.
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Sadly there are many more examples throughout the film, examples that prompted VAMP to issue the following rebuttal:
It is to be hoped that a person would pretty sure of their evidence when making these sorts of allegations to the world. Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism. She has abused the poorest of people for her own ends.
To manipulate poor people to meet one’s ends is blameworthy. It is reprehensible to betray the trust of a most vulnerable people merely to make a film. To, in addition, vilify and disparage a culture and religious beliefs, as Sarah Harris and VBS TV have done, requires either wilful ignorance or a determination to produce work that panders to the worst type of media sensationalism imaginable. The people in the film are part of a community that wishes to tell their stories and be understood by a broad audience, but we will not stand by while we are being misrepresented to the world.
It is to be hoped that a person would be pretty sure of their evidence when making these sorts of allegations to the world. Sarah Harris has managed to misconstrue most of what she has reported, has exploited a trusting community in the worst possible ways, and has produced a series of films that are extraordinarily offensive. She has demonstrated racism and has behaved in ways reminiscent of the most unpleasant forms of colonialism.
Sarah Harris and VBS must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. VAMP members are people with rights including reputational rights.
Here are several films with breathtaking performances that portray illegal abortion, which you can watch to reflect on how far we’ve come, or on how far we still must go in the fight for abortion access.
January 22 marks 43 years since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion in the United States. Prior to Roe, many people sought abortions from illegal providers, trained or untrained, who offered the service in secret.
In the generation since Roe was decided, some advocates have blamed young people’s complacency around abortion on fleeting historical memory. While we actively, emphatically dispute these claims of complacency, we acknowledge that—for some people in our generation—the reality of illegal abortion is, and hopefully will always be, secondhand. This makes listening to real women’s experiences with illegal abortion especially important.
It is in this context, and in honor of Roe, that we are providing several films with breathtaking performances that portray illegal abortion. While research has shown these abortion plot lines deviate from accuracy in important ways, we still recognize their potential to tell stories that allow the viewer to better understand, acknowledge, and remember the world before legal abortion.
You can watch these films to reflect on how far we’ve come, or on how far we still must go in the fight for abortion access. (And yes, there are spoilers below!)
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Michael Caine plays Alfie Elkins, a womanizing, mansplaining jerk who distastefully talks about the women he’s shagging all over London directly to the audience. First, Alfie impregnates his girlfriend Gilda, whom he refuses to marry. (Gilda ends up raising the child without Alfie.) After a short stint in a rest home for a lung infection and mental health break, Alfie befriends Harry, a fellow patient, and later has a one-night stand with Harry’s wife, Lily. To keep Harry from finding out, Alfie and Lily decide to schedule an abortion.
The abortion provider comes to Alfie’s home to perform the abortion on a nervous Lily. Prior to beginning the abortion, the provider suspiciously questions the two about their relationship (to which Alfie claims no responsibility) and informs them that an abortion after 28 days is a crime, both legally and “against the unborn child.” The provider induces the abortion and leaves Alfie to support Lily through the rest, which includes Alfie smacking her to stop her from crying during the pain. Alfie leaves Lily alone in the apartment to pass the pregnancy. Upon returning, Alfie sees the fetus and tears up, then runs to his downstairs neighbor’s apartment to make sense of what he’s experiencing.
“Come to think of it, I don’t rightly know what I was expecting to see,” he tells Murray Melvin, the neighbor. “Certainly not this perfectly formed being. I half-expected it to cry out. It didn’t, of course. It couldn’t have done. It could never have had any life in it. Not a proper life of its own. … And I thought to myself, You know what, Alfie? You know what you done? You murdered him.” He seems to come to terms with their decision and decides to change some of his ways.
Alfie was released in 1966 and the depiction of abortion takes place in London, where abortion became legal the following year, prior to Roe v. Wade. Feeling a little icky after watching Michael Caine call women “birds” for 90 minutes? We suggest watching The Cider House Rules in which Caine redeems himself (see below!).
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dirty Dancing is probably the most famous and popular film with an abortion story, although most viewers seem to forget that an abortion is really what drives the entire plot of the film. At a summer resort, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) vacations with her family and crushes hard on the dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Johnny and his partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), are scheduled to perform at another resort and risk losing their contract because Penny is pregnant and needs to be available for her abortion. In addition to the challenge of taking time off work, Penny is hard-pressed to find the money for it. Baby not only borrows money from her father, she volunteers to take Penny’s place as Johnny’s dance partner. After returning from their resort performance, Baby and Johnny find an extremely ill Penny, who is terrified to go to the hospital and possibly be interrogated by the police. Baby runs to get her father, who is a doctor, and saves Penny’s life. While you may have seen this film a thousand times, it highlights the need for paid sick leave, local abortion providers, and health insurance that covers abortion care, for all—all things we’re still fighting for.
If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
If These Walls Could Talk tells the story of three women in the same house, 22 years apart, all of whom are facing unexpected pregnancies: Claire (Demi Moore), Barbara (Sissy Spacek), and Christine (Anne Heche).
Claire is a widowed nurse in 1952, desperate to end a pregnancy that will shame her late husband’s family. She keeps her pregnancy secret and receives only outright disdain when she discloses it to her sister-in-law. Claire tries to induce an abortion both with pills and knitting needles, but these efforts are unsuccessful. She avoids one illegal provider who seems too dangerous, and rules out another who is too expensive. Finally, she finds an illegal provider who comes to her home. He ignores her suggestions to wash his hands or sterilize his equipment, and in her desperation she has no way to make him take these basic safety measures. Claire later hemorrhages on her kitchen floor, and dies while calling for help.
Barbara is a housewife, student, and mother of four in 1974, who believes another child will disrupt both her and her daughter’s educations. Though she later chooses to parent, Barbara is the only woman portrayed in the film as having support during her decision to possibly choose abortion.
In 1996, Christine is an architecture student who does not believe in abortion, but considers it anyway when she gets pregnant after an affair with her professor. Christine’s roommate reminds her of her anti-choice beliefs and says she agrees with the angry mob of protesters outside the clinic. Moments after the completion of her abortion, Christine is seen cradling the head of her dying doctor (played by Cher), after she was shot by an anti-choice fanatic. The gruesomeness of Claire’s illegal abortion is mirrored in the violence of the abortion provider’s murder. Only Barbara’s story, where she chooses to parent, is free of gore.
Two of the three women get an abortion, and both of those stories end with women dying on the floor. For the most part, these women are making their decisions alone, with little knowledge of their options, and viewers get the sense that they are tormented by the choice or trapped by any outcome. Indeed, none of the stories have happy endings: Claire dies, Barbara gives up her dreams, and Christine is traumatized. The movie adheres to the “safe, legal, and rare” mantra of the 1990s, with no sense that abortion can be valid, valuable, and stigma-free.
The Cider House Rules (1999)
The Cider House Rules thoughtfully depicts several situations in which women need abortions and the providers who offer them in 1943. The film is set at an orphanage in Maine, where women facing unintended pregnancies go to deliver their babies, who are raised there until they’re adopted. Michael Caine won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the obstetrician who runs the orphanage and illegally provides abortions.
Dr. Larch teaches Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) about labor and delivery, as well as abortions, however Homer says he’s morally opposed to providing them. “How can you not feel obligated to help them when they can’t get help anywhere else?” Dr. Larch asks Homer. When a woman is found on the orphanage grounds, Dr. Larch takes her in and tries to save her life, but unfortunately she dies due to a punctured uterus by an untrained abortion provider. Dr. Larch forces Homer to look at the damage to her uterus, showing him the impact of refusing to offer care he is trained on. “If she had come to you four months ago and asked for a simple D and C [abortion procedure] what would you have done? Nothing!” he yells at Homer. “This is what doing nothing gets you. It means that somebody else is gonna do the job—some moron who doesn’t know how.”
While digging the woman’s grave, the pair discuss Homer’s reservations about abortion and the responsibility of doctors versus those seeking abortion care. After meeting Candy (Charlize Theron) and Wally (Paul Rudd), a couple seeking an abortion from Dr. Larch, Homer leaves the orphanage to explore the world and work on an apple orchard, where his refusal to perform abortions is tested by a young Black woman, Rose (Erykah Badu), who was raped and impregnated by her father, the orchard’s field manager.
One of the most powerful scenes is between Candy and Rose, when Candy discloses that she had an abortion as an act of truth to tell Rose that she supports whatever decision she wants to make. Rose then discloses that she does not want to continue the pregnancy which was a result of incest. Homer has a change of heart, realizes his calling to become an obstetrician, and returns to perform the full spectrum of reproductive care at the orphanage.
Vera Drake (2004)
In post-World War II London, Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a kind house cleaner by day, and a compassionate illegal abortion provider by night. She has been providing abortions safely for 20 years, and views her work as helping young women. Vera does not accept payment for her work—although, unbeknownst to her, her partner does charge money for arranging the abortions. When one of Vera’s patients nearly dies, she is arrested, tried, and sentenced to over two years in prison. In the last scene of the film, she meets other women incarcerated for performing abortions, and they share stories. In a parallel plot, the daughter of Vera’s employer is raped and becomes pregnant; she is referred to a psychiatrist who coaches her through the process of accessing a legal, medically recommended abortion. This subplot highlights the gap between poor women, who are dependent on Vera’s risky services, and women with resources, who can obtain safer, legally allowed procedures.
The film was publicly criticized by Jennifer Worth (whose memoir Call the Midwife was adapted into a television show, which itself features several stories of illegal abortion). Worth argued that the abortion method used in the film (flushing the uterus with soap and water) was extremely painful and often deadly—not the simple process shown onscreen. This challenge is a good reminder that, even in the hands of a well-intentioned provider, illegal abortion carried a great risk. However, Worth also asserted that “abortionists were in it for the money.” This claim is refuted by significant research, most notably Carole Joffe’s Doctors of Conscience, which reveals that many doctors who provided illegal abortions were frequently motivated by concerns for their patients’ health and well-being.
This Romanian film follows the daylong saga of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) supporting her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a 22-year-old college student, through an illegal abortion. On the recommendation of a friend, the women book a hotel room after scheduling an appointment with Mr. Bebe, an illegal provider. To ensure he will perform her abortion, Gabita lies and says she’s two months along, but he realizes she’s closer to five months, hence the film’s title. Mr. Bebe is a misogynistic man who uses Gabita’s plight to extort money and sex, and tells them that if anyone finds out, they would all serve time in jail for murder. He performs the abortion by inserting a tube into Gabita, tells her to lay down until the abortion is complete, then leaves. Otilia leaves the hotel for a few hours to celebrate her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday, where she discloses to her partner what she’s been doing and they have a discussion about what they would do if she became pregnant. “You’re ashamed to talk about it, but not do it?” she asks her boyfriend about using the pull-out method. When she returns to the hotel, she finds that Gabita’s has passed the fetus and left it wrapped in a towel on the bathroom floor—in the film the fetus appears much older than 19 weeks.
While the film takes place more recently, it depicts what two friends must risk to obtain an illegal abortion.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Revolutionary Road tells the story of April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her husband, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), who are living in the Connecticut suburbs in 1955. To their neighbors, they’re the perfect couple, but in reality, they’re trying to find their way back to the ecstatic relationship they had before their two children and ho-hum life. The couple is planning to leave their lives and move to Paris when April realizes she’s pregnant again. “There are things we can do … as long as we take care of it before 12 weeks it’s fine,” April tells Frank about her desire for an abortion. While Frank seems supportive of April at first, he becomes furious after finding the hidden instruments April was planning to use to induce her abortion. April tells Frank she’s having an abortion for him (and because she doesn’t want anymore children), but he tells her “the thought of it makes [his] stomach turn.” The couple cancels their dream move to Paris to remain in their suburban life, which proves to be too much for April. The morning after a huge fight, April, acting normal, proceeds to self-induce her abortion while Frank is at work. In a tragic turn of events, April senses she is dying and calls an ambulance. She dies at the hospital.
The performances in this film are poignant and are sure to make you tear up. There’s nothing more haunting than April’s final scene during which she’s bleeding out in her living room, which leaves the viewer questioning whether her death was due to suicide, her illegal abortion, or both.
While deaths like April’s were recurrent during the pre-Roe era, deaths from abortion are extremely rare (less than 1 percent) today. Conversely, deaths from abortion are common in media depictions: Research found that over 15 percent of abortion plot lines show a woman’s death after an abortion and of those almost 60 percent die from the procedure itself. This gives audiences the impression that abortion is unsafe and women having abortions are deserving of their imminent death.
For Colored Girls (2010)
Unfortunately, the legalization of abortion did not mean that the promise of Roe would be reality for everyone. Policies like the Hyde Amendment and parental involvement laws make low-income people, women of color, and young people disproportionately unable to access safe abortion care and can be forced to seek out untrained providers.
In For Colored Girls, Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson) is a 16-year-old dancer who just graduated high school and describes her excitement of having sex for the first time after graduation. Nyla realizes she’s pregnant and goes to her sister Tangie (Thandie Newton) for “college application money,” but it’s really for an abortion. “I remember the first time I got pregnant, I was so scared,” Tangie recalls and proceeds to tell her about an apartment she went to, and afterwards she “wasn’t pregnant anymore.” Out of jealousy, Tangie refuses to give Nyla any money and Nyla is left with no choice but to go to a literal back-alley apartment for an abortion. A negligee-clad woman (Macy Gray) drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes while using dirty tools from a bucket to perform Nyla’s abortion.
After passing out in the street, Nyla is rushed to the hospital where she poetically recounts the grimy scene of her abortion to her overbearing mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), and a social worker (Kerry Washington). Upon hearing the story, Alice argues with Tangie about her previous abortion, which Tangie admits she didn’t want but was forced to have by Alice. During an emotional scene, both women come clean about their experiences of incest at the hand of their father/grandfather.
For Colored Girls is a tragic account of several Black women’s experiences with rape, abuse in many forms, suicide, various reproductive issues, and homophobic HIV-stigma. It carries many trigger warnings.
In the last several months, there have been a number of rape allegations involving sex workers in the news. Most recently, a number of sex workers accused porn star James Deen of rape. Several websites have since dropped Deen, including Kink.com. Also, Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver is facing 34 counts of rape, kidnapping, and attempted murder (among others) against his ex-girlfriend and porn star Christy Mack, which reportedly left her with 18 broken bones and a ruptured liver, and her friend, Corey Thomas.
Every time these stories make headlines, though, they are accompanied by another conversation: Whether because someone engages in sex work, they lose their right to consent and cannot be raped.
The conflation of sex work and rape, and the assumption that all sex work can be framed in a single, narrow description contribute to the denial of consent for those who trade sex, even if the phrasing sounds different.
These arguments are being put forward not just by Twitter trolls or men’s rights activists; they are also being brought in the courts and in the media. Part of the legal defense for War Machine has been that Mack’s porn career displayed her “desire” for “activities that were outside of the norm”—presumably including rape. And just a few months ago Mary Mitchell, who sits on the editorial board of the Chicago-Sun Times, claimed that when a sex worker was raped it should have been prosecuted as “theft of services” (the same charge as jumping a subway turnstile).
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To be sure, when it comes to sex trafficking, there is no debate it is inherently violent. But to conflate sex trafficking with sex work creates very real harms for those who do report rape.
For sex workers, trading sex is a constellation of experiences that move through the range of choice, circumstance, and coercion. The complexity and nuance of sex work can span a variety of experiences that can change from year to year, month to month, and session to session. Some people trading sex do experience violence, and that experience often informs how a person feels about sex work. To have a single blanket assumption that says that every act of trading sex for resources is an act of violence is not just ideology parading as information; it undermines the dignity of anyone trading sex by not allowing them to define their own experience.
Ultimately, views like this are a step backward for everyone who demands the ability to declare their own boundaries and physical autonomy. And statements pushing this notion need to stop.
Engaging in the sex trade does not remove the ability for a person to determine what is and is not rape. They do not lose the ability to declare boundaries while engaging in sexual activities or to define their own experience when victimized. Further, this logic undermines the very core of consent, because it is grounded in the understanding that a person’s right to self-determination about their body and experience is less important than an outside person’s view of their circumstances.
For example, if a person is involved in kink or BDSM, consent still has a role to play in that experience, even if the sexual activities may look to someone else like violence. Just the same, when a person is in the sex trade they are allowed to determine their own physical boundaries—and decide what is and is not an experience of violence. Anything that undermines self-determination ultimately harms the hard-fought battle won by feminism, reproductive rights, and gender equality advocates over consent and control over one’s own body.
“Having sex for money doesn’t make me less aware of my boundaries—it makes me hyper-aware of them,” New York-based sex worker Vivienne told Rewire in an interview. “I know better than anyone else what it feels like when my consent is violated. Even when I didn’t want to see a client but I had to because of bills, that doesn’t change. Eviction is not consensual. What [work] I do to prevent that was.”
And yet, some feminists argue that the lack of other employment options invalidates the ability of a person to make the decision to trade sex. While for many, trading sex can be an act of survival, nowhere else in society do we take “lack of other options” as a reason to no longer allow a person’s decision, nor would we make it harder for them to access that option. For those seeking an abortion, for example, advocates would never use that person’s financial circumstance as a reason to decrease their ability to terminate the pregnancy. Rather, advocates fight for reproductive health care to be easy to access, under the safest conditions possible, and without stigma.
This assumption that consent rules don’t apply to sex workers can have far-reaching consequences. In 2007 Pennsylvania Judge Teresa Carr Deni ruled that a woman who was gang-raped at gunpoint by a client was not raped but instead declared it, “theft of services.” In a later interview, Judge Carr claimed that calling the incident rape “minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.”
Regularly sex workers are also dehumanized by law enforcement who do not take seriously their reports of sexual assault when they do overcome the stigma and fear of arrest and report crimes. As one worker who made the decision to report her sexual assault described to Rewire in an email interview, “I reported an assault, rape, and theft by a client in Dallas, Texas in 2008, and was more or less ridiculed by the detective, and forced to pay for my own rape kit and hospital fees. On top of that, I was forced to do PTSD treatment to stay in school, which was unhelpful and expensive. The repetitive nature of the sad confessionals were so intense, I dropped out of college and became more deeply engaged in sex work than ever to pay off the debts incurred. Dallas police definitely didn’t take my assault seriously, and the institutional shaming following the incident was much more painful than the incident itself and lasted many months longer.”
This conflation of sex work and violence is being used to criminalize the sex trade, which often follows increased violence, stigma, and fewer options for those who wish to leave. Often, the assumption that all prostitution is violence or rape also is used as the reasoning for increasing laws, penalties, and policing of the sex trade.
Loitering and prostitution laws (which generally outlaw even the discussion of exchanging sex for money, while loitering laws often criminalize the appearance of someone who might exchange in prostitution) often leave people with long arrest records that make it difficult for them to get different jobs, access housing, or attend school. Laws that criminalize the “promotion of prostitution” (simply by supporting others, be it through helping someone post an ad or offering them safety tips) often criminalize peers and community members, which sex workers rely upon for safety and harm reduction strategies. The criminalization and policing of clients under anti-trafficking legislation often pushes people in the sex trade into more isolation, meaning they are cut off from their peers and outreach workers and driven to more clandestine locations. Street-based policing, be it to arrest sex workers or potential clients, means that people are more likely to need a third party to negotiate with potential clients, making them more dependent on those third parties and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. And none of these things address the underlying issues, like poverty, which make the sex trade one of very few, and sometimes, the only option to meet basic needs. Using “all sex work is violence” as the reason for passing laws that increase violence is not just bad logic, it’s inhumane.
Sometimes others make decisions that leave us feeling uncomfortable, but they are not our decisions to make. The judgments we pass on the complex experiences of individuals only stigmatize and shame those in the sex trade.
Denying sex workers the right to determine the boundaries of their own body is an affront to the same arguments that we as feminists and activists are putting forward every day. The ability for someone to declare what is sexual assault only exists if we allow people to also determine what is not sexual assault. As we talk more about the importance of consent in the public discourse, upholding the right to say what is and isn’t violence must take precedence over our own discomfort about someone else’s choices.