Several members of RIA House, a Framingham-based organization dedicated to working with women who have experienced sexual slavery, hosted an open conversation in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month on Jan. 28 in the Center for Inclusive Excellence.
This is the RIA House’s second appearance as an organization to Framingham State University, with their first appearance dating back to Oct. 2016.
Kim Dexter, the director of equal opportunity, Title IX coordinator and ADA compliance officer, invited Heather Wightman, RIA house founder and executive director, Beth Waterman, director of programming, and Stacy Reed, peer mentor.
“We’re not experts, but we’re trying to have an open conversation to try and make sense of this for ourselves,” said Wightman.
Wightman discussed the “two parameters of our culture in understanding the commercial sex trade” to start the conversation.
“On one side, there’s this pro-prostitution lobby that says you should be able to do what you want with your body and it comes from what society might think as an empowerment perspective, whether you’re making money with your body or not, barring some exceptions like torture or murder,” Wightman said.
“Then, on the other side, this abolitionist perspective, might actually be less feminist-driven. … Prostitution, to them, is absolutely a human rights violation, and yet, another expression of the colonialists, indenturing the most vulnerable within our society,” Wightman added.
Wightman, however, assured the group that “there are a lot of experiences that happen someplace in between.”
“That’s the part where, I will tell you, for us working with people that come to us wanting services that have been in the commercial sex trade, we get all different kinds of perspectives. Some people say that, ‘I am surviving, and if I got to go out there again, you know I will,’” added Wightman.
This preface led to an activity, asking those in attendance to mark up large sheets of paper with checkmarks if they agree, minus signs if they disagree, and circles, for those in between, to represent how they feel about particular statements, posted on the walls around the CIE that featured quotes sex workers could possibly say.
Some of the statements from the activity included “Prostitution is a form of oppression,” “There is nothing wrong with Sugar Babies,” “I have a right to make money any way I choose to, including selling my body.”
The second question regarding Sugar Babies required clarification from the group, allowing Reed to describe “a website where college girls, or young people, go on and get paid to do sexual favors for older men to ‘hang out’ with them. It’s a very popular website.”
Some statements received all checkmarks and all minus signs, whereas others experienced a good mix of reactions.
After the activity, Wightman and the representatives of RIA House took those responses to the quotes and further discussed the stereotypes surrounding sex work.
Dexter said, “For me, some of these statements bring up the concept of the ownership of one’s body and the ownership of another person’s body.”
Dexter added, “This is a lot like the conversations I’ve been seeing in some of my circles. There are these ideas of breaking down our puritanical ideas around sex with making it a less taboo topic, a less taboo activity.
So, the argument then goes, how is it different than someone who chooses to do stunt work as a living to put their body on the line, so that they can make a living? Or, you know, the pro wrestlers who keep dying every year, doing that sort of work?”
To supplement the conversation, Wightman showcased selections from author Rachel Moran’s works, notably her 2013 book, “Paid For” and author Julie Bindel’s 2017 chronology, “The Pimping of Prostitution.”
Moran’s legacy, in particular, was a major point for the RIA House staff during the latter half of the meeting, citing her as one of their “inspirations” for the existence of RIA House.
Wightman, in the heat of the discussion, read a quote from Moran’s appearance in Bindel’s chronology, saying, “If a person cannot afford to feed themselves, the appropriate thing to do is to put food in his or her mouth, not your c**k.”
“Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world,” said Reed. “To call it ‘sex work’ is an awesome way to do that – for them, it is a job!”