Caribbean women, feminists could learn something from working girls.

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Written by Tamara A Huggins, Antigua Directorate of Gender Affairs

“Si un hombre dece que no se va a poner un condon, yo digo fuera de aqui!”

“If a man tells me he’s not gonna use a condom, I tell him get out of here!”

“Hablamos de sexo seguro cada dia.”

“We talk about safer sex everyday.”

“Empowerment.”  It’s a word used a lot in discourses on feminism, and a word you probably expect to see in the Gender Journal.  But you, like a lot of other women, and feminists, might rarely connect the word “empowerment” to a prostitute, a sex worker.

In fact, feminists globally rarely engage in a deep, non-stereotyping way with street walkers or ladies of the night.  Instead they mostly feel sorry for prostitutes who they feel need to be saved from a patriarchal society that exploits them.  They say that prostitution is a form of violence against women, and these women are “victims” either of male dominance, or of a class or economic system that oppresses them and leaves them far from “empowered”.  Other feminists – the type that flinches at shaving her legs and isn’t sure she should express any type of conventional female sexuality – feels personally affronted by women who paint their lips and wear thigh high boots saying this continues the objectification and subordination of all women.  God(dess)-forbid that they exploit their sexuality!  Even if they are savvy to the wider gender inequalities that drive their trade and exploit this unequal system to feed two kids or send money home to build a house.

For hundreds of years the feminist movement has been divided on the question of prostitution, so it is not something that can be fairly explored here.  And we should be clear, we are not undercutting the reality that sex workers are at high risk to HIV because they have multiple sex partners, and face poor working conditions, human rights violations, violence, or difficulties accessing friendly health care.  But we are saying that women in general, and feminists, could learn a lot from sex workers who in many instances are exercising their right to self-determination, which includes deciding how they earn money given the economic opportunities available to them.  And we are suggesting women start listening a little more.

Those in the business of sex are more empowered in some ways than your average married woman, particularly when it comes to the nitty-gritty of their work and an issue like protecting themselves from HIV. 

HIV in the Caribbean is feminised – women are 2.5 times more likely to be infected with HIV than men.  Why?  We know biologically women are more at risk – there is more exposed surface area in the female genitals, there are higher levels of HIV in semen than in vaginal fluids, and more semen is exchanged in sex than vaginal fluids.

The academics and UN bodies also say Caribbean women are vulnerable because gender inequality makes us economically dependent on men.  Because we are subjected to domestic violence that reduces our ability to negotiate safer sex, and even in matrifocal societies where women head the house and provide the income (as is widely the case in our society) and it is still accepted that the man will sleep around, because masculine norms of aggression, control, and risk taking allow him to.

To do something about this, women and feminists in Antigua and the region need to put their varied heads together; weaved, natural and locked.  And we need to engage with each other across class, jobs, education and feminist perspectives.  And we also need to take a personal look at ourselves – Ms Well-healed-go-to-church-with-my-man-every-Sunday, Ms Beauty Queen contestant, Ms Powerful-suited-business-lady, Ms Graduate – before we turn our noses up at that free condom being handed out on Market Street.

And we should start thinking about what we can learn from our fellow woman, who we’ve typically looked down on for her tight clothes, her forthrightness, her hard talking, her low class and morals.  Because you would go to a lawyer if you wanted legal advice, or an engineer if you wanted your car fixed, so here is an opportunity to engage with some professional advice from women who are in "the business"…

In fact, there are signs that sex workers have something to teach all of us women about empowerment, and with over 51 per cent of people living with HIV being women in the Caribbean, the women’s movement and our governments cannot afford to be divided or excluding of any women’s voices in efforts to reduce HIV in the region.  This point was recently recognised by the South African National AIDS Council when it resolved to invite sex worker representatives to its future meetings.  Without condoning sex work, the Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said: “By bringing them here, it is not that we are encouraging a crime. We give recognition to the fact that these people are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. The problem with health issues is that they do not belong to one individual only.”

Talk to your girlfriends about HIV and the difficulties you have in negotiating condom use.  And then talk to your little sisters and cousins about safer sex, because more new HIV infections are happening in girls 15-24 than any other group in the Caribbean.  Get a female condom and try it out.

Ultimately, the reasons for our risk taking are as complex and varied as we are in our womanhood.  But we women aren’t so different.  At some level we all exchange our sexuality and sex for something. 

But whether that something is love, security, reputation, youth, money, or an orgasm, the statistics make it clear – it’s not worth gambling your health for.  We Caribbean women need to start talking across our divides, across our lines, to meet the challenges of HIV together.

It doesn’t matter what he looks like, how bling his car is, how intelligent, how sweet he smell.  Even if he’s supporting you and the kids and paying all the bills.  Even if you love him and accept that he plays the field because he’s still a good dad and everyone knows you as a couple, and on small islands it hard to break off long-term relationships…  If you know he has multiple partners, or he can’t look you in the eye and tell you his HIV status when you probe, take a line you often hear repeated by sex workers in Antigua in several languages and dialects, ‘Put on a condom, or get out!’ 

Written by a feminist who wears “nerdy glasses” and reads “big books” according to her friend, another feminist, who dances in kinky heels at night and has a lot to teach about feminism and HIV by day.

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