Sunday, October 03, 2004

Sex and Madness

This is the title of the course for which I am teaching assistant this semester. The title is the instructor, Judith Pintar's, sexy way of naming a course really on gender and mental illness. The class is unique and interesting in that it looks at mental illness as a social issue and in the process must critique many Psychological interpretations and classification schemes of mental illness (such as the DSM). Sociological thinkers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Goffman, Foucault, E. Franklin Frazier, Kutchins and Kirk, among others have been discussed so far to help explain representations of mental illness in films ranging from Hollywood blockbusters to obscure documentaries as well as in the our everyday language, and the formation and role of total institutions like mental hospitals.

Dystopian novels like the familiar 1984, Catch 22 will be looked at to understand society as insane while the protaganist is purported to be sane. This leads me to the reason for this post, the trafficking of girls and young women. The Guardian has a story on the current trafficking network. Mentioned in the article are references to the demise of the postsocialist economies of Moldova and Albania and orphans left to fend for themselves. But then in part 2 of the story is discussion of the girls trying to reintegrate into society after being violently stripped away, abused physically and emotionally, and forced to survive in a girl/woman trafficking society. In this society it could be your cousin selling you when you think he is trying to help you find a job for you to sustain yourself.

One girl's experience:
Viorica, a child of 17 from southern Moldova, cannot finish her story. She wanted, she says, to go to music school and improve her singing voice, 'to learn to sing and play'. But life had other plans for her. Instead, she was lured from her village by a distant cousin, to Turkey, with a promise of work. When she arrived at the coastal resort of Antalya, she 'was told to put on some clothes and get ready. "It's time for you to work," they said. I asked what work? They said I was going to a hotel to be with men. When I objected,' she continues, 'they said I would have to do this thing if I ever wanted to see Moldova again. They threatened me with a gun and made me get into a car. We got to the hotel. The thing is, I'd never been with a man before. I was a virgin, and that night, they made me go with 11 men.' At this point, Viorica stops in the tracks of her tears and her words. It is a terrible moment.

The psychologist treating Viorica, Ana Chirsanov, tells me that the girl has tried to commit suicide. 'Her soul was destroyed that first night, with those 11 men,' explains Dr Chirsanov. 'She used to resist, spitting and pulling the clients' hair, but they thought it was all part of some erotic game. She was crying out, "I don't want to do this", and they just laughed at her, amusing themselves. After which she got into thinking that she was the one who was insane and that this was what the world is like. That the people doing this to her were normal and she was insane to be unhappy about it.' Most of the girls, when they return, says Dr Chirsanov, 'speak of their desire to die. We had a case of one minor who had jumped from a sixth-floor window... she survived, after six surgical operations.'

There is a glaring problem in calling what happened to Viorica, or any trafficked woman or girl, 'prostitution', since the word can imply a degree of consent. 'Here, there is absolutely no meaningful consent at all,' says Sian Jones, co-ordinator for the Balkans at Amnesty International. 'It is clear that if you knowingly have sex with a woman who has been trafficked, that is rape.'


So, while it is rational for men trying to literally capitalize on these girls' bodies, and the rest of the world more or less sits back and ignores these girls' plight because their gender, class, and ethnic backgrounds render them fairly inconsequential on a global scheme, some of these girls feel they are crazy because they see something is clearly wrong with what they experience/d. And for an even more rational explanation, these girls serve a function for Western men looking for a nice young docile body to use. Sex and madness indeed.

12 Comments:

At 3:58 PM, Blogger laura said...

Within the past week either the NY Times or Washington Post had an article called "Sentenced to be raped". The article told of a (Pakistani?) woman whose brother had had the temerity to have an affair with a high-caste woman. Tribal elders then decided that as punishment for his act, the man's sister should be gang-raped. This was performed publicly (and, according to the account, with great glee) and the woman was then forced to walk home naked. Custom decreed that she then (as a disgraced and now worthless person who brings only shame to her family) commit suicide, but this amazing woman bucked custom and appealed to a higher court, insisting that the shame belonged to the perpetrators of the act and not to the female victim. Somewhat surprisingly (to me) the higher court agreed and the tribal leaders were sanctioned and the woman and her family were given police protection. The woman then established 2 local schools - one for girls and one for boys - out of a belief that combatting ignorance can improve the lives of the people (even the female people). The story unfortunately doesn't end there, as the woman is slowly going bankrupt from having to feed her police escorts and fund the schools as promised funding is not materializing. The tribal elders have publicly threatened to wipe out the woman and her family as soon as they are able, and public opinion runs strong (even among local women) that the woman is, in fact, worthless and disgraced and that she compounded her sin by refusing to kill herself as any decent woman would.
I see this as connected to sex trafficking by a common belief that women have no legitimate rights to a full life separate from male relatives. It seems to me that tracing that thread draws us past even the idea of woman as commodity. People who practice trafficking and rape don't seem to be seeing or thinking of women as anything at all, because they are encapsulated in - and blinded to everything else by - their awareness of their own needs and wants. It's not that they see women and children as inconsequential people suitable for abuse; I don't think they see them at all. How can we make the invisible visible to those who wish to ignore them?

 
At 10:07 AM, Blogger Goesh said...

- and speaking of madness and sexuality, clitorectomy is a means of control not used by Western men - it is an aberration of Islam to remove the potential for sexual pleasure from the victim, thus insuring that she will not stray from the man that essentially purchased her - it appears to be a taboo subject out of fear of stereotyping Muslims - like the honor killings that are never addressed - I recall seeing an undercover video made in Afghanistan, prior to the invasion, that addressed the treatment of women there and clitorectomy was not mentioned - I wonder why this is.......

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Erin said...

I purposely highlighted the Western aspects of this story's trafficking, although patriarchy is transnational. I think the complicity of the West is often ignored and overlooked when it is so easy to point the finger at the Middle East (or sometimes just the East) (not that there aren't horrible things happening to women there as well). But is the West willing to look at it's complicity and enabling of the trafficking of girls, rather than just point out the injustices and violences committed against women other places? If not, I think these girls' are doomed.

As for your question Laura, one thought I have is these people are invisible because of their gender, class, and ethnicity; they are fairly inconsequential to the global market except as a commodity - even though they are people. So until their value as people is realized as outweighing their value as commodity, there are other things going on in the world that will gain more attention and resources. Cynical, I know. Anyway, it's just a thought not research findings...yet

 
At 10:17 PM, Blogger Goesh said...

Western women can at least live independently from men, choose their own mates, vote, own property, drive a car, work any job they want and are not subjected to sexual mutilation. I mean no offense, but it seems you are sending the fire department to a house fire when across the street a whole neighborhood is burning.

 
At 6:40 PM, Blogger heather said...

I understand that we don't want to unfairly stereotype and demean what is a cultural practice that is important to a large group of people for arguably religious and cultural practices. On the other hand I have to ask a tougher question, "What about the quality of life for women?" If the health and well-being of women is affected in any way, shouldn't we take a stand against it? While many scholars argue that we should not criticize genital mutilation, I have to say that we do have the right because it affects the quality of life for women. As for the traffiking of young women, the United States has to realize how the European and American sex tourism economy ENABLES this form of slavery to continue.

 
At 4:42 PM, Blogger Goesh said...

Yes, I think you are right - this practice is important to a large group of people, the men. It's just too darn bad the women who have their clitoris sliced off, most often without anesthesia, don't have a say in it. I wonder if Human Rights advocates and Feminists are leading the charge of the many scholars who don't think this should be confronted/criticized/condemned? They probably feel the same about honor killings too.

 
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