Trafficking, Prostitution, Pornography: A Play in Three Acts


Law students, undergraduates, and others from all over the Harvard campus poured into Austin West Monday evening to see Visiting Professor Catharine MacKinnon present Trafficking, Prostitution, Pornography: A Play in Three Acts. MacKinnon’s talk was sponsored by the HLS Coalition Against Gender Violence and HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

MacKinnon began by explaining that sex trafficking, prostitution, and pornography traditionally are thought to be distinct, the first involving action and presumed coercion, the second involving action but not presumed coercion, and the last involving speech but not action or coercion, among other differences.

In law, trafficking, prostitution, and pornography run the spectrum from patently criminal and illegal to constitutionally protected, such as a freedom of speech. But, asked MacKinnon, are trafficking, prostitution, and pornography really that different, or different at all?

To answer this question, MacKinnon grounded all three in the experiences of one woman, Linda Susan Boreman, more likely to be recognized by her stage name Linda Lovelace. MacKinnon read from Boreman’s testimony, which chronicled two and a half years of living with a man who violently coerced her to participate in pornography, pimped her to other men for money, forced her to marry him, and physically threatened and raped her. He refused to let her out of his sight and held a gun to her head when she called home to ensure she would not tell anyone what he was doing.

Act One: Sex Trafficking

MacKinnon noted that Boreman’s story encompasses many aspects of the typical sex trafficking story. Taken across state lines, her relationship with her captor began as non-violent and escalated to the use of extreme force to coerce Boreman into prostitution. Boreman’s experiences undeniably would constitute sex trafficking, possibly even slavery, under many definitions. Moreover, MacKinnon highlighted that although Boreman was coerced, under most conceptions of sex trafficking, her consent would be irrelevant.

Act Two: Prostitution

Again, Boreman’s story encompasses many aspects of a typical prostitution tale. Indeed, her story is like the stories of many women in prostitution. Yet, as MacKinnon pointed out, prostitution is thought to be free unless forced. With this in mind, MacKinnon posed to the audience the question, “then what is the difference between the two, [trafficking and prostitution]?” From where does this distinction arise? According to MacKinnon, there essentially is no distinction because “sex trafficking is for the purposes of prostitution.” Deviating from more traditional definitions of prostitution, she claims prostitution should be defined as “sex for sale,” a definition which necessarily equates prostitution with the patently criminal and illegal sex trafficking. Nevertheless, act two remains distinct from act one.

Act Three: Pornography

Boreman’s story is also one of coerced pornography. In fact, as MacKinnon revealed, Boreman’s story was framed as one of a woman forced into pornographic performance. However, despite the parallels between sex trafficking and prostitution, pornography remains constitutionally protected as a freedom of speech, and the fact that the pornographic material was made under the appalling conditions it was does not unprotect it.

This last act, as MacKinnon noted, as played out as set of concepts in women’s lives, has resulted in non-movement. In light of the similarities between these acts brought out by Boreman’s testimony, MacKinnon left her audience with the question: “why isn’t pornography seen as a form of trafficking women?”

So, what is the difference? Nothing, according to MacKinnon. It’s all the same: “sex for sale.”

Although presented as a play in three acts, MacKinnon closed by proposing that the entire story should be called Prostitution. Prostitution just bears three different names, one which is recognized, one which is debated, and one which is constitutionally protected.

MacKinnon then took questions from the audience. As one student asked, what can we do legally and socially? MacKinnon responded that it is important to know the fight isn’t over yet. Act three may be in “stasis,” but these ideas and ways of framing trafficking, prostitution, and pornography are in discourse, and, thus, the issue is much more open than it is credited as being.

Novel approaches that take into account constructions that traditionally are ignored are available and are being advanced today, most noticeably in the international arena.

Following the presentation, attendees were invited to walk the Law School tunnels for the opening of the photography exhibit: Images of Human Trafficking.

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