by Norma Ramos
Home Box Office (HBO) advertises the Cathouse DVD this way: If you’ve got a credit card, it’s all there for the asking at Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel located in a sparsely populated desert outside of Reno, where it’s not just sex, it’s an adventure.
HBO’s Cathouse distorts the reality of prostitution by glamorizing sexual exploitation and presenting it as a normal choice for women. The show transforms buyers of sex into legitimate customers and pimps into businessmen. In protest, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) launched a campaign against Cathouse in April 2008 with a lunchtime demonstration outside the busy HBO headquarters in Manhattan.
Prostitution Is Connected to Sex Trafficking.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons reports that: “For the most part, prostitution as actually practiced in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.” The demand for prostitution fuels sex trafficking, in which 80 percent of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and 70 percent of those women end up in prostitution.
Prostituted women often suffer severe health consequences. They include physical injuries inflicted by buyers, pimps and traffickers; psychological devastation, such as trauma, depression and suicide, and, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol and drug abuse — induced by pimps or women’s attempt to avoid feeling violated — is common.
But these afflictions are never shown on Cathouse. Instead, HBO hides behind its journalistic credentials and the so-called “voluntary” participation of the prostituted women.
No Reality in Reality Television.
In an April 23, 2008 letter, the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women asked HBO Chairman Bill Nelson and its Board of Directors to stop promoting prostitution and sex trafficking. “(W)e believe that Cathouse serves as propaganda for the sex industry, denying and concealing the harms to both prostituted women and society at large.”
We said that HBO is promoting the illusion that no one is hurt in prostitution. Through our work with trafficking survivors, we know that this is tragically false, and we asked HBO to fund social services for trafficking victims.
Nelson, in response, said: “If one looks at the long list of powerful, award-winning HBO documentaries which have championed urgent human rights issues women face around the world, it is clear that an accusation of ‘promoting prostitution and sex trafficking’ is simply an unfair claim against our company.” So, according to HBO, it is perfectly acceptable to exploit some women, while producing programming that spotlights human rights abuses elsewhere.
HBO You’ve Hit A New Low—Cathouse Has Got To Go!
As we protested in front of the HBO corporate offices on April 24, 2008, many passers-by expressed interest. Some understood that prostitution not only harms prostituted women, but also harms all women by reinforcing degrading stereotypes that women are sexual commodities to be bought and sold.
Others came up to us to defend prostitution and a woman’s right to “choose” to be prostituted. What about “the happy hooker,” “the pretty woman,” the one who makes $50,000 a year?
Most women do not choose prostitution from a range of other options. Indeed, given that the average age of entry is 13 to 14 years of age, many are first exploited as children. Childhood sexual abuse, a human rights violation, compromises adult self-determination.
Prostitution is a last-ditch effort of survival. Normalizing prostitution gives men and boys the message that all women and girls can be had for a price. The resulting destructive attitudes are not confined to sex industry victims, but are directed against all girls and women.
Prostitution is not a job. It’s not like being a teacher or a clerk or an actor. It is not glamorous or safe, and it subjects women to violent physical and psychological injury. It is a direct outcome of the social, political and economic inequality of women. It should not be portrayed as entertainment or as a harmless occupation that one chooses. This programming (and other films that have preceded it) eroticizes women’s inequality. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women believes that HBO must not profit from the world’s oldest oppression.
Norma Ramos is Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International, located in New York City.