Image courtesy of Repair
Dr. Beth Ribet is one of the co-founders of Repair, an organization that advocates for marginalized communities whose health is adversely affected by systems of oppression. She is a professor at UCLA teaching in Gender Studies and Disability Studies, having taught sociology, anthropology, and law at various other universities. She is also the only publicly known survivor of child pornography and prostitution who has obtained a PhD and teaches at a college level.
On May 15, Ribet delivered a lecture to over 60 UCLA students and faculty members entitled “Representing the Sex Industries.” Introduced as a “survivor, survivor advocate, and scholar” by Repair’s other co-founder, Claudia Peña, Ribet spoke about sexual exploitation, survivorship, and the intricacies of the rhetoric and language surrounding the sex industries. Following the lecture, UCLA law professor Jyoti Nanda facilitated an interactive commentary and discussion with Ribet.
Ribet first spoke about representation. She had struggled for years about whether or not to come out as a survivor, but finally did so when she could no longer stand the misrepresentation of her experiences — especially by her colleagues in academia. After coming out as a survivor, she soon realized that there was a pressure to speak for those who cannot, describing herself as an “envoy of the community” whose mission was to talk about the sex industry in a truthful way.
Sex industries, defined by Ribet as any institutional practice that commercializes sex, have been hotly debated for years, both in and out of academia. These practices (pornography, prostitution, brothels, strip clubs, etc.) are grounded in imperialism, capitalism, and racism — historically, abusers have made sex objects out of people who were owned. She specifically cited some of the first recorded instances of prostitution, which occurred during the colonization of the United States, when men would throw coins at indigenous women after raping them. “Prostitution is a Western import,” said Ribet, “and the largest pimp in the world is the US military.”
During the 1980s, feminist scholars moved towards supporting the sex industries. They re-termed prostitution as sex work and applauded sex workers for celebrating their sexuality, autonomy, and economic independence. Middle-aged white women led the movement to destigmatize and decriminalize prostitution, with the goal of making the sex industry safer through regulation.
In Ribet’s eyes, the sex work movement invalidated her own experience and the experiences of other survivors like herself, who had been children when they were sexually exploited. It failed to recognize that many children who are forced into the sex industries turn to drugs or suicide as a result of their trauma. Dismantling the sex industries would require a more nuanced, intersectional approach than simply empowering adult women who had the ability to choose, especially when the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-13 for white children and 10-11 for children of color.
The contemporary movement has adopted the term sex-trafficking in order to refocus on the violence that occurs within the sex industries. As Ribet noted in her lecture, language shapes reality. The ways we speak, when we speak, and who we allow to speak have a profound effect on how we define and discuss issues. Fortunately, survivors such as Ribet are beginning to shift the discourse.
Moving forward, discussions about sexual exploitation must be driven by the communities affected by the sex industries. Whether individuals entered the industries by way of their own agency or not, discussions must be intersectional, holistic, and youth-centered in order to protect the most vulnerable. According to Ribet, the language and leadership surrounding the anti-trafficking movement has to be survivor-driven in order to be completely truthful.
With ferocity, strength, and determination, Ribet will certainly continue to change and open minds. Despite the inherently traumatic nature of discussing sexual exploitation, she is hopeful as she looks towards the future.
“Seeing survivors become speakers is so important,” she said. “Finally being represented and heard — it’s the most joyful, beautiful thing.”