This column is adapted from a talk Chris Hedges gave Friday night at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
The scourge of male violence against women will not end if we dismantle the forces of global capitalism. The scourge of male violence exists independently of capitalism, empire, and colonialism. It is a separate evil. The fight to end male violence against women, part of a global struggle by women, must take primacy in our own struggle. Women and girls, especially those who are poor and of color, cannot take part in a liberation movement until they are liberated. They cannot offer to us their wisdom, their leadership, and their passion until they are freed from physical coercion and violent domination. This is why the fight to end male violence across the globe is not only fundamental to our movement but will define its success or failure. We cannot stand up for some of the oppressed and ignore others who are oppressed. None of us is free until all of us are free.
On Friday night at Simon Fraser University—where my stance on prostitution, expressed in a March 8 Truthdig column titled “The Whoredom of the Left,” had seen the organizers of a conference on resource extraction attempt to ban me from the gathering, an action they revoked after protests from radical feminists—I confronted the sickness of a predatory society. A meeting between me and students arranged by the university had been canceled. Protesters gathered outside the hall. Some people stormed out of the lecture room, slamming the doors after them, when I attacked the trafficking of prostituted women and girls. A male tribal leader named Toghestiy stood after the talk and called for the room to be “cleansed” of evil—this after Audrey Siegl, a Musqueam Nation woman, emotionally laid out what she and other women face at the hands of male predators—and one of the conference organizers, English professor Stephen Collis, seized the microphone at the end of the evening to denounce me as “vindictive.” It was a commercial for the moral bankruptcy of academia.
Moral collapse always accompanies civilizations in decline, from Caligula’s Rome to the decadence at the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Dying cultures always become hypersexualized and depraved. The primacy of personal pleasure obtained at the expense of others is the defining characteristic of a civilization in its death throes.
Edward Said defined sexual exploitation as a fundamental feature of Orientalism, which he said was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism, Said wrote, views “itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. … [The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” Moreover, he went on, “[w]hen women’s sexuality is surrendered, the nation is more or less conquered.” The sexual conquest of indigenous women, Said pointed out, correlates with the conquest of the land itself.
Sexual violence directed at Asian women by white men—and any Asian woman can tell you how unrelenting and commonplace such violence and sexualized racism are—is a direct result of Western imperialism, just as sexual violence against aboriginal women is a direct result of white colonialism. And the same behavior is found in war and on the outskirts of the massive extraction industries that often spawn wars, such as those I reported on in Congo.
This sexualized racism, however, is hardly limited to wars or extraction sites. It is the driving force behind the millions of First World male sexual tourists who go to the developing world, as well as those who seek out poor women of color who are trafficked to and thrown into sexual bondage in the industrialized world.
Extraction industries, like wars, empower a predominantly male, predatory population that is engaged in horrific destruction and violence. Wars and extraction industries are designed to extinguish all systems that give life—familial, social, cultural, economic, political and environmental. And they require the obliteration of community and the common good. How else could you get dragline operators in southern West Virginia to rip the tops off Appalachian mountains to get at coal seams as they turn the land they grew up in, and often their ancestors grew up in, into a fetid, toxic wasteland where the air, soil, and water will be poisoned for generations? These vast predatory enterprises hold up the possibility of personal wealth, personal advancement, and personal power at the expense of everyone and everything else. They create a huge, permanent divide between the exploiters and the exploited, one that is rarely crossed. And the more vulnerable you are, the more the jackals appear around you to prey on your afflictions. Those who suffer most are children, women and the elderly—the children and the elderly because they are vulnerable, the women because they are left to care for them. [Editor’s note: Hedges’ talk is presented in full in the video below. He is introduced at the nine-minute mark, and a question-and-answer session starts at one hour, seven minutes. The incident involving the professor at the microphone occurred after the Q&A period and was edited out of the recording. The article continues beneath the video.]
The sexual abuse of poor girls and women expands the divide between the predators and the prey, the exploiters and the exploited. And in every war zone, as in every boomtown that rises up around extraction industries, you find widespread sexual exploitation by bands of men. This is happening in the towns rising up around fracking in North Dakota.
The only groups that wars produce in greater numbers than prostituted girls and women are killers, refugees and corpses. I was with U.S. Marine Corps units that were soon to be shipped to the Philippines, where their members would visit bars to pick up prostituted Filipina women they referred to LBFMs—Little Brown Fucking Machines, a phrase coined by the U.S. occupation troops that arrived in the Philippines in 1898.
Downtown San Salvador when I was in El Salvador during the war there was filled with streetwalkers, massage parlors, brothels and nightclubs where girls and women, driven into the urban slums because of the fighting in their rural communities, bereft of their homes and safety, often cut off from their families, were being pimped out to the gangsters and warlords. I saw the same explosion of prostitution when I reported from Syria, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Nairobi, Congo—where Congolese armed forces routinely raped and tortured girls and women near Anvil Mining’s Dikulushi copper mine—and when I was in Djibouti, where girls and women, refugees from the fighting across the border in Ethiopia, were herded by traffickers into a poor neighborhood that was an outdoor market for human flesh.