Disclaimer: this comparison between men who dehumanize women “over there” and men who dehumanize women “here” is in no way meant to make light of the tragic situation in Northern Nigeria. I am making comparisons between actions but I am not equating one situation with the other—one situation is vastly more horrific than the other, and deserves more of our efforts to bring to an end.
The most hated African in the world right now is no longer Joseph Kony, it is Abubakar Shekau, leader of the jihadist group Boko Haram. For the last five years they have spent their energies attacking churches, police stations, markets, etc, with the goal of establishing an Islamist state in poverty-stricken northern Nigeria, but the group has been relatively unknown in the West until last week when news spread over social media that the group had kidnapped nearly 300 girls from a school in mid-April, prompting outrage and demands for governments to act.
Shekau says in the video:
Let me tell you: I took the girls. … I repeat, I took the girls, and I will sell them off. There is a market for selling girls.
We are rightly outraged at both the kidnapping of young girls who were peacefully working on their education and also the audacity of a man who believes he has the right to sell girls, and while we can be proud of the fact that we do not behave as he and his followers do, I want to highlight his language: he will sell the girls because there is a market.
I am not Shekau. I have never done what he and his group have done, I could never fathom behaving in that manner, nor could I ever be capable of such atrocities. But I and other outraged western men are not so drastically different from him, despite what we would like to think.
Shekau sells women, but he is able to sell women because there is a demand for them to be sold. They are being purchased by men. The men who have purchased girls are complicit in the kidnapping for creating the demand.
Boko Haram is the media lightning rod of the moment for the global human trafficking industry (for more information, check out stopthetraffik.org). Those of us who are men and who are outraged and want to work to stop human trafficking might be glad that at least we don’t purchase or sell women, but in our hearts we may have absorbed and bought into a different but similar ideology which still reduces women and girls to objects; objects that can be purchased and consumed.
At the end of the day, just as Boko Haram kidnaps and plans to sell almost 300 girls because there is a demand for it, the casual viewing of pornography by men in the West creates a demand for what is essentially acts of prostitution recorded on video or in photos, where woman are exploited, abused, dehumanized, and made into victims of sexualized violence.
As porn has gone mainstream, … it has devolved into an open fusion of physical abuse and sex, of extreme violence, horrible acts of degradation against women with an increasingly twisted eroticism. Porn has always involved the eroticization of unlimited male power, but today it also involves the expression of male power through the physical abuse, even torture, or women.
Torture and pornography inevitable converge. They each turn human beings into submissive objects. In porn the woman is stripped of her human attributes and made to beg for abuse. She has no identity as a distinct human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll. She exists to gratify any whim that a male decides if pleasurable. She has no other purpose. Her real name vanishes. She adopts a cheap and usually vulgar stage name. She becomes a slave. She is filmed being degraded and physically abused. This film is sold to consumers, who, in turn, are aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women. They, too, can be torturers.
From Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (Knopf, 2009).
Even if you have never paid for pornography online you would have viewed advertisements which pays for the website. You have contributed to the system. I have contributed to the system.
The same dehumanizing ideology which underlies the mission of Boko Haram to sell girls on the market because there is a demand also underlies the pornography industry which sells videos of women being sexually abused on the internet because there is a demand. A demand that is created by our web browsing habits and our google searches.
No good father ever wants his daughter to end up in pornography, but when we are completely comfortable consuming recordings of other men’s daughters being abused, dehumanized, and prostituted online, we are in one sense not radically different from the men in Boko Haram, who legitimize the abuse of women. We support their cause by supporting the fruit of their underlying ideology. In our case, the fruit of that ideology is purchasing (either through viewing ads or exchanging money) videos of women being turned into objects and having sexual violence done to them, which sometimes progresses into supporting real human trafficking by purchasing prostitutes or engaging in sex tourism.
Our outrage at their acts must also be turned inward to see if in our hearts or actions we have done things which have contributed to a system that abuses women, that objectifies women, that perpetuates and legitimizes violence against women, and that sees women as objects to be collected, either by notches on a bedpost, girls to be purchased, or photos on your laptop.