By Mary Annette Pember
Mary G. was born from the boats. Her children were born from the boats too, all fathered through her liaisons with male customers. She has never known anything else. Like generations of Native girls and women before her, Mary and her family are inextricably tied to prostitution in the great port city of Duluth, Minnesota. Long before the term sex trafficking entered the public lexicon and began appearing in headlines, Native women like Mary and her mother Ruthie were lured into prostitution. Largely driven by poverty and homelessness as well as an underlying racism that sanctioned the sexual degradation of Native women, generations of them have sold themselves to survive.
For years the citizens of Duluth, as in so many other cities, looked the other way at the disreputable exchanges between prostitutes and seamen. They were discounted as part of the cities rough-and-tumble harbor culture and reputation. And prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, was seen as a benign vice, a victimless crime, an example of “boys being boys.”
Like most Native women around the Great Lakes, I have heard the shameful term boat whore whispered since I was a child. We all knew about women who disappeared to “work the boats” and more important, we knew it was not a topic for discussion. Perhaps internalizing the inexplicable collective shame of being Native women in white America, we cringed when hearing about boat whores, fearful that their experience and reputation might somehow infect us, too. The story of the boat whore has been like a queer kind of natural disaster that visits destruction on the powerless yet holds them responsible.
Advocates such as Melissa Farley, founder of Prostitution Research & Education, maintain that prostitution and the sex industry create a demand for women that is being fulfilled by sex traffickers. According to Farley, there is little difference between sex trafficking and prostitution. Prostitution is typically depicted as an activity of choice while sex trafficking involves force and coercion for the participation of innocent girls in the sex trade.
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