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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Anne Hathaway’s Crucial Confusion: Prostitution, Sex Slavery and Fantine

Anne Hathaway’s Crucial Confusion: Prostitution, Sex Slavery and Fantine

In mid-December, Anne Hathaway appeared on the Today Show on NBC with Matt Lauer. Anne Hathaway has played a variety of roles in her career, including Princess Mia in The Princess Diaries, Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and most recently Fantine in Les Misérables. Appearing with Matt Lauer in order to promote her role as Fantine, Lauer opened with this comment: “We’ve seen a lot of you lately.”

Of course we’ve seen her a lot, she’s had many roles this year. However, Lauer was not referring to her accomplishments. He was referring to an incident that happened during the premiere of Les Misérables.

On December 10th, Anne Hathaway appeared in a dress with a thigh-high slit at the film’s New York premiere. As she exited the vehicle, she accidentally flashed her lower genitals to the paparazzi. Not missing a beat, photos were snapped and made the rounds on the Internet.

Anne Hathaway slit dress

Cue the interview with Matt Lauer on December 12th. While some interviewees may shy away from answering such a personal question, Hathaway responded very deftly:

“Well, it was obviously an unfortunate incident … It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment, and rather than delete it and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis, because that’s what the character [Fantine] is. She is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child because she has nothing and there’s no social safety net so yeah—let’s get back to Les Mis.”

Some of Hathaway’s comments were positive. For one, I agree with part of her statement. I think that living in a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants is negative.

Recently, we have seen an increasing amount of sex-negative sites distributing pictures of people without their permission. Feminspire covered the Creepshots of Reddit earlier this year. Creepshots was a subreddit where people shared secretly taken photos of women without their consent, posted them on the forum, and commented about their appearances. High school hallways often appeared as the backdrop of these photos. Students and even teachers took pictures of underage girls, causing an uproar until Reddit finally stepped in and shut down the subreddit. Although they did finally close the forum (albeit waiting until underage photos were confirmed), other subreddits such as r/candidfashionpolice still exist, posting many of the same images that appeared on Creepshots.

Another unfortunate instance of the commodification of unwilling participants takes place with “revengeporn.” Earlier this year, the website “Is Anyone Up?” was shut down by its creator, Hunter Moore. Is Anyone Up? posted nude images of people, linking to their social media pages in order to shame them further. Reportedly, Hunter Moore is starting a new site to promote revenge porn, the nickname given for submitting nude photos from failed relationships.

These sites are terrible, and Hathaway is right to speak against this culture. However, there are some problems with other comments she has made.

In this statement with Matt Lauer, she says, “[Fantine] is forced to sell sex.” She also comments on sex workers when she speaks about her role for Fantine in another interview:

“So I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world.  And to do that, I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery.”

Throughout this interview, she continues to reference sexual slavery and how she became familiar with the stories of people in sexual slavery and human trafficking. There are a few problems with her statements. First, for anyone who has not read or seen Les Misérables, let me explain Fantine’s character.

In the book by Victor Hugo, Fantine is one of four women who are the girlfriends of four male students in France. One day, while they are at a cafe, the four students drive away and leave a note for the four girls, explaining that they are leaving forever. While the other three take it in stride, Fantine is devastated because she is pregnant.

The origin of Fantine is very important to the story as well. She is described as elegant, beautiful, ravishing, and able to captivate a room with her looks and her laughter. However, there are no qualities that describe her intelligence or personality. Later, the reader finds out that she is illiterate, further perpetuating her physical qualities over her intelligence. Even her name is not real. Fantine is a nickname, which is derived from “enfantine,” which means “babes” or “little ones.”

In the book, the female foreman of a factory discovers that Fantine is the mother of an illegitimate child. The foreman looks down on her and fires her. In the musical, they changed it to female factory workers assuming she is a prostitute (because she can’t earn enough money at the factory to care for her daughter). The male foreman (changed) fires her because he agrees that she must be a prostitute, and is angry because Fantine rejected him earlier in the play. If she is a prostitute, he believes that she must owe him sex.

Fired for her purported work as a sex worker, Fantine then sells her teeth, her hair, and finally chooses to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to pay for the living expenses of her daughter Cosette.

Although she cannot obtain another job after being fired, she still chooses (albeit as seemingly a last resort) to become a prostitute. She was not kidnapped and sold into slavery; she is not being trafficked; she is not being forced into prostitution. Anne Hathaway ignorantly lumped sexual slavery, sex trafficking, and sex workers into one group.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as “an act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained l8 years of age (Tiefenbrun, 2004.)” Elements that are usually present to constitute either sexual slavery or human trafficking include, but are not limited to, the following: utilizing coercion, abduction, fraud or deception to gain new people into the trade; physically, emotionally, and/or psychologically abusing the victim. [x]

Sex workers who choose their profession are in no way comparable to people who are trafficked across borders, forced into sexual acts, or forced into rape camps. Yes, Fantine felt that she had no other options, but she was not forced, coerced, bought, or sold into slavery. Also, in all of the interviews I have read, Hathaway only mentions women, specifically younger women and female children, who are victims of sex slavery.

There are many kinds of sex trafficking and human trafficking, including labor trafficking and organ trafficking. Just like there is not one type of trafficking, there is more than one face of it as well. One of the largest populations to suffer from sex trafficking is LGBT youth, particularly LGBT youth of color.

“The National Runaway switchboard estimates that ‘…many [gay identifying homeless teens] get involved with prostitution and other abusive behaviors as a way of surviving.’ Just like young girls who are exploited by pimps and traffickers, gay youth face the paradoxical classification of ‘teen prostitutes’ despite often being under the legal age of consent. Unfortunately, the mentality that they choose to be prostitutes is even more prevalent with gay youth because some groups view their orientation as taboo or perverse.”

By confusing sex workers with sexual slavery, and by erasing entire groups from the picture, Hathaway calls attention to only part of an issue and connects it incorrectly to her film character.

It should be noted that all of us are not perfect. Hathaway is also not perfect. However, it is important to understand the differences between taking a stance against the commodification of unwilling participants in the sexual arena, educating yourself with misconstrued information, and applying it to all people who engage in that lifestyle. A tumblr post by everythingbutharleyquinn says it best:

“No one views street workers as active professionals in a work place. Only as victims, or as scum, or as both – but never whilst offering reasonable substitutions for street work. Which is not to say street workers are out there having a grand old time living the dream, but the fact we nonetheless ARE working and KNOW our business and how to perform it is NEVER respected or acknowledged.”

Fantine is fired because she is suspected to be a prostitute. Being punished for being a sex worker is a message that has transcended generations. Sex workers should be respected. They voluntarily choose to work in these positions. Respecting these choices and fighting against people who are exploited or involuntarily thrust into the sexual arena is of the utmost importance in today’s discourse about sexuality.

Written by Nicole Del Casale

Editor’s Note: As many commenters have pointed out, Fantine’s choice was not free but was at best a last resort (as Nicole depicted it in this article) and at worst coercive and the result of harassment. There was no intent to downplay the seriousness of her circumstances or women in those circumstances, then or today, and we apologize.

  • Annoyed

    The system, in a way, forced her into prostitution. Honestly, of all the things to write about, you choose to knit pick at a very minor comment by Anne Hathaway. Christ.

    • LesMisFan

      But she still made a choice. She was not sold into slavery. Sex slavery and human trafficking is a completely different world and topic of conversation than prostitution because a woman feels like it’s her only means of survival. They should NOT be confused or thought of as the same. There are very very important distinctions and when we lump those issues together we do a disservice to people who suffer from both.

      • Mashow

        She prostituted herself to survive. She didn’t have a choice. We are talking about a country and a time where there was no social security net, and very few places where women could get paying jobs. Given the conditions that these lower class prostitutes would have faced – the high risk of death from venereal diseases and violence, and the ostracism from society, I highly doubt many women were choosing street prostitution as some kind of life-affirming profession. Maybe you can’t compare a modern professional sex trade worker with someone sold into sex slavery, but neither can you equivocate the modern sex trade with prostitution in 19th century France.

      • lola

        so one kind of hopeless lot is marginally “better” than being chained to a bed. good job for clearing that up. and with options like that, why criticize?!

  • tsandy

    …are you seriously going to suggest that Fantine chooses prostitution and is not at all coerced?

    She is one hundred percent coerced. The “choice” she makes is between doing something she does not want to do (which does not mean that no one can ever want to do it, but she doesn’t want to) and starving to death–which also means that her daughter will starve to death and be put out on the street.

    You talk about how teenage runaways, including teenaged LGBT runaways, are coerced into prostitution so they can survive on the street, often after being kicked out due to prejudice in society. How is that different?

    I get the point you’re trying to make–that we need to distinguish between sex workers who are coerced and sex workers who are not. Fine. Fantine is coerced, sorry to say.

    This article is dumb.

    • Sara

      Fantine is “coerced” through her economic condition (which is inanimate), not by a guy with a gun who sells her like a slave. Neither are happy stories, but the distinction is a necessary one.

      • IH

        Okay, so we make the distinction. They’re both terrible things, and we need to work against both of them. Yes– they require different strategies. But making the distinction between the two does not require, and should not entail, writing off the sort of coercion Fantine experiences as illegitimate or somehow less bad and oppressive. There was not a literal gun to her head– but it’s not as though “prostitute yourself, or you and your child will die slowly” is much better than “prostitute yourself, or I will shoot you.” The difference is that one is less immediate and doesn’t involve a specific guilty agent.

        I also think referring to the coercive conditions that force people into prostitution as simply “inanimate” is a way to absolve people of their complicity in the system. Oppressive economic systems that entail significant structural violence against women (which includes structuring a limited set of life options, such that people operate with intensely restricted autonomy) do not operate in a vacuum, and do not sustain themselves without human individuals. It is easy to blame the system as if it were sentient and self-perpetuating, but it isn’t. Fantine (as a symbol for other women in similar circumstances) is not a victim of abstract economic circumstances, but of real and concrete policies and structures in society.

      • alex

        as was demonstrated in the movie especially, which is what anne was referring to (i’m assuming she wasn’t specifically talking about the book since she was promoting the movie) the scene “lovely ladies” was essentially fantine being pushed, goaded, sexually harrassed, and coerced into prostitution. her economic condition and previous instances of selling hair, teeth etc. notwithstanding, fantine is shown as being backed into a wall (literally), followed by men, persuaded by other women, and generally not being compliant until the offer of the money she so desperately needs finally wins over her pride. it’s not exactly as if she was just told “hey, sleep with me and i’ll pay you” and she agreed because she was poor, she was in a deteriorated, desperate state of mind and was taken advantage of by men as well as deliberately targeted with persuasive language.

  • Q

    I thought the same thing about Hathaway’s comments when I heard them. You simply cannot say that what she experienced in the play is the same thing that people experienced when being trafficked or abducted into sex slavery. I head the women against human trafficking organization at my college and will share this article on our FB page – I know a lot of the women I work with have seen Les Mis recently, so I’m sure they’ll be interested. Thanks for writing this.

  • theresa

    brilliantly stated and thorough.

    although fantine may have been forced by a harsh society into doing sex work to survive, to call this tragedy “sexual slavery” is completely missing the mark and creating confusion as to what sexual slavery actually is. sexual slavery and trafficking are issues that are confusing to the general public as is. anne hathaway’s confusion is an example of how misinformed the public is.

    to compare fantine to a sex slave or victim of human trafficking takes away attention from those very specific issues and places it elsewhere. i am sure anne hathaway had the best of intentions in her research and in making those comments to the press, but it really doesn’t do any favors for the victims of sexual slavery or those who are fighting to put an end to that institution.

  • IH

    You are right that there is a difference between sexual slavery/sex trafficking and sex work. In that one quote, perhaps Hathaway misspoke (though to be certain, there is significant overlap between the two). However, it seems like you are drawing some pretty murky lines of distinction in this article. Take this sentence: “Yes, Fantine felt that she had no other options, but she was not forced, coerced, bought, or sold into slavery.” Are you seriously suggesting that “feeling that she had no other options” (which, to be clear, was not simply a feeling but a fact) is not coercion? I am certain there are sex workers who freely and proudly choose their profession. However, to draw a distinction that places “sex work” on that side and labels only “sexual slavery” as coercive is incredibly misleading. There are many sex workers today who may not have been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery but nonetheless are exercising severely restrained autonomy because of their socioeconomic situation. Fantine would fall into such a category: sure, no one forced her into prostitution at gunpoint– not literally. But to ignore the fact that society was effectively pointing that gun to her head (and that of her child) anyways is blithely naive.

    Sex workers should be respected, regardless of their motivations. We should recognize the validity of freely choosing sex work. No one should be forced into anything sexual without their full and uncoerced consent– which makes sexual slavery absolutely and incontestably bad. These are all true. But to pretend that Fantine’s “choice” (as that of many, many sex workers today, regardless of whether they are involved in trafficking as such) is any choice at all ignores the context that structures her options, and reminds me distastefully much of the bootstraps argument that claims poor people should simply rise above.

  • Gina

    I am disappointed in this article. It totally is missing what really matters here — the reality of sexual slavery in America and in the world. Regardless of the accuracy of the comparison (which could be seen as accurate because in both cases, women are forced to perform sex to survive, not for pleasure), I have to applaud Hathaway for bringing attention to a horrifying situation that affects an estimated 27 million people in the world and up to 300,000 women and children in the United States. I encourage every reader of this article to Google “sex slavery in America” and read the sad statistics and horrifying personal accounts of women and children forced, tortured and brainwashed into this trade. Let’s educate ourselves and spend our time, energy and this valuable medium to stop this ghastly practice, instead of knit picking over a celebrity comment or sensationalizing an embarrassing photo.

  • Emma

    I just saw the movie and have to say I disagree 100% with this article. Sex slavery and exploitation isn’t all about being drugged or dragged into it. Being forced by circumstance (such as Fantine in the film, which is what Anne Hathaway is discussing, not the book, which I haven’t read) is considered “survival sex work” and is a very real thing.

    The real disservice to sex workers is acting as though being forced by circumstance is not enough, but rather that it is only tragic or important if they are forced by people.

    Honestly, this is an incredibly modern feminist view on it – yes, many sex workers choose to do this and are empowered, but many more aren’t and this paints it so simplistically and WRONG. I’m incredibly disappointed in this article. In fact you are confusing sex workers with sex slavery, in a far more negative way than you interpret Anne’s comments as.

    What is of upmost importance in today’s discussions is letting sex workers name their own experiences, and not arbitrarily deciding what is and isn’t “forced” enough for them.

  • everythingbutharleyquinn

    I am “everythingbutharleyquinn” whose piece on street work is quoted towards the end of this article. I have written a response to this article, which you can read here:

  • La

    You seriously cannot be trying to compare today’s sex work industry with France in the 1800s. Working as a prostitute because of economic circumstances was THE SAME as being forced. No other choice. For a real person in the same position as Fantine, it was prostitution or death…or even prostitution AND death as we see in Fantine’s case (which accurately represents the fate of many of those women). Not that people today are not forced into sex work, because many of course are because of economic circumstances, but a prostitute in 1800s France was really not that much different than an actual sex slave.

    Comparing the workers in today’s sex work industry with prostitutes of 19th century France is doing both groups a disservice.

  • Morgothy

    I applaud Anne Hathway’s response to that man’s creepy comments- she handled it in a way that did an excellent job of critiquing societal attitudes towards women bodies. I really like how she links the minor commodification of women’s bodies going on in the media with a broader system of commodification and objectification.

    I think this article is a weird form of splitting hairs that ends up being more insultingly inaccurate about Fantine’s situation than anything Hathaway said. ‘BUT IN FANTINE’S CASE IT’S A CHOICE’ is a weird distinction to make a point of making.

    Hathaway didn’t directly say Fantine was a sex slave, but her comments I think actually show an understanding, not a misunderstanding, of the difference between contemporary prostitution by choice and sex slavery. The situation of a sex worker who has a real choice in the matter is not actually reflected in Fantine’s story, in which circumstances force her to become a prostitute. It makes sense, even if the situations are not identical, that Hathaway would look to the stories of people who are coerced into sexual slavery for inspiration in portraying Fantine’s story and the injustices of the 19th century French society which allows it to happen.

    Fantine’s story is a miserable one, and her situation, as others have said, is incomparable to the circumstances of sex workers in say, modern France or the UK. for whom sex work is a chioce among others.

    What exact harm does it do to say you looked to the stories of those
    coerced into sex slavery in order to understand how to properly portray
    Fantine’s unhappy story in which she has no choice but to try and live
    this way?

  • Academic Laborer

    I do not see why the author’s article merited an apology from the editors – this is not an argument saying that Fantine’s choice was “free,” or frivolous in any way. The paradigm of force and choice is seriously flawed, not only for understanding. This is not the author’s fault; given the limited options for speaking about prostitution that is not ‘trafficking’ in the present moment, where someone like Anne Hathaway could easily google “prostitution” and come up with thousands of hits on “trafficking,” the author is using the ‘choice’ part of the paradigm to make a distinction between Fantine’s situation (prostitution) and the situation of people who are engaging with prostitution through “force, fraud, or coercion” (trafficking). Thank you, Nicole, for a timely and important critique of a famous person’s misguided and utterly uncritical view of prostitution.

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