A picket line will be in place at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue at the Manhattan headquarters of HBO (1100 Sixth Avenue) on Thursday, April 24th between 12:30pm and 2:30pm. The reason for the protest is the HBO reality show Cathouse – The Series, which is set in a brothel in Nevada. As explained by Norma Ramos, Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and the originator of this action, “HBO is creating a culture of acceptance of sexual exploitation, and it needs to take responsibility for that.”
Ramos isn’t the only one who feels that way. Her organization will be joined by ECPAT-USA, Prostitution Research and Education (PRE), Equality Now, the New York Chapter of the National Organization of Women, and Queens Council Member John C. Liu. Also present will be Victor Malarek, the award-winning Canadian journalist who authored The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trades (2003), which was based on his interviews with traffickers and their victims compiled over a two-year period. More recently, Malarek weighed in with a March 12th Op-Ed in the New York Times penned with Melissa Farley (writer of Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections) in response to the Eliot Spitzer story entitled, “The Myth of the Victimless Crime.”
The Cathouse series has been spawned off from a “documentary” which aired on HBO in 2002, and was followed up with Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle (2003). This, I presume, is the curious reason that the HBO website features a profile about the show on its Documentary Films link. The closing tag line of, “So come on in, take a seat at the bar and prepare yourself for a singular experience,” does not have the tenor of film festival fare. The opening sentences are even gamier. “Welcome to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Outside the gate, it looks like a normal bar, but inside you are greeted by a line-up of beautiful, scantily clad women.” Another page promoting the “Best of Cathouse” states, “HBO delves into its Cathouse vault to mine the most memorable scenes starring the hottest girls, and wildest moments, from six glorious years…a solid-gold tribute to the best little whorehouse on TV!” Considering that HBO has presented such films as Spike Lee’s examination of Hurricane Katrina in When the Levees Broke, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, and Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, you have to wonder what the suits at HBO were thinking.
Dorchen Leiderholdt, founder of CATW, has a clear-cut point of view about the motives of the subscription cable giant. She said, “HBO cynically labels Cathouse as a documentary, when in fact it packages prostitution as entertainment.” Clicking around the Internet for feedback on the show, I connected with the comments of numerous devotees who gave it a top rating of 10. Posts ran consistent with the following sample (spelling corrected), “This show is absolutely phenomenal…It’s like every man’s fantasy wrapped up in a TV series.” Leiderholdt’s assessment was unmistakably on-target.
Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of Equality Now, said of HBO, “It’s a question of corporate responsibility. The media has glamorized and normalized prostitution and exploitation. All you see is the happy hooker who is giving a guy a good time.” With the show featuring pimps in the role of managers, and prostitution in a legalized brothel as a form of work, it sidesteps the minefield of issues that abound in the multibillion-dollar sex trafficking industry. As Bien-Aimé pointed out, “Viewers watching this show are only seeing a narrow part of the story.” That other narrative includes violence, degradation, and a PTSD rate for prostituted women that is equivalent to what is experienced by war veterans. For the audience members who dismiss these concerns with the disclaimer that the “Bunny Ranch” is a legal business in Nevada, they may want to ponder the equation that Bien-Aimé puts forth, “Legalizing prostitution makes the government a pimp.”
Council Member John Liu, who has been involved in the anti-trafficking movement for the past two years told me, “When HBO puts these kinds of shows on, it serves to trivialize the problem of modern day slavery – which is on the rise.” Liu has sponsored and advocated for legislation in the City Council to crack down on human trafficking. “There are too many places of prostitution all across the metropolitan area,” he said, adding, “New York City is an international capital of the world. It is a major destination for sex trafficking.”
“The pattern of programming at HBO is on the wrong track,” Ramos asserted. She continued, “Hopefully the new president of HBO entertainment, Susan Naegle, will be open to rethinking whether HBO should be in the business of promoting prostitution.” When I spoke to Ramos, she was drafting an open letter to HBO Chairman/CEO Bill Nelson and the HBO Board of Directors, expressing her concerns.
There will be a press conference held in conjunction with the demonstration. Hopefully, media in attendance will gain insight into the import of matters that must not be ignored. If you don’t see any coverage, read Bob Herbert’s January 15, 2008 piece, “Politics and Misogyny.” You can always count on him to get it right.