Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sexist Sex

Pay two boxers to beat one another to a pulp for the pleasure of the paying audience audience. They risk broken ribs, blindness, brain damage - 'over 80 per cent of professional boxers have serious brain scarring on MRI scans' - sometimes death. After taking dreadful beatings before the braying crowd, the boxers are celebrated and cheered, widely admired. Here is the great Irish boxer Katie Taylor hailed as the 'Role Model of the Week' for feminist blog Feminist.ie.

In the narrative of many feminists, though, prostitutes - regardless of how great or little the risks to their health, or how much they earn - are presumed victims.

I got into a discussion about this in the comments section of the Antiroom blog last year, when I was surprised to read this statement in an article on prostitution:
Taking the stance that prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation, Ruhama unequivocally affirms that prostitution represents violence against women and a violation of human rights.
This was confusing on two counts that I mentioned in the comments:
How do they explain prostitution by men? Are male prostitutes also suffering gender inequality?

I have doubts that prostitution must inherently violate anyone’s rights. SuperFreakonomics features a “high end” prostitute who earned over $200,000 a year. It seems bizarre to step between her and her clients and insist that actually she is a victim.
Later, less composed, I said:
But the idea that “prostitution represents violence against women” is nonsensical! If both parties agree to it then it’s, by definition, not violent. It’s just another commercial transaction.

The beatings, robberies, enslavement, rapes, etc. that accompany some kinds of prostitution are acts of violence, but consensual paid sex is certainly not, so I’d question that part of their perspective. Hopefully that doesn’t take from the good aspects of their charity work.
Well that did not go down well! Other readers made several points to me. You can read their arguments on the link above; the general gist is as follows:

- Prostitutes are all vulnerable
- They are miserable
- Prostitution 'represents' violence against those selling sex
- The consensuality of the sex act is a 'technicality' only
- How would I feel if a female family member became a prostitute, 'making a career decision to invite thousands of strange men into her vagina'?
- Most prostitutes are poorly paid, most of their income goes to male pimps
- The transfer of money creates a power imbalance in favour of the buyer

In response to the question put to me about whether I'd like a family member to become a prostitute I replied:
First, supposing a woman close to me chose to have lots of recreational sex with men, “inviting thousands of strange men into her vagina”. I might not think it particularly wise, but I would maintain that this is her decision. Neither she nor those males are comitting acts of violence with consensual sex.

Prostitution is that, plus the exchange of money. This absolutely is just another job, if usually a miserable one. That “career decision” is hers (or his) to make.
And finally, one last observation of my own:
Sexually objectifying someone is considered a terrible evil, even while other kinds of objectification are cheerfully enjoyed. We can pay boxers to beat one another close to death. We can pay strangers for a massage to stimulate every part of the body except the sexual organs. But when sexual arousal is involved, it strangely becomes outrageous, and willing participants are presumed victims.
And thinking about this, a light went on. There just seems to be something about sex that makes many people unwilling to accept it as a commercial transaction. Sure, many of us feel that sex is best in an intimate and loving relationship, but others do not. I don't see the feminists denouncing or offering to rescue the men or women who choose consensual recreational sex with strangers. A woman may have sex for free with dozens of men and have the support of the feminists. Get paid for it and she is deemed a victim of violence.

I mulled over all of this for a long time, a bit bothered and confused by it all. Some time later I was reading an article on the Freakonomics blog about the huge sex imbalance growing in some Asian countries as female foetuses are aborted by parents hoping to have sons. The imbalance means that the proportion of females to males is falling, and some observers worry that millions of unmarried men will spark political chaos, rebellion, mass-sexual trafficking, rape and so on. Freakonomics invited readers to ask questions to a researcher working on the issue, and I noticed that the very last comment (just after my own question) was from someone called Dr Laura Agustin, who linked to an article on her website, where she wrote:
In order to draw only dire conclusions about the now famous disparity in numbers between males and females in Asia, you need to view girls and women as inferior yourself. If the data showed there to be fewer males, you can be sure they would be seen to be in an advantageous position: able to pick and choose amongst prospective spouses, enjoying gender power. Instead, a surfeit of men is imagined to cause sex trafficking and bride-buying, the assumption being that when women become required, men will traffick them. Why not think women will migrate to places where they are lacking, take on traditionally female jobs and enjoy an advantage in the local marriage market or selling sex?
Here was a radically different view from that of the feminists on the Antiroom blog. Agustin saw women selling sex as empowered business people, not victims. Her Wikipedia page calls her a sociologist, though her website is called The Naked Anthropologist, and it is fascinating.

Agustin just does not see sex-workers as victims. She views those feminists who push for prohibitions like the Swedish system (where selling sex is legal but buying it is illegal) with some irritation, calling them 'State Feminists' who:
recreate women as always already unempowered victims rather than protagonists of their own lives who opt for one or another of the limited alternatives available...
Her website includes this Youtube video of Agustin discussing her views. One incredible comment:
So here's this huge zeitgeist in Europe that's about sexuality as this - we're progressing somewhere, we're going to know everything about ourselves and it's some deep knowledge, but there's one thing you can't do. You can't take money for it. Why!

This is exactly what I had been wondering above. Why, in a society of great sexual liberty, is paying for it alone still considered taboo? Far from empowering women the prohibitionist feminists seemed to be infantalising women, treating them as weak and helpless victims who are not capable of deciding the courses of their own lives.

One woman commenting on Agustin's blog calls herself Furry Girl. She is a sex-worker who runs a blog called Feminisnt, and I wrote about her here before. Furry Girl takes Agustin's renunciation of 'State Feminism' a step further by rejecting feminism completely. (Or at least 'the feminisms of Western, industrialized nations - the sort spouted by shrill, irritating people with too much time on their hands and a bizarre desire to feel oppressed by everything'.) Her explanation:
feminism is commonly embraced by people whose underlying beliefs are that women are stupid, feeble creatures who need to be controlled and saved; feminism these days focuses way too much on imaginary first-world problems like women who choose to feel badly about themselves because they think they're not pretty enough; some feminist leaders are obsessed with fanning and exploiting insecurities in women in order to indoctrinate them to their style of victim feminism, rather than being positive and helping women see that they can be strong and powerful. Last but not least: it's REALLY FUCKING DIFFICULT to spend your entire life being picked on by girls and women for various reasons, then swallow the idea that women are your true sisters and that men are the cruel enemy that oppresses you. Bitches be crazy, yo.
Finally I discovered Maggie McNeill, the pseudonym for a 'retired call girl' who writes at The Honest Courtesan blog. McNeill has a subtle perspective on prostitution that is influenced by her belief that men and women have biologically determined behavioural differences brought about by evolution. Here she explains that that prostitution does not suit everyone:
The majority of women who directly take money for sex once or a few times simply decide it’s not for them (for whatever reason) and find some other way to make a living. But there are a small number who should never have even tried it in the first place, yet are driven by necessity, desperation or actual coercion to practice it for weeks, months or even years; such women are among the worst enemies our profession ever had. Because they hate the work, they tend to see and remember only the negative aspects. And because many of them are emotionally damaged even before entering prostitution (due to whatever trauma caused them to hate men and/or sex), and virtually all of them became even more damaged by having to endure what for them was a loathsome existence, they either become fanatics on their own or are easily driven to fanaticism by the prohibitionists. These are the women who call themselves “survivors” and learn to “reframe their experiences” (i.e. lie to make their stories more lurid and to more closely conform to anti-whore rhetoric). They are the mainstays of “john schools” and provide ammunition to prohibitionists who represent their highly-embroidered claims as typical of sex work and even multiply the accounts by changing small details so as to make them sound like different-but-similar tales rather than one repeated ad nauseum. The very worst of them (as typified by Somaly Mam) are so obsessed with their own darkness that they are willing to utterly destroy the lives of any real human beings who get in the way of their quixotic crusades against private behavior that is literally impossible to eradicate as long as humans remain human.

In a world where individuals were allowed control over their own bodies and the decisions of adults (however strange those choices might seem to others) were always respected by the “authorities”, fanatics who were harmed through ill-fortune or harmed themselves through their own poor choices would have no power over other, less damaged individuals. But unfortunately we do not yet live in such a world; even in jurisdictions which have legalized prostitution to one degree or another, governments believe they have the authority to abrogate the rights of individuals for whatever excuse strikes their collective fancy (provided they can convince the masses to lie still for it).
McNeill is deeply opposed to any form of prohibitionism, and sees prostitution as not only inevitable and natural but even desirable: 'I think it’s fantastic news that more women are choosing to do sex work'.
A great deal of prohibitionism is fueled by the myth that all whores are monsters, criminals, defectives or victims rather than what we actually are: women using our natural abilities to make a living, just as men use their natural abilities to do so without anyone as much as batting an eyelash.
She places the prohibitionist feminists (who she calls 'neofeminists') in the context of wider illiberal policies and attitudes; I wish I had read her responses to common criticisms of prostitution before arguing in the Antiroom comments. I am relieved to see that at least some researchers and actual sex workers broadly share my thoughts on sex work, even if I can't vouch for everything they say.

Those who find the idea of commercial sex repugnant should not enforce their tastes on others. How odd to see feminists who denounce patriarchy, calling for the male-dominated government and justice system to force women out of prostitution. Who better to weigh up the risks and benefits of prostitution than the individual women and men who choose to do it? The idea that female prostitutes must be so ruined and vulnerable as to be treated as children seems sexist and backward.

Those people who really are enslaved should have their liberty restored and protected by the state, and the slave-traders brought to justice. But willing adult participants should surely be left alone. Trapped between conservative moralists and feminists, female prostitutes are depicted as corrupt seductresses or infantile victims. Why not just treat them as adults, business people, making rational decisions to better their own lives like anyone else?

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