Friday, August 25, 2006

Agency, coercion, consent and shades of grey

I realised, as I wrote about prostitution yesterday, that I didn't have the words I needed to say what I was trying to say. I was making too few words do too much work. In particular I found it very difficult communicate what I meant about coercion and non-consent.

I don't think you can have shades of consent. I think there are different kinds of coercion and really like Biting Beever's post on the continuum between rape and sex . But I think even the tiniest bit of coercion makes sex non-consensual (I'm sure if I knew more about chemistry I'd have the perfect metaphor, some solution that as soon as it gets drop of anything else in it isn't that solution anymore? I don't know - but you get the picture). I'm really uncomfortable talking about degrees of non-consent, because it quickly becomes a case of people judging which women's experiences were worse.

But yesterday I wasn't talking about women's experience. I wasn't arguing that all women experience prostitution as coercive, I was analysing prostitution on a structural level. I should have made that distinction more clear. When you're talking structurally, rather than individually, it becomes much easier to talks about types of coercion, and levels of choice.

You can't give meaningful consent to anything, unless you can also say no. This is a pretty basic, and important feminist idea. I also think it's a continuum, the less people are able to say now the less they can meaningfully say yes. To give a trivial example in Form Two everyone in my sister's class got mini-skirts. My sister was not a mini-skirt girl, and she held out for a while. But, eventually she gave in and bought a mini-skirt and felt shit about herself for doing so. I'm sure there were girls in her class who loved the mini-skirts, who liked feeling cool and grown-up. But on a structural level I think it's important to analyse the pressure they were under to buy mini-skirts and if my sister couldn't say 'no' to a mini-skirt, then could anyone else say 'yes'?

To me, this isn't an argument about 'false consciousness'. I'm not saying that individual women are wrong to wear make-up, or to feel like they make a free choice to wear make-up. I'm saying when you take a step-up from that individual level it is possible to say structurally that a group of people are experiencing coercion to do a certain thing, even the members of that group who actually want to do that thing.

The vast majoirty of people don't have enough money to live on unless they work (or get some kind of government support). This means that a structural analysis of most monetary transactions would reveal that there is some level of coercion going on. As I said in my last post that doesn't mean that we can't like the things that we do for money - I love my job - but my individual feelings about my job doesn't change the fact that structurally people like me need jobs. If my job was terrible, if my boss was a bully (not that that ever happens in the union movment :cough:), my ability to leave would be severely limited by my need to eat. The same goes for prostitution, our need for money means that it is always coerced sex.

When it comes to the things we do for money most people have a choice about what work they do (and some people have far more choice than others). That's where our agency comes in - the fact that there is coercion present doesn't mean we have no free-will, just that the choices we can make are severely limited.

11 comments:

  1. "co‧erce  /koʊˈɜrs/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[koh-urs] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
    –verb (used with object), -erced, -erc‧ing.
    1. to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, esp. without regard for individual desire or volition: They coerced him into signing the document.
    2. to bring about through the use of force or other forms of compulsion; exact: to coerce obedience.
    3. to dominate or control, esp. by exploiting fear, anxiety, etc.: The state is based on successfully coercing the individual.
    [Origin: 1425–75; late ME < L coercēre to hold in, restrain, equiv. to co- co- + -ercēre, comb. form of arcēre to keep in, keep away, akin to arca ark]

    —Related forms
    co‧erc‧er, noun
    co‧er‧ci‧ble, adjective
    Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1)
    Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006."

    Dictionary for you, some of your examples are coercion, some are not.

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  2. You Said: "I realised, as I wrote about prostitution yesterday, that I didn't have the words I needed to say what I was trying to say. I was making too few words do too much work. In particular I found it very difficult communicate what I meant about coercion and non-consent."

    I Say: Post above uses a standard definition of Coercion. Just for Reference

    You Said: "I don't think you can have shades of consent."

    I Say: Correct - you either give consent or you don't, there is no in between

    You Said: " I think there are different kinds of coercion and really like Biting Beever's post on the continuum between rape and sex . But I think even the tiniest bit of coercion makes sex non-consensual"

    I say: Correct if you use the standard definition of coercion. IF you use the idea of payment or simlar as coercion - then no it does not make it non consensual. If you consider coercion to be foce or threat of force then even the tiniest amount of coercion would make it non cnsensual"

    You Said: "(I'm sure if I knew more about chemistry I'd have the perfect metaphor, some solution that as soon as it gets drop of anything else in it isn't that solution anymore? I don't know - but you get the picture). I'm really uncomfortable talking about degrees of non-consent, because it quickly becomes a case of people judging which women's experiences were worse."

    I say: well seeing as we can agree that there are not different degrees of consent (then obviously there cannot be different degrees of no consent)

    You said: "But yesterday I wasn't talking about women's experience. I wasn't arguing that all women experience prostitution as coercive,"

    I say: Thats how it read

    You said: "I was analysing prostitution on a structural level. I should have made that distinction more clear. When you're talking structurally, rather than individually, it becomes much easier to talks about types of coercion, and levels of choice."

    I say: It might make it "easier" if you are to be intellectually lazy about it. Essentially you are collectivising the issue. assuming if one woman feels it then every woman must feel the same way. Which to me sounds very anti individual and anti feminist - treating all women the same. I hope that wasn't your goal?

    You said: "You can't give meaningful consent to anything, unless you can also say no. This is a pretty basic, and important feminist idea."

    I say: This idea isn't limited to feminists. This is a basic idea with most people who value individual rights. Tell me, can you give meaningful consent to taxation? collectivisation of private property etc (which of course are things you advocate in the capitalism bad posts in the blog). Or are you simply being hypocritial when it comes to prostitution?

    You said: "I also think it's a continuum, the less people are able to say now the less they can meaningfully say yes."

    I say: I'm guessing now = no. I'll assume it does as its the only way that sentance makes sence to me. Now the only way people have a lessened ability to say no is if there is force used against them. Either there is force or there isn't. So either there is consent or there isn't. There is no continuum, either you gave consent or you were coerced - there is no middle ground. (and this is consent for everything and anything - sex isn't any different to any other action when it comes to consent, you either allow it or you don't - at which case anything that isn't allowed by the individual becomes a horrible thing).


    You said: " To give a trivial example in Form Two everyone in my sister's class got mini-skirts. My sister was not a mini-skirt girl, and she held out for a while. But, eventually she gave in and bought a mini-skirt and felt shit about herself for doing so. I'm sure there were girls in her class who loved the mini-skirts, who liked feeling cool and grown-up."

    I say: yes it is trivial, and in no way has anything to do with coercion and consent. If your sister was threatened with bullying for not wearing a mini skirt - then there would be coercion, simple peer pressure and wanting to fit in is not coercion. Do you see the difference - one involves force, the other does not, just a want for acceptance.
    Unless one of the form two girls was threatening her it would have been completely consensual.

    You said: "But on a structural level I think it's important to analyse the pressure they were under to buy mini-skirts and if my sister couldn't say 'no' to a mini-skirt, then could anyone else say 'yes'?"

    I said: Anyone could say yes, and it would appear that a great deal of the others did, unless there was some form of threat (which again we don't know as you have not outlined this). She could have said no, but she might not have fitted in - but noone is forcing you to fit in, noone is forcing you to be the same (that is unless you dislike individualism and advocate collectism - which to me sounds like the most anti feminst concept out there based on issues raised above).

    You said: "To me, this isn't an argument about 'false consciousness'. I'm not saying that individual women are wrong to wear make-up, or to feel like they make a free choice to wear make-up. I'm saying when you take a step-up from that individual level it is possible to say structurally that a group of people are experiencing coercion to do a certain thing, even the members of that group who actually want to do that thing."

    I say: So in essence you are trying to argue that there is no such thing as free choice.. nice. If one person is too weak to make up their mind for themselves the obviously noone is capable, nice reasoning. If you decide to wear make up, that is your choice, if another individual chooses to that is there choice. There is nothing structural about it unless there is something forcing them against their will (and again peer pressure isn't forcing you to do anything) to wear makeup, wear a miniskirt or prowl the streets at night.

    You said: "The vast majoirty of people don't have enough money to live on unless they work (or get some kind of government support). This means that a structural analysis of most monetary transactions would reveal that there is some level of coercion going on."

    I say: Yes, that coercion is taxation. I work, I get paid, the taxman takes money against my will. If I do not pay I face potential criminal sentances. The taxman via the govt then redistributes that money against my will. I cannot work without doing this. This is a clear case of coercion.

    Noone forces anyone to work. You are quite capable of living a subsistance lifestyle if you so choose (though it probably would be pretty crap).. but there is noone forcing you otherwise.

    You said: "As I said in my last post that doesn't mean that we can't like the things that we do for money - I love my job - but my individual feelings about my job doesn't change the fact that structurally people like me need jobs. If my job was terrible, if my boss was a bully (not that that ever happens in the union movment :cough:), my ability to leave would be severely limited by my need to eat. The same goes for prostitution, our need for money means that it is always coerced sex."

    I say: A job is a contact freely entered into by two individuals (that is unless the government gets involed and starts forcing labour, conscription etc. Just because you are getting paid does not mean it is coerced, its just one benfit of carrying out the deed. Others might get other more "psychic" benifits or non prostitution sexual relationships such as the feeling of companionship, or just the physical of a damn good time. Just because there are some who are forced (as mentioned before via rape, pimping and other means) does not mean that the rest who recieve some sort of benifit for sex (either monetary payment or psychic) does not mean it is coerced.

    You said: "When it comes to the things we do for money most people have a choice about what work they do (and some people have far more choice than others). That's where our agency comes in - the fact that there is coercion present doesn't mean we have no free-will, just that the choices we can make are severely limited."

    I say: Correct, if in fact there is coercion, half of what you mentioned was not coercion at all.

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  3. I have little choice in the matter of needing food every day. And I need to either hunt, find, or grow my own food, or work to trade cash for food. Personally, my skills lean towards working in a non-agricultural field and paying for my food from profits made in different work. I can't avoid needing food, but it doesn't mean this necessary work is coercive by nature. It just makes it a necessary part of my life.

    That being said, there are certainly a lot of jobs out there in which people are coerced and exploited, but I don't believe it's the very nature of paid work itself. There is such a thing as fair trade. As for prostitution, I believe that most of the sex trade involves significant coersion but also that it's possible to have a sex trade free from coersion. I think I could trade cash for sex fairly, as fairly as cash for a massage, or a wall mural for a meal (which I actually do in this life).

    On the mini-skirt example, I agree with Mikee. I've said more about similar examples here.

    I've not had a chance to debate here before because I'm usually with you 100%! Your argument here is a little sketchy for me at this point though.

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  4. Logix4:53 pm

    Prostitution is a fascinating topic because it traverses so many aspects of our lives. The fact that it has existed in all societies, regardless of the prevailing moral code and how strictly it is enforced, tells us how deep the need for it is.

    Historically sex work has been marginalised by religious condemnation, with some justification. In those past era's, a prostitute's life was not a desirable one, the ever present risk of pregnancy and disease meant there were good reasons to discourage it. Yet this never eliminated the need for it.

    It was also an expression of economic disparity, but in the modern era with some women achieving similar economic independence as men we now see male sex workers in demand by women. And there was some truth in the cycnical old line that most women condemm prostitutes because they did't like the cheap competition. Money, power and sex have been deeply intertwined in all human relationships, for better and for worse. These considerations suggest that there is a lot more to the nature of prostitution than predatory males callously exploiting the bodies of helpless women solely for their own selfish pleasure.

    Given this one may well argue that all human relationships which innately involve reciprocity; you give me this, I give you that...are a form of coercion. Once agreed the deal must be consummated, and necessity compels agreements we might not always desire. To achieve absolute consent in all our relationships seems beyond our reach at present

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  5. Logix is right,
    almost all relationship is coersion (by maia's definition), including maia trying to coerse people into not aplying coersion.

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  6. Sage I think part of the difference our out-look is that I am a historian rather than a philosopher. I think there's an important difference between a philosophical discussion of free-will and a discussion of agency in the sense that I mean it.

    I thought the post you linked to was interesting, and in many ways I agree with it. I certainly don't disagree with it as a way of viewing the world.

    But I don't think it's that simple. I think it's important to look at the way pressure (I used the word coercion with the post - and I think it was the right word to express what I was trying to say, but my point might make it clearer if you substitue the word pressure) shapes the decisions we make. We generally look at action individually not collectively. But I don't think we can look at entirely on an individual level.

    The most fundamental statement in my post was the idea that you can't say 'yes' to something in any meaningful sense unless your also free to say 'no'. Lets imagine a world where you can only wear red t-shirts. They only make red-t-shirts, you can't get hold of any dye, there's only red t-shirting material. If you want to wear a t-shirt it has to be a red t-shirt. I love red t-shirts, have about half a dozen, to the point of my friends make fun of me . In a world where there were only red t-shirts I would be happy to only wear red t-shirtsn and I would experience my decision to wear red t-shirts as a free choice, but I don't think it would be.

    In the real world it's more complex than that - it's degrees of pressure rather than absolute lack of options. Economic decisions are a really good example where it is very difficult to say that anything is entered into freely, because there are very real pressures that limit the choices we make.

    I don't think this is a particularly useful way of looking at the way individuals make their choices, because I think when we are looking . But I do think it is a good way of looking at choices on a society level.

    I don't think there's fair trade under capitalism, because the power imbalances are too great. Even if we experience exchanges as totally free (and I want to make absolutely clear that I'm not just talking about other people, I experience how I get my subsistence to be absolutely freely entered into), there are important sense in which our ability to refuse is limited.

    Mike E I'm not that interested in the sort of debate you want to have. The purpose of these sorts of posts is to explore feminist ideas. I'll be more clear about this in the future.

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  7. Anonymous9:22 am

    Maia,

    Are you not interested in Mikee's sort of debate because you cannot defend your arguments against someone who has already debunked every item you discussed?

    He has valid points. Why can't you defend your ideas?

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  8. I haven't debunked every idea discussed because maia did have one or two valid points such as there being "no shades of consent" and a couple of other things.

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  9. Mike you haven't debunked most of my points because you have very little comprehension of what I'm saying. I'm not interested in having the argument because this post wasn't meant to be introduction to feminism.

    I've also deleted your comment on the other thread, as you can see Sage and I can disagree on this issue and I'm not questioning her feminism. This blog is not debate club, it's for exploring feminist ideas.

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  10. The question was how do you define feminism?

    As equal rights for women or equality via special rights for women?

    Or are you suggesting that males can't be pro feminism or feminist ideas as well?

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  11. > I don't think there's fair trade under capitalism, because the power imbalances are too great.

    Im inclined to think there is no system that doesn't have someone applying some sort of force on another person in order to limit their choices.

    Trying to prevent that will be like trying to push a pool of water into the shape of a box.

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