Thursday, August 24, 2006

The smart thing to do would be not to enter this debate

I have a crush on John Campbell* - I think that's pretty much compulsory for women of my demographic. But I'm seldom home to watch his show (which probably plays a part in maintaining my crush - I've seen enough adds for features on 'fair-trade' coffee to know that he'd annoy me a lot if I watched him every day), I did happen to catch the end of it the other night when he was talking about the Boobs on Bikes parade. I was really impressed than rather than make it a moralistic debate, they had a debate about objectification. I have no objection to topless women, some of my best friends have been arrested for walking topless down Queen St, but I do have a problem with women's bodies being treated as objects. This parade was advertising some sexual expo.

I've read few feminist posts about prostitution recently, and it reminded me . I think punk ass marc is right at least part of the problem is the assumptions people make. I usually find myself terribly frustrated by both sides of any prostitution debate.

In some senses my analysis of prostitution is pretty similar to what is seen as the standard radical feminist analysis. I believe that prostitution is a form of rape, because it is sex that is only consented to because of economic coercion. I am deeply disturbed and angry that there are men who have no problem buying women (or men) and forcing them to have sex.

I also think that by its very nature sex industry objectifies and commodifies bodies. That shouldn't be particularly controversial, given a reasonably standard definition of object and commodity. I don't believe a body should ever be an object or a commodity, and I believe you can't buy or sell any form of sex without making bodies objects and commodities.

My analysis doesn't change whether we're talking street prostitution or working in a high-class brothel. The friends I've had who have worked as prostitutes were theoretically working in the best conditions possible - they were highly paid, they had the ability to refuse clients, and the environment they were working in was relatively safe. I don't know if they see that work as rape. But even if they don't it still fits my definition of coerced sex.

But I fully supported New Zealand's legalisation of prostitutes. It makes me really angry when feminists blame prostitutes for upholding a particular world-view - my analysis is of prostitution not of prostitutes.

I don't think it's my analysis of prostiution that is different from what is seen as the standard radical feminist analysis. It's my analysis of work.

My analysis of econmic coercion doesn't just apply to sex work. I believe coercion is involved every time someone exchanges their labour for money.** I love my job, it is meaningful and fulfilling. But that doesn't stop my job being economic coercion. I think people can have a wide range of experiences of work and still the underlying reality is that work under a capitalist system is coercion and exploitation.

* I know not everyone who reads this blog lives in New Zealand. John Campbell has a half-hour current affairs show each night. I think I'd describe him to Americans as a non-comedic, more left-wing, Jon Stewart. Do other New Zealanders think that's a reasonable description? I can't think of a comparison for anywhere else so if you're not from NZ or America you'll just have to use your imagination.

** Note to the right-wing commenters: this is a thread for discussing prostitution. If you want to tell me that I'm wrong and the employer/employee relationship is one free from coercion and instead all hugs and puppies then wait. I promise I'll give you a thread where you can argue about that sometime soon.

19 comments:

  1. What if I exchange sex for a back rub or something else that isn't actual cash? Is it exchange that's the crux of the problem, or coinage? If someone poses for a magazine but isn't paid, she does it out of her own good will, is it less exploitive?

    For the record, I'm far left of center, but I'm don't agree that all exchange of cash for labour is necessarily exploitive. (Sorry, I can't wait for the post that discusses this! But I'll refrain from saying more here.)

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  2. Anonymous7:43 am

    In your own words...

    "I believe that prostitution is a form of rape, because it is sex that is only consented to because of economic coercion."

    "But I fully supported New Zealand's legalisation of prostitutes."

    So by your own admission, you fully support the legalisation of some forms of rape.

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  3. anonymous - I don't know what freakin la-la land you live in, but the reality is that prostitution is (sadly) going to be around for some time yet - possibly forever. So why not try and make it as safe as possible for women who *are* prostitutes?

    Z

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  4. This is a really interesting debate. I personally don't believe that prostitution is *always* rape, though I believe a lot of times it's definitely coerced sex. I was all for the decriminalization, because some of my loved ones who are sex workers told me convincingly about all the ways decriminalization would improve their safety, and women's safety is important to me. But my own instinctive reaction to the whole idea of prostitution is a feeling of deep disturbance that it even exists. I feel repulsed by the thought of anyone who feels so entitled to another person's body that they'd objectify and commodify it. My whole concept of sex is that it should be enjoyable for both people, and simply don't understand how anyone could enjoy sex with someone who probably isn't enjoying it at all and is only doing it for the money.

    I've wondered for a long time why prostitutes who cater for heterosexual sex are mostly female. (Leaving aside the issue of male prostitutes who cater for male homosexuals for now.) It can't just be the old cliche that women have a lower sex drive than men, because I don't think that's true. Can it be that women aren't yet socialized to have the same feeling of entitlement to men's bodies? The feeling of entitlement to have sex whenever they want it?

    By the way, I think I have a crush on John Campbell too, and I am prepared to fight a duel with you over him. Clutch purses at dawn?

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  5. Look at what I said anonymous - I supported the legalisation of prostitutes. It was never illegal to coerce a women into having sex. It was illegal to be coerced into having sex.

    sage - I think that would depend on whether you needed a back-rub. If you were in pain and needed a back-rub, and someone said "I'll give you a back-rub if you give me a blow-job." I think that would be coercive.

    As for the rest I think I'm going to have to write a follow-up post about what I mean by coercion

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  6. Jon Stewart is leftish... and John Campbell isn't exactly a socialist. But yeah.

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  7. Yes but Jon Stewart is US leftish and John Campbell is NZ leftish, which makes John Campbell considerably to the left of Jon Stewart - certainly from what I've seen of both of them

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  8. Heh. NZ's National Party, I suspect, would be regarded as suspiciously liberal by many right-wing Americans. We really have no equivalent to their Republican party - thank God.

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  9. You Said: "I believe that prostitution is a form of rape, because it is sex that is only consented to because of economic coercion."

    I say: Have you ever met someone who works in the sex industry? How do you know that some don't do it because they enjoy it?

    I'm not saying all do, but short of pimping and enslavement (which can and does happen, and is illegal and immoral) it is not rape.

    You said: "sage - I think that would depend on whether you needed a back-rub. If you were in pain and needed a back-rub, and someone said "I'll give you a back-rub if you give me a blow-job." I think that would be coercive."

    I say: Thats not coercion. Coercion would be "I'll cause you back pain if you don't give me head." As noone has a "right" to a back rub.

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  10. Also I forgot - knowing someone who willingly participated in the "boobs on bikes" parade ... she was not coerced.. she did it because she wanted to.

    Nothing about enslaving women, she was proud of her body and wanted to show it off to the world. How is it that that is bad for women?

    That is unless you don't support a woman's freedom to express her self as she chooses (providing she does not harm anyone else)....

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  11. Logix7:32 pm

    I don't believe a body should ever be an object or a commodity, and I believe you can't buy or sell any form of sex without making bodies objects and commodities.

    What is the difference between selling your body for sex, or digging ditches? We all sell ourselves alll the time.

    In the pre-contraception, condom era, it could be reasonably argued that the promiscuous sex that prostitution involves represented an unacceptably high workplace hazard. But this is no longer the case. Sex work is no more dangerous than say being a security guard, a building labourer, a forestry worker or someone who works in a laboratory with dangerous substances. There are many, many occupations more soul-destroying and hazardous than sex-work, and most of them pay much less.

    There is likely very few persons, male or female, who are active in the NZ sex industry wholly against their will. They may well find it boring, plain hard work at times, and the people they are working with can be a variable bunch at best....but the same applies to the vast majority of kiwis who drag themselves off to paid employment each day in order to earn enough to pay the bills.

    Myths abound about prostitution. Most women who do it for the good income. They find it hard work having sex 5-10 times per day and their engagement in the industry tends to be episodic, ie they enter it for a few months to save up for a trip, or pay some bills...then leave for a while.

    A small minority are supporting drug habits, but the clients don't like them and they tend to be too erratic in their work ethic for the employers to keep them on for long.

    Another minority make a full-time career of it for much of their 20's and 30's. The best of them are very skilled and capable at what they do, and develop the same degree of emotional resiliance, as say a specialist surgeon might. Many professional careers require not just technical skills, but the emotional ability to be both engaged with the work while retaining personal integrity and distance.

    The main problem as I see it with the industry is that it is still very much marginalised and depracted socially, depsite it's newly won legal status. For this reason most of the participants remain both poorly trained, badly supported and secretive towards family and friends. Typically they find this the most difficult aspect of their work...the need to constantly deceive others whom they really care about....and the ever present threat of discovery.

    The other negative factor is that a minority of clients arrive with an equal baggage of guilt and shame about sex, and off-load that onto the worker. It is projected either through contemptuous tratment of the worker, a plain creepy attitude, or stupid haggling over money. Most clients are actually reasonably well behaved, some are SO nice that there is a temptation to take him home.

    Overall the main negative about sex work is still the shame, guilt, and sexual ignorance commonplace in society, combined with the total lack of skill, training, mentoring and emotional support. Few people have the sheer guts and grit to sustain that burden on their own for long.

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  12. "Have you ever met someone who works in the sex industry? How do you know that some don't do it because they enjoy it?"

    This question was addressed to Maia, and I would certainly never claim to speak for her, but I'd like to comment that I happen to have an aunt who has been a sex worker for many years. She claims that she enjoys the work (she calls herself a "paid lover" and says that she is simply providing some love for men who don't have anyone to love them -- a concept I don't happen to agree with, since plenty of women don't have anyone to love them, but don't feel entitled to buy someone's body either), but she stresses to other people that she is in a tiny minority of prostitutes who are not doing it for reasons such as (a) lacking the qualifications to do anything else and being desperate for money, usually because there are small children to support, (b) having an expensive substance abuse habit, (c) falling into it because of a cycle of abuse and neglect in their lives, and lacking the support and skills to get out of the industry. In short, my aunt emphasizes that prostitution is not a super-marvellous career choice. She doesn't go around recruiting for the industry, or extolling its wonderful prospects for fun, amusement and workplace safety. Actually, she's an activist for helping women out of the industry.

    As for the following comment:

    "Nothing about enslaving women, she was proud of her body and wanted to show it off to the world. How is it that that is bad for women?

    That is unless you don't support a woman's freedom to express her self as she chooses (providing she does not harm anyone else)...."

    How would you feel if a woman who wasn't young, slender and conventionally beautiful chose to ride a bike down Queen Street bare-breasted in the name of self-expression? How about an eighty-year-old woman? How about a woman who'd lost one or both breasts to breast cancer? How about an obese woman? How about a woman suffering a flesh-eating disease? I suspect not many men would be in favour of this kind of self-expression. It seems that most Kiwi blokes will only leap to the defence of women's topless self-expression when the women are the sort they like to ogle.

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  13. You said "How would you feel if a woman who wasn't young, slender and conventionally beautiful chose to ride a bike down Queen Street bare-breasted in the name of self-expression? How about an eighty-year-old woman? How about a woman who'd lost one or both breasts to breast cancer? How about an obese woman? How about a woman suffering a flesh-eating disease? I suspect not many men would be in favour of this kind of self-expression. It seems that most Kiwi blokes will only leap to the defence of women's topless self-expression when the women are the sort they like to ogle."

    I have no problem with it (as long as they are not doing it on private property against the property owners will), though I wouldn't go out of my way to check it out... then again I wouldn't go out of my way to check out boobs on bikes either. I've got more productive things to do with my time...

    On the other hand.. I have no problem with people who choose to discriminate against or avoid said people for whatever reasons they wish as well.

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  14. Logix did you actually read my post? I said I have friends who work in the industry. I described their working conditions. I explicitly compared the coercion of working as a prostitute with the coercion of going to work. I do know something about the local sex industry. I know the conditions in the comparative conditions in the different brothels, although less about street or other indepent work.

    I agree that you don't have a right to a back-rub. I think the person in question could reasonably say 'no I don't want to give a back-rub' (although if the other hypothetical person was in pain then I do think to refuse makes you an asshole). But to say 'I could alleviate your pain but will only do it if you have sex with me' - I think that then becomes coercive.

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  15. Sofiya said, "...plenty of women don't have anyone to love them, but don't feel entitled to buy someone's body either..."

    Is it that they don't feel entitled, or that they can more easily get it for free? If I couldn't find anyone to have sex with I might pay for the privilege of an hour of physical contact. But men don't say "no" as often as women, I'd say, so I've never been without. We're the gatekeepers.

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  16. "But to say 'I could alleviate your pain but will only do it if you have sex with me' - I think that then becomes coercive."

    Thats not coercion.. its just dodgy.

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  17. > Can it be that women aren't yet socialized to have the same feeling of entitlement to men's bodies? The feeling of entitlement to have sex whenever they want it?

    One might equally phrase that in a way that implies social repression.

    I would say there certainly is that repression (and further that tht repression is likely to dwarf the former effect) - of course many would say that is a good thing...

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  18. Anonymous9:15 am

    Z said...

    anonymous - I don't know what freakin la-la land you live in, but the reality is that prostitution is (sadly) going to be around for some time yet - possibly forever. So why not try and make it as safe as possible for women who *are* prostitutes?

    Z

    Let's try it this way...

    ...rape has been around for some time yet - possibly forever. So why not try and make it as safe as possible for rapists?

    It's an argument that just doesn't hold water. in the case of prostitution, both the john and the prostitute are breaking the law.

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  19. "How would you feel if a woman who wasn't young, slender and conventionally beautiful chose to ride a bike down Queen Street bare-breasted in the name of self-expression?"

    Thank you SO much Sofiya for making this point! I'm very much against prostitution because of the way it objectifies people and sexuality.

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