Sex work and solidarity
Predictably, Amnesty's move was attacked by the puritanical Christian Right, adopting the same hypocritical language of "protecting" women from their own choices that they use when attacking abortion and women's self-determination generally. Equally predictably, for those familiar with the history of other such cultural battles in the past, it was attacked by some elements on the left as well.
To me legal prostitution, like gay marriage, is a core issue -- something important enough to risk losing allies over if it comes to that. Like gay marriage, it's the right thing to do, it's what the oppressed group itself wants, and its achievement would trigger a chain reaction of further beneficial social changes as the culture adjusts. As with gay marriage, the objections are mostly driven by prejudice and misinformation, easily exposed as absurd. And as with gay marriage, I think the chances for success are good. Like the gay community a couple of decades ago, the sex-worker community, while small and subject to prejudice and brutal harassment, is increasingly organized, vocal, articulate, and determined to make itself heard over the busybodies who try to drown out sex workers' own voices while claiming to speak on their behalf.
So "friendly fire" is not to be taken lightly. For example, even before the vote was taken, progressive news site Crooks and Liars posted a morass of the usual clichés and obfuscation typically spouted by opponents of decriminalization. Now, I have a connection with Crooks and Liars -- I'm one of the eight bloggers who, in weekly rotation, handles the "Mike's blog round up" feature there. When I read this post, my immediate impulse was to e-mail my contact at Crooks and Liars to say that I no longer wished to do the blog round-up for them because I no longer wanted to be associated with the site, if this was their position. However, after thinking things through, I decided not to do so -- the first of many such compromises I'll probably have to make in the years to come as this phase of the culture wars proceeds. Here's my thinking.
First, it's painfully obvious to us how the right wing is being ripped apart by internecine squabbling over ideological purism, with the constant spectacle of conservatives denouncing other conservatives for not being conservative enough. This is complicated by the fact that there are several different factions with different definitions of "conservative", or at least different priorities (social issues vs. tax-and-spending issues, for example). It's now routine on right-wing sites to see posters declare that they would never vote for this or that Republican who is just too moderate or ideologically impure, even if that means the Democrat would win.
To us, it's obvious that this purism and infighting weakens the right wing and sabotages its ability to fight for the policies it favors. So we must avoid indulging in the same behavior on our own side, even if that means continuing to work with people whose views we find repugnant on one or two issues. Bill Maher expressed this perfectly here:
Crooks and Liars, for example, is an excellent news source and attracts a genuinely progressive readership -- that anti-decriminalization post generated a lot of push-back in its own comments thread. It would be foolish to repudiate it based on one point of disagreement, even a major one.
Second, as a secular liberal, I believe in evolution. Many leading figures who now firmly support gay marriage -- even including President Obama himself -- opposed it just a few years ago, but "evolved" over time. We can see the same thing happening with marijuana and drugs generally (an even better analogy for the prostitution issue than gay marriage is), where until recently almost no major Democratic politicians supported decriminalization, but a few are now "evolving" as the people take the lead via ballot initiatives. I expect that as time passes and the arguments go forward, many of those on the left who now oppose decriminalization of sex work will similarly come around. Why burn bridges that I might want to use again in a few years?
It's not going to be easy. The rights and lives of real people are at stake here. Every day that prostitution remains illegal perpetuates a brutal system of oppression and violence. But splitting the left would benefit only the rightists, who want to perpetuate that system forever. We managed to achieve a spectacular roll-back of the oppression of gay people across the Western world precisely because we didn't let the reactionary views of some in our ranks cause permanent rifts. In the end nobody remembers or cares who was most ideologically pure. What matters is winning on the issues.