26 August 2015

Sex work and solidarity

On August 11, Amnesty International voted to support the movement to decriminalize prostitution worldwide.  This was an important step forward, lending the weight of an influential and respected organization to a cause whose time is coming.

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.


Anonymous Connie said...

Thank you for writing on this topic. It is one that is near and dear to my heart. As an ex-sex worker I've always thought the profession should be legal. I know being in the industry changes a person - the whole clandestine thing makes admitting one is a sex worker problematic. And being underground gives clients a perception that they have all the power which leads to abuse.

I look forward to a day when people like me - who are really good at making other people feel better - can be proud and out loud. Right now I hide who I am because of family and the stigma associated with sex in general and prostitution specifically.

Just a thought, but perhaps some of those uber angry young men wouldn't be so angry if they could spend some time with a prostitute in a legal house of sex. Same for women who are so very wound up but don't want to be burdened with a full blown relationship. Honestly - most of what I ended up doing was talking to people - about their job, families, and everything else under the sun that was bugging them. Not sure why what I do has to be illegal but I guess there are reasons.

Shoot I know the reasons. The first settlers here were Puritans and their influence is still felt today. And, women can not, must not, will not ever have control over their own body or path. At least that is the message being spewed by the RWNJ.

Thank you for standing your ground at Crooks and Liars. Your absence would make them poorer.

26 August, 2015 18:04  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Good read on the deal and a centuries old fight that dont seem to go anywheres, but there is alwayz hope for change, just a lengthy process. Folks in the sex industry are largely blocked from society, that is why there is so much abuse going on. Weird enough, I have talked to women for instance who are liberal and NOT religious fanatics or anything, and even some of them had really negative views of sex workers, and I heard the argument from feminists for instance that any kind of sex work is exploiting women and driving women to slavery, I understand your points. Oddly (as usual) ... while hardly many want to be associated publicly with the sex industry, there are sure plenty participating and taking advantage of it, even many in religion and politics to higher positions are using the services in one way or another, even if they dont pick up a hooker, and just go to high scale "gentlemens clubs", online services, global travel to sex trafficking rings and locations, and all feeding off each other.

27 August, 2015 04:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Connie: Thanks for commenting! That's exactly the point -- the legal prohibition makes for a dangerous and sleazy work environment, just as it always has when society goes into one of its moralistic convulsions and bans something that the market won't allow to actually disappear. It should be like any other job, so that sex workers would be free to go to the police about threatening or dangerous clients.

There should be no hesitation about being "proud and out loud". It's bizarre that those who are good at making people feel better are stigmatized, while those who are good at making people feel worse (preachers and suchlike) are respected.

And yes, as is the case with most things, the problem is these Abrahamic religions which have settled like a miasma over our world. In the old pagan societies prostitution was usually legal, sometimes even encouraged by the state, often carried out under the auspices of the temples.

Thanks for your kind words about Crooks and Liars. I certainly won't hesitate to promote this issue in the blog round-ups if the opportunity arises. We'll see how it goes.

Ranch: It's a theme I've touched on before -- in a historically Christian society, many people who are not Christian and even would claim to be liberal are tainted with the religion's taboos and prejudices. Hence the strangely reactionary stances of some liberals on issues like this. With time and patience many of them can be won over, though.

And indeed, plenty of "holier than thou" types are indulging in the sexually "illicit" world on the sly. The Ashley Madison hack attack has already brought a few names to the surface, like Josh Duggar, and I'm sure there will be more. If a similar exposé of the patrons of illegal prostitution were possible, the revelations would stun the whole country.

27 August, 2015 06:16  
Anonymous NickM said...

Well, quite frankly what is "a sex worker". They get a lot of stick for performing a victimless crime. I sell my time and skills as an IT tech just like a supermarket worker or a rent boy or the manager of Manchester United. Infidel you make a very good point in comparison to gay rights. I am 41. I went to a secondary school (11-16/18) with 1,200 kids. Guess how many were out? We now have gay marriage in the UK. Things can change very quickly. When I was a kid the vaguest hint at anything about being gay was the end. Nowadays kids in schoolyards pretend to be Dr Who's Captain Jack of variable sexuality. Unthinkable when I was fifteen. Ten years later an omni-sexual character is prime time BBC entertainment fodder in a show that has an early evening slot on BBC1. And nobody (apart from some nutters) cares.

29 August, 2015 11:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: That's the view I have -- sex work should just be like any other job. Everybody who has a job is selling themselves in some sense.

The speed with which gays have won acceptance in the face of what used to be almost universal bigotry against them is stunning. Their success merits serious study by others.

29 August, 2015 14:42  

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