Posts tagged with “oppression”

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The real harms of prostitution

I stumbled across this article the other day, and found it really thought-provoking. It’s an argument as to why prostitution is so harmful that it should never be legalised, so perhaps you can guess why I’d have mixed feelings – on the one hand, I do believe that prostitution is inherently harmful, but then on the other I don’t understand how pushing things ever-deeper underground is supposed to help.

I think in describing the horror of prostitution, this article does a reasonable job. It cites a study that found that 68% of sex workers in the nine countries surveyed suffer from PTSD; it talks about how many sex workers have been threatened with, or actually experienced, violence at the hands of their clients, and it argues that legal brothels lead to an increase in human trafficking and sex slavery, which may well be true. Further, towards the start of the article there is this wonderful quote that I'd just like to include in its entirety:

In prostitution, men remove women’s humanity. Buying a woman in prostitution gives men the power to turn women into a living, breathing masturbation fantasy. He removes her self and those qualities that define her as an individual, and for him she becomes sexualized body parts. She acts the part of the thing he wants her to be.

I guess this begs the obvious question: if I think prostitution is so harmful, why would I want it to be legal?

I think partly the answer to this comes back to, why does prostitution exist in the first place? And I think it exists because of the context of capitalism – and before that, other forms of class society. Under capitalism, it is virtually impossible to survive without money, and the only way to get money is to have something to sell. For business owners, it’s pretty easy to see what they have to sell. For the rest of us, what we have to sell is our ability to work – we sell ourselves to a boss who puts us to work, and who makes sure to pay us less than the value of what we produce, because otherwise there’d be no profit. This is the entire basis of capitalism.

Another important part of capitalism is institutional unemployment. That is, if there was truly full employment, workers would have the leverage to demand whatever pay and conditions they want – because what exactly is the boss going to do? They can’t fire such uppity workers and replace them with less demanding ones if everyone already has a job. This is why bourgeois economists consider 5% unemployment to be “full employment” – they consider it necessary to have a certain part of the population be so marginalised and desperate that they can serve as an excuse to bring pay and conditions down for everyone. Naturally, these people tend to come from oppressed groups – people of colour, people who don’t speak the language, transgendered folk, the disabled. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t need money just as badly as everyone else, just that they have a much harder time coming by it.

This is all perhaps an excessive preamble to the following: the sex industry preys on people, mostly women, like this who have few options. If all you have to sell is yourself and the only boss who will buy you is the owner of a brothel (or if your other options seem even worse than sex work)… well, if you really need that money, that’s what you will do.

Shitty work in general makes people feel alienated from it – personally I work at a call centre, which is hardly spiritually fulfilling. The difference with prostitution is that it makes people feel alienated from their sexuality – a core part of the human experience for most people. They have to give themselves over to someone who regards them as a body to be fucked, basically, and it doesn’t particularly matter if they find this client completely repulsive. It is true that prostitutes in legal brothels in Victoria have the legal right to reject any client they like, but in practice they can’t get too fussy, because what work are they going to get then? Then they have to pleasure whoever’s hired them, and without regard for themselves, unless their hirer has a particular predilection for that. From the sounds of things, that really doesn’t happen very often. Basically, instead of sexuality being what it should be – about mutual desire, mutual pleasure, with both parties able to explore the acts they’d like to try and avoid the acts they don’t – it becomes a transaction, in which (almost always) a man purchases a body for the purpose of satisfying himself.

There are so many “feminists” – liberals – who go on and on about choice, about how women choose to enter the sex industry, and they seem to love telling highly individualised stories of high-class escorts with excellent working conditions. I find this incredibly frustrating because sure, if you refuse to have any kind of systemic analysis, I’m sure you can find plenty of examples of relatively privileged people who made genuine choices to go into sex work and never regretted it and had a blast. This isn’t the experience of most sex workers. It’s also not a substitute for an analysis of the system. The article I linked to right at the top here also says the following:

Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in legal prostitution. In one Dutch study, 60 per cent of women in legal prostitution were physically assaulted, 70 per cent were threatened with physical assault, 40 per cent experienced sexual violence and 40 per cent had been coerced into legal prostitution.

I realise that one study isn’t necessarily a clinching argument either, but from what I’ve heard about legal brothels in Australia, these statistics sound like ballpark figures here too. And this is what I’m talking about – not individual women’s choices (they can do what they want, honestly), but a system in which many people do not have much choice, and get subjected to experiences such as these.

So we get back to that question – why would I want this institution to be legal?

Basically, because the institution exists whether it’s legal or not. The way to abolish it is to challenge the basis for its existence – the poverty that coerces people into sex work when they don’t want to be there; the gendered and sexual oppression that means bodies can be commodified, treated as objects for sale. There should be open borders, so that migrant women can’t be threatened with having their visas revoked, or being reported to authorities if they’re “illegal” in the first place. Sex work should certainly not be criminalised, such that no sex worker should ever fear harassment from the police, nor feel they have to depend on pimps or bosses for safety.

The way to abolish this industry is really the same as for a lot of other revolting industries – it’s for workers to organise and demand real change. It’s for capitalism and oppression to be abolished. In a post-capitalist world, where production was organised around human need and there was no such thing as money, there couldn’t be any such thing as prostitution, only sex. Shouldn’t that be what we strive for?

Basically, I disagreed with this article because it denies the crucial point that prostitution is inevitable until class society is overthrown. Criminalising it has never stamped it out. And if conditions are still terrible while prostitution is legal – I obviously don’t disagree – the solution is not to make it illegal again, but for workers to struggle against those businesses, in the same way that say, workers at Baiada struggled against the company whose horrible working conditions saw a man decapitated. I do think prostitution is qualitatively different from chicken factories for its role in upholding gendered and sexual oppression, but the appropriate (systematic) way to approach them is similar.

This post has been a bit all over the place and I apologise for that. Basically, the point is that this author and I are in agreement that prostitution is harmful, and not at all in agreement about what is to be done about it. I think the role of capitalism is central, and so capitalism has to be fundamentally challenged if we ever want prostitution to go away. And that is that.

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On the language of privilege

It’s no great secret that, by and large, socialists don’t seem to like the language of “privilege” very much. At best, they seem to have mixed feelings – and to be honest I totally get the mixed feelings, as the word “privilege” can be incorporated into a lot of different political frameworks, not all of which you’d agree with. But then again, the same is true of a lot of other words – just look at the contested definition of “democracy” – and I don’t personally think this is a reason, in and of itself, to avoid the word.

Personally, I like the way that Socialist Worker began its article A barrier to fighting oppression?:

ACTIVISTS TALK a lot about privilege, and for good reason. We live in a massively unequal society, in which different people are systematically oppressed in many different ways.

But there is a way of thinking and talking about privilege that, while seemingly radical, at a certain point actually poses a barrier to the fight against oppression.

I like this because it doesn’t reject the validity of talking about privilege; as you can see it says there’s “good reason” to. What it says instead is that the language of privilege can be used to describe and justify sets of politics that are really not useful, and can be outright wrong. If you go to read the whole article, you’ll find that it criticises a document which betrays a complete lack of understanding on the part of the author that class society exists, and in it lies the basis of all these forms of oppression. This document also argues that “class privilege” is the privilege of being a person raised with financial stability and access to financial safety nets through family or other assets. Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time, which is just an incredibly terrible and useless way of conceptualising class. (For the record, I agree that being rich, or at least financially comfortable, is something that shapes our lived experience, and thus our worldview, and is therefore arguably a privilege that has to be “checked” just like every other form of privilege. But this doesn’t make it equivalent to class. There are well-paid workers, and poverty-stricken members of the petit bourgeoisie; levels of wealth do not align so neatly with class.) What all of this shows, I think, is that there are right ways and wrong ways to conceive of “privilege”.

These wrong ways are justifiably criticised. Failure to see oppression as rooted in the structures of the system – of class society – is extremely problematic, because how do you fight oppression, if you don't understand that it’s rooted in the system itself? Sometimes, the language of privilege can be used to push the idea that actually, the basis of oppression lies in individuals and the way that individuals treat each other. I’m just going to quote one blog post I’ve read, Some Reflections on the Concept of Privilege, which I think explains this framework and the problems with it well:

Given the way that the language is sometimes used, it almost sounds as if members of dominant groups (e.g. men vis-a-vis women, hetero people vis-a-vis lgbt people, etc.) simply need to accept responsibility and offer verbal repentance as individuals in order to do their part in changing the status quo. That is, the language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play a role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on.

That is – personally acknowledging your privilege, and even feeling a bit bad about it, doesn’t actually change a thing. Oppression exists on a systemic level, and nothing you do as an individual can really challenge that. If you care about fighting oppression, you have to fight the system.

But I still think that being aware of privilege is important, as a kind of first step in a process with many more steps after that. Perhaps nothing you can do as an individual can challenge oppression, but plenty that you can do can reinforce it. For instance, disregarding the perspectives of people of colour, women, or any other marginalised group contributes to their marginalisation. So don’t do that.

I do disagree with “privilege politics” when it’s used to mean the argument that privileged groups benefit from oppression. I’m sure this is a contentious proposition, but I do mean it – I think that the ruling class, the bourgeoisie benefits from oppression, but other privileged groups fundamentally don’t.

I think the important thing here is to know what you’re comparing. For instance, it can seem that men benefit from women’s oppression – they don’t have to do as much housework, they get higher wages, they get to be more sexually assertive than women tend to be. But the correct comparison isn’t between men and women; it’s between men in a world where women are oppressed, and men in a world where they aren’t.

So okay, men might have to do a little more housework in such a world. However, such a world is much less likely to be divided into atomised households, so “housework” is likely to be organised at a community level, just like other forms of work. This means it would take far less time and people wouldn’t be so isolated as they did it! As well, men’s wages would be higher than men’s wages are now, because there wouldn’t be this lower-paid section of the workforce holding them back. People’s sex lives would be more fulfilling because everyone would get to be assertive (I find it hard to believe that men actually like the idea of sleeping with women who don’t care about sexual pleasure for themselves… I guess the most reactionary segment of them…?). There would also be no gender norms, no standards of masculinity that men feel pressured to match up to, no pressure to keep their emotions on the inside all the time. And so it goes. Basically, women’s liberation would not just benefit women!

I do think it’s important to be careful articulating thoughts like this – just because men don’t really benefit from women’s oppression, for instance, doesn’t mean that they don’t seem to. For instance, in our society it’s clearly women who are widely regarded as sex objects, available for men’s consumption (porn and prostitution both reflect this dynamic) – and I’ve had to have so many arguments with the man I’m seeing, trying to talk him out of this mindset, that it’s not funny. But still, as I said, the central thing is to know what you’re comparing. Men are better off as compared to women – this is what makes them “privileged”. They’re not better off as compared to how they could be in a world without gendered oppression – this is why they don’t “benefit”.

It’s important to understand the distinction between these two things, and I think this is also why it’s important to have the word “privilege” in your political vocabulary. Lots of people don’t! I’ve met very few socialists who use the word, preferring instead to say privileged groups “aren’t oppressed”, which is technically accurate but somewhat lacking, I feel. To simply say they “aren’t oppressed” makes it sound like they experience the pure absence of a thing, which isn’t the case. Privileged individuals are socialised in this society, and passively absorb an ideological framework that seeks to justify oppression, and thus justify their privilege. As well, there is the reality that white people are likely to be hired ahead of people of colour, that men are likely to be promoted ahead of women, and so on – as capitalism forces workers to compete against each other, this means that privileged individuals are likely to “win”. Just saying they’re “not oppressed” doesn’t really do enough, I think, to reflect this reality.

Ultimately it is in the interests of everyone, except the bourgeoisie, to overthrow the capitalist system that perpetuates all of these oppressions – and it’s necessary to struggle against these oppressions to overthrow the capitalist system. Basically, the only people who truly benefit from oppression are the ones who benefit from capitalism, which is not the vast majority of us. I still think it’s important to acknowledge privilege and be aware of it so that we can unite against the system, though; if you try to minimise it too much, I think you’re just throwing oppressed groups under the bus, honestly. If we can understand that all these struggles are inextricably bound up in each other, as we should, then there shouldn’t be a counterposition here. The language of “privilege” does tell us something about how the world works, and how oppression affects people’s life experiences and views, and thus it’s a concept worth having.

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In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. Thus we define impairment as lacking all or part of a limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities. [If disability] is seen as a tragedy, then disabled people will be treated as if they are the victims of some tragic happening or circumstance. This treatment will…be translated into social policies which will attempt to compensate these victims for the tragedies that have befallen them… If disability is defined as social oppression, then disabled people will be seen as the collective victims of an uncaring or unknowing society… Such a view will be translated into social policies geared towards alleviating oppression rather than compensating individuals.

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Some thoughts on the gender binary

Because I’m always looking for new and exciting ways to procrastinate on homework, a few months ago I spent a ridiculous portion of a day reading an argument between a radical feminist and a hell of a lot of people she’d pissed off about whether or not transwomen are women, and on that day I wrote the bulk of this post. I don’t really want to comment on that because to me it is patently obvious that transwomen are women, and transmen are men, and I can’t be bothered ruminating on why for the moment. Nonetheless, I did get thinking about a related issue – on the link (or lack thereof) between biology and gender, and how the hell we’re supposed to express the infinite variation that exists within humanity in this regard considering the lacklustre number of words that English provides. See, I feel in part that the English language just does not express concepts around gender in ways that people who are committed to liberation from the gender binary would like. We have a very limited array of words, really. We have “man” and “woman” – what do either of those really mean? We have pronouns, “he” and “she”, to match. Then we have words for biology – “penis” and “vagina” and so on. This is not an extensive repertoire, and it’s going to get us into trouble. This occurred to me once when I was reading a post on Tumblr, about sex… the thing about this post that impressed me was that whoever did it avoided using the words “man” or “woman” entirely, in favour of “vagina-owner” and “penis-owner”. I was truly astounded by this person’s commitment to intersectionality, and strict avoidance of binding people’s gender identities to their genitalia (and really, it wasn’t a post about gender identities in the slightest, so fair enough!). Politically it’s commendable, but the problem is that this is a really impractical way of speaking. Short of a massive social revolution, these terms are never, ever going to catch on, even if they arguably should (or at least other terms that express the same concepts). They’re just really clunky, and virtually no one would feel comfortable using them. Why do you think that out of all the proposals for gender-neutral pronouns there have been, not a single one has ever caught on? Linguistic prescriptivism has never worked, and I really don't think it’s suddenly about to now – these terms are too artificial to take hold, at least in this era. I think most people – or at least most oppression-minded people – consider “man” and “woman” to be gender identities, rather than synonymous with “penis-owner” and “vagina-owner” respectively. For a start, a large number of people (I read somewhere that it was 0.1% of the world’s population – so seven million worldwide) have anatomies that fall between that of your standard “penis-owner” and your standard “vagina-owner”. They usually get assigned one identity or the other regardless. There’s no reason society should be limited to “man” and “woman”, either; there are a minority of people who define themselves as neither, and even within these huge umbrella categories of “man” and “woman”, there are lots of “identities”, in the sense of codes of behaviour and the like. What I mean to say is, gender identities really don’t consist of a binary, man/woman – there’s a lot of fluidity, a lot that’s really indefinable, a lot that you can’t confine with narrow little categories. Words come and go defining all kinds of subcultures and identities, some which last, some which don’t. I think it’s likely (though not certain) that in a truly liberated world, there would be no such concept of “transgenderism”. Gender identities would be so fluid, and not connected with a binary at all. There would be no “man” or “woman” (those terms being so broad as to be useless), and thus no “transmen” or “transwomen”. You can expand the world of gender identities, and people’s freedom to be whoever they want, to such a point that the words “man” and “woman” are completely meaningless as gender identities. But biology stays the same. There will always be people with penises and there will always be people with vaginas, and there will always be people whose anatomy doesn’t fit either norm, and there will be these three groups of people until the human race is extinct or has evolved into something completely different – for our intents and purposes, until the end of time. Perhaps a truly liberated society – one in which neither gender identity nor biology could confer any privilege or disadvantage – wouldn’t care enough about biology to use short, one-word terms. I mean, people are divided into right-handed and left-handed too, but the only short terms for those are slangy (“righty” and “lefty”) and have other meanings besides – people do not really care about handedness. So then, we’d have a multitude of fluid, overlapping gender/sexual identities such that “man” and “woman” are meaningless, and a society in which people do not care enough about others’ genitalia to assign words to them any shorter than the “penis-owner” and “vagina-owner” of the Tumblrer I mentioned ages ago. I don’t think such a world is imminent; I don’t even think such a world is likely to be possible until decades, maybe centuries, after communism is achieved – if it’s possible at all. There is an important reason for this: the phenomenon called “the linguistic straitjacket”. There are many, many languages with gendered pronouns – languages that force you to categorise people as basically masculine or basically feminine in almost every single sentence you can think of. Unless these languages evolve away from gendered pronouns, the world I’m talking about could never happen, and pronouns take forever to evolve. Before standardisation, centuries, and afterwards, well. Take your pick! Millennia! Infinity! But think about how much English changed between Old English times and Geoffrey Chaucer (around 350 years) and how little our English has changed from how it was 350 years ago in 1662. For the evolution of our pronoun system, this is Bad News. I think in English we can see a potential way out, though – singular “they” has risen massively as a gender-neutral pronoun in the last few decades, and it is possible that people could start using singular “they” even when the gender is “known”. From that point on, “he” and “she” could fade out of usage entirely. We’d have to get a new third-person plural pronoun – I’d say pattern extension from a second-person plural pronoun could do it (and I think the second-person plural pronoun’s going to come much earlier! but for instance, say “y’all” became standard; “them all” or something could follow) – but once we had, bingo, problem solved. In languages like Spanish I don’t see much of a way out at all, because of every single noun in the whole entire language being either masculine or feminine. It’s true that English lost its system of grammatical gender entirely, but there are concrete reasons behind that development in English that don’t exist in Spanish (like where the stress falls – in English, as in Germanic languages in general, early; in Spanish, as in Romance languages in general, late). So, I don’t know. Clearly the solution is that we all start speaking Finnish, and avoid the problem entirely. No, I’m just kidding. In all honesty, I realise that this post is all about concerns that probably won’t exist for centuries after all of us are dead, but the question I was starting with was this: what actually is manhood, and what is womanhood? If you argue, as I do, that manhood is not just synonymous with penis ownership and womanhood not synonymous with vagina ownership, then the words have no intrinsic meaning at all, only socially-constructed meaning. And what exactly is that meaning? As soon as you move away from these biological definitions, and discard any kind of binary, you embark on a trajectory towards discarding the words entirely – even if, due to the poverty of our language in general and the fact that this unsatisfactory state of affairs is standardised, this is a process that could take millennia to run its course.

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In an unfree society, most of the activities called consensual represent the capitulation of the powerless to the demands of the powerful. Power comes in various guises, as money, status, patriarchy, and as emotional invulnerability.


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