Posts tagged with “sexuality”

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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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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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On the difficulty of saying what you want to say

I suppose that if you’ve read this blog, it should come as no surprise to you that gender and sexual politics is one of my biggest fields of interest. Obviously I have a lot of political fields of interest – I became a Marxist primarily because I couldn’t see how we could stave off environmental destruction under capitalism, for instance – but over the last year or so, it’s been mainly gender and sexual politics I’ve been reading about. (Although I did read a book called Ecology and Socialism over the summer, too. It was quite good.)

I think the main reason I’ve gravitated towards these issues is that it seems to affect me more immediately, it seems to concern me much more. Climate change and other mechanisms of environmental destruction are terrible, and will affect me in the end in fifty years’ time when the climate is absolutely fucked, but there’s not much I can do about that. There’s a lot that a post-revolutionary world could do about that, and that’s why I’m a socialist, but in the meantime there’s not much I can do. I can read about it, but where’s the imperative when a revolution is nowhere close? It’s a problem, but I only have so much time anyway in which to read and this is how I feel.

Gender and sexual politics grabs more of my attention because it isn’t just the macro-level on which it exists. The personal is political, as the feminist slogan goes and this is really true, in a way that “the actions of one individual can really do a lot to save the environment” just isn’t. No, one individual can’t liberate all of humanity, but individuals can and do make conscious choices about how to treat one another. You can choose not to be misogynistic or homophobic or generally an asshole in a way that you can’t really choose to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle (unless you have bucketloads of time and money, which most people obviously don’t).

So all of this means that I tend to grapple with questions of gender and sexuality much more. Over the last year or two, I have had to grapple with questions such as – What constitutes rape, and what doesn’t? What do you with actions which seem to, arguably, perhaps, fall into some murky grey area? What do you do if someone rapes you but you still like them? Is it unprincipled to forgive? Do open relationships work, or are we all too brainwashed by capitalistic values of possession and jealousy? Do closed relationships work, or is that an even worse idea than open ones? What is the connection between sex and power? It seems to me that sex is always a power struggle in some way or another, but it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? Is this not just because of oppression?

And I’d love to write about so many of these questions – and sometimes I do – but it’s difficult because of course, I want to discuss all of these questions in relation to my own life, in relation to people I’ve known, and there comes a point at which it seems to cross a line. That is, if I was only talking to strangers, my experiences would be obviously political – “this is how women suffer under patriarchy,” or something, and similarly if I only talk to my best friends they know me well enough that they can tell the difference between me seeking a confidant (or yelling at them, as the case may be) and me making a political point. But then there are people between those two extremes – people who are friends but not good friends, or people who know me but not well – and I get worried that what starts as me trying to explain a political point sounds like me opening up way too much to someone who doesn’t know me well enough to feel comfortable with that.

The awkward thing about “the personal is political” is that by necessity, when you start talking like that politics ceases to be something impersonal. It ceases to be something about which you can intellectualise, expect to be patted on the back for being so clever and go home to your own world, which is an entirely different sphere. It brings the two spheres together, so suddenly politics isn’t a sphere but it’s life. All your life! And most people aren’t like this – an irritatingly high proportion of people resent talking about politics at all because they claim it’s “divisive”, as if we should be getting along with scumbaggy people anyway – so it comes across as weird, comes across like you’re far too open a person, when really, you just want everyone to understand that the way they live their lives is important, not just what they do in their “political time”.

It’s also ironic that I feel weird about this because honestly, my personal experiences are probably the only original thing I have to contribute to the discussion – I’m sure every point I could think up has been thought up and argued before! So anyway, maybe I should seek to write these posts a little more often, and decide that if someone who reads them is uncomfortable about that I don’t give a shit what they think anyway, but it seemed that the reasons why I felt uncomfortable were important too, and I should comment on those. Basically… the personal is political, and that will always be true, but it’s an unpleasant reality for most people. Still, perhaps it’s a reality people should have to face up to more often.

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Does the Porn Industry Suck? A Feminist's Look

I often off-handedly tell people that “porn is sexist” or something along those lines, but this article makes a reasonable argument as to why that isn’t necessarily true, and I should be more careful in what I say.

I mean, I still think it’s inherently problematic to objectify people, reducing them to their bodies as if there’s nothing more to them. I’ve always hated attempts to, like, “reform” the sex industry such that there are also men who get objectified for the pleasure of women, as if this would make it not a problem any more that the sex industry objectifies women for the pleasure of men, because things are “equal” now. Um no, things are not equal – it is still women who are objectified in society at large, not just in the sex industry, and even if that weren’t the case – why the hell would you want a society in which everyone is regarded as a mere sex object instead of a society in which no one is?

What this article points to though is that there are ways to change porn that would make it better. After all, the reduction of women to sex objects is only the beginning of the problem. For instance, in words that I really can’t improve on, the writer says this:

Often in porn, women are treated as if they’re just holes to have sex with. They are often just there to be pounded by one or more penises and their consent, enthusiasm, and pleasure doesn’t even seem to be factored into the equation let alone a valued and highlighted aspect of the sexual activity taking place.

I don’t think it’s an inherent part of porn that it has to be this bad. The fact that it is this bad reflects that we live in a deeply sexist, homophobic and generally oppressive society, and I don’t think you can make porn unproblematic without entirely overthrowing the system that perpetuates such oppressions. However, I don’t think there is inherently a problem in watching a film of people having sex, or in getting off to it. I liked this article for describing various problems in pornography that, if they were fixed, would make porn relatively harmless.

The statement “porn is sexist” is broadly true, and I think it’ll always be true for so long as it’s a sexist system that makes it. However, I think even under capitalism you could have a situation in which porn’s only a little problematic instead of outrageously bad like it mostly is today. It would be possible to make porn in which women are subjects, not just objects, and in which their pleasure and desires are central – and considering that porn is today where most teenagers get their sexual education, wouldn’t this be much better?

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Why support same-sex marriage?

For most people, supporting equal marriage rights is just a matter of common sense. “Opposite-sex couples can get married, but same-sex couples can't! This is discriminatory and wrong.” To this I say – exactly right; bingo; top of the class except oh wait not really because almost everyone gets this. It's pretty simple.

Most opposition to equal marriage rights comes from arch-conservatives, the kinds who are all, “zomg but the Bible says no!!” (fun fact: it doesn't. It does, however, say quite a lot about how virtually all rich people are evil, and it's funny in a totally non-coincidental way how little gets made of that.), or the kinds who – like my grandmother (who is my usual benchmark for arch-conservativism) – go, “I honestly don't think that God cares one fig who people have sexual relations with, but marriage is an institution that has existed for millennia, and to tamper with it would just result in SOCIAL CATASTROPHE!!” (Just like when marriage ceased to refer to the trading of women like livestock from fathers to husbands! That was pretty damn disastrous; let's not make the same mistake, and tamper with the institution of marriage, again.)

But to tell the truth, if anyone even reads this blog it's not arch-conservatives, so those arguments are somewhat pointless here. No, what this post seeks to address is the supposedly “progressive” argument against equal marriage rights – that in reinforcing the nuclear family, marriage is an oppressive institution that should be abolished, not expanded.

There's no doubt in my mind that the nuclear family is an oppressive institution. For a start, to be divided into nuclear families isolates us, atomises us; rather than having socially-necessary tasks like child-rearing, cooking, cleaning etc. done by a broader collective, it forces each individual household to do these things itself. The vast majority of the time, these tasks fall to women. It's not just for ideological reasons that they fall to women; as well, childcare is expensive (thus unaffordable for many couples), women continue to be paid much less than men on average (and if it's decided that one partner has to quit their job, it's going to be the lesser-paid, isn't it?), and in order to have the babies in the first place, it's women who have to endure pregnancy and childbirth, so it's likely that they'll need time off work. Then, the household being a relatively self-contained unit, it's really socially isolating; it makes us forget that we belong to a collective, and retreat into ourselves, which serves the imperatives of capitalism nicely – we forget that we're powerful in numbers, but remember that we're powerless alone. So instead, we seek solace in our partners... which ends pretty badly for most people, considering that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, and many more are highly miserable, or end before the marriage stage even comes along.

A bit melodramatic, maybe, but I feel like my paragraph clearly makes the point – the ideal of the nuclear family isn't very good.

I don't know if this is any consolation, but if it is, it's worth mentioning the “slippery slope” argument that various conservatives make when trying to explain why equal marriage rights is a bad idea. At least, to a certain extent. The extent that goes, “but if you think all adults should be able to enter into any marital arrangement they like, you might as well legalise polygamy!!!!”

And: yes. You might as well. I mean, polygamy is shit when it's on a sexist basis, but it doesn't have to be. Just think: why shouldn't a woman be able to have two husbands? Or if a group of, like, three men and three women all want to have a group marriage together, why not? Why should people be restricted to having only one marriage at a time, even? Maybe our hypothetical dually-married woman's husbands each have other spouses – man or woman or genderqueer, it doesn't matter. And maybe each of those spouses have further spouses. Why not, really? Marriages for everyone, whenever they want! Yay!

Now see, when you start talking like this, it's pretty obvious that you're undermining the institution of the nuclear family. These households are going to get more like mini-communes where free love reigns, and... good. That would be a really good thing.

As well, once you've got to this point, of course, marriage itself seems utterly pointless. You might as well just have relationships without formalising them through marriage. Then again, if you like ceremonies, you might as well have a wedding. Hell, have ten weddings. Does it matter? No, because the nuclear family is dead, anyway. So whatever.

Unfortunately of course, we don't actually live in such a sexually liberated utopia, we live in the world we live in now, where we're expected to get married and live in isolated households, and if you want to get married, you have to identify as either a man or a woman, and you have to marry someone of the opposite gender from you. Such a system delegitimises people who identify as neither men nor women, and it delegitimises all relationships that don't fit this "one man, one woman" ideal. It's a system in which we have this sort of roadmap in mind for our relationships – you meet someone, you date them, you sleep with them, you agree to be monogamous with one another, you move in together, you get married. Roughly, this is it. But it's a system that says that unless you are one man + one woman, you cannot get married. This pinnacle of relationship achievements is cut off from you, because you are not good enough to get that.

In this context, I think it's fucking disgraceful to argue against expanding the institution of marriage just because you want the sexually liberated utopia now. It's cool that you want that now – so do I – but it's not exactly on the horizon, is it. What is on the horizon is that we can change this important institution in our society (which, for better or for worse, is central to most people's lives) to not exclude a huge number of people by definition. It doesn't matter whether you like it or not; it doesn't matter whether you think people should want it or not. People do want it. And it is important for many purposes – immigration, financial concerns, legalities, whatever. No, it shouldn't be. But it is. So there should be equal access to it, rather than making it the sole domain of cisgendered straight people.

So, coming up around Australia on August 11 will be the next round of rallies for equal marriage rights, marking the eighth year that the ban on them has been in place. (Oh yeah, Australian law didn't even mandate the “one man, one woman” thing until 2004. Homophobes sure are genuine and non-hypocritical in their hatred of redefining the word “marriage”, aren't they?) If you're in Melbourne, you can check out this Equal Love Facebook event; otherwise, I'm sure a cursory Google search will give you the deets. It's important that as many people as possible come, and not just LGBTI people but everyone who supports full equality for people, regardless of sexual or gender identity. When we're so close to finally winning is not the time to stay at home. (Not that there ever is a time to stay at home. But if there was, now would not be it.) There's still a battle to be won.


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