Posts tagged with “women's 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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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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Woman Dies in UCHG after Being Denied a Life-Saving Abortion

I’m not sure where, ultimately, this press release comes from; I found it on Tumblr, so I’ve linked to where it originally came from there.

It describes the death of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who arrived at a hospital in Ireland on October 28th, suffering a miscarriage. She was in immense pain and her cervix was dilated; however, her body did not expel the foetus naturally, so she just lingered for three fucking days with a dilated cervix – apparently this carries the same risk of infection as a gaping head wound – until at last she died of septicaemia. Of course, an abortion would have extracted the foetus, enabled the cervix to close, removed the risk of infection, and meant that she was able to receive treatment. Unfortunately, despite an Irish court ruling that women must be granted the right to an abortion if their life is in danger, the government (a Labour Government, too) has refused to pass any legislation to that effect, creating the exact kind of situation in which deaths like this can occur, as doctors are afraid of being punished for conducting abortions. (Which I feel like says a lot about the conservatism of most doctors, if they’re more afraid of punishment for aborting a foetus than punishment for killing a woman through their own inaction. Or maybe it says something about society in general. I’m not sure.)

The press release is fucking harrowing. What I will say is that what happened here is clearly not a “tragedy” – that word refers to things that no one is to blame for, or (more traditionally) that the victim befallen by the tragedy is to blame for. I’m sorry, but it’s not that no one is to blame for her death – the Irish state is absolutely to blame, by stubbornly maintaining a ban on abortion that directly prevented this woman from being able to acquire an abortion that would have saved her life.

It upsets me when women aren’t able to procure safe, legal and free abortions when desired anyway, and that a woman can’t even get one when the alternative is death is just distressing. I certainly hope that the fight for abortion rights is one of the absolute top priorities of socialist and generally progressive activists in Ireland, because it is bizarre and obscene and backwards that this ban still exists.

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Prized and Reviled: Parenting choices are important

Yesterday, the Labor Government chose to cut special welfare payments to single parents. For those who began receiving payments after 2006 – or who stopped receiving payments at any point after 2006 and later went back onto them – they’ve already been forced onto the dole, but yesterday marked the day that all single parents were forced onto it. I think it’s important to note that yes, on the very same day Julia Gillard made her now world-famous speech attacking Tony Abbott for his personal misogyny, her government was directly attacking single parents, the majority of which of course are women. Hmm, that is some true genuine anti-sexism there.

In this context, this is a great blog post by a single mother, talking about just how difficult it is to get by financially when this is the situation you’re in. It’s so worth a read, just do it, okay.

One of the women I work with is pregnant, and she’s trying to work as much as she can now to save up money to have something to fall back on when she can’t work any more. It seems hard enough to me to sustain yourself and live independently when part-time, casual work is all you can get, let alone sustain a dependent, too — or more than one! It just sounds like a nightmarish situation, and of course there needs to be better childcare, no discrimination when it comes to jobs and housing, and more fucking money going towards people who need it — but oh no, our government “can’t” manage that because their priorities are corporate profits, not people’s welfare. Shame.

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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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