Dec 23, 2012

Some thoughts on sex positivity* & purchasing consent

I've not really written on this topic before, because my views were not very strongly formed for one thing, but also because it's one of those incandescent intra-feminist controversies that I think should be given time to run out of fuel naturally. However the subject has been everywhere in the last couple of weeks (even Woman's Hour!), and that means that I've been thinking about it a lot and possibly coming up with new insights. Sorry of my ideas are actually old & hackneyed; blame it on parallel intellectual evolution.

Given the framing of the debate around the professional choices some women make to engage in sex acts for money, it seems sensible to me to look at it from an economics point of view. In that context it seems to me that pro-sex work thinking is mostly quite neo-liberal or libertarian in its conceptions, emphasising the choices & freedoms of individual persons as having the key moral weight in the debate. It is therefore incompatible with feminism in its guise of a progressive, left movement, with at least some roots in radical, class based analysis.

First of all, I'd like to establish that saying that sex acts should not be exchanged for money is not by definition a puritanical or anti sex idea. There is a well established core of things that we see as exchangeable for money and things that we see as being in the realm of interpersonal relationships. The economist Dan Arieli gives the example of holiday dinner (topical!). If you were to turn around and offer your mother in law £20 at the end of the meal, instead of a big hug and maybe some help with the washing up, she and everyone else at the table would be scandalised. it is understood by all of us as a basic underpinning of a private life that certain things are exchangeable for money and others are not. This is called the difference between market norms and social norms, and in most cases it is quite uncontroversial.

A lot of the new sex work thinking seems to me to blur the distinction specifically when it comes to the ability to consent to sexual contact. What it seeks to do is square the monetary circle: claim that doing something for money is equivalent or even identical to doing it out of a social/emotional impulse. So me bringing you a cup of tea because I'm your friend is no different to me serving you a cup of tea because I'm a waitress, to use one Twitter example. Essentially it seeks to monetise consent.

I find this an alarming and reactionary development. Far from being in any true sense sex positive, it seems to me to be yanking consent out of the realm of social norms into the world of market norms. Market norms operate very differently and we need to be very very careful how we approach them. Yes, sex was always purchasable for money: but consent was not.

The feminist analysis of prostitution has always been that people who perform sex acts fr money are in some way coerced: by poverty, by force, by enslavement and so on. It did not, therefore, involve meaningful consent. The moralising view on the other hand was that prostitutes are somehow inherently immoral - it was seen as a moral failure, as sin and a mark against the person's character rather than a result of economic choices (often rational ones unconstrained by anything other than financial considerations, it should be added). In other words, the patriarchal conception of prostitution was that people who engage in it do so out of pleasure, and therefore their consent is meaningful (i.e. we don't need to worry that they are being essentially raped).

But sex work campaigners often tell it the other way around: sex workers on their view are liberated people making authentic choices, whereas as feminists who object to the sex trade are moralising patriarchalists attempting to coerce women out of their natural inclinations.

By implying that sex work can and does involve true consent however, the sex positive thinkers are potentially undermining the enthusiastic consent model and feeding into the transactional view of sex: the traditional one where sex is something men "get from" women in exchange for the things women are truly interested in - marriage, children, or in this case cash. I struggle to see this as truly progressive, and I don't think it's helpful at all to insist that this is somehow the true feminism and if you don't agree your feminist analysis is useless.

To sum up, the problem here is not that sex workers exist; the problem is  that there is a move to blur the distinction between market norms and social norms by moving consent (not just the performance of the sex act, but the subjective state of consent) into the column of things that can be bought, and therefore sold. I think that's a dangerous direction to go in.

*ETA: I've changed the title of the article to properly reflect the fact that it is not sex work per se that I am querying here, but the attitude that posits that it is in principle unproblematic, which is part of a wider set of "sex positive" approaches.

Dec 12, 2012

Just those reported women, being alleged all over the place

Some people are kind of gross, you know? It's not nice to say it, but they just are. You look at them and you imagine that they probably have bad breath, or that their BO has that particular sour note that takes it from unpleasant to bile inducing. You want to look away from them and not look back. Jimmy Saville was one of those people for me. I've never seen him on TV when he was at the height of his fame, so when I finally did see clips of him, openly molesting young women on Top of the Pops (I think it was some Channel 4 nostalgia clip show), I was horrified - who is this ugly, greasy person, and why is everybody laughing like it's all just hunky dory?

Julian Assange is somebody else that I've always felt ooky about. I remember when I first ever saw him, it was a TED interview and he took his jacket off, and I swear to Dog my first instinct was to think his pits probably smell under that unwashed-looking white shirt.

So it's not my favourite ever activity to examine Julian Assange and his actions in any level of depth. I sure as hell am not tempted to read nay more lickspittle interviews with him in the Grauniad, anyway.

Still, sometimes, as in the case of cholera research and entomology, it is what disgusts us the most that contains the vital clues we need about the world and how it works. Observe:

Isn't that linguistic genius? Reported. I mean, it's true, it was widely reported that Malala Yousafzai had been shot. In the head. Aged 14. Does it really even matter that she go that treatment because she's campaigning for women's rights? Anyone shooting a 14 year old child IN THE HEAD is news. It's gonna get 'reported'.

So you know, technically, it's not like Julian Assange (who is reported to be in sole possession of the @wikileaks Twitter account these days) is lying or anything. She was reportedly shot. He is an alleged rapist. It's all fair enough, pretty much.

But it's not really fair enough, is it. See how this kind of language works asymmetrically? How it minimises the crime committed against Malala, while providing potential cover for the faeces slinging animals terrified by the idea she and girls like her may see a horizon beyond the rancid cage being prepared for them? So pants-wettingly terrified of a little girl they need to annihilate her in order to shore up their brittle manhoods?

In Assange's case, the legalistic hedge has given him just enough of a sliver of deniability to go hole up in the Ecuador embassy. And his addlepated supporters, enough of an excuse to squeal the internet down with protests that he has not been convicted of any crime and therefore it's defamation in libel sauce to say he should go on trial for rape (which is a crime, of which he might be convicted). 

In Malala's case, it means that she might have just imagined the hole in her head. I mean, it might not have really happened, yeah? It was only reported, after all. You don't believe everything you read in the papers, do you? What are you, sheeple? Stooge.

Meanwhile on the unimaginably hideous crimes that would keep you awake at night if you thought about them too much, we have this:

Women are reporting sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville literally in their hundreds. Women who were never listened to before, because their evidence - the reporting of a crime by the victim of that crime - was not seen as enough of a reason to maybe shuffle over and have a butchers. It was just the women, you know? I mean, we don't just believe people who say their car was stolen, do we? Oh, we do? Well, but these were only reported rapes, gropings, assaults, fingerings and grabbings. By, you know. Just the women.

Both Julian Assange and Jimmy Saville are disgusting human beings. Literally, as in they put me off my dinner. Clearly Assange can only aspire to the level of monstrosity Saville achieved, though there but for the grace of two brave Swedish women go we, and who knows how many others there have been. Wilful sex criminals rarely confine themselves to just the occasional tipple. It tends to be a full time habit. And how do they get away with it? Because nobody believes "reports" from "just the women". Shutting down justice for women is as easy as using the smarmy language of "alleged" and "reported". Was then, is now.

Anyway, listen. If you want cool, level headed analysis about this stuff, go read Sian. I'm too busy swallowing down the acid in my throat at the thought that someone could be so squelchingly slimy as to try to win an online popularity contest over a little girl with a hole in the head, just because he realy really wants to. All I'm saying is: reported. Useful word, eh?