Why I’m skeptical of efforts to criminalize the sabotage of birth control

***UPDATED to fix Tressie’s twitter handle. Cuz that was embarrassing.***

Men sabotaging women’s birth control is A Thing.
It’s a form of abuse, an act of taking control over her own body away from a woman. Women suffering from domestic violence are often additionally victim to this as well as other forms of abuse, by men trying to keep them from leaving the relationship (which for obvious reasons is much harder when you’re pregnant or have children in the house), or sometimes just because it’s another form of control and DV is all about control. It is obvious therefore that sabotaging women’s birth control and other forms of reproductive coercion need to end, victims of this need to be able to seek justice, and perpetrators need to be made accountable.
Which of course means that now that a Canadian case has made a lot of people notice that this is A Thing, they want to criminalize it, based on the argument that the sexual assault laws in the U.S. would never suffice by themselves to persecute abusers for it*. Sounds sensible: if you think that the criminal justice system works even remotely well, then it makes sense to think that if someone commits an act of violence, they need to be sent throught the CJS for it. But this really does require the assumption that the U.S. legal system is just (or at least “close enough” to just to make it work more often than not)and therefore that criminalization will work as intended.

I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical, because when I read this twitter exchange between Lauren Chief Elk (‏@ChiefElk) and Brienne of Snarth (@femme_esq), I couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth of many of the points, if not necessarily their immediate applicability to the wider U.S. culture**. I’m skeptical, because I tend to come at these things from a harm-reduction-based perspective, and I’m not convinced that this will actually reduce rather than increase harm. I’m skeptical, because cultural myths play a huge role in the ways laws actually end up being applied.
For example, the Stand Your Ground laws don’t actually allow victims greater leeway in self-defense (see: Marissa Alexander***) but rather allow already privileged people to get away with violence even more. This is because cultural myths are such that black men and women are always seen as the danger, and white men and women always as the defenders of civilization. And how does this work with birth control sabotage? Our cultural myths claim that women are baby-crazy, and men don’t actually want kids; that women are more likely to be ok with an unplanned pregnancy than men (there’s how many movies with that plot? The one where an uncomplicated het-relationship gets derailed by pregnancy that switches the woman into “settling&nesting” mode while giving the guy a midlife crisis?); that women are more invested in committed relationships than men (see: ball-and-chain), and thus more likely to use desperate measures to prevent a breakup; etc. Hell, google “tricking into pregnancy” and see how that works out. As Brienne points out in the twitter dialogue, the cultural narrative is of a woman trapping a man rather than vice versa. Even the Daily Beast article linked at the beginning of this essay acknowledges this with a link to an article discussing NBA orientation for rookie players, in which the following quote appears:

They wanted us to see the dangers out there. They warned us about groupies poking holes in condoms, having hidden cameras and stuff like that. The temptations are hard to turn down, but if you don’t, you are subject to big problems.

And remember, we live in a society in which there are people convinced that women stealing sperm out of discarded condoms is some sort of epidemic (google “spermjacking” if you really want to know more about this; I wouldn’t recommend it tho).
So what I’m saying is this: when you’re operating within an extremely unjust legal system, you have to be exceedingly careful how you use it; in this case, the question is: how likely is it that criminalizing BC sabotage will be effectively used against actual abusers, rather than against women by e.g. dudes not wanting to pay child support?
BC sabotage is going to be a situation of he-said-she-said almost always, and “he said” will be always given more weight than “she said”, especially when other oppressions like race and class also work against the woman. I can imagine this even leading to greater reproductive coercion, if a guy who doesn’t want a kid threatens the pregnant woman to either get an abortion or be accused of spermjacking or some shit like that. I can also imagine that many women won’t report BC sabotage: consider the stigma BC has in this country (Sandra Fluke anyone? And she was a very privileged woman); consider the cultural myths about who sabotages BC; consider the “bitches be lyin'” trope. Basically, all the reasons ever mentioned in #IDidNotReport will figure in here as well, and we might well be increasing the potential for legal harassment of victims of DV, by giving their abusers another tool to subvert for their own needs.

Mind you, harm reduction is not the sole reason to criminalize something. The main other uses of criminalization in justice are punishment, normalization, process, and deterrence.
I reject the idea of punishment as a goal of justice, in general. Punishment of an offender as a goal of criminalization/incarceration (rather than a means towards another goal) relies on the notion that responsibility lies solely and entirely with the offender; it requires belief in a self-causing will, in the notion that an action is entirely and solely caused by the offender’s creation of a desire and opportunity to act as they did. I don’t accept this belief, because it goes against the evidence that shows us that the world outside our heads shapes our desires, priorities, and opportunities. Punishment for the offender and only for the offender (because how to you incarcerate social structures?) is an individualist erasure of the structural causes of violence.
So while accountability for the harm caused by an action is a sensible part of justice, punishment for its own sake is not. Making someone “pay the price” for a crime to society or to the victims has to actually be of value to society or the victims, and locking someone up does not, per-se, produce any value to society/victims. It can only do so as a means to a goal. Which brings us to the other aspects.
Despite the saying “morality cannot be legislated”, a law actually is a normative statement. And the fact that plenty of people can’t tell the difference between legal and moral (nor the difference between illegal and immoral)seems to indicate that normalization happens, if not immediately than into the next generation at least. Basically, if you allow or forbid something and the world doesn’t come crashing down (or significantly inconvenience anyone with social visilibity), people get used to it and start thinking of this as the new normal. So folks saying that it would make a statement that society doesn’t condone reproductive coercion if it were criminalized do have a point. But as a main reason to criminalize it, it seems not enough, given that it would also be a weak normative statement. Not because a law is a weak normative statement per-se, but because laws that go against strongly entrenched cultural myths have their normative function subverted. E.g. rape being illegal does mean the cultural idea is that rape is bad, but it’s entirely abstract; not only do some actual rapes get defined out of the rape category, the culture also creates a lot of exceptions (the most jarring example is prison-rape: people generally don’t deny it’s rape, but they treat it like a joke or a deserved punishment). I suspect the same will happen with these situations: even if we’d achieve a normalization of the belief that reproductive sabotage is a thing and a bad thing, the cultural mythology around it will subvert it so that real instances will be treated as not-it, or as exceptions where it’s somehow ok.
Process means simply giving someone a clear, pre-set way of dealing with something. Now, I don’t think any engagement with the American CJS is easily understandable, simple, etc. but having a set process and a set of legal tools to deal with something is usually preferable to no procedure at all. This is likely the strongest case for criminalization, because it’s useful and helpful to be able to take out restraining orders, have a concrete, codified thing to accuse your abuser of, and have other rules you can lean on when it’s hard to try to think your way out of a situation. But acknowledging this absolutely requires remembering that this will be useful primarily to those with educational and class**** privilege; who don’t make up the majority of DV victims.
Deterrence is/can be an acknowledgement of the way social structures shape choices. To deter means to change the environment in which a choice is made, and introduce a desire (the desire to avoid being held accountable) to hopefully outcompete the desire that would be satisfied by the criminal action. These changes can lead to reductions in the occurrence of a harmful act, and can therefore be actually useful. As such, deterrence is not inherently flawed the way punishment is; but it needs to actually accomplish the environmental and internal changes, or else it’s bullshit. A law as deterrent tends to only work if the likelihood of getting caught & convicted is high, or at least thought of as high. Laws that have low rates of perpetrators getting caught and getting convicted make lousy deterrents: if you get away with it sometimes, you learn that you can get away with it always, even if it’s not true. Works like that for texting-and-driving, for underage drinking, for pot-smoking-while-white, and because of rape culture it also works like that on rape. My suspicion is that given the difficulty to prove sabotage and the power-disparity in literal he-said-she-said situations, arrest and conviction rates would be low. So, not an effective deterrent in the long run.

So to sum up: there are positive things that criminalization could possibly accomplish, but these effects seem to be overall fairly small and doubtful given the current cultural narratives. And the way selective application of these protective laws protects aggressors more than victims, there are potentially many negative consequences to victims. The potential for abuse, for being directed against victims of domestic violence, and for even increasing some forms of reproductive coercion is pretty big given the current social narratives. I worry that the negative effects far outweigh any positive ones.

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t do anything about this problem, but I’m more and more thinking that putting the tools for defense in victims’ hands rather than in a severely broken, anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-PoC criminal justice system is the better approach at harm-reduction and empowerment at this time. So, some suggestions along those lines, to help free women from reproductive coercion without risking anti-woman side effects:

1)increase free and gatekeeper-free access to as many form of birth control (both the contraceptive and post-conceptive kinds): controlling women’s reproduction happens often with the cooperation of laws on birth control which make access complicated, time intensive, expensive etc, thus preventing women in DV situation from discreetly controlling their reproduction and from choosing options that would be less manipulable by a violent and controlling partner. Give women more options and access for BC, and in many cases you take away the means by which an abuser can coerce their reproduction.

2)Destroy the cultural myths that harm victims of reproductive coercion: these would the the ideas that consent to sex is consent to pregnancy; that reproductive coercion is something women do, rather than something abusive men do; etc.

3)Provide better safety nets and community support for single pregnant women and single women with children. When pregnancy and children no longer function as traps keeping the women from leaving (e.g. because there’s no women’s shelter that will accept all her kids), the utility of reproductive sabotage as insurance against leaving will diminish, and with it the value of this action to abusers.

None of those will stop all or even many cases of reproductive sabotage immediately; but neither would criminalization. I just think that the suggestions above would also have fewer negative side effects on already victimized women.

– – – – – – – – –

*it’s complicated, but basically Canada has some stricter ideas about what is or isn’t legally consent than the U.S. does. The Canadian case that kicked off this interest in criminalizing reproductive coercion was one in which the sabotage was treated as aggravated sexual assault because even though the woman consented to sex, she didn’t consent to unprotected sex. Basically, at least in Nova Scotia, it’s (as the case stands now) legally true that consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. As this legal article explains, that’s not true in the U.S. because of that nasty thing called “generalized consent”, plus legal-structural shit that went over my head because IANAL.

**the conversation includes the following tweets:

[Lauren Chief Elk @ChiefElk
Decolonizing Anti-Rape Law and Strategizing Accountability in Native American Communities via @andrea366 http://communityaccountability.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/decolonizing-antirape-law.pdf ]
[Lauren Chief Elk @ChiefElk
Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and Sovereignty via @sarahdeer http://turtletalk.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/deer-decolonizing-rape-law.pdf ]
The papers deal with the question of sexual assaults and tribal courts. They’re amazing and I find these immensely interesting and good material for thinking about anarchist communities, because not being able to deal with sexual violence is a major flaw of every idea (and praxis) of anarchist community I’ve ever encountered. But most women in the U.S. don’t at the moment live in the kinds of communities that would allow for analogues to tribal court justice.

***relevant and timely, on Friday there will be a discussion on Marissa Alexander and how DV laws backfire on minority women:

[Lauren Chief Elk ‏@ChiefElk
So on Friday we’re going to talk about shifting anti-violence, criminalization of DV, & Marissa Alexander w/#FreeMarissa. Get ready to join.]

****class privilege is very relevant, even if you “fake” it. In this essay on poor people and expensive stuff, Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) recounts the story of her mother helping people in the community with bureaucracy; and how her mother had an expensive outfit to do it which seemed to gain her “respectability” from the office folks, at least enough to make it possible to get stuff done where the people her mom was helping couldn’t.

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A rape culture link roundup

Despite evidence for rape, police forces raped teen to take back her accusation; her rapists then goes on to rape other women: Police allow serial rapist to continue predating after charging teen for falsely reporting rape

Teen who was impregnated during rape is being slutshamed by her neighbors: Indiana Town Shames Rape Victim, Speculates About Her ‘Promiscuous Behavior’

A victim of rape recounts her attempts of dealing with the trauma,and how she was doubted by both counselors and doctors and ended up being re-victimized over and over by her university: An Account Of Sexual Assault At Amherst College

Female workers in South Korea exhausted by constant vigilance against sexual aggression and harassment: Sexual harassment in Korea: 24 hours on constant lookout tire women

bonus:
Allen West and Michael Savage have decided that sexual assault in the military isn’t actually a problem because of redefinitions of “sexual assault” to include invitations for beer; and anyway, these women are probably just making it up anyway. As far as West and Savage are concerned, this is just an attempt by the “Khmer Rouge Feminists” to “take over the military” in a “coup”: Fox’s Allen West Uses Military Sexual Assault Epidemic To Attack Democrats And Decry Women In Combat Units

Texas jury: Escorts who follow the law are thieves, and shooting AK 47’s in someone’s direction is not intent to harm

Lenora Ivie Frago was shot on Christmas Eve 2009 in a dispute over $150; the shooting paralyzed her, and caused her death several months later. Her killer was accused of murder, but was just acquitted; and not because the jury didn’t think he shot her, but because they thought it was ok to shoot and kill her.

Frago was an escort advertising escorting services on craigslist. This is legal in Texas, as long as “escorting” is defined as renting someone’s company, not sex; prostitution is illegal in Texas*. So I’m going to speculate that the escorting ad in question didn’t say that sex was included in the price, and therefore legally, it can’t be theft or breach of contract or whateverthefuck to pay $150 bucks and get an escort to spend time with you, rather than fuck you. Regardless of what you thought you were paying for; regardless of whether the woman was really just a date-for-hire or a prostitute trying to “upsell”; legally, the only thing you could have possibly paid her for was company, no sex. And yet, the argument of the defense hinged on the claim that Frago stole her murderer’s money by refusing to return it after no sex happened and she was ready to leave. The “theft” line of reasoning was necessary because Section 9.42 of the Texas Penal Code allows “using deadly force against another to protect land or tangible, movable property”, and the only way a payment to an escort can be still considered the payer’s “tangible, movable property” is if she was in the process of stealing it, rather than in the process of leaving after doing all that she’s legally allowed to do in her job.
So that’s the first bit of toxic bullshit: apparently following the law about escorting is theft now.
The second bit of toxic bullshit comes from the very fact that you’re allowed to shoot-and-kill anyone over a property dispute at all, but it is Texas we’re talking about.
The third and fourth bits of toxic bullshit come in when you actually read Section 9.42. The relevant parts read as follows:

(1) if he would be justified in using force against the other under Section 9.41**; and
(2) when and to the degree he reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary:
[…]
(B) to prevent the other who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property; and
(3) he reasonably believes that:
(A) the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means

So in order to use this particular defense, the defense tried to convince the jury not only that doing what escorts are legally permitted to do was theft, but also that a)deadly force was necessary to stop Frago; AND b)that there wasn’t any other means whatsoever of getting his $150 back (such as suing her for fraud or breach of contract or whatever)

There’s an alternative theory about why the jurors acquitted: this was a murder trial, which according to the Texas Penal Code requires that a person

(1)intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual;
(2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
(3) commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.

or, translated into English, murder is when you try to kill or severely harm someone on purpose, or you harm someone in the process of committing another felony. So. Dude claimed that he didn’t mean to kill, and was aiming at the tires of the car Frago was in, and (at least according to the defense) it looks like what ultimately killed Frago was a bullet ricocheting from another part of the car.

But

Dude shot an AK 47 at the car. An AK 47***. Doesn’t fucking matter what you were aiming at, there was an extremely high likelihood there was going to be injury, and on owner of an AK 47 should bloody well know that; because even I know that AK 47’s are ridiculously inaccurate weapons. If that’s not “intend[ing] to cause serious bodily injury and commit[ting] an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual” I don’t know what is.

So either way you look at it, and regardless of which bullshit argument convinced the jury that shooting at escorts with assault rifles is a-ok, the verdict is a pile of toxic bullshit: gun worship; misogyny; whorephobia.
– – – – – – – – – – –
*on a side-note, I find it… “interesting” that they felt they needed to draw a distinction between “sexual intercourse” (PIV), and “deviate sexual intercourse” (oral/anal)
**Section 9.41 is the one that specifies when you can use force in general (as opposed to deadly force) to defend your property; this is where the “theft” bullshittery comes in.
***who the fuck brings an AK 47 to what they think is going to be 30 minutes of screwing?! That’s first class toxic bullshit right there.

There’s a post on sex work on Feministe, and it is Teh Fail

Jill wrote a blog post titled Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex. Reading it, I once again did that thing where I start arguing with an online article in my head, and then I realized this is blogging material. So here you go:

I am an anti-sex-trafficking feminist. I think sex work is incredibly problematic. And I also support the rights of sex workers. I think you can do all those things at once.

Sure one can. The question is really rather whether one’s actions on all these are consistent and synergistic, or whether one’s undermining one set of actions with another. Oh, and whether the actions actually are helpful, of course.

Also, sex work is “problematic” only in the same sense that manufacturing is problematic: it sits at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression and is made invisible/marginalized by the kyriarchy. And since the kyriarchy is abusive and oppressive, people who do this work are abused and oppressed (and no one cares/notices, because it’s all invisible/marginalized). But neither manufacturing nor sex work are problematic per se; their place in the matrix of oppression is problematic.

My view is basically that sex work wouldn’t exist in the feminist utopia. Why? Because sex wouldn’t be this commodified thing that some people (mostly woman) have and other people (mostly men) get. Sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion.

That doesn’t follow. Unless Jill is a marxist feminist and wants to abolish commodities and the “selling”* of labor in addition to abolishing the patriarchy, everything that people do with other people will still be also offered as a paid service; even the fun stuff. Sure, abolishing the patriarchy would abolish the myth of sex being something women have and men want, but it would also destigmatize a lot of behaviors currently marginalized as a result of a patricular, heteronormative, patriarchal-religion-propagated view of what sex, love, relationships, etc. are. These changes would definitely shift the patterns of demand (and supply) for sex work, but it wouldn’t make it go away, any more than abolishing the class system will make the demand for mechanics go away.

As long as people in relationships have differing sex-drives, different and not-fully-compatible kinks, kinks that include sex (or watching peep-shows, or watching a stripper, or whathaveyou) with people not involved in that relationship (by yourself, or with together with your partner(s)), no-strings-attached-single-sex, etc., there will be demand for sex as a paid-for service; because amazingly enough, not everyone who wants to get laid finds social interaction pleasant enough to want to have to find a mutually interested partner in the wild, on short notice. Plus, if we got rid of the patriarchy, we’d also get rid of many stupid, shaming ideas about sex, which means the role of sex-workers could expand to workshops, counseling, private training or whatever for people interested in learning how to do different kinds of sex. Because goddamnit, sex absolutely should come with training sessions. We’d all be spared the awkward fumbling that is reinventing sex from scratch every time someone has sex for the first time.

Anyway, what I’m basically picturing here is the Licensed Sex Therapists from Beta Colony in the Vorkosigan Saga.

While that view would leave room for some types of sex work — sexually explicit performance, for example, if that performance were no longer primarily a looking-at-women’s-bodies-as-stand-ins-for-sex thing, which is what it mostly is today — it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex

Again, unless this feminist utopia is also a marxist utopia, the service industry will still exist, and therefore the option of paying for sex still will exist too.

it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex, especially as we see it now, with men being the primary consumers and sex being seen as something you can buy.

Well no, the primary clients might indeed not be men then. And sex wouldn’t be something one “buys”, any more than one “buys” car repair; sex is not a product, it’s a service. However, I see no reason to think that the idea of sex as a service will disappear just because the patriarchy did.

I don’t think there would be McDonalds or Wal-Mart in the feminist utopia either;

“McDonalds” and and “Wal-Mart” are not equivalents to “sex work”, or even “prostitution”. McD and Wal-Mart are specific businesses; the equivalents to “sex work” would be “food service” and “retail”. Will neither of those two types of service work exist in this feminist utopia, either? Because if so, we’re back at “marxist feminist utopia”. But if so, why single out sex work? It would be abolishing doing anything for pay, altogether.

And as a side note, the title of the post is “Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex”, so would Jill oppose the “buying of food service” with the same methods which she’d suggest for sex work? Should we have a “swedish model” for restaurants, in which the cooks, waitstaff, etc. are not penalized, but the customers are?

Yes, of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade. But that smacks a bit too much of “I choose my choice!” feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy.

There’s a difference between “I’m a woman therefore all my choices are feminist choices”, and “I have the right to navigate the matrix of oppression as I see fit”. All of us make choices that aren’t feminist, or that support and aid the patriarchy in maintaining itself, because a)most of us don’t have such options available due to external social structures, and b)our mental structures are such that what we enjoy/want/need are often entwined with patriarchy and lend it support, and it’s impossible for everyone to change all their desires. We don’t have contracausal free will (i.e. the ability to change and create desires and preferences at will), we only have agency (the ability to choose between available avenues towards fulfilling our desires). Desires change only slowly, as our character changes; and no one can rid their mind of all imprints of their society.
And lastly… as I mentioned previously, sex work is problematic because of its location in the matrix of oppression. Shift the matrix, or shift sex work out of that position, and sex work no longer functions as patriarchy-supporting, problematic work.

sex worker advocates have cast a similar too-wide net — arguing that sex work is a job like any other, that every job is coercive, etc etc. Both narratives erase the vast grey area of the entire idea of “consent” when money is involved.

Marxist feminist utopia, blah blah, this is getting boring. And in any case, that argument does make other service work different from sex work only in the degree of intimacy, not in any qualitative sense.

I too often see a similarly reductive argument — that while a small number of women and girls are actually enslaved, the rest are there voluntarily and we should support their choices.

It’s only reductive because “voluntarily” is a shitty word with too many related meanings. A better phrasing is that they are where they are because of the exercise of their agency. Social structures, both those external and internal to ourselves, are present for sex workers as much as for others. Change the social structures, and agency will be exercised differently: people who chose sex work because it’s the best of a range of shitty options might choose an option they see as better than sex work, should it become available; others however might chose sex-work if it became less marginalized, or allowed for different kinds of sex services (“training” for sex-n00bs or couples wanting to learn something new, for example) than currently exist/are in demand.
Still, even changing social structures won’t change the mind of those for whom sex-work is the best means to pursue their desires (or even, their desire itself), i.e. those who do it “voluntarily” in the sense of choosing without structural pressure or limitations**

But from a birdseye feminist view — from a sex-positive view — sex work is different because it’s commodifying something that should ideally be a basic pleasure, entered into entirely freely and at will.

That’s what the service industry is: commodifying things people do with other people; even the fun stuff. That’s what dance instructors do, too, for example. They take something people do together for fun (dancing) and that one ideally should only do with others who freely and voluntarily return the sentiment, and they provide that and related activities as a service one can pay for. Again, we’re really just talking about differences in the degree of intimacy, not a qualitative difference.

From a practical point of view, there are a whole lot of women in the sex trade who are technically there voluntarily insofar as they aren’t kidnapped and chained up, but who are coerced into sex work in ways that most of us would find intolerable — owing large sums of money to traffickers, psychologically and physically abused by pimps, cast out by their families and communities for doing sex work and believing there are no other options.

Emphasis mine. Because a)”no” other choice is often not true; only that the other choices are considered even shittier; and b)that’s the difference between “voluntarily” and “by exercising agency”: if sex work is the best option given the (internal and external) structural limitations, then changing the structures would change the results of exercising agency, but this makes sex work the same as other forms of labor in an intersectionally classist system: remove socioeconomic “pressures” that let people accept horrible work-conditions because the alternatives are worse, and the work conditions for that form of labor become worker-friendly (compare manufacturing in, say, Germany to sweat-shops in China, for example)

Putting them [economically oppressed sex workers, and economically privileged sex workers] all under the umbrella of sex work is helpful in advocating for recognition and certain legal changes, but ultimately it doesn’t mean that more women’s voices are heard; it means that the most privileged of the group dictate policy.

This is an intersectional problem, not a problem somehow inherent in sex work. Yes, if white, upper-class, sex- and gendernormative sex workers from countries where sex work isn’t illegal are the sole or even the dominant voices heard, that’s a problem in the same way that it is a problem when white, upper-class, sex- and gendernormative feminists are the only or the dominant voices in feminism. But how is that an argument for sex work being somehow qualitatively different?
Plus, many sex worker advocates ARE women who are affected by multiple axes of oppression. Whence the assumption that this isn’t so? Is it just because the voices of relatively privileged sex workers are the only voices that penetrate deeply enough into the mainstream feminist landscape? Because I find it extraordinarily easy to find the narratives of sex workers in India, the narratives of trans sex workers, etc.***

And while a small percentage are relatively privileged and fairly compensated, most aren’t. And most sex workers face very real barriers to basic rights like bodily autonomy, workplace safety, and freedom from violence.

This is true for most women in the world; it is also true for most work in the world; it is especially true for most work that women do. Again we’re dealing with sex work’s location in the matrix of oppression, with intersectionality, not with anything inherent to sex work.

There are some methods that can best serve most of these women — safer sex supplies, legal rights. But what serves a 14-year-old in a Cambodian brothel whose clients are mostly middle-aged white guys from Europe and the U.S. is not the same as what serves a 22-year-old in New York advertising on Craig’s List.

True, but once again an issue of intersectionality; something that sex work advocates are showing less problems with than mainstream feminism as a whole does; just sayin’.

And none of these issues of intersectionality (including the ones I didn’t quote, because how often can you point out the same mistake?) address the core of the supposed issue here: nothing here supports the argument that sex work (and prostitution specifically) shouldn’t exist. All of this is a good argument to not repeat mistakes of other social justice movements and make the most privileged members of the movement the sole or predominant voices in it; it’s a good argument to remember that intersectionality demands solutions suited to individual cases, based on the specifics of the intersections. It’s not an argument against sex work.

When you’re talking about sex for money, you can’t take money and international economics out of it.

That’s a strawman of epic proportions, given that sex work advocates talk about class-based oppression more than any other women’s rights advocates who aren’t also socialists/marxists/anarchists.

I’m troubled by the migration of sexual labor and what it says about who “deserves” sex and who provides it.

Right. Troubled by the class-based problems involved in sex work, and how they intersect with sex and gender based problems. Still not an argument against sex work, tho.

I do think it’s immoral and unethical to buy sex.

“Buying sex” is what men did when they purchased a wife. Anyway, contributing from a position of privilege to maintaining/reinforcing an axis of oppression is always “problematic”, and consequently I wish people would not shop at Wal-mart or procure sex services from exploitative sources; and maybe any kind of shopping or procuring of sex services contributes to maintenance of oppressive class structures. But the way to end exploitation is not to drive the victims of it underground by outlawing the purchase of their labor; rather, it can be done by giving them the tools they need to a)widen their choices within the social structure, and b)to change the social structure by attacking the forces that oppress them. Which aren’t always the individuals who pay them for their services; and which won’t end sex work, but rather end (or at least diminish) exploitative sex work.

I think it speaks to a view of human sexuality (and women’s bodies in particular, although of course there are men who pay for sex with men and boys) as purchasable;

“Buying sex” does, but like I said, that’s not a feature inherent in sex work, since sex work is the provision of services for pay, not the “selling” of sex (because selling something intangible like a service is only possible by selling the provider, and that’s slavery, not service work.) I keep repeating this distinction because the idea of buying sex is tightly coupled with the idea of the “unrapeable”: when you buy something, it’s yours to do with as you please, without the previous owner of it having a say in it. That was, and often still is, the attitude towards sex in patriarchal culture. But it’s not inherent to sex work, since the provision of a service always entails the possibility to cancel the deal, as well as the fact that it’s a one-time agreement, to be re-negotiated, and that the ownership of the means of providing the service never changes hands. It’s the equation of the provision of a sexual service with the buying of sex that’s the problem, and it’s one that must be solved without negatively affecting sex workers (i.e. not by curing the disease by killing the patient).

I’m personally a fan of capitalist marketplaces because I don’t think there’s a better system out there

So, no marxist feminist utopia, then? How then is the provision of services or the commodification of human interactions to disappear?

We can respond to the basics of supply and demand while not giving corporations outsized power; while building a social safety net; and while instituting physical, legal and financial protections for workers. We can critique the forces that establish patters of exploited migrant labor while advocating for the rights of migrant laborers. Can’t we?

Sure we can. But that’s what sex work advocates do, not what “end demand” does. The equivalent of “end demand” would be to insist on the end of demand for any industry**** in which workers are exploited. Which is all of them. Which is marxism.

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*”selling” is a misnomer, I recently realized. More like renting out, though the idea that labor is “sold” is what leads to a lot of abuses of workers, since the “buyers” of labor believe that they actually own the worker for the time they’re at work (and often even beyond that).
**Marx, species-being, etc. That’s an entirely separate blog-post tho.
***some examples: Don’t Talk To Me About Sewing Machines, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Barred by U.S. Restrictions, Sex Workers Hold Alternative AIDS Summit in Kolkata, India, HIV and Sex Work – The view from 2012(pdf)
****the whole industry, not just a specific business or a specific model of providing the products or services of this industry

Think Progress gets something wrong

couple weeks ago, The article Idaho Lawmaker Compares Abortion To Prostitution* appeared on Think Progress. It’s in the style of their many other “Republicans say outrageously horrible things” articles, but I think they screwed it up this time.

Mind you, saying that “Prostitution is a choice “more so than an abortion would be […] Because (in an abortion) there’s two beating hearts. And then there’s one” is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Both are choices about one’s bodily autonomy, and consequently neither is more of a choice than another. Aside from that, these two issues have little to do with each other though, as one is a medical procedure, and another is a form of making money. So the Republican in question, State Rep. Ron Mendive from Idaho, was definitely being a fuckweasel and talking out of his ass. And being anti-choice, which one wouldn’t know from reading the Think Progress articl, because the article never mentions that rather salient point. And then, the article also buys into incredibly toxic narratives about sex work, to boot. The writer of the article, Annie-Rose Strasser, introduces Mendive’s comments as follows (emphasis mine):

Presenting abortion and prostitution as cavaler [sic] choices women make and ignoring the real danger of sex slavery, State Rep. Ron Mendive (R) elicited “audible gasps” on Wednesday during a meeting with representatives from the group, which later condemned his comparison

As far as I can tell, dude was talking about prostitution, not sex slavery. Those are two entirely different things, and conflating them like that is toxic bullshit. Besides, how does it help victims of actual sex slavery for prostitution to be illegal? How does it help to criminalize that which the enslaved folks are being forced to do against their will? doesn’t that merely criminalize the victims? Also, I don’t know about “cavalier choices”. I can’t find a good source for what the dude actually said, but he seems to have talked in general about a “double standard” where abortion is seen as a choice, but prostitution isn’t. That’s not saying they’re “cavalier choices”, it’s just saying they’re choices. And I’m afraid that he’s kind of right about this: there is a double standard. And since the Think Progress article doesn’t provide the context of this comment, it’s hard to tell whether what he said was outrageously shitty or not. If he argued for legalization of prostitution on the basis of bodily autonomy, then he’d be right. If he was trying to argue that both should be illegal, he’d be a toxic assface. But that isolated quote, by itself, is simply true.
And then there’s a quote by one of the ACLU folks about this comparison:

He was correlating a criminal action with something that is constitutionally protected. Those are two completely separate issues,

ok, they’re two completely different issues, but not because one is legal and one isn’t. Comparing legal and illegal things is how you figure out whether something should remain illegal or not (see for example alcohol vs weed comparisons). Now again, the article doesn’t provide the context of this speech**,focusing more on the outrage than on actually reporting details that would show why that comparison is supposed to be so outrageous. It simply assumes that the comparison is outrageous per se, not because it is being used in an outrageous argument that both should be illegal to undo the double standard. If he had instead argued that prostitution should be legal because it’s also about the freedom of choice about one’s body, he’d have a point***.

So my complaint about this article is twofold: for one, bringing sex slavery into this is irresponsible. It’s very similar to arguing against weed by arguing that it may lead to driving under the influence. For two, writing an article as if it should be obvious that a comparison like that would be a Todd Akin moment regardless of context is false and irresponsible. There are contexts in which arguing that there exists such a double standard is indeed perfectly valid. So the context should have been included, the context being that he’s an anti-choicer who was trying to argue that giving women choices leads to horrible things; like abortion, or prostitution.
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*the url ends with /idaho-sex-slavery/ which… um… no. O.o
**the RHealitycheck article it links to does though. Despite being much shorter, it actually bothers to show WHY his argument was outrageous, by including the context. THAT is how the article should have been written.
***granted, that would be an amazingly weird thing to argue for a Republican, but we’re supposed to be upset at what he said; and for that, you need to show why it’s supposed to be upsetting, ffs.

An interesting MRA argument

…and by “interesting” I mean that I’ve personally not run into it before, and that it’s actually one that deserves dissection rather than merely being laughed out of the room for sheer dumbosity. Somewhat unfortunately, this post has been incubating in my brain for so long that the blog in which I originally found the comments (No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz) seems to have moved to a new host, and now I can’t find anything there. So, this will be written from memory and therefore I can’t guarantee the full accuracy of the examples used to support the MRA’s talking point.

Anyway, the argument goes as follows:
We know that women have a higher status than men because women who “descend” into masculinity are tolerated , but men who are trying to do things “above their station” and adopt feminine things/behaviors are punished*; this is similar to the way rich people can affect the “ghetto” look and be cool, while poor people affecting upper class style and behavior are posers and fakes**; or similar to the way blackface is cool, but a black person trying to “pass” for a white one is considered to be transgressing.

The reason I find this argument interesting is because at first glance, that kinda sorta makes sense. Privileged people have more freedoms, and one of them is to appropriate things from the oppressed classes. Cultural appropriation for example is a huge problem with imperialism/colonialism/white culture***. But a closer analysis of the two claims in this argument makes it clear that that’s not quite how it works. So, let’s have a closer look at these claims:

1)The oppressors are permitted to be like the oppressed
This is only superficially true. As I mentioned, affecting and appropriating things that culturally belong to oppressed groups is certainly quite common. But there are “rules” about how you’re supposed to do that. For example, there’s a difference between appropriating/devaluing and adopting/supporting someone else’s oppressed identity. Wearing a hipster headdress is not the same as “decolonizing” and becoming involved in Native culture and society as an ally and/or as a spouse and parent to tribal members; donning blackface is not the same as becoming a student and promoter of Critical Race Theory; dressing up as a woman for Halloween, for a comedy show, or for a pride parade is not the same as living as a trans woman; and I’m willing to bet affecting a lower-class accent is not the same as abandoning your upper-class social ties and becoming a miner and moving to a working-class neighborhood. Point being, it’s ok to mock and play pretend, but it’s absolutely not ok to actually become part of, or a supporter of, the oppressed group. And in many ways, this can be seen by how the privileged classes define themselves, which is often by what they are not****. For example, pale skin was a sign of nobility when it meant that you were not a peasant; and then the Industrial Revolution happened, labor moved indoors, and suddenly suntanning became a sign of not being working class. Another example is Upper Class Etiquette (AKA “being classy”), which is basically an elaborate set of completely superfluous rules designed specifically as an artificial Upper Class Habitus setting the Upper Classes apart from the lower classes; and, sure, you can occasionally adopt what you think is a lower-class habitus, but only when it’s kinda obvious that it’s for shits and giggles; otherwise, it may well be perceived as a giant faux pas. A third, and probably the best-known example, is the one drop rule: whiteness being treated as such an endangered commodity that a single drop of black blood contaminated it permanently and made you non-white. Masculinity works much the same way, i.e. it identifies itself as what it is not, i.e. feminine. That’s why enforcement of transgressions out of masculinity and into femininity exist: they threaten the established hierarchy, and unlike in the cases of racism and classism, there isn’t even an equivalent ideology in the broader culture equivalent to “colorblindness” or “meritocracy” that would temper old-fashioned***** gender-policing the same way it sometimes does temper old-fashioned race- and class-policing.

2)The oppressed are forbidden from being like the oppressors
It is true that in order to properly maintain a hierarchy, it’s necessary to make sure the oppressed don’t just weasel out by becoming or passing for the oppressor. Further, since I just explained that the oppressor group often defines itself by what it is not, making sure that the oppressed don’t start doing oppressor-stuff is a way of preserving for oneself the permission to do these things#. However, internalized oppression and the hierarchy itself make it so that the stuff that “belongs” to the oppressor is seen as good, moral, “classy”, etc. while the stuff that “belongs” or identifies the oppressed groups is seen as inferior. Consequently, internal hierarchies within oppressed groups emerge, which state that even while being in the oppressed group, it’s “better” (more moral, more civilized, more normal, etc.) to be more like the oppressor and shun/abandon those things that mark one as a member of the oppressed class. Colorism is one such example, in which lighter skin color is higher in a racial hierarchy than darker skin, even among people of color themselves; similarly, African-Americans who have internalized a white habitus are considered more cultured than those who have a habitus associated with an African-American subculture (it’s probably not a coincidence that the first black president of the US is a biracial man raised by white people. Or, as Joe Biden noted is his typical foot-in-mouth kind of way: a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”). Another one is the “normal gay” and “flamboyant gay” bullshit: gay men who are otherwise performing masculinity are seen as better, i.e. higher up on the hierarchy, than gay men who are seen to share more “feminine” attributes than just being attracted to men (incidentally, this is also where the weird thing about how it’s not “gay” to receive a blowjob from a man comes from: receiving blowjobs = manly, while giving blowjobs = womanly; and gay = womanly)##. In the trans community, this internal (self-)oppression based on how closely someone manages to conform to cisnormative and heteronormative rules is called the Harry Benjamin Syndrome.
And exactly the same happens to gender-roles. Because men are higher in the hierarchy, masculine things have higher status, whereas feminine things have lower status. The consequence? Femmephobia: the belief that feminine self-expression and things associated with femininity are inherently less good, moral, fun, valuable, etc. than masculine self-expression and things associated with masculinity. This is why women who do traditionally masculine things can sometimes be perceived as being “better” than those doing traditionally feminine things.
It should be noted that a lot of this “it’s better to be like the oppressor” stuff is a symptom of a transitional culture: in a static hierarchy, “upward mobility” of this kind is strictly punishable and control and suppresion of it seen as absolutely necessary for the survival of society. When it occurs within segregated minority communities, it’s only tolerated insofar as it’s invisible (or useful in a divide-and-conquer sort of way) to the oppressor group; the moment it spills out into the “mainstream” (read: the oppressor-dominated culture), it will be swiftly punished. In a transitional culture on the other hand, the oppressor culture becomes a “norm” and “ideal” that becomes a requirement for acceptance into a supposedly egalitarian/democratic/colorblind/whathaveyou mainstream. And when these two aspects clash, you get the faliliar Catch-22 that is being a member of an oppressed group: if you act in ways identified as belonging to your group, you’ll be shat on because of the low status of those social signifiers; if you instead act in ways identified with the oppressor group, you’ll be perceived as “uppity”, bitchy, a trap, a poser, etc., unless you somehow manage to do this while also helping maintain the hierarchy. See also “not like other women” and “model minority”.

So, to sum it up: oppressors are only allowed to appropriate oppressed-group-signifiers for the purpose of mockery and “play”, but not actually adopt them in any meaningful way; conversely, in transitional cultures with delusions of egalitarian ideals, the hierarchy itself mandates that acceptance into the “mainstream” requires emulation of the oppressor class on behalf of the oppressed. Therefore, the fact that women wearing pants is cool, but men wearing skirts is not isn’t a sign that women are the oppressor class; it’s a sign that masculinity has higher-status than femininity, and that we’re in a transitional culture which both enforces the masculinity-over-femininity hierarchy and uses the language of meritocracy and equality, thus basically saying that women have the right to abandon their shitty, feminine qualities and exchange them for the better, more masculine ones, while at the same time assigning lower status to anyone choosing to be more feminine than masculine###.

Conclusion: another MRA being wrong, albeit more creatively and cleverly than usual.

P.S.:I apologize for the ridiculous amount of footnotes. The topic got away from me a few too many times, and there’s entirely too many tangents kinda-sorta-relevant to this topic.

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*women wearing pants vs. men wearing skirts; the fact that trans men face less violence than trans women; etc.
**to use my own example of this, take for example British class consciousness. It’s kinda fashionable for upper class Brits to affect lower-class accents; OTOH, someone from a lower class background trying to affect an upper class accent could be interpreted as uppity, fake, a poser etc. Also, from what I understand, there’s also a thing among younger folks of “dropping” aristocratic titles to be cool; but you’d get your ass handed to you if you instead wanted to take one on when you don’t have one. So, down-classing yourself = cool; up-classing yourself = punishable
***for example, here’s an entire excellent blog about appropriations of Native American culture by whites, especially by hipster culture: Native Appropriations
****that’s actually one of the identifying characteristics of being a privileged group: being the default, the un-modified state; being defined in common language as that which lacks distinguishing characteristics. That’s why “ethnic” never refers to WASPs, even though that’s technically a kind of ethnicity, and a human figure lacking secondary (or tertiary) sexual characteristics is interpreted as male.
*****”old-fashioned” vs. “modern” bigotry is a discussion in and of itself, but basically it’s the difference between being a blatantly prejudiced and discriminatory bigot (what we traditionally call “a racist”, “a misogynist” etc.) and someone who perpetrates microaggressions. Don’t know where dogwhistles fall here; probably the former masquerading as the latter
#and actually, it just occurred to me that of course appropriation is a way to allow the oppressor-group to do oppressed-people-stuff without losing their status and identity: Pat Boone’s career is in fact based entirely on this principle.
##the issue with “lipstic lesbians” vs. butch lesbians doesn’t neatly fit here because of the intersectional nature of it: on the one hand, feminine lesbians are considered “straighter” and more gender-role-conforming than butch lesbians, and thus are rewarded for that; on the other, femmephobia means that a feminine form of self-expression is considered lower-status than a masculine AKA butch one.
###while simultaneously still enforcing the old gender-roles. this intersectionality means that gender-non-conforming cis women and gender-non-conforming cis men both end up suffering along two axes of oppression while being in the oppressor category on one; and it’s also this intersectionality that synergistically ends up super-shitty for trans women, because they suffer from femmephobia (pretty much regardless of how butch their self-expression; but femme trans women tend to get more of this), gender-non-conformity (when they’re treated as supergay or superfeminine men), and misogyny.