More straw woman bashing

The Guardian published on Monday a rather disjointed, poorly thought through pro-prostitution article, written by SA Jones, and republished from Overland, an Australian website. It’s still worth going through and pointing out all the flaws, as these arguments aren’t going to go away:

I feel uneasy about sex work. I worry that it objectifies women and compounds our difficulties in carving a place for ourselves as cerebral and corporeal, as full persons. But here’s the thing: it’s not about me.

However sincere my concerns, however fluently I may be able to quote Andrea Dworkin, such views tacitly align me with the slut-shamers and the conservatives who do such a good job of “othering” sex workers, of making them a thing apart – alien and aberrant.

Two paragraphs in and she’s already dragged out this battered old straw feminist; if you’re not for ‘sex worker rights’ as defined by sex industry advocates (that is, the pimps, pornographers, johns, and those who make a career out of keeping women in prostitution) you’re on the side of the ‘slut-shamers’ and ‘conservatives’, and you hate ‘sex workers’ – and those are the only two options available.

The existence of the sex industry, in it’s legal and illegal forms, is incompatible with the human rights of the women and children and men it chews up and shits out, and it is incompatible with the human dignity of all women and girls – so it is about her, because it’s about all of us.

Jones says later in the piece that most of the ‘sex workers’ she knows are white, middle-class and well educated, with lots of choices. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it, the sex industry is a pyramid with a very broad base, the minority of women at the top who get to pick-and-choose, and make a lot of money, and have a great time, are doing so on the backs of all the women and girls who don’t get any real choice.

But Jones is only really interested in talking about the tiny minority who get to make any kind of real choice; talk about the very real lack of choice most women and girls in the sex industry have and your ‘othering’ ‘sex workers’, as if prostitution itself, being reduced to a commodity, isn’t ‘othering’, as if being so poor that prostitution was your only ‘choice’ isn’t ‘othering’.

This othering means that when a sex worker is murdered – as happened in Melbourne’s St Kilda suburb last week – our outrage is muted. Yes, we think it’s awful and we hope the assailant is caught, but she was putting herself at risk, but she knew the dangers, but she didn’t “keep herself safe” – as if what Tracy Connelly experienced in the last moments of her life was any less horrifying for her than it would be for us. Or as if her family and friends grieve differently, or her partner is any less traumatised by finding her body, or her assailant will confine their violence to sex workers so the rest of us can live without fear (Adrian Ernest Bayley, anyone?)

Who is this ‘we’ she is talking about exactly? The mainstream certainly, but radical feminists and abolitionists don’t think prostitutes’ lives are worth less than the lives of ‘normal’ women (but Jones wants people to think we are, by jumping from a reference to Dworkin who was a prostituted woman herself in one paragraph, straight to mainstream callousness in the next).

It’s worth pausing here in my analysis of Jones’ article, to look at what happened to Tracy Connelly, as it is being used to call for the legalisation of street sex work. According to the press reports Connelly was a homeless 40-year-old woman, who had been prostituting for over a decade, and was murdered inside the van she had been living in for the past month.

Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, has legal brothel and escort service prostitution, perhaps Connelly’s life-style was too chaotic for her to be employable in a brothel, or perhaps she couldn’t deal with the 10 hour shifts and the fines for refusing to service a john.

The classic line on street prostitution is that legalising it (providing zones etc) will make it safer, as if any woman can spot a potential abuser in 5 minutes. Both Steve Wright (the Ipswich serial killer), and Stephen Griffiths (the “crossbow cannibal” killer), were regulars who were well known to the women they targeted. The fact that there was no forced entry into Connelly’s van, implies that her killer may have been known to her as well.

Any meaningful abolitionist approach needs to acknowledge that exiting is not easy, and it does not happen overnight, and that short-term harm-reduction measures are going to be needed as well, but what women like Connelly need are real options, real choices; Connelly wasn’t making any kind of empowered choice to be a prostitute, and it’s a safe bet that Jones’ middle-class ‘sex worker’ friends aren’t choosing to sell sex the way Connelly was forced to sell sex.

This is what I mean by disjointed, it’s all about ‘choice’, but confronted with a woman like Connelly, Jones doesn’t want to talk about Connelly’s lack of choices. Instead she would rather use her as an excuse for bashing ‘sex negative’ feminists, who are, apparently, the cause of violence against prostitutes, rather than talk about the actual men committing the violence.

So, then, back to Jones’ article:

Feminism has always been conflicted on the question of sex and sexuality, inheriting as it did two such different traditions. One tradition is devoted to protecting women from the laws and customs that subjugate them to men and men’s bodies; and one argues for the reclamation of the female body and its pleasures. For various reasons, my own politics tended towards the former for a long while. The problem with this position is that it so easily falls prey to the model of men’s sexuality as rapacious and threatening.

Well, at least she actually has some kind of basic understanding of what radical feminism is (she is right about us wanting to get women out from under men), the problem, though, with the dichotomy she sets up, is that ‘reclaiming sexual pleasure’ is impossible while we are still under that subjugation; individual, already privileged women (women who can pass along the abusive sex to a ‘sex worker’), may be able to achieve it, but feminism isn’t about individual women, it is about all women. Liberation from men’s sexual violence has to come first, and we don’t have to theorise about what this ‘reclamation’ looks like without liberation, we can just look at so-called ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ which is about celebrating every cruel, violent, degrading thing that ever got a man (or woman) off, never ever criticising what men do, and ‘prude shaming’ any woman or girl who isn’t into eroticising her own dehumanisation.

Many women do experience male sexuality, as it exists, for real, in the real world, under patriarchy, as violent and threatening; it doesn’t have to be that way, and radical feminists, not ‘sex positive’ ‘feminists’ are the ones actually saying this. What ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ does is victim-blame any woman who doesn’t find sex under patriarchy enjoyable; men don’t have to change, women do, and women are told that sexual liberation is to be found, not through changing the status quo, but through embracing it.

A former professor of mine, the late Patricia Crawford, referred to this as the “sex or burst theory”, whereby men’s sex drive is an unsophisticated hydraulic system requiring periodic release, or catastrophic consequences will ensue. Sex workers and porn are socially positioned as providing this “release valve” that supposedly keep the rest of us (good) women safe.

Radical feminists don’t believe that men are animals who are incapable of controlling themselves, we believe that it is a function of male supremacist power that men don’t have to control themselves, so they don’t, and the epidemic levels of violence against women and girls, inside and outside of the sex industry, are testament to that. Many mainstream men and women do believe that men have sexual ‘needs’ and that these ‘needs’ have to be met, and that a sacrificial class of prostituted women is the best way to meet those ‘needs’, but radical feminists do not.

How does Jones think the sex industry came about? It’s hardly as if it exists only because a handful of middle-class women want to be ’empowered sex workers’, it is driven by the twin forces of male demand and female poverty – and the demand (and, therefore, the motivation for the traffickers and pimps) would still be there even if we really tackled poverty, without tackling patriarchy as well.

The objections to this model are manifest, not least in that it sets up a dichotomy between men and women, where (gendered) desires are oppositional and women whose sexual experiences fall outside a fairly narrow, vanilla band are cast as aberrant. Even mad. It makes black and white what in reality is the complex, messy and contestable nature of desire. It means we agree to sacrifice “release valve” women like some kind of human shield. It reinforces sexual double standards whereby sex amplifies men but diminishes women. So the same act makes men studs or virile or magnetic, whilst rendering women sluts or needy or a bit pathetic, with sex workers the ultimate example. Throw in all our baggage around sexual competition and fears about fidelity and there’s a potent recipe for women’s hostility towards sex workers.

“Women’s hostility towards sex workers”? Dear oh dear, Jones has fallen in with the sex industry advocates line that it’s women who are causing all the violence against ‘sex workers’, rather than the men who are actually committing the violence. Men are the ones beating and raping and murdering prostitutes, not women, and they are doing it because of patriarchy and misogyny, not because of women’s ‘sexual baggage’.

How does an article that talks about the real murder of a prostitute, which I am 100% certain was committed by a man, suddenly start talking about “women’s hostility”? Why does Jones not want to name the agent in violence against prostitutes?

Perhaps it is because bashing a straw woman (whether that straw woman is a ‘conservative’ or a radical feminist) is easier than actually confronting and challenging men, male supremacism, and patriarchy? It’s far easier to talk about a phony ‘war’ against ‘sex workers’ than actually talk about men; it’s far easier to talk about radical feminists being ‘sex negative’, than to actually confront men’s systemic sexual violence.

11 responses

  1. “Tracy Connelly had walked St Kilda’s red light district for at least a decade and knew her work was dangerous. In 2005, her minder was run over by a man who was angry that she refused to get in his car, Ms Connelly once told a court.

    She tried to survive without sex work, but needed the money.”

    In other words, for all the attempts to make her use of her death for choosey choice pro sex industry arguments this woman had tried unsuccessfully to exit, and was DISEMPOWERED to quit. Probably, in part, by a lack of comprehensive exiting services to help her do so in a country where the sex industry has been long legalised, and where more and more middle class white feminists seem to want to cheerlead for the idea that “sex is just work” and “stigma makes it unsafe”, ignoring the fact that the “job” only exists for the same reason as the stigma does – “Sex workers and porn are socially positioned as providing this “release valve” that supposedly keep the rest of us (good) women safe”.

  2. Sorry, really should qualify “country where the sex industry has long been legalised” as not a wholly accurate description. (Too hastily drafted comment – there are different situations with regards to prostitution in different Australian states). Though in Victoria brothel and escort service prostitution is legal (since the mid 80’s) as mentioned in your post, and there certainly seems to have been a ongoing normalisation of the sex industry in the Australian media.

  3. Should also be “attempts to make use of her death”. (Sorry again! That will teach me to slow down and reread next time before posting…)

  4. Reading through this again I’m amazed by how all-over-the-place Jones’ writing is, it’s a mish-mash of at least three different, not entirely compatible ideas: ’empowered sex workers’ (middle-class white women who get to pick and choose) + the murder of a street prostitute (who wasn’t making any kind of empowered choice) + bashing straw radical feminists as ‘sex negative’, but at the same time claiming we’re the ones who accept the ‘need’ for a sacrificial class of prostituted women – she can’t even decide if radical feminists are for or against prostitution!

    I think she does understand on some level that prostitution is about men getting to abuse women, but she can’t confront it head on, that would be ‘sex negative’ ‘victim feminism’, so instead we get this mess.

    Does Jones think that if all women were just really really ‘positive’ about sex, men might stop raping and abusing us, and that prostitution would become a fun safe job? Perhaps ‘appeasement feminism’ is another good label for the ‘4th wave’!

  5. Honestly, it’s depressing how frequently these kinds of articles are cropping up. One appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald two days ago (http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/sex-workers-deserve-an-end-to-discrimination-20130730-2qwrx.html) spouting the usual “stigma is what kills them not the job” tropes and allowing a spokesperson from the Scarlet Alliance to make the usual unsubstantiated pro sex industry accusations about the Nordic Model, without making even the slightest attempt to include (or address) a counter point of view. (As far as I can tell the Scarlet Alliance must have shares in Fairfax media or something, given how often “a spokesperson from the Scarlet Alliance” seems to inform articles about sex work in the Sydney Morning Herald lately…)

    I think it is worth noting that The St. Kilda Gatehouse which is holding a vigil for Tracey Connelly, and was actively involved in trying to help her while she was alive, receives no government funding whatsoever. The Scarlett Alliance, on the other hand, which has a clear sex work legalisation agenda (and therefore seemingly little – if any – interest in supporting exiting programs) has benefitted from ongoing Australian government funding since 2004.

  6. That SMH article is awful, the stigma attached to prostitution comes from misogyny and patriarchy, not the legal status of prostitution.

    And you’re right about the Scarlett Alliance; legal prostitution benefits the pimps and the brothel keepers the most because it turns them into ‘legitimate businessmen’, it benefits governments because they can reap tax incomes and they don’t need to fund expensive exit programmes.

    Also interesting to note, the SMH article refers to Connelly’s boyfriend as her ‘minder’ (a euphemism for pimp), maybe he was one of the factors helping to keep her in prostitution?

  7. disarminglyastute

    How obtuse the author is, willfully ignoring the agents of harm, when she uses passive language like, “[this model]…sets up dichotomy between men and women”…”women…are cast as aberrant…” WHO has “set up “this model”? WHO is casting women as aberrant? Shameful and offensive to be offered up, yet again, the bullshit idea that this “is what it is”; this stuff just *happens*, not that it’s MEN setting up this model of which she speaks, etc. Tired and offensive, same.old.bullshit.

  8. This isn’t feminism. This is women wallowing in victimhood. This is hatred of our fellow human beings that have an X and a Y chromosome.

    Feminism is supposed to be about empowering women, not pointing out their victimhood. I see that you feminists use the words “rape victim”. This implies that all she is is a rape victim, when she could be a teacher, doctor, or lawyer. Tell me that this isn’t misogynist.
    In order to be equal to men, we must stop wallowing in our victimhood and earn our equality. Growing up, my idea of a feminist was a strong, independent woman who leaves the kitchen to kick some buns, not a pathetic whiny little waif wallowing in her eternal victimhood.
    Women choose to be in the sex industry. Even if they have no other choice (not very likely), the sex industry supports them, and they will be broke if it didn’t exist.
    If you actually are a victim of violence against women, my heart goes out to you and my middle finger goes out to your attacker. But you must not let it disempower you.
    I do not mean to insult you in any way. I just want to show you that what you are doing isn’t really feminism. The patriarchy isn’t strong enough to keep you from accomplishing your dreams. There have always been and always will be misogynistic idiots. But you are stronger than them, I know you are, and you must prove them wrong, not whine about the patriarchy. If you have read this comment, thank you for your time

  9. You are no feminist, you are a misogynist, a victim-hater, and a victim-blamer.

    “This is hatred of our fellow human beings that have an X and a Y chromosome.”

    Men commit violence against women, this is an undisputable fact, how is talking about this violence more hateful than the violence itself?

    “Feminism is supposed to be about empowering women, not pointing out their victimhood.”

    No, feminism is about liberating women from patriarchy, you don’t end violence against women by refusing to acknowledge that it exists, refusing to talk about it, or by trying to shut down women who do talk about it; are you in favour of censoring women who have been the victims of violence, all in the name of ’empowerment’?

    “I see that you feminists use the words “rape victim”. This implies that all she is is a rape victim, when she could be a teacher, doctor, or lawyer.”

    Teachers, doctors and lawyers can be raped, ‘rape victim’ isn’t a profession. Some women choose the term rape survivor, some women want to use the term victim, because they have been victimised.

    Since I didn’t use the term ‘rape victim’ once in the above post, you are setting up a straw woman argument here, it’s only you who thinks being a victim of rape over-writes everything else, a women who is raped is also many other things, and talking about vicimisation doesn’t change that.

    The word ‘victim’ doesn’t rape women, violent men rape women; refusing to use the word ‘victim’ won’t end rape, it will just silence victims and make it harder for them to seek justice.

    “In order to be equal to men, we must stop wallowing in our victimhood and earn our equality. Growing up, my idea of a feminist was a strong, independent woman who leaves the kitchen to kick some buns, not a pathetic whiny little waif wallowing in her eternal victimhood.”

    This is disgusting misogyny, women who have been raped are “pathetic whiny little waif[s]” if they talk about it? Explain how that isn’t misogynistic victim blaming.

    Also, I have no interest in being equal with men. As I have said before on this blog, the difference between equality and freedom is the difference between wanting to be rich, and wanting to end poverty; I do not want to be as violent, selfish and cruel as men raised under patriarchy are.

    “Women choose to be in the sex industry. Even if they have no other choice (not very likely), the sex industry supports them, and they will be broke if it didn’t exist.”

    You are clearly utterly clueless about the sex industry; have you never heard of sex trafficking, of child prostitution? (Did you even read the blog post you left this comment under?) I suggest you look at some of the links in the side-bar and get yourself a clue.

    “If you actually are a victim of violence against women, my heart goes out to you and my middle finger goes out to your attacker. But you must not let it disempower you.”

    Your middle finger is worth fuck-all, and telling victims of violence that they ‘must’ be empowered isn’t going to help anyone or change anything for the better, just push victims into silence and isolation, and let more abusers get away with it.

    Please explain to me how keeping silent about a problem solves that problem? Should we not talk about people going hungry, because that makes them victims? Should they just tell themselves that they are ’empowered’ to counteract their empty stomachs?

    “I do not mean to insult you in any way. I just want to show you that what you are doing isn’t really feminism.”

    Bollocks, you are no feminist.

    “The patriarchy isn’t strong enough to keep you from accomplishing your dreams. There have always been and always will be misogynistic idiots. But you are stronger than them, I know you are, and you must prove them wrong, not whine about the patriarchy. If you have read this comment, thank you for your time.”

    What utter condescending rubbish, what disgusting victim-blaming. If you think ‘patriarchy’ = ‘misogynist idiots’ you don’t know what patriarchy means and have no business commenting on what is and isn’t feminism. Patriarchy is a systematic system of oppression, it’s the abortion of female foetuses solely for being female, it’s female infanticide, it’s girl children being systematically fed less, educated less, getting less medical attention, it’s FGM, it’s child marriage and forced marriage and rape in marriage still being legal in many parts of the world (and only being made illegal in the UK in the 1990’s), it’s shockingly low rape conviction rates, it’s the wall-to-wall harassment and sexism women encounter in all walks of life, it’s two women a week in England and Wales being murdered by a current or former partner, it’s a porn industry that requires more and more extreme and violent acts, with a prolapsed anus and an STD infection in the eye being an accepted by-product of the ‘work’.

    But hey, I’m just ‘whining’ and turning women into victims by talking about it, right?

    And you can fuck off with your idiotic new-age self-help speak, you are completely clueless and have no right to call yourself a feminist.

  10. Yes, it is definitely easier to blame us women for sexual violence, murder, etc., then to delve into the issues of patriarchy, male supremacy, and men’s entitlements. Not everyone has the guts to even call men out on their bullshit, period! The women fear being called a bitch, cunt, and of course, having the guilty men “not like her.” They’ll put her down for speaking her mind, call her a feminazi, a prude, or whatever other language they desire to keep her “in her place, which means being ultimately silenced. That’s how men react to a woman who challenges them. Now, about “sex work” (lets be real here and call it what it is: PROSTITUTION), I do NOT believe that it is a “choice.” I had to do it when I was very young because I was homeless, had zero money, and couldn’t bear the thought of living on the street, or living with an abusive person in THEIR, not my home. Looking back, I wish I had been more resourceful, but I was in a large, fast moving city, and was very alone, and not very city savvy. Gee, if I had a CHOICE, don’t you think I would just go and get a job in a law firm with a fancy office? Nope. Not possible, because I had no EDUCATION. If I had a choice to not earn the quick money that I desperately needed, don’t you think is opt to become a famous actress? Sorry, not possible. So, without these choices I didn’t have, I sought out to be a prostitute so I could use the only thing I had to work with (my looks and body) to make quick money. Ok, so these middle class women claim that to be a prostitute is a choice, right? Well, you know and I know that fucking and sucking strange, sometimes stinking men does not sound that appealing, right? I have news for ya-the johns choose who they want to pay to fuck, NOT the other way around. So, what they are not telling the truth. Meeting a john who looks like a male model may very likely happen, but those guys are few and far between. Most are perverted, verbally abusive, unclean, they want to fuck you with no condom, some take their time ejaculating, and this makes the encounter even MORE hellish for the poor girl, some use Viagra (yikes…), and they will DEFINITELY make you sore, some try and violate your boundaries (for example, you say no anal sex, and they keep pressing you for it, etc!) And, there is always a chance that the session shall go wrong, and you don’t have the luxury of walking out of there alive. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?! I could go on and on, but I believe I have made my point.

  11. Dear Amanda,

    Thank you for your comment and thank you for sharing your experiences. I hope you are doing well now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: