Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Some thoughts about Prostitution

Feminists hate prostitution. The latest bugbear of uber-feminist Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian, is sex tourism, especially the type "exposed" in a recent Channel 4 documentary. A club-resort focussed on by the programme-makers, in Venezuela, caters to a largely American and British clientelle. The men choose "girlfriends" from a menu presented to them. The chosen girl then moves into the man's room, providing sex and companionship for the remainder of his stay. They make $80 per day, a lot of money in Venezuela.

According to Bindel,

Unlike regular prostitution, where the women at least get a break between customers and shifts, these women never stop. If the customer gets ill while she is in his employ, she will be required to clean up his vomit. Although the publicity for such package holidays promotes the "real girlfriend experience", it is anything but. Men who travel to such destinations are buying a dangerous delusion - that there are plenty of women in far-away "exotic" locations who will pander to their every desire, and love it to boot.

While the customers in such resorts can enjoy 24 hours of constant attention and pure, hedonistic pleasure, the women hate the experience. The worst of it, the women admit to each other, is the fact that there is no escape. Their facial muscles look almost fixed in fake smiles, and the voices sound hoarse from laughing at the unfunny jokes, coming out of the mouths of men they would not glance at twice, were it not for the money. Sex tourism promotes an insidious form of racism. The men view the women for sale as "exotic" and "other" - so unlike their mothers and sisters that they can treat them as mere commodities. Research has shown that many sex tourists do not consider the women as prostitutes. They believe that women from the countries they visit simply love having loads of sex with western men.

That there are at least two different sorts of imperialism on offer here. There's the imperialism that says, I have a right to possess the produce of country X. The purchase of women is, on one level, a metaphor for the expropriation of the third world by the first. Thus the woman working in a shoe factory, or forced to sell coffee at a below-subsistence price to Starbucks, is as much a victim of foreign oppression as the "holiday girlfriend". Perhaps more so. After all, despite what Bindel might think, a reasonably non-abusive form of prostitution is actually an attractive option when the only alternative is a sweatshop. It holds out the prospect of economic independence: at best, the possibility of a new life in a rich country. These resorts trade on the physical attractiveness of their inmates. How come there's such a high proportion of attractive young women? Because they are the ones who get hired.

Having watched the programme, it seems to me that Bindel's horror is misplaced. The Total Satisfaction resort may be sleazy, certainly, but there are far worse evils in the world. One of the women was working there to pay for her education so that she could pursue her chosen career, something not entirely unknown in this country, of course, since Labour introduced tuition fees. One can, of course, deplore the fact that there weren't other equally lucrative options available to her; it was a case of sell her body or lose her dream. But she was determined enough, and future-oriented enough, to make that sacrifice, and I think her choice, made in difficult circumstances, is deserving of our respect, even admiration. Bindel and Co, of course, would deprive her of her education and condemn her to a lifetime of drudgery.

This type of thought-process is in some respects deeply misogynistic. What it amounts to is the assertion that women are inherently victims, men are inherently evil, and that in the balance of the sexes men always have the power while women are poor darlings who need protecting from themselves by Big Sister who always knows best.

This is deeply, deeply, patronising. It is little more than an updating of a quasi-Victorian notion of female inferiority.

The idea that it's the business of well-meaning feminists in comfortable western countries to tell poor women in less-developed countries how to live their lives, while at the same time tolerating the economic system that makes prostitution attractive to these women, strikes me as post-imperial paternalism not entirely distinct from the impulse that made Bush and Blair want to rescue the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, with catastrophic consequences for all concerned (apart from Blair, now off making his millions). The world looks very simple from Planet Bindel: filthy, greasy, fat, unattractive men preying on vulnerable, abused women. Yet the argument could so easily be phrased in precisely the opposite way. Gullible losers being fleeced for all they're worth by smart, cynical, self-confident women playing up to stereotypes of submissive oriental women for their own betterment.

Once you stop drawing a line round sex as being existentially different from any other human activity, then much of the argument collapses. Thus it is essential to maintain that line, which is, at base, rooted in Christian and other religious morality. Granted that prostitution is often in practice abusive, is it also in principle abusive?

It's usually asserted that prostitution cannot be a free choice for young women in deprived circumstances. But who is to say whether a girl from a dirt-poor family isn't in a position to make such an assessment? Many of them actually want to work in sweatshops that would give H&S people in Europe massive coronaries, so unappealing is the alternative: penury and backbreaking agricultural labour. Yet many in such factories would rather work in "bars". They're not all teenagers, by the way.

If you outlaw sex tourism, in what ways will the women benefit? Many would be made destitute. I think that the implicit acceptance of other forms of exploitation, in the context of concentrating on the sex industry as being a unique evil, is somewhat questionable. Especially when the parts of the sex industry in question are voluntary. Rescue the children, rescue the women imprisoned in brothels, and the trafficked women, then start worrying about free women working in resorts like that featured in the documentary, who earn relatively good money and struck me as adults responsible for their own actions.

Even the sexual alternatives available to such women may not be particularly appetising: some have fled "arranged" marriages, others suffer in a social order that devalues female children. Strange as it may seem, the unappealing sex-tourist may be the first man who has treated her with any sort of respect. They're not all monsters. Most of them are just lonely.

The top priority of any legislative regime must be to protect women who are abused, involved in a sordid trade, trafficked, drug-addicted and hopeless.

The problem with feminist demands to criminalise the buying of sex, as has happened in Sweden, is that those are the women least likely to benefit. If the result of criminalise paying for sex is to drive prostitution underground, those parts of the industry that are already underground will be the least affected. Instead of new laws, the government should be concentrating resources on enforcing those laws which already exist against trafficking, sex slavery and so on.

There is a deeper question of principle at stake here, however, and I don't think it's ever consciously addressed by policy makers. And it is this: is prostitution wrong in itself, or is it wrong because of its attendant evils? Are the attendant evils inevitable, and if they were banished would we still be left with something undesirable?

Religious moralists have no compunction in answering that prostitution is wrong in itself. But what of secular moralists? For me, I think it's impossible to separate the situation which women involved in the sex industry find themselves in from the status which the prostitute occupies morally. The prostitute is culturally an un-person, defined either by her victimhood or by her notoriety. It isn't a job like any other because anyone engaging in it is tainted.

This isn't an inevitable situation: there have historically been societies in which prostitutes were not considered fallen women. The opprobrium which surrounds prostitution is thus best considered as a hangover from Christian morality. If the effect of legalisation were to in part reduce that stigma, and the women were happier as a result, in what ways would it be deleterious for society?

There is a type of woman that does possess the mental toughness, the singlemindedness and the ability to compentmentalise necessary to enter, and then get out of what is a peculiarly dangerous occupation. Such women (and indeed men) have always existed, and tend to end up famous and rich. The "fuck lit" of the Belle de Jour variety, which feminists deplore, is only a modern twist on a very ancient phenomeon. The Greeks understood it, making a distinction between "2 obol girls", who were literally slaves, and high-class hetairai who were just about the only women in Athens able to live independent lives. The 18th century understood it: Georgean London had sexual squalor as bad as anything today, yet some courtesans ended up as duchesses.

To pretend that different levels of prostitution do not exist is a peculiarly modern piece of wishful thinking. It reminds me of the bishop's wife confronted with Darwin's theory of evolution. "I pray it isn't true; but if it is, I pray it does not become widely believed."

The logical conundrum faced by anti-prostitution feminists is that, supposing the premisses of 1) equal rights and 2) informed choice, it must be at least conceptually possible that some women will choose prostitution, not out of desperation, but because they actually find it preferable to the alternatives (which include, for example, graduating with a huge student debt, or being unable to get on the property ladder). The fact that the choice is, by and large, unavailable to men does not ipso facto mean that it is a bad one. It might just as logically be the case that women are peculiarly fortunate in having the option. Yet this goes against the dogma that prostitution is a form of exploitation, in which male economic power is exercised over female "victims". This is, of course, an argument about society rather than one about prostitution. Apart from anything else, while on average women still earn less than men, there are plenty of rich women..

This, I think, is why traditional feminists wish to assert that Belle de Jour represents merely a "fantasy", despite the incontrovertible evidence that that side of prostitution does exist. Rather than concentrate on the abuses, they prefer to deny any complexity, any hierarchy, any nuance. Because to acknowledge the nuances in the situation would bring them up against the logical incoherence of their feminist position. Much more than prostitution is at stake.

There's a word I'm looking for, but I don't find it, so I'll have to make it up. Pornophobia: a fear of and aversion from prostitution and other manifestations of the sex industry. Arguments such as we're hearing on this thread may lay claim to a grounding in evidence and logic, but at base they're pornophobic. It is a phenomenon which should be very interesting to anthropologists.

A point I made earlier concerned the limited sexual options available to many women in the third world. In some places, the main fate of most women will be an "arranged" marriage in which she is effectively sold by her family in a transaction only linguistically separable from prostitution. Rape and abuse within marriage are commonplace in such situations. Prostitutes, with their relative independence and freedom, have been objects of envy, as well as of fear and superstition, in many societies. Their position is a liminal one, simultaneously inside and outside of society. Thus they threaten the social order which they simultaneously (by "mopping up" excess male sexuality) help to maintain.

They also parodise sexual relations in an often uncomfortable manner. To the woman whose respectable marriage was based on property transactions and social duty, and not on emotion, and who may be having a miserable and abusive relationship, the prostitute seems to mock her: for how does her marriage differ? The answer is to look upon the prostitute as a degraded and fallen creature, a victim to be pitied and simultaneously shunned. Pornophobia thus becomes a psychological survival strategy.
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Why the Conservatives can never be right

(Heresy Corner, September 2007)

Gordon Brown's speech to the party faithful in Bournemouth yesterday was a predictable exercise in right-wing demogogery, equally predictably characterised as "stealing Tory clothes". Except, of course, that no Conservative would talk, as Brown did, of "British jobs for British workers", or indulge in the kind of authoritarian language that ought to have the hang'em and flog'em brigade speaking in tongues.

There's a paradox here, one which has often been pointed to but never really understood, because it has been misinterpreted as one of language. It's too easy to say that an assumed "man of the Left" can "get away" with right-wing rhetoric which no Tory would have the temerity to utter. For to say this is to buy into the cosy "left-of-centre" assumption that Tories would obviously like to say such things, and much worse, and only the salutary effect of a liberal media obliges them to bite their tongues. For some Tories, at some times, this is no doubt true. But to imagine that it is true of all Tories, at all times, is to buy into a left-liberal Toryphobia that has contributed in no small way to the catastrophic erosion of democracy and civil liberties in this country.

Toryphobia: that hate that has no problem at all speaking its name. This struck me forcefully the other week (although it had certainly occured to me many times before) when I heard the saintly Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the radio preface some mildly complimentary remarks about David Cameron with the mealy-mouthed disclaimer, "I hate Tories but...". Now, I doubt Mrs Brown meant it literally. It's hard to imagine her actually hating anyone. But the fact that she felt able, even obliged, to say it speaks volumes. Should she have said "I hate black people", or "I hate homosexuals" or "I hate Jews" she would never have been allowed back on the airwaves. But then even the spokesmen of the BNP would never say anything like that.

Any concept of "Toryphobia" is, like the concept of Islamophobia, open to the objection that Toryism is a set of ideas, and you can't be racist against ideas. But Tories, like Muslims, aren't ideas, but people; and people who hate Tories seem to hate them not for their ideas, but for who they are. And just as it's easy to stereotype Muslims as woman-hating terrorists, it's easy to stereotype Tories as privileged, fox-hunting, bigoted, closet racist, crypto-fascist "toffs". But just as the majority of Muslims are decent, honest folk just trying to get on with their lives, so within the ranks of the Conservative Party are a great many hard-working, compassionate, charitable pillars of society.

But Toryphobia isn't just morally suspect. It's also politically highly dangerous, because it hands carte-blanche to left-wingers in power to hack away at the foundations of liberalism: civil society, civil liberties, and the rule of law. The New Labour attack on the British constitution, on the presumption of innocence, the discretion of judges, and trial by jury; not to mention their authoritarian schemes for identity cards and detention without trial, the assaults on free speech, the official secrecy, the corruption of office, the cronyism and quangoes: all this has gone, if not entirely unchallenged, then insufficiently challenged. Even strong opponents of such measures on the left still tell themselves, come polling day, that "It would be worse under the Tories".

No it wouldn't.

All these things have happened under a Labour government. Not because Labour happened to be in power at the time, but because these are the sort of things only Labour governments can do. Not because the media would restrain the Tories by shrieking "lurch to the right", either. But because they are the sort of things that only a Labour government would want to do. The last Conservative government looked at the case for ID cards and decided against them. It took a socialist regime determined to brand the population like cattle to introduce the appalling scheme, whose consequences (unless it collapses under its own weight) will be baleful. This isn't an isolated incident. Conservative governments, even Mrs Thatcher's, have never been particularly right-wing. Name a liberal Home Secretary. Unless you're thinking of Roy Jenkins, the name that most readily comes to mind is a Tory name. Hurd. Clarke. Whitelaw. In the criminal justice system the Eighties was a time of liberal reform. Now name an illiberal Home Secretary. Blunkett, anyone? John Reid?

People who are neither liberal nor conservative, or liberal but not conservative (or indeed conservative but not liberal, like Gordon Brown) find it impossible to understand the liberal conservative position. They imagine that liberal conservatives are liberal despite being conservative, whereas the truth is that it's being a conservative that enables you to be truly liberal. "Liberal" is not a euphemism for "libertarian", either, although freedom is a large part of it. No, conservatives are so-called because they want to conserve things. In particular, British conservatives want to conserve ancient British liberties like free speech, trial by jury, the Whig tradition of moderate progress, honour and restraint in pubic office, and being left alone to live one's own life.

A state that asserts its power over the individual is an oppressor, however benign its intentions, however well-meaning and morally comfortable its supporters. Any government, even (perhaps especially) a "progressive" one which expands the scope of state supervision over the individual and over the institutions of civil society tends towards tyranny. Civil libertarians and others who value personal freedom and oppose state control should take off their blinkers and learn to love the Tories.
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Sunday, 16 December 2007

Welcome to my dungeon

This blog is intended for longer treatments of various subjects, for supplementary materials, and also for items which, for various reasons, I consider unsuitable for Heresy Corner. Most, but not all, new content will be announced and linked to in Heresy Corner. Read the rest of this article