Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the moderation que

Another case of a blogger being too thin-skinned to brook disagreement with their opinions. In this case I called out Rachel Cervantes claim that Neil Malmuth's 2000 meta-analysis paper on porn and violence studies constituted any kind of overall "proof" that porn caused men to be violent toward women. In fact, I see it as evidence for the very opposite.

After a go-around about this, my response was dropped. I believe it deserves to see the light of day:

Well, I am familiar with the paper you quoted, along with several other metastudies on the topic, and I absolutely can't believe that you see it as compelling evidence for a link between porn use and violence against women. Did you even bother to read the authors' conclusions, starting here?

Particularly this part:

"The current findings do suggest that for the majority of American men, pornography exposure (even at the highest levels assessed here) is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression (although aggressive tendencies may be expressed in other behavioral manifestations than in actual aggressive behavior when there is not the full confluence of factors that elicits actual aggression [e.g., Malamuth & Thornhill, 1994])."

Malmuth's claim is that the most violent subset of pornography may have triggering effects on the most sexually violent subset of men, and even this is disputed in meta-analysis carried out by other authors (see, for example, Fisher and Grenier 1994, cited in the bibliography of the above paper). And even Malmuth, as stated above, has said that there's no clear evidence that porn has any negative effect on psychologically normal individuals.

That to me does not seem to be overwhelming evidence of the harmful effects of porn viewing, and certainly nothing that remotely rises to the level of evidence that would be required to start the presumption of free speech protection from porn. (Or even makes a good case for shaming porn viewers, which you posit as an alternative to censorship.)

Ms Cervantes claims my lack of "civility" was cause for her dropping the post, and, yep, I agree that online communication in general doesn't exactly promote it. Perhaps – my tone in this post is rather short, though I'll add that I've been on the receiving end of far worse (including by several individuals on her blog roll), including direct insults, nasty statements about what they imagine my sexuality to be like, rounds of questioning that read more like a police interrogation, and at least one threat of a lawsuit. In comparison to this, I think the phrase "did you even bother" is pretty mild stuff, but the feminist bloggers is notoriously thin-skinned in this regard, and have an unfortunate tendency to dish it out in spades without being able to take it in the least.

Ultimately, I'm stating that she's got her "facts" wrong and her interpretation is sloppy, and I'm not really sure how much that can be sugar-coated. However, I also think this is a case where somebody really did not like being called wrong by somebody who had the facts to back it up, and was simply using incivility as an excuse to bury that challenge.

And more to the point of the original post, I see this as, once again, feminists misusing and misinterpreting media effects studies as a way of legitimizing censorship. This is fundamentally wrong and absolutely should be called out.

Added 12/19:

From the comments section:

RC: "Finally, supposing the Malamuth conclusion could be regarded that simplistically: porn only increases violence against women in that population predisposed to it. What is an “acceptable” level of rape? How many rapes? How many murders?"

IACB: "Well, I don’t care if this sees the light of day or not, but the counter to this is obvious. Do you also support alcohol prohibition? Because there is a small subset of alcohol users who are prone toward addiction, violent behavior, drunk driving, etc.

Similarly, there are people who are motivated by religious belief to commit all manner of violence, from setting women on fire, to flying planes into buildings, to “spare the rod and spoil the child”? And I’ll note that religiously-motivated violence is far more common than crimes supposedly triggered by porn. By the reasoning you’ve given above, the Bible and Quran really should be banned.

I think the answer is obvious – you don’t impose censorship or micromanage everybody’s behavior based on the behavior of society’s most messed-up individuals."

RC: "The religion argument is a straw man. Religion has not been mentioned. However, you are desperately searching for a stereotype to levy.

Alcohol is also a straw man. We are talking about pornography and violence against women. The bottom line is that you don’t give a flying fuck about violence against women? Hey, let women be beaten, raped, murdered…as long has you have your jerk off mags, huh?

Ren Ev made reasonable points. You? You’ve just embarrassed yourself."

OK, so lets see what we have here - 1) basic inability to understand a simple analogy (hint: religion wasn't mentioned to paint RC as a religious conservative); 2) ritualistic invocation of the phrase "straw man" (without even beginning to demonstrate that the argument in question actually is a straw man argument) actually constitutes a counter-argument; and 3) use of stock insults like "let women be beaten, raped, murdered…as long has you have your jerk off mags" (that's almost as original as "you must be a man"). All of which adds up to a knee-jerk argument trifecta.

Many feminists go on about how they are marginalized and negatively stereotyped, and how feminism is not taken seriously. Which may be true, but with reactive, piss-and-vinegar types like the above representing feminism, is it any wonder?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Speaking of dehumanizing work....

Demeaning treatment – an addiction to fast money at the beginning, only to be followed by severe burnout – 20% of the customer base described as "psychopaths". An expose of the harsh realities of stripping or prostitution? No, try the harsh realities of waiting tables.

The blog (and upcoming book) which lays this on the line is called Waiter Rant, which I hadn't heard of before today. There's a good interview with the author on a recent Leonard Lopate Show, and another public radio interview here. I'd always been aware that waiters were not always happy with their work, but put up with it because the money is sometimes good (my mom used to be a waitress when I was a kid), but I wasn't really aware of the extent of it, or other behind-the-scenes stuff, until coming across this. Obviously there isn't 100% analogy with sex work, which, of course, requires a level of customer interaction that's in another league, but its certainly the case that a lot of the issues that sex work gets called on are actually issues that are as much about service-industry work in general than sex work in particular.

For all of its anger, Waiter Rant is actually more or less a "dining-positive" critique. There actually is a radical "abolitionist" version of this in the form of the anarchist tract Abolish Restaurants. If you haven't heard of that one, you're probably not alone. You'd think the folks in the Ultimate Radical camp of the feminist blogosphere might mention it more often, considering it sounds pretty much up their ally – then again, if it isn't about teh sexay its probably not on their radar.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I think I like the original better

Racist? Slut-shaming? How about not even original?

Contrast this radfem-favorite cartoon by Elena Steier with Charles Crumb's infamous "Famous Artists Talent Test" entry (background here (forward to 1:35:45)):

Monday, June 16, 2008

Seven Songs for Summer

Tagged by God-Emperor of Rome, Renegade Evolution.

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring and summer. Post these instructions in your blog along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what they’re listening to.

Probably leaning more toward pop and rock than usual, but as always, an eclectic mix:

Deeper and Deeper – Madonna:

(Had to feature the video on this one. Have I ever mentioned I really want to be Udo Kier when I grow up?)

Babooshka – Kate Bush

Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey – Paul McCartney

Life Begins at the Hop – XTC

Call of the West – Wall of Voodoo

iNightThe Units

Well, All Right – Buddy Holly

Its late and I can't immediately thing of a full list of seven people who haven't been tagged already. I'll add this tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

But what about the johns? Some thoughts on a non-argument

Figleaf wrote a post earlier this week about the feminist debate on the ethics of sex work. While I'm sure he was trying to carve out some kind of feminist middle ground, I really think his argument here falls flat in a couple of places. The first, which is what I want to address here, is that he frames the ethics about commercial sex in terms of attitudes toward women that men who buy sex may or may not have. The second is that I think he comes up with a very clumsy "middle ground" feminism, which just doesn't hold together in terms of real world politics or logical consistency – that's worth another post in itself, and I'll address it separately.

First, I want to point to Snowdrop Explodes response to the "what about the johns?" argument at play in Figleaf's argument. I strongly agree with the points that SE makes, and, in fact this post started out as a reply I was going to post there. I found that I had enough to say about the topic that I wanted to post about it on my own blog.

First, in response to Figleaf's point about those of us on the pro sex-worker/sex positive side ignoring the argument made by the other side – actually, I recognize that the anti-"pornstitution" side centers a lot of their argument against prostitution and, especially, pornography around the theme of, "this is what it makes men think/do". I also happen to think its the most foolish set of arguments in the radfem arsenal and a big reason why I happen to disagree with that side of the aisle, and not a point I would wish to casually concede in the name of a false "moderation".

I think that the primary argument about whether or not its ethical to purchase sex is directly related to the agency of the seller. If the person selling whatever sexual service (anything from direct prostitution to acting in porn) is doing so of their own free will, and is fully conscious and able to consent to what they're doing, then I don't see any problem with buying sex (or sexual images) of that person. If that person is coerced in some way, or is otherwise in a situation where they're not able to give consent to what they're doing, then buying sex from them is definitely not OK. And obviously, this being the real world, there are some real grey areas between these two poles. Its really just a subset of the larger ethics of sexual consent, with the caveat that the consent given in a commercial sex transaction is conditional on monetary or other payment. (And actually, that hardly makes it any different from other situations of sexual consent, which usually is in some sense conditional, for example, preconditioned on truthful disclosure of one's STD status, whether one is sexually active with another party, future relationship intentions with that person, etc. Which is why many legal codes make it a crime to lie about STD status or commit outright fraud in order to gain sexual consent.)

Where Figleaf takes a wrong turn is with this argument:

Whereas some of the clients she scheduled escorts for may have been paragons of progressive pro-feminist enlightenment... the ones who've been outed, anyway, have been utter, thuggish, women-hating, woman-denigrating, woman-punishing, woman-curtailing, woman-as-commodity-purchasing, anti-feminist, skin to bone bastards who depended on the discretion of Palfrey and her employees to maintain their public positions as virtuous paragons advocating policies of chastity before marriage, fidelity within marriage, home-binding of wives, lower pay for women so they'd be obliged to *become* bound as wives, anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-HIV-treatment, and abstinence-only-promotion as the cure for all social and medical ills. So *if* one was inclined to be sympathetic towards the anti-prostitution position Palfrey's agency would be a pretty good argument for that position.

So some (maybe even many or most) clients/johns/porn viewers are outright hypocrites, and probably most fall pretty far short of what might be considered good pro-feminist allies. So what! How does this change anything about the overall ethics of sex work? Did buying sex turn Randall Tobias and the like into assholes, or were they that way already? I think the latter, quite clearly. (I also might also point out here that back before they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, Randall Tobias and Elliot Spitzer were political allies of the prostitution abolitionist movement, something I see precious little acknowledgement of, for all the finger-pointing that's coming from that side of the aisle.)

What are men's motivations for going to prostitutes? There are a lot of reasons. Probably a big one is the chance to have sex with someone "out of your league", basically, someone younger and/or prettier than you might be able to hook up with otherwise in the non-commercial "sexual marketplace" (this was clearly Elliot Spitzer's motivation), or otherwise be able to hook up with a "type" of partner that might not travel in your social circles. Related to this, the desire to have a sexual experience that's outside one's regular orientation, such as a same-sex or BDSM experience. Other motivations would be to have truly anonymous sex, one where there's no relationship implicit after the paid encounter is over, or the desire to have sex right now, without even dealing with the rituals of finding a partner for casual sex. There's probably a bunch of other things I could add that I'm not thinking of at the moment (and I certainly could add a bunch more if I wanted to go into why men watch porn).

I do think that motivations like I've mentioned are a great deal more common than the one hypothesized by many feminists – that men buy sex simply to have absolute power over a woman and do things that no non-sex worker would reasonably consent to. (This being backed up by the basically laughable assertion that, apparently, any man can get casual sex easily if they treat women halfway decently, hence only really fucked-up men pay for sex.) There is a subset of sadistic johns who's motivation is to be able to treat a woman badly, and in some cases even do outright violence. Unlike many feminists, I do not think these psychopaths are anywhere near a majority of men who buy sex.

So, generally speaking, men who buy sex do so for reasons that aren't exactly noble, but aren't exactly harmful, either. And this is precisely why the issue about men's motivations are so secondary – if a woman is freely consenting to sell sex, why is that consent in any sense negated just because the buyer has less-than-noble motives? Conversely, if a sex worker isn't freely consenting, I don't think there's anything so redeeming about being able to buy sex one normally wouldn't have access to that would justify that lack of consent. This seems to me to be basic and I can't believe how much ink can be spilled on this topic and for this point to be missed so completely.

Figleaf further argues:

Unlike too many other people, though, I *also* have a problem with participation in a system that so directly reinforces the "no-sex" class paradigm that says *all* heterosexual sex is asymmetrical: women want only money, men want only sex, and everything else is just haggling over the price. Which is bullshit, of course, which is why the dominant paradigm itself is bullshit.

This, to me, is not that far off of the standard anti-porn argument that porn is harmful because it reinforces a harmful paradigm about gender, and may actually predispose men to sexual violence as a result. And, certainly, there are many radical feminists and prostitution abolitionists who extend that argument to say that the mere existence of prostitution does the same thing.

Now coming from Figleaf, this argument is a bit contradictory, since he's been known to argue, vehemently and often, that men are smarter than a horny squirrel, and are responsible for their behavior toward women. The above statement comes damn close to a "blame the sex industry" argument for men's bad behavior, responsibility for which should thoroughly be laid at the feet of the individual men exhibiting that behavior. Any man with half a brain who's not an outright sociopath should be able to figure out that just because there are women who are selling their charms, or giving it away, does not mean that one automatically can "get" sex from Random Woman X. If somebody thinks that, that's their own bullshit that they need to be called on, not the fault of some evil hidden message implicit in commercial sex. (And I say this even as somebody who thinks that humans are pretty animalistic when it comes to many things, sex especially.)

If there's any point I would concede to the anti-sex work side of the argument, it is that certainly there is a dark side to sex work, that sex work is not inherently "empowering" (whatever that means), and that abuse and coercion exist in that incredibly broad and non-monolithic entity known as "the sex industry". But what am I conceding by that argument? The idea that just because one supports consensual sex work, one therefore supports or excuses coercion is simply a straw argument. I can't think of any sex-poz writer who says everything in the sex industry is just rosy or that abuse or coercion in the sex industry is in any way acceptable.

But any point to concede on the utterly stupid "what does this do to men's attitudes toward women?!" line of argument – I don't think there's any "point" there to concede to.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Well, as a matter of fact, there is a such thing as "sex negative"

I just wanted to thank Lina for putting together this blog carnival and for inviting me to be part of it. On the general theme of sex positivity and its relationship to feminism, I have several, hopefully not-too-disconnected thoughts on the theme.

The term "sex-positive" itself has been the source of some rather unproductive debates lately. Overall, I like the fact that Lina chose the title "Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy", as its much more inclusive and speaks more to core values than "Carnival of Sex-Positive Feminists". At the same time, rejection of the phrase "sex-positive" because it "gets a lot of people's backs up" kind of gets my back up a bit. Not because I want everybody to embrace that label, or embrace labels at all, but because I really think that any movement has an inherent right to define its terms and present itself in whatever way its members wish to. Whether other people accept that framing is up to them.

The general argument against the term is that "sex-positive" and "pro-sex" axiomatically means the opposite of "sex-negative" and "anti-sex", and hence those who use such terms are being really big meanies by implying that the other party in the debate, most typically radical feminists, are anti-sex or sex-negative. Well, true, the term does frame the debate that way. However, this is true of many other political movements – in the abortion debate, the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" also have connotations about the other side and also manage to get people's backs up, but generally speaking, I don't see a lot of ink being spilled by either side of the abortion debate demanding that the other side cease and desist in using its self-designation because the other side is offended by it. Both self-designations are generally accepted by now and a more substantive (if still intractable) debate moves on.

The thing is, I don't feel that this is a particularly good reason to drop the term "sex positive", because there really is a such thing as sex-negativity. It is something that has deep roots in Western culture, and quite a few non-Western cultures as well, and continues to manifest itself in religious systems, political ideologies, and in other dominant institutions like law and medicine. And, yes, one of the places sex-negativity comes up is in feminism.

Natalia Antonova posted a rather interesting example of this, showing some rather similar-sounding sex-negative rhetoric from radfem blogger Twisty Faster and Russian Orthodox fundamentalist Dmitri Artemyev. The point is not, as some have taken Natalia's post, that there's some kind of weird collusion between radical feminist bloggers and the Russian far right, but rather that there are some deep-seated memes in the larger culture that express themselves in some decidedly different milieus.

While Twisty calls herself a "sex neutral feminist" who describes the sexual act as "on par with sneezing", there are some decidedly far more sex-negative strains out there. Foremost, of course, is Sheila Jeffreys, who really does seem to embody what many feminists dismiss as a non-existent caricature – she is unmitigatingly against any heterosexual sex as an "eroticization of power differences", but also has an extremely low opinion of lesbianism, autoeroticism, and orgasm itself, if such pleasure is derived from anything that remotely resembles heterosexual or power roles, or even the fantasy of such. In her book, The Spinster and her Enemies, Jeffreys proudly traces her intellectual heritage to the Victorian social purity movements of the first wave feminism. Lest you think Jeffreys is just obscure some bitter crank, she's actually a rather popular radical feminist author, not just in the radical feminist blogosphere, but in the mainstream press.

I could cite numerous other examples from the feminist blogosphere showing this mentality (well, OK, this one is pretty glaring), but I think the above will suffice. And while I think Jeffreys and her followers are an extreme and glaring example, I do think that there's more than a hint of this kind of sex-negativity even among liberal and "moderate" feminist bloggers who go into full-bore moralism mode when it comes to issues around prostitution and pornography.

My point here is not to pick on feminism as being a worse example of sex-negativity than the larger society. For all of the much-vaunted "permissiveness" of modern society, there is also a strong streak of sex-negativity still very much permeating it – its in the air we breathe, figuratively speaking, and its not terribly surprising that it emerges full force in some strains of feminism. A favorite theme of radical feminists is that we must "examine" how the larger society has influenced us. But, then, why should feminism itself be exempt from such examination and critique?

This, to me, is the reason why sex positivity, sexual freedom, sexual autonomy, or whatever you want to label it or not label it is so terribly necessary.