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.