Finding the Balance: The Feminist Facebook Campaign

Yesterday, Facebook finally put out a statement on the site regarding the feminist anti-violence campaign.  In it, they spoke to the balance between allowing controversial ideas, while eliminating that which is harmful.

[W]e also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial.

My fear with campaigns like the anti-violence campaign on Facebook has always been that controversial, but not violent, material would end up being censored by those seeking to prove they’re “cleaning things up”. That is, that Facebook would overreact in seeking good P.R., and start eliminating controversial ideas, even when they did not celebrate, condone or encourage violence.

I have written in the past about my internal conflict with the concept of free speech.  That conflict has led me to tread carefully when people start talking about “hate speech”. In fact, I had to think a bit before deciding whether to join the Feminist Admin campaign this week. However, after careful consideration, the campaign against the violent images about raping and beating women was something I couldn’t refuse to support. These were not people talking about “controversial” topics. These were people reveling in violence, reveling in images of women’s beaten and bloodied bodies. They weren’t trying to arrive at answers to difficult questions. They were just trying to get off on seeing women beaten up.

I consider this blog and the related Facebook page to be controversial. They discuss very controversial topics, such as gender, from a radical perspective. However, I seek to weed out attacks or links that I consider focused on individuals instead of issues. This is why I made a decision a while ago not to post links to some of the more inflammatory radical feminist sites that discuss gender. I felt that some of them were focused on individuals and personal ridicule, instead of being focused on issues. To me, that kind of individual-focused rhetoric doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it turns people off and makes them tune out what is actually being said about the ramifications of certain positions.

The same is true when I discuss my opposition to religion, whether on Facebook or this blog. I abhor violence aimed at individuals because of their religion. I am an adamant supporter of the rights of Palestinians.  However, I cannot in good conscience allow that to keep me from discussing religion as ideology and how it is a tool in women’s oppression.  The stakes for real women are too high.

I would consider the Facebook pages of Male Privilege Activists (a.k.a Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs) to be controversial, but I would not seek to have one shut down if it didn’t post the kind of content this campaign has focused on. I may despise what they have to say, but I’m not going to report them for “hate speech”. In fact, I’m not going to bother with them at all. I may criticize them, but I’m not going to seek out their nonsense.

Anyway, I hope Facebook gets it right. I hope they can find the balance that allows us to discuss controversial ideas, while keeping the images that celebrate violence out. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

The Oxymoron Strikes Again: Religious Feminists

It’s hardly an original idea that just because women do something, that something does not automatically become a “feminist” thing to do.  Whether it’s defending prostitution, hailing pornography, living the BDSM lifestyle, or just staying with some asshole who beats her, not all “choices” a woman makes are equally good.  Even more, not all “choices” deserve to be defended by feminists.  Why?  Because they’re dehumanizing, belittling, and deeply misogynistic at their very cores.  Sadly, many women who agree with all those things–women who call themselves feminists–will suddenly come to a screeching halt and scream when religion is added to the list.

I don’t need to pull out the verses of the various holy books that advise on how and when to beat your wife, how to give your sexual slave to a group of men to be raped and murdered, or how to enslave all virgin females captured in war.  I don’t need to list the various religious-based laws, customs and political movements that seek to limit, oppress and exploit  women.  I mean, they all have them.  It’s really not that difficult to understand, is it?

Recently, I have come across some extremely strange defenses of religion.  I thought I would lay those out, and respond to them:

  • Defense #1:  “Yes, there are misogynistic parts of religion, but you don’t have to believe in all of it.”
  • Response #1:  If you have to pick and choose the least oppressive parts of a religion, what is the point?  If there are fundamentally unjust beliefs and practices embedded in the teachings, writings and traditions of a religion, is it not best to just jettison it altogether? If you have to convince yourself something is not unjust, picking and choosing bits and pieces of it, perhaps you should look at why you have to try to so hard.
  • Defense #2:  “But many women who consider themselves feminists believe in Christianity/Judaism/Islam/Hinduism/whatever.”
  • Response #2:  Many women who consider themselves feminists fight tooth and nail to defend porn, prostitution and mainstream American political parties.  It doesn’t make them right.  It sure as hell doesn’t mean that anyone else should join in their delusions and actually defend them as feminist.
  • Defense #3:  “But that’s just how society is.  There’s no use fighting it.”
  • Response #3:  There’s no point in being politically active at all if this is your view of things.  There is not one thing that makes religion necessary.  It isn’t needed for social interaction.  It isn’t needed for people to treat each other ethically or kindly.  (In fact, we have evidence that it causes people to do just the opposite.)  It isn’t needed to continue the species.  It isn’t needed to sustain life in any way.  Furthermore, it is a fairy tale and encourages people to indulge in magical thinking.
  • Defense #4:  “But it’s their culture, and you have to respect it.  No one can judge another culture/religion/tradition/whatever.”
  • Response #4:  I’ve written before about my rejection of cultural and ethical relativism.  It’s a lazy, cowardly way of thinking.  It’s a way to avoid taking a stand.  No, you really don’t have to respect it.  You have to understand where people are coming from and respect them as human beings, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give any practice or belief system a stamp of approval–especially when it is oppressive in both doctrine and practice.

Unfortunately, it is on the Left where you find much of this bizarre defense of religion, especially Islam.  The argument given is that it’s “Islamophobic” to criticize the religion–even as women are oppressed, tortured or killed under said religion.  The Left’s tendency to adopt the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” plays into this.  No matter how brutal or oppressive a regime, a group or a belief system, if it opposes the U.S., it is “good”.

Strangely, this tendency to use victimization to avoid criticism is also a handy tool used by one of the Left’s favorite targets:  Israel.  Anti-Semitism, in general, and the Holocaust, specifically, are used to deflect and evade criticism of Israel, its oppressive practices, and its oppressive religion.  The Left does not recognize this very real violence and oppression aimed at the Jews to be a valid reason to avoid criticizing the violence of Israel when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians.  Perhaps that is because Israeli violence and rhetoric are primarily aimed at men, at least in public. (Although women are all too commonly caught in the middle of one group of patriarchal males battling another group of patriarchal males.)  There are plenty of reasons to criticize Israel.  Its treatment of Palestinians is one of them.  Its status as a Jewish state–a state founded on misogynistic doctrine–is another.

In the U.S., we have Christians claiming that they are being victimized.  They point at any attempt to allow people to live secular lives free of religious-based bigotry as an attack on their religion.  They do so even as they pass laws that allow people to use their religious-based hatred to oppress others.

People talk of a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East.  I see no such thing.  Playing the victim seems to be the tried-and-true method of avoiding responsibility for the bigotry and oppression at the heart of your religious teachings.  It’s something that all of the so-called “People of the Book” can agree upon.  Is that progress?

The Nature of Consent: Ideologies, Material Realities and Misogyny

When I discuss my opposition to porn with the devotees of the male-dominated Left, I am commonly attacked for either promoting censorship, being anti-sex, or being obsessed with the “worst” porn.  I’ve already stated–repeatedly, in fact–that I don’t believe porn should be legally banned; that doesn’t mean I have to support it as a public good any more than I have to support racist speech or anti-Semitic speech as a public good.   As for being “anti-sex”, that’s the critics’ hang-up.  Fucking and watching other people fuck aren’t the same thing.  I guess some people still don’t get that.  As Gail Dines has stated, being anti-porn is no more about being anti-sex than criticizing McDonald’s is about being anti-food.  As for the “worst” porn charge, the fact is that the gonzo market has become the primary porn market.  That’s what the (almost completely) male market is buying and viewing these days.  Facts are the facts.  The thing that really bothers me, though, is that none of these three criticism of my position on porn has to do with the real issue, anyway.  The real issue at the heart of the porn debate is ideology.

The core of the porn debate is how ideologies are communicated and reinforced.  Once they are communicated and reinforced, how do those ideologies influence the material realities of people’s lives?  In this case, how does the ideology of misogyny so prevalent in the modern porn video influence the realities for women and girls?  We are all ready and willing to believe that hateful depictions of minority groups in the media are damaging.  We are all ready and willing to publicly condemn those as being part and parcel of a hateful ideology.  We are all ready to work to try to eradicate them–not through outright censorship, but by exposing and shaming them.  Why, then, is there a refusal to recognize that porn is about ideology, too?  That it reinforces a hateful ideology, and should be publicly criticized and condemned as a result?  That is the heart of the matter.

This issue returned to the front of my mind after I watched the TV documentary Hardcore.  The documentary was produced in 2001 for the U.K.’s Channel 4.  Like most British documentaries, it is heavy on pop psychology.  If one can get past that minor annoyance, however, it reveals a lot about how women are treated in the porn world.  The most important revelation of Hardcore is how the boundaries set by the women of porn are torn down by the male producers and agents.  The idea of “choice” that is so often bandied about by the defenders of the industry is as pure fantasy, as revealed by the experiences of this woman and these men within the industry.

The documentary follows Felicity, a 25-year-old single mom from Essex.  Felicity has been performing in British porn for a while.  At this point in her life, she is being brought to L.A. to see about working in the U.S. porn industry.  Her agent, a British man named Richard, seems to specialize in bringing British women to the U.S. to work in the L.A. porn industry.  Richard is there to meet Felicity when she arrives at LAX.

When Richard takes Felicity around to a casting call the next day, she is given a sheet to fill out.  In includes a list of “will do” and “won’t do” for her to fill out.  Richard guides Felicity in how to fill it out.  Richard explicitly tells her to circle that she will work without condoms.  She says she doesn’t want to do anal sex, but she indicates on the sheet that she will.  Later, when she speaks directly to casting agents, she tells them that she doesn’t want to do anal scenes.  If she must do one, she needs the man to have a small penis.  In other conversations with Richard, she states emphatically that she will not do anal sex scenes, she has never wanted to do them, and that he has pushed her into saying that she would.  He tells her that these scenes are “required” if she’s going to be a real professional.  In short, this is a boundary that she’s not allowed to have.  They also have discussions about him negotiating fees for types of scenes that she has already said she will not do.  He states that he’s just talking money with the producers; she points out that there’s no reason to talk about money for a scene she does not want to do.  Again and again, Richard pushes her to do things she doesn’t want to do.  Again and again, the reason is that he makes more money if she does these things.  Her boundaries don’t matter to him.  Pure and simple.

At present, the prevalent form of porn consumed is so-called gonzo porn.  In concept, this form is similar to the old-fashioned “stag film”, which had no plot or point outside of depicting sex.  The content, however, is far more extreme.  While there was a period of time when porn attempted to mimic the feature film with things like plots, that has largely been consigned to the realm of the soft-core offerings of premium cable channels (i.e. “Skinemax” movies).  The type of porn consumed via DVD rentals/sales, pay-per-view rentals and the Internet is almost exclusively gonzo.  These videos consist of simply one sex scene after another.  Most of them are heavy on anal sex.  The “facial” money shot is the norm.  In fact, it’s such the norm that the only reason this shot wouldn’t exist is because the producer thought of an even more demeaning way to show a woman consuming or wearing the semen of one or more men.  In Hardcore, every producer Felicity goes to see or performs for is a gonzo producer.

Richard slowly works on Felicity, trying to get her to violate her own boundaries.  He takes her to watch others film the types of scenes she has already said she won’t do.  One is a “gang bang” of 8-10 men and one woman.  Felicity has repeatedly said she won’t do these scenes, but Richard at least wants her to be a fluffer on the set of one.  In his grooming, he also takes her to meet with the notorious Max Hardcore.  This interaction is the most troubling of the entire documentary for a number of reasons.  Many would say it’s because of what Max ends up doing to Felicity.  That is certainly awful, but even more awful is the way it serves to groom her to go beyond the boundaries she has repeatedly and explicitly set.

As Felicity waits for Max Hardcore to show up, she is shown preparing for an anal sex scene she says she really doesn’t want to do.  She looks so sad, so anxious, so scared.  Yet, she says she must do it.  Richard talks about how angry he will be if she refuses to perform with Max Hardcore.  The pressure being brought to bear on this young woman is difficult to watch.  During the scene, Max Hardcore forces his penis so far into her throat that she can’t breathe.  When she gets up and runs away, he follows her.  To get her to comply with his demands, he psychologically manipulates her.  First, he attempts to build her up by talking about how she’s providing for her child.  (Felicity is a single mother.)  When she still says she won’t do what he demands, he begins berating her, calling her a “loser” and saying that he’s only had one other woman who was less “professional” than she is.  After his verbal beat down, she agrees to resume the scene.

The next day, Felicity is a changed woman.  She speaks of how she was unable to sleep the night after her encounter with Max Hardcore.  How the choking frightened her and kept her up all night.  Then, she essentially says she will do whatever Richard and the producers want her to do today.  She has been broken.  Her boundaries have essentially been nullified by the concerted effort of the pornographers.

While the porn industry tries to portray Max Hardcore as an extreme, someone outside the norm of their everyday world, each and every casting Felicity goes on features some sick fuck talking about how “filthy” his films are.  Anal sex is their favorite topic of conversation when it comes to proving their “filth” cred.  The day after her encounter with Max Hardcore, Felicity goes to a casting to appear in a film.  She is told that her scene will be an anal scene, which she has always said she did not want to do.  She does not object.  She is told that the movie she will appear in will feature women being hit, having their hair pulled and being called names.  The casting directors get off on asking Felicity to verbally degrade herself.  She is instructed to repeat the phrase, “I am a piss-drinking tart.”  She complies.  When she says that she doesn’t want to be beaten so much that she is “marked for days” and that she doesn’t want to be strangled, they say that they’ll have that happen to another woman instead.  Apparently, it’s very important that it happen to some woman.  If not Felicity, then someone else.  Because the degradation of and infliction of pain on a female body are crucial, of course.

The film has taken us down the path of boundary-breaking.  A young woman who begins working in the industry, thinking she really would be able to set her own boundaries.  Her boundaries are whittled away.  She is pressured and berated.  She is traumatized by a man who literally chokes her.  One pressure after another is brought to bear on her until she eventually gives in.  If the industry was truly about women making choices, there would not be so much verbal abuse heaped on those who set their boundaries.   True boundaries are set by the person whose body this is; they aren’t negotiated by others.  Sexual consent is something given freely.  It’s not something demanded or negotiated.  Felicity’s “consent” isn’t given freely.  It’s something that she is pressured and groomed into giving.  That’s not consent to anyone who truly knows the meaning of the word.

So, how does all of this relate to the material realities of women’s lives?  As has been discussed, the entitled psyche doesn’t respect “no”.  These sacred “boundaries” that the porn defenders talk about mean nothing to the entitled psyche–within the porn world or outside in the world of real life.

For the entitled psyche, the only reason “No” exists is because it’s a sexual thrill to force past it. The real brilliance of patriarchy is right here: it doesn’t just naturalize oppression, it sexualizes acts of oppression. It eroticizes domination and submission. Through the concepts—and lived reality—of masculinity and femininity—patriarchy institutionalizes domination and submission across the culture and deep into our psychologies.

The dominance and submission featured in the average gonzo movie is obvious.  That doesn’t even have to be discussed.  The unequal balance of power has been eroticized, then called inviolate because it’s all about the “choice” and the orgasm.  What of the boundaries, though?  We have already seen that the boundaries of the female performers are not respected.  What about women outside the industry?  We already know that male dominance and female submission is the guiding principle of patriarchal ideology.  Porn, in its most popular forms, is the visual representation of that.  It is the means of showing that unequal power as erotic.  In the male (and liberal feminist) view, anything called “erotic” immediately becomes out-of-bounds to analysis and judgement.  So, this visual representation of patriarchal ideology has effectively been removed from the arena of political discussion.  Isn’t that convenient?

The fact that the patriarchal ideology is being reinforced by porn has many effects on the real lives of women and girls.  The causal link between porn and sexualized violence has never been established, but porn doesn’t have to cause sexualized violence to make the world a more dangerous place for women and girls.  The patriarchal ideology of male dominance and female submission definitely plays into rape culture, which justifies and minimizes sexualized violence against women and girls.  Ideology is what helps men get away with the violence they commit against women.

Porn is also used as a means of breaking down boundaries in women’s everyday sex lives.  Interviews with males who watch porn with their female partners has revealed the way some males use porn to break down the boundaries of the women in their lives.  Male subjects talk of watching porn that depicts acts they want to perform, usually anal sex.  They see their partners’ resistance and discomfort with these acts, but this does not stop them.  They work to break down the boundaries by normalizing the behavior.  They repeatedly view scenes of anal sex with their partners over a period of time, making it appear more and more normal.  When they see their partner showing less resistance, they broach the subject of doing this is their real sex lives.

A man who respects a woman’s boundaries, who recognizes that consent is only that which is freely given, would see his partner’s resistance and discomfort as a line not to be crossed.  The entitled psyche of the patriarchal male doesn’t see it that way, though.  This male sees it as something to break down.  If he can just convince her, he’ll get to do what he wants with her body.  That’s not how real respect for boundaries works.  Real respect for boundaries is respect for the natural boundaries of that partner.  Rape is the attempt to move beyond the boundaries that have been freely, naturally set by that individual through manipulation, incapacitation, or force.

I’ve debated with some on the Left (mostly males) who ask me whether I believe the filming of people having sex is intrinsically exploitative.  They claim that porn doesn’t “have to be” violent and degrading.  I would agree that the simple act of putting a sex act on film doesn’t mean that it must be degrading, violent and misogynistic.  My response, though, is, “So, what?”

We are living in a patriarchal, capitalist world.  The patriarchy means that women are seen as objects meant to satisfy male desires of some sort.  The boundaries of women don’t matter; boundaries are there simply to be trespassed, by manipulation, incapacitation, or force.  The capitalism means that if money can be made based upon this ideology, the greedy will push to whatever extremes they can get away with to keep that money rolling in.   When we get rid of the unholy alliance of patriarchy and capitalism, we can discuss the concepts of so-called “healthy” porn.  Until then, I have more important battles than some dude’s jack-off material.  I’m concerned about the very lives of women and girls.  Anyone who isn’t needs to do some serious soul-searching to figure out why his orgasm is more important than our lives.

Where Do You Draw the Line: Free Speech and Hate Speech

As I have navigated political life, developing, rethinking and redeveloping my political philosophies, the obstacle over which I have stumbled the most has been free speech. Should it be absolute? Should it be limited? Who gets to decide the limits? Who keeps the decision-makers in check, keeping them from trampling unpopular opinion and dissent? Does accepting free speech mean that we have to let the purveyors of misogyny and other hatred to put their ideas out there? What happens if we try to limit them? Even now, after years of thought on the issue, I am still as confused as ever.

When I was younger, I often adopted the hardline.  I agreed with those who favored bans on hate speech.  Misogyny and racism have no place in civil society, anyway, right?  Why does the marketplace of ideas need to include the abhorrent, the ideas that seek to make others less than human?  My young mind felt that it didn’t.  I believed we would never have a truly just society if we didn’t ban certain kinds of speech or expression:  rape apologia, the racist justifications and rationalizations of the U.S. South, pornography, and other hatred aimed at women.  Laws like the European laws against “inciting racial hatred” made sense to me.  I just felt they should be used to protect more groups, especially women.

As I aged, I began to question that position.  As I became more acquainted with historical moves to suppress speech, I did an about face.  My belief that misogyny, racism, and other hate-based expressions didn’t change, but my opinions about how to confront those expressions did.  I learned how so many regimes have killed, oppressed and ostracized those who expressed unpopular opinions.  The problem?  Many of those unpopular opinions were ones I actually supported.  It was the U.S. government suppressing Socialists, Communists and anarchists via deportation, incarceration, or ostracism.  It was the U.S. government using anti-obscenity laws to suppress information about birth control and abortion, to keep women from making pamphlets and giving speeches explaining basic female anatomy and reproduction to the uneducated.  People had even been executed based on their political beliefs, although the charges were usually framed as something else.  So, history told me that the shoe had been and could be on the other foot.

History and the experiences of others weren’t my only teachers.  I also learned first hand the dangers of suppressing certain types of speech based upon content.  Many of the opinions I currently hold are very unpopular–even among those on the Left.  I have been accused more than once of “hate speech” for the statement that I don’t believe anything called “transgender” exists.  I’ve never claimed that people should be ostracized for believing they are transgendered.  In fact, I think radical feminists are overly obsessed with this issue, which I believe to be tangential.  I just don’t believe the phenomenon is anything like its proponents claim.  I don’t believe in essential femininity or essential masculinity.  I don’t believe there is a “female” way to experience the world that is essentially different from a “male” way of experiencing the world.  While those who support the transgender concept claim they are against the gender binary, the very core of the concept is in opposition to this claim.  The concept of transgender says that some people are born with the gender that is “wrong”, which actually reinforces the idea that there are two separate and distinct genders.  It doesn’t smash the concept of gender binary; it simply states that people may be born with a gender different from their biological sex.  To truly smash the concept of binary gender, the very concept of gender must be destroyed.  Human experience must be recognized as a continuum.  Just because a woman doesn’t fit with the stereotype of “feminine” doesn’t make her a man; it makes her a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of “feminine”.  The same with men who don’t fit stereotypes of “masculine”.  They are simply men who don’t fit the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a man.  That does not make them women.  I applaud and support men and women who refuse to conform to stereotypes of gender; I just don’t think it changes their sex.

The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page has been reported for “hate speech” when I express this belief.  Nothing has ever become of it, because it is a patently stupid claim to make.  However, there are those who come out of the woodwork to label this view an expression of “hate”.  My comments on some liberal feminist sites are moderated because I have expressed this opinion.  That the statements above could be twisted into the concept of “hate speech” is ludicrous, but it happens all the time.

On a similar note, I have been accused more than once of “Islamophobia” for daring to critique Islam in the same way I critique Christianity, Judaism or any other patriarchal religion.  While the Left will applaud when one criticizes fundamentalist Christians for their misogynistic beliefs and practices, Leftists will come out in droves to condemn those who apply the same standard to fundamentalist Muslims.  In my view, holding Muslims to a different standard is condescending.  It assumes that they are not smart or moral enough to treat women as full human beings.  Again, that so many twist this opinion, calling it “hate speech”, is absolutely ludicrous.  It’s simply a way to shut down the opposition without careful consideration of what is being said.

Eventually, I arrived at a position of a free speech absolutist.  My stance was that no speech, no matter how offensive or hateful, should be banned.  To do so is to risk that the ban someday be turned on me or those with whom I agree.  If it can be used against speech I disagree with, it can certainly be used against speech I agree with.  There is nothing that keeps the opponents of justice and equality from using such bans to meet their own ends.  History tells us this is true.  My own experience does, as well.

In addition, banning speech doesn’t ban the ideas behind the speech.  One may make the speech unheard and the expression invisible, but that doesn’t mean the hate isn’t still there.  If the ideas persist and grow out of sight, how do we know what we must fight?  How do we keep the hateful from exploding in violence that we didn’t even know was coming?  How do we educate?

This position of absolutism was a comfortable place for me for a very long time.  Recently, it has become less and less comfortable.  The argument that we will never have justice when marginalized groups can be publicly degraded and targeted makes sense.  The argument that we must fight for good of the whole, not just the rights of the individual, also make sense.  After all, isn’t that at the heart of Communism?  Doesn’t it seek to destroy a system that benefits a few in order to better the lives of the majority?  Shouldn’t that be at the heart of feminism?  The betterment of the lives of women, as a group, rather than slavish devotion to the individual (i.e. the misguided “choice” doctrine of liberal feminism)?  I can’t argue with those positions, so I arrive at a place of discomfort, of uncertainty.

I haven’t resolved this conflict within my heart and my mind.  I stay along the course of absolutism, because I can’t resolve the questions of what happens to the unpopular opinion.  Communism, feminism, anarchism are all unpopular opinions to many.  Do we risk those social justice movements being targeted by limiting free speech?  I just can’t support anything that leads to that possibility.  So, I uneasily sit in the chair of free speech absolutism…and wonder if there’s a better way.

Feminism, the Sex Industry and Sex Positivity

This piece was originally posted on Righteous Anger.

 

The traditional stereotype of feminist in this country is an unattractive woman who hates men and sex.  In an effort to combat this stereotype, a lot of younger feminists have latched onto the idea of “sex positivity”.  While I have no problem with the idea of being “sex positive,” this has many unfortunate results in both theory and practice.  Among them are the knee-jerk condemnations of many of our feminist elders who wrote about the negative consequences of sex in traditional heterosexual relationships, the blanket approval of prostitution and other sex work without any honest evaluation of its effects on women (and men) working in the sex industry, and the idea that any sexual activity is acceptable and beyond judgement.  While all of those positions have understandable underpinnings, they often go overboard and focus too much on apologizing for feminism and ignoring the motivation behind the original critiques.

The first thing to consider before getting into any particular issue is the idea of choice.  Choice is what feminism is about.  It’s not about prescribing or restricting choices for women (or men, for that matter), but about providing everyone with the chance to make their own choices.  That’s an admirable goal, and it’s one that I support.  The problem is that many contemporary feminists also take this to mean that the right to make a choice means that every choice is equally valid and equally “good” for the woman involved or women as a whole.  This would rightfully fall under the category of ethical relativism, which is in direct contradiction to women’s rights, in particular, and human rights, in general.  Ethical relativism can lead to insane places, such as the approval of murder, as explained by anthropologist Ruth Benedict:

We might suppose that in the matter of taking life all peoples would agree on condemnation. On the contrary, in the matter of homicide, it may be held that one kills by custom his two children, or that a husband has a right of life and death over his wife or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are old. It may be the case that those are killed who steal fowl, or who cut their upper teeth first, or who are born on Wednesday. Among some peoples, a person suffers torment at having caused an accidental death, among others, it is a matter of no consequence. Suicide may also be a light matter, the recourse of anyone who has suffered some slight rebuff, an act that constantly occurs in a tribe. It may be the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform. The very tale of it, on the other hand, may be a matter for incredulous mirth, and the act itself, impossible to conceive as human possibility. Or it may be a crime punishable by law, or regarded as a sin against the gods. (pp.45-46)

For example, it is still a custom in many African tribes to kill so-called mingi children to protect the tribe. Ethical relativism is a dangerous, slippery slope than can be used to justify everything from infanticide to genital mutilation of both sexes to so-called “honor killings.”  Since the wider concept of human rights and the sex-specific concept of women’s rights both hold that there are certain rights that belong to all people, no matter what their culture, ethical relativism has to be rejected by anyone who truly supports these concepts.  Unfortunately, this ethical relativist stance is taken by many feminists who argue for the validity of all “choices.”

One of the main tactics taken by many of these contemporary feminists is to try to ingratiate themselves with patriarchy by condemning so-called radical feminists of the past.  Andrea Dworkin and other anti-pornography feminists are common targets.  Andrea Dworkin is a prime target because of the out-of-context quote from one of her books equating all heterosexual sex to rape.  In an effort to show themselves as “good” feminists, these women strip that quote from all context of time and explanation.  Dworkin did make such a statement, but she also explained what the statement meant.  She was describing the traditional situation in which women are expected to trade sex for economic survival, i.e. traditional marriage.  Her question was whether it was possible for a woman to give true consent if she had no choice but to give up sex in order to gain the economic means to support herself and her children, the very means of survival.  If consent is based upon having no choice but to say yes, is it really consent?  I would say that is an important question still, especially when we consider those who argue for work in the sex industry as a valid choice.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re on Facebook, in the blogosphere, or on the website of a feminist organization, you’re going to find younger feminists trying to tie the sex industry and sex positivity inextricably together.  The problem is that sex work is generally that–work–not a sexual outlet.  Some 20-plus years ago, it was work I did.  Before becoming pregnant with my oldest child, I worked in several topless bars around the city for a while.  I had many other friends who worked the clubs or worked as prostitutes on the street.  As women, we had the option of the clubs or the street.  My male friends generally just had the street.  Not one of us was there for sex or because we wanted to be there.  Every last one of us was there because of an addiction to street drugs.  Every last one.  A few of the women I met at the club were there because they were very young single moms with no skills.  Taking their clothes off for cash was the only way to put food on the table.  Again, sex was not the motivating factor here, folks.  Whether it was having some creep follow us home from the club, contracting life-threatening diseases, having clients want to do violent things to our bodies, or being strip-searched by management because some rich asshole lost the cash he was flashing around the club, every last one of us experienced frightening, humiliating, dangerous, and ultimately life-altering repercussions.  It wasn’t sexy.  It wasn’t fun.  It was soul-sucking.

A couple of years ago, I lived in a neighborhood that is home to most of the city’s street prostitutes.  Many of the women would bring their boyfriends out to keep watch over them.  The man would sit a distance away.  Not close enough to scare johns away, but close enough that they could be seen.  Why?  So the john would know someone had seen him and his vehicle, should the woman not come back safely.  Sexy?  How about life-threatening, folks.

Even when a woman is working in a legal operation, either a strip club or a legal brothel, she’s not likely to be treated well by the management.  They take your money in the clubs.  In the brothels, the women are forced to undergo regular medical check-ups to keep the clients safe.  I want to know who’s making sure the clients are healthy and not giving the women diseases that could threaten their lives?  After all, it is much easier for a woman to get a sexually-transmitted infection from a man than the other way around.  This is especially true when you’re talking about blood-borne infections like HIV or Hep C.  A woman’s body is more likely to end up torn, giving the pathogen an easy entrance to her bloodstream.

Of course, the club owners, like any pimps, have no concern about the women who work for them.  Do they know that the majority of their employees are addicts?  Fuck yes, they know.  The women teach each other what make-up to buy and how to properly apply it to cover up track marks.  They teach each other which articles of clothing will work for the same purpose.  Elbow-length black gloves are a favorite of junkies who work the clubs.  The owners don’t care, as long as the marks don’t show.  Track marks were treated the same as tattoos–you can have them, as long as they don’t show.

The other issues that pro-prostitution feminists try desperately to ignore are trafficking and child prostitution.  They claim those are completely separate issues.  Ummm….no, they are not.  They are not synonymous, but trafficking and child prostitution exist because prostitution itself exists.  Not all prostitutes are children nor are they all trafficked.  However, all trafficked females and child sex workers are prostitutes.  As an Arizonan, I am well aware how easy it is to exploit those who end up in the U.S. without papers.  The exploitation and victimization is a widespread and real problem without prostitution being part of the equation.  Adding the trafficking of female bodies for the sex trade makes it mind-numbing.  The men who use these women’s bodies see it as no different than going to see any other prostitute.  In fact, they may not even know that these women are any different than any other prostitute.  Simply changing the law to decriminalize is not going to fix that problem as long as the undocumented are afraid for themselves or people back home.

And therein lies the problem with many pro-prostitution feminists:  they claim that decriminalization will fix all the current problems associated with prostitution.  They claim it will eliminate the violence experienced by so many prostitutes.  They claim it will eliminate the stigma.  I just don’t know how the hell they’re arriving at that conclusion.  This is a society that hasn’t eliminated violence against women outside the ranks of prostitution.  There are many men who go to prostitutes specifically because they are looking to inflict pain and violence on a woman.  Will the law make those men disappear?  Hell, we have attitudes within law enforcement and general society that dismiss and minimize the violence against prostitutes.  The idea that a prostitute can’t be raped is still firmly entrenched.  The unwillingness to vigorously pursue those who beat, rape, or even murder prostitutes is common.  Those are deeply ingrained in our culture.  Decriminalization of prostitution will not magically fix all those problems.  Those problems are about misogyny.

So, what of the biggest money-maker in the sex industry?  What of pornography?  I’ve read and seen my share of porn, whether it was labeled as such or called “erotica”.  I can’t speak to most of the women in that industry, because I have never known anyone who worked in it.  The closest I came to knowing anyone in that part of the industry was reading Ordeal, the autobiography of Linda Boreman (a.k.a. Linda Lovelace).  It did not paint a pretty picture of her life as the star of the “revolutionary” pornographic film Deep Throat.  As much as it tried to gloss over the issues, neither did the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.

Boreman talked of being beaten by Chuck Traynor throughout their relationship.  Everyone on set knew of this, as they had to cover the bruises in order to shoot the movie.  Others who worked on the film have admitted that they knew he was beating her.  They covered up and pushed on.  Of course, the movie was produced by mobsters.  The documentary Inside Deep Throat fails to mention the beatings and bruises, but they do let one thing slip:  they discuss Boreman being taken into a room full of mobsters by Traynor and told to give a couple of the mobsters blowjobs in order to get the funding.  Was everything that went wrong in Boreman’s life a result of that movie?  Of course not.  However, anyone who praises that movie without acknowledging the horrors of its production are really missing something in the way of humanity.  Unfortunately, others from the porn industry, such as Annie Sprinkle, have done just that.

Of course, no one is suggesting that every porn flick ever made was shot under the same circumstances as Deep Throat.  That would be ludicrous.  However, the actress doesn’t have to be tortured for there to be something off about the end-product.  One money shot after another is a woman on her knees having some asshole shoot his wad into her face.  The desire to degrade is obvious.  One website invites “bitches” to “gag on my cock.”  It features pictures of women with t-shirts labeling them as stupid which are linked to videos of some guy almost making them puke while calling them names and telling them that this will shut them up, like women should shut up.  It’s awful that these exist.  It’s worse that women, for whatever reason, involve themselves in this kind of verbal degradation and violent sex.  Yes, it’s a choice.  And these women are free to make it.  However, anyone who thinks that it’s not nauseating and misogynistic is a fucking idiot.

Then, we end up in the realm of BDSM.  Another choice that we’re told not to judge.  Even worse, we are told again and again that it’s actually the bottom who is in charge.  Okay, whatever.  Kind of like how Christianity isn’t about subjugating women at all.  We will even find women who say in one breath it’s empowering, then in the next admit that many female submissives have been sexually abused in the past.  Instead of admitting that this may be a way of internalizing the male violence, they suggests it’s a “healthy” way to “work it out.”  Hmmm…..I have my doubts.

If you want to believe any of that shit, feel free.  My problem with BDSM has more to do with the literature.  The latest craze, 50 Shades of Grey, has been condemned even by some BDSM devotees as a celebration of a violent relationship, found guilty of romanticizing violence.  That’s not even the biggest problem I have with BDSM literature, though, especially that purportedly written by women.  My bigger issue is that so much of it revels in the idea of women being powerless outside the bedroom.

One site, which once presented itself as “erotica for women,” has made a living off this shit.  Oysters and Chocolate is an “erotica” site started by two women.  In interviews, these women have whined that they are feminist, and how dare these mean ol’ women attack them for having an anti-feminist message.  Meanwhile, they publish series like that written by a woman named Kris Williams.  (The series has since been made into a book, so it is no longer available for reading without purchase.) In this series, the male who tortures his lover makes it clear that he hates feminists.  The author also writes that he tortures his lover because he doesn’t want her to have any power over him.  What power, you might ask?  Oh, the fact that he loves her gives her power.  So, to clear that nonsense out, he beats and humiliates her.  He revels in her fear.  That is reinforced over and over again.  Fear is key.  It’s what he gets off on.  Knowing that she is afraid of him.  The introduction of BDSM into their relationship isn’t one they have agreed on together; it’s one he enforces under threat.  That doesn’t sound like the “bottom in control” idea that the BDSM crowd is so fond of selling.  Yet, it is what the literature reveals as a driving motivation.  Tell me in what fucking way that is “feminist.”

In the end, I am firmly committed to the idea that people are free to make their own choices.  As a free speech absolutist, I will also passionately defend the rights of everyone to say and otherwise express themselves however they choose.  Holocaust denier?  Have your say.  Homophobe?  Have your say.  Woman-hating pornographer?  Have your say.  The fact that others are free to make their own choices and free to express themselves in whatever way they see fit does not, however, mean that all of these choices and expressions are worthy of praise.  It does not mean they are “sex positive.”  And it sure as hell doesn’t make these choices or expressions “feminist.”

Marriage, Civil Unions and Religious Freedom

I first posted this piece on Righteous Anger.

With Obama’s recent stance change on gay marriage, I’ve been giving more and more thought to the idea of marriage. The underlying feelings I have aren’t any different than they used to be; I’ve just been trying to determine if my beliefs are internally consistent. Philosophical musings, in other words. This is what I’ve come up with: the legal protections associated with “marriage” should go away for everyone. Radical idea? Well, hold on a minute…

My idea isn’t that all of the legal privileges of a committed relationship should go away. My idea is that they should not be defined by or as “marriage”–for anyone. The idea of the civil union has been part of the marriage debate for a while. The problem is that it’s been framed as the bastard child of marriage. There has been the superior state of “marriage,” which only heterosexual couples were to enjoy. Then, gays, lesbians, and bisexual people in same-sex relationships were to have the lesser state of a “civil union.” That’s unacceptable, in my opinion.

When my husband of 20 years and I got married, it wasn’t because we believed in the traditional definitions of marriage or any of it’s related bullshit. We married for the legal protections. In February of 1992, we learned we would become parents later that year. Marriage would legally protect us and our child. There are still a lot of legal penalties to having a child out of wedlock. Issues of paternity, rights to the child, child support, taxes, medical decision-making, and a whole host of other shit are made easier if you’re married. So, we got married about a month after we found out about our daughter’s impending arrival. Had we not gotten married, our commitment would have been the same; marriage was just to head off the legal bullshit.

All that legal bullshit is relevant whether you’re in a same-sex or an opposite-sex relationship, whether you have kids or not. Being able to make medical decisions for your partner, being able to cover each other on your insurance, getting the tax breaks, and so much more. It’s vital, important stuff considering the society we live in. The video “It Could Happen to You” explains some of the vitally important stuff better than I ever could.

So, what to do?

Christianity was a late-comer to Western marriage. An interloper, if you will. Marriage was constituted in a lot of ways that had little to do with religion. The Catholic Church (which was Christianity at the time) got into the act fairly late. One of the quotes used to justify marriage stated, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry:  for it is better to marry than to burn.”  (1 Corinthians 7:9)  In short, if people cannot control their sexual urges, they should marry rather than “burn”.  It has debated whether this meant “burn in hell” or “burn with passion”.  Doesn’t matter which way you interpret it, it’s hardly advocating marriage as a holy, desirable state filled with “sanctity”. So, why are those who want to “protect marriage” so sure that their religious views are what constitute marriage, when Christianity didn’t even establish a sacrament for marriage until late in the game? Arrogance, mostly.

My fix for this problem? Get rid of all legal protections for those who are “married”. If you want a Christian wedding, have it. If you want a Wiccan handfasting, have it. If you want a Hindu wedding, have it. If you want a Jewish wedding, have it. But none of those things will give you legal protections. (Right now, all but Wiccan handfasting do provide legal rights and protections. So, the state is picking and choosing between religions, establishing religion, in violation of the First Amendment.) You can have your religious beliefs and ceremonies, but the state should not be sanctioning them or giving you legal privilege based upon those beliefs or ceremonies. This is especially the case when the government is picking and choosing which religious ceremonies give people those legal privileges.

So, would the legal privileges for committed relationships go away entirely? No, they would not. Civil unions would be required for all couples who want such privilege. Same-sex gay, lesbian and bisexual couples would have the same rights as opposite-sex heterosexual and bisexual couples. All would require civil unions.

The religious right claims that marriage is defined by what “god” wants. Guess what? The state isn’t supposed to be recognizing what your god wants as part of the legislative process. That’s in the Constitution. Want your religious ceremony? Go for it. Just don’t ask for tax breaks or other legal recognition based upon it.

In short, the legal commitment of individuals should be the only thing that provides legal rights and privileges for all couples. Those legal commitments should not in any way, shape or form be bound to religious rites. That’s what the separation of church and state is all about.

First Amendment, Part II

I first published this piece on Righteous Anger.
So, more ramblings on things embodied by the 1st Amendment. This time, it concerns the freedom of speech and “I’m entitled to my opinion.” I’ve found that too many people take this as, “I can say whatever I want and you can’t reply, because it’s my opinion and I can have it.” It is your opinion. And you can have it. You can make the most racist, violent, fucked-up statement you want, and you’re absolutely free to do so. However, demanding that no one respond to it because it’s “my opinion” is bullshit. See, this free speech and “it’s my opinion” thing means that people who come across that opinion have a right to their opinions on what you’ve said.

I fully accept that people won’t like my opinions, because most are highly contrary to standard American doctrine. And people can get pissed at me for them. In fact, much of the time, I expect someone to get pissed at me for them. I’m not going to tell them they have no right to do so, because “it’s my opinion”. If it’s something that I have reflected on and stand by, I’m just going to say that I don’t give a shit whether they agree or not. If they have a point, I’ll revise my opinion and say so. Regardless, the expression of something that is my opinion does not remove the right of others to theirs. Just like when they express something, the fact that it’s their opinion does not remove my right to think they’re fucking idiots…and say so. Because, y’know, it’s my opinion.