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Apr 12 2012

Sexy Sex Sex!! (for Cash on the Barrel!)

A debate is flourishing on FtB over the morality of pornography and prostitution, and it illustrates some principles of political and moral philosophy that I think are important to disseminate more widely than just among the privileged West, and illustrates how easily the strange realities of the Western democratic world aren’t readily understood or even imagined by those who come from outside of it. It also touches on the philosophy of aesthetics, the metaphysics of human sexuality, and political epistemology. In other words, it spans anyone’s entire worldview, all five Aristotelian categories: semantics/epistemology, physics/metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Which those who have read my Sense and Goodness without God will recognize completes the description of any worldview (and I use them there to describe what I believe to be the most credible and coherent atheist worldview).

The Backstory

International freethought heroine Taslima Nasrin has recently joined us at Freethought Blogs, an important voice for the half of the world most of us never know, or know as much about, a hard-core frontliner in our movement who has faced serious oppression and danger (I suspect she’s the only one of us who has had actual mass death marches calling for her murder; plus numerous actual fatwas, which in the West we would call having a contract put out on you). Imagine being an exile from your own country because thousands of people there want to kill you–for no other crime than simply saying women should be treated nice. Her command of English is not perfect, but she writes passionately, and has interesting experience and perspective. (And though American readers might find her self-comparison with Salman Rushdie a bit boastful and self-aggrandizing, it’s hard to find fault with her facts in the matter; except in matters of opinion, perhaps, e.g. I’m unaware of the evidence that “women have complained that Rushdie doesn’t consider them anything more than sex objects” [my emphasis], especially since I don’t exactly trust gossip or tabloid reporting about his relationships, but he does seem to be a bit of an unreliable hound in that department.)

Taslima has blogged avidly since she started this month (at No Country for Women), and among her posts was Sex Slavery Must Be Abolished, in which she railed not just against actual sex slavery, but all forms of sex work (and then responded to critics of it in Do Women Really ‘Choose’ to Be Prostitutes). For example, she repeats the Old School Feminist adage that all “prostitution is sexual exploitation” (which must mean “engineering is intellectual exploitation” and “janitorial work is domestic exploitation” and…well, you can already see this kind of thinking just doesn’t make much sense) and that all hookers are “forced to enter prostitution” by the need to make money (which must mean my wife was forced into accounting by the need to make money, therefore she is a business slave, and therefore accounting is “not an acceptable job for women,” and we should outlaw accountancy). All this kind of logic is fallacious because it enshrines sex as somehow sacred and different from other human behaviors, which is a distinctively religious thing to do. Which makes it peculiar for an atheist to be caught back up in that superstitious thinking as if it’s somehow correct (and not just correct, but beyond dispute).

Greta Christina (another fellow feminist and Freethought Blogger, and avid advocate for sex workers and a sex positive worldview) took justifiable umbrage and wrote Prostitution Is Not Slavery, which hits every point I just did and more, and backing her up is Natalie Reed’s But Seriously, Prostitution Is Not Sex Slavery, and both of those posts together are awesome reads. You can also see a roundup and observation of this exchange by Chris Hallquist. Crommunist also weighed in with Swedish Sex Models!!! (the title, like mine, is a joke, even though his topic actually is Swedish sex models…as sex workers), in which he links to several other informative blog posts on the subject of legalizing sex work. And though not directly responding to that exchange, another fellow feminist Freethought Blogger, Stephanie Zvan, posted Talbot’s Awkward Commentary, which is relevant not least because it references that peculiarly Western event called the Sexual Revolution, which changed our society’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality, in such a fundamental and pervasive way that it seems Taslima Nasrin has not yet acclimatized to it, having been born and raised in a world that was never transformed by it.

Morality and Legality of Prostitution

I needn’t rehash the whole debate over why legalizing prostitution is the correct thing to do, or why there is nothing intrinsically immoral about it. In fact it is morally and politically imperative, in all the same ways we legalize the food service industry, which has all the same concerns of disease vectoring and labor exploitation and abuse (including the problem of actual human traficking and slavery). We have no trouble distinguishing illegal and immoral from legal and moral labor agreements and practices in the food service industry, so we would have no greater difficulty doing the same in the sex industry (and the U.S. porn industry, which I will get to shortly, illustrates that).

The notion that sex is somehow relevantly “different” from producing food, transporting food, making food, serving food, cleaning up food, is a religious concept. It has no objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions. I can abuse, mistreat, enslave, exploit a food service worker. That in no way means food service work is inherently degrading or in any way wrong or shameful, or even undesirable (I know many who love the work…as long as they find employers and customers and coworkers who treat them decently, which is the moral reality of all work and employment whatever). It obviously also makes no sense to declare food service work illegal for any of these reasons (men like to eat laboriously prepared food and be waited on hand and foot and not have to clean up after…and they will pay women to do this…and no one is outraged by that). Ditto, sex work.

Sex differs in some respects from food service work, certainly. But not as much as you think, and not in any way that really matters. It’s not inherently more dangerous, for example. There are serious, even lethal, accidents in the food service industry, too (not just workplace dangers, but criminal ones as well: many a food service worker has been beaten, raped or murdered by armed robbers). We didn’t solve that problem by banning the industry. We solved it by improving (and continuing to improve) all aspects of safety and legal protection. We could do the same in the sex industry–and in fact, we can only do that by legalizing it.

On the other hand, sex work is more intimate, more personal, and more violating than food work. But so are other industries. Sex involves being penetrated, but many professional athletes intimately and abusively touch each other, too; we pay surgeons to grab our balls, finger our anus, cut open our chests, and shove things up our every orifice; people pay professionals to pierce and tattoo them; cops and soldiers get paid to take a bullet now and again. Sex is very intimate and personal, but often so is professional writing and acting and dancing, interviewing people for oral histories or news reports, giving and receiving a massage, or speaking to a therapist. Indeed, that latter is arguably more intimate and personal than hired sex work. Think about it. Paying someone to listen at length to your most personal thoughts and darkest secrets, and being paid to listen to strangers’ most personal thoughts and darkest secrets. That’s exposing the real you, the deepest and truest form of nudity and vulnerability and penetration. Compared to that, sex is a mere dance.

The best philosophical treatise ever written on this subject is Martha Nussbaum’s “Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services,” which you can find in her excellent collection Sex and Social Justice, pp. 276-98, or in its original form in the Journal of Legal Studies 27.2 (1998): 693-724. This is required reading on the subject. She thoroughly dispatches every objection, and addresses, directly, several major feminist authors on the subject. If you want to be informed on this topic, you should start there. And yet, as a practicing Jew (and thus a religious believer, not an atheist), Nussbaum personally regards prostitution as immoral and degrading. Which illustrates the importance of distinguishing between seeking to persuade someone to find other employment, and seeking to use the armed force of the state to compel them to. Drugs being the model example: excessive drinking or doing blow may be immoral or not good for you, but outlawing them creates an even more unjust society and exacerbates every evil rather than mitigating any. Thus the moral question is distinct from the political one.

Even so, I do not agree with Nussbaum that sexwork is degrading or immoral. For those who enjoy sex work, cleaning toilets is often far more degrading and exploitative. Yet everyone agrees that’s a legal and necessary occupation. And in my view, cleaning toilets for an income is only degrading if you aren’t being paid well for it or are otherwise badly treated by your employer, and it’s only immoral to employ someone to clean your toilet if you aren’t paying them well for it or are otherwise badly treating them. Prostitution is no different. Likewise working in porn. It’s easier to see why religion blinds even Nussbaum to the reality of this if we imagined an alien society in which all the religious taboos and myths associated with sex were attached instead to playing tennis. These aliens would say that being paid to play tennis with a stranger is dangerous and degrading, that it exploits the poor, that it’s shameful for anyone to play tennis for money, that tennis play should only ever occur between intimate loving couples. We would immediately recognize that that alien belief is ridiculous.

But making a blanket cultural declaration like that is not the same thing as heeding individual relationship dynamics. If playing tennis is something you and your wife have agreed to treat as a special thing you do only with each other, and you make that fact meaningful to you, then your playing tennis with another woman would be an insult to your wife. But that’s only because of your particular relationship. It’s not an objective cultural fact that this will be true for everyone. Polyamorous couples, for example, have no such agreement, nor desire one. Likewise the nonmarried who are honest and clear with their partners how short term their relationship may be and whom they may in future play tennis with. And so, too, anyone who decided to play tennis for money. Either because they like it, or prefer it to other work, or because they need an income, or all of the above. To declare them a shameful, exploited, tennis slut would just be bizarre. To try and use the government to force them not to do it would be even more bizarre. It would make no intelligible sense outside an irrational system of religious mythology.

For a good, thorough scientific demonstration of that fact, see Darrel Ray’s Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. If you want to understand the true ethics of sex, you need to understand the metaphysics of sex (what sex and sexuality really is), and to understand that you need to understand the science of sex. Ray’s book covers it all.

In short, Taslima doesn’t yet realize that we see sex differently, and that women’s liberation has advanced so far in the West that they actually can choose any job they like (which is why, as I’ll point out, no one here is “forced” into the porn industry), and the few who fall through the cracks of our privilege and prosperity (e.g. women who turn tricks for money because they actually are forced into sex slavery or because it’s the only way they can sustain an illegal drug habit) do so precisely because we have driven the industry underground and criminalized it. Imagine if we criminalized food service, and the horrors and abuses that would then occur in the inevitable “black market” food industry. It’s not hard to, because we did it once: with alcohol (Prohibition); and we’re doing it again (with the War on Drugs). Look what happened. Contrast the alcohol industry under Prohibition, with that industry today. Compare, from one period to the other, the conditions and dangers of those laboring in it. As for that work, so for sex work.

Pornography

Taslima then argued against pornography (Let’s Eroticize Equality), which is essentially a form of legalized prostitution. Again, her main point we all agree with (just as actual sex slavery is certainly an evil we ought to outlaw, eroticizing equality is also an awesome recommendation for improving the aesthetic experience of pornography). But the rest, not so much. She repeats Old School Feminist mantras such as that pornography is “an industry of woman-hating dehumanization,” when in fact a rising portion of the U.S. and Canadian porn industry is run by women, and reflects women’s interests and decisions more than ever before (and I agree this trend needs to continue), and women consumers are a significant part of the video porn market (about a quarter share in fact), while the relative proportion of what could properly be called “dehumanizing” porn is starting to shrink.

Which is why I wonder if perhaps Taslima does not know this because she is not as immersed in our culture as we are. She sees the porn industry through the lens of a selectively biased literature, and perhaps from experience with the market and industry as it exists (insofar as it exists) in countries like India or Iran, which have not developed progressive sexuality and women’s liberation as the West has done (the way men treat women on the streets of Egypt, for example, is simply unthinkable here–that’s how far we’ve come, and how far behind they are). Conversely, we see porn and prostitution from the perspective of a highly progressed and very privileged Western democratic society, where women’s power and influence is increasingly pervasive, as is women’s liberation (sexually and intellectually, and economically), and where sex is increasingly seen in the context of women having the free choice to do what they want. How a legally recognized prostitute or porn star is treated here, what the actual opportunities and options she has, is a product of Western wealth and justice, and nothing at all like how a prostitute or porn star would be treated in, say, India’s society and courts of law. The difference has nothing to do with sex or prostitution. It has everything to do with American culture being fifty years more morally advanced than India’s.

Lest someone take umbrage at that suggestion, the fact that Indians keep trying to kill Taslima while Americans don’t is proof enough of the difference. Imagine if Taslima also became a famous porn star…do you think Indians would treat her better after that? When Americans look at nations like India, they see a past that we left behind more than half a century ago (see A Billion Indians and Millions of Injustices). This does not mean America is a paragon of moral virtue. We have a great deal to fix in ourselves, and most other Western democracies are far ahead of us on almost every matter of moral and social justice (and even they are not paragons of moral virtue). But bringing them into it just makes India look even more backward by comparison (much less Bangladesh). Even where we seem comparable is misleading. For example, the murder rates in India and the U.S. are more or less on par, but it hardly needs pointing out that this is in large part due to the fact that most potential murder victims get the hell out of the country (case in point: Taslima Nasrin) or cower to the social pressure to not speak up against injustice or even in defense of one’s own rights, precisely out of fear of being murdered for it. This is one of the reasons why we cannot cite a low murder rate in Iran, for example, as an endorsement of Iranian society.

This is a very significant point, because it means there is a real problem in other countries that don’t materially support women’s rights or any sound concepts of a just society. Prostitutes there have it bad. But not because they are prostitutes, but because their societies are morally backward. It would be easy to conflate (albeit fallaciously) the exploitation of women in those countries with the legalization of prostitution, with the result that our Western advocacy of the morality and legalization of prostitution looks perverse. But that advocacy is based on living within a moral and social infrastructure in which the exploitative and unjust elements of any industry (like prostitution) have a real chance of being suppressed, redressed, and abrogated. We, in other words, are ready to move on. The result is attitudes about sex and commerce that look inconceivable in cultures mired in social and moral oppression. But once you realize the way forward is not outlawing prostitution but improving the moral and social infrastructure of the society that abuses its prostitutes, you’ll see that our view of things is not wrong, it’s just the future you need to work toward.

This cultural difference would explain, for example, why Taslima assumes all porn “is implicated in violence against women” and “pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths” (and then claims studies prove this, when in fact I am not aware of any that do). This of course cannot be true, since porn is far more widely available and consumed in the U.S. yet sexist and abusive treatment of women is vastly greater in countries like Egypt where porn is supposedly not (certainly, even if it’s all going on “on the sly,” Egyptian men can’t be consuming more porn than American men). And rates of rape and other violence against women in the U.S. have not substantially changed over 35 years (e.g. rapes nearly doubled around 1990 relative to 1975 and 2010 but have steadily declined ever since, right back to the 1975 level), even though in precisely that period the porn industry consistently exploded in production, use, and availability–in fact, most significantly after 1990, with the advent of internet porn, which would sooner suggest that increased porn availability causes the decrease of violence against women; but even rejecting that conclusion, no argument can be made that porn increases violence against women. The standard confounding factor is that men who will rape or sexually abuse women will obviously consume porn. As with any correlation fallacy: it’s the rapist’s mind that causes a rapist’s porn consumption, not the porn consumption that causes a rapist’s mind. Which means the fact that India and Egypt treat women so badly is not caused by porn. That is entirely the wrong target to attack.

I can’t say for sure, but inexperience with Western culture might also explain Taslima’s assertion that “most female performers are coerced into pornography,” because that hasn’t been true in the U.S. or Canada for a very long time. The salient point should be that we ought indeed to oppose, morally and legally, coercing women into pornography–as we ought to do for all forms of labor coercion, such as being coerced to work in a factory or as a maid or, and this is far more common, coerced into being an uneducated stay-at-home baby-producing housekeeper. In other words, it’s not pornography that’s the problem. It’s coercion. Be against that. But being against pornography is like being against manufacturing, housekeeping, or homemaking.

There might, however, be another issue here, not one of cultural misinformation, but one of relying on bad sources that resonate with you emotionally but that you don’t actually fact-check, or reacting to things you see happening in porn without first trying to understand it.

In the first instance, I see that Taslima relies a lot on Old School Feminism (which we sent packing years ago; we’re in Third Wave Feminism now), and that old guard often engaged in argument by assertion and ignorantly fallacious rhetoric. As when Taslima paraphrases Gloria Steinem’s argument that porn is bad and erotica good because [here quoting Steinem herself] “porne, in its root, means female slave, and eros obviously means love and has some idea of free choice and mutual pleasure,” which even if true (it’s not) would only have been true 2000 years ago, in a completely different language, spoken before English even existed. So why, then, mention it?

And if you are really going to push a non sequitur like that, at least try to get the facts right. In reality, ancient porneia just meant prostitution, which even in antiquity was not solely an occupation of slaves (it only usually was), and in fact the word was frequently used simply to mean unchastity, i.e. free women having consensual sex for no material gain but the satisfaction of their own desire (and its root, pornê does not likely derive from the mismatched verb pernêmi as has been suggested–though even if it did, that would not necessarily be a reference to slavery but simply selling sex–but more likely comes from pornos, which meant boy lover, not female slave–the connecting element was the assumption of anal and oral sex, which was frequently practiced by female prostitutes as a simple form of birth control). And eros did not mean love in Steinem’s intended sense, but sexual desire, which did not entail choice or mutual affection (but could involve either). Indeed, a man could pay a pornê for sex precisely because of his eros for her. The Greeks had other words for love in its nonsexual aspects.

The Porn-Erotica Divide

That citation of Steinem (who was clearly no Classicist and more into her own rhetoric than actual cultural understanding) relates to Taslima’s acceptance of erotica, which she says is acceptable and good, and which she demarcates from porn using Diana Russell (another Old School feminist, one of the most radical even, and practically a poster child for what Third Wave feminists have rejected):

Pornography: Material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior.

Erotica: Sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed.

In the English language as everywhere spoken, porn is either of those things. To demarcate “porn” as, in effect, “erotica + endorsement of sexism/abuse,” is simply to speak a different language than everyone else. And I do not accept semantic games like that. As I have defended before (Sense and Goodness without God II.2.1.4, pp. 33-35), we need to use words as they are actually used and understood. We can correct errors and inconsistencies and make distinctions. But we can’t try to foist an alien language on people.

Greta Christina has also tackled this subject of what really demarcates porn from erotica (Porn or Erotica?) and she came to a different conclusion, based on how the terms are actually used in English-speaking countries, particularly to market content (in other words, based on how people actually used the words):

Porn is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which any other artistic/ political/ cultural intent is secondary or incidental.

Erotica is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, some artistic/ political/ cultural goal other than the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which this sexual arousal is secondary or incidental.

She ultimately finds that this demarcation is largely artificial, but this is indeed how the words are used. If, for example, you peruse books and videos labeled “erotica” and books and videos labeled “porn,” you’ll see her demarcation play out. I would only add the qualifier that I also find “erotica” used to mean what Greta defines as porn, but without specifically showing or mentioning any of the good parts (for example, a movie made solely to arouse, but that never actually quite shows any penetration or even a fully naked body, gets classed as erotica and not porn).

Getting the semantics right is important, not only to avoid fallacies of equivocation but also for the simple reason that we need to know how the language works to understand our language-saturated world and discourse. “Porn” simply does not mean “that which endorses abuse and degradation.” Where I live, there are specific stores you can go to that specialize in carrying little to no material that does that, yet what they do sell is still all classified as porn. And even anywhere else, if I peruse the “porn” aisle at a video store, I won’t find that it all endorses “abuse or degradation.” And it’s not as if there are two aisles, one marked “normal porn” and the other “endorsements of abuse and degradation.” There might be an S&M section, and things of that nature, but that’s not the same thing.

Which leads me to another issue of cultural divide: if you have not grown up immersed in cosmopolitan Western culture, you might not know about the normalization and acceptance of S&M and other forms of kink. And if you don’t know about it, you might react to seeing it in completely the wrong way. Certainly, if I was a rural kid from Idaho and walked into a magazine store and browsed a kink mag, I might be horrified at the way people (often, but not always, women) are being tormented on its pages, and conclude this is endorsing the brutal torture of women. But it’s not. And it never has. Nor has it caused any escalation in such things. Greta again wrote a very good piece on this, herself a woman into kinky porn: Porn, Social Criticism, and the Marginalization of Kink. And she has explored (in Why Porn Matters) how in fact porn has improved social understanding of women and sexuality, and made the lives of individuals better by eliminating the previous culturally-enforced assumption that their fantasies, whatever they are, must be perverse and wrong. These two articles will educate any reader on how different a sex positive Western culture is, compared to what one might encounter or hear in, say, Bangladesh.

In the first of those Greta explains, and illustrates, that kink, which often does appear to normalize sexism and abuse, is actually a sexual fetish many women, even feminists, find erotic, and even enjoy participating in. However, she does not explain how we’re to tell that “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” isn’t promoting the dehumanization of women, even though she clearly does believe you can have “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” that doesn’t. Someone not already familiar with a lot of our sex culture might be left confused by this. How can you dominate and humiliate a woman and not be dehumanizing her? It sounds like a patent contradiction. I think it would be helpful if Greta answered this question in more detail, perhaps in a future post, especially one aimed at readers who might really have zero experience with this [she has since done something nearly along those lines: see On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture].

Particularly since this is not only an East-West thing, but a cultural divide that exists even within our own country, as many people do not have a close familiarity with our various sexual subcultures or with sex workers or even open communication with porn consumers. Thus, for example, Sunsara Taylor, for Black Skeptics here at Freethought Blogs, also took a stand against porn: protesting Women-Hating Pornographers (see also the brief discussion of concerns for International Women’s Day). She, too, sees kink and sexist fantasy play the same way that Greta considers to be uninformed. In the latter post it’s claimed that, for example, “ejaculation in a woman’s face is standard” (and, it is implied, intrinsically dehumanizing), although that has been commonplace for some thirty years now; in fact, long ago I watched some porn reels from the 30s and 40s and it was happening then, too. But some of the other points raised in that post might reflect genuine trends, and some of them might even be bad.

But the solution, of course, is to change the way porn gets made, to influence the consumers to be more reflective about what they buy (as we’ve successfully done in respect to environmentalism), and inspire the artists to be more thoughtful and creative (as we’ve been doing in respect to film and television). For example, Greta and many others have long criticized the fact that “action movies commonly perpetuate some very common sexist tropes: e.g., weak helpless women who need rescuing by strong male heroes,” and as a result we have seen gradual improvements in that over the last thirty years (Joss Whedon‘s opus, and its market success, is not the only evidence of it). The solution was not “ban action movies” because they promote sexist assumptions about the world. As for action movies, so for porn.

Artistic Criticism Requires Understanding

However, to push for change, you still have to be an informed critic who actually understands the material. Otherwise you will just come across as an ignorant outsider, and that will give you no sway with anyone who can actually make real changes happen. It’s like someone who heard about roller derby, then concluding it’s harmful to women and exploitative, but after understanding current rollergirl culture they realize it’s viewed by everyone involved in it as empowering, and was recently revived by women for that reason (as my wife once said to me, “The way men get Fight Club, women get Roller Derby,” although I should mention Jen also loves Fight Club). Like an outsider who doesn’t get roller derby, the assumption that facial cumshots are inherently “degrading” is precisely the kind of thing that reflects being out of touch with the industry, the artists in it, and what consumers actually think about it. You need to be in touch with all three of those first. And when you are, you may end up seeing things differently.

We also must accept two key realities about the aesthetics of any art or performance:

First, just because a fantasy is depicted, does not mean it is being endorsed or encouraged. This should be obvious from all other fantasy video media: the heroic depiction of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter (particularly in the film Hannibal) is certainly not telling the audience to kill and eat people; action movies are not endorsing dangerous car chases and public gunfights; Dirty Harry is not supposed to inspire us to go on vigilante killing sprees. And, you may notice, it didn’t. Nor did Hannibal cause a rise in cannibalism. Nor have action films caused an epidemic of gunfights and car chases. Fantasy has to be recognized and understood for what it is. Heroes in films get to do things we fantasize about but never do. Like shoot drug lords in the head. Or have lots of beautiful sexual partners. Or sleep with your husband’s secretary. Or get spanked until we cry. Or ejaculate on someone’s face. (As my sonar supervisor’s gun-toting wife once cheerfully said to me in my Coast Guard days, “That dear brave girl takes it in the eye, so I don’t have to!”)

Second, what a scene looks to be saying is not necessarily what it is saying. Art is complex, even when it’s not trying to be. I remember someone I knew back in middle school who idolized a character in the film Apocalypse Now: Lt. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall, who utters the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). He modeled himself after him, dressed like him, talked like him, spoke of him reverently as a kick-ass soldier, his ideal hero. The disturbing thing about that (for those who haven’t seen the movie) is that Kilgore is a grotesque character, he is meant to horrify the viewer. He was specifically written as a metaphor for exactly the kind of stiff-backed war-idolizing lunatic who causes and perpetuates unjust wars like that in Vietnam, men who are never touched by any sense of danger or loss, who puff their chest with exaggerated superiority, who utter such absurd racist patriotisms as “Charlie don’t surf!” This kid didn’t get the joke. He was inspired by that movie to become the very thing it was criticizing.

In no way can we blame the director or the actor or the movie for that. Anyone who failed to get the point they were making is clearly at fault (or their parents were, for not educating them on the matter). We can’t call for Apocalypse Now to be banned because occasionally some idiot doesn’t get it and is inspired by it to become a dangerous asshole. In fact the Kilgore scene is a brilliant work of art, powerful and poignant in all the things it was trying to say. The solution here is to teach and inspire people to think more reflectively about the art they consume, so that they grasp and benefit from the meaning and nuance being conveyed by it. (I say more about my theory of art in Sense and Goodness without God VI.3, pp. 361-66.)

Porn is an art form like any other. Like ordinary film and television, most of it is crap by any artistic standard. But it’s still art. And some of it is much better than most. In fact, aesthetically, I think porn could be far better than almost all of it is, that there is a real need for serious humanist artists to get in the business and change the way porn gets staged and filmed. But even among what exists, there is a difference to be seen between the best of it and the worst of it, and there are still the same artistic principles demanded in how you reflect on and understand what you see. And that’s the viewer’s responsibility. Just as it is when watching Apocalypse Now.

Example. In porn now there is in fact a rising trend (although I suspect it’s a passing fad) toward “throat gagging” (in the 90s it was anal sex; and from what I saw, in the 30s it was banging nuns and seeing semen spill out of things). I don’t enjoy this, even to watch it. It’s not my thing. But one particularly avid performer of it is Sasha Grey, one of the most successful and empowered women in the industry, an outspoken feminist and sex worker advocate. I’ve seen and read interviews with her and it’s clear she enjoys the act of throat gagging and doesn’t do it because she’s forced to or just because she’s paid to, that it turns her on, and that in fact she regards it as an expression of her liberty and power. By body language and spoken word, she calls the shots in every scene. Many women in the industry don’t like it, and don’t do it, and their right not to is generally respected and in fact defensible in court. But if you aren’t watching for the nuances of how Grey behaves in a scene and controls it, if you don’t realize that she considers it sexually exciting and comes to no harm from it, you might get the wrong impression about what’s happening in front of the camera. Just like you might get the wrong impression about Kilgore.

If any man tries this act on a woman who doesn’t like it, because he likes it and doesn’t care what his partner feels, then what we have is another Kilgore admirer. No different than a wife beater or sweat shop operator–yet in neither case do we ban marriages or factories. We criticize the idiot who doesn’t care about his fellow human beings. Sasha Grey is not evil. He is. And she is not responsible for what he does. Just as Robert Duvall is not responsible for the occasional chest-pumping Kilgore-loving military asshole.

There is a way forward here, and generally protesting or banning porn, or any other kind of prostitution or sexual commerce, simply isn’t it.

103 comments

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  1. 1
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Thanks for catching me up with some of this. This is in fact my field, and as a participant in FtB, I should have been up on what was going on, but I wasn’t. Now I’ll have to go back & take a look.

  2. 2
    michaeld

    “How can you dominate and humiliate a woman and not be dehumanizing her?” I’m no expert but I’ll take a crack at it.

    I’d say one way to do this is by emphasizing the choice, agency and desires of the woman (or man or preferred term) before and/or after a scene. This is something that happens in some pornography already and the BDSM community in general. BDSM encourages the use and discussion of personal limits/boundaries, safe words and openness about what it is that is acceptable in a scene. Including such elements book ending a scene for example can be used to lessen the dehumanizing aspects of the scene.

    Possible analogy that just came to mind and I’m mulling over. Before a boxing match on tv or similar event you can hear the fighters discuss their hopes of winning etc, you can see the referee is present maybe even making some calls etc. These aspects distinguish it from a back ally brawl or beating your neighbor. While not directly analogous to an S&M scene including aspects of the safety and consent involved would also make clear the differences between the scene and abuse.

    1. 2.1
      Richard Carrier

      I agree that’s the best way to signal it (and the responsible way), but of course many BDSM videos don’t. They might throw you directly into a fantasy, or just start shooting a scene, etc. When that happens I think one has to assess the art in context. For example, if it’s produced by a respected production company, who has a reputation you can trust not to abuse its performers etc., then that tells you something immediately about what’s going on on screen.

      But there have been cases where someone has seen a video, from an unknown source, and actually called the police believing it to be real, and they were not being naive in doing that, since with no contextual clues, what else were they honestly to think? In that respect there is also a responsibility on the artist to ensure the context is available to the viewer, one way or another.

      But implicit context can be one of those ways. To pick a not-literally-porn example, the film Secretary (which I referenced and many women I know find extremely erotic): any halfway informed viewer knows Maggie Gyllenhaal is not being forced against her will to do those things, and that it’s a performance, on a safe set, where everyone’s rights and comfort are being looked after, etc. Plus, of course, the entire film is about signaling consent in subtle, nonverbal ways. But it pushes the boundaries of sexual harassment, and could mislead a naive viewer into misreading signals. In other words, should anyone ever actually try that in the workplace? Isn’t the fantasy partly built on the idea that this could really happen? (Since the film is carefully constructed to make every step in the process plausible, albeit in many respects atypical.)

      I think in reality, no one would do that, or only in very exceptional cases. It reminds me of a scene I use in lectures on ethical thinking with art, where the character Mal in Firefly shoots what is in effect a police officer in the head. The scene is set up in a context that very carefully establishes it as morally justified, but a huge complex story and background was needed to create that justifying context. Thus it’s realistic (in the sense that, were we ever in that actual situation, we’d be right to do the same), but not real (odds are we will never be in that extremely convoluted circumstance). But it allows us to explore the boundaries of moral justification and heroism all the same. Secretary should be seen in a similar light.

      However, the question I was asking is not how a filmmaker can signal context (I already covered that with my discussion of Grey), but the very ontological question itself: how is it that I could “dominate and humiliate a woman and not be dehumanizing her”? I’m not actually into that, but assuming I were. How is this not an actual contradiction in terms? Thus, I don’t mean art here, but reality. If I really did that, with a BDSM partner. How is it not a contradiction? I have an answer for that, but it’s hard to put into words and I lack the experience with it Greta does, so I’m sure she’d do it better. As for art, the corollary question is, how can I watch BDSM and not be dehumanizing the woman in my mind as I take pleasure in her abuse? Again, I wouldn’t (I can be aroused only by very mild and playful BDSM, which is not what I have in mind here), but I know people who do, and they by no means dehumanize women, but rather the contrary. This I think is confusing to people who haven’t lived around this kind of culture or the people in it. I think that’s why we could benefit from a good anthropological instructional on.

      (BTW, possibly Greta has already fully covered this on her blog before; if so, I’m sure she’ll point me to it, and I’ll add that link in.)

    2. 2.2
      michaeld

      I’ll just reply to myself since I can’t seem to reply to you. [That's the way to do it--ed.]

      I know that what I wrote is not perfect or complete nor does it cover everything that is done today. I just wanted to put it forward as one thing that could be done. Not a perfect solution to all situations which perhaps I was not clear about.

    3. 2.3
      Grimalkin

      I might be able to clear some things up further (though michael did a pretty good job already) from my experiences in fetish-y communities, and being a sub myself.

      First, if you’re dominating and humiliating a woman because that’s what she wants and likes, you aren’t dehumanizing her– you’re acknowledging her as a person with her own individual kinks and preferences, and respecting those kinks and preferences. I would call that humanizing, if anything.

      Also, you’re not really dominating and humiliating her. In a healthy relationship, nobody ever truly believes themselves to be dominant, and nobody is ever truly humiliated.

      Anyways, my main point: In a proper dominant/submissive relationship, the dominant person is actually not the one in control. The sub is. The sub sets the limits, the sub decides what’s acceptable, and the sub controls wields the safe word. The dom is essentially just acting out the sub’s wishes.

      Now, that’s not to say that the dom’s wants don’t get accounted for too (that’d be awfully one sided otherwise), but only those wants that don’t violate the sub’s comfort zone are actually acted upon. Granted, there can be some things that violate the dom’s comfort zone too, but as they’re not the ones putting themselves at risk, their level of control doesn’t need to be enunciated as much as that of their sub.

      Of course, I’m coming from the position of a sub, and I’m not exactly the most experienced person regarding these things, so it’d be best if someone with more experience (or perhaps the perspective of a dom) gave their answer as well. Hopefully this at least clears the issue up a bit, though.

    4. 2.4
      Mikey

      I agree that the consent sections are a great idea that some sites use but unfortunately some porn actors have experiences where the employer will hold their checks until they do that segment, whether the actor agrees with it or not. :-/ This is why the porn industry needs a union so someone powerful enough can take these people to task.

    5. Richard Carrier

      Agents will represent a porn star and ensure they never get in that kind of contract. Or if they do sign such a contract and don’t do the work contracted, then obviously they shouldn’t get paid, like in any other profession; the issue then is simply ensuring that if there is a default, any footage obtained can’t be used without negotiating alternative compensation for it. These are precisely the kind of contract technicalities that people need professional agencies to anticipate and handle for them, and of course by legalizing the industry, reputation has also becomes a weapon: a production company that gets a rep for cheating its performers will soon not find any (this tactic should be used to the hilt). Thus I advocate porn stars either working as their own producers, or hiring agents to represent them in negotiating contracts.

      Unions can help. Sex workers in England are unionized, or can avail themselves of a union. This hasn’t happened in the U.S. because most sex work is illegal, and many porn stars already have representation available (or are happy working independently) so might not realize the value of a union. But strippers are the ones most in need of unions, since they are least likely to have agency representation and the most vulnerable to employer exploitation (since porn stars can go from job to job, but strippers need steady localized employment and thus can’t just up and leave). Thus, San Francisco has an exotic dancer’s union (the Exotic Dancers’ Alliance) and they have been trying to help strippers in other areas form unions (and our state legislatures could help them with this, but the universal religious hostility to sex has prevented any politicians standing up for this sort of thing). I’m all in favor of this trend.

    6. 2.5
      James Croft

      Perhaps one way into your question is to think about it in the context of femdom or gay porn (this may be a stretch, but who knows?). Since the power relations would then be different, it might help in trying to explicate how dom/sub relationships can be mutually empowering and not dehumanizing. Of course, we’d have to be careful translating the insights back into an Mf situation, because there’s no guarantee that the situations are equivalent in the salient ways, but I find it very easy to see in my mind why two gay men roleplaying a domination fantasy can be non-dehumanizing, and I think it might be useful to factor out the power relations between women and men to explore the dom/sub relationship in and of itself before then diving back into the Mf question.

      On the question of signalling consent, it is in my experience extremely common (I would say mandated in the most well-respected production houses) for the subs in gay porn to be filmed verbally expressing their consent and how fantastic they thought the whole experience was. Clips of that expression even end the free clips they offer, which I’m sure everyone will now go check. Empiricism ftw ;).

    7. 2.6
      Iamcuriousblue

      “Unions can help. Sex workers in England are unionized, or can avail themselves of a union.”

      Not really. The International Union of Sex Workers has largely fallen apart due to a combination of internal dissention )over the fact that the head of the union, Douglas Fox, was a escort agency owner as well as a sex worker) and external attack (the usual suspects in the radical feminist movement launched an unprecidented attack against IUSW to make absolutely sure it would not be included in the trade union council). There actually are a few unionized strip clubs in the US and one worker-owned peep show, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. But for the most part, the vast majority of sex workers are not members of a union or any organized group. I think this can change, but there are a lot of barriers to overcome, notably the stigma of being out as a sex worker, the legal status of the work, and the often transitory nature of sex workers.

      A big barrier, as I mentioned above, is the fact that when sex workers try to organize, they face vicious attacks, not from the sex industry, but from the Swedish model proponents and both established and “radical” feminist groups. I will note that in Taslima’s comments section, there is one or two voiceferous individuals who are quite insistant that sex worker activists across the board are “pimps” or are in the pay or control of such pimps. Precious little evidence is offered for such a sweeping and damning statement, mind you. (A case of “The worst are full of passionate intesity” if you ask me.) Of all the barriers to sex worker self-organization, these kind of smear campaigns and union busting campaigns should be the least obsticle, but given political realities, such efforts have undue influence.

    8. Richard Carrier

      The IUSW is now a branch of the GMB, which is not a sex workers’ union but a general union (Gas and Boiler Workers, originally) which admits now a variety of trades (and started admitting sex workers in the UK, by taking the IUSW under its wing, ten years ago). It looks to still be going strong, representing sex workers, providing them educational and outreach services, and bringing cases in court. Fox is no longer its head. And I don’t know which “Trade Union Council” you are referring to (which TUC do you mean GMB is not a member of?).

      (And IMO just because the GMB/IUSW is criticized for allowing producers to be members doesn’t mean they are “falling apart”; such criticism is absurd anyway given that members of the Screen Actors Guild can also be directors and producers of movies, and thus employers of other actors, and no one complains about that, nor would it make any sense to.)

      But that said, I agree with everything else you say. We need more of this kind of thing, there and here.

    9. 2.7
      Iamcurioublue

      I’m not sure what your information about IUSW being accepted by the GMB (that I was referring to as “trade union council”) is, but last I heard, they were rejected by the GMB a couple of years ago, unless that’s changed since then. And unfortunately, this was in no small part due to a huge smear campaign against them by “radical feminist” and “abolitionist” types.

      I don’t think the IUSW has ever had more than a small percentage of UK sex workers as members. If the IUSW had taken off and gotten GMB recognition and some collective bargaining ability, I think the situation would have been different and it would have grown.

      More recently, IUSW has lost some of its best people, notably Thierry Schaffauser, over disputes with the IUSW leadership. And to his credit, has been working to start a sex worker section of GMB. I wish him the best success in this effort. Notably, I think the antis will have a harder time smearing him, as he’s clearly never had any position in the sex industry other than as a worker, not to mention that the “abolitionists” made quite a bit of political hay out of Schaffauser’s being fired from IUSW, and would look quite stupid now back-peddling and trying to smear him. More info here:

      http://thierryschaffauser.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/iusw-fired-me/
      http://thierryschaffauser.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/sex-workers-bring-good-to-the-labour-movement/
      http://thierryschaffauser.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/join-gmb-branch-i50-sex-industries/

    10. Richard Carrier

      The IUSW has been a part of the GMB for almost ten years. See here and here and here and here (just for example). Wikipedia still lists Schaffauser as president, but if he was fired in 2011, I don’t know who currently presides (but if you are interested you can probably ask Catherine Stevens [[email protected]]).

  3. 3
    Brian

    A meaty post. I find myself wavering back and forth on this issue. It’s probably part my xtian upbringing and part not wanting to assume thought patterns that would implicitly make me uphold some paradigm of ‘morality’ that abuses anyone against the idea that do what makes you happy. If that at all makes sense, but my thoughts aren’t clear on these issues…

    Speaking of clear thoughts. How the hell do you write such a long blog post, which is so coherent? I can’t concentrate long enough to make a few coherent sentences…

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      It’s work. (That post took me the better part of a day to organize, compose, revise, proof, etc.) And experience. (The more you write like this, the better at it you get. As someone once told me for drawing: draw a dog and it will look awful; but draw that same dog 40 times and you’ll be amazed how much better your dog looks by that 40th time.)

      I felt it was important to get this one right. And I wanted a break from all the Jesus stuff I’ve been buried under of late.

  4. 4
    Taslima Nasreen

    We the ‘Old School feminists’ are not against those people who are forced to sell sex or who choose to sell sex. We need to de-criminalize the victims — and the rare but real independent seller — and criminalize and prosecute those who sell the bodies of others. I wanted to emphasize again the huge difference between legalizing the sex industry — which is what its profiteers want — and de-criminalizing the victims and the few but real women or men who sell their own sexual services, and criminalizing those who sell others as well as educating the customers and changing the culture. That’s the Third Way, the feminist way, and it’s the only way that has diminished prostitution in Sweden etc.

    If we’re to succeed at saving women and girls, we have to go one step at a time with points of majority agreement we can go for right now: Decriminalize the prostituted women and children, and prosecute the pimps, traffickers and brothel owners. Most people agree that its surrealistic to arrest the victim and not the profiteer. A person has the right to sell her or his sexual services, but not the right to sell other people’s bodies. Providing economic alternatives can then diminish the number of people who practice “survival sex” as young women in the streets call it. The woman who can choose or refuse clients and has no pimp is very very rare, but she will always be used to refute the state of the vast majority unless we acknowledge her existence.

    1. 4.1
      Richard Carrier

      taslima:

      [Note: you sent two versions of the same comment, I'm not sure which to use, so I'm using the second. You may have feared your first comment got lost. But in future you needn't worry. Unlike many on FtB I use full moderation to weed out the trolls and other intemperate commentators, so your comments only appear after a day or two as I get through the list and approve them. That's the only reason it didn't appear immediately.]

      I’m not against those people who are forced to sell sex or who choose to sell sex. We need to de-criminalize the victims — and the rare but real independent seller — and criminalize and prosecute those who sell the bodies of others.

      Insofar as they are doing it against their will, yes. We’re on the same page there. (Likewise those who kidnap and transport those victims.)

      But government does more harm when it over-regulates a legitimate contracted business. For example, actors and writers have agents, who are skilled at getting those actors and writers jobs (they find them clients, and negotiate what they’ll be paid). That is a pimp. The only difference is that an agent sells their actor’s and writer’s labor in the form of stage performances and books, and a “pimp” sells their client’s sexual performance. There is nothing immoral about that. If an agent forced someone to act or write, against their will, obviously that’s something we must stop.

      But if the actor or writer needs the agent’s help to maximize their income and ensure their safety (by vetting clients and negotiating contracts), the government should not interfere with that. Likewise “pimping.” Prostitutes should have the right to contract their labor through an agent same as actors or writers do. And in the porn industry, that happens: as actors, porn stars have agents who procure jobs for them. There is no abuse or exploitation (or when there is, it’s already illegal or ought to be). But to the contrary, both mutually benefit. The porn stars get better jobs and better pay and safer working conditions because they have agents looking out for them, and the agents earn a percentage (typically 15% of every contract).

      A person has the right to sell her or his sexual services, but not the right to sell other people’s bodies.

      As the example of agents proves, that principle is clearly false. Yes, I do not have the right to sell a body I have no right to sell; but if the person who owns that body willingly contracts to me the right to sell her body (as agents sell the bodies of actors, and maid services sell the bodies of their maids, and contract construction companies sell the bodies of their construction workers, etc.), if it’s a mutual business arrangement like any other (the same as when an actor contracts with an agent), then I do have the right to sell other people’s bodies. It’s just that I only have that right by their consent.

      [and we should be] educating the customers and changing the culture.

      I fully agree.

      Legalization is the first step to that, because once it’s legal we can be open about it and freely talk about customer etiquette (e.g. how a client should treat a prostitute, what he should be aware of so he sees the transaction from her point of view, etc.), and there will develop industry standards to rely on (again, the food service industry is an example, where a standard of treatment, safety, tipping, etc. is a normalized part of our culture and part of mainstream cultural knowledge), and protections will be in place to enforce it (e.g. prostitutes can count on police and courts to protect their business rights, instead of having to rely on lawless criminal syndicates for that).

      That should be our goal.

      It’s just a much easier goal to reach in the West than in countries so far from where we are on women’s liberation.

    2. Iamcuriousblue

      “Legalization is the first step to that, because once it’s legal we can be open about it and freely talk about customer etiquette (e.g. how a client should treat a prostitute, what he should be aware of so he sees the transaction from her point of view, etc.)”

      To her credit, Greta Christina has written an entire book, Paying for It, on that very topic.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Thanks for reminding me! She edited and contributed to that, she didn’t write all of it. But anyone interested in this topic should definitely check it out: Paying for It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients.

    4. Taslima Nasreen

      You should not compare prostitute’s labor with actor’s and writer’s labor. Actors and writers may face physical mental and sexual hazards and risks, prostitution has inherent risk toward violence against women as it involves penetration, which is an invasion of the human body, unlike in any other vocation. Prostitution cannot be legislated since the dignity of the body is constantly negotiated.

      OMG (Oh My Goosebumbs) Richard! you want to de-criminalize sex traffickers! I hope you are not encouraging multi-billion dollar fastest growing criminal industries that exploit women and children!

    5. Richard Carrier

      Professional athletes, construction and mine workers, police and soldiers all face far more violating and dangerous physical contact than consensual sex. And we pay doctors to penetrate us in far more ways than natural sexual activities do. They even do it with knives! And chefs will pay tasters to “insert” things into their bodies and “swallow” them.

      There is nothing “bad” about being penetrated in ways our bodies are physically designed to be penetrated. And the mere possibility of illegal violence is not an argument against any profession (again, many a food service worker has been beaten, raped, or killed by armed robbers; that is not an argument against food service work).

      I am in favor of outlawing coercion and violation of rights. I am not in favor of outlawing mutual business arrangements among legally protected equals. Agents are not “exploiting” their actors and writers. Maid service agencies are not “exploiting” the maids they find clients for. Nor are agents “exploiting” the porn stars they represent. To the contrary, it is precisely because porn stars can employ agencies to represent them that the safety and compensation and autonomy of porn stars have continually improved. Those porn stars can leave any agency they don’t like, hire any agent they choose, or operate freelance if they prefer. It’s their choice. This is simply not an exploitative system. It’s no different from any other system where workers hire agents to represent them and find them work. As long as everyone’s rights are protected, it works fine, and to everyone’s mutual benefit.

      Thus, all we need focus on is protecting the rights of everyone in these business arrangements. As for porn stars, so for any sex workers.

    6. bradhaggard

      OK, full disclosure. I’m a Christian and I came here for a little schadenfreude over the Jesus myth controversy with Dr. Hoffman. I apologize for that. However, when I came across this article, I was more than a little amazed.

      Taslima is speaking from a position of knowledge on this. Our “advanced Western” society is the one creating the market for sex trafficking in other countries. And what drives that market up? You guessed it, porn. Not just that, but the major sporting events in this country are high times for sexual trafficking. That’s right here on enlightened American (and European) soil. To see just how much it affects us, look up the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s revised definition of addiction, which was made to specifically include sexual addictions.

      And do you think that an exploited woman is going to give an honest answer about her work? They are performers, and they are trained to create the illusion that they enjoy these acts. Do you know of any girl that grows up dreaming of having these things done to them? Why do men continually assume that they do enjoy these things? (the answer is that there is established bio-chemical bases for these and studies which show the effect of pornography on a person’s acceptance of rape-myths)

      I’ll cite all of this if you’re interested to read. And I don’t deny that there are some porn performers who are “successful”, but that is not the experience of the industry as a whole. How about I grant, according to Greta, that there are “thousands” of well-adjusted performers? How does that stack up to millions of exploited women and girls? It’s sad that this is painted as a moral issue, when it is really a human rights’ issue.

    7. Richard Carrier

      This is all a self-rationalizing fantasy. As you’ll learn by reading Greta Christina’s blog, where she has addressed all these claims time and again. Pornography did not create prostitution or sex tourism. Those have existed for thousands of years. And to say all sex workers are liars and you know what they are really thinking is the most pathetic of Western paternalism. It’s also a silly fallacy to say anything addictive is bad. So, you support the legal abolition of alcohol? It is likewise a silly fallacy to say any industry with exploited and unhappy people should be illegal. So, you support the legal abolition of shoe manufacturing and fruit picking? Obviously the solution to that problem is to improve the industry, not abolish it, to actually support the rights and interests of sex workers, as in asking what they really want and working to provide it, instead of ignoring them and pretending “big brother knows best.”

      Finally, you need to back up statements like “there is established bio-chemical bases for these and studies which show the effect of pornography on a person’s acceptance of rape-myths.” Cite the studies. Because when I actually go and look at them, invariably they don’t say things like this. So pony up. Let’s see how attuned to the truth you really are.

    8. Ace of Sevens

      When you say that penetration is in itself a violation, don’t be surprised when people call you sex negative. Also, as documented by Sally Strange, you seem to think that sexual assault is amusing when men are the victims. Why is this?

    9. Iamcuriousblue

      Taslima: Those of us who want full decriminalization want to decriminalize sex work, not “de-criminalize human traffickers”, which is unfortunately how “abolitionists” frame the argument. Nobody here is saying coerced prostitution is anything other than a crime.

    10. agodlessstrumpet

      “prostitution has inherent risk toward violence against women as it involves penetration” Speculation

      “which is an invasion of the human body, unlike in any other vocation, which is an invasion of the human body, unlike in any other vocation.” subjective opinion

      “Prostitution cannot be legislated since the dignity of the body is constantly negotiated. prostitution IS legalized in many places. Further, define “dignity”

      “OMG (Oh My Goosebumbs) Richard! you want to de-criminalize sex traffickers! I hope you are not encouraging multi-billion dollar fastest growing criminal industries that exploit women and children! = the most common strawman antis use to shut down questions concerning the legalization and decriminalization of sex work. Nothing new to see here folks. As you were.

    11. 4.2
      Ace of Sevens

      We the ‘Old School feminists’ are not against those people who are forced to sell sex or who choose to sell sex.

      When you call them house slaves and advocate jailing their customers, and depending how you define pimp and trafficker, their promoters, it sure sounds like you are against the people who choose to sell sex. You seem to be demeaning them and advocating making their lives a lot more difficult.

    12. Richard Carrier

      I think it’s more a confusion, perhaps, between coercive promoters and cooperative promoters, a distinction that might not be so clear in places like Thailand or Bangladesh (where prostitution might more commonly be a coercive enterprise), even though the difference is fully self-evident in the U.S. (where coercive promoters are already outlawed and hunted, and should be even more than they already are, while most promoters, by far, are cooperative, e.g. acting agencies, maid service agencies, agents representing porn stars, etc.).

    13. you_monster

      When you call them house slaves and advocate jailing their customers, and depending how you define pimp and trafficker, their promoters, it sure sounds like you are against the people who choose to sell sex. You seem to be demeaning them and advocating making their lives a lot more difficult.

      I would add to that list Taslima’s claim that those who choose to be sex workers enjoy being raped.
      Taslima,

      A small number of women say they choose to be in prostitution, especially in public contexts orchestrated by the sex industry. I am very curious to learn why they like to be raped everyday.

    14. 4.3
      aaron

      de-criminalizing the victims and the few but real women or men who sell their own sexual services, and criminalizing those who sell others as well as educating the customers and changing the culture. That’s the Third Way, the feminist way, and it’s the only way that has diminished prostitution in Sweden etc.

      And if there were any evidence to suggest that the Swedish model actually works to make sex work safer, we’d all agree that it might be a good step. But there are fundamental conceptual problems with the Swedish model (outlined here), and the Swedish government has utterly failed over the past decade to provide any evidence whatsoever that sex work is safer than before, or than prostitution is diminished, as you claim.

    15. Richard Carrier

      For a nuanced look at the Swedish model, see Crommunist’s post.

    16. 4.4
      Iamcuriousblue

      Taslima:

      It seems to me that many “old school feminists” are very against women who choose to sell sex, and it is implicit in both the Nordic model, and explicit in many of the comments in your comments section.

      The Nordic model says that whenever you get money for sexual services, no matter what the circumstance, you are a crime victim and the person who purchased your services is a criminal. The state is not supporting their choice; it is criminalizing it, and simply shifting much of the burden of criminalization onto others. Not that it even shifts much of the burden of criminalization. When all financial activity around a sex worker becomes criminalized (something that’s very much the case in the Nordic model, as well as in Anglo-Canadian style decriminalization), it has profoundly negative effects on sex workers themselves. Sex workers can and have been kicked out by landlords who would be in violation of the “living off the avails” law if they didn’t take such action. This is precisely why Canada has recently thrown out several laws criminalizing activity around prostitution as harmful to sex workers themselves, and clearly in violation of Canadian constitutional guarantees of equal rights.

      Also, the hostility of “abolitionists” toward anybody, particularly any woman, who would choose to do this kind of work is clear and unmistakable. It quite evident in your comments section, particularly the comments of “feminist” police agent Ann, as well as Stella Marr, who continue to claim that anybody who says they do such work willingly and actually politically organizes to defend their right to do so is *always* a pimp and inevitably is involved in the exploitation of other women. No evidence is given that would justify such a sweeping statement, but you let such statement stand while blocking my comments defending several individuals against such charges.

      Finally, your portrayal of those who do prostitution by choice as “rare” and an insignificant minority is, once again, dated propaganda that is without empirical basis. It is also completely un-nuanced. Sex workers cannot simply be divided up into a majority of criminally exploited women and a tiny minority of “happy hookers”. There actually exists a huge spectrum between those who do it gladly as a chosen vocation on one end and those who are outright sexual slaves on the other. In between lies every shade of gray imaginable. I would say that either extreme is a minority, and that the majority are those simply making a living, who like or dislike the work to varying degrees. That spectrum includes a great many poor women as well, who will readily admit sex worker is not exactly their first choice of occupation, but greatly prefer it to the other options available to them. Particularly sweatshops, which ironically, is exactly the kind of work that all too many “abolitionist” organizations try to force “rescued” sex workers into.

      Sex work is a complicated issue with many nuances and a need for carefully crafted policy, of which full decriminalization is simply a part. It is not a problem that can dealt with through simplistic rhetoric about “patriarchy” and “slavery”, and that is all I see “old school feminists” like Steinem, MacKinnon, and Farley offering.

    17. 4.5
      agodlessstrumpet

      “We the ‘Old School feminists’ are not against those people who are forced to sell sex or who choose to sell sex. We need to de-criminalize the victims — and the rare but real independent seller — and criminalize and prosecute those who sell the bodies of others.”

      Really? From the tone of your piece I got a completely different impression about your attitude toward consensual sex workers.

      “Pornography is exclusively for men’s pleasure. Women are used as sex objects. I know some women will say, ‘we love to be sex objects’. Millions of misogynists are out there to support the idea of the objectification of women. I do not have to support this.”

      Here you play on the complex question fallacy presuming the existence of a certain condition without yet having proven that conditions i.e. that working in the sex industry is synonymous with being a “sex object.” You also proceed to accuse such willing participants in the sex industry of being “misogynists…out there to support the idea of the objectification of women.”

      You can not possibly expect us to believe you are not against women who willing participate in the sex industry when you turn around and call us “misogynists” out of the other side of your mouth. You even state “I do not have to support this” and indeed you don’t but PLEASE do not double speak us especially when you have censored and silenced actual women who work in the sex industry when we have attempted to comment on your threads.

      Proof: http://youtu.be/ftnkIgVhvmM

      As for criminalizing the seller of other people’s bodies laws like this have been the cause for more harm then good. In fact, they are being challenged now in Canada because they often do not allow for sex workers to hire security.

      http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/bedford-ruling.pdf

      They recently adopted such a bill in Tennessee (HR2853) and as you can see from the discussion on it on the House floor, without the participation of actual active sex workers it’s a fiasco not unlike the blind leading the blind.

    18. 4.6
      Tsu Dho Nimh

      Decriminalize the prostituted women and children

      Taslima – Are you using “prostituted” to mean “those who were sold/forced into having sex”? As if it were something done TO them, instead of BY them?

      The more common usage in English is that the verb “to prostitute” is something that is done by the possessor of whatever: I could prostitute my talents or my body. I could not prostitute Richard’s writing talent (only he could do that), nor would I ever say I prostituted him if I sold access to his body for sexual services. (I would be “pandering” and he would be prostituting if the charges were being written against us.)

      we have to go one step at a time with points of majority agreement we can go for right now: Decriminalize the prostituted women and children, and prosecute the pimps, traffickers and brothel owners.

      But we aren’t in agreement. If exchanging sex for money were to be legalized as an economic activity, there are still plenty of laws to take care of abuse without creating a special category for sex.

      EXAMPLE: It’s legal for me to hire a housekeeper, exchanging my money for her work. If I fail to pay her for her work, it’s theft and can be prosecuted. If I to lock her up and make her work for free for me and/or others, it’s false imprisonment and kidnapping and slavery.

      “Traffickers” – if they are kidnapping, holding people against their will (physically, by taking travel docs, by threats) or luring with false information … there are already laws about that. Most traffickers are already violating all kinds of immigration laws, starting with lying to get visas for the women they are bringing in, or smuggling them across borders. They are also violating laws about false imprisonment (slavery), and usually various wage and employment laws. Focusing on that, instead of making up new laws, would be a better idea.

      Prosecuting a pimp or madam – only if his/her actions would be illegal if done to writers or food service workers. If they are acting like an employment agency or labor contractor or talent agent, they would have to follow the laws for them.

      Prosecuting a brothel owner is a bad idea. As Canada found out, it prevents a group of sex workers from doing what any other business owners would do, and that is share the costs of doing business by sharing their workspace with others. If the brothel owner is coercing or failing to pay the workers, we’re right back to the laws about false imprisonment and employment … nothing special needed.

    19. Rieux

      Tsu Dho:

      If I fail to pay her for her work, it’s theft and can be prosecuted.

      Actually, it’s breach of contract, and it’s unlikely that anyone can or would prosecute you for it. The housekeeper would have to sue you for damages—though if the facts were clearly as you’ve described them, she would win.

      None of which impairs your other points. Indeed, the need to avail oneself of courts in order to enforce contract law (among other laws) is a strong argument for legalizing sex work generally.

    20. 4.7
      Anthony Kennerson

      The problem with that principle is that by drying up the availability of clients for that sex worker to sell her services to, you might as well be censoring her directly.

      Also, the main reason the Swedish Model hasn’t expanded beyond Scandanavia is because most traditional authoritarian conservatives are not willing to allow the sellers or the workers to avoid the same punishment as the clients or the “pimps”. To them, the Swedish Model is merely an end to the means of criminalizing sex work and sex that doesn’t fit their moral ideology.

      Besides that…how can you say you are for sex workers when you consistently badger them as “house slaves” and “elitists” for not succumbing to your ideology??

      Those who abuse their control and power would still be held accountable in a decriminalized system, whether they be male or female. That’s far different from scapegoating men not for their abuse, but merely for having erections and seeking sex workers to provide relief for them.

    21. 4.8
      BobChaos23

      So basically you haven’t read (much less addressed) any of the actual criticisms of your position…why am I not shocked?

  5. 5
    Skarphedin

    The notion that sex is somehow relevantly “different” from producing food, transporting food, making food, serving food, cleaning up food, is a religious concept. It has no objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions.

    If this is true, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to demand that people who could work in prostitution or pornography do so before being allowed to go on unemployment? I certainly would feel we should demand it in the case of those other jobs.

    1. 5.1
      Richard Carrier

      I don’t understand the question. That sounds like saying we require people to work in the food service industry before receiving unemployment. Since we don’t do that, your analogy doesn’t make sense. Not least when we consider other jobs you can receive unemployment benefits after, such as sewer worker, horse masturbater, or roadkill technician (yes, those are real jobs). We don’t force people to do those things, either.

    2. 5.2
      NathanDST

      Maybe I can clarify the question, having been on unemployment a few times. I don’t know if the rules are the same in all states, but in Minnesota the eligibility requirements state:

      To be eligible for benefits for any week, you must be:

      –Able and willing to immediately accept work in your usual occupation or other suitable employment.
      –Willing to seek and accept the hours, wage, commuting distance, and other conditions of employment that are normal for someone in your occupation with your skills and experience.

      Emphasis mine. That “other suitable employment” seems to be the stickler. What exactly qualifies as suitable employment? When I applied for benefits, I was never given the sense that it was ok to not look in fields other than what I was used to working. The expectation seemed to be that you would apply for and accept any position that you were qualified for and could get transportation to. Now, it’s been a 5-6 years (more?) since I was able to get unemployment benefits (every time I was unemployed during that time was not for a layoff, or other qualifying circumstance), so things may have changed.

      But from that, the question would be “If ‘other suitable employment’ means anything you’re qualified for, ‘then wouldn’t it be reasonable to demand that people who could work in prostitution or pornography do so before being allowed to go on unemployment?’”

      Btw, first time reading your work. I’m impressed. I do believe I’ll be coming back.

    3. Richard Carrier

      The pertinent point would be if you didn’t want to do sex work any more, you can get benefits as long as you are pursuing work you are qualified for (which for anyone able bodied enough to do sex work would be all manner of things, from general laborer to gopher to sidewalk sign twirler, and that’s assuming you had no other skills and thus couldn’t reasonably expect to get entry level office work or factory work or a job at McDonald’s or waiting tables at Denny’s).

    4. 5.3
      karmakin

      We don’t say to engineers who are unemployed that you have to go out and apply and work at McDonald’s. Movement Conservatives and Tea Partiers like to pretend that you should do that and if you’re not you are leech on the system, but the world simply doesn’t work that way.

      Not everybody is up for sex work, just like not everybody is up for lifting heavy loads.

    5. Richard Carrier

      karmakin:

      We don’t say to engineers who are unemployed that you have to go out and apply and work at McDonald’s.

      As a matter of law, though, we might be doing that. I don’t know what the requirements are for receiving unemployment benefits state by state, but some may indeed deny you if you refuse to take any work that’s available that you are capable of doing (so, an engineer would have to take a job at McDonald’s).

      If that’s the case, then perhaps it ought not to be. But that’s a complex debate about public resource policy that isn’t relevant here. Especially since the analogy would require you’d have to already have been “up” for sex work (have had an established career as a sex worker) for that to count in parallel to “being an engineer.” And you’d have to not have quit (you don’t get unemployment benefits if you terminate the employment; it has to be termination you didn’t want). So then the situation would be: you get benefits only if you wanted sex work but there is no sex work to be had; otherwise, you need to establish a new career. An engineer who quits cannot receive unemployment benefits, either. His only recourse is to find a new kind of job. So, too, sex workers.

    6. 5.4
      propater

      I guess there are differences in the way unemployment benefits are handled from country to country but here (Belgium) benefits are technically not limited in time (you could spend your entire life living on it).

      However, benefits are handled through a government agency who also work as a sort of work placement agency/counselling/… They can propose job opportunities to you refuse those job opportunities even though you are qualified for the job (like a sewer cleaner), you are barred from benefits.

      In the case of a legalized sex industry, would you consider it ok for that placement agency/benefits provider to propose job opportunities in the porn industry/prostitution industry which you would have to either accept or renounce your benefits.

      I try to as sex positive and liberal as I can be but I have a hard time not shying away from this vision.

    7. Richard Carrier

      In the U.S. you only get benefits if you are unemployed against your will. And I support that. If you quit, you chose to be unemployed. Safety nets only exist for people who meet with an unchosen setback. Someone who loses a sex work position against their will is not normally going to be opposed to getting another position in that field. They might refuse it on other grounds (e.g. they don’t like that boss), but that’s the same conundrum other professions are in (an engineer can turn down a job offer because he doesn’t like that boss), so that is not a problem unique to sex work (solutions are legally conceivable, e.g. filing a legitimate grievance against the tolerability of a workplace environment could be made a recognized grounds for continuing benefits after refusing to work there, but those solutions would be universal, not particular to the sex industry). Ultimately, if you refuse to continue in your established profession, you are no longer facing an unchosen setback. And when it comes to that, sex professions are no different from any other: if you want benefits, you have to either (a) pursue the career you lost or (b) change careers and still fail to find work.

    8. 5.5
      Zengaze

      I think you need to clarify your position on this Richard. In an instance, in a nation where unemployment benefit is withdrawn if the recipient turns down available work. ( note in this scenario available work means any work available whether you have previously worked in that field or not). Are you of the opinion that someone who turns down work in the sex industry should logically have their benefits removed? As by arguing that sex work is no different from other types of work, that is the logical conclusion.

    9. Richard Carrier

      Zengaze:

      Are you of the opinion that someone who turns down work in the sex industry should logically have their benefits removed?

      I don’t understand the point of the question. Are you assuming a scenario in which the only available work is sex work? If that were happening, we’d have much bigger problems than how to assign unemployment benefits.

      But if we’re to explore that extreme hypothetical, in that highly improbable circumstance existing law would exempt you. For example, California law states:

      [an individual is disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits if] He or she, without good cause, refused to accept suitable employment when offered to him or her, or failed to apply for suitable employment when notified by a public employment office…[where] “Suitable employment” means work in the individual’s usual occupation or for which he is reasonably fitted, regardless of whether or not it is subject to this division. In determining whether the work is work for which the individual is reasonably fitted, the director shall consider the degree of risk involved to the individual’s health, safety, and morals, his physical fitness and prior training, his experience and prior earnings, his length of unemployment and prospects for securing local work in his customary occupation, and the distance of the available work from his residence, and such other factors as would influence a reasonably prudent person in the individual’s circumstances.

      Thus, a vegan cannot be required to take employment as a butcher; likewise someone who morally objects to sex work would not be required to take that work, either. Among “such other factors” besides moral objections I would expect strong personal aversion would likewise count (e.g. someone who becomes very emotionally upset scraping up road kill or handling human corpses or otherwise finds such work intolerably disturbing would not be required to take that work, and similar psychological inability to comfortably do sex work would fall under the same principle).

      It’s worth pointing out that this is a reality in some states, like Nevada, where prostitution is in fact legal, and most everywhere else, where stripping and phone sex and pornography are legal. Thus the “availability of sex work” is not a hypothetical but a reality that our unemployment benefits system has long dealt with. Likewise elsewhere. See, for example, the Snopes discussion of the situation in Germany.

      This is all sound policy, IMO.

    10. 5.6
      Iamcuriousblue

      #7 & 8: What we’re encountering here is a standard anti-prostitution talking point, one that is repeated ad-nauseum in various forums every time the debate comes up. The idea is to establish the false claim that if sex work is decriminalized and destigmatized, that this will axiomatically mean forcing poor women into it. The only support this claim has is the one isolated case reported on Snopes, enhanced by a game of “telephone”, and now presented by anti-prostitution folks as being standard welfare law in countries with decriminalized prostitution. In fact, there is no country that will force welfare recipients to take jobs in the sex industry, something these people are either ignorant of or being dishonest about.

      Thanks for the Snopes link, BTW. I used to have to write an explanation in full, and I had no idea that Snopes has had a well-sourced debunking of this up since 2005.

  6. 6
    ema

    In the first of those Greta explains, and illustrates, that kink, which often does appear to normalize sexism and abuse, is actually a sexual fetish many women, even feminists, find erotic, and even enjoy participating in.

    She does no such thing. She states her preference and throws in an unsupported assertion (It shows no awareness of the fact that plenty of women enjoy these fantasies every bit as much as men….). That’s it.

    …if you don’t realize that she considers it sexually exciting and comes to no harm from it….

    Ms. Grey’s superpowers aside, being punched in the abdomen and taxing your gag reflex are harmful.

    1. 6.1
      Richard Carrier

      ema:

      She states her preference and throws in an unsupported assertion (It shows no awareness of the fact that plenty of women enjoy these fantasies every bit as much as men….).

      Except we all know that assertion is true, so she doesn’t need to support it (even though she does: she provides published examples and knows a lot of women personally who share her interests).

      If you don’t know that that assertion is true, then you have not done any research on this subject at all.

      Ms. Grey’s superpowers aside, being punched in the abdomen and taxing your gag reflex are harmful.

      No more than from playing football or roller derby. Or even just training in martial arts. In fact, for men, football is far more harmful. And the concern to change the rules and safety gear to mitigate that is valid. But I don’t see anyone calling for football to be made illegal because it causes widespread brain damage (something you don’t get from rough sex). Nor would it make sense to outlaw roller derby because the girls get injured playing it (and they do, more frequently than Grey ever does, and sometimes worse than I’m sure anything Grey has experienced).

      In fact, all physical work and play is “harmful” by your apparent standard. Thus “harm” in that sense is irrelevant to the present issue.

    2. 6.2
      LykeX

      She does no such thing. She states her preference and throws in an unsupported assertion (It shows no awareness of the fact that plenty of women enjoy these fantasies every bit as much as men….). That’s it.

      Are you saying that there aren’t any women that enjoy this sort of thing? If not, what is your point?

  7. 7
    Jeffrey Nordstrom

    This is an excellent, coherent writeup on an issue that hitherto overwhelmed me. I will come back to it often. Thank you.

  8. 8
    Chris Hallquist

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. And it’s cool you managed to apply your knowledge of Greek here :)

  9. 9
    Laolao

    I agree with you on most points, but I think you wrongly assume that the consumption of porn is lower in Egypt. I have lived in China and Indonesia (both with much more restrictive policies towards porn) and from anectodal evidence and personal experience I would say men consume vast amounts of (illegal) pornography in both those countries. I would guess it being illegal in Egypt wouldn’t seriously hamper consumption.

    And of course pornography (and video games, movies, books, etc) can and do have an effect on us and change our norms, behaviour, and views. It has been proven many times over by the advertisement industry (product placements in movies for example). That of course doesn’t mean we should make it illegal, but isn’t it naive to assume no effect (except from disturbed individuals).

    1. 9.1
      Andrew G.

      We don’t “assume” no effect, there are many actual studies comparing porn availability and consumption against rates of rape, and the evidence only supports “no effect” or “porn reduces rape”, and does not support “porn increases rape”.

      So even if we go in with reasons to believe there could be some effect, once the evidence tells us otherwise we have to follow the evidence rather than our preconceptions.

    2. Richard Carrier

      Andrew G.:

      [In reply to Laolao] We don’t “assume” no effect, there are many actual studies comparing porn availability and consumption against rates of rape, and the evidence only supports “no effect” or “porn reduces rape”, and does not support “porn increases rape”.

      I don’t think Laolao claimed that it increased rape or anything like that, but that it certainly has some effect, such as on what we think about sex and how we define normal sexual activity and what we might experiment with and how we generate models in our mind of gender roles and what women are like and so on. He’s right. Many of those effects are positive (as I myself noted Greta Christina has discussed), and some are probably negative (e.g. reinforcing stereotyped gender roles and perceptions of women and men), but their effect will be mediated by the intelligence and reflectiveness of the viewer.

      For example, someone whose only real interaction with women is watching them in porn is going to have a wildly skewed understanding of women than someone who has a lot of healthy relationships with women, as the latter will approach porn with that background information already influencing how they interpret and respond to what they see in porn. I know well and good that most of what’s going on in porn is a hyper-simplistic fantasy about women and not at all realistically portraying them (and even when realistic, is superficial, leaving me to fill in the rest with information I have about what women are like, to add to and flesh out the fantasy).

      But in a culture that socially segregates and limits male-female interaction (like Islamic countries that won’t even let them sit together at meals, or any culture that reinforces the notion that men only hang out with men and women only with women, or that enculturates men to believe women are inferior to men, or that teaches all kinds of sexist nonsense about women), porn of the sort produced here will only exacerbate their ignorance and bigotry. Precisely because porn produced here assumes an American viewer who has a very different set of background information and experience. I think it’s worth making that point as critics of the kind of porn that gets produced and marketed. (Criticizing an art form is not the same as condemning it; in fact, in all the arts, even the fiercest critics tend to be those most supportive of the art–they want it to be better, not to go away.)

      Conversely, if most porn became more intelligent and creative (e.g. depicting women as more emotionally and intellectually mature and involved in what’s happening; and, incidentally, depicting men as emotionally and intellectually mature, full stop) I expect the net causal effect would be positive. Which entails not improving the aesthetic quality of porn has a residual negative effect to the extent that it isn’t having the positive effect it could be. The analogy to action movies perpetuating sexist stereotypes, vs. action movies that more intelligently and creatively depict women, holds: there is certainly a causal effect, on how men think about women, and even how women think about themselves. It just doesn’t rise to the level of causing mass rape and social chaos. But it’s an effect worth attending to and seeking to change for the better.

      And then there is causal effect that crosses the value divide as to whether it is good or bad in the first place. For example, porn will help normalize alternative sexualities and sexual acts and fetishes, which to progressive humanists is a net good, but to religious conservatives is a net evil. Thus how you define “harm” matters. Sexual liberation does not do “harm.” But conservatives nevertheless still believe it does. For example, they think if porn helps their daughter realize and accept that she’s gay, that porn therefore “turned her gay.” Not only are they wrong on the causation element (it did not “turn her gay” but it did help her understand and accept who she already was, and thus broke down the chains of role-oppression that conservatives want to maintain), but they are wrong on the value of the effect (being “gay” is not a negative outcome).

      So there are aspects of causation in porn that are valid. They just have to be studied and assessed in a sound and valid way.

    3. 9.2
      Iamcuriousblue

      “And of course pornography (and video games, movies, books, etc) can and do have an effect on us and change our norms, behaviour, and views. It has been proven many times over by the advertisement industry (product placements in movies for example). That of course doesn’t mean we should make it illegal, but isn’t it naive to assume no effect (except from disturbed individuals).”

      Indeed. Everything that has been claimed about pornography is true of media in general, which is why the rhetoric by wowsers that “pornography affects people’s views of sex” doesn’t really strike a chord with me. A great deal of media does likewise, and the default in democratic societies is not to censor it, nor otherwise regulate content for “public health” reasons.

      And it is also possible to exaggerate the affects of not only pornography, but media in general. There have been some good skeptical reviews of media effects studies in general, but the outcome has been that some 50 years of media effects studies have failed to substantiate any kind of “monkey see, monkey do” effects of media exposure.

    4. Richard Carrier

      Agreed.

  10. 10
    Ace of Sevens

    You sir, have put me to shame. I spent the last couple weeks writing about media issues. You captured everything it took me about six columns to say here and said it better. For instance, everyone acknowledged the cultural divide, but I think you dealt with it the best.

    Part of the issue with my attempts to write about this is I took it personally. I moonlighted as a stripper for a while and count a good many current or former sex workers as close friends. Saying that sex work is inherently degrading is in itself degrading to sex workers and I count a great many among my friends. It’s like taking pity on those poor dentists who couldn’t hack real medical school. It is a skill and one that I think does improve society. I actually started yelling at my computer when she called Maggie Mayhem a house slave. (Also, I should note as a US History major that house slaves didn’t have it significantly better than field slaves and were far more likely to be raped. The idea is basically mythical.)

    While no one is forced into porn in the US, and relatively few are forced into prostitution, there are plenty of ethically dubious things that go on in production. These are ultimately labor issue, but the usual labor advocates don’t pay a lot of attention to them. See, for instance, the lack of any fair trade certifications. This is disappointing as the dignity of all forms of work is one of the founding principles of the labor movement.

    I’ve wanted to do something to stand up for sex worker rights ever since I was in middle school. They are probably the group with the least societal respect except prisoners. This is why abuse occurs and why stopping it isn’t a major priority for society. The recent increased visibility of porn and pornstars helps, but it’s still pretty bad out there, even in the west.

    1. 10.1
      karmakin

      I read your posts.

      There’s nothing at all to be ashamed of.

  11. 11
    Ace of Sevens

    And on the culture gap: I should point out this is also true of Andrea Dworkin. She was a prostitute forty years ago in Holland, where she was a foreigner who didn’t speak the language. Someone working near their home in San Francisco at the same time, like many of the people Greta knew, would have had a very different experience. Someone working in the modern Midwest suburbs, like most of the prostitutes I know, or in modern Vancouver, like Natalie’s friends would be different still.

  12. 12
    Ray Staroof

    I really appreciate your take on this, Richard. I think the main issue here is use of quotations. In her Do Women Really ‘Choose’ to Be Prostitutes article, she cobbles together some sentences from a Wikipedia article and then claims that researchers say it. She cites vague “surveys” (it might have been a Family Feud reference that flew over my head [Louie Anderson was the best host ever]) , does not link to them, and pieces together quotes from different articles. In her Do Women Really ‘Choose’ to Be Prostitutes article, she quotes “prostitution researchers” but after following links and searching around, I found her quote was from an article written by Melissa Farley with no citations (Farley does, however, put some links at the top of her article and say ‘this is where I got my info’). Nasrin’s statements almost seem to be deliberately misleading. While I appreciate the access to points of view outside of my own, I don’t have the time to fact check every article she writes.

    1. 12.1
      Richard Carrier

      I agree that’s a problem. Writers in general need to be more careful with their citation and use of sources, or they will lose credibility. But I think that’s often something new bloggers learn over time.

  13. 13
    Larry Knight

    Great post Richard – thanks!

  14. 14
    Gage

    You broke rules 1 and 2.

    1. 14.1
      Richard Carrier

      What are rules 1 and 2?

    2. 14.2
      Ace of Sevens

      You talked about Fight Club.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Nice. :-)

      (and: head slap [for not getting the joke])

  15. 15
    Timid Atheist

    Such an elegant and well thought out break down. And I’m so pleased to see that while you attack her argument, you are not attacking Talisma. It was so hard reading her articles and then the comments that were posted. Along with Greta and Natalie’s commentary, this is another piece that I’ll be keeping bookmarked.

    It’s easy to see, once pointed out, the divide that has occurred between those of us who have grown up with certain freedoms and those who have had to struggle for any freedom at all. I can now see the reasons for Talisma’s stance and see why she has written what she does. I’m glad you caught onto that and addressed it fairly.

  16. 16
    Tim

    >>The notion that sex is somehow relevantly “different” …is a religious concept. It has no objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions. I can abuse, mistreat, enslave, exploit a food service worker.

    So odd to hear you say this when on the other hand you completely fail to recognize the exact same point when you (religiously) claim that “persons” are intrinsically different and deserve happiness and we can’t mistreat them, enslave them, etc. (I.e., human rights and dignity are real.)

    In neither case is there any objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions.

    1. 16.1
      Richard Carrier

      I don’t understand your argument. You are saying “persons” are no different from…what?

      I have made clear elsewhere what makes persons different from other objects in the universe and why that objectively entails treating them differently. I have covered this numerous places, but most extensively in Sense and Goodness without God.

      I did not require a single religious myth or superstition to get that conclusion.

    2. 16.2
      Tim

      >>I don’t understand your argument. You are saying “persons” are no different from…what?

      Sex worker~person, mystical value of sex~mystical value of rationality/happiness (or whatever you try to assert), morally wrong to violate this holy value of sex~morally wrong to violate this holy value of rationality/happiness.

      Exactly the same nonsense on stilts.

      >>I did not require a single religious myth or superstition to get that conclusion.

      Sure you did, you just aren’t aware of it because you refuse to examine the mystical foundation of such assertions and how they grow out of Christian tradition transmogrified and materialized over the years: Bentham (who simply made up a bizarre rule that bodily happiness – however defined – Ought to be maximized amongst all), Kant (who, to his credit, admitted his Rationality/Dignity ultimately relied on God to be true) and backward to Christian mythology of souls and equal divine value.

      We didn’t have this moralistic universal equality/dignity claptrap prior to Christian mythology.

      Look, I can squash a bug, so don’t tell me it is Wrong to squash another animal on this planet simply because more clever and you call it a “person”; it’s only because it is our species that we value it and from there other forms of life too (just as some extend your mystical assertion to life in general rather than greedily limit it to ourselves). If we were birds, you’d assert that value was based on one’s ability to fly.

      But all that has as little to do with “Right” as our bodies valuing water does. It’s just what we do. Or force others to do by way of violence.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Tim:

      Sex worker~person, mystical value of sex~mystical value of rationality/happiness (or whatever you try to assert), morally wrong to violate this holy value of sex~morally wrong to violate this holy value of rationality/happiness.

      It’s clear you haven’t read anything I’ve written on either subject (the scientific basis of personhood or the ontological foundations of moral facts, or of reason and logic for that matter).

      You also don’t seem to care to know what I have actually said about these things. You seem to be firmly rooted in a fantasy land.

      But for any readers here who actually do want to know what I have said, instead of fantasizing about it, see Sense and Goodness without God, index: “personhood”; “reason”; “morality.” On that last in particular see End of Christianity, chapter 14, for a formal demonstration of my conclusions (which includes the physical foundations of the imperative to be rational, ibid. pp. 426-27, n. 36).

  17. 17
    Gregory in Seattle

    Thank you very much for the excellent overview.

  18. 18
    Andrew G.

    Taslima:

    That’s the Third Way, the feminist way, and it’s the only way that has diminished prostitution in Sweden etc.

    The Swedish approach, which you started out by advocating for, harms the people you claim to want to protect in the following ways (assume the sex worker described has no pimp, is not coerced in any way, is not a victim, and works alone):

    – a sex worker can not legally hire an apartment to use for work purposes, since the landlord would then be breaking the law

    – if a sex worker lives with a partner, the partner risks criminalization for benefiting from prostitution, even if they have no involvement in the business at all

    – if a sex worker lives in a rented apartment but works elsewhere, they can still end up evicted if their landlord finds out what they do, since the landlord would then be benefiting from prostitution

    – a sex worker can’t hire an agent, bodyguard, or any other form of assistant, without the employee becoming a criminal

    – a sex worker is potentially both a witness and evidence for a criminal act every time they work; this means that the police can investigate and question them at any time

    – a sex worker can’t expect to keep custody of any children (they are automatically considered unfit parents)

    – two or more sex workers can’t work together in any way

    – they can’t legally advertise

    So while they may technically not be criminals, virtually everything they do is outside the law or potentially so.

    In effect, they’re being sent the message that society will persecute them in every way short of actually arresting them off the street unless they give up sex work. You may think that’s a desirable outcome, but they don’t.

    Also, as has been pointed out repeatedly, the claim that prostitution has diminished in Sweden at all is questionable at best.

    If we’re to succeed at saving women and girls,

    Saving them from what? Everyone wants to save women and girls from abuse and coercion, but some people want to go further and save adult women from their own free choices. That clearly isn’t acceptable.

    (The issue of survival sex work is, as I see it, primarily one of political economics; the biggest obstacle to eliminating it is probably the ingrained idea that only some people are “deserving” of state assistance. Providing food and shelter, plus medical, psychological and educational assistance on a no-questions-asked basis to people who are already marginalized, is an idea that too many people reject.)

    we have to go one step at a time with points of majority agreement we can go for right now: Decriminalize the prostituted women and children, and prosecute the pimps, traffickers and brothel owners. Most people agree that its surrealistic to arrest the victim and not the profiteer. A person has the right to sell her or his sexual services, but not the right to sell other people’s bodies. Providing economic alternatives can then diminish the number of people who practice “survival sex” as young women in the streets call it.

    Can we take this as a repudiation of the Swedish position then?

    Or at least an acknowledgement that eliminating prostitution is not one of the “points of majority agreement”?

    In Melissa Ditmore’s “Trafficking in Lives” (in “Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work and Human Rights”, Kempadoo et al, eds, 2005), she describes a disconnect which took place between two camps of NGOs working within the UN; on one side, the IHRLG and GAATW and allies supporting the position that trafficking and sex work were separate concepts; while CATW and their allies pushed the anti-prostitution position exclusively, refusing to cooperate on all other points of common ground and eventually bringing in support from the religious right in order to force the issue. (Donna Hughes even went as far as to denounce Doctors Without Borders as a group promoting prostitution.)

    You can see the same tactics in use in your very own comment threads where a small group of commenters are repeatedly labelling anyone involved in sex-worker advocacy as being a pimp or madam, claiming that sex-worker advocacy groups are funded by pimps or are agents of organized crime, and so on.

    1. 18.1
      Andrew G.

      Timewarp? This comment is showing up timestamped over four hours before the one it was a response to…

    2. Richard Carrier

      I don’t know how the server dates these things, if it’s when submitted, or when approved, or how it deals with different time zones. I haven’t looked into it. But if anyone has firm conclusions about these things, let us know.

  19. 19
    YamaZaru

    Spot on, Richard. Too bad these points need constant reiteration – I’m always shocked by the extent to which usually rational and progressive atheists can still assume that sex is in some spooky way “different” from any other physical activity. They seem unable to see that the (often very real) problems of exploitation going on in sex work are of a piece with exploitation in any type of work, exacerbated by the legal and social stigma…

    The worst is when people in sex work get berated by these “well-meaning” folks. A friend of mine in the industry had a standard reply ready: hiring one’s body out by the hour to stand behind a register and con people into buying products they don’t need is way more “undignified” than using one’s body to bring pleasure to another!

    1. 19.1
      Richard Carrier

      Amen.

    2. 19.2
      Tim

      You seem to be blithely missing that your – and Richard’s – approach is ultimately nihilistic. It leaves no consideration for the mythological foundation of value. Value is not inherent, it is created, and not by logic, but by art. (Like the creative assertion that “rationality” or “happiness” is sacred.)

      If there is nothing sacred about the body… everything is permitted with and upon the body.

      “Atheism” always seems to be a 70% effort on these blogs, by rational-optimists with no sense of what they shakily stand on, with no willingness to take it all the way to it’s conclusion and truly grapple with the implications.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Tim: This is the last time I will approve a comment from you that ignores every single thing I have ever written on this subject. If you continue to refuse to address my actual arguments, you will be in violation of my comments policy.

  20. 20
    clarissa

    Fantastic post…but one problem.

    Relying on Darrell Ray’s work is problematic. He used a flawed survey mangaged by some undergrads at KU in Lawrence Kansas and is drawing too many unwarranted conclusions from it.

    Seriously, it was not much more than hack work.

    I was very disappointed, since his previous work had been very interesting.

    1. 20.1
      Richard Carrier

      That survey isn’t relevant to the science or history of sex that he covers in the book (in fact the study you are referring to, “Sex and Secularism,” is not even a major element in that book). And the study’s flaws are addressed in the study itself. That it had over 10,000 respondents mitigates most issues one might raise from it, and the issues that remain are acknowledged. As a preliminary exploratory study I don’t see any major problems with it. It needs to be followed up with more rigorous studies (as with all science, you need replication and verification), but I doubt those will discover any huge disparity regarding the six hypotheses tested. Because with that many respondents, sample bias is irrelevant to most of these conclusions.

      The study hypothesized that “Religion has continuing negative consequences on individuals after they leave” and found no evidence of this. With over ten thousand responding, the odds that any other study will find a significantly different result is very low. They also hypothesized that “Religions’ use of sexual guilt is measurably greater in conservative religions and less in liberal ones,” which one hardly even needed to test, but it was amply confirmed. The probability that a relevantly different result would occur even if we polled every living human being is very low. The study hypothesized that “People feel the sexual guilt taught by their religion but sexual behavior shows no difference from those with less guilt,” which was confirmed by thousands of examples. A more rigorous study might change the percentages, but cannot possibly change the result (since it would be extraordinarily improbable that they just “happened” to get thousands of confirmations if almost no one in the general population would report the same, and even if they did, they still confirmed the hypothesis is true for thousands and thousands of people). Next they tested whether “Religiously conservative parents will be less effective at teaching their children about sex than more secular parents,” which again we hardly even needed to test to know, but it was amply verified; I cannot see how any more rigorous study will get a different result, apart from slight changes in the percentages, which aren’t relevant to the hypothesis. And likewise for “Children raised in highly religious homes will receive poorer sexual education.” Then they tested the hypothesis that “Leaving religion has a positive impact on sexual satisfaction,” which was confirmed true for thousands of people, which is likely to hold generally. A more rigorous study can only change the percentages; it is very unlikely to show that they got thousands and thousands of anomalous responses.

      So I don’t see anything to find fault with, beyond the faults and limitations they already acknowledge. And again, I did not cite the book for its reference to this study anyway, but for its survey of the established science and history of sex and sexuality.

  21. 21
    clarissa

    If women are selling sex because they have no economic alternative, they ARE being forced…just like some kid who joins the army is being forced because he has no alternative.

    1. 21.1
      Richard Carrier

      Then everyone is being forced. Accountants. Maids. Day laborers. Mine workers. Police. Teachers. That’s therefore a meaningless statement. It’s simply not what “force” means in common conventions of the English language. Yes, we have to eat, and thus might have to do jobs we don’t like (though even then we don’t do jobs we consider intolerable). That is not an argument for outlawing jobs.

      Even the supposed rider that it’s force if you “have no alternative” makes no sense, since there are millions of people unemployed in the U.S. alone looking for work; likewise any other country you care to name. They clearly have chosen not to do sex work, but to live in poverty instead (or as someone else’s dependent). They are therefore not being “forced” into sex work. Or the army. People pursue those options when they feel they are up to doing them. Just like any other job people take to make a living by.

      Therefore the idea that economic need forces people into sex work is baloney. Even in third world countries that doesn’t happen. Because even there most of the unemployed don’t choose that work; only those who are okay with it do. The only way people are actually “forced” into sex work is if they are actually forced into sex work (which does happen in third world countries, where that might not even be illegal, but it also happens even in the U.S., where it definitely is illegal; and obviously, it ought to be illegal and opposed everywhere, just as being forced into a sweat shop or field work or army ought to be).

      Thus, oppose actual force. But don’t make up nonsense about people looking for work being “forced” into that work by the need to eat. Since that is true of everyone and every occupation, it’s irrelevant to all.

  22. 22
    FeministWhore

    “…that peculiarly Western event called the Sexual Revolution, which changed our society’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality, in such a fundamental and pervasive way that it seems Taslima Nasrin has not yet acclimatized to it, having been born and raised in a world that was never transformed by it.”

    This misses the point of Radical Feminist theory which holds that the Sexual Revolution was not of any benefit for women, but for the ultimate benefit of Patriarchy.

    1. 22.1
      Richard Carrier

      Which is nonsense. And I don’t credit nonsense.

  23. 23
    IslandBrewer

    Great post. Unmistakable amount of labor went into it, I can tell.

    I’ve also noticed that Taslima continues to point out relative proportions of coerced vs. non-coerced sex workers ( eg. “extreme minority” and “the few but real women”).

    While not the crux of her argument, it seems to be used as a method of dismissing the assertion that prostitution does not equal slavery.

  24. 24
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    Sex involves being penetrated, but many professional athletes intimately and abusively touch each other, too; we pay surgeons to grab our balls, finger our anus, cut open our chests, and shove things up our every orifice;…

    Kinky. Someone’s been watching Hellraiser…
     

    Wikipedia: Pinhead explains that while the Cenobites have been perceived as Angels and Demons, they are simply “explorers” of carnal experience, practicing a form of sadomasochism so extreme that it transcends the boundary between pain and pleasure.

  25. 25
    Arain

    OMFG. This shitty post is dripping with privilege. Your claim that there is only a small minority of people who are forced into jobs like those in the porn industry is total bullshit. In America alone there are literally millions of children that are undernourished due to poverty. They have Moms. There are 42 million people who don’t even have enough money for health insurance. They need it.

    There is, what, 3 million people in prison. Many of those are coerced into sex work against their will, often violently by other inmates, or the prison personnel, and with no recourse whatsoever.

    There is an entire underclass that IS forced into degrading work every single fucking day and you just pretended they didn’t exist.

    Also you are obviously assuming this is a problem that only women have. It is not. 5% of all sexual assaults are against men, and I bet that excludes those in prison.

    1. 25.1
      Richard Carrier

      Arain:

      OMFG. This shitty post is dripping with privilege. Your claim that there is only a small minority of people who are forced into jobs like those in the porn industry is total bullshit. In America alone there are literally millions of children that are undernourished due to poverty. They have Moms. There are 42 million people who don’t even have enough money for health insurance. They need it.

      I don’t understand your argument. Are you saying these 42 million people do porn?

      There is, what, 3 million people in prison. Many of those are coerced into sex work against their will, often violently by other inmates, or the prison personnel, and with no recourse whatsoever.

      Which I have consistently said is illegal and ought to be opposed by every means at our disposal. So you are agreeing with me here.

      There is an entire underclass that IS forced into degrading work every single fucking day and you just pretended they didn’t exist.

      I don’t understand what you are arguing here, either. That we should outlaw all work that people don’t like? Or that we should work to improve the conditions of work and employment and fight poverty? The former is ridiculous. And the latter I have always agreed with.

      So I fail to see how anything you argue contradicts anything I have said. To the contrary, you seem to be consistently agreeing with me.

  26. 26
    Azuma Hazuki

    I’m one of those women who enjoys erotica, though out of a perhaps overgeneralized wish not to participate in anyone’s exploitation I keep it to stories, roleplay with a friend, and drawn things.

    The distinction above is one of respect, and this is the important thing. But I also wonder, and maybe this is just a relic of religious upbringing, if the very idea of commoditizing sex at all is the problem, or is blanket morally-wrong regardless of context.

    My interests are obviously only focused on F/F things (and “lesbian” porn is in near-totality completely faked…), but I wonder if some deeper underlying moral is being transgressed here regardless of participants’ genders etc. Sex is complicated and powerful, and given its biochemical effects I’m not sure there’s any such thing as no-strings-attached or casual sex at all.

    It’s complicated, and I feel very, very old and weary of it all sometimes.

    1. 26.1
      Richard Carrier

      Azuma Hazuki:

      I also wonder…if the very idea of commoditizing sex at all is the problem, or is blanket morally-wrong regardless of context.

      I see no problem with commodifying sex any more than commodifying any other labor or ability or attribute or asset. As long as the person who owns it is being seen and treated like a human being and not just a commodity. But that’s true of all employment, not something peculiar to the sex industry.

      “lesbian” porn is in near-totality completely faked…)

      I happen to know that’s not true. Of course, I assume you mean the orgasm is faked (since obviously women having sex with each other is not being faked). But real orgasms occur in lesbian porn quite a lot (and probably more now than ever before). Indeed, I suspect that female orgasms in lesbian porn are more frequently genuine than in hetero porn (at least in American porn).

      Sex is complicated and powerful, and given its biochemical effects I’m not sure there’s any such thing as no-strings-attached or casual sex at all.

      Biochemical effects also occur from professionally tasting food, testing drugs, or engaging in athletics or hard labor. The camaraderie of professional team sports, the intimacy of acting scenes together in plays or movies, the often personal and serious obligations and responsibilities created by entering business contracts, the deep exposures and requirements of trust that occur in psychotherapy, and so on, all make comparable or even greater string-attaching scenarios than casual sex.

      (BTW, the term “casual sex” means occasional, as in not steady; it does not refer to any emotional involvement there may be; although it can depend on how you are using the word, none of the alternative meanings mean what I think you think it means; if you mean completely emotionally detached sex with no sense of any mutual responsibilities, then I am against casual sex, since responsibility is fundamental to moral decency and human happiness requires emotional engagement with one’s work, but that is not the same thing as “falling in love” with someone, and again both facts are true of all professions, not just sex work: you should always strive to enjoy working with the people you work with and accepting the responsibilities that working with them creates.)

      It’s complicated, and I feel very, very old and weary of it all sometimes.

      Which is legitimate for you. Not everyone feels the same.

    2. 26.2
      Rieux

      Azuma wrote:

      “lesbian” porn is in near-totality completely faked…

      And Richard responded:

      I happen to know that’s not true. Of course, I assume you mean the orgasm is faked (since obviously women having sex with each other is not being faked).

      I could be mistaken, but I believe what Azuma means by “faked” is that the actresses involved in the sex are not in fact lesbian or bisexual—that they are heterosexual women pretending to be attracted to one another for pecuniary (some would say artistic) purposes. As a result, the images in question may be of “women having sex with each other,” but they don’t (arguably) show lesbian sex, because the sex doesn’t involve actual homosexual attraction.

      To my understanding, there is a substantial amount of truth to the factual element of this; porn actresses, like women in general, tend in (very!) general to be heterosexual. The phenomenon of “gay for pay” in porn is not terribly secret, whether the performers in question are male or female.

      And on some level I think there can be an aesthetic judgment behind the criticism that isn’t necessarily anti-sex at all. The complaint can more or less be directed at the quality of the performance; presumably a heterosexual actor portraying a gay/bi person in a sex scene, if (s)he’s not a very good actor, is fairly likely to do a lousy job of conveying convincing same-sex attraction. Put that way, “it’s faked” (i.e., “these straight women don’t do lesbian attraction or sex convincingly at all”) seems to me a perfectly legitimate complaint, though it should probably be limited to a case-by-case basis. It seems unlikely that heterosexual actors are categorically incapable of playing convincing gay/bi roles… and it’s less than clear that the audience, including Azuma, can be as certain as they sometimes profess to be that any particular actor is in fact straight. Presumably that’s for the actor, and not the audience member who dislikes her performance (sight unseen?), to say.

      But mix the undisputed participation of “gay for pay” actors together with the fact that a large proportion of porn showing women having sex with one another is intended for straight male audiences, and it’s at least understandable that a nonnegligible number of lesbians and other women are put off by such porn. (Is a movie made by heterosexuals for heterosexuals “appropriating” gay sex?)

      The gap between aesthetic disapproval and moral opprobrium remains, of course… and I’m not convinced that there’s a legitimate basis to cross it in this instance. “That lesbian sex is so fake” might in many cases be a legitimate aesthetic criticism, but on similar logic to the original post, I’m not sure how one can argue that it’s a well-founded moral objection.

    3. Richard Carrier

      Rieux:

      I could be mistaken, but I believe what Azuma means by “faked” is that the actresses involved in the sex are not in fact lesbian or bisexual—that they are heterosexual women pretending to be attracted to one another for pecuniary (some would say artistic) purposes. As a result, the images in question may be of “women having sex with each other,” but they don’t (arguably) show lesbian sex, because the sex doesn’t involve actual homosexual attraction.

      On that distinction, then yes, I know some hetero women will play at being lesbians; I don’t know what the percentages would be in that case, though, but I am certain they are not so extreme, i.e. most actresses I know of who do lesbian scenes are in some degree bi, and some are full lesbians and don’t even do hetero scenes, or only but rarely do. I don’t know of any in particular who regularly do scenes that they don’t enjoy, though, whatever their orientation. Which only reminds us that strict categories like “bi” and “hetero” and “gay” are largely human fictions; sexuality is far more vague and variable than that.

      (For example, even in regular life, how do you categorize a woman who is normally only into men, and only wants relationships with men, but enjoys sexual contact with women in the context of a girl-girl-guy encounter and occasionally seeks out such arrangements for that very reason? Is she bi? Even if much of her excitement is vicarious arousal from the man’s enjoyment and from the thrill of being watched? I’ve known women like that, who even take sexual pleasure and reach orgasm with another woman in result, yet radical feminists just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that she doesn’t fit any of their neat categories of female sexuality. Since many porn stars are exhibitionists, i.e. they are sexually aroused by being watched which is why they enjoy and thus pursue this work, many I expect fall into this category when doing lesbian scenes, which defies categorizing them as “full straight” or even “gay for pay,” since they will occasionally pursue the same activities even in private life.)

      But with that aside, I agree with your aesthetic point (e.g. mere actors might “do a lousy job of conveying convincing same-sex attraction”); likewise, I would say that no porn star should do anything they aren’t comfortable doing (hence we should aim at outlawing coercion, and culturally and economically empowering sex workers, both of which I support).

  27. 27
    James Croft

    I found this a very useful and cogent article, as with all your posts, which gave me some useful new ways of thinking about pornography and prostitution.

    I did feel, however, that you could have done more to show that you have tried to fully understand Nasrin’s position. You are, if I may, rather dismissive of her view and, while I share your position on this question, I think it might be valuable to try to get inside Nasrin’s head a little more to demonstrate that you have really understood her argument.

    I think Haidt’s (and others’) moral foundations theory can help out a lot here. When I read Nasrin’s posts on this topic, and now having read your reply, this seemed to me a clear case in which you, as a secular liberal, are appealing what Haidt calls the Autonomy, Harm, and Fairness “moral tastes”, while Nasrin is responding to this issue with a strong sense, also, that something Sacred has been traduced (you do mention this) and that there is some form of Impurity involved (which I didn’t see you mention). I.e. her moral tastebuds are picking up strongly on factors which you have little taste for anymore, and which don’t seem at all salient to you.

    I think Haidt would agree with us that Harm, Autonomy and Fairness should be the standard by which we judge morality, but I think he is correct to note, descriptively, that Nasrin is not so much reasoning poorly on this issue as starting with a different set of basic assumptions (even intuitions) as to what counts as morally salient features of behavior. It’s not quite that she’s starting with the same moral assumptions as you are and then fallaciously reasoning to the wrong place. Rather, she has different basic moral intuitions – and I’m pretty certain that we could observe that experimentally.

    I think this is important to remember since, as you note in your post, many Americans (and Brits, for that matter) hold similar views to hers. And I think they do so because they detect something impure and profane about sex for money – the fact it might not harm anyone is in fact beside the point for them (whatever the rationalization they may offer).

    Finally, I think it’s important to note that naturalistic views, too, can have notions of sacrality and purity which carry moral weight. Some forms of religious Humanism and naturalist reworkings of transcendentalism develop concepts of sacrality – most the sacrality of human beings – which are not reliant on any theology (although you might argue that at the edges they rely on some non-naturalistic Idealism or something). So I think an effort to understand these views in and of themselves would be a valuable pursuit, simply because it would aid understanding of each other, and also will help us craft appeals to others whose moral foundations are different to ours.

    1. 27.1
      Richard Carrier

      James Croft:

      When I read Nasrin’s posts on this topic, and now having read your reply, this seemed to me a clear case in which you, as a secular liberal, are appealing what Haidt calls the Autonomy, Harm, and Fairness “moral tastes”, while Nasrin is responding to this issue with a strong sense, also, that something Sacred has been traduced (you do mention this) and that there is some form of Impurity involved (which I didn’t see you mention).

      This was my very point (using different vocabulary), since the concepts of sacredness and purity are based on religious mythology and not physical or even objective psychological facts of the world. Thus I am indeed calling her out for this. Atheists should be rid of morals based on these superstitions.

      That should not be confused with denying the validity of one’s aesthetic interests, however. Sacredness and purity are in fact variable aesthetic reactions and not objective moral properties (for the distinction, see my sections on morality and aesthetics in Sense and Goodness without God and my chapter on moral facts in The End of Christianity). Thus, if Nasrin finds porn, or sex work, disgusting or offensive, then she shouldn’t watch it or participate in it (the same as if she finds horror movies or satirical racial humor disgusting or offensive). But to turn her aesthetic tastes into objective facts about the world that can be forced on others by human governments is the sin that I am shining a light on.

      Moreover, as I argue, I suspect her aesthetic judgments (which she invalidly converts into moral judgments and then even reverse-engineers into false factual claims about what other people actually do, feel, and experience) are a product of her cultural background, and that had she more exposure to a culture like mine, she would be closer to me even in her aesthetics (this is easily proved by observing how typical her judgments are in her culture and how atypical they are in mine). But as you note (and as I noted), this cultural divide does exist within Western nations as well (and may even have a biological component).

      That only makes my point more urgent: substituting culture and feelings for objective moral facts is a sin we must dispense with; and to do that some of us will have to work harder overcoming our brain’s cognitive biases, while others have to become more culturally cosmopolitan (e.g. if Nasrin had and socialized with more friends in the Western sex industry, her attitudes will change substantially…and not only because her factual assumptions, deduced from her feelings rather than actual observations or data, will have been empirically refuted by the experience).

  28. 28
    Jesse

    Like Carrier, I think we should use language the way it is used ordinarily. I agree with Carrier about the words ‘erotica’ and ‘pornography’, but I want to extend his argument to include the word ‘penetrate’.

    The word ‘penetrate’ conveys the idea of breaking through barriers, usually with the intent to cause harm. Here are two examples: first, computer crackers with the intent to steal passwords often penetrate software firewalls and attempt to install keystroke loggers; and second, samurais were known to commit the act of ritualized suicide called ‘seppuku’, in which they disemboweled themselves by using their swords to penetrate and cut open their abdomens, in order to prevent enemy combatants from torturing them and extracting information that could be used to hurt or torture their families and fellow samurai. The word has the connotation of something happening which is bad enough to cause us to feel negative emotions.

    Unless a person believes that a deviation from celibacy is something to feel negative emotions about, that person should not use ‘penetration’ when discussing the orificial intercourse of consenting adults because it conveys the wrong idea and the wrong emotions. If you believe that such intercourse is not something to feel negative emotions about but you still use ‘penetration’ when arguing about consensual sex and sex work in order to dredge up such emotions, then you are guilty of weasel wording.

    1. 28.1
      Richard Carrier

      That’s all a good point. I was being facetious in coopting the radical’s vocabulary to demonstrate its absurdity (if sex is penetration, then so is eating, punching, surgery and medical examinations; indeed, even seeing is penetrative, as photons penetrate your eyes, and all radio and TV and all airwave communications, as they cause radio waves to constantly penetrate our bodies). But it is well worth explicitly pointing this out, as you did.

  29. 29
    yeahright

    Hi, richard, sorry to comment so lately on this topic.

    Your arguments are convincing, but I seem to always remember something that helps me to be fully convinced, and maybe you could help me.

    When you compare prostitution to any other service, such as food work service, do you take in account the possible correlation between legalization of prostitution and human trafficking?

    I will admit, as the authors of this particular study themselves admit, that the correlation is not fully proved to be causation, that more precise datas on human traffic are missing, and that this problem would not affect all the positive aspect of legalization, such as improvement of workers conditions and so on.

    This is thus not a knock-down argument AGAINST legalization, but wouldn’t it nonetheless, if true, prove that prostitution may have more wide-range effects on societies and well-being of many people than other mundane services?

    Thank you.

    1. 29.1
      Richard Carrier

      This argument is paralleled for agricultural work, which is also a major industry implicated in human trafficking and slavery. Yet we wouldn’t outlaw fruit picking just to stop illegal enslavement of fruit pickers; nor would outlawing fruit picking stop the illegal enslavement of fruit pickers. The solution to the illegal enslavement of human beings is to police the illegal enslavement of human beings, not to outlaw legitimate businesses and professions.

      A more direct analogy is the illegal pirating of movies: making more DVD players available in a country will increase the amount of criminal pirating of movies there (the scale effect); so is the solution to the illegal pirating of movies the outlawing of DVD players?

  30. 30
    Kwame Ajamu

    I was with this woman until she leaked the true mindset behind feminism, christianity, Islam and all the Jude-oreligious, philosophic beliefs, and feminism comes out of the western Judeo informed belief systems, as does Islam. When she wrote that they India, Iran, is morally 50 behind the west, I see her western, Judeo we are ridht and better, they are wrong and inferior, to our way of seeing things.! This is why I don’t prescribe to any of the Wests Isims, Capitolism, Communism, Judeism, ISlam, Christianity, AtheISM, I just simply am, others simply are, whatever they are, Is there a god was there a god will there ever be a god, It simply is, we simply are, the sky is, the stars are, space is, there are rules that seem to govern the different schemes of being, but everything alive and please excuse me Dr. Carrier for using these props for rhetorical effect, we piss s@#$t, F@#k,drink, eat
    are born and die.

    There is no better, just relatively better, no right, just relatively right, no wrong, just relatively wrong, no truth just reltively true. One can even argue reality. Finished

    1. 30.1
      Richard Carrier

      That’s just conspiracy theory nonsense. Sorry.

      Human existence has far more depth and promise than you imagine. But it requires significant social cooperation to achieve a sufficient stage of liberty and prosperity to really advance toward it as a people. Which is why that should be everyone’s goal.

      You should at the very least start with my book Sense and Goodness without God to understand this, although I confess it was written with assumptions that the reader would have basic background knowledge that is common in my country but might not be in yours. The only solution really is for you to seek that background knowledge. If you have access to the internet, you have access to a vast library of knowledge that can uplift and enlighten you.

  31. 31
    vibradores

    Hi

    In my opinion prostitution must be legal and regulated for the goverments, like another profesional services. I think that is the way to fight against human trafficking.

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