More Thoughts on “Selling Your Body”

When I was a kid, I once asked my mother what a whore was. (I’d heard the word in the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Boxer.”) She said, with obvious discomfort, that it was “a woman who sold her body.” I found this entirely confusing: I pictured someone cutting off their arms and legs and selling them. I had no idea why anyone would want to buy someone else’s body parts — and I had no idea how you could earn a sustainable living that way. It seemed like a career with a very short arc.

I still find the phrase entirely confusing. It makes no sense.

Like I said in yesterday’s post: A prostitute is not someone who “sells their body.” A prostitute is someone who charges money for a service. As retired prostitute Carol Queen put it in my book Paying For it: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients, “We sex workers do not sell our bodies. We ask you to pay for our time.” (For that matter, a prostitute is also not necessarily a woman…. but that’s a rant for another time.)

There are people in the world with professions that you could consider “selling your body.” Egg donors; plasma donors; sperm donors. I used to hear rumors (no idea if they’re true) that some universities would pay you money if you bequeathed them your body for medical research after you died: that could certainly be considered “selling your body.”

But charging money for sex is no more “selling your body” than charging money for, say, physical therapy or massage, giving haircuts or giving manicures. There are lots of professions that charge money for time spent providing persona, hands-on services. We don’t say that these people are “selling their bodies.”

And if we don’t want to marginalize and dehumanize sex workers — and horribly confuse future generations of young Simon & Garfunkel fans — we should stop saying that this is what prostitutes are doing.

Greta in Boston and Cambridge, Oct. 22 and 23

One last reminder: I’m going to be in Boston and Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) the weekend of October 22 and 23rd. I’ll be speaking at Harvard (sponsored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard), Boston University (Boston Atheists and Humanists of Boston University), and Tufts (Tufts Freethought Society). I’ll be speaking on the topics of “Atheism and Sexuality” and “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” I’ll be doing Q&A and assorted schmoozing at all the events — so if you’re in the area, come by and say hi! Details are below. (BTW, the location of the Tufts talk has now been announced — see below.)

EVENT/ HOSTS: Boston Atheists and Humanists of Boston University
DATE: Saturday, October 22
TIME: 3:00 pm
LOCATION: Boston University, SED 130
TOPIC: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
SUMMARY: The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change?
COST: Free

EVENT/ HOSTS: Tufts Freethought Society, Freethought Week III
DATE: Saturday, October 22
TIME: 6:00 pm
LOCATION: Braker Hall 001, Tufts University, Medford/Somerville
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
SUMMARY: The sexual morality of traditional religion tends to be based, not on solid ethical principles, but on a set of taboos about what kinds of sex God does and doesn’t want people to have. And while the sex-positive community offers a more thoughtful view of sexual morality, it still often frames sexuality as positive by seeing it as a spiritual experience. What are some atheist alternatives to these views? How can atheists view sexual ethics without a belief in God? And how can atheists view sexual transcendence without a belief in the supernatural?
COST: Free

EVENT/ HOSTS: Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard
DATE: Sunday, October 23
TIME: Noon
LOCATION: 12 Eliot Street (3rd Floor), Cambridge, MA
TOPIC: Atheism and Sexuality
SUMMARY: See above
COST: Free

Hope to see you there!

From the Archives: Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen. The tl;dr: In an atheist/ materialist view, human life is unbelievably tiny and short, an infinitesimal eyeblink compared with the immense size and timespan of the universe. But this doesn’t make it meaningless. It just means we have to scale down our sense of meaning, and see value in small, brief things. In fact, conscious life on Earth could easily be seen as the most important thing in the Universe, by definition… since “importance” is a concept that only makes sense to conscious beings. The fact that it’s finite doesn’t make it unimportant: we don’t have to see longevity is the truest measure of importance or value.

A nifty pull quote:

Can there be meaning and joy in a universe where human life is essentially an unusual chemical process on one hunk of rock orbiting one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies… a chemical process that’s only been going on for about 200,000 of the Universe’s nearly 14 billion years, and that’s pretty much guaranteed to end in another billion years, if not sooner, while the Universe continues to expand forever into an enormous expanse of mostly nothingness?

I think there is.

But it means letting go of a big chunk of ego.

I think this can be one of the hardest things about letting go of religion. It certainly was for me. I hated the idea that my soul wasn’t going to live forever; that there was no God or World-Soul animating the Universe for all eternity who nonetheless cared about my little contribution to it. I found it profoundly upsetting. (Yeah, so I have a bit of an ego. I like to think of myself as important. What’s your point?)

When you let go of religion, your life can still have meaning. You just have to let go of it having meaning on an immense, universal scale. You have to let go of the arrogant belief that the very source and guiding hand of the Universe cares about what you do. You have to scale down the sense of where your life is lived: down from the cosmic, eternal scale, and onto a human, finite scale.

But it’s not like the human scale is any less real for being relatively small and relatively brief.


Sex Work and the Power of Choice

There’s a widely-held myth about sex work and sex workers: I ran into it again recently (don’t remember where, sorry), and I want to talk about it and eviscerate it.

The myth: Prostitutes and other sex workers can’t choose their customers. They have to have sex with anyone who offers to pay.

When you think about this for ten seconds, you should realize that it makes no sense. People in any other service profession can, and do, turn down customers they don’t want to work with. Therapists, car mechanics, gardeners, hair stylists, nannies… you name it. There are a few exceptions — emergency room doctors leap to mind — but for the most part, it’s understood that, as long as they’re obeying non-discrimination laws, service professionals reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. (My hair stylist has told me long, entertaining stories about clients she’s fired.) So it’s kind of weird to assume that sex workers would be the exception.

And in fact, if you talk with sex workers or read their writing, you’ll find out directly that this is nonsense. Plenty of prostitutes can, and do, turn down clients. They turn down clients who they think are dangerous, or who won’t respect their limits, or who they just find personally unpleasant. They turn down first- time clients; they say no to previous clients they’ve had bad experiences with; they fire long-term clients who are becoming difficult. I certainly did when I worked at the peep show: if I didn’t like a guy who came into one of the booths, I could dance for someone else instead, and if he was being exceptionally obnoxious, we could get him thrown out. And in my book, Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients (now out of print, but still available on Kindle), sex educator and retired prostitute Carol Queen talks at length about which customers she would and wouldn’t work with, and which ones she fired first when she was starting to get out of the business.

Yes, there are some sex workers for whom this isn’t true: ones who are in extreme dire financial straits, or ones who work for extremely abusive and exploitatative brothels. But it’s by no means an inherent part of the industry.

So why would people assume that it is? [Read more…]

From the Archives: Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball. The tl;dr: We don’t have to believe in God or an afterlife to find meaning and joy in life. We can think that there is no God externally giving us purpose, and that our lives are small and finite, and still feel profoundly joyful and purposeful. We can decide to be part of the show, and to participate in our lives as fully as possible. And a particular event — the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco, a magnificently silly annual costume event celebrating the life and work of Edward Gorey — reminds me of this.

A nifty pull quote:

When I’m in a despondent mood, I sometimes get depressed about the “closed circle” nature of human endeavor. I’m not naturally a very Zen, “in the moment” kind of person; I’m ambitious, forward thinking, and I like to think of my affect on the world as possibly having some life beyond my immediate reach and extending past my death. It sometimes makes me sad to remember that, even if I mysteriously became the most famous and influential person in the history of the planet, it’s still a closed circle — because life on Earth is a closed circle, and there’s no God or World-Soul to carry my thoughts and experiences into infinity. Like the replicant Roy Batty says in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me, “So what? So what if you’re spending hours on your outfit just to be seen and admired by a couple thousand other people, whose outfits you’re also admiring? So what if you’re working to make life a skosh more joyful for people who’ll be dead in a few decades anyway, and whose descendants will be boiled into the sun in a few billion years? Don’t those people matter? And don’t you matter? The odds against you personally having been born at all are beyond astronomical. Beating your breast in despair because you’re going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion. You’re here now — and those other people are here now. Experience your life… and connect with theirs. Even if it’s just to spend a moment admiring the marvelous outfit they spent hours putting together.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.

Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.


Religion Relies on Social Consent

Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. So we have to refuse that social consent.

This is an idea I’ve been kicking around and alluding to in passing for some time, and I wanted to give it its own post.

Religion — the hypothesis that the world is the way it is because of supernatural beings or forces acting on the natural world — is a bad idea. At best, it’s almost certainly wrong; at worst, it’s totally incoherent. Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified. It has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything. It may have made sense thousands of years ago, when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now. But it makes no sense at all now. I’m not saying we know everything there is to know about the universe — of course we don’t — but given the fact that natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, and supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never, assuming that one particular supernatural explanation will turn out to be right is clearly a sucker’s bet.

Religion is a bad idea. It can’t stand up on its own. But it can — and does — perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through people not asking hard questions, or indeed any. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful and will result in punishment, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are extra-vulnerable to believing whatever they’re taught. It perpetuates itself through social and even legal protections that keep religious leaders and organizations from suffering consequences when they behave despicably. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. Etc. Etc. Etc. (More examples are welcomed in the comments.)

Religion perpetuates itself through social consent.

So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent. [Read more…]

From the Archives: For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour. The tl;dr: You don’t need religion to experience meaning and transcendence. Meaning and transcendence can be found in a finite, entirely physical life. And it can be found in some very odd areas of that life — including Morris dancing.

A nifty pull quote:

There is no good reason on this earth to do Morris dancing. It is an utterly pointless activity. Okay, you get some exercise and social contact… but really. You can get social contact anywhere, and you can get better exercise at the gym. And you don’t have to strap bells to your legs and wave handkerchiefs around like an idiot to do it. It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy.

Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.

There’s no purpose or meaning to it, other than the purpose and meaning we create. In a few decades, we’re all going to be gone, dust in the ground or ashes in the wind. In a few million years, the earth and everything on it will be gone, boiled away into the Sun. And if the physicists and astronomers are right, in a few billion years the Universe will essentially be gone, dissipated into a thin scattering of atoms dotted throughout vast stretches of empty space. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no prize in the CrackerJacks, no final chapter that ties up all the loose ends. And there’s no big daddy in the sky to shake your hand at the end of it and say, “You done good, kid. Here’s your blue ribbon.”

And yet, here we are. We were, against wildly astronomical odds, born. The chances against any one of us having been born are so high as to be laughable; the chances against there having been life on this planet at all defy description. No, there’s no purpose to it, if by “purpose” you mean “being a cog in someone else’s machine.” There’s no reason for it to have happened, except that it did. And the meaning of it is whatever meaning we create. The meaning of it is to diminish suffering and create joy and connection, for ourselves and for each other, for as long as we’re here.


Is Religion an Identity or an Idea?

I’ve been thinking about why conversations about religion between atheists and believers often go south: why they often feel so loaded, so heated, so personal. I think I have a partial answer, and I want to run it by y’all.

For most atheists, religion is an idea. It’s a hypothesis, a truth claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is. It’s the claim that the world works the way it does, in part, because of invisible supernatural entities or forces acting on the world. It’s not a very good hypothesis — in many cases, it’s entirely unfalsifiable, which makes it pretty much useless, and in the cases where it is falsifiable it’s been pretty soundly falsified — but it’s still a hypothesis.

But for many believers, religion is an identity. They see it as a central part of who they are: like race, or gender, or sexual identity. They don’t see themselves as having, say, Catholic or Baptist or Muslim ideas about how the world works. They see themselves as Catholic or Baptist or Muslim.

So when atheists criticize the idea of religion — either the specific ideas of a specific religion, or the idea of religion generally — the believers take it personally. They don’t see it as a critique of an idea they hold which may or may not be correct. They experience it as a personal attack.

So what can atheists do about it? [Read more…]

From the Archives: Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence. The tl;dr: Atheist writers, including me, often spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe in. In this piece, I talk about something I do believe in: a sense of transcendent joy and wonder and awe I sometimes get from the fact that the universe exists and that I get to be alive in it. And I talk about a specific experience of this that I had when I was dancing at a friends’ wedding.

A nifty pull quote:

To me, the idea that consciousness and emotion and experiences like ecstasy and joy are physical, biological phenomena — it doesn’t diminish these experiences. On the contrary. It makes them more amazing, more awe-inspiring. We are made up of essentially the same stuff as rocks and water and dirt and stars… and yet, out of this stuff, out of these atoms and molecules, we can be aware of ourselves, and of one another, and of the world around us. And we can shape that awareness, and create experiences that bring joy and delight to ourselves and one another. We can make vows to stick together for better or for worse… and we can dance for hours celebrating those vows, using our bones and nerves and muscles to generate connection and meaning, transcendence and joy.

That is just fucking awesome.