Hey, The Young Turks: Men having sex with trans women is NOT “non-straight sex”

The Young Turks recently covered a Foreign Policy article about trans women sex workers in the Middle East and the systemic abuse they face from authorities. Throughout the clip, Cenk Uygur is seemingly astonished that, whoa, men would interested in having sex with women? Steel yourself:

Highlights of the clip include:

- Uygur saying: “All these Arab Gulf countries, Persian Gulf countries, very conservative, being gay is totally and utterly wrong, unless I mean it’s like a really cute girl that happens to have a penis, in which case maybe we can make an exception”. (Of course, police do anything but make an exception when they arrest trans women for “homosexuality”.)

- Uygur saying: “But then, here comes the awesome part – now, it’s got a terrible dark side, but it’s got awesome hypocrisy – so, a lot of times they get arrested, and when they do, what’s the first thing that police do? Police arrest them because they are being immoral, and then immediately have sex with them.” (Hypocrisy or not, I don’t think police sexually abusing women in custody is particularly “awesome”.)

- Uygur saying: “And it’s not just the hypocrisy, right – it also shows you, by the way, the reality of sexual orientation in the world, right? It’s not binary, and I can guarantee you that if you ask those guys, at the very least nine out of ten of them would tell you, ‘Oh no, I’m totally straight.’ Right? But when push comes to shove, they pay a lot of money to have non-straight sex.

Hoo boy. I can see – vaguely, distantly – how he might have been trying to be supportive or inclusive by pointing out that human bodies are not limited to men with penises and women with vaginas, and that people’s sexual behavior reveals that this widespread binary notion of gender – not sexual orientation – is simply inapplicable in practice. That’s the most charitable way I can plausibly interpret this.

But when a man has sex with a woman who’s trans, that is not “non-straight sex”. When a man and a woman are having sex, there is no conceivable way that any sexual act could be described as something other than straight. Calling this “non-straight” means claiming that there is some element of homosexual desire or tendency involved, simply because the woman is trans or has a penis. But this idea is not reflective of reality, either – it is inapplicable in practice. Why do men who display attraction toward trans women largely identify as straight? Because trans women are women, and because these men are straight. They are attracted to trans women because they are women.

This is not contrary to their heterosexual orientation – it is because of their heterosexual orientation. Men who are attracted to trans women typically display heterosexual patterns of attraction, not homosexual patterns of attraction. These men do not otherwise identify as gay, and do not exhibit attraction toward men or engage in sexual conduct with men. They engage in sexual conduct with women, including trans women.

If being attracted to trans women made these men “non-straight” or something less than heterosexual, we would not expect to observe this. We would expect to see them having sex with men. This largely does not happen, and this is why describing sex between men and trans women as “non-straight” is misleading.

It is not in any way inconsistent for men to be attracted to trans women while identifying as “totally straight” – there is no “but” there. If anything, these patterns of attraction reveal the hypocrisy of regarding trans women as anything less than women, and of prosecuting them under laws against homosexuality – not the supposed “hypocrisy” of being straight and also attracted to trans women. No matter how much anyone protests or moralizes, reality itself gives lie to the assumption that we aren’t women and that sleeping with us counts against a man’s heterosexuality. These aren’t the gays you’re looking for.

Overstating the case for full decriminalization of prostitution

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the previous guest video was the assertion that sex work is often dangerous and harmful to women, in contrast to certain testimonials that suggest it is a relatively mundane profession. The backlash to this claim has been swift, fierce, and thoroughly informative. Along with assorted criticism of the idea that prostitution is itself a problem, the most common response was that the decriminalization of buying and selling sex would reduce the harms associated with prostitution. All of these views are certainly worth examining.

One of the first objections to arise was the suggestion that you shouldn’t talk about sex workers at all if you aren’t a sex worker yourself or if you haven’t spoken to sex workers. First of all, people often discuss topics that they may not be personally involved in, and while firsthand experience can provide unique and valuable insight, it does not necessarily make you any more correct on a given point. Furthermore, to assume that someone’s position on sex work must mean that they’ve never spoken with any sex workers implies that doing so will reliably alter someone’s views and induce them to adopt a particular stance on the subject. It suggests that it would be outright impossible for them to maintain their present position after, or even because of, speaking to sex workers. For anyone to insinuate that the experiences of sex workers will invariably support their own stance seems very overreaching.

Others pointed out that sex worker rights advocates are often also involving in fighting for causes such as immigration reform and transgender rights. This is indeed a praiseworthy endeavor, but the validity of these causes does not make the remainder of their positions correct by contagion. Conversely, many noted that prostitution is also seen as harmful by fundamentalist Christians and certain severely transphobic feminists, as if to say that anyone who shares this view is just as bad as these groups. But the wisdom or idiocy of someone who holds a certain stance does not change the validity, truth value, or factual support of the position itself. The Catholic Church may oppose the death penalty as a matter of official policy, but this obviously doesn’t mean that this view is inherently linked to them or forever contaminated by its association with them.

Further, some drew attention to the fact that various so-called “rescue” groups seeking to help sex workers leave prostitution are often run by evangelical Christians who frequently engage in religious indoctrination, and are otherwise insensitive to the actual needs of sex workers. This is clearly a problem, as is the invasion of religion into a multitude of charity and assistance roles in society. But just as with feeding the hungry, it does not mean that the very idea of helping sex workers who want to leave the trade is irredeemably flawed – only that its execution has often been compromised by ignorance and blind dogma, and this needs to change.

It’s also been mentioned that studies by anti-prostitution researchers such as Melissa Farley and Janice Raymond often contain methodological flaws which severely undermine their validity. But regardless of the nature of these errors, the flaws in studies purportedly showing that prostitution is dangerous do not mean that it must therefore be safe, just as flaws in a study showing it to be safe would not mean it was harmful. Instead, it indicates that the study in question simply does not tell us anything useful about the facts of prostitution.

Many people also seemed to suggest that claiming prostitution is harmful must mean passing some kind of moral judgment upon sex workers themselves for their activities. Finding this unacceptable, they concluded that it must therefore be wrong to say that prostitution is harmful. But regarding prostitution as harmful does not necessitate condemning sex workers. After all, many people have cited the dangerous working conditions for sex workers as a reason why criminalization is an inadequate and harmful policy. Passing judgment on workers would require some kind of ethical theory beyond the factual question of whether prostitution is dangerous, and I personally do not see the condemnation of sex workers as warranted or appropriate in any way.

On a related note, some people seemed imply that to criticize testimonial ads such as those from Turn Off The Blue Light in Ireland is tantamount to supporting social stigma against sex workers. Apparently, since these ads aim to diminish the stigma against sex workers, then taking issue with these ads must mean endorsing that stigma. But this doesn’t follow, and holding to such logic only serves as a way of using one’s well-intentioned motives to preclude any criticism of the actual results.

While it may not have been their goal, these posters neglect to mention the very real dangers faced by many sex workers as part of their job. In doing so, they give the impression that it’s not much different from any other profession – that it’s a safe, uneventful, and thoroughly ordinary way to make a living, chosen freely and on its own merits rather than due to a lack of alternatives. But for many sex workers, it is not a job that suits their needs, in terms of workplace safety, a living wage, freedom from exploitation, and, yes, not wanting to have to sleep with paying customers just to survive. Instead, these posters depict sex work as a satisfying, voluntary and harmless job like any other. That may be the case for some sex workers, but certainly not for many others. And unless misleadingly portraying such circumstances as typical of sex work is actually the only way to reduce stigma, no one is opposing such efforts by simply objecting to this approach.

Many people did say that prostitution shouldn’t be seen as different from any other job, in that many people are forced to hold unpleasant jobs because there are no better alternatives and they need money. But prostitution is different: it frequently comes with an inordinate risk of assault, robbery, sexual harassment, rape, and murder, unlike that of practically any other job. Workplace safety is often lacking, if not absent entirely. For this, workers receive no hazard pay whatsoever. Given the conditions under which many of them work, it’s plainly inaccurate to say that there’s no more coercion in choosing prostitution than there is in any other undesirable job. Such circumstances do not tend to attract willing employees.

Sex workers themselves have attested to this. In a commonly cited study by the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, many workers said that prostitution should not be a job that anyone could be required to take as part of a search for work in order to receive income assistance:

“Well I should say sex work, being in the sex trade is not an option; it’s just like a survival thing. I mean… it’s usually… not by choice…. If someone were forcing you to go back, …that’s like a pimp, that’s kind of saying, oh you have to go risk your life.”

“I don’t think they should be forced into the trade [by an income assistance worker] because of things that could happen in the industry as being a sex worker – harmful to the mind like bad dates and drug use…”

“Because not everybody has the emotional control to be a sex worker, or detachment. Detachment to be a sex worker.”

“I believe that it is a very hard job to do, you are basically a sexual surrogate… and I agree that it takes a certain… personality type to do that kind of job. It’s a very, very specialized occupation.”

“There’s a difference between selling your ass and selling a hamburger. The hamburger’s not personal.”

If listening to sex workers is key, then it would seem that even sex workers consider prostitution to be different in kind from other types of employment.

People have often claimed that the hazards of prostitution arise from the criminalization of selling or buying sexual services, operating brothels, procuring and soliciting, and that many of these risks would be ameliorated if all of this were decriminalized and treated like any other fully legal profession. And there is quite a lot to be said for this position. When prostitution is against the law, this discourages workers from reporting any crimes against them for fear of prosecution, leaving them extremely vulnerable to abuse. It also leaves their jobs completely outside the realm of any kind of workplace safety regulations, and their employers aren’t required to operate within the applicable labor laws, creating an environment where exploitation flourishes.

In theory, decriminalization would remedy most if not all of these issues, and prostitution finally would become a job chosen because it suits people’s needs, with no more coercion than any other. But has this actually happened? New Zealand is often upheld as a model for full decriminalization, yet in a five-year review (PDF) of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, many workers reported having experienced assault, violent threats, being held against their will, theft, refusal to pay, and even rape. Few of them reported this to the police, and most who were surveyed felt that the Reform Act “could do little about the violence that occurred.” “…less than a quarter – felt there had been an improvement.” While there seem to be very few studies comparing the general well-being and safety of sex workers before and after this kind of reform, decriminalization does not appear to have been enough to prevent workers in New Zealand from continuing to experience violent abuse and mistreatment, especially those working at street level.

If prostitution should be treated like any other job, then it’s worth considering that we wouldn’t accept such unsafe conditions in any other job. Most people don’t have a problem with recognizing that some working conditions are simply too dangerous to be allowed, and such businesses are regulated or prohibited accordingly. Yet many advocates for decriminalization claim that too much legal regulation would only drive the sex trade underground once more and leave workers unprotected again. Clearly, determining the proper stringency of regulation is a challenging and delicate task, and the actual impact of a policy on workers should be the bottom line. But to suggest that anything which could conceivably impede the transaction must be done away with for fear of fueling the black market is simply negligent. Having the law look the other way on this does not make sex workers any more safe.

If decriminalization does actually improve the safety and welfare of sex workers, then this is a great start. If it doesn’t, and their working conditions remain just as dangerous, then other options are worth considering. Many advocates for decriminalization approach this issue with a goal of harm reduction, and so do I. And if these unacceptable dangers are simply inherent to prostitution (or a certain variety of it) and cannot be minimized while leaving the profession itself intact, then reducing the harm of prostitution requires reducing prostitution itself.

We can agree that certain legal regimes have been shown to be unsuccessful at accomplishing this, and even harmful to sex workers without addressing their needs, but it does not mean that this can’t be a valid goal. It shouldn’t be outside the bounds of acceptable discourse to believe that nobody should be exposed to such hazards in the course of employment. This does not have to imply an unbending adherence to any particular policy, whether it’s full criminalization, criminalization of clients, full decriminalization, or legal regulation. Many people contend that all efforts at reducing prostitution have failed, but just as with any other problem we’re faced with, past failures are no reason to stop developing new strategies.

Finally, some people pointed out that because prostitution is often the only option for sex workers, then working to eliminate prostitution would be taking their only option away from them. That may be the case, but there are a plethora of circumstances where people are deprived of income because something is too dangerous or inhumane to be legally allowed, such as child labor and sweatshops. Even if someone claimed that they had a wonderful experience working at an unsafe coal mine, and wanted no legal interference in this arrangement, such conditions would still not be permitted. The answer is not to remove the laws which prohibit these kinds of employment, but to remedy the lack of options which is forcing people into unsafe jobs such as prostitution. Sex workers have often attested to the inadequate social support they receive, which leaves them with nowhere else to turn. If nobody ever had to enter sex work, then it seems likely that fewer people would.

The question of which legal framework is most effective for dealing with prostitution is far from resolved, but full decriminalization appears to fall short of being the panacea that many have presented it as. The presumptuousness of people who expect and then demand complete support for this policy position is vastly out of proportion to the actual evidence of its efficacy. Contrary to prevailing opinion, it has not been established as a proven fact that would be as foolish to question as evolution. There is room for disagreement here, and recognizing that prostitution remains a dangerous field does not constitute a blemish upon one’s rationality.