Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nOver the years, the atheist movement has split asunder over the issue of whether social justice activism has a place within the atheist movement. Recently, a post on The Daily Banter caused a stir of conversation about it the likes of which I haven’t seen since Atheism+ started happening. (Though this one was markedly less impressive.)

The piece, written by Michael Luciano and entitled “Atheists Don’t Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing,” basically argues that social justice is something you do with your liberal hat on and not your atheist hat. He points out that all the word “atheist” means is that you don’t believe in gods and not necessarily that you support “liberal politics.”

It seems apparent to me, first of all, that atheism is a social justice issue. Heina points out in their post “Top Five Arguments the Atheist Agenda Doesn’t Have the Right to Use” that many things the atheist movement tries to fight for are social issues. A lot of atheist activism focuses on equal representation in and by the government and normalizing atheism, the goals of which are to eliminate the ways atheists are harmed as a minority. Seems pretty social justicey to moi. [Read more…]

Bristol Palin’s perversion of tolerance

When people feel the need to state explicitly how “tolerant” they are, it’s usually a sign that something is amiss. Such is the case with Bristol Palin’s recent blog post, where she declares that she would have no problem with a gay dance partner, but laments that others are unwilling to extend the same tolerance to certain Christian beliefs:

In their simplistic minds, the fact that I’m a Christian, that I believe in God’s plan for marriage, means that I must hate gays and must hate to even be in their presence. Well, they were right about one thing: there was hate in that media room, but the hate was theirs, not mine. …

Look, my responsibility is pretty darn clear: to treat people as I would like to be treated, to be gracious, and – yes – to uphold and advance my Christian principles in all that I do. Would I want a gay dancer to refuse to dance with me because of my beliefs? Why would I refuse to dance with a gay man because of his?

To the Left, “tolerance” means agreeing with them on, well, everything. To me, tolerance means learning to live and work with each other when we don’t agree – and won’t ever agree.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward example of tolerance: I accept you, can’t you accept me? The problem is that, in this case, the ideal of tolerance is being used to call for inaction in the face of intolerance. Palin implicitly parallels two instances of tolerance – the first is simply tolerating the existence and presence of gay people; the second is tolerating the belief that the defining feature of gay people, as embodied in their relationships, is immoral and should be legally treated as unequal.

These are clearly quite different things. Under a meaningful understanding of what tolerance is, there are indeed some beliefs that are simply unacceptable – indeed, they are intolerable. Think about it: Is there any belief that you would consider so unreasonable and inhumane that passively tolerating it, and remaining silent in the face of it, would be more unacceptable to you than speaking out and letting it be known that you’re not okay with that? For instance, do you see no difference between women voting and those who would act to prevent them from voting, or gay people holding a parade and those who would seek to suppress them by violence, or women wearing the clothes of their choice and those who demand they be cloaked in veils, or gay people merely existing and others who want to execute them? At what point do you recognize that such things are not just two sides of one coin, not just an innocuous difference of opinion, and plainly not the same?

If you can acknowledge that it is possible for certain beliefs to be so troubling that you cannot accept them, then you can understand that this is only a matter of where we draw that line. And many of us draw the line at the belief that gay people’s love is immoral and should be legally unrecognized. If our commitment to tolerance has any teeth to it, then advocating tolerance of gay people necessarily precludes being okay with such anti-gay beliefs. After all, if someone claimed to tolerate your own beliefs, how much would that really mean to you if they never spoke out in protest when others called for such homophobic Christian speech to be criminalized? Such an obligation to object should at least be familiar on a conceptual level to Christians, who have often claimed that “loving” someone demands that we tell them the unvarnished “truth” about the supposed sinfulness of their sexuality.

Calling for tolerance, at the most basic level and regardless of the specifics of what we believe ought to be tolerated, means advocating one approach to beliefs and expressions over another. A kind of universal “tolerance” that says literally anything is okay negates that, and as a result, it’s barely even coherent or distinct as a position. At most, it has all the force of “I think this might be a good idea, but, you know… whatever.” If you think that tolerance of you or your beliefs is at all important, then realize that tolerance needs to be more compelling than that. Tolerance doesn’t mean agreeing with “the Left” – it means, at a minimum, agreeing that tolerance should actually stand for something. And if you expect to be admired for your tolerance, then espousing a position that amounts to “I’m so tolerant, I’ll never let anyone know I disapprove of prejudice against minorities!” isn’t the best way to make that happen.

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.