As I mentioned a couple days ago, Taslima Nasreen has now joined Freethought Blogs, and I (and the rest of us) are well and truly honoured and excited to have her. I really do have an immense amount of respect for her.
But yesterday she wrote a post that I find I absolutely can’t leave unexamined. As much as Taslima may be a hero of mine, I can’t allow that to excuse what I consider to be deeply problematic (and potentially destructive) statements. One of the great beauties and strengths of atheism and skepticism is that we have no popes or saints. Our heroes are at all time available to be questioned, and their assertions always available to be critiqued. And sometimes those assertions demand such critiques. This is one of them.
The post in question is misleadingly entitled “Sex Slavery Must Be Abolished”. Misleading in that the subject of the post is not really sex slavery, it’s the equation of all forms of sex work with sex slavery. This rhetorical slight of hand puts us in the starting position of outrage, of anger at the obvious immorality of slavery (sexual or otherwise), and through that outrage leads us into far less self-evident claims that deserve considerably more critical thought, and demand considerably more evidence, than the assertion in the title. Evidence Taslima does not provide.
What she provides in its stead is an emotional argument, an appeal to a certain specific sexual morality and sexual politics that she assumes us to hold (or simply assumes we are sympathetic enough to to not question her uncited, unsourced, unargued assertions), and positions as a universal fact without considering the immense range of nuance, complexity, and possible alternative iterations, of the subject on which she is imposing this morality and political tilt. Without considering that circumstances in which sex work is an equitable exchange, and a freely made choice, can and do happen. Or at the very least hypothetically can.
And no, she doesn’t provide any argument as to why they can’t. She just asserts it.
While the presence of money always conditions consent by throwing a level of inequity into the power dynamics, that inequity is not always enough to meaningfully compromise consent. While no sexual consent is possible without the ability for all involved parties to say “no” if they wish, and requires that that “no” not be tied to serious negative consequences (like violence, imprisonment, loss of job, death, death of another), consent is still free consent even if the “yes” is tied to serious positive consequences (like money). After all, it usually is. Tied to pleasure at least. Unless you’re just robotically going through the motions (which I hardly consider the ideal form of sexual intimacy).
Taslima just goes ahead and without real argument positions ALL sex work as being necessarily a form of patriarchal oppression, and lacking true consent. While obviously many women end up, in varying degrees, forced or coerced (not necessarily by individuals, but often by circumstances or socio-cultural forces) into sex work, the truth is that this is also often not the case. Of the not insignificant number of sex workers and former sex workers I’ve known, not a one of them ever described themselves to me as having not had a choice. Almost none have expressed regretting the choice. Many described feeling empowered by it. Almost all at some point to described it to me as more or less being like any form of labour (“demeaning” or otherwise) one does with one’s body. And in all cases the negatives and risks were described as exasperated by moralistic attitudes attempting to eliminate the institution of prostitution, or “protect” them from their work, rather than ameliorated.
Of course, the sex trade as a whole is much more complex than these isolated occurrences, but that’s all that’s needed as evidence of circumstances that contradict Taslima’s statements of what is inherent to sex work. Just like it only takes one happy atheist to disprove the assertion that misery in inherent to atheism, or one butch lesbian trans woman to disprove the assertions that transition is all about “changing your body to conform to binary gender roles” or that we’re “just really really gay”.
If tomorrow I went back down to the Kingsway Stroll and stood on a corner until I was (as usual) solicited, then consented to that exchange for the purposes of proving my point, would that have also been a patriarchal oppression, not really my choice, something I was coerced into doing? Because I could do that. Granted, I don’t think ANY sex workers are doing it to prove an intellectual point on a blogging network, but the simple fact that I could upends Taslima’s sweeping statements about lack of consent and choice being universal to sex work.
Greta Christina has already done an excellent job of unpacking the fact that sex work is not universally sex slavery (and Ace of Sevens at Hypothetical Bus Stop also does a great job of working through the “lies” she attributes to those who support decriminalization of sex work), so there’s not much need for me to go any further with making that particular argument. There’s instead something else I’d like to focus on.
Early in her post, Taslima makes the rhetorical decision to, instead of referring to sex workers as, well, sex workers -or even prostitutes- she instead refers to them as “prostituted women”. In addition to the less subtle problem of overtly erasing the existence (and implications) of those sex workers who are not women, this act of conceptual framing belies one of the most disturbing and deeply problematic elements of Taslima’s argument.
Describing sex workers as “prostituted women” is to conceptually strip them of agency, have this status only positioned as something inflicted upon them, and rendering them definitively and wholly an object in the entire conceptual framework. It imagines that they can’t possibly be an active participant, but must be a blank object upon which prostitution is inscribed.
This idea of stripping women of their agency, of imagining that they couldn’t possibly be involved in whatever process you’re describing as informed, active, rational agents is NOT something new to me. I’m very familiar with it. In fact, I wrote a bit about it just yesterday.
We see this in the Republican war on women, the idea that no woman would ever really choose to terminate a pregnancy. This conceptual framing helps enable the numerous laws and bills being passed that insist that a woman has no real right to the choices she makes about her body unless she subjects herself to whatever invasion or emotional manipulation those questioning her agency demand as “proof” that she “really” wants to make this choice. We see it in the gatekeeping processes established as a barrier between trans people and treatment, based on the assumption that we can’t possibly be rational and sincere in our choices if this (!!!) is the choice we’ve arrived at. No, we’re certainly just delusional, or deceived, or self-hating, or crazy, or jumping to conclusions, or perverted, or trying to trick guys into sleeping with us, or being “gender rebels”, or trying to get attention, or trying to appropriate womanhood, or whatever stupid thing you’ll pick based on whatever flavour of transphobe you happen to be (HBSer, TERF/WBW, fundagelical, gay/lesbian separatist, alt-medder, MRA, “gender realist”, right-winger, plain-old ignorant, etc.). And so again we must provide “proof” that our choice really is a choice, that we’re really really sure we’re really sure we’re really really really sure.
We see it in the story of Alexis Kaminsky, considered by the German courts to have been “brainwashed” into her female self-identification, and therefore deserving of incarceration, torture and endocrine-based disfigurement “for her own good”, because they couldn’t understand her choice to have been her choice, or accept it as such.
I’m sorry, but being an advocate of social justice and feminism, defending freedom, defending autonomy, defending self-determination, defending the right for women (and all human beings) to make their own choices about their own bodies, requires defending those choices that we ourselves would not make, and also those choices that we ourselves do not understand.
Sometimes people are going to choose to do things that we don’t quite get. But what little we’re able to immediately understand is not the whole of human experience. There will always be bits that are apart from ourselves. Part of human experience is never knowing all of human experience. Accepting that what’s right for you is not necessarily a workable prescription for everyone else’s behaviours, and that sometimes people’s experiences and needs differ from one’s own, is a necessary aspect of empathy, compassion, and understanding as much as we can understand of human experience.
Allowing ourselves to believe, or convincing ourselves, that because someone’s choice differs from what we understand, or what we would feel comfortable with, that it therefore isn’t “really” a choice, and to consequently conceptually invalidate their agency, paternalistically casting them in the role of children who “don’t know any better” and need our “guidance”, is an immensely dangerous act. It enables violence, and the stripping of rights, and these almost inevitably follow from it. The first step towards forgiving oneself in robbing someone of their autonomy and rights is in convincing yourself they never had autonomy in the first place, or don’t deserve it, or are harmed by it, or that their autonomy is being misused and they need to be “protected” from their own choices, for their own good.
Colonialism. Evangelism. Gatekeeping. Lobotomization. So many atrocities have been committed in the name of “saving” a vulnerable Other “from themselves” or from their supposed inability to act in their own best interest when presented with options.
The path forward for feminism in addressing issues of sexual slavery, human trafficking and survival sex work, the circumstances in which sex workers are coerced into the sex trade is NOT through stripping human beings of the choices they’re able to make about their bodies, or through emotionally manipulative rhetoric, or through sweeping and unsubstantiated blanket statements on the nature of sex work, or through condescendingly denying human beings their agency. The path forward is through the expansion of the range of options and choices women have about their bodies. Making alternatives available, addressing the socio-economic conditions that lead to survival sex work, deconstructing misogyny and sexism, taking apart the rape culture, disabling the infrastructure of human trafficking, addressing the misogynistic and paternalistic attitudes towards women (that the narrative of “prostituted women” reinforces) that enables men to believe they can own and control them and deny their right to make their own choices…
And opposing, unequivocally, any and all attempts to impose external state control over what a woman (or anyone) does with her own body. We need to be fighting alongside sex workers, supporting them in the struggle for their rights and freedoms, as they define them, not fighting against them for our false sense of entitlement to dictate what their rights and freedoms are “supposed” to look like.
(after all, the achievement of sex workers’ rights and freedoms, as they defined them, has often prefigured our own)
There is one line that the state must not cross, under any circumstances, for any reason, no matter how strong our moralistic or political fervor, and it is the line that delineates the body. Bodily autonomy is essential. ANY violation of bodily autonomy, however well-intentioned, is an act of tyranny.
Any act of denying that a human being possesses agency over their own body, or that we know what’s best for that body better than they do, is a violence, a complaceny in and an enabling of tyranny, a step in the direction of denial of human rights, of women’s rights.
These are not our bodies on which to inscribe our morals and politics. They are the bodies of individual women (and men, and others), who have the right to enact their OWN concepts of sexual morality, sexual politics and sexual empowerment through them.