MOTW: The Guardian, Kate Winslet, and Other Sex Work Hypocrites

The first in (what I hope will be) a regular moron-of-the-week feature.

History has just been made. The world’s leading human rights organisation, Amnesty International has finally, belatedly, accepted that sex workers are people with rights, and has called for their trade to be decriminalised.

For liberals, this kind of decision would once have been a no-brainer. But liberalism has become infested with puritanical, authoritarian ideas, and many liberals are highly illiberal when it comes to core issues of individual liberty – most of all, when sex is involved. Almost 4 years ago, I began to wake up to this, and wrote a piece about the Guardian’s sexual hang-ups. My observation that the secular left and the religious right had almost blurred into one entity was one of the catalysts that ended my Guardian subscription, and began my growing disenchantment with the increasingly conservative political left.

It was unsurprising then that the Guardian, so often a flag-waver for human rights, could not bear to apply its regular principles to the yucky issue of prostitution. In the run-up to Amnesty’s vote, a Guardian editorial implored the organisation to focus on other things. The piece was dishonest, suggesting that Amnesty was calling for some kind of global libertarian-inspired, unregulated free market in sex, which it most certainly was not.

The editorial almost reached self-parody, suggesting that Amnesty should pay heed – not to sex workers who were overwhelmingly in favour of the move – but to Hollywood celebs: “The letter signed by film actors who are normally reliable allies of Amnesty shows how damaging it is.” Don’t listen to the dirty hookers, listen to Kate Winslet!

The idea that actors know more about prostitution than prostitutes was widespread, and seemed to form a key part of the case against decriminalisation. But in this Internet era, sex workers can (for the first time) organise en-masse and speak for themselves. So we had the wonderfully named article Sex workers tell Lena Dunham, other celebs, to STFU about shit they don’t understand. And this was capped by an even more perfect tweet from the pornstar Stoya:

Stoya's tweet of the week!
Stoya’s tweet of the week!

Given that the workers themselves wanted to be decriminalised, and that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this would make life better and safer for them, the Guardian and other opponents were reduced to relying on the dubious link between trafficking and sex work, and the accompanying implication that sex workers are largely the powerless “trafficked” victims of global patriarchy. The left’s favourite nonsense-word-du-jour, neoliberalism, often appears in this false argument: IT’S THE NEOLIBERALS MAKING WOMEN DO TERRIBLE THINGS! Replace “the neoliberals” with “Satan” and you effortlessly switch between the “progressive” and the fundamentalist argument.

In fact, the trafficking argument against sex work is often a cover for anti-immigration attitudes (yes, they exist on the left too, just a little better hidden). When police raid brothels in the name of “saving trafficked women”, they often arrest those without valid papers and send them off for deportation. And thus, we have supposed progressives and feminists supporting anti-sex, anti-immigrant policing activities. Where do the liberals end and the far-right begin?

As if to underscore its own hypocrisy, the Guardian’s front page was yesterday dedicated to people who had truly been trafficked and exploited: Lithuanians who had been trafficked into the UK and exploited in the egg industry. There was no Guardian call for eggs to be banned. Illegal immigrants who take on low-paid agricultural work are allowed to have employment rights. Those who take on higher-paid sex work are not.

The decay is widespread: the trade union Unison has also vociferously opposed decriminalisation. And so we have, possibly for the first and only time in history, a trade union refusing to support workers in need of representation, and instead calling for the shut-down of an entire industry. Imagine if unions took this approach wherever they encountered workers being exploited: it is about as far from trade unionism as one can imagine (not all unions have followed this strange lead – the GMB for one has a branch for sex workers).

Amnesty’s decision is more than symbolic. It is a part of a tide that is slowly, finally, turning. It’s just a real shame that, rather than champion members of the world’s oldest profession, so many supposed liberals as well as supposed Christians have chosen to turn their backs on them.

Why Don’t Women Hunt? Sex Work: The New Civil Rights Struggle

Recent debates about sex and sexuality, in the context of moral panics and attempts at censorship, have revealed a lack of understanding among “experts” of the core subject itself: human sexuality. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given how taboo sex has been – and still is, for many.

Both left and right have found themselves equally drawn into the panic, each one imposing its own values on sexuality. Meanwhile, scientific understanding of the subject develops rapidly, and undermines the assumptions and dogma of both sides. The left rejoiced when it was discovered that homosexuality is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. This demonstrated both that homosexuality is natural, evolved behaviour (rather than a modern-day “sin”) and that sex is about far more than procreation: it appears to have social and health purposes too.

But new research also undermines left-wing dogma. Many on the left are as keen to demonise prostitution as the right are to attack homosexuality. The existence of prostitution is blamed on “Capitalism” or the ethereal “Patriarchy”. And yet, we are discovering that the sex trade too has its origins deep back in nature. Conservatives on both sides of the political spectrum are keen to paint the animal kingdom as “innocent”, while we humans have somehow polluted and twisted our idea of sexuality in modern times. It is a deeply conservative view of the world – that somehow our ancestors were pure and unsullied, while modern society is dirty and tainted.

It becomes increasingly clear that all widespread sexual behaviours – including homosexuality, masturbation, prostitution and rape – are inheritances from our animal past. That we are still struggling to accept the first three, and eliminate the fourth, is a measure of how young our civilisation really is.

The evolution of gender created a massive imbalance in nature. Males (of any species) are designed to create vast numbers of offspring, while females can have relatively few. In humans, men have been known to father hundreds of children (and theoretically could father thousands), while a woman can manage – at great cost – a few dozen. The same imbalance exists across all sexual species, both plant and animal.

Economics take over. Such an imbalance of supply and demand will have consequences. A fertile human egg has huge value to a male, while sperm (as any young man or woman can tell you) are so common as to be almost worthless. Masturbation is one way in which the imbalance can be corrected, and this, too, is common in nature.

The anthropologist and author of some wonderful books, Jared Diamond, published a small book called Why Is Sex Fun, featuring a chapter titled Why Do Men Hunt? Here’s the spoiler: it’s not for nutrition. There are easier and safer ways to get good nutrition from plants and small animals. Men (in early societies) hunt because they can trade the meat for sex. Diamond shakes his head at the way in which successful hunters that he has studied, in tribal societies, use their catch to spread their seed around the village.

Diamond looked at the male perspective, but the corollary is: Why Don’t Women Hunt? I put a similar question to a “liberal” in a Twitter discussion, and they told me it was because The Patriarchy oppresses women, making them stay home and cook. And yet hunting is hard and dangerous. Cooking in the village is not. Similarly, in all modern societies, men take on the most dangerous jobs: soldier, fisherman, security, construction, late-night taxi driving, etc. Men have lower life expectancies than women, partly because they are far more likely to die from violence or accidents. Could The Patriarchy have its wires crossed? Why is it sending men off to do the nastiest, most dangerous jobs?

Just as the answer to Why Do Men Hunt? is: to increase their chances of having sex, so the answer to Why Don’t Women Hunt? is: because they don’t have to. Sex is the oldest commodity of them all, and female sex is far more valuable than male. The first commercial transaction between two humans was almost certainly a gift of food from a man to a woman in exchange for sex: people had nothing else to trade in pre-civilised times.

This isn’t human behaviour. It’s sexual behaviour. In an experiment in 2008, an economist introduced monkeys to the concept of currency, and they swiftly responded by inventing prostitution (to the great surprise of the researcher).

So how would men respond to this unfairness of nature? It’s obvious in hindsight: men would seize ownership of female sexuality and take it for themselves. The Bible is full of laws to enforce just this: laws which make a daughter the property of her father, to be sold in marriage to a man. Laws which punish rape as a property crime against a father, not a crime of violence against a girl. Female fertility, humankind’s most valuable possession, was stolen by men.

And now, beginning in the past couple of centuries, women are reclaiming their bodies. As women take back control of their own fertility – via their right to sleep with who they want, their right to contraception and abortion, and, still most contentiously, their right to sell sex – they have created a shock through a male-dominated economic order that is many centuries old.

Those who cling to the old order attack sluts, contraception, abortion and prostitution, not because they want to protect women, but because they want to restrain female economic power. They claim that these things weaken, rather than strengthen, women, and (in order to protect the poor, delicate things) they must be outlawed.

Progressives claimed the right to “sluttishness”, to contraception and abortion in the last great culture clashes of the 1960s. Today, front-line battles are being fought by sex workers against prejudice, hate and stigma. Conservatives are manning the barricades against them – and many of these conservatives have adopted liberal language, falsely linking prostitution to trafficking, and claiming to be saving, rather than attacking sex workers. This “saving fallen women” mantra is, of course, an old trick, often employed to keep women in their place.

This is the civil rights battle of the 21st century, and it demarcates the modern line between conservatism and progressivism.

Sex Work & Feminism, This-ism, That-ism, Ism! Ism! Ism!

Ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance

In the 1980s, lefties like me dismissed John Lennon’s lyrics as utopian hippy bullshit. Those people who identified as Socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyists, Communists, Feminists, Fabianites, Anarchists etc. were dismissive of those mindless ideology-free fools. If you couldn’t put an -ism to your name, what kind of spineless person were you?

It became apparent as I grew older that -isms are not so much about believing strongly in something as wanting to belong to a tribe. And who doesn’t want to belong? I used to think that people like Marx and Trotsky had created brilliant new ways of looking at the world. And I still do. But I suspect that Marx and Trotsky would be deeply embarrassed at most of the Marxists and Trotskyists in the world. Great men are great for the very reason that they think for themselves. The reason so many people like -isms is because they would rather let somebody else think for them.

These labels of tribal identity have become so ossified that they have lost their meanings. I’ve met conservatives who call themselves Marxists, and progressives who think they’re conservatives. A label comes with a handy set of “beliefs”, which people can adopt without going through the tiresome process of actually thinking.

As I’ve blogged before, it’s not that I’m no longer left-wing – it’s more that the left has become dogmatic, conservative and stupid in its thinking – the very opposite of what it used to be. All groups become stale and stuck in conservative ways of thinking. The left’s intellectual heyday was in the 19th century – no wonder it is tired and conservative these days.

Feminism is another label that has lost all sense of its roots. First wave feminism fought for the vote and women’s property rights in the 19th century. Second wave feminism fought for gender equality, the recognition of rape as a serious crime (including in marriage) and sexual liberation for women. Having moved on from these goals, 1980s feminism split into various opposing fragments.

Like all other -isms, most people call themselves feminists as a handy tribal label. Most feminists today don’t know much about feminist history, any more than Marxists have read Marx. I’ve heard people say things like “I’m a feminist, so I am opposed to porn”. This is dumb at two levels – first, that feminists don’t automatically oppose porn (though some do), and second because it isn’t a reasoning process, but a mere statement of identity. People who make such statements have clearly not thought through the issues for themselves, but simply adopted somebody else’s ideas as their own.

I’ve written quite a lot about conservative feminism vs. sex-positive feminism. Some people who haven’t paid enough attention have accused me of attacking feminism; and yet, I’m pointing out that feminism has been attacked from within. Social conservatives have adopted the feminist label in order to make their ideas seem progressive, and in doing so, have undermined feminism itself.

I’m both amused and pleased that my writing has not only persuaded some progressives that they are no longer feminists, but that I’ve also persuaded at least one male conservative that he is in fact a feminist.

Today marks a day of protest to end violence against sex workers. Although sex workers are of both genders, most of the stigma associated with sex work, and most of the violence, is targeted at women. If there is a cause for feminists to embrace today, this is it. Feminist sex workers are on the front line in this battle, fighting for recognition and against criminalisation. And yet, the most vociferous opponents to recognising sex worker rights include both the religious right and “radical feminists”. These two groups come from very different roots and use very different language, but all too often share platforms to fight for the same goals: censoring sexual expression, stigmatising sexuality, criminalising prostitution, closing down striptease and burlesque venues.

Sex workers have little doubt that criminalisation and stigmatisation increase violence against them. Yet some feminist groups refuse to listen to the workers, claim that no woman in her right mind would choose sex work, and call for the trade to be pushed underground. Feminists succeeded in this goal in Sweden, which introduced the so-called Nordic Model to criminalise the sex trade and push it underground. The Nordic Model is being held responsible by sex workers for the murder of a sex worker and activist known as Petite Jasmine, an event which triggered today’s protests.

I personally doubt that anti-sex work feminist groups genuinely have women’s interests at heart; they have been caught twisting the facts too often to be credible as feminists (as Brooke Magnanti exposed in her book, The Sex Myth). But if they want to call themselves feminists, that is, of course, their right.

As for me, I’m in favour of decriminalising sex work, and agree with sex worker advocates that the Nordic Model is bigoted and dangerous. Does that make me a feminist? Ism ism ism… I’m with John Lennon on this one.