Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sex Work: Faulty Culture, Faulty Systems, Faulty Solutions

If you want a different perspective on sex work and sex worker's rights, I recommend these YouTubers  who often vlog about sex work (among other things), have personal experience with the subject and who frequently favorite other informative videos to that end.

Laws against this kill women. To prohibit it does not stop it. When women feel it is absolutely necessary or if they want to, they will choose to, in dangerous circumstances. When it is illegal millions of women do it illegally. Some die, some are hurt. All are forced to behave as if they were criminals. Legalizing it and providing safe circumstances for the practice helps protect the health and well being of the women involved.

If this argument sounds familiar to you, that's because it is one of the most common arguments heard in support of legalized abortion. It is rare that one hears a pro-life advocate pointing out the dangers of back-alley abortions as a reason why abortion is inherently bad and should be illegal. Strangely enough, I hear anti-sex work advocates use this train of thought constantly to justify laws against prostitution. I think everyone can safely agree that some prostitution as it exists now in most of the United States is a nasty business. So was back-alley butchery before abortion was legal. Regardless of the morality issues that may arise in discourse on either issue, we should not base our opinions of legal, honest sex work on the disgusting and dangerous nature of sex trafficking. I think that much is clear.

One of my Facebook friends post a link on Facebook today to a Guardian article from 2007. It reports on the findings of a book by Melissa Farley on problems in legal brothels in Nevada. This being an old article, I do not know how much of it still holds true, but I think it brings up some legitimate concerns. However, I do not think that Farley's conclusion that "legal prostitution is an institution that just can't be fixed up or made a little better. It has to be abolished" follows well from her presented facts and premises at all. It seems that Farley falls prey to the same pitfalls as those who oppose sex work and sex worker's rights in general based on the vices of illegal prostitution as mentioned above.

The article in question begins by explaining that, while legal brothels are actually fairly rare in Nevada, the ones that do exist are very good at PR campaigns. It then mentions an HBO series, Cathouse, that presents a rather positive view of one particular brothel. I had an eyebrow raised as soon a I read the first paragraph. There seemed to be an implication that this positive portrayal of the brothel in Cathouse was due to the fact that it was intended to by the brothel for PR purposes. I have yet to see any evidence that the documentary series in question was paid for or commissioned by the featured brothel. I am led to believe that this muddying of the waters may be in order to downplay potential overgeneralizations made in the paragraphs following. That is to say, we are being led to believe, possibly inaccurately, that the only reason some brothels are shown positively is because the brothels themselves manipulate the images we see. I could be wrong, but the lack of evidence seemed rather fishy to me.

The article continues:
"Melissa Farley, visited eight legal brothels in Nevada, interviewing 45 women and a number of brothel owners. Far from enjoying better conditions than those who work illegally, the prostitutes she spoke to are often subject to slave-like conditions."

Here lies the crux of Farley's argument: women in legal brothels are treated just as badly as illegal prostitutes, therefore legal prostitution should be abolished.  

 Let's analyze some of her observations:

"Described as "pussy penitentiaries" by one interviewee, the brothels tend to be in the middle of nowhere, out of sight of ordinary Nevadans. (Brothels are officially allowed only in counties with populations of fewer than 400,000, so prostitution remains an illegal - though vast - trade in conurbations such as Las Vegas."

Despite this point having been made explicitly from the start, Farley never once even thinks to correlate the lack of accountability of brothels implied here with the problems in those brothels. Even if sex work is legal, if its kept out of sight and largely ignored due to pre-existing stigma, this gives even the most unscrupulous owners free reign over their business. If sex work were treated as any other business and conducted in populated areas, people would quickly notice some of the more obvious problems and seek correction. Women in brothels located in populous areas would have more places to go to help in cases of abuse. The workers of most other industries are protected by laws or unions. Why not so with sex workers?

"The rooms all have panic buttons, but many women told her that they had experienced violent and sexual abuse from the customers and pimps."

Again, these are problems that could be solved by demanding accountability from brothel owners, instituting tighter controls and outlawing pimping rather than sex work as a whole.

"Another pimp told Farley matter-of-factly that many of the women working for him had histories of sexual abuse and mental ill-health. "Most," he said, "have been sexually abused as kids. Some are bipolar, some are schizophrenic.""

This is at best a non sequitur. If I walked into a store and interviewed the employees only to find that most of them suffered from some sort of mental illness, I would not mention their illnesses as a negative aspect of the store. To do so would be discriminatory against the mentally ill. What this point actually is, is an allusion to the all too common half-argument, half-stereotype that workers in the sex industry suffer from mental illness or abuse; no woman in her right mind would ever choose to become a sex worker. Not only is this point inaccurate, but even if it were true, it would still not be a good argument against prostitution. People use alcohol to cope with mental illness and abuse as well, often to a much more harmful extent than supposedly mentally ill prostitutes do. Should we ban the sale of alcohol to prevent this problem and implicitly accuse alcohol companies of profiting from the pain of alcoholics? No, we should seek to end the stigma surrounding mental illness and provide better treatment. In the case of prostitution, it seems rational to apply the same principles.

"The women must present their medical clearance to the police station and be finger-printed, even though such registration is detrimental: if a woman is known to work as a prostitute, she may be refused health insurance, face discrimination in housing or future employment, or endure accusations of unfit motherhood. In addition, there are countries that will not permit registered prostitutes to settle, so their movement is severely restricted."

None of these problems are the result of prostitution. All of them stem from our culture's stigmatization of prostitution. Discrimination is never that fault of the victim or the advocates for the rights of the victim, it's the fault of the discriminator and the society that primes for the underlying prejudice.

"Those who support the system claim that the regulations may help prevent pimping, which they see as a worse form of exploitation to that which occurs in brothels. According to Farley's research though, most women in legal brothels have pimps outside anyway, be they husbands or boyfriends. And, as Chong Kim, a survivor of prostitution who has worked with Farley, says, some of the legal brothel owners "are worse than any pimp. They abuse and imprison women and are fully protected by the state.""

Again, this is not a sex work issue, it's a domestic abuse issue. As for women being imprisoned by legal brothel owners, we could unionize sex workers restrict the number of hours they are required to stay at work. Or brothels could be set up communally, rather than hierarchically, so that the sex workers themselves own the establishment. Farley points out many, many problems that can be solved with tighter restrictions and expectations like the ones I keep mentioning.

"Investigating the sex industry - even the legal part - can be dangerous. During one visit to a brothel, Farley asked the owner what the women thought of their work. "I was polite," she writes in her book, "as he condescendingly explained what a satisfying and lucrative business prostitution was for his 'ladies'. I tried to keep my facial muscles expressionless, but I didn't succeed. He whipped a revolver out of his waistband, aimed it at my head and said: 'You don't know nothing about Nevada prostitution, lady. You don't even know whether I will kill you in the next five minutes.'""

Unfortunately, this brand of jerk exists both inside and outside the sex industry. A friend of mine from the Michigan backwoods up north reports having witnessed (and experienced) this kind of reaction to things as simple as a verbal insult. It's wrong, but when it comes to prostitution specifically, its a non sequitur.

"The effect of all this on the women in the brothels is "negative and profound," according to Farley. "Many were suffering what I'd describe as the traumatic effects of ongoing sexual assaults, and those that had been in the brothels for some time were institutionalised. That is, they were passive, timid, compliant, and deeply resigned."

To this point, we are compelled to ask whether these facts are the result of legalized prostitution as a whole or the result of the conditions in these particular institutions. Perhaps the suffering these women experience was the result of something else entirely. Also to this point is the fact that Farley's sample size for this investigation is painfully small. She only visited 8 brothels and interviewed 45 women. This is only 40% of the 20 legal brothels in Nevada and at best a fraction of the brothels that exist legally around the world. We do not know what Farley's criteria was for selecting these particular brothels or women either. If she seeks to demonstrate the effects of sex work on women, she is making massive generalizations based on the small amount of data that she actually has.

"Meanwhile, illegal brothels are on the increase in Nevada, as they are in other parts of the world where brothels are legalised. Nevada's illegal prostitution industry is already nine times greater than the state's legal brothels. "Legalising this industry does not result in the closing down of illegal sex establishments," says Farley, "it merely gives them further permission to exist.""

All this proves is that, even when business is legal, there are often still black markets. It's not a concern that is unique to prostitution.

"Farley found evidence, for example, that the existence of state-sanctioned brothels can have a direct effect on attitudes to women and sexual violence. Her survey of 131 young men at the University of Nevada found the majority viewed prostitution as normal, assumed that it was not possible to rape a prostitute, and were more likely than young men in other states to use women in both legal and illegal prostitution."

This information is very sketchy. For example, what's wrong with thinking prostitution normal? For all intents and purposes, prostitution is "normal". It exists in every culture, in every city, legal or illegal. How does Farley know that the reason why these students have sexist, rape-apologetic attitudes is a result of prostitution being legal and not a result of sexism in general? These questions are never answered. The fact that Farley automatically correlates sex work with rape and "using" women indicates a very strong bias against sex work from the outset. It is the lack of objectivity that really poisons the rest of her investigation, even though she does bring up legitimate concerns. 

The idea that sex work is inherently wrong because the workers are being "used" has always seemed fundamentally flawed to me. All manual laborers are required to use their body parts at their own risk for relatively little pay. It shouldn't matter which organs we choose to use. Unless of course we subscribe to the idea that sex organs are somehow "special" or that the worth of a woman is tied up in her sexuality. Both of these views are fallacious and rather sexist.

I have also heard concerns voiced about how sex with a prostitute is basically "masturbating into a human". This same argument could be made against any sort of unattached, unemotional casual sex. It could be made against relationships in which one person is only pretending to care about the other in order to get into that person's pants. I think there might actually be a question as to the morality of these actions, but certainly not a question of legality.

In Michigan, abortion clinics are so heavily regulated now that it's actually extremely difficult to get an abortion. If we can institute crackdowns of this nature on a necessary medical procedure, we can do so on the sex work industry in order to make it safer. We can also work to change the attitude that allows even legal brothels to become dens of iniquity. I personally am against infantilizing women of any sort. Even if prostitution is philosophically wrong, the "there should be a law!" attitude is never more productive than respectful, rational discourse.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It's All On Your Head

This is what I look like now:

This is what I looked like three years ago:

Yeah, I know, braces sure make a difference, don't they? All joking aside, most people I talk to are surprised that I used to be a very religious Muslim. Some of them are even a little freaked out. I read the whole Qur'an, prayed five times everyday, the whole nine yards. If someone had told me back then that I would become a full blown atheist activist now, I probably would have been offended.

All of that being said, I have a rather unique perspective to offer when the topic of Islam is brought up in atheist circles. I have become especially interested in the hijab, as it was a significant part of my life for a good portion of my high school career. The question of hijab was raised on the Secular Women Facebook group the other day. It was mentioned in response to this BBC article on World Hijab Day, an occasion on which non-muslim women are encouraged to try wearing hijab for a day so that they can see what it's like. On the Secular Women group, members were discussing whether or not the hijab is an instrument of oppression. There really is no simple answer to this question. I don't think we should even try to answer it simply. Here, I do not wish to discuss the merits or lack there of of the Islamic religion in general. Everyone should know where I stand here; I am an atheist. I intend to elaborate on the post I made in reply to the original post on Secular Women and, hopefully, bring up some relevant points that may not be initially obvious or apparent when it comes to the single issue of the hijab.

What is hijab anyway?

Explaining exactly what a hijab is might be a patronizing way to start this discussion, but it's surprising how many people aren't familiar with the different types of headcoverings you might see Muslim women wear. A hijab is the the one that goes on your head, neck and shoulders. Nothing more. Sometimes, hijab is worn only on the head. The difference is often cultural. I have also heard "hijab" used for the practice modesty in general for both men and women. In this context, I am focusing on the physical garment. A hijab is not a burqua, a hijab is not a niquab, a hijab is not an abaya or a chador. All of these types of clothing are sometimes associated with Islamic modesty, but they are not the same and the all have cultural histories and traditions that I am not entirely qualified to discuss. It's pertinent to remember for our purposes, though, that when talking about hijab and the oppression of women, we are not talking about women with every inch of their body and face covered. We're only looking for now at the head veil, which is probably the most common in the west.

Myth: Women who wear hijab are more "conservative" than those who don't.
We cannot deny that the culture of United States is saturated with Christianity. Though the Bible technically calls for women to cover their heads, the only women who we see wearing head coverings (or any sort of specifically modest dress) in American Christianity are those who adhere very strongly to the old traditions of their church or denomination. Orthodox Christians, conservative catholics, the Amish and the lovely ladies of the WBC cover their heads and these happen to be the more old-fashioned, conservative sects of Christianity. This is not always the case in Islam. There is no official Muslim church or pope, so Islamic religious practices are quite variable. As such, womens' reasons for wearing hijab are also variable. Some women who wear hijab are very religious. On the other hand, there are other women who are very strongly Muslim who do not wear hijab.

When I was in high school, I went several times a "foreign language day" at Michigan State University, where we participated in mini-sessions to learn about foreign languages and cultures. During one session I attended on women in Islam, some of the presenters wore hijab, others didn't. One of the women with hijab asserted that her veil was a choice, but not required. Another woman in hijab said that she was taught that every hair a woman exposes is equivalent to time she will have to spend in hell for it. Even between those two women, there was a huge difference in opinion as to whether or not a Muslim woman should wear hijab. Within the subset of Muslim women who believe that hijab is required, there is debate as to precisely which body parts should be covered. There are still others who believe that hijab is technically required, but that forsaking it is forgivable in the West where it may be frowned upon or even banned and thus, might cause the woman more harm than good.

Some women wear hijab for reasons other than religious requirement. There are those who do it as a symbol of their identity. Some do it as a matter of culture or because the country they live in requires it. In my case, I just wanted to. I liked how it looked, it was practical. All of this complicates the issue of whether or not hijab is inherently oppressive to women. Free choice and agency is a deciding factor in the matter of oppression. If someone covers their head because they want to, the head covering is likely not oppressive. This brings us to another big issue that comes along with the choice or obligation to wear hijab: modesty.

Modest is hottest?
Whether a woman chooses to wear hijab or whether she feel obligated to do so by her religious beliefs, the reason most Muslim women give for wearing hijab is "modesty". Modesty and humility are seen as virtues in all of the Abrahamic faiths and in much of the secular world as well. Most of us are "modest" to some degree. In the United States, it is generally considered inappropriate to reveal the breasts or sex organs in public. Some (myself included) go so far as to never remove their clothes in front of anyone but an intimate partner or doctor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have followers that express modesty and humility in a different way, through head covering. We frequently associate modesty with the downplaying of the sexuality, but "plain" or modest clothing is often symbolic (as with the head coverings of the Jews and Amish) and has little to do with sex. In this case, we cannot fairly say that the outward projection of modesty is inherently oppressive.

There is another side to modesty in Islam, however. Many Muslim women are taught that one of the purposes of hijab is to downplay their sexual assets so as not to attracted the unwanted attention of men. This notion is sexist and, arguably, oppressive. Women should not be expected to cover for the benefit of men or to protect themselves from the supposedly wild male sex drive. To have this expectation, especially with equivalent for the male, is akin to slut shaming and, by extension, victim blaming. Unfairly gendered expectations such as these should always be challenged. Covering one's body does not, in fact, prevent rape. That being the case, compelling a woman to dress a certain way for no practical reason is simply oppressive.

What should female secularists do?
Secularist women who wish to irradiate gendered religious oppression are faced with a glaring problem when it comes to hijab. It is not always clear whether and to what extent its presence in our society should be addressed.

I took off my hijab long before I became non-religious. I got sick of being looked at funny, of getting discriminated against or getting pity for supposedly having been beaten and brainwashed. Even my own family treated me badly because of it. Even now, one of the reasons I rarely tell people about my religious history is that I haven't yet made peace with the way I was treated as a Muslim. Not to mention the fact that people are made uncomfortable by the thought that I used to be Muslim. Whether or not we think Islam is incorrect philosophically, we have no excuse for discriminating against people who happen to subscribe to that religious persuasion. I fully support wearing hijab for a day to see what it's like if need be. If we ever want to convince anyone that we're right, we have to be able to empathize with them rather than making assumptions. Are all Muslim or ex-Muslims going to agree with me on these points? Nope! Almost every point I have made here is contentious. Everyone has a different experience with them. In the end, female Muslims are women too. We will solve no problems with oppression if we ourselves become the oppressors.

Friday, February 1, 2013

U of M Was in the Right

I was disappointed this morning to see that the University of Michigan had tucked its tail between its legs, so to speak, on the issue of the Christian group that was in violation of the University non-discrimination policy. It issued this statement this morning, referring specifically to the Fox News article on the situation: 

This apparent attempt at damage control twists the situation, citing "not meeting the re-registration deadline" as the University's reason for not recognizing the group. There is no reason for this kind of dishonest clarification and the University needs to stick to its guns. Requiring a group to follow the rules is not discrimination. Allowing exceptions to the rules for stubborn Christian clubs is affording special rights to an already privileged groups.

A Facebook group has gone up in support of the InterVarsity Christian fellowship's claims. The title is ridiculous. There is already freedom to form religious groups and to have them recognized by the University. They are treated the same way as every other group and this is absolutely the way it should be.