Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Some Antidotes For Bob Herbert's Anti-"Pornstitution" Myopia

For those of you just coming from Feministe and Jill's tribute to Bob Hebert's latest display of myopia and sex shaming, I offer these articles in response for an effective antidote:

Elizabeth Wood of Sex and the Public Square: Note to Bob Hebert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

Let me start with the false assumptions about causality. Herbert seems to be asserting that the existence of pornography and prostitution, as evidenced by legal brothels in Nevada, serve as evidence of the misogyny in American culture that then leads to the epidemic of violence against women. Wrong. Are more wives and girlfriends murdered by their partners in Germany or the Netherlands where prostitution is legal? No. I would say it is our culture of violence that leads to violence of all sorts. (Note: I am not asserting a direct connection between watching violent movies or playing violent video games and committing violent acts. I am suggesting that in a culture where violence and aggression are rewarded, as they are here, that you get more violence and aggression.)

The other problem with Herbert's argument is his assertion that sex work is somehow uniquely problematic. The fact that he uses sex work and pornography as the sine qua non of misogyny tells us that he sees those things as uniquely and irredeemably degrading and dehumanizing to women. One of the bits of evidence Herbert shows us -- again -- from his Nevada trip to support his claim that the brothels there degrade women (and I have no doubt that some are run in degrading ways) is that the women must answer to a bell. Now others have previously pointed out that school kids answer to bells, workers in factories and other locations often answer to devices like bells or buzzers. I bet even Mr. Herbert has a Blackberry or some other device that vibrates or rings in his pocket, and causes a Pavlovlian response where he hastens to comply with some instruction from his employer. Oppressive? Yes. Unique to sex work? Not a chance.


Herbert also raises the very real -- and too little examined -- problem of sexual violence in the military, but again he misses an important connection. He completed passes over the degradation rituals common to military life. Think drill instructors shouting insults at new recruits as they train. Think chants about blood and killing. Think hazing-type rituals as groups are formed and as their members shuffle in and out.

Think leasing your body to a male-dominated institution for a period of years to be used as the leaders of that institution wish. They can send you to another country. They can separate you from your family. They can command you to kill and send you on missions where your chances of being killed yourself are incredibly high. And you can't refuse without breaking the rules.

Think your only option for escape, if they don't want to let you go, is to commit the crime of desertion.

It is all the more clear now that Herbert opposes prostitution and pornography specifically because they are centered on sexual transactions. But degradation and dehumanization in work are problems that are not unique to the sex industry, and the sex industry ought not be uniquely condemned for them.

And then, there is this collection of essays from our founder and chief Henchwoman, from her own blog:

A Problem Here

Not a Monolith

Classist and Privileged, oh my!


The Majority of the entries in the Activism & Outreach Tips for Allies Tag Section there on the sidebar.

And yeah, go on over to Bound, Not Gagged, and take a look.
And, if I find any more, I'll post the links here.


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  2. Anthony, thanks for the mention. Bob Herbert is one of those columnists who I used to really like. (Just like *most* of the time I find the folks at Feministe and Feministing to be pretty sharp.) And often the passion for social justice is still apparent. Does it seem like left-leaning columnists have taken on a more vocally anti-sex perspective than right-leaning ones? Is sex the thing the "mainstream left" sacrifices in order to be 'taken seriously'?

    activism + community + information

  3. A hypothesis: Could it depend on whether someone's motive is more a love of freedom, or guilt over privilege? Perhaps one could test this by checking for a correlation between class background/movement vs. sex positivity/negativity. I understand there was such a correlation within first-wave feminism: upper-class bourgeois feminists were more likely to take sex-negative positions (anti-choice on prostitution, contraception, and abortion) while working-class socialist feminists were typically more libertarian.

    Eric Hamell

    Elizabeth W said...
    Does it seem like left-leaning columnists have taken on a more vocally anti-sex perspective than right-leaning ones? Is sex the thing the "mainstream left" sacrifices in order to be 'taken seriously'

  4. Bob couldn't get one damn thing right in his article and that is why he gets to publish in the New York Yimes.
    Maybe somebody needs to sit down with Bob and explain that using the term "women and girls" as if we are the same thing is sexist and using the term "women and girls" as if we are the same thing could be considered "disrespectful,degrading and contemptuous" to us as women.
    And having spent over two decades naked or virtually naked as a prostitute, I wish I could be the one to tell Bob that sex workers want decriminalization not legalization. But of course Bob wouldn't believe we could possibly know what we want or tell the difference if we could.
    Bob needs a field trip to a meat packing plant, or maybe a Walmart, where workers wages are so low they qualify for welfare and write about real dehumanization and demoralization from working two, three minimum wage jobs and still not being able to pay your rent And Bob, I ain't looking to any Republican or Democratic candidate for representation on any issue. That is all you. Who's really responding like Pavlov's Dog.
    Good job Ren in your "Class and Privilege" piece. Just to add to your beef, I was actually told by the anti-prostitution forces that either I could not possibly be or wasn't capable of or didn't deserve to be(I stopped paying attention) a Socialist because you know, I was a sex worker (not a former prostituted woman). To them, if I did not accept their victimhood, I was just "sucked the dicks of corporate america." Why, thank you.

  5. To answer your question Elizabeth regarding the leftist perspective, I would say that any real progressive can recognize that those who support legislation like the TVPRA are supporting US Imperialism and that the "sex traffic" discourse has been hijacked by not only anti-prostitution forces but also is anti-immigrant and racist as well. Any real leftist can read who is behind the language of so-called "liberation" and anytime the State takes up the issue of it's concern about the exploitation of anybody, nobody on the left is fooled.
    Of course, many people regardless of their class perspective suffer from sexual repression and those chains are the more difficult to break.

  6. Thank you for pointing this out. Liz, the left is just as anti-sex as the right. Look at Circle City (nickname for Indianapolis), were there are religious nutjobs and anti-sex feminists working in unisom to ban certain material because they deem it offensive.

  7. Excellent points. Thank you.


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