SWERFs and Other True Believers

[Originally posted July 14, 2016]

Benjamin L. Corey commented in a recent post how the growing movement against human trafficking had morphed into an “anti-sex-industry” movement. My own observation is that it has become hijacked by a longstanding “sexual purity” movement, with roots going to Anthony Comstock and the more conservative elements of first-wave feminism. And like any mass movement, as Eric Hoffer observed, its members are willing to sacrifice critical thought in the name of a holy cause.

This movement’s basic approach follows that of the religious revivalists from which it originally emerged. First, there is the diagnosis of some great world-disease preventing all of us from achieving some beatific or utopian state. From this, we deduce its presence in each person in the form of an individual infection, requiring radical treatment and cure. But it doesn’t stop there, for now the convalescing individual must be recruited into expansion of the cure, continuing the cycle until the world itself is rid of the disease. This was also the logic behind the temperance movement, which diagnosed alcohol as the world-disease and prohibition as its ultimate cure.

The contemporary “purity” movement is sustained by conservative evangelical Christians and sex-worker-excluding radical feminists (SWERFs), both of whom exhibit their own variations on this foundational template. The evangelical will see Satan, sin, salvation and evangelism as the pillars of their mission; the SWERF will point to patriarchy, false consciousness, politicization and action; but both essentially crave the same goals, use similar techniques, and see symptoms of sickness in various forms of sexual nonconformity.

This purity movement also exhibits three paradoxical approaches to achieve its goals. Its leaders present moral absolutes, yet are willing to resort to intellectual dishonesty by twisting the facts to suit their purposes. Both religionist and SWERFs often denigrate science and reason as antithetical to their views, while also attempting to present elements of their message in the guise of science and reason. Lastly, their desire to impose a radical cure, such as eradicating prostitution, leads to methods that cause even greater harm than the supposed sickness, in this case robbing women of both agency and self-sufficiency.

As Hoffer observed, it is no surprise that such “true believers” come mainly from privileged backgrounds. While the poor and marginalized struggle to survive, the privileged struggle with boredom and lack of purpose. The current anti-prostitution movement has given many well-to-do white women the promise of helping others by eradicating what they perceive as a great evil. But that promise is an overly simplistic emotional appeal that ignores evidence and complex realities, and rejects practical means for reducing harm and respecting women’s choices. It is indeed not only paternalistic, but anti-feminist, precisely because it leads privileged women to “other” marginalized ones. It is a faulty diagnosis, and a reckless course of treatment.

I would contend that the real disease to which we should devote our energies is the pervasive inequity made manifest in our economic, political, social, cultural and erotic realities. Instead of depriving sex workers of both income and safety, let’s give them the space to unleash their power and help transform the world. Liberation is not to be imposed, nor is it achieved by ignoring the voices and experiences of those who seek it. Often the best way for the privileged to aid in the liberation of others is to get out of their way and let them take the lead. That, I believe, is the case here.

2 thoughts on “SWERFs and Other True Believers

  1. This was an extremely insightful article, but one flaw, you say this about SWERFS and say it’s antifeminist, but the very behaviors and ways of thinking you point are wide spread throughout feminism.

    Example the “wage gap” which is often presented as woman making less then men for the exact same work, is actually men and women making different career decisions, such as choices of occupation, hours, and so on instead of being about discrimination.

    I can point to others examples such as feminists point to an FBI study and saying that it showed only 8% of rape accusations are false, when it’s showed only 8% are demonstratively proven false, such as by confession, not that all over cases are true, they could be false, except for those proven true of course, but for the rest it hasn’t been proven one way or other, so to suggest only 8% of accusations are false based on that is untrue.

    There are other examples.

    Still I find your blog incredibly educational and insightful so thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments. Some clarification:

      1. Regarding the gender pay gap, it’s true that a number of different factors come into play, but even when different educational and career choices are taken into account, a gap of some five to ten percent in comparable jobs still exists (and is even greater for women of color).
      2. One of these factors is what has been called “occupational segregation”, including how a particular position changes as more women enter that field. Secretarial positions, for example, used to be steppingstones for young men to enter a particular business, much like an apprenticeship; as more women became secretaries, the opportunity for advancement diminished, until now the chance of a secretary or administrative assistant rising to a position of authority within a company is rather slim indeed.
      3. With regard to rape statistics – or any statistics, for that matter – we have to go with what is available and verifiable. Unless there’s solid evidence to demonstrate a higher rate of false accusations, or a thorough critique of the FBI’s method of data collection and analysis, it would be irresponsible to dismiss it. On the other hand, it’s also irresponsible for the other side to discount such possible scenarios as an eyewitness being mistaken, or false confessions elicited due to manipulative methods over hours of interrogation. I would consider there are shortcomings on both sides. As a civil libertarian, I would like to see a greater commitment to due process and rules of evidence; and as someone concerned with reducing all forms of violence, I would like to see better education around sexual consent and conflict resolution.

      Back to the issue of SWERFs … They may call themselves feminist, and may have influence in organized feminism, but given feminism’s core values of gender equity and addressing women’s concerns, the insistence of SWERFs to ignore the concerns of women in sex work and to punish male sex work clients disproportionately flies in the face of those basic ideals. That is why I consider them anti-feminist, despite their professed identification.


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