What’s the Real Reason for Julie Bindel’s Obsession with Abolishing Sex Work?

In the United Kingdom, radical feminist Julie Bindel is perhaps the most prominent prohibitionist crusader. In her latest book, she claims to expose the “myths” behind the commercial sex industry, painting it as irredeemably horrid, dismissing anything that does not fit her worldview.

To me, a person’s view of the world, and their vision of an ideal future, answers the question of that person’s motivation more than any scripted response. And from what I’ve seen of Bindel, it’s darker than any portrait she paints of those she opposes.

First and foremost, Bindel hates men. She’s not been shy about it, and even said in this interview how she would “have their power taken from them”:

I mean, I would actually put them all in some kind of camp where they can all drive around in quad bikes, or bicycles, or white vans. I would give them a choice of vehicles to drive around with, give them no porn, they wouldn’t be able to fight – we would have wardens, of course! Women who want to see their sons or male loved ones would be able to go and visit, or take them out like a library book, and then bring them back.

She later complained in this article speculating on the “end of men” that: “Within hours of the interview going online, men’s rights groups were accusing me of wanting to put men in ‘Nazi concentration camps’. And they say feminists are the ones with no sense of humour.” Well, I have no sympathy myself for the so-called men’s rights movement, but if she thinks that talk about confining any group of people based on some characteristic is some sort of joke, she’s out of her mind. Granted, I am especially sensitive to her choice of words, given my Jewish relatives in Europe who were confined in camps and reduced to ashes. Bindel’s blatant lack of sensitivity, on the other hand, should give any decent person pause to support her.

If misandry wasn’t enough, Bindel hates transgender people. She would prefer the term “transcritical”, but she’s not content with raising questions. She has openly opposed gender-nonconforming folks from medical treatment, refuses to acknowledge transwomen as women, and doesn’t even talk about transmen or genderqueer people. Her whole beliefs and knowledge on the subject seem stuck in the 1950s, and in contradiction to the opposition of most feminists to biological determinism and gender essentialism.

The list goes on. She’s dissed bisexuality as a fad. She wrote an article titled “Why I Hate Vegetarians”, accusing them of being “humourless, judgmental souls using spurious arguments” (apparently, she doesn’t read her own work that carefully). She expects heterosexual feminists to convert to lesbianism.

Yes, Bindel has done admirable work to fight violence against women, and that is often the basis of her support. But given her propensity for dismissing others, even to have them punished for who they are, one has to wonder if her work is based on genuine concern for victims, or a desire to control and even bully others to conform to her wishes. The only thing more tragic and dangerous is how many such individuals rise to prominence within the prohibitionist movement.

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The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from college recognized me via social media, and we began some online chats about the issues surrounding sex work, the anti-trafficking movement, and feminism. Having embraced the more radical form of feminism in her youth, my former classmate had gone on to obtain a law degree, then to focus her legal practice on civil cases that advanced women’s rights, most notably in the area of sexual harassment.

What eventually disillusioned her from the ideas of Dworkin, Mackinnon and other radical feminists was when she was invited to talk about her work at a feminist conference. By this time, she had handled a total of seventy-seven cases involving sexual harassment. Reviewing the files, she broke them down as follows:

  • 68 of the 77 involved a man harassing a woman; four involved a woman harassing a man, three involved a man harassing another man, and two involved a woman harassing another woman.
  • Fourteen cases involved a man making a single inappropriate comment, then apologizing and not engaging in any harassing behavior, and no long-term negative impact on the woman’s career; in all of these cases, the attorney advised the plaintiff that the case had insufficient merit to pursue.
  • One case involved a woman making a false accusation which the attorney found was motivated by malice against the defendant; another case involved a woman who was found to have serious mental health issues resulting in confabulation.

Based on this, my acquaintance presented a conclusion that should have been uncontroversial for this conference: that sexual harassment was still predominantly an issue of men using their power over women. After all, two-thirds of cases were bona-fide incidents fitting that narrative. But as soon as she presented her figures showing that individual men could be victims, individual women could be perpetrators, and that a minority of claims were either overblown (18%) or false (2.6%), she saw herself being attacked and denounced by the more strident participants at the conference, and she was never invited back. Fortunately, she found support among the oft-despised liberal and libertarian feminists, whom she said “had no problem seeing the facts as they were, and discussing them thoughtfully”.

In her mind, the “radical feminists” have become authoritarian ideologues, for whom even the slightest disagreement was considered unforgiveable heresy and treason. She has since embraced the label of a “skeptical feminist” – based on the book by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards – and, in her own words, “always takes a step back before taking sides”. This is certainly the case with her view of the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, having seen “outrageous” and “absolutist” claims with scant evidence, and leading her to consider full decriminalization as “a more workable approach” (again, her words).

Our discussions brought us back to a basic concept in the philosophy of ideas – the distinction between open and closed systems of thought. Open systems, while embracing certain core values or principles, are receptive of new evidence and ideas, and thus relatively flexible to change. Closed systems, by contrast, present a comprehensive set of doctrines to explain how the world works, and either explains away any conflicting evidence or rejects it outright.

It is no surprise that the prohibitionist camp sees sex work in overly simplistic and absolutist terms. This is, after all, the methodology of its parent ideologies – religious fundamentalism, and radical feminism. Some of the unchallenged presumptions of this system include:

  1. Sexual perfectionism – Sex must be confined to vanilla activities within either marriage or “committed relationships”; any expression outside of this is presumed to be “harmful” and/or “exploitative”.
  2. Gender essentialism – Men view sex a certain way, women view sex another way; this leads to the reduction of prostitution as “men buying women”, thus neglecting or ignoring the reality of male and genderqueer sex workers, and female and genderqueer sex work clients, as well as the complex reasons why people either enter sex work or seek the services of a sex worker.
  3. Punitive/corrective approaches – The way to address commercial sex is to “end demand” by either punishment (fines, jail, public shaming) or so-called therapeutic approaches (e.g., “johns schools”).
  4. Intolerance to opposition – This is exhibited by such methods as:
    • Ignoring questions and/or criticisms, often refusing to answer them.
    • Dismissive labels applied to other side (“not representative”, “pimp lobby”, etc.).
    • Controlling discourse to minimize or eliminate dissent and/or opposition.

This is not to say that the sex worker rights movement does not have its own faults, or that certain elements within it are more closed than others. But there is a greater tendency to base their beliefs upon evidence than ideology, and a greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches than seen within the contemporary prohibitionist movement. This raises the question of which approach is more compatible with the core values of human rights and democratic polity generally, and the feminist principles of achieving greater gender equality and personal autonomy. Is it any wonder that my former classmate and I, and many other “skeptical feminists”, have decided to support this movement?

“Signs” of Trafficking to Make You Wonder

Last weekend, I flew out of town to attend a conference where the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom was being held, having been invited to co-present on sex workers’ rights for the Coalition’s leaders. I took just a small backpack crammed with clothes, papers, and other items. The room was paid for by another NCSF activist, who was staying in a suite with their partner. As is my usual practice, I kept the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the entire time, as well as leaving the TV on, because I’m one of these folks who is more comfortable with an unmade bed than having others go through my things.

Believe it or not, I might have been tagged by a hotel employee as a possible sex trafficker.

“Huh!? What did you do wrong?” Well, according to a checklist provided to hotel employees by the Department of Homeland Security, I displayed at least three “general indicators” of human trafficking:

  • Few or no personal items when checking in.
  • The same person reserving multiple rooms.
  • “Do Not Disturb” sign used constantly.

Oh, and the fellow activist who paid for my hotel room? They hosted get-togethers in their suite throughout the weekend, inviting conference attendees to learn more about NCSF – another red flag: “Constant flow of men into a room at all hours.”

Now, to be fair, these are just four out of some four dozen indicators, some of which are clear warning signs of coercion or abuse. But the four I mentioned, and several more, are so vague or subjective that, when read out of context, could lead to invasions of privacy and false accusations.

Here are some others:

  • Individuals avoid eye contact and interaction with others – Whoever came up with this probably never knew that this is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum, or who rank high on the introversion scale.
  • Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males – How old is “significantly older”? Does this mean May-December relationships are now automatically suspect? What about a young woman accompanied by an older relative?
  • Evidence of pornography – Uh huh. Remember, we’re talking hotels here. Many of which have adult pay-per-view. Some have newsstands that sell Hustler and Penthouse. Or maybe the government has bought into the idea that nude photos in a magazine is some sort of “gateway drug” …
  • Extended stay with few or no personal possessions – Because airlines never lose people’s luggage. Right?
  • Provocative clothing and shoes – Excuse me, but has anyone noticed the trend in many high schools to declare virtually any female student’s attire short of a prairie dress as “provocative”?
  • Excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia in rooms (condoms, lubricant, lotion, etc.) – Okay, I’m sure some readers are wondering why I put this here. Set aside the vagueness of “excessive” for a moment. This particular “indicator” gives no mention of context. My recent trip was an example. The conference in question was for members of the BDSM community. So, yes, folks are going to bring all sorts of erotic accoutrements (and that’s not even touching on the various merchants and sex educators setting up booths there). And given that BDSM, swinger and polyamory conferences try to be discreet, just imagine a hotel worker not being informed of their presence and seeing a room filled with … get the picture?
  • Room paid for with cash or pre-loaded credit card – Because people with credit problems who are thus unable to get “real” credit cards never need to stay at a hotel, hm?
  • Minor taking on adult roles or behaving older than actual age (paying bills, requesting services) – Seems like a legit concern, right? Well, have you ever encountered a family where the parents are recent immigrants, and the kids have a higher proficiency in English? I have. The kids not only translate for their parents, they learn out of necessity how to deal with all sorts of situations, including how to handle money.
  • Room rented has fewer beds than patrons – Because college kids don’t trying to save money by cramming four people into a room with two beds. Or a family displaced by fire, or eviction. Yeah, those never happen.
  • Car in parking lot regularly parked backward, so the license plate is not visible – Yeah, absolutely no one has a car with a front license plate. And except for evil traffickers, everyone parks front first, right?
  • Patron claims to be an adult although appearance suggests he/she is a minor – Ask anyone who works at a bar if they’ve had to card an adult who looked younger than they are. Yup, it happens. Happened to me when I was thirty-five. And about half a dozen other people I know.

This is not to say that people who engage in trafficking and other nefarious activities don’t do these things. They do – and so do lots of other people. If a survey showed that a majority of traffickers spoke two or more languages, it doesn’t mean that being able to speak another language indicates that someone is a trafficker. It’s also typical of anti-trafficking rhetoric that these assumptions are rooted in biases about gender, race, class, and immigration status. Imagine a hotel employee, with superficial “trafficking awareness” training, reporting a guest – perhaps even you – on the basis of such hasty generalizations.

Human rights abuses should not be fought by the abuse of other rights. If we are to bring criminals to justice, or help victims find relief, then let’s make sure we are well-prepared to do it right, rather than run roughshod over innocent people.

Swanee Hunt’s Archaic Essentialism

Perhaps the most well-known and influential prohibitionist today is Swanee Hunt, the founder of Demand Abolition. Her large inheritance, extensive social connections, and saccharine Southern charm make her a formidable advocate for this or any cause. But unlike so-called “radical feminist” academics and theoreticians with their belief that sex is a construct for male domination, or evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who conflate sex outside of heterosexual marriage with sin, Hunt seems to draw on yet another ideological source.

I base this on how she has invested the resources of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Along with Demand Abolition, she has established two other projects:

  • Political Parity – The front page declares: “Elevating the number of women in the highest levels of government is more than a matter of representation. It’s essential to shaping a more just society.”
  • Inclusive Security – “We’re changing who makes decisions about war and peace,” because, according to Hunt, “a greater role for women is essential to global stability.”

Essential. It’s not just a matter of equity to include women in government and peacemaking. Hunt believes that there’s something about being a woman which makes it necessary. The language she uses echoes that of centuries before, that women are somehow the guardians of morality, hence equally if not better qualified than men to govern society.

This belief stemmed from the “separate spheres” ideology, promoted by opponents of women’s suffrage. They argued that the biological sexes were meant to function in different areas of life – men in the public sphere of politics and commerce, women in the private sphere of motherhood and domestic care. Anti-suffrage advocates opined that women did not need the vote, because they were able to influence society profoundly by instilling moral virtues in their sons.

Suffragists such as Christabel Pankhurst responded to this, and the increasingly sexualized attacks on women during the suffrage campaign, with a synthesis. Since women were given the responsibility for moral education, and since men clearly had failed to show moral character in the public sphere, it was therefore necessary for women to gain the vote so as to make the political and public spheres more moral. Pankhurst and other suffragettes hence expanded the original slogan of “Votes for Women” to include “Chastity for Men”.

This blend of feminist indignation and Victorian moralism also led to the anti-prostitution stance of many leading activists. Just as male employers forced their attentions on female staff, and male police and prison guards molested and tortured female inmates, so it must be that prostitution consisted of men commercially coercing women to satisfy men’s libidos. The answer was tougher laws, homes for friendless women, and taming men’s sexual appetites.

Given Hunt’s background, it should be no surprise that her own rhetoric shows traces of such ideas. In her own biography, she describes being raised in a conservative and privileged environment where women were not expected to engage in public affairs, but to be hostesses, wives and mothers. From a culture of feminine domesticity to a belief in women’s “essential” role as moral caregivers – and moral guardians – is no great leap.

I have no doubt that Swanee Hunt would argue that she is no essentialist. I’m sure she would contend that she bases her beliefs on the experiences of women. Granted, women around the world share many common experiences, but (a) there are still significant differences based on other factors such as race and class, and (b) that doesn’t mean that every individual women is automatically qualified for political leadership, or that one woman may dictate the sexual and occupational choices of others. If anything, her overgeneralizing about women’s experience seems just another variation on the essentialist theme.

At best, Hunt’s vision is simplistic and limited. At worst, her ignorance of complex intersectional realities, and her brazenly privileged assertion that she somehow knows what’s best for others, is harmful.

Putting Away a Childish Argument against Sex Work

[Originally posted May 2, 2016]

I have a friend who is doing a kind of work that, as a young girl, she never thought she’d be doing. She started, albeit grudgingly, because she considered it her least-worst option. Over time, she began to see benefits to doing this work, such as flexible hours and the ability to choose her clientele. As a result, it has become a major source of income, and even with its down sides, she considers it a good job.

No little girl dreams of doing medical coding and billing.

I bring up this story because, if you replace the job description above with “prostitution”, then you have one of the most specious arguments for continuing to criminalize and stigmatize sex work. It is an example of the moral solipsism of so-called “abolitionists”: since they view the selling of sexual services with displeasure or disgust, then they project that every woman must share that view, and certainly our innocent children. To them, a youngster’s hopes for the future are somehow equal to an adult’s real-life attempts to find a job that pays the bills.

There are many reasons why children imagine themselves in certain jobs and not others. Ballerinas and movie stars appear more glamorous than cashiers and telephone operators. Likewise, firefighters and police seem more heroic and respected than garbage collectors and street sweepers. Other jobs are simply unseen and thus unknown by younger folks – warehouse stockers, sewer workers, call center managers, and so forth.

There’s also a reason why young people begin to change their minds about what jobs they want to do. They may become aware of the risks that come with the job, and determine that they are not worth assuming. Ballet dancers, for example, require years of rigorous training and practice, often leading to multiple injuries, all in a highly competitive environment. A cashier, on the other hand, is able to start with simple training, with opportunities for advancing to management and above. Also, young people learn that, in order to make money and gain experience in the work force, they need to start by working in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

The pressures of parents, peers, and society not only affect people’s job choices, but also the attitudes they assume about themselves. We lift up doctors, lawyers, actors, professional athletes, and that sense of prestige is reflected in their pay. We look down on minimum-wage workers, often seeing them as interchangeable as machine parts, even useless, while still relying on their labor whenever we order a hamburger or buy new clothes. This doesn’t always correspond, of course – look how we speak of the noble calling of teachers, while paying them so little – but how we look at different jobs often becomes a mirror for those who hold them.

The argument of “abolitionists” is that sex work does not qualify as work. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, “work is what we do for others”, and transactional sex involves providing pleasure and companionship to others, then their proposition makes no sense. They might retort that sex shouldn’t be work, because it “ought to” involve caring and intimacy, but this in turn ignores the caring and intimate work of nurses, nannies, and other professional caretakers, as well as the actual interactions between many sex workers and their clients.

What bothers me most when I hear or read that “no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute” is how it perpetuates archaic gender attitudes. We assume that boys must grow into men, and endure the rough and dirty path in that direction – but girls must somehow remain virginal and pure, even if we must paternalize and infantilize them well past puberty.

Women and men make choices that they would not have considered as girls and boys. Their reasons are likewise as varied and nuanced as adulthood itself. Our approval is not the issue; assuring their safety, and affirming their humanity, is what matters.