Archive for September, 2007

September 16th, 2007

A Little Snippety About the News Lately…

It pains me to write this about something Bob Herbert wrote; it really does. I have historically vastly appreciated Mr. Herbert’s New York Times column and presentation of his perspective on a number of issues. I have noticed on the issue of sex work, however, our perspectives diverge. The column I read most recently from him (“Fantasies, Well Meant,” 9/11/07, which unfortunately is only available to TimesSelect subscribers) serves as a stark case in point, and much as I have revered numerous things Mr. Herbert has written in the past, my reading of this piece compels me to respond in dissent.

From the article, which proposes Mr. Herbert’s reasons for supporting the continued illegal status of prostitution:

“Real-world prostitution, in whatever guise, bears no resemblance at all to the empowerment fantasies of prostitution proponents.”

With all due respect, almost every movement of prostitution proponents of which I am aware consists by vast majority of actual sex workers, mostly whores. How this could bear “no resemblance at all” to “real-world prostitution” therefore seems, well, impossible to me.

“[M]ost so-called legal prostitutes have pimps — the state-sanctioned pimps who run the brothels and, in many cases, a second pimp who controls all other aspects of their lives (and takes the bulk of their legal earnings).”

Well, this is indeed one difference between “legalization” and “decriminalization.” Almost all of the sex workers’ rights activists of whom I know, including myself, advocate decriminalization rather than legalization. I think the most effective way I can describe the difference is by citing an example. Abortion was “legalized”—not decriminalized. “Decriminalized” implies dropping the association with criminality of the action in question, thus relegating it to a business like any other (of course having to follow OSHA codes, etc.). “Legalization” is when the government vigilantly deigns to allow the activity in question to be legal to some degree, but continues to hang over its shoulder, so to speak, making it obvious that the activity is still considered legally questionable according to its (the government’s) dictates. Thus, abortion was indeed legalized, but the government still pushes its way into this realm to try to control various circumstances around it and ultimately the action itself.

Such as it is with prostitution. The brothels in Nevada indeed operate under circumstances some would find constrictive — that is because where those brothels are, prostitution has been “legalized.” Decriminalization would call for the lifting of laws surrounding prostitution and letting the profession operate as any other profession without undue government interference.

“That a city, a state or any other governmental entity in the U.S. could legally sanction the sexual degradation of women and girls under any circumstances, much less those who are so extremely vulnerable, is an atrocity.”

No disagreement there. In fact, I quite appreciate the sentiment. Ironically, I find any anti-choice law that forbids or impedes a woman from acquiring birth control or obtaining a safe abortion to be sexual degradation, and that is legally sanctioned in all sorts of places throughout this country. I do not find allowing women the legal right to choose their vocation even if it involves selling sexual services a form of sexual degradation. On the contrary.

“And if you don’t think legalized prostitution is about degradation, consider the ‘date room’ at Sheri’s [Nevada brothel]. That’s a small room where a quiet dinner for two can be served. Beneath the tiny table is a couple of towels and a cushion for the woman to kneel on.

The only one empowered in that situation is the john.”

Hmmm. I won’t get into too much detail here, but I will say that that seems to me to be quite a bold blanket statement about blow jobs….

“Legal prostitution tends to increase, not decrease, illegal prostitution, in part by creating a friendlier climate for demand.”

I’m really not sure exactly what he means by this and would request further clarification in regard to his statement about demand. But I would add here that “legal prostitution” can in some cases increase illegal prostitution because of the complications mentioned in the above-stated differentiation between legalization and decriminalization. With legalization can come any number of cumbersome, hindering, or outright absurd requirements and prerequisites for doing business (witness laws that have been proposed in some states such as Missouri stating that abortion clinics must pass the regulations of outpatient surgical centers, which is really a way to make things so difficult for the clinics to adhere to such a standard that they are forced to close). Thus emerges the case for decriminalization: Quite frankly, government, please feel free to remove yourself from this line of work to the degree that you do the majority of others. You do not belong here any more than you belong in construction, plumbing, real estate, or most other non-government professions.

“As a society, we should be offering help to the many thousands of women who would like to escape prostitution, and providing alternatives to those in danger of being pulled into it.”

Sure. Again, no disagreement here. Nobody should be prostituting who does not want and choose to be. One of the ways to do this is to stop condescending the female population with an attitude that implies that the capability to willingly aspire to sell sexual services somehow does not exist so that those who are indeed in trouble may be more easily identified as such and given access to the support that could be of use to them.

Mr. Herbert, at least, has basis for his perspective other than what society collectively postulates, which is more than I would say for most people (in my experience) who denigrate prostitution. I appreciate that. But perhaps as a journalist he is naturally seeing those who are exploited and under duress, as that is where the stories of journalists often seem to be in our society. There would not really be any reason perhaps for him to talk to the multitudes of prostitutes doing their jobs independently and indoors (“indoor prostitute” refers to those who work from their homes/studios or do outcall work as opposed to those who work on the street—the vast majority of whores in this country are indoor).

Sex trafficking, as I have said innumerable times, is to me a heinous, appalling phenomenon. The idea of it profoundly horrifies me. It seems obvious to me that in order to address it more effectively, recognition must be given to those who are not victims of trafficking and who do their jobs in the sex trade freely and willingly.

I appreciate the well-meaning, caring orientation of Mr. Herbert and others of similar opinion. But I cannot at this point condone the implication that women are inherently helpless victims when it comes to sexuality who are not capable of (or should not be allowed) self-determination and autonomy. Blanketing prostitution in a way such as Mr. Herbert portrays in his column seems to me to be a continuing way of doing just that.


“It is acceptable for a woman to work, and it is generally acceptable, under certain circumstances, for a woman to have sex, but even the most liberal people are troubled by the idea that a woman might work at sex. We believe, in fact, that you can do all kinds of nasty things for money, all kinds of despicable things: poison the environment, build bombs, destroy tenements, raze forests for money. Just about anything but sex.”
-Sallie Tisdale Talk Dirty to Me p. 196 (First Anchor Books 1995)

September 14th, 2007

Just Expressing My Perspective

Today I read an op-ed in the New York Times by graduate student in theology Eric Johnston about his political support of Rudy Giuliani and his reasons for optimism concerning Giuliani’s position on abortion rights and his own anti-choice position (“Anti-Roe and Pro-Rudy,” 9/14/07). The response I present here is not actually a rebuttal of the premise of Mr. Johnston’s piece, which I found a rather thoughtful perspective on the subject. Nor is it really even related to reproductive rights, the subject of the most obvious difference between Mr. Johnston’s and my socially philosophical positions. Rather, it is a specific response to a few lines he puts forth (which he actually attributes to Rudy Giuliani) in a paragraph he is using to illustrate what he perceives as Mr. Giuliani’s politically philosophical view. Granted, the example he uses happened back in 1999, so it’s not as though the described example is even currently an issue…but the postulation surrounding it somehow claimed my attention so much that I find myself compelled to address it.

From the article:

“Social conservatives have reason to trust Mr. Giuliani’s instincts, however. In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited a painting of the Virgin Mary spattered with elephant dung and surrounded by pictures from pornographic magazines. Mayor Giuliani tried to cut the museum’s city subsidies. . . .

By all accounts, Mr. Giuliani is not a devout Catholic. His argument over the Virgin Mary painting was not, ‘You’re insulting me,’ but rather, ‘If you’re going to use taxpayers’ dollars, you have to be sensitive to the feelings of the public.'”

…Are you kidding? Seriously—is that a joke? The idea of being “sensitive to the feelings of the public” being a determinant of the use taxpayer dollars leaves me almost stupefied. I wonder if anyone would take seriously the notion that 1) this happens, and 2) that it should.

Here’s the first point of view I would offer: Perhaps the use of taxpayer dollars would suggest an adherence to the Constitution—specifically, say, the First Amendment, which right there at the beginning expressly grants the freedom of speech. (I don’t recall anything about a sensitivity to the feelings of the public anywhere in the text.)

Further, on a list I would denote of the things most impeding to creativity, the prerequisite of being “sensitive to the feelings of the public” is quite near the top. Especially for artists. I can hardly think of a more inhibiting premise to the creative process than postulating a requirement for the outcome to somehow adhere to said sensitivity.

In addition, if anyone could manage to specify just what “the feelings of the public” are so that sensitivity to them could be practiced, I would find that damn impressive. I have yet to discern what the overall feelings of the public are in any way that would seem to allow a universal sensitivity to them.

Lastly, I will discuss something I almost hesitate to even point out because it is so absurdly obvious. But I will do it anyway. Since the matter in question involves art, I really would think it would not need to be pointed out yet again that art is subjective. What some people may receive as offensive, others may not. I have not seen the work in question, but just the description of it elicits this possible response in me: I feel I could view such a piece as a portrayal, with the images of Mary surrounded by pornographic pictures, of the madonna/whore dichotomy (which is really a unity — similar to the yin yang symbol) existent in women, which I personally quite appreciate. The elephant dung could be interpreted to display the shit piled by society on either depiction of the human female (or on the dichotomy itself), which has, in my opinion, been evidenced throughout human history. Were this my interpretation of the piece, I would not find it offensive.*

To Mr. Johnston, of course, I extend all due respect. It simply felt important to me to present what I see as significant deviation from the postulation(s) implied by the statement(s) presented.


*Of course, I have no idea how I would really interpret it or if I even would, since my historical experience has been that any real response to a work of art is contingent upon actually experiencing it, and since I have not experienced it I cannot really have any way of knowing how a response from me might be stirred.

“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.”
-Antonio Porchia, writer (1886-1968)