Twelve days into the Olympics and 75% of Japan’s gold medals are due to women winning combat sports: one judo and two wrestling. One female wrestler, Kaori Icho, has completely dominated her sport for the last 12 years – she is the first Japanese woman to win three gold medals in a row, has won the world championships seven times, and has not lost a bout for more than 150 matches. During last night’s coverage the commentators were saying that they have never seen her lose, and don’t know how she would react.

Given the popular image of Japan as a sexist place, it’s genuinely surprising to see women’s participation in sport and the acceptance of women in a wide range of activities that in the west are largely reserved for men. The degree to which this process is normalized, accepted or encouraged is most evident in the olympics coverage, because it’s not just that the women are given air time – the coverage of women’s sport has been excellent. When a Japanese woman is competing in a combat sport, they don’t just flick from some irrelevant men’s sport to cover her bout – they give uninterrupted coverage on the main channel for the entire tournament, which meant last night I watched two hours of uninterrupted wrestling, and I’ve seen multiple hours of women’s judo. Furthermore, they bring a female expert from the sport into the studio to do analysis and coverage, and the male commentators show obvious deference to her expertise. The women’s soccer (the biggest contender for gold number five) is covered on the national TV channel by an excellent woman (I haven’t caught her name) from a previous generation’s soccer team, who provides analysis and detailed commentary that would make Australia’s Craig Foster proud. The wrestling has similar coverage, from a previous champion, and the same applies to other sports where women are playing. Essentially, from the top of the channel down to ordinary people in bars and living rooms across the land, women’s participation in sport is shown the same respect as men’s – with, perhaps, the notable exception of the soccer federation, which oversaw a notable blunder in which the women’s team flew economy in the same plane that the men’s team (who are eternal losers) flew first class. This extends to participation in ordinary sports centres too – quite often my own kickboxing class in Tokyo will have as many women as men participating.

It could be said that this is just an olympics sport phenomenon, reflective of the fact that the women are excelling in combat sports and combat sports are the Japanese public’s favourite activity. But it’s not limited to sport. On the train channels at the moment are a slew of adverts featuring pretty mainstream-looking non-nerdy women playing computer games, and computer gaming is seen as a completely reasonable activity for girls to engage in. It’s really common here to see young women fiddling with portable came consoles and fooling around in gaming arcades, and most gaming companies have developed games aimed at women, or are looking for ways to market their main games to a growing female market.

Another area in which women’s participation is encouraged and accepted is that most macho of western domains, beer drinking. Advertisements for beer here are completely devoid of macho images of working men, but instead have couples enjoying time together, but beyond that there are a whole slew of adverts aimed purely at women: no men in the scene, no evidence that beer has anything to do with men. I recall reading years ago that John Singleton (a famous advertising mogul in Australia) said that there were three key things that had to be in a beer ad to make it successful: 1) a man, 2) a beer, 3) a man drinking a beer. Not so in Japan, not at all.

But the most striking example of this equality of participation is in that most male-dominated of hobbies, role-playing. In my 5-10 attendances at conventions in rural Japan I noticed that about a third of the group were women, and I also noticed that women would GM games and would also be deferred to by men (including GMs!) as experts on a particular game – when I played Make You Kingdom the GM deferred regularly to a female player on rules issues. Recently, playing 13th Age in the Akihabara gaming shop Yellow Submarine, there were five or six gaming tables and every one except ours had at least one woman participating – except for one table, which was occupied by five women of about the same age as me playing Double Cross. Those women must have been in the hobby for as long as it’s been going on, which suggests that role-playing has always been popular with women. To the best of my knowledge this level of female participation in role-playing is unheard of in the west – in the UK when I gamed at a pub, there would be maybe 40 men and every couple of weeks one woman would turn up – and she would be stared at like a freak. It’s extremely hard to find women at any organized gaming events in the west, though you can get women interested if you recruit them through friendship circles, etc. But here in Japan it’s normal to see women playing. They’re still a minority, but not a tiny minority, and clearly their participation is seen as normal by the boys.

When people comment on gender inequality in Japan they tend to overlook many facets and nuances of gender relations here, but it really frustrates me when they overlook this aspect of Japanese life, or when they single out a single event like the first class soccer controversy as evidence of some deep problem – especially when that kind of controversy happened in Australia too, where women would generally consider themselves to have very few equality issues still to resolve. But in sport, in nerd activities, and in beer drinking women’s participation is both encouraged and seen as normal in this country. For role-playing, particularly, this is a fascinating and eye-opening insight into how far western gaming still has to come in encouraging openness and diversity of participation. In both the nerdy and the sporting worlds, maybe Japan has something to teach the west about gender equality?

The early cat gets the suffragette…

It’s often forgotten in modern times that women’s most basic rights weren’t won prettily or peacefully: the suffragettes‘ campaign for the vote included a coordinated campaign of vandalism against shops, a protracted hunger strike that led to women being forcefed in prison (with some horrific injuries, as one can imagine of turn-of-the-century doctors trying to “safely” forcefeed women gruel with a tube) and the famous Epsom Derby incident. Their protests were often violently broken up by the police (in modern media parlance,  “the demonstration turned violent”) and much of British and US society was terrified of this new breed of women (called “modern girls” in Japan) who were willing to do very unlady-like things to get what they believed women deserved.

To the suffragettes’ long list of violent activism we can add the deployment of an organized militia trained in jujitsu: the Guardian today reports on Edith Garrud, a diminutive woman with jujitsu training who was responsible for training Emmeline Parkhurst’s bodyguards[1]. I would be intrigued to read more about this situation, because I guess there were no jujitsuka in Britain at the time, and certainly no white jujitsuka – this means that she must have learnt from a Japanese person who was, one presumes, a Japanese man. Or did Japan also have a secret cadre of highly-trained female jujitsu practitioners? I have visions of a cabal of art nouveau-styled schoolgirl feminist ninjas, deploying jujitsu in defense of … of … ninja things. And teaching it to passing suffragettes.

So there you go – western feminists polished up their violent mojo under the tutelage of the Japanese. Is there a stranger connection in the history of radical politics?

fn1: never let it be said that feminism and Libyan socialism have no common roots! Just like Gaddafi, the leaders of the suffragette movement had an all-female bodyguard!

Continuing (belatedly) my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, in this post I will discuss how I think anti-sex work feminists have coopted the movement against human trafficking in their political campaign against the sex industry. I have shown before that I don’t think moralist campaigners against sex workers have the best interests of the women in the industry at heart, and that anti-sex work feminists show a similar instrumentalization of the women in the industry: both groups aim to use sex workers as pawns in their broader social reform agendas. In pursuing this agenda, I think these campaigners have also worked to try and redirect the focus of national and supra-national movements against trafficking, and have stirred up alarm about the level of criminality and security risk associated with the problem. I also think their academic contributions to the issue have been weak and biased.

Human trafficking and people smuggling

Human trafficking is defined in the framework convention against trafficking as the

recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

Sex trafficking is a part of this, and is a serious crime against humanity. Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily involve just sex trafficking, however: it can happen on European fishing boats or even to hair-dressers on US army bases. It’s also different to people smuggling, which is the movement for profit of humans across borders, without the intention of exploiting them upon arrival. Many women use people smugglers of varying degrees of nastiness and depravity to cross borders illegally to do sex work, but this doesn’t mean they’re being trafficked. For example, when I started working in public health in the 1990s Asian sex workers would come to Australia under very tough contracts to work as sex workers. These contracts would require them to work for 6 months or a year without receiving payment, in order to repay the “cost” of being smuggled into the country. Most of the women in these situations knew what they were getting into, and weren’t particularly interested in cooperating with customs and immigration agents. Their working conditions were harsh and very bad things could and did happen to them, but they weren’t generally deceived or coerced into the work, and were willing to take the risks because of the potential lucrative benefits that would accrue to them after they discharged their contract. Conflating these women with trafficked women is a dangerous error.

But conflating people smuggling and sex trafficking, and exaggerating the security and public health risks of the latter, is an important tool in the rhetorical arsenal of modern anti-sex work campaigners. As the developed world began to bend its considerable state power to the abolition of human trafficking, anti-sex work campaigners saw an opportunity to use the apparatus of border control and the rhetoric of slavery to ratchet up the pressure on the sex industry generally. Domestic campaigns against the legalization of prostitution have tried to have all prostitution redefined as coerced, and a similar approach has been used in attempts to get human trafficking laws in the USA changed to remove the requirement for evidence of fraud, deception or coercion (such as happened in New York). Simultaneously, campaigners have exaggerated both the numbers of people involved and the seriousness of the organized crime involved and its security ramifications for countries “at risk.” Shifting the goalposts so that all prostitution is redefined as trafficking serves the anti-prostitution movement well, but it has bad effects in both diverting attention from more serious forms of human trafficking, and in stigmatizing and criminalizing sex workers. It also tends to lead to more punitive immigration law, which affects poor women coming from poor countries without visas in increasingly harsh ways. Sex worker organizations are clear that these laws don’t work to protect women in the industry, but make their lives harder and more dangerous.

False statistics and shoddy research

Although successful in bringing state power to bear on poor women, and redefining prostitution as slavery, anti-trafficking campaigners have had remarkably little luck in proving that the problem is significant. Although they claim that Sweden’s anti-prostitution laws led to a large reduction in trafficking, they have very little evidence of the presence of trafficked women in the developed world. For example, a 6 month intensive project in the UK failed to find evidence of a single trafficked worker, and the major report into trafficking in the UK, Big Brothel, was greeted with harsh criticism by public health researchers for both its methods and its ethics. This report in the Guardian shows how 71 arrests for trafficking in 1998 became a Daily Mirror headline of “25,000 sex slaves in the UK” by 2008, through a series of misrepresentations by organizations that obviously have increasing amounts to gain from misrepresenting the issue. Academic critics of the Big Brothel report wrote that

The report builds a damning picture of indoor sex work on the basis of data whose reliability and representativeness is extremely doubtful and a methodological approach that would be considered unethical by most professional social researchers. It makes claims about trafficking, exploitation and the current working conditions of women and men employed in the indoor sex industry on the basis of that data.

Unfortunately, these activists had the ear of governments in Sweden and the UK, and laws were changed redefining any form of sex work as exploitation. The result of this in Britain was that women were forced to work alone, without managers, receptionists, colleagues or security staff, in dangerous privatized settings – the worst possible scenario for sex workers. This doesn’t stop women doing sex work, which is lucrative and flexible work; it doesn’t stop poor women risking their life savings in the hands of people smugglers to come to the UK to work; but it certainly makes this process less reliable and more dangerous. Meanwhile, other forms of slavery – on construction sites and fishing boats and farms all around the developed and developing world – receive much less attention than the headline issues of sex slavery. Furthermore, anti-sex work campaigners have exerted considerable pressure on developing nations, such as Cambodia, through organizations such as the US State Department, to try and get them to redefine the internal, voluntary movement of poor rural women to sex work in the city as “trafficking.” Given the large demographic and labour market shifts occurring in some of these countries, it is inevitable that women will move to the city to do sex work, and such redefinitions will simply see them cast out of the industry they chose and forced into more dangerous and less rewarding industrial jobs. Why should they lose this choice, just because some western feminists want to change the nature of social relations in their own backyard through rhetorical gains against prostitution overseas?

Globalization, sex work and reaction

The free movement of global labour has thrown up a lot of challenges to both the old right and the old left, and some of their responses to those challenges haven’t been particularly pretty. Both sides of politics have responded to this aspect of globalization with knee-jerk isolationism and racism. When sex and prostitution enter the mix, especially the sleazy low-rent end of the sex industry that migrant labourers often fill, the responses can become hyperbolic. But although it may be particularly seedy and unsavoury, it is ultimately an industry like any other – where a need exists and people are willing to fill it, they will; and where the profit is to be made, people will act as brokers for the movement of labourers in and out of the industry. Just as in the construction, cleaning and other service industries, this will often mean that unscrupulous dealers attempt to cut immigration corners, and in this case the high profits that they may obtain mean that both the brokers and the labourers are willing to risk a lot of money on the enterprise. This may make the brokers seedy and unpleasant, but it doesn’t necessarily make them slavers. It also puts many poor women from poor nations at odds with the law, places them in vulnerable and dangerous positions, and seriously increases the risk that bad things will happen to them. But the answer to this is not to redefine the behaviour of these people as slaver/victim, to create false statistics and attempt to bring the full might of the US state to bear on both the originating countries and the women in question. Rather, it is to liberalize immigration laws, to make immigration enforcement as humane and reasonable as possible, and to always insist on a clear line of understanding between the types of crimes involved – prostitution and people smuggling are not the same as trafficking, and redefining trafficking will not protect the women who willingly risk immigration prosecution to make money in this or any other industry.

Of course, none of this is inconsistent with the real goals of anti-sex work campaigners, which are to alter the nature of gender relations to a reactionary, illiberal model that has little in common with the aims and aspirations of most people, and certainly does not serve to liberate women. In my last post in this series, I will use the evidence I’ve gathered so far, and the public utterances of key figures in the movement, to describe why I think the ultimate goals of the radical feminist anti-sex work movement are reactionary and dangerous for women everywhere, and why I think this movement is both misogynist and backward-looking.

In comments to my statistical proof that Game of Thrones is misogynist, Jamie tells me that I am viewing the world through the lens of “privilege,” and thus unable to properly understand the seriousness of certain issues. There is of course a grain of truth to this idea, that living in a certain privileged environment can make one blind to the full nuances of life as someone else, and to the extent that the word “privilege” or phrases like “blinded by privilege” can be used to describe this situation, I think they are useful rhetorical devices. But scan any feminist blog today – Feministing, or Pandagon, or Shakesville, for example – and you’ll see lots of examples of arguments being shut down and opposing opinions invalidated through the invocation of “privilege.” For example, at the “feminism 101” page on Shakesville, itself a loathsomely sexist blog (though the authors can’t see it) we get lots of invocation of privilege in quite negative and almost mystical terms. Consider “On Privilege Breeding Insecurity” (emphasis in the original):

Insight isn’t the only thing that undiluted privilege doesn’t freely give its members; it also robs them of an internal, dignified security that isn’t predicated on treating rights as a zero-sum game. Every layer of privilege serves as proxy for the self-assurance hard-won by struggling to be proud despite one’s marginalization. Privilege tells its members they need not reflect, or justify, or earn, or question. They needn’t even bother themselves with the business of being good, because unexamined privilege assures them they are good, by virtue of their privilege.

Not only is this a remorselessly negative view of modern men, but it clearly contains the germ of a rhetorical strategy of ignoring other people’s point of view and setting up levels of “privilege” that you can choose to ignore. Of course, it’s written by an American, which means it’s written by one of the most privileged people on earth, whose entire way of life depends on the huge economic inequality between her country and the rest of the world. Yet … I’m sure she’d object to being told that her “hard-won” self-assurance was actually a windfall due to an accident of her birth. It’s kind of like being a man, really, isn’t it? And see here’s the great thing about the argument from “privilege”: Shakesville’s author can claim that she understands the situation of people in the developing world – maybe she’ll even claim that her own underprivileged position gives her useful insights – and that her opinions about what people in the developing world should do and think are valid; but the child labourer from India can just tell her that she’s talking from a privileged position and doesn’t know anything, really. And what can she say back? It’s a perfect argument – if you want to stifle debate. Not so useful if you think that the free exchange of ideas might help everyone to progress to a world without inequality.

In my opinion, then, this concept of “privilege” as deployed in the feminist blogosphere is deeply counter-productive: it has limited analytical power; it reduces structural discrimination to simple personal politics; and it is founded on the gender essentialism that pervades radical feminism, which is itself a tactic aimed at establishing a new, privileged form of rhetoric.

The limited analytic power of “privilege” rhetoric

The very last time I involved myself in a political struggle was a student occupation a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was not a student at the time – I had completed my Masters of Public Health and was working full time as a researcher in a health centre for extremely marginalized members of the community (who themselves could show astoundingly regressive racist and sexist beliefs). I just turned up with a few mates to help out with the occupation. More fool me. Near the end of my day of “helping,” as my stomach was sinking at the site of what a shambolic and useless demonstration it was turning into, I found myself standing in a ring of students, who were being given instructions by one of the demonstration’s organizers. At this time I was in my mid twenties, kickboxing maybe 2-3 times a week, and hadn’t yet discovered fashion. So there I was in a flannelette shirt and skintight black jeans, hair shaved, tanned from bike riding and generally in fairly good physical condition. The organizer went around the ring of students asking each in turn to go to their university and organize as many students as possible to come to the occupation[1]. Then she came to me, took one look at me and said “I want you go to your technical college and see if you can get us any help.” That’s right, she thought simply by looking at my clothing that I was not a university student.

This woman was so “blinded” by her own “privilege” that she couldn’t comprehend that someone from a working class or lumpen proletarian background could even be at university. This is a remarkably naive attitude for a person in Australia in the 1990s, when lots of people from that background were easily able to get into university if they studied hard. But it showed what a bubble she lived in. So whose privilege was working against whose here, and which one trumps which in the woe is me stakes? Me the professional man still not yet out of my working class cultural heritage, or her the wealthy woman? Obviously I was no longer in the class of my origins – as a researcher I had moved up to middle class – but the attitude she was showing to me is exactly the attitude that now, as a professional adult, she will be showing to little 18 year old versions of me that she meets, working class men and women whose futures are extremely vulnerable to small flexings of the muscles of the privileged upper classes. So in amongst this complex mess of privilege – of age and wealth vs. masculinity – which one should we decide holds the whip hand? And in making that decision, have we actually added anything to our understanding of the best methods for undoing the inequality that plagues our societies?

In my estimation, we’re much better off ignoring people’s origins, and talking about the structural factors that determine inequality. As someone from a working class family who found out what university was at the age of 16, moved to his university with precisely $300 to his name ($250 for student fees!) and has never received a cent from either of his parents since he turned 16, but who watches his friends have their houses bought for them by rich parents, I feel that the inequality in access to capital is a much, much more serious factor in determining life futures than, say, the fact that one of those friends had never had a friend who paid their own fees before he met me.  How does discussion of the role of people’s privilege in personal interactions change anything for people from my background? Reducing political disagreements to nasty personal judgments about your interlocutor’s emotional attitude to you won’t help working class women get access to childcare, but it will distract everyone from the structural factors that govern inequality.

The reduction of structural discrimination to personal politics

This concept of “privilege” also enables “anti-racists” and feminists to be self-congratulatory even as they’re saying or doing enormously racist and sexist things – because they themselves aren’t from a background of “privilege” so everything they do must obviously be in solidarity with the world’s victims. Right? Try telling yourself that next time you drink a cup of coffee during a debate about inequality, and think about where that coffee came from. The best example of this that I can think of is Pandagon, which is a nest of accusations and co-accusations of privilege. I was banned from Pandagon for challenging one of the team’s racist assumptions about Japanese Otaku culture. The very next comment after my banning was a crude joke by that same team member about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I guess, if you’re a black man from the wrong side of the tracks, your lack of “privilege” means you can make cruel jokes about a whole race of people that your country once nuked. Pandagon also used to host a commenter called Gilmar, who was a soldier who spent several years in Iraq. She was very fond of throwing out accusations of privilege, but the sparks really would fly if you pointed out the hypocrisy of a member of an occupying army complaining about their own oppression. Now, it may be that she thinks the war in Iraq is justified, but there are about 2 million Iraqi refugees (and a million dead) who might like to disagree; by her own lights, rather than engaging with her in a debate about the relative merits of liberal interventionism, they can just say “you’re blinded by privilege!” and there goes the argument. Unless she wants to claim that a female soldier in the US army from a poor background has less privilege than one of the civilian victims of that army. And maybe she could – some of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were gang leaders, no doubt, or colonels in a sexist society, etc. So the argument cycles back to a debate about who is blinder to whose circumstances, while the war grinds on and grinds over the little people.

I think identity politics has its place in political discourse and can form an important narrative tool, as well as a rallying point in struggles for equality. For example, if your inequality exists purely because of some identifiable aspect of who you are – your skin colour or sexuality – then solutions to that problem must necessarily distinguish between people on the basis of that identity. But that doesn’t mean identity politics is always and everywhere right or useful, and the big problem of modern identity politics American-style is that it reduces every political discussion to a debate about individuals’ characteristics and problems and conflicts, rather than to a discussion of the social and structural determinants of inequality. I don’t care how blind person X is to the problems of person Y, if person X doesn’t engage in or facilitate structural barriers to person Y living their life as they want. Sure, it might mean that person X doesn’t understand person Y’s predicament, but who cares, so long as person Y’s predicament gets fixed?

There are issues of course where individuals react against perceived reverse discrimination, where this blindness may have political consequences (e.g. backlashes against positive discrimination). But responding to that by accusations of “privilege” blinding the objector isn’t going to work: not only will they object to their own compassion being questioned, but it’s likely that they have their own experience of discrimination and barriers, and this will lead to the unedifying prospect of mud being slung between the people at the bottom. This is why conservative campaigns against things like positive discrimination and welfare tend to be aimed at the Tory working class – because they are going to be least favourable to others getting a leg up, through their own experience of discrimination. Telling them they don’t get it because their experience is just not so bad both impugns their compassion, undermines any class solidarity one might be aiming to try and achieve, and just generally sets them on edge. Better than saying “you don’t get it because you’re more privileged than me” is to explain your program to them. And if you can’t convince them of the merits of your program, then maybe your program isn’t good for them, in which case regardless of your relative degrees of privilege, they will oppose it.

The most obvious example of this is the inequality between nations. It’s in the best interests of the majority of the developing world to see major changes in the way the world order works. If these changes were implemented fully, the readers of Pandagon would have to pay considerably more for many of the resources they take for granted. Strangely enough, they seem to be more focused on domestic issues. One could claim that this is because they are blind to the suffering of the developing world, but more likely it’s because they don’t particularly want to overturn a world order that works just fine for them… but by ranting on about the privilege of white upper class cisgenders they can escape the extra bit of self-reflection required to at least have the decency to feel guilty about posting blog comments on a phone made at FoxConn.

Gender essentialism and the language of “privilege”

A more sinister aspect of this concept of “privilege” that I find annoying is its assumption of some heirarchy of troubles, and its lack of interest in the overlapping problems of class, culture, gender and sexual identity. Thus we find ourselves trapped in fine-grained debate about who is more privileged – a straight-acting white gay male or a working class white woman vs. a wealthy lesbian professional vs. a rich, white, heterosexual female student. But underlying a lot of this debate in the feminist blogosphere is the idea that gender trumps the lot and sexism lies at the base of all the other forms of discrimination. There’s a strong streak of gender essentialism in this notion that we can boil down all inequalities and social conflicts to a root cause of discrimination against women, and whether it’s expressed in the astringent language of radical feminism or the more eloquent and allegorical just-so stories of ecofeminism, we still end up with this unknowable and unchangeable root-causes theory driving our understanding of who is in a worse situation than who. Alternatively, unable to comprehend the complexities of intersectoral discrimination, these bloggers find themselves constantly treading on each other’s toes: in this debate you can’t disagree with my opinion because you aren’t disabled; in this debate the key dimension of privilege is gender, so how much really would race or class affect that fundamental dimension? Of course, women are always and everywhere discriminated against, so they can always defend themselves against claims of privilege.

We see this at its most unedifying in two issues: whether to include transgender women in safe spaces; and how to respond politically to lesbian B&D. The latter has received some awful criticism from radical feminists, which makes it clear how uninterested they are in including certain forms of sexual identity in their big tent. It’s okay to be asexual, apparently, but not to be a masochist lest you reproduce patriarchal relations in your lesbian bedroom. And transgenders retain the privileged perspective of men, because women have a special, innate experience that no one else can understand. This kind of logic is poisonous for any shared understanding of the human condition, and destructive of attempts to find shared ground.


Talking about “privilege” as a reason why people disagree with you or don’t understand you doesn’t get you anywhere. At best, it reduces argument to a debate about lifestyles and identities – the Americanization of political debate. At worst, it alienates your interlocutor and blinds both you and them to the very real common ground you might be able to find in the struggle to make the world a better place. Political disempowerment and inequality is as much about structural causes and social constructions that we have no choice but to participate in as it is about individual reactions to “the other,” and reducing all disagreements and social conflicts to the latter leaves us trapped in an essentialist bind – we’re all caught up in our own identities, which are at war with each other. In fact those socio-cultural and economic causes can be changed, if we work together and try to understand each other. But the language of “privilege” assumes that we can’t – that a rich boy can’t conceive of how terrible it can be to be raped, or that a poor white woman will never understand that fat black lesbian’s struggle, no matter how much she tries. It’s prescriptive in that it fixes our response to discrimination in our identity, and restrictive in that it doesn’t give credit to the ability of our common human condition to overwhelm our differences, even where those differences are manufactured and enforced by potentially monolithic structural power relations. Bashing identities together atomizes and disrupts the struggle; seeking common ground and solutions that don’t rely on breaking down other people’s identities is much more likely to work. So ditch the language of “privilege” – if someone disagrees with you, it’s probably because they’ve thought about your position and they think you’re wrong, not because they can’t see things your way because they aren’t a transgender Vampire:The Masquerade player.

fn1: Yeah, this was an “organizer” of this demonstration, didn’t even have contact details for other university unions when they decided to get physical with their own university’s property. How would that work out if you did it in latin America in the 80s?

The Bechdel test is sometimes presented as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a movie or tv show to be not sexist. For example, in this blog post, “the opinioness” subjects the  new Avengers movie to the test and gives an explanation of its importance as a test. The Bechdel test is explained there pretty simply: two female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something other than men. Apparently in the Avengers the female leads don’t speak to each other at all, not once in the movie.

Maybe I’m just being pesky but I have a strong suspicion that A Game of Thrones would pass the Bechdel test with flying colours. I’m pretty sure that Danaerys has had a conversation with one of her maids about the woman healer, and of course many conversations about her dragons; that Cersei has talked about her daughters with Sansa, and also about Arya; that Sansa and Arya have talked about their mother; possibly that Shea and Sansa have talked about Cersei. I think it happens in every episode. This is a testament to the strength of the female characters in this tv series, and comparing it with this report on the Avengers really makes me think that Joss Whedon, for all his many talents, is a bit of a grand-standing puffball.

In today’s Guardian is an article by Naomi Wolf that attempts to link the growth in anti-abortion laws in the US to its imperialist foreign policy. A lot of feminists poo-poo Naomi Wolf as “feminism lite” or politically suspect (I think this having something to do with a prior excursion into the US’s overly-fraught abortion debate), but although I don’t often agree with her I think she’s worth reading, and has some interesting ideas. She also, as in this article, occasionally manages to look beyond the interests of middle class Americans when discussing feminism and politics, and I think that’s rare, so it’s worth reading. In this article she attempts to suggest that the US’s enactment of draconian and oppressive policies overseas is coming back to bite women domestically, as the state begins to enact domestically the same kind of surveillance and control laws that it has been using overseas. In support of her argument she gives this historical example from Imperial Britain:

I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts – legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.

This is an example of policy trialed overseas (“lock hospitals”) and then implemented locally. But I don’t think that her example is a correct interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act or its purpose, and I think her overall thesis is wrong in its broad strokes and its precise details. Specifically: Imperialism is not a kind of sympathetic magic that corrupts its originating body; and (more relevantly) the US does not have an empire. Let’s tackle each of these points in turn.

Was the Contagious Diseases Act an imperial import?

I would dispute Wolf’s interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), which did not aim to arrest women who “looked like they had sex.” It was aimed at sex workers, and the targets of the law were women who looked like they were soliciting or had been soliciting sex: poor women out alone at unsavoury hours. This law’s victims were Thomas Hardy’s women, not Jane Austen’s. We shouldn’t confuse the act’s main female opponents (high-born women) with its main female victims (sex workers and poorhouse girls). I wrote a post some time back about the CDA and its subsequent reincarnations, and it should be clear that its intended target was poor women and sex workers, and its purpose, though fundamentally nationalist, was not directly related to the imperial project: it was aimed at protecting the moral health of the nation. If we look at other nations of the same era, they were equally obssessed with this nebulous concept, without having any imperial projects under way: Japan at that time was pursuing a policy of isolation for “the health of the nation,” which is precisely as far removed from imperialism as it’s possible to get. We also don’t need to go looking for secret imperialist influences on the CDA: its motivating moral force, and the concerns underlying it, were clearly stated in the public utterances of its supporters, and though they had a lot to do with national power they weren’t necessarily directly linked to imperial projects. It may be that the authors worked out how to run it from the experience of colonial officers, but that’s not proof of anything more than bureaucratic experience. Which brings us to the second problem with Wolf’s thesis: the idea of imperialism as exerting a corrupting influence on the culture of the core.

Imperialism is not sympathetic magic

Although it’s tempting to present a moral argument against institutions like slavery, mass incarceration and imperialism by arguing that they corrupt the body politic through the evil deeds that they demand of society, I don’t think the argument is actually realistic. In the case of imperialism, it’s perfectly easy to see historical examples of empires where the periphery was largely left to itself or managed quite independently of the politics of the centre (Rome springs to mind), or where the periphery could have a lot of political and economic freedom provided it didn’t rebel – I think British India is an example of this. The soviet empire could probably safely be said to have done nothing so bad in the periphery as it had already done to its own people in the centre, so it can’t really be said that the actions at the periphery changed the politics of the core for the worse. Aside from a couple of weeks in 2007, it can’t be said that Britain ever experienced the kinds of harsh policing measures developed so effectively in Northern Ireland between 1967 and the early 1990s; nor would it be fair to say that the only cultural imports from the colonies to Britain were negative racial and political segregation or oppression – much of the cultural flow was positive. Furthermore, British actions towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, which occurred in roughly the same historical period, were completely different in both policy justification, implementation and outcome. Why, if the repressive policies of the colonies affect the political framework of the colonizer, did Britain not implement the same policies in two neighbouring countries at the same time? Britain’s colonial policies were never so centralized or monolithic – they were determined on the basis of local conditions, available manpower, political support, practical value and the personalities and political conditions of the local administrators. This is why New Zealand never received the punitive treatment meted out to Ireland, or the patchwork genocide planned for Australia. Finally, and most relevantly, if we concede that the USA maintained some kind of empire in the 19th century (in the Phillipines and Central America), it’s hard to see how the people there were treated worse than people in the USA. There was no widespread institution of slavery, and the only genocide I’m aware of the US ever practicing was in the USA itself. It’s not like they got the idea of exterminating the natives from their projects in the Philipines. I would go further and say, imperialism doesn’t corrupt the imperialist: the imperialist must have been already corrupted to think of such a thing, and anyone who thinks that stomping another nation into the dust for your own gain is likely to be willing to overlook a little collateral damage in his own backyard too.

The experience of many colonial powers is that the politics practiced on the periphery never comes back to the core in any meaningful way, and in more recent times it has been essential, in fact, to hide the worst excesses of the colonial branch of government, lest people begin to feel squeamish about the program. From about the mid-19th century onward, people wanted to believe they could have the material benefits of empire without suffering the political and cultural costs that Naomi Wolf wants us to think were inherent in the project, and governments went to great lengths to ensure that this happened. Why should modern America’s “empire” be any different? But then, does modern America have an empire at all?

Does America have an empire?

If you listen to the right people, you’ll soon discover that almost all of America’s foreign policy actions can be explained by its imperialism. But does America have an empire, and is “it’s the imperialism, innit?” a good approach to understanding America’s (generally terrible) foreign policies? I differ from a lot of my bleeding-heart, do-gooding, pro-gay-abortion islamofascist leftist brothers on this issue: I don’t think the USA has an empire and I don’t think “imperialism” explains its actions. Imperialism is a bad habit of old nations, not the new world: we have our own problems, and we’re certainly not immune to the temptations of territorial acquisition (see e.g. Indonesia), wars of choice (America) or wars for political convenience (Australia) – but we don’t generally engage in imperialism. Sometimes America’s foreign policy delivers outcomes (such as in Iraq) that look like imperialism, but that’s just a coincidence. And sure, there are probably some far, far right loons in the USA who don’t see anything morally wrong with establishing an American empire, but they almost certainly would think it’s too much trouble and in any case they don’t represent America or American politicians. If we could characterize America’s motives more realistically, it would be as a nation that wants to establish the right to do whatever it wants whenever and however it wants. So, sometimes this means being able to act like an imperialist (Iraq), an arsehole (Grenada) or an interfering little shit (most of Central America) but this is not the same as imperialism. One could probably talk about American cultural and trade empires, but that’s a different use of the E-word. Basically, America has established a pre-eminent place in the world through good deeds (WW2) and bad (Vietnam, etc.) and through a remarkable 100 years of dynamism and wise decisions (let’s not overlook this!), and in order to protect its position will sometimes do terrible things. But it doesn’t currently have an empire, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling imperial policies in its periphery that could be imported to the core or even influence it much. A few seedy and unpleasant policies enacted in areas beyond the rule of law (Afghanistan and Yemen) do not constitute an institution, either. We’ll

So what is it with all this loony anti-choice stuff?

What this means is that America’s domestic political problems are the result of its domestic political culture[1]. I am no expert on US politics or culture, but my guess would be that the upswing in anti-abortion laws in the US simply reflects a combination of growing religious feeling, the fruits of 20 years of right-wing dominance of political forums in the states, and – probably most importantly – the coalescing of grassroots right-wing activism around a large amount of elite money. In order to get their free market and anti-AGW politics widespread, certain political interests have funded a strong right-wing movement and been more than happy to overlook its religious and racist fringe. This is naturally going to have some consequences in social policy.

An alternative explanation – and the one that I suspect Naomi Wolf is building up an intellectual edifice to protect herself against – is that a lot (or a majority) of Americans are genuinely, deeply committed to an anti-abortion politics, that this is their real heartfelt belief, and they take the issue seriously enough to be willing to pay a political price (in supervision of women’s behavior) to get their way on the issue. Although to me the contrast between the pro-life movement’s stance on abortion and war is hypocritical and sickening, I don’t think there’s any cognitive dissonance or intellectual challenge to holding these beliefs, and I don’t see a need to come up with a complex story of sympathetic cultural magic to explain the apparent contradictions within the right-wing anti-choice movement[2]. In fact, I find the left-wing anti-choice movement much harder to comprehend. So Naomi, rather than looking to your country’s nebulously-defined foreign policy imperialism as an explanation, look somewhere simpler: you need to find a way to change your compatriots’ minds on abortion. You probably won’t, but that’s not the fault of imperialism or George Bush: it’s because a lot of Americans deeply believe something you don’t.

A final note on imperialism and role-playing

Obviously this blog has branched out a little from talking about only RPGs in the last two years. This is partly because I like having a forum to talk about whatever I like, and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want; it’s partly because I’m not doing so much role-playing now I’m so busy. It’s also partly because my framework for analyzing cultural stuff (both within the fantasy/rpg world and outside of it) is heavily influenced by post-colonialism, which is I think quite a natural perspective for a modern Australian (though I don’t claim it’s the only one). But bear with me: I think imperialism and colonialism are relevant topics in the gaming world, in the sense that a lot of fantasy RPGs and fantasy literature are set in a world where colonialism and imperialism are either good things or accepted, and quite often colonies are a core part of the story. In fact recently I saw an advert for a new computer game with the slogan “Explore, Exploit, Exterminate.” So whether peripherally (through the culture that influences the games) or directly (through game settings) I think imperialism and colonialism are still relevant cultural concepts in the fantasy world. In building our worlds and understanding other people’s game settings and worlds, these concepts can be relevant and interesting.

fn1: Here at the faustusnotes academy of political science, we love to state the obvious in 1000 words or more.

fn2: I would also go back to my previous comment about my disagreement with my islamofascist brothers, and suggest that if “imperialism” is your explanation for a political problem in a new world country, you haven’t thought about the problem enough. It’s probably something else.

Big Bang Theory has some amusing and interesting insights into the world of nerds and physicists, and the way it depicts the social standing of nerds in America seems very familiar to an Australian viewer. But like most American shows, when it moves on to talking about relationships and gender relations, it’s a whole new world. Because the show presents an outsider’s view of the social relations of ordinary people, it can be quite brutal in its honesty about what I assume are standard American cultural practices, and when it talks about “dating” and relationships I truly find myself wondering: is America really this crazy? So, this blog post is a plea for my American reader(s) to enlighten me about American “dating” culture: is it really so hard for you guys, and is America really that conservative?

This isn’t a problem limited to just Big Bang Theory, either. Watching Friends, I’m struck by the pointless dufusness of the men’s behavior, the knee-jerk “I’m not gay”-ism and the puerile sex jokes that speak of writers uncomfortable with their own and others’ sexualities. Then there is the hideous conservatism of Sex and the City, that bills itself as being all about a new generation of liberated women, whose liberation boils down to … giving out blowjobs for nothing as if this were daring (and of course settling down for the older rich guy at the end[1]). There is the strange and juvenile way that Richard Castle loses his train of thought any time Kate Beckett implies that she might once have done something racy. Or the way that the women in Buffy all fall over themselves to prove how they’re not “sluts,” and perfectly attractive women in even vaguely gothy outfits are routinely referred to as “skanks” – and this from a supposed feminist. But the good thing about Big Bang Theory is that it’s not just reproducing social norms: being a story about outsiders who sometimes try to fit in, we see them on both sides of the fence. Sometimes they engage in the standard mating rituals of the American male, and then sometimes – as in the outstanding episode where Leonard and Penny decide to be “just friends” – they take on those standard rituals.

In that episode, Leonard and Penny go out for a meal as “just friends,” and Leonard takes great pleasure in forcing Penny to pay for everything she consumes, because that’s what friends do. But the clear reason he takes pleasure in this is that, normally, he would be required to pay for everything.

Is this normal in America? When you go on a date, is the man supposed to pay for everything? I was confused about this, finding it really hard to believe that such a backwards ritual could apply in the modern world, especially in a country so supposedly open-minded and equal as America; and after all, television doesn’t depict life just as it is, but often as the writers would like to imagine life should be, so maybe it’s fake? So I did a bit of online research, and I worry that the show might be telling the truth. This Irish website gives tips to Irish men dating American women, and after “don’t get drunk” the number 2 tip is “pay for everything.” This (admittedly more than a little obnoxious) Guardian opinion piece ponders why American women expect to be shouted everything, even when they earn more than the guy (and blames it on that crappy book The Rules); and this dating advice website corroborates another part of Robert Kelsey’s point about American dating tips – that you shouldn’t “make yourself too available,” which is apparently a delicate American way of saying “don’t have sex when you want to.” I found a website by girls seeking advice about dating French men, too, and the top complaint by the women there seemed to be that their Frenchie doesn’t text them every 10 seconds to tell them how great they are – like maybe he’s got a life, or something[2]. The strong implication I drew from these sites is that American women are high maintenance, requiring men to buy them lots of stuff and constantly tell them how great they are[3]. Also something that a lot of people trying to get by in America seem to notice is that the concept of “dating” is unique to Americans. The dating tips website even talks about this as an identifiable social mode:

Whether you are new to the dating scene, are reentering the dating scene, or are a serial dater, you can use dating tips and advice

Well clearly I would need dating tips and advice, since I’ve seen many scenes but I’ve never heard of a “dating” scene. And what is a “serial dater”? Is that maybe someone who just can’t get a root? In Australia, we don’t “enter the dating scene,” we meet people and if we like them and they like us we have sex with them, and at some point we discuss whether maybe we should stop having sex with other people (although often this is just assumed, or just a touch too delicate so we just keep on doing it until we move in together[4]). If someone is meeting a lot of different people of their preferred sex for dinner and drinks, their friends will say “ooh, he’s getting a bit isn’t he?” or “well she’s certainly enjoying her single life” but no one would say “I think Sheila’s dating again…” What a strange concept. Also, if Sheila is meeting lots of different Bruces, one can be fairly certain that most of those Bruces are expecting her to pay half of the bill. She is not, after all, an escort girl, so it’s not like dinner is a business expense. In fact, quite a few Australian women I have known would feel uncomfortable about the implied expectation of having a man pay for your dinner and drinks. How horrible would it be if a woman paid for my dinner and drinks, but I didn’t like her and didn’t want to see her again? I’d feel like a cheap fraud.

Finally, one night I had a long conversation with my (good-looking, well-adjusted) American (Californian[5]) flatmate about this, and he told me that California girls are really complex, and that trying to become entangled with one is a real pain in the arse: not only do they expect you to pay for everything but the whole “dating” thing is a complex job-interview-like assessment, in which your current and future prospects and all you “have to offer” them is on the table. And you know they’re “dating” various other men – openly! – so that you know you’re competing, kind of bidding for a tender or something. I suppose it fits with the rest of the world’s image of Americans as having kind of commodified themselves, but to me the thought of going out looking for a root as being some kind of investment or marketing strategy is quite horrible.

So my question to my American reader(s) is: is Big Bang Theory right? Is it true that men have to pay for everything and women mustn’t fuck on the first date? Do you really openly admit to your dating partner – through the very use of the word “dating” – that you’re seeing other people in the same context, and kind of taking applications …? Just how cold and calculating do you think people are in their assessment of their dating “partners” in such a context? And are American women as complex and princess-y as your dramas suggest? I’ve never had the good fortune of “dating” (or anything else!) one of your Amazonian women, so your culture is foreign to me. So please do enlighten me! If I were Leonard dating Penny, and I refused to pay for her ice-cream, would that be a faux pas? And if so, what do you think of these strange rules? And have you considered moving to Australia, where the women are beautiful and fun and simple and sweet and, quite frankly, easy?

fn1: At least, that is what I’m led to believe happened – I don’t dare watch the show too much for fear my head would explode from the sheer horribleness of the main characters, not to mention the intense pain brought on by the concentration required to pretend that these hideous brides-of-skeletor are actually pretty women who are capable of sexual enjoyment (though admittedly, all their sexual enjoyment seems to come from giving blowjobs and then telling each other about it, so maybe this last part should make sense).

fn2: spent working hard to pay for the next date, maybe?

fn3: I think there’s a Monty Python scene about this, involving Death and a salmon mousse.

fn4: This is a slight exaggeration, but you get my point, I’m sure.

fn5: Actually, is it possible to be Californian, good-looking, and well-adjusted at the same time? Maybe I missed something!

Continuing my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, I turn my attention now to the modern feminist response to sex work. First I’ll outline a common strand in modern feminist responses to sex work and pornography, which I think it should be pretty obvious contrast with the public health approach I described previously. In subsequent posts I will discuss the use and abuse of the contentious issue of “sex trafficking,” and then I will close this series by discussing what I think all this says about modern feminism’s relationship with ordinary women, with reality-based policy-making, and with the ways in which society has liberalized in the past 20 years.

Prohibition and Pornography

The first great feminist incursion into the sex work debate in modern times was the great pornography debate of the 1980s, when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon became active in attempts to both ban pornography in several states, and contributed to an inquiry established by Ronald Reagan to inquire into the “harms” caused by porn. Dworkin and McKinnon are probably the two most famous radical feminists involved in the anti-pornography campaigns of the ’80s, and had a huge influence on the debate. They are often characterized as having teamed up with christian conservatives in their contribution to the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, and the methods used by the movement they represented, Women Against Pornography, were fundamentally illiberal.

The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography ultimately led to the publication of the Meese Report, a highly controversial document that found many negative effects of pornography, and infamously associates pornography use with rape and child sexual abuse. It also gives a hint of how the anti-sex work feminist movement was prepared to treat women in the industry. In Chapter 4, which describes the way in which women are treated in the pornography industry, we find the following introductory discussion of their methods:

we have not had the power to issue subpoenas summoning reluctant witnesses to appear; thus all information at our disposal was presented to us voluntarily or obtained through our review of materials on the public record. In addition, the severe time constraints imposed on our work were particularly damaging in this area because, as discussed earlier, this aspect of the pornography “industry” has received only the scantiest attention in the past. We, therefore, did not have the benefit of knowing from the outset what were the most likely avenues to discovery of pertinent evidence about activities that are largely underground. Finally, both the difficulty of locating witnesses and the pressure of time meant that we were not able to spend substantial time in cross-examination of their testimony or in background investigations to corroborate their statements.

In the end, this inquiry just did some convenience sampling of a sub-culture that was under attack in the US and whose female participants are generally seen in … well, in less than positive terms by most members of the community (especially in the 80s!) So is it any wonder that from amongst their extremely biased sample they find that the industry is seedy and dangerous and in need of reform? This is a constant problem in the modern feminist approach to sex work: in a society where anyone who enjoys or seeks out casual sex or selling sex is derided as a slut, a fool or an enemy of women, it’s no wonder that the accounts that surface from this industry tend to be one-sided and self-exculpatory. Who wants to be reported in a national commission of inquiry during a conservative era as a loose woman whose morals are so poor that she enjoys fucking strangers for cash? These women either don’t come forward, or lie.

Which isn’t to say that the industry wasn’t dubious in the 70s and 80s, but the natural public health response to a dangerous working environment is to set up a regulatory and occupational framework that will ameliorate the risks. However, the radical feminist approach to porn was to attempt to get the industry banned, and this proceeded with efforts at municipal level. Because the first amendment protects free speech the movement attempted to redefine pornography as a form of sexual harassment and to pass civil laws that would enable women to sue makers and distributors of pornography on civil rights (rather than censorship) grounds. Hearings were held into the laws, and the process of these hearings is described in Mckinnon and Dworkin’s book In Harm’s Way, which is reviewed here and seems to present a fundamentally dishonest depiction of what actually happened.

Not only is this a fundamentally illiberal approach to pornography and the sex industry, but it shows that the anti-pornography movement are willing to cut deals with any unsavoury characters – including Ronald Reagan’s christian conservative movement – to get their goals. We’ll see this again in later responses to sex work, when we see the way the anti-sex work movement has sided with the US State Department to use coercive methods to impress its preferred “solution” to sex work’s public health risks on developing nations. Perhaps more seriously from a feminist perspective, the 10 years of this movement’s activities in the US fundamentally divided feminists from the pornography industry, denying them a chance either to influence women-centred pornography or the depiction of women in porn aimed at men, and separating them from an industry which represents the natural consequence of second wave feminism’s greatest achievements: the liberalization of sex and the discourse about sexuality. So it was that from the 1980s onward pornography headed off down an increasingly misogynist and extreme path, at least in the West, and feminist influence over its development was lost. Now that the internet enables widespread porn delivery this is obviously a significant loss for feminism – instead of beaming pro-feminist images of sexual behavior into every teenage boys brain, Larry Flint’s degenerate cultural progeny are face-fucking them into misogynist oblivion. These activists also created a dominant discourse in feminism (and much of popular culture) about the destructive influence of porn that is almost completely groundless. This is not a great cultural legacy, and it certainly doesn’t create an atmosphere which is conducive to accepting and non-judgmental approaches towards women who work in what – in infectious diseases terms – is a very dangerous industry. While there is a sex-positive feminist movement, it is new and less influential on modern cultural attitudes towards porn due to the legacy it fights. We’ll return to the debate between these movements when we look at what this legacy of anti-sex work activism means for the relationship between modern feminism and young women.

Feminism and Sex Work in Sweden and the UK

While Dworkin and Mckinnon were active in the USA, a similar movement – influenced by similar people – was also growing in the UK. It’s most famous member, Sheila Jeffreys, staked her colours to the mast very clearly in the 1970s when she wrote a pamphlet declaring that all heterosexual feminists should eschew heterosexual sex and become “Political lesbians.” For feminists like Jeffreys, any woman who has sex with a man is a traitor. This makes sex workers quislings, the worst of traitors, and as a marginalized minority obviously easy front line targets in an ideological battle clearly aimed at changing the nature of the relations between the sexes. Her colleague and protege, Julie Bindel, is an anti-sex work campaigner in the UK with significant public influence through her journalism (she writes for the Guardian), who was deeply involved in a highly controversial and biased report for the POPPY Project, that presents an unscientific and potentially unethical review of sex work in the UK. Even though subsequent police action showed that many of the claims about trafficking and forced sex in the British sex industry were highly flawed, the campaigning of this group was instrumental in convincing the then Labour government to introduce a Swedish-style law on sex work. This law criminalizes the purchase of sex where the person selling it is working for someone else, on the flawed assumption that any sex worker who is working for someone else is (to use the radical feminist term) being “prostituted” (or “pimped,” as it’s more commonly known).

This law is similar to the Swedish law, which criminalizes the purchase of sex but not its sale. These laws are based on the soothing fiction that by banning the purchase of sex but not its sale we can drive sex work out of business without punishing sex workers, only the men who visit them. These laws also have an explicitly moral, rather than public health agenda, as described by their architect[1]:

In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of male sexual violence against women and children. One of the cornerstones of Swedish policies against prostitution and trafficking in human beings is the focus on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able flourish and expand.

This article also mentions trafficking a lot, and includes some entertaining assertions about the Dutch sex industry (apparently Dutch job centres recommend brothels as work options for unemployed women!)

So, the Swedish laws were introduced to prevent men purchasing sex, on the assumption that the view that women are commodities to be consumed is at the root of discrimination against women. This is a classic case of attacking the easiest symptom rather than the problem. If the problem is an attitude towards women which enables commodification, attacking the market place is no good – you need to attack the attitude. Unless the purchase of sex is common amongst all Swedish men, all that will happen is that it will target only the most extreme representatives of this attitude. And given most men don’t purchase women, how can we be confident that this commodification of women is the root cause of the non-purchasing men’s sexist attitudes?

Both of these countries have acted to prohibit the purchase of sex but not its sale. Does this materially change the nature of sex work, help women leave the industry, protect women from trafficking and forced sex slavery, or make them safer? The opinion of most sex worker representative organizations is that it has the opposite effect: it drives sex workers back to a system of working individually, in rooms by themselves or on call-out jobs rather than in brothels, without security guards or drivers. It certainly doesn’t protect women from trafficking or sexual slavery, since these activities are illegal everywhere regardless of the status of the sex industry. The laws will only help women leave the industry if they are being forced into it in the first place (assuming the laws work in the way they are intended). But here the laws are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of how the industry works and of what women want. Even with the best will in the world, you cannot drive women out of the sex industry, because it pays well. The only way the sex industry will disappear is if society can find a way to make men not want to purchase sex, and the surest way to do that is to attack all the other aspects of our screwed up system of gender relations that makes seeking casual sex such a complex and one-sided affair (I’ll have more to say about this when I review Big Bang Theory). Until then, men are going to want and need to pay for sex, especially if they are busy, traveling, disabled, or just plain ugly. Women, too, buy sex, and this fact alone presents a big problem for feminist approaches to the sex industry. It’s not going to go away until we restructure the nature of our non-commodified sexual relations, and this is happening very slowly (and, I hope to show later, the very feminists who oppose the sex industry also have very reactionary opinions about non-commodified sexual relations).

From a public health and public order perspective, though, the main problem with these laws is that they drive women back into sole-trader arrangements, where they are vulnerable to rape and theft, and where their decisions about safe sex are driven by their own personal circumstances, work practices, and vulnerabilities rather than by the kinds of workplace policies, union rules and sense of shared responsibility that are most likely – in every area of employment – to change attitudes towards safety. It will also encourage people who are interested in running brothels – which are highly profitable businesses – to seek weaker, more vulnerable women who they can hide and who have little recourse to the law. That is, illegal immigrants. It also encourages police corruption (since sex workers and brothel owners need to get the police off their backs, and it’s the time honoured way). This is particularly tragic for women in the UK, because the UK police are extremely corrupt and there is no political will at any level to restructure the force to make it robust against corruption. When the Police Commissioner is willing to accept a gift of a five week massage holiday here from a media organization that had been hacking murder victims phones, paying police for private information on citizens, and even hacked the Prime Minister’s phone, what chance is there that ordinary police will turn down the odd back-alley shag from a girl who needs a break at work? None, I’d say. The Labour Party was willing to leave policing a law involving young women and sex to a police force that allowed its under-cover police to form sexual relationships – and have children – with activists they were supposed to be spying on. This is a recipe for corruption, and these laws will simply mean a return to the bad old days of vulnerable women being exploited or, at best, working in high-risk settings for lower pay and/or predatory criminal organizations.

Sex Workers as Tools for a Political Goal

The architects of these laws have made clear that they think the structure of modern sexual relations is wrong, and that they see sex work as the ultimate expression of the dysfunctional nature of modern sexuality. Often, they see commodified sexual relations as the problem – including but not limited to the idea of marriage as prostitution – but unlike the union-influenced and socialist feminist politics of Australia and of the earlier second wave feminists overseas, they don’t see the commodification of sexual relations as a result of distorted economic models. It is a hallmark of radical feminism that flaws in all other economic and social relations are believed to derive from the model of gender inequality, and so radical feminists don’t believe that problems like sex work can be solved through changing labour relations (whether radically, as in the case of feminists influenced by Marxism, or through the institutions of civil society, as in feminists influenced by the politics of the labour movement[2]). Instead, they see sex work as the most vulnerable link in a chain of social structures where women are dominated by men, and through public policy they see an opportunity to attack the underlying structures of the sexual relations of our society through attempts to abolish the sex industry. Unlike the prohibitionists of previous eras, they see prohibition as an opportunity to change the moral under-pinnings of gender relations, rather than to protect the moral fabric of existing society; but in both cases, they see public health, and laws affecting sex workers, only in terms of its relevance to the moral debate that concerns them. This means that they instrumentalize sex workers as a tool of public policy in the pursuit of their own moral goals, rather than treating them as fully independent people deserving of dignity in their own right. In my final piece in this series I will attempt to show why I think this similarity is not a coincidence, and derives in both cases from an inability to accept different perspectives, especially those of poor and non-white women. But first I will digress a little, to discuss the problem of sex trafficking. Things can only get more controversial from here …

fn1: Ekberg, G. The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services: Best practices for prevention of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Violence Against Women. 2004; 10(10): 1187-1218.

fn2: Sullivan, B. Feminist approaches to the Sex Industry. Proceedings, Conference on Sex Industry and Public Policy. Australian Institute of Crimonology, 6-8 May 1991. Available online (with many other interesting links) here.

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to write over the next few weeks. For the last few months I’ve been working with a PhD student on a cost-effectiveness evaluation of behavioral interventions to reduce HIV transmission among sex workers, and in many ways this has drawn on a lot of my research and public health experience over the past 15 years, so after her successful Thesis Defense today I’m inspired. I hope to lead these posts through an overview of public health and sex work, a discussion of the issue of human trafficking, and finally presentation of the problems in the political debate over sex work. I ultimately hope to present the thesis that radical feminism is a reactionary and conservative ideology which is no friend to women.

Fun, I’m sure we all agree, for the whole family.

As background, I will mention that I’ve done research on sex worker health on and off for the last 15 years, starting with some research on types of genital wart among sex workers, covering some behavioral research, branching into drug treatment issues, and finishing with a recent spate of modeling work that covers sex work in two countries. My first job after I left university was in a sexual health centre, and on my first afternoon at work – after I’d filled in the HR forms and been shown my desk – I was introduced to two representatives from the local sex worker union and given an afternoon tour of the clinic by them, while they explained to me how sex work in Sydney runs. Both were retired sex workers, one a Thai woman and one Australian born. This was back in 1995 before sex work was properly decriminalized in New South Wales, and these women’s job was to visit illegal brothels and check on the health and safety of the women working there. They also had to work with police, other health agencies, and the government to find ways to ensure the safety of the women in the industry, all against the backdrop of the illegal status of the industry. Once they’d given me an overview of the status of sex work in NSW, and the particular problems facing (and, potentially, caused by) migrant sex workers, I was packed off back to my desk with a copy of Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia, which you can now read most of online, and gives a nice (though dated) insight into the industry as it was back then.

Since then I’ve also had friends (and one girlfriend) who worked in the industry, either when or before I met them, and through my work I’ve had a chance to find out a lot about the industry, to the extent, I hope, that I don’t view it as either a salacious mystery or a grotesque stain on society. I’m hoping, in these posts, to try and summarize what I learnt over the past 15 years but – rather than simply presenting a dry public health view – I want to tackle some of the moral and political issues that have arisen from the feminist and christian backlash against the decriminalization-based models of sex worker self-empowerment that have been gaining popularity in the era of AIDS. It’s my personal opinion that the movement to recriminalize or abolish sex work in countries like the USA, Sweden and the UK is a classic example of a backlash against modern sexual freedom, that it is not in the interests of women – whether sex workers or not – and that sex workers are being used as pawns in a bigger political battle that they want no part of.

These issues are tied in not only with public health and sexual morality, but with immigration, globalization and drug use, and they’re too complex to cover in one or two posts. So, for my next post I’ll give an overview of public health responses to sex work, and from that dry base we’ll see if we can spin off into some turgid moral debate…

In my reading of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company I was, of course, confronted with scenes of violence and rapine such as one might expect of a company of mercenaries fighting on the side of an undead evil. However, I was also struck by the difference between the depiction of this aspect of the story and it’s depiction in, for example, the tv adaptation of A Game of Thrones, about which I have complained previously.

Taking A Game of Thrones as an example, we see a modern “gritty” fantasy writer’s view of the behavior we might expect of men and soldiers in a world where women have few rights, war has no laws, and the all moral decisions are supposedly painted in shades of grey. In Martin’s depiction, men are constantly spouting venomous, misogynist language, sex work is ubiquitous and glamorized, women are under constant threat of rape and rape culture is omnipresent and accepted. There is very little sense that men even see rape as wrong (except perhaps as a property crime), or that soldiers and victors should (or even could) be expected to act with any decency. We also don’t see any evidence that gender inequality might be differently constructed in a world of magic and dragons. Instead we have a vision of a world that you can’t help but think of as a misogynist teenager’s daydreams.

In Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company we see the same setting, of gender inequality and war with no laws, but instead of reading the tale of men who have to make hard moral decisions to win, we find ourselves squarely on the side of a bunch of famously bad-arsed mercenaries fighting on behalf of an ancient and powerful evil. This is an evil that takes no prisoners and allows it’s favorites to commit any crime. So how is this setting depicted?

First of all, we see that our soldiers take no prisoners – they often kill their captives, and torture is done wherever necessary. They also use rape as both a tool of war and a reward. But neither activity is dwelt on in the text at all, and there is not really any point in the story where the plot takes a turn such as to make these unsavoury activities necessary to the story or to bring them to the fore in the narrative. Furthermore, although we get the impression that some of the main characters may be capable of it or may have done it – certainly Croaker orders or condones the murder of both military and civilian prisoners, including the elderly – we don’t see it as necessarily pleasant for them, and we don’t get the impression they think it is not wrong. In general rape is seen as a crime that soldiers can get away with, those who don’t want to are respected for it, and men who commit acts of violence to protect e.g. children are even given extra leniency in considering their punishments. There is no revelling in rape culture here, but a kind of guilty acceptance of it as one of the many bad things that happen in war. The Black Company is composed of exiles and criminals and held together only by it’s own internal honor and allegiances, so it is generally expected that soldiers don’t turn on their own over external moral principles, but this doesn’t stop them from condemning the crimes their members commit, and it certainly doesn’t require that the author revel in them, or enable his readers to. This is rape culture with a context, not stripped of its historical and social meaning and presented to the reader as a kind of warporn.

We also see a very different depiction of female characters in this story. Being a story about a company of male soldiers, most characters are male, but two characters in particular are women, and some are of indeterminate gender for much of the story. The women come from both sides, and both wield great power. One is perhaps supernatural and both are magical. Both expect equality as a consequence of their temporal power and the men around them give it without question. These women, like most of the characters in the story, have human flaws, but their flaws are not the usual kind of gender-specific hysterics and weaknesses one expects of a fantasy story. Indeed, one of these women is a rape survivor, but it’s not particularly relevant to her character and she has no obvious weaknesses or flaws as a consequence of it. Certainly her character and narrative role remain largely unrelated to this, so she is not defined by the acts of men. Indeed, although both characters enter the story initially in relation to the evil acts of the men around them, they soon define their own place in the world and supplant the men whose shadow they might otherwise have been expected to remain within. And there is certainly no way you can claim, as some do in relation to Martin’s work, that only a terrible fate befalls powerful and successful women.

Another aspect of this story that I really liked was the ability of these women to form non-sexual relationships with men. There is one relationship particularly that would surely be expected to become sexual under the standard fantasy conventions, but in this story it remains a friendship, and neither member of the friendship seems challenged by this. These are real human relations as we might imagine them in a medieval world where gender inequality is commonplace.

This book offers us examples of how we should expect modern writers to provide us a realistic view of a dark and vicious fantasy world, without either sugar-coating the bad stuff or revelling in it. Cook manages to present a world of gender inequality where vile deeds are commonplace without making us think that he admires it or we should enjoy it. He also asks questions about how women’s role might change in the presence of magic, and assumes that essentially our relations would retain their fundamental humanity in such a world. This is very different from what I saw in A Game of Thrones, and, I submit, a far more mature approach to the sub-genre and to fantasy writer’s interpretation of misogyny and violence in the medieval world.