Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like  $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:

Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

and

Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!

A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.

All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.

In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.

I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.

When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.

This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.

The New York Times has an interesting and thoughtful article asking why so few women do science, a topic somewhat related to questions sometimes asked on this blog about women and role-playing, and dear to my heart since I graduated in physics and now live in Asia, where science is cool. Why do the English-speaking countries have a problem with women doing science?

The article has attracted 671 comments, which shows that the topic is of interest to a lot of people, and the author herself gives a strong example of why any form of barriers to participation in science are wrong. She studied physics, so in preparing the article she returns to her old notebooks, and she writes

The deeper I now tunnel into my four-inch-thick freshman physics textbook, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novas of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped dorm room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on earth or light years distant, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I had highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a reality more real than the real itself?

As someone who didn’t have what it takes to continue in physics, but really enjoyed my third year of study and really loved the topic, I can only say that it’s wrong! wrong! wrong! to construct any barriers that would prevent someone capable of exploring that world from so doing. And the article identifies a huge range of barriers that still exist to women trying to enter science. Despite these barriers, the statistics that the author quotes are reassuring for those of us who graduated from physics in the ’90s:

Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American; of all the physics professors in the United States, only 14 percent are women. The numbers of black and Hispanic scientists are even lower; in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics.

I think I also read somewhere once that there is a Native American professor of physics (I could be wrong, this is a very vague memory). In comparison: when I was studying physics there were no women in my year, and none had preceded me. In the year after me was a single woman, and we young idiot men as we were had already decided to interpret her tiger-skin mini-skirts and low-cut blouses as proof that she was “taking the easy way” and trying to impress the profs with her body[1]. How much has the field improved in the intervening 20 years!

The author also points out that there is a basic problem in the interpretation of femininity and its acceptance in English-speaking academia. She cites a scientist who worked in Europe, who states that women from France and Italy

dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.

This is also my experience in Japan. In Japan it is acceptable for women to be professional or experienced and feminine; it is not a case of either/or, and people are simply impressed that a woman is feminine and skilled – or even they take it for granted that a woman with technical skills will also be well dressed, elegant, womanly, etc. There isn’t the same sense that being feminine is a sign that one is unserious. While in the west femininity is seen as a kind of performance that young women do to pull a mate, and therefore somehow false or deceptive (though expected), in Japan it is just seen as a part of being a woman, not an accoutrement of femininity so much as a part of its essence. There is no expectation that women will walk away from their femininity in order to be taken seriously as scientists. And women’s place in Japan is judged on the basis of their position more than their sex. The way I have come to think of this does not reflect positively on the west: Japan has sexism, but the west has misogyny. There is a deep-seated fear and hatred of women in western culture, while in the east there is a strict set of roles. And in amongst those roles, women are allowed to be scientists. Or at least, that is my impression. This western fear and hatred of women is declining, of course, as we grow up and reject a fundamentally misogynist religious history, but it is still there. The article describes a much more subtle and weaker form of sexism though, that pervades the sciences and makes the task of women just that little bit harder than that of men; and making science just a bit harder means making it inaccessible to mortals, because doing science is difficult at the best of times. You don’t need people denying you lab space, salary and funding, especially on top of the inevitable requirement that young scientists move through several countries as part of the process of building their career. But that is what happens: straight out old-fashioned discrimination.

There are also subtler cultural factors at work: lack of encouragement, and the continual claim that women are not as smart or as talented as men. The writer of the article experienced both of these directly and speaks to other women who had the same problems. It’s a fascinating insight into how a million tiny cuts can drive a person away from a goal, and how those million tiny cuts can be strongly gendered. You may think you’re the first person in history to make an unsavoury joke about women in your engineering course; but to the woman you are talking to, it’s just another day on the frontlines. This kind of stuff adds up, and then women get to the decision point where they are looking at years of hard work, low pay and really, really difficult problems, and with that background of discrimination and discouragement they just think, “fuck it!”

That’s why there aren’t many women in science. It’s a fascinating article, and well worth reading for people outside science too. It really describes openly the subtle ways in which gender bias works to alienate women from a field. And this is obviously relevant to role-playing – a hobby where in the west there are very few women, but in the east there are many more, and for many of the same underlying reasons.

And obviously, excluding women from role-playing is a vastly more important issue than exclusion from science. Read the whole thing!

1: incidentally, I dropped out of physics ’cause I didn’t have what it takes[2], but she stuck around for a PhD. Probably now she’s working in the City, snorting cocaine off the bottoms of Abercrombie & Fitch models, and here I am living in a 2-room apartment in Tokyo on a completely moderate wage. Who was the loser in that story?

2: My friend got a PhD in Canberra. He dropped out for IT. He told me: “I realized I don’t have what it takes to be a physicist when this Russian physicist visited to do a 3 month placement. He had no funding. He had no money. He slept on the floor in his office and ate rice for 3 months. I can’t do that for any reason. I will never compete with people like that. I’m outta here!”

What cute little blue feet this boob has!

This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed  to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.

There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.

But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?

I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.

Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.

For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.

 

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.

Conclusion

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?