Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Feminists": a failure to covenant

There's something eerie about the Vancouver Sun publishing a defense of further legalizing prostitution on the same day Canadians are remembering the Montreal massacre. It seems to be a sign how much we really value women, whatever all the fancy feminist talk that goes around...

What do you think when you see women prostituting themselves?

Very few people, it seems to me, think, "oh, there goes another happy hooker!"

Nonetheless some people are willing to think: "oh there goes a poor woman who has to carry on a dangerous trade with the threat of violence always in the air; let's help her by making her poverty (of mind and spirit, if not of money) easier..."

In other words, you see a miserable women and instead of asking how can I help her to stop being such a miserable person, by helping her in ways that can help her to change her life, you ask, how can I get the world to recognize she is a victim, with rights, all the while affirming her for what she is, and not making moralistic demands on her.

The collapse of our public discourse into victimology/affirming difference, affirming the marginalized as a-ok just how they are, is leading a group in Vancouver to lobby for legalized brothels. It's not that we don't already have brothels, out in the open, that the governments and police tolerate - there is one in Burnaby in the same strip mall as a community police station. It's just that we call them "massage parlours" which the municipalities license and tax to make it all "respectable". This, notwithstanding that the Criminal Code of Canada still states it is illegal to operate a house of prostitution or to live off the avails of prostitution.

Anyway, apparently there is a class of street prostitute that either doesn't want, or isn't welcome, to work in "massage parlours" or "escort services". Thus they are at risk from whatever evil the men who pick them up off the streets are capable of inflicting. And sometimes that is murder.

A group of people calling themselves "feminists", and reportedly receiving support from politicians like Libby Davies and Mayor Sam Sullivan, have somehow become interested in advocating for the governments to license legal "co-op" brothels for such marginalized women, just in time for Vancouver hosting the 2010 Olympics. As they argue in today's paper:
Many feminists believe that adult sex work in Canada should be completely decriminalized.

To that end, Vancouver-based "First" is the only feminist organization in North America advocating the decriminalization of prostitution. First supports the right of sex workers to engage in consensual sex with other adults without being criminalized.

We believe that sex workers have the right to safe working conditions, the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, and the right to have their dignity, autonomy and liberty respected.

Decriminalization means the repeal of all criminal laws relating to adult prostitution. In Canada, prostitution is not technically illegal, but most activities associated with it are criminalized, including soliciting in public and living off the avails of prostitution.

Although decriminalization will not on its own stop the injustices experienced by sex industry workers, First believes that we cannot eliminate violence against sex workers and ensure their equal rights until we address the illegal and stigmatized status of their work.
The op-ed is given the demanding, don't-question-me headline "A 2010 deadline for prostitution".

Oh how heroic and righteous it is to be FIRST, to believe that everything will get better if we take this bold "first" step, if we are first to break new frontiers, to reduce prostitution simply to a question of an unquestionable "right" to sell your soul to the devil... Because we today are much too sophisticated to believe that what people used to refer to as the Satanic has any basis in reality, whatever name or analysis we now give to the unrestricted circulation of human desires. (By the way, true firstness, the true discovery of a sacred sign we can share with others, is an essential part of our humanity; but that just means it is important to work to distinguish it from Gnostic heresy.)

It occurs to me that a useful definition of many of the well-meaning fools who call themselves "feminists" is women who don't really know or believe in the sacredness of human love. In order to think it is ok to prostitute yourself, to treat your body and soul as a commodity, thinking it's just like any other worker who sells part of his or her body and its labour for money, you have to believe that sex and love are not something special, something sacred, reserved for only those who can make a total commitment to their beloved. It's the sign of a society that has made the dating scene for the average youth into a veritable rite of sexuality, where most young women do indeed come to see themselves as beings whose value is largely dependent on their sex appeal, who trade sex for friendship and social status without any great promises attached, who see the purpose of sex largely as pleasure, and as an envied object of conversation to show one's social value to others, and not necessarily as some invitation to a more holistic vision of one's humanity within marriage and family. And there's no sign that this is making anyone particularly happy. In fact, depression and nihilism among young people is epidemic.

Nonetheless, in this confused milieu, it is not surprising that we find women who think that trading in sex is ok; it's what everyone does, it's just natural and so it's healthy, and it's hypocritical to single out street prostitutes for victimization. It's just a form of class discrimination. And so the answer is to validate the hookers' status, to give them a greater stake in the "ownership" of their sexuality. And besides, if you legalize "co-op brothels" for street workers, you are making prostitution safer, making it harder for the violent men or pimps to do their evil.

But what if prostitution is inherently destructive of a person's soul, of the very purpose of their sacred humanity? Then, is there any way you can truly make it safer? Don't you make it more dangerous by making it easier and more secure, on a purely physical basic, for women to prostitute themselves? Say you see a man literally working himself to death, neglecting his family, so he can "retire at 50 and finally be free", or buy the McMansion, or whatever. Do you help him out by making it easier to put in extra long hours, or by suggesting he come to terms with his self- and family-destructive behaviour, behaviour that only a fool would consider a sign of freedom?

If feminists really cared about women, wouldn't they be putting all their energy into finding ways to help women out of prostitution, not making it easier for them to go down that dead-end road?

But how, in this day and age, do we even begin to understand that we have souls and a sacred purpose that can be destroyed?

I am not saying we have to believe in God (our soul exists, has meaning, on the scene of language regardless). But even if we don't, why isn't it evident to people that at the core of women's nature-in-culture is a need to be loved and respected, to be treated as something much more than a sexual commodity, a something more - an undivided, unconditional, and total love and family commitment - that can only be protected when you are not a sexual commodity? Because there are some things that no lover can provide to a woman who is a sexual commodity.

I imagine no adult, not least myself, has not allowed the sexual passions to lead him or her down dead-end roads. It's so ordinary as to be unremarkable. Such failures are not the greatest of sins; they are rather small ones usually, as many a girl trying to remember the difference between the failings of recent boyfriend #12, as compared to #6, can tell you.

But if we forget that there is a road with purpose out there for each of us to find, even if it be a chaste one, and that this road can't be found by simply giving in to the pressure or incentives to treat sex as a commodity and trying to validate that as a choice that is just as good as another, then we have given up as a species that treats its impressive sexual drive as a call to reproduce the species in body and divine spirit, a call to make a total commitment to something or someone.

Freedom depends on a market that is open to the circulation of our desires; it also depends our ability to resist the self-destructive potential of this circulation. No free market exists without a civil society resisting it. Covenant Zone exists to help teach ourselves how and why.

If prostitution were ok, why haven't they yet made it into an Olympic sport?

Maybe that can be the topic for today's Covenant Zone meeting. We meet every Thursday evening to discuss questions like this, in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, central branch, in front of Blenz Coffee. Look for the blue scarves, 7-9 pm.


Anonymous said...

You do realize, of course, that the proposed brothel is a co-op created for and owned by sex workers. I think they have the right to decide what's best for them. Labeling all sex workers as poor little victims doesn't do them any favors.

truepeers said...

It's an interesting question, who's treating them like victims. I thought I was arguing against that, but it's you think I am assuming they are.

There are various things a free society can rightly outlaw, if it finds them antagonistic to the life and reproduction of free individuals. Cocaine, wife beating, slavery, pyramid schemes, unlicensed doctors, etc.

This doesn't mean we assume that by outlawing such things that they will simply go away. And so when you have something like drug use or illegal brothels, you might still allow yourself the "hypocrisy" of asking how can we shape the practise of these illegal activities to make them less dangerous, all the while taking a larger view to minimizing and ending such activity.

But society begins by making some things illegal because you simply can't or shouldn't give the message that they are ok. In other words, the question it seems to me is does society have a right to declare and defend "the normal", to declare what is sacred, or have we now reached an irreversible point in history and the evolution of freedom and free markets where anything goes as long as it is the freely chosen decision of two consenting adults, the wider familial and social consequences of their decision being only their responsibility to consider?

In all the examples i give of things we can rightly outlaw, one could argue the "victims" are individuals with a right and freedom to make their own choices - some might even argue one has a right to sell oneself into slavery.

But I see this take on the "free individual" as a recognition of the idea that society has no right to declare what is normal, good, sacred, on any matter. In other words it is to locate the source of victimization in the desire of people like me to defend the normal, the sacred, in certain matters sexual.

For various reasons, I think we have to get away from declaring the normal a source of victimization.

Whatever you think of mediating the conditions and consequences of prostitution, something that will go on regardless of the law, I think it's asinine to argue that people have an unquestionable right to engage in it. That's just socially and self-destructive nihilism, it seems to me. From whence can such a "right" possibly come? There may be room for a certain "hypocrisy" in regulating and making safer prostitution; for not arresting prostitutes as a general rule, but I can't see any reason to declare brothels or prostitution legal and ok. It's not ok, it's not normal, it is destructive of any individual who partakes in it.

maccusgermanis said...

If there is no "unquestionable "right" to sell your soul to the devil" then why isn't God as smart as you? Individuals make covenants, societies, by individual consent/decision. To presume that the un-"happy hooker" hasn't the singular authority over her own sense of self worth is to argue not only against the licentious times, but reality itself. Too often, moralists forget, that most basic moral of, freedom and lazily defer hard battles of persuasion to government intervention.

By what morality do you presume that we can marshal police power against prostitutes, but can't suggest that islam is as the murderous pedohille dictated? Perhaps in another 1400 years the hookers truly will find their happiness. Must hookers wage jihad to get the deference that you show muslims?

"And even if we expect that at some time in the future, those Muslims [and whores] who want to show good faith will probably come to reject Islam [or turnin' trix], we have no right to expect that they can come to that conclusion if we simply demand it now. We have to allow a learning process, both for them and us, demonstrate a good faith understanding that we will allow ourselves the freedom to test each other to see what is and is not possible under a constitution or compact that is suitable to mediating the kinds of conflicts and realities that exist today."

"The terms of this compact should be explicit (though not too detailed: the future cannot be ironed out). We cannot, for example, have any tolerance for those who would justify violence [what's a cop to do when a hooker won't stop] as God's will for some sub-class of infidel humans [hookers]. There can be no compact without mutual respect."

You may think I jest, but we owe it both the hookers and hajis to give honest account of how they are destroying their own lives. We owe violence only to jihadists and whatever hookers decide to "take the strap." No not that strap. Think Pali-wood, not Hollywood.

truepeers said...

Too often, moralists forget, that most basic moral of, freedom and lazily defer hard battles of persuasion to government intervention.

-This is a good point. Maybe I am guilty of it. Though as I tried to suggest above, there is a need for a certain "hypocrisy" to differentiate between a refusal to accommodate prostitution, and our inability to stop it with any acceptable means. The police are not under any obligation to enforce every infraction of the law, and they certainly don't. For example, there is a very little chance of arrest for openly smoking marijuana in Vancouver, and many do it. Does this put the law into disrepute? Maybe in some eyes; but it seems to me that the law necessarily compromises on such issues. Its integrity would be seriously threatened only if it puritanically tried to enforce the law against possessing cannabis, and a large part of society fought back, as they would here.

What riles me about this story is that people are calling on the government to pro-actively facilitate prostitution and for society as a whole to recognize it as some kind of fundamental right. It's kind of like how I was riled when I read about my Mayor facilitating the construction of a new Mosque, but only more so.

To presume that the un-"happy hooker" hasn't the singular authority over her own sense of self worth is to argue not only against the licentious times, but reality itself.

-I can't buy this argument, and not i think because I am particularly moralistic. Reality, it seems to me, is one where no one has the singular authority over her sense of self worth. Who and what we are is always something informed by shared norms and values, including those that romanticize the individual. That's not an argument against maximizing individual freedom, only remembering where it comes from (from a shared consensus about the value of the individual). But at the end of the day, we can't simply defend a vision of the autonomous individual without forgetting that there are certain shared preconditions, certain sacred bottom lines, that are necessary to sustain a maximally free society. Most of these would not be well served by legal prohibitions, but some (like drug use) are.

As soon as we make something commercial legal, we condone it because we must tax and license it, and say it is a question of reasonable choice. So the government here has income from many legal casinos. It's impossible to legalize gambling without giving the appearance that it's ok. Maybe it is, if its honest entertainment and not ruining your family, but I don't want my government getting revenue from it. It corrupts: our government now says it is keen to increase gambling and lotto revenues and inevitably that means ruining some more people and making government less responsible to the tax payer. The lesson I take is that no one and nothing is an island unto itself; there are always all kinds of unforeseen consequences to our decisions.

I don't think Islam should go unregulated. I think Mosques and preachers should be licensed on condition that they don't preach Jihad, the replacement of our constitution by Sharia, violence towards women, and maybe a few other things. But at the end of the day, I have to tell you that I think prostitution is something worse for the soul than Islam, not that I think Islam is good for the soul. And I would hope others would share that point of view and to defend a certain understanding of the public sacred accordingly. In any case, there is a logic in distinguishing between religion (and any illegal acts that some religions perform) and semi-public commercial activities, in terms of what government has a business licensing, or not. We have every right and reason to pass laws to make Islam conform to our idea of what is the appropriate domain for private religion, just as we deny Satanists the right to perform blood rituals.

Having said this, brothels (not simply prostitution in a private home), by their very nature, cannot be a strictly private affair, especially when they go in hand with public decisions about how to develop the city for the Olympics. Shouldn't we be able to say no to the kind of apartment tower brothels they built in Germany for the World Cup?

Anonymous said...

But at the end of the day, I have to tell you that I think prostitution is something worse for the soul than Islam

Thinking a little more about this, I realize it is a question of frequency. An occasional act of prostitution can't be compared to a lifetime of Islam; but I would say that engaging in prostitution five times a day is probably worse for you than praying to Allah five times a day. Furthermore, I don't mean to imply that prostitution is as much a threat to Western civilization as Islam presently is, though in theory one day it could be more of a threat.

maccusgermanis said...

In the US we can actually sue authorities over their refusal to enforce laws. I would be surprised to find out that Canada hasn't some similar mechanism. You suggest that the "law" compromises on cannabis, but you really mean to say that "enforcement" compromises. Evidently the "law" is in such "disrepute" that it isn't even afforded its previous definition. -something laid down, fixed- [that apparently can now be changed according to the whims of the police officer] If the "law" can already not be enforced then its integrity is nil. "Integrity" has previously meant "wholeness, perfect condition." If the "wholeness" can only be enforced in part, then it is not whole.

Hypocrisy is not what resolutions are made of. Legality and morality are different things, however much they may influence one another. When it is immoral to use violence to end an immoral act, the latter immoral act should be legal. I do not expect you to "accommodate prostitution." Nor do I expect you to defer the work of your objection upon a law enforcement better suited to policing violent crime. Your objections are valid, but you are morally limited to your own powers of persuasion in any attempt to stop the self debasement of consenting adults.

By whom are these norms, values, and certain preconditions shared? You argue that the atom is defined by the molecule. Society is not some unbreakable fabric of precondition, it is the resultant of individual choices.

"Authority" has a long history of having its meaning subverted. In some sense we are both right, though I had intended that the un-"happy hooker" does have the singular "power to enforce obedience" over her own sense of self worth. However much "advice, opinion, or influence" is shared by a society (of individuals), she is the final arbiter that does settle her sense of self worth. Your objections are valid, but you are realistically limited to your own powers of persuasion in any attempt to stop the self debasement of consenting adults.

You "must" tax only from that which you wish to profit or punish. Already the "massage parlours" are taxed. Taxed, I suppose, as a function of income or sales? That you presume towering icons to prostitution will be built is a rather telling commentary of this society that is meant to shape the individual. Individual johns pay for the services of individual hookers. If you don't wish to profit from the tax of such transaction, then convict the individual. Society, and the monuments they build, are a by-product of individual choices.

truepeers said...


I think you're right that enforcement is central to the question, which explains why prostitution is not illegal in Canada, only the public conduct of it.

But how does the right to sue the police to enforce a law work? Any police force will have limited resources and have to make choices. Is it that the right to sue entails such costs that it is only occasionally used? And what about the illegal immigration fiasco: it seems the government is unwilling to enforce its laws, in part because no one wants to be the one who violently rounds up and deports those who are actually law-abiding (on all other laws) and hard working. Enforcing the law seems to be unquestionably right, until you find yourself in circumstances where other moral considerations come into play. This, is the same problem with prostitution.

But is anyone in the states trying to sue on the immigration issue? I don't think we have such a right in Canada, but I'll look into it.

Society is not some unbreakable fabric of precondition, it is the resultant of individual choices.

-Well, the question is also, where do individual choices come from? All desires begin in the public sphere, before they are privatized in the individual imagination. Language, culture, is all something that transcends the individual; it subsists, quite literally, *among*, not in, individual brains.

So we all have an interest in our shared culture. Of course, as you suggest, most of the time this must be limited to our powers of persuasion. But there are situations where we allow ourselves the force of law, when it comes to policing rights and certain responsibilities. I can't think of any general rule to govern our decisions about when the coercion of the law can be justified, and when not. If someone were enslaved, we would have no doubts. Some people consider prostitution a form of slavery, though it's tough to be too literal about that where pimps are not present. (But can organized crime ever be kept out of a brothel/massage business for long?) Anyway, it seems to me that the legitimacy of legal coercion is just one of those things that is played out in a democratic society when we look at particular situations and consequences. A lot of people might agree with you about not wanting the police to enforce laws on prostitution, until the brothel was in their neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the proposal for the "co-op brothel" is that it be located in one of Vancouver's more depressed and drug-ridden residential neighborhoods, whereas the "massage parlours" are on commercial streets.

she is the final arbiter that does settle her sense of self worth.

-on one level this is true enough. But it only raises the question of how an individual goes about settling the matter. She is not born culturally, spiritually, religiously, sufficient unto herself. So she can only be the final arbiter by making use of public values, philsophies, theologies, opinions, that we can ultimately locate as having first emerged in particular historical events where people had to balance questions of rights, responsibilities, and the pros and cons of coercion, e.g. in the cause of defending freedom. For example, since the officials of the state have the power, and sometimes will, to take children away from parents they deem dangerously irresponsible - and certain prostitutes would fall under this category - a prostitute will face such situations where her final decision is powerfully shaped by others. I don't think we can neatly distinguish persuasion and coercion, given all the entanglements of society.

The massage parlours are taxed like any other business - licensing, property tax/rent, sales and income taxes (though how they calculate what to declare, I don't know - because they always say that what the worker and the client do and agree to is not their business; they only collect the room fee, but one wonders...). If a business is not illegal, it cannot be treated differently from any other business. Inevitably, the government in a land of "massage parlours" is a "pimp". So I imagine there is not too much incentive for rigorous inspections by the licensing or police authorities, since the whole idea ultimately is to keep the prostitution off the streets.

Anyway, this is all an interesting discussion; but this post was originally not much more than a quick reaction to the idea that a feminist defense of women's rights should entail a defense of prostitution and an active engagement in setting up a brothel. I found that intellectually perverse, quite aside from the more pragmatic questions we are discussing.