Monday, January 2, 2017

On Knowing Shit

This actually happened once. I was with some friends at a restaurant, and having an intense discussion with two of them, when another person interrupts us.

"Tell me this. Deer, horse and cow pretty much eat the same stuff, but the deer excretes pellets, the horse big clumps, and the cow flat patties. Why is that?"

There was silence for a moment, then I spoke up: "Well, they may all eat the same stuff, but they digest them differently. I'm thinking the deer absorbs the most moisture of the three, and the cow the least." That led to the others taking out their cell phones to fact-check what I had said. Yup, I'd pretty much gotten it right.

I'd also deprived the person interrupting us of a punchline:



Since then, I've seen people getting all serious about the logical fallacy that not knowing literal shit means they are not qualified to talk about other shit. There were even people who went out and researched why different animal shit had different shapes and consistencies. No shit, folks!

This is what's interesting. Here I was, with little prior experience or study of animal biology, and I'm able to figure out why each one excretes different shit. Which raises the question of which is more important - knowing shit to begin with, or figuring out shit.

I'm thinking this is why my two friends – who are quite smart – felt uncomfortable responding to that question. They assumed that, since they didn't have enough information about shit, they weren't able to give an intelligent answer about shit. I've found myself in similar situations, even when I was able to figure out that shit. Somehow, we've equated having information with being smart, to the detriment of problem-solving and critical thinking.

That, in turn, affects our discourse. We find ourselves talking to someone, and they're rattling off all sorts of figures and assertions on some shit, and we assume that having this apparent command of facts on this shit means they really know said shit. Or, do they?

Seriously. My father's a physicist, along with knowing all sorts of random scientific and mathematical shit. Yet when something breaks in the house, he gets frustrated and unable to figure out how to get it fixed. One time, the garage door broke, and he was getting ready to bash it with a sledgehammer, when my mother yelled at him to put it away and sent me to take a look. Me, who at the time was studying sociology in college. I looked at what was broken, deduced a possible solution, and had the door up and open within ten minutes so that the car could go in and out and final repairs could eventually be made. How is it that a man with a graduate degree from Harvard, knowing all sorts of shit, is unable to figure out practical mechanical shit, but his youngest son is able to figure out such shit?

Being an empiricist, I'm deeply concerned about facts. But I'm also mindful that understanding such details – their relationship to one another, and how they fit into a larger picture – is just as important as merely accumulating them. Especially because we're often put in the position of figuring something out before we have all the details (what's often called a "minimum information problem").

And no, I'm not talking about endless theorizing and analyzing about shit, or deconstructing how other people try to understand and figure out their own shit. That's what I’ve come to call "criticality over practicality". Ever sit in a room where housemates spend hours debating how to determine who is going to clean the toilets and take out the garbage "in the most equitable fashion" even when one person rolls their eyes and says, "Look, I'm willing to do it, so let's move on"? That's what I'm talking about.

What bothers me is that we're not teaching people how to do the practical work of figuring out shit. We're teaching them to categorize and memorize, to label things and other people, and to delude one another into thinking that this amounts to knowing shit. It doesn't. And until we figure out this shit, we're going to find it harder to get shit done.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mandating Tests for Sex Workers Doesn't Get a Passing Grade

Often when I engage in conversations with folks about sex work and public policy, I'm asked how I feel about mandatory testing of sex workers for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And, when I answer that I don't support such measures, they're frequently astonished. "I thought you said that you support harm reduction methods! So why not this? Wouldn't requiring sex workers to be regularly tested reduce the spread of HIV and other STIs?"

No. Testing doesn't "prevent" anything. It provides information towards that end, and only if it's done right.

Let's take the argument for mandatory testing to its logical extreme. Sex workers are a relatively small segment of the total number of sexually active people out there, and according to the best studies out there, contribute very little to STIs overall, and virtually none of HIV transmissions. So if we were to mandate STI testing, then it makes sense to do that for all sexually active adults and adolescents, not just sex workers. Of course, it's reasonable to assume that a significant number of people would lie about being sexually active, in order to avoid being tested. The answer then would be to test everyone from the age of thirteen up.

This would, of course, be met with a number of objections, from cost to loss of freedom to invasions of privacy. And yet, some would still argue that, since STIs constitute an "occupational hazard" for sex workers, then mandatory testing therefore qualifies as an occupational health and safety measure.

But again, this doesn't make sense when applied to comparable circumstances. Hospital workers, for example, are exposed to far more diseases, some of them far more dangerous, and far more often. Yet hospitals do not regularly test every employee for every disease they might have been exposed to. Instead, they find it more effective to implement preventative measures, much as full-service sex workers use condoms and other safer sex measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV or other infections.

There's also the question of how such measures are best mandated and enforced. More often, they are mandated as a condition of employment rather than by legal regulation; even when laws or government regulations are put in place, it is usually left to employers to maintain and enforce, with government agencies making spot checks or responding to employee complaints. Also, the most effective systems are when lawmakers institute a general mandate to assure health and safety, while leaving specifics to another body which may adapt more quickly to changes in evidence as to the best means of assuring this.

An example of which I'm personally aware is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). I've been trained and recertified many times over the years, and have noticed how the protocols change as new evidence comes in, most significantly the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). While there are laws determining who may train and certify people, those laws do not specify the protocols for performing CPR; instead, the groups that train and certify pay attention to new scientific data, and update protocols accordingly.

Compare that system to how Nevada mandates STI testing for sex workers in their legal brothels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people with multiple sexual partners should be screened every three to six months, based on the best available medical studies; more frequent tests do not produce more reliable results. Nevada's legal requirements, relatively unchanged since 1937, are that women working in brothels are required to weekly medical exams, and at their own expense. With consistent condom usage, and STI rates reported at zero, where is the sense in having sex workers required to be tested at thirteen times the rate recommended by public health officials?

There is no good reason to impose such a requirement on sex workers when other people in similar circumstances are not similarly required. To impose such a burden is nothing more than discrimination, rooted in stigma and unnecessarily perpetuating it. Sex workers have long known how to minimize these risks, as proven by empirical studies. They need neither bureaucrats nor moralists to require anything further. If anything, the rest of us would benefit from listening to their collective experience.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Question Anti-Prostitution Zealots Refuse to Answer

Like any well-organized endeavor, the movement seeking to do away with commercial sex has worked hard to come up with responses to various questions. When asked about people who say they do sex work willingly and happily, they will either accuse them of being brainwashed or dismiss them as "not representative". When called to account for distorting or fabricating evidence, they insist there's a "greater truth" that needs to be heard.

But there's one question I've never heard any prohibitionist address, even when they've been asked directly: What about the repeated abuse of sex workers by police?

As much as these so-called "abolitionists" keep trying to pin the blame on clients and people inside the industry, sex workers will tell you that they have more to fear from law enforcement – not just being arrested, but systematic harassment, assault, and exploitation. Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason magazine published a summary of almost forty cases of police sexual misconduct in the course of 2014 and 2015. Brown's report is just the tip of the iceberg. There's also this Associated Press analysis that almost one thousand law enforcement officers nationwide lost their badges over a five-year period over sexual misconduct, with one-third of those involving people under eighteen. From Oakland to Baltimore, various public and private sources confirm what sex workers have been saying for years about cops robbing, raping and even pimping them out. And it's not just in the United States. This report from Great Britain shows that police in England and Wales have been sexually assaulting prostitutes and other vulnerable women there as well.

Police in Sweden and Norway – so admired by prohibitionists for their efforts to "crush the sex trade" by "ending demand" – have chosen a different tactic. They bully the sex workers' landlords, threatening to arrest them for pimping or brothel-keeping, unless they evict the women. Amnesty International's report shared this particularly disturbing story from Mercy, a Nigerian-born sex worker living and working in Oslo:
A little guy came to the house with a knife. I answered the door. There were nine of us in the house. He threatened us with a knife and robbed our money and phones… He forced us to have sex with him. The police took two or three hours to come. They took us all to hospital and got us a hotel for two nights. Later, we went back to the house and, two days later, the landlord threw us out ... The police put pressure on the landlord. She gave us half a day to get out ... I had to wander around Oslo for hours with my bags until I found somewhere to stay.
It's not just that prohibitionists fail to check their facts. They are failing to check their privilege. White and affluent Americans tend to view police as public servants dedicated to keeping their communities safe, with abuses dismissed as individual aberrations. But among marginalized communities, police are seen as an occupying army sent to impose social control, not just with guns and handcuffs, but a variety of weapons and tools, both legal and extra-legal. Now, take a look at the list of major prohibitionist leaders – overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Privilege lays the foundation for denial, and the interdependence of the movement with law enforcement continue to pile upon it.

History, however, shows that such piles of denial inevitably collapse. That happened almost a century ago, when the American experiment with banning alcohol was abandoned as a failure. Despite repeated claims by advocates that it would lead to significant reductions in crime, the Prohibition Era actually saw criminal activity increase – including rampant bribery and corruption of police and public officials. The temperance movement, now dwindled to irrelevance, has paid the price for their denial. And I have no doubt that this prohibitionist movement will encounter the same fate as more people become aware of the facts.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sex, Science, and Fiction

This past weekend, I watched a TV movie from 1994 called "Island City" – a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale where an eternal youth drug had worked for some humans, while mutating many others into immensely strong and violent primal brutes. Many of the former live in a protected city, sending patrols to find other "normal" living among the brutish "recessives" in the "badlands" beyond. To avoid giving birth to more potential recessives, every adult inhabitant of the city has a special colored crystal implanted on their chest, and is only allowed to have sex with someone with the same color.

Forget how simplistic and gimmicky it seems, or that we're now beginning to understand the complexity of human genetics. Such a "solution" ignores the realities of human psychology. Did the writers of this story really think that everyone would just say: "Well, I like you, but I'm a green and you're a blue, so no dice"? Yeah, right.

It reminds me of a similar shortcoming in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Cogenitor" – an alien species treats members of its third sex as mere means to the end of procreation, depriving them of choices and education and even personal names. Imagine being the parent of such a child, wondering why they shouldn’t be able to make more of a contribution than simply being "assigned" to one couple after another. And as the series Alien Nation demonstrated in its storyline, it's not impossible to conceptualize a more respected social role for cogenitors.

As Isaac Asimov pointed out, a good science fiction writer must know science, and I would contend that this includes the so-called "soft" social and behavioral sciences. Human beings ultimately questions rules and find ways to work around the diverse barriers put in front of them. That is especially true when it comes to sexuality and intimacy. We may seek to find and create some rational and orderly way of choosing mates and expressing affection, but ultimately such decisions are impelled by passion and desire, even to the point of affecting what we perceive to be "rational and orderly".

There is no better real-life example than the disagreement over the hypothesized invention of "sexbots" for erotic release. Proponents see the potential for custom-made sexual partners, perhaps even doing away with sex trafficking and prostitution. Those opposed to this hitherto nonexistent technology, such as British academic Kathleen Richardson, speculate that the "unequal power relationship" between humans and robots would somehow bleed over into relationships between humans as well. Both extremes are to be congratulated for pushing the envelope of imagination, yet they do so by blithely ignoring the realities of technology, materials science, economics, and sexual psychology. Assuming that sexbots were to become a reality, it follows that they would be incredibly expensive, prohibitively so for most mere mortals. And while things like transportation and cleaning are made more efficient with cars and washing machines, erotic satiation and fulfillment demand a complexity and nuance which no artifice has come close to meeting.

Sex, like much of human and animal nature, is chaotic. That may not sound very scientific, and yet science has its own definition of chaos: sensitivity to initial conditions. Each individual is indeed sensitive to the conditions surrounding us, from birth to death, and no more so than when we interact with those around us. We may develop social and cultural structures to help us navigate, and science may provide data and insight, but in the end the course we take is our own choice to make.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Moral Solipsism: A Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

My mother has often said that, given how she and my father raised me, I’m at a peculiar disadvantage. Both of them raised me to challenge and question preconceptions; in particular, not to merely accept that something is ethically right or wrong, but to ask why with an almost ruthless impartiality. The disadvantage here is that it’s not the way most folks engage in ethical conversation – and indeed, there are far too many who are simply not used to such engagement to begin with.

This seems a major reason why we’re presently seeing such polarized views. One group will assert that some version of divine law should be the basis for guiding our decisions and actions; others point to more general core values, and a desire to reduce suffering and expand happiness. Of course, there are those who equate the latter with the former, and who heed the prophetic call to “come let us reason together” for common solutions.

And then, there are the moral solipsists.

These are the folks who make their ethical views through the limited filter of their own life experience and internal dialogue. Their logic tends to run along the following:
  1. My experience and/or emotional response to a given issue X is value Y.
    • Positive example: My experience of Christianity has been wonderful.
    • Negative example: The idea of eating raw fish disgusts me.
  2. The value of X must therefore be Y.
    • Christianity must be wonderful.
    • Eating raw fish must be disgusting
  3. Universal moral action towards X must therefore conform with Y.
    • Everyone should become a Christian.
    • No one should eat raw fish, or serve it to other people.
  4. The fact that others view X is Y confirms this; any divergent opinion regarding X is erroneous and to be discounted.
    • I’m surrounded by other people who also love Christ and the Church, so it is wonderful; all of these naysayers have simply been led astray by Satan, or not willing to open their hearts.
    • I know plenty of people who tried raw fish and hated it, so it is disgusting; those people who say otherwise are either liars, ignorant, or just weird sickos.
Moral solipsism thus goes beyond listening to one’s experience and emotions, and universalizes them to the near-automatic exclusion of other views. It is egoism and subjectivism taken to extremes. This is not to say that personal experience and emotional response ought not to guide us. It’s certainly valid for helping to determine personal preferences. But before we universalize them or make them permanent, they need to be compared to the experiences of others, and tested by reason and evidence.

The problem is that, once someone falls into the trap of moral solipsism, it’s very hard to get out. Thus we observe Americans of European descent who, because they universalize their experience of white privilege, angrily reject the ugly realities being exposed by Black Lives Matter and other groups. We may witness folks who embrace the atheist label purely because of their painful upbringing in one religious group, and never move beyond that. We may know of people who find the idea of providing erotic services for money so personally repellant that they refuse to listen to anyone who has found fulfilment doing so, and surround themselves only with those who share their views, crusading without question to “rescue” sex workers whether they want it or not.

We see the seeds of this in much of how we engage in ethical and political discourse, particularly the emphasis on personal experience and narrative. These are persuasive tools, but by relying too much on them, we risk confusing them with broader examinations of reality – and may even open ourselves up to being deceiving by another Somaly Mam or Chong Kim. We must always remember that one individual’s story is but a glimpse of the larger picture, and even several similar stories may only allow us to see but a pale reflection, when we must endeavor to see the whole more clearly.

The real danger in moral solipsism is its refusal to be tested. At best, it leads to fragmentation and paralysis, with claimants competing for followers. At worst, when one such claimant rises to authority, it leads to tyranny and suffering, all for the sake of an illusion of purity. But as John Milton pointed out centuries ago, purity is never obtained by closing oneself off to questions and challenges:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

SWERFs and Other True Believers

Benjamin L. Corey commented in a recent post how the growing movement against human trafficking had morphed into an "anti-sex-industry" movement. My own observation is that it has become hijacked by a longstanding "sexual purity" movement, with roots going to Anthony Comstock and the more conservative elements of first-wave feminism. And like any mass movement, as Eric Hoffer observed, its members are willing to sacrifice critical thought in the name of a holy cause.

This movement's basic approach follows that of the religious revivalists from which it originally emerged. First, there is the diagnosis of some great world-disease preventing all of us from achieving some beatific or utopian state. From this, we deduce its presence in each person in the form of an individual infection, requiring radical treatment and cure. But it doesn't stop there, for now the convalescing individual must be recruited into expansion of the cure, continuing the cycle until the world itself is rid of the disease. This was also the logic behind the temperance movement, which diagnosed alcohol as the world-disease and prohibition as its ultimate cure.

The contemporary "purity" movement is sustained by conservative evangelical Christians and sex-worker-excluding radical feminists (SWERFs), both of whom exhibit their own variations on this foundational template. The evangelical will see Satan, sin, salvation and evangelism as the pillars of their mission; the SWERF will point to patriarchy, false consciousness, politicization and action; but both essentially crave the same goals, use similar techniques, and see symptoms of sickness in various forms of sexual nonconformity.

This purity movement also exhibits three paradoxical approaches to achieve its goals. Its leaders present moral absolutes, yet are willing to resort to intellectual dishonesty by twisting the facts to suit their purposes. Both religionist and SWERFs often denigrate science and reason as antithetical to their views, while also attempting to present elements of their message in the guise of science and reason. Lastly, their desire to impose a radical cure, such as eradicating prostitution, leads to methods that cause even greater harm than the supposed sickness, in this case robbing women of both agency and self-sufficiency.

As Hoffer observed, it is no surprise that such "true believers" come mainly from privileged backgrounds. While the poor and marginalized struggled to survive, the privileged struggle with boredom and lack of purpose. The current anti-prostitution movement has given many well-to-do white women the promise of helping others by eradicating what they perceive as a great evil. But that promise is an overly simplistic emotional appeal that ignores evidence and complex realities, and rejects practical means for reducing harm and respecting women's choices. It is indeed not only paternalistic, but anti-feminist, precisely because it leads privileged women to "other" marginalized ones. It is a faulty diagnosis, and a reckless course of treatment.

I would contend that the real disease to which we should devote our energies is the pervasive inequity made manifest in our economic, political, social, cultural and erotic realities. Instead of depriving sex workers of both income and safety, let's give them the space to unleash their power and help transform the world. Liberation is not to be imposed, nor is it achieved by ignoring the voices and experiences of those who seek it. Often the best way for the privileged to aid in the liberation of others is to get out of their way and let them take the lead. That, I believe, is the case here.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Case for Decriminalizing Pimping

Recently, the UK Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee issued a recommendation to decriminalize certain aspects of prostitution. While some sex worker rights organizations and activists hailed the move, others have expressed caution. Too often, those who have advocated the so-called "Swedish Model" claim that it "decriminalizes sex workers" while supposedly tackling "exploitation"; in reality, this regime is best described as asymmetrical criminalization, with its real-world results being disastrous for the very people supposedly being "helped" by this approach. Is it any wonder that Norway's government actually stated in a report that the hardships meted upon sex workers in that country was considered a sign of success?

It thus bears repeating that what the vast majority of sex workers want is full decriminalization of their work, including their relationships with third parties. In response, those who wish to keep or expand criminal prohibitions drag out the tired trope of the "abusive pimp" – now labeled a "sex trafficker" – using manipulation and coercion to "lure" and "enslave" young girls into the trade. Even so-called moderates who support half-way measures for making prostitution legal wind up swallowing this blue pill; yes, they say, let people sell sex if they want, but let's keep the ban on those evil pimps.

There are two major problems with this, rooted in the dichotomous definitions given to the word pimp. The first is that the best research actually shows that the villainous stereotype is such an anomaly that some sex workers consider it a myth. A goodly percentage of escorts are "independents" who operate as sole proprietors; in fact, many of these independent escorts are employers themselves, retaining the assistance of others for everything from website design to office administration to transportation and security.

This leads into the second problem with regard to anti-pimping laws. While the public has been given a narrow and loaded stereotypical definition, the law defines the act more broadly as deriving financial benefit from the prostitution of another. As a result, those employed by independent escorts are deemed to be "exploiting" them, simply because of the way the law is worded. Indeed, this overly sweeping definition may also be applied to anyone who receives any significant funds from sex workers, from those who rent or sublet apartments, to their children or other relatives. If we really wanted to take this to the extreme, we could consider any and all transactions done with "the profits of prostitution" to make just about everyone a pimp – newsstands, coffee shops, dry cleaners, even the neighbor holding a yard sale.

I'm sure those seeking a comfortable middle ground would advocate for a "reformed" anti-pimping law, where the focus is on abuse rather than mere financial gain. This raises the question of what constitutes abuse, and why new laws need to be created when current laws already address such problems. Using violence? We have laws against assault and battery. Taking money from someone who works for you? Laws against theft, and labor protection laws, also provide for that. Turf wars between pimps? Assuming this part of the myth is also true, that would fall under existing racketeering and anti-trust laws. Et cetera, et cetera. If the existence of these laws proves anything, it is that just about every business has some history of exploitative outliers. If the sex industry has more than its fair share, it seems more because of the stigma and lack of transparency which comes from continued criminalization.

Like any group of service providers, prostitutes don't always work in isolation, even when they do so as sole proprietors. They depend upon various support services, as well as supporting both biological and chosen family members. Decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing those connected to them in this way is just as asymmetrically unworkable as the criminalization of their clientele. And before we attach the stigmatized label of "pimp" to those so connected, let's remember how deep those connections may run – even to ourselves.