Sunday, June 26, 2016

"More Radical Than Thou"?: A Toxicology of Social Justice Advocacy

I've been meaning to write this post for some time, even before my departure from UU-dom. By doing so now, I'm sure I'll face accusations of betrayal, even personal attacks and insults. More's the pity.

What I've observed in so-called progressive circles – both secular politics and theological communities – is a poisoning of language and relationships that is driving too many individuals to disillusionment and desertion. Just as many women have abandoned the feminist label while still embracing its basic values and goals, I foresee an increasing number of folks leaving the organizations and networks established by social justice advocates, not because they have given up on the ideals of social justice, but because they find the means being employed as harmful to both the collective ends and individual psychology.

The major tendency behind this toxic environment is an increasing demand for perfectionism. It's no longer enough to work for a better world; activists must now work for utopia, and settle for nothing less. The mentality of the "Bernie or Bust" tendency is an obvious example of this, but I've witnessed even more insidious manifestations. As one former activist recounted to me: "Nothing is ever good enough. The slightest thing will get you thrown under the bus, even the way you apologize for what you've said or done, or failed to say or do." This attitude, I believe, stems from the goal of "overcoming false consciousness" – first promulgated in Marxist circles, then within radical feminism, and now more widely. Gone, however, is the patience required to facilitate such changes; just as utopian goals must be achieved all at once, utopian consciousness must be similarly adopted.

This has in turn led to a culture of constant criticism within activist circles. I'm not speaking of criticism in the academic and political sense, but the vernacular sense of negative fault-finding. This is employed not only in seeing the outside world almost entirely as "intersectional systems of oppression," but directed internally at one another, even at oneself. Nothing escapes such persistent fault-finding, and rarely are constructive alternatives given. Regardless of the intended political and/or theological goal desired, such an environment inevitably causes psychological harm. For one thing, the barrage of criticisms eventually begin to contradict one another, leading to double binds and cognitive dissonance. This is assuming, of course, that the individual in question hasn't decided: "If nothing I do or say is ever good enough here, why am I bothering to stay?"

Just as criticism may be well-intentioned, excessive use of jargon by social justice advocates is rooted in the intention of expressing this community's ideas and values in convenient shorthand. Unfortunately, just as technical language in other areas may create a barrier between its users and those "outside," so the jargon of social justice tends to set them apart from so-called "ordinary" folks, especially when using words and phrases which sound overly academic. Even worse, when combined with the tendencies of perfectionism and constant criticism, certain terms of art become used to attack, belittle and silence people. Thus "privilege" may be misused as a synonym for "arrogant" or "clueless"; any male who attempts to answer a question put to them may be accused of "mansplaining"; or merely leaving to go to the bathroom gets one "called out" for their "microaggression", and the explanation rejected as "white/male/cis/hetero/ableist fragility".

In the past, I've half-jokingly referred to religious liberals embracing the idea of "protest as sacrament"; now, I fear it's become all too serious. Engaging in protest has become less about strategy and tactics, or even about sending a message – it has become an end in itself, and participation in protest an essential test of commitment. Thus the contradiction is created when someone who uses their connections and influence to affect genuine change are ignored or even looked down upon, while those who picket and chant are lifted up even if their actions lead nowhere or serve only to alienate.

I don't question the intentions or desires of those in the social justice community who have fallen into these traps. I believe they are sincere in their shared vision for a more equitable and sustainable society. Why, then, have these issues come about, and why do they persist? If I may hazard a guess, they are rooted in three problems of approach:
  1. a lack of understanding of human psychology, especially regarding motivation and communication;
  2. a lack of patience, leading to high demands for both personal and social change;
  3. a confusion of means and ends, specifically where adopting the terminology and behavior of other activists in order to fit in diverts attention and resources.
Over thirty years ago, I was sitting in a room of other progressive student activists, listening to a seasoned grassroots organizer sharing experience and insight. "Always remember," the elder activist imparted, "that your goal is a better world, not competing to see who's more radical." If those who seek justice and acceptance are not more just or accepting of one another, and less willing to question the effectiveness of their methods, how is that better world to come about?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Putting Away a Childish Argument against Sex Work

I have a friend who is doing a kind of work that, as a young girl, she never thought she'd be doing. She started, albeit grudgingly, because she considered it her least-worst option. Over time, she began to see benefits to doing this work, such as flexible hours and the ability to choose her clientele. As a result, it has become a major source of income, and even with its down sides, she considers it a good job.

No little girl dreams of doing medical coding and billing.

I bring up this story because, if you replace the job description above with "prostitution", then you have one of the most specious arguments for continuing to criminalize and stigmatize sex work. It is an example of the moral solipsism of so-called "abolitionists": since they view the selling of sexual services with displeasure or disgust, then they project that every woman must share that view, and certainly our innocent children. To them, a youngster's hopes for the future are somehow equal to an adult's real-life attempts to find a job that pays the bills.

There are many reasons why children imagine themselves in certain jobs and not others. Ballerinas and movie stars appear more glamorous than cashiers and telephone operators. Likewise, firefighters and police seem more heroic and respected than garbage collectors and street sweepers. Other jobs are simply unseen and thus unknown by younger folks – warehouse stockers, sewer workers, call center managers, and so forth.

There's also a reason why young people begin to change their minds about what jobs they want to do. They may become aware of the risks that come with the job, and determine that they are not worth assuming. Ballet dancers, for example, require years of rigorous training and practice, often leading to multiple injuries, all in a highly competitive environment. A cashier, on the other hand, is able to start with simply training, with opportunities for advancing to management and above. Also, young people learn that, in order to make money and gain experience in the work force, they need to start by working in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

The pressures of parents, peers, and society not only affect people's job choices, but also the attitudes they assume about themselves. We lift up doctors, lawyers, actors, professional athletes, and that sense of prestige is reflected in their pay. We look down on minimum-wage workers, often seeing them as interchangeable as machine parts, even useless, while still relying on their labor whenever we order a hamburger or buy new clothes. This doesn’t always correspond, of course – look how we speak of the noble calling of teachers, while paying them so little – but how we look at different jobs often becomes a mirror for those who hold them.

The argument of "abolitionists" is that sex work does not qualify as work. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, "work is what we do for others", and transactional sex involves providing pleasure and companionship to others, then their proposition makes no sense. They might retort that sex shouldn't be work, because it "ought to" involve caring and intimacy, but this in turn ignores the caring and intimate work of nurses, nannies, and other professional caretakers, as well as the actual interactions between many sex workers and their clients.

What bothers me most when I hear or read that "no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute" is how it perpetuates archaic gender attitudes. We assume that boys must grow into men, and endure the rough and dirty path in that direction – but girls must somehow remain virginal and pure, even if we must paternalize and infantilize them well past puberty.

Women and men make choices that they would not have considered as girls and boys. Their reasons are likewise as varied and nuanced as adulthood itself. Our approval is not the issue; assuring their safety, and affirming their humanity, is what matters.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Self-Perpetuation of "End-Demand" Fantasies

France has now joined the list of countries who have adopted the so-called "End-Demand" approach in opposing prostitution, by criminalizing the clients of sex workers in the vain hope that the steady drop in demand will lead to the eventual eradication of "white slavery". Forget that Sweden, which first adopted this approach in 1999, has seen no measurable drop in either supply or demand. Forget that this may only be enforced with highly intrusive surveillance and harassment of sex workers and clients alike. Forget that this whole thing is being propagated by extremist ideologues who concoct spurious research based on their lurid fantasies instead of actual empirical data.

Let's imagine a large island nation, governed as a federation of five states. A plant grows there -- we'll call it "Gudstoff" -- which, when its fruit is consumed, produces a moderate and temporary state of euphoria and relaxation. Some citizens are overly concerned about this plant, and spread myths about it being addictive and causing psychotic breaks. Legitimate scientists see no harm in moderate consumption, and perhaps even some benefits. But, like all politicians, the leaders in all the regions decide that the sale, purchase, possession and consumption of Gudstoff will be misdemeanors punished by fines.

Eventually, a split develops between the political parties. One is led or influenced by anti-Gudstoff ideologues, who push for these offenses to be upgraded to felonies, couples with eradication procedures. The other, after paying attention to empirical research, favors legalizing Gudstoff and deriving tax revenue, paired with education to address potential abuses. Three of the regions are won by the "anti" party, who institute their strict measures, while the other two become "legal" states.

Anyone with a basic understanding of economics would see that, as the supply of Gudstoff becomes less accessible in the "anti" states, those demanding Gudstoff will simply travel over the border to obtain it in the "legal" states. Result: a seeming increase in demand within the "legal" states, which is met with howls of "we told you so" by those who think Gudstoff is poison. Now I deliberately said "a seeming increase" because, in fact, it is merely a shift in where demand is met, based on local efforts to restrict commerce. The overall demand in the entire island has not changed. But, that doesn't matter to the "antis"; they see Gudstoff sales spike in the "legal" states, and they are quick to blame legalization.

This is exactly what we have seen in Europe when Sweden and Norway cracked down on sex workers and their clients (and make no mistake, they are targeting sex workers), and with France now making the same mistake, we should see that trend continue as more French and Scandinavian sex work clients travel to "legal" states like Germany and the Netherlands. And if the militant "antis" get their way, and they convince more countries to adopt this approach? Making it harder to buy or sell something doesn't make it go away; it only leads to changes in strategy.

It's time that those concerned with the harms connected to prostitution to change their strategies, before they cause even more harms. These harms, if not directly linked to criminalization in any form, are exacerbated by them. This has been noted by a wide range of groups that embrace decriminalization, from the sex worker rights movement to the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. Decriminalization is not a complete solution in itself, but it opens the doors for real solutions to happen. And if we want real solutions, it's time we listened to both the empirical evidence and the experience of sex workers themselves -- not misguided prohibitionists.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Keeping Sex Workers Safe: An Alternative to the Swedish Model

Currently, a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom is conducting hearings on a proposal to implement the "Swedish model" of prostitution law - one where it is legal to sell sexual services, but illegal to buy them. The English Collective of Prostitutes, along with other sex worker rights activists and supporters, have decried this approach actually making things worse for sex workers, especially the most vulnerable who work on the street.

It certainly doesn't help that other punitive and badly worded laws would be left in place. The law against "pimping" would make anyone paid by a sex worker - web designers, accountants, drivers - a criminal for deriving financial gain from the prostitution of another. And two or more sex workers become criminals for sharing a flat, even for mutual protection, because of how the UK's law against brothel-keeping is written. Is it any wonder that the ECP and their allies favor the New Zealand model of full decriminalization, which has already produced measurable results in terms of the relationship between sex workers and police?

I don't expect David Cameron's government to embrace decriminalization any time soon, especially when it seems the leaders of the "all-party committee" appear to have already made up their minds. Many believe that outlawing clients will somehow protect prostitutes from violence and abuse, just as outlawing brothels and third-party agents was intended to do. Intention is one thing, but hard fact and common sense shows that driving sex work underground only makes it more dangerous by depriving sex workers of the tools they need to protect themselves. The fatal flaw in this proposal is the assumption that every client is abusive, and that every transaction in sex work is exploitative. It's no surprise that the most fervent supporters of the Swedish model have refused to listen to sex workers themselves, unlike the government of New Zealand, who included sex worker organizations in their consultations.

There is, however, an alternative to outlawing the clients of sex workers, one that could be implemented under the current system of laws, and which would empower sex workers instead of denying their agency. Many escorts and escort agencies screen potential clients, even developing and sharing resources to do so. Imagine if all sex workers had access to a database - created and maintained jointly by police, sex worker organizations, and other relevant agencies - allowing for quicker and more complete background checks of potential clients. Those with a history of abusive or violent behavior could be weeded out, and sex workers would still retain the right to determine whether they wanted to provide their services to the individual in question. Even street prostitutes would be able to access such a database through an app on their cell phones, and different groups and agencies could provide it free of charge.

This is by no means a perfect solution, but I feel it would be a far more effective one than outlawing all clients, regardless of whether they're respectful regulars or abusive asses. It's in line with proposals made by many European sex workers in the 80's and 90's (yes, I've been studying sex work issues for that long) and there are similar precedents in other commercial activities. Most important, it gives power back to the service providers themselves - and that would seem to me a much more feminist approach than paternalistic overreach.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Love Isn't Everything

A friend of mine writes erotica (or, as I prefer to say, "high-quality smut") and is currently working on a novel about a woman who joins a sex-positive new religion. As Rikki is not that familiar about such matters as ecclesiology and theology, I'm serving as her consultant on such matters. I drafted an outline for the "Free Spirit Connection," listing four "core values" for the group: love, truth, peace, bliss.

"Why four?" she asked. "Why not just say it's all about love, like the John Lennon song?" It’s likely that Rikki was asking rhetorically, fishing for ideas to incorporate in her work, but the answer is important in itself.

Very simply, love may be a universal value, and the emotional starting point to an ethical life … but it's not enough. Love devoid of other values is empty sentimentalism.

When Rikki heard this, she then continued to question (as an advocatus diaboli, perhaps?) why the other values I listed were not merely extensions of love itself. And my two-fold answer: I've not only seen people who loved without embracing these other values, but I've seen people embrace the others even when love was not present.

I've known people who sincerely loved, yet who were dishonest with themselves and others, even deliberately misleading people and ignoring facts. And I've also known people who were scrupulously honest, committed to accuracy and clarity, regardless of whether they had affection or compassion for those with whom they interacted.

I've observed people who, as much as they loved, still found themselves drowning in conflict, unable to resolve it, either because they ignored the reality of the conflict, or because they persisted in trying to intimidate and coerce others into subordination. And I've also noticed people who are exemplars at conflict resolution, as well as preventing unnecessary conflict, even with those whom they disliked.

I've been aware of people who would actually deprive their loved ones of joy and pleasure, or even inflict suffering, ostensibly "for their own good." And I've been equally aware of people dedicated to helping others to be happy, or at least not getting in their way, even for dispassionate utilitarian reasons.

And yes, I would include under the rubric of bliss the pleasures of erotic fulfillment. Too often traditional moralists have demanded that a high standard of romantic love precede any enjoyment of sex, even leading to a confusion of the two. We stigmatize sex workers for entering into provisional covenants with paying clients, no matter how honest or consensual or delightful they may be, simply because they involve sex without love, yet we don't demand love from the barista down the street or the online merchant who takes our order over the phone.

We could debate the configuration of these values – whether dedication to truth, peace and bliss proceeds from love, or whether each is a corner of a "quadrilateral of virtue" – but the fact remains that the mere evocation of love is not enough to create the life and world we desire. If I had to choose, I'd prefer those dispassionately dedicated to truth, peace and happiness, than to those who say they love me and nothing more. It's not just simple arithmetic that three-fourths is better than one-fourths. It is that living decently makes a better world than professing sentiment.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

This is Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, a growing awareness of my sexuality led to my embrace of kink and polyamory. Ten years ago, I began to reconnect with Unitarian Universalism as a home where my sexuality and my values intersected, and where I was convinced that others would be able to do so as well. Indeed, many other kinksters and polyfolk are found in UU congregations and organizations, and shared with me the hope that the radical hospitality they had provided to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks would be extended to us. Now, after much effort, and some serious reflection on recent events, I've come to another conclusion:

I was wrong.

I've often talked about the difference between "UUism" and "UU-dom" with others, much like when some radical Christians distinguish their values and ideals from the practices of institutional Christendom. I had thought that the discordance between the values of UUism and the practices of UU-dom would somehow decrease. Instead, I've seen them grow much worse.

UUism is presented as being centered on love and reason, but UU-dom is more fixated on money and image. UUism is presented as being a community seeking common ground and radical transformation, but UU-dom is run like a business conglomerate which plays off various factions like checkers on a game board. UUism is presented as extending radical hospitality for all, but UU-dom cherry-picks who is really welcome while squirming with discomfort in reaction to the rest.

I still believe in the values espoused under UUism. I am no longer able to put up with the practices of UU-dom.

At the beginning of this journey, I would have enthusiastically told anyone identifying with kink and/or polyamory to check out their local UU congregation. Over time, I've heard from too many such people who have either fled or been driven out, sometimes because they were met with hostility, sometimes over other problems. I've heard from too many leaders within the UUA who will praise my work and encourage me to keep going, but only in private and off-the-record, and with no meaningful support beyond that. As for the pushback experienced in recent months, I won't burden you with the details. Suffice it to say that, with all the dysfunction and dissembling I have witnessed, my only honest answer to what I thought of UUism would be: "Great in theory, but far too few real-life examples."

Perhaps, one day, UU-dom will come closer to UUism's values. But I don't see that happening in my lifetime. So it is time for me to take a different path, and to say ... Goodbye.