The Left and Sex, From ‘Free Love’ to ‘Love Free’

Hippie_Love-4562‘SJW’ has become a cartoonish stereotype. ‘Regressive Left’ is dying on the vine as a term, thanks to its overuse in certain quarters and the absolute refusal of much of what – at least – calls itself the left to pause for even a moment of self-reflection. Still, these terms – even if used in scare quotes – retain utility, even if they switch some people off from what you’re saying the moment they come up. They retain usefulness because they describe a genuine phenomenon, a recognisable stereotype, a particular group of people.

It can be hard to explain to people the problem, the feeling of absolute betrayal that many ‘old school’ lefties harbour towards this new group, Lector-like dressed up in our severed faces. Ironically they call themselves progressive, and that’s why ‘Regressive Left’ is accurate – and stings them.

There’s a particular case-in-point that I think serves as a particularly graspable instance of their behaviour and distorted thought processes. One that I think may help people to get a grasp on what the ‘Regressive Left’ really is, why it’s regressive, and why it’s a betrayal of the traditions and values of the left.

That case-in-point is sex.

The modern ‘Regressive Left’ has an attitude towards sex and sexuality more often found in the evangelical right in times past and has even allied with the repressive and authoritarian right in their mutual goal of mandating and controlling people’s sexuality.

Anti-porn campaigners take tea with Conservative Party leaders and help shape internet censorship legislation and ‘porn passes’. Something that evidence suggests will only profit a handful of porn companies and may make sexual harassment and even rape more common, not less.

SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) inflate bogus stories about sex trafficking and encourage the adoption of the Nordic Model (criminalising clients) as a way of tackling sex work. This, like anti-drug legislation against the advice and erudite entreaty of experts, including actual sex workers who choose that way of life and all but beg for decriminalisation.

A Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, can – without a hint of self-awareness – simultaneously hail the Trump balloon (rightly) as a symbol of British commitment to free expression while banning pictures of a woman in a bikini from the London Underground. This while left, and right are, again, united in their determination to censor and control social media and to criminalise all manner of, harmless, online behaviour.

We have radical feminists trying to prevent trans participation in Pride, to the point of laying down in the road in protest and delaying the march. At the same time, we have others trying to control and mandate speech, neither camp being the kind of people who place personal liberty and choice at the top of their agenda.

In the world of kink, something I take no small amount of interest in, there are feminists trying to claim that BDSM is inherently misogynistic and patriarchal. This seems peculiar because BDSM includes femdom (something that some give a pass) and has explicit consent, something feminists often push, built-in, voluntarily. BDSM has been becoming ever more popular as unhappy housewives try to put their 50 Shades fantasies into practice and vanilla men, feeling unable to be masculine outside the kink scene, seek someplace they can be themselves.

That’s right. Conventional, entirely vanilla masculinity now – pretty much – qualifies as a fetish.

It didn’t used to be like this. The left used to be synonymous with libertine philosophy and allowing people to let their ‘freak flag fly’. It is for this reason that the left has long been seen as the ally of the LGBT(&c) community and why the liberal left has often been decried as ‘degenerate’ by the hard right. Now the hard left has their own term they give to excuse their censorship and authoritarianism; ‘Problematic’.

It was the left that brought about the NHS, greatly helping women throughout the UK with their sexual health. It was left wing campaigners that helped push the Conservative Government of 1961 to offer the contraceptive pill on the NHS, and it was Wilson’s Labour Government that legalised abortion in 1967. It was also a Labour Government that followed through with the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The sexual revolution, the idea of giving people choices and rights over what sex they had and with who, was firmly an ideal of the left, and one that won the arguments with the right. Sexual liberation was also women’s liberation, an end to dorms and chaperones and escorts, freedom from the threat of pregnancy and the tyranny of biology – a necessity to the full adoption of other rights and full equality. It was the left that understood and articulated that what people got up to, consensually, between one another was nobody’s business but theirs (so long as nobody got permanently hurt).

Now? Well, we’ve already been over it. Social conservatism, SWERF and TERF, and attitudes that wouldn’t be out of place in Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League. The way the left has become censorious and authoritarian has begun sticking its nose into peoples’ bedrooms the way the Christian Right used to is just one example of their betrayal of left-wing values. It’s just the one, I think, it might be most accessible for people to see.

Sometimes, to progress, you actually have to double-back.

Who Adores the Whores?

thumbI do.

Much like strippers and adult entertainment workers, off the clock these kinds of people are some of the most real, honest and good people it has ever been my good fortune to meet. As a libertine, egalitarian and humanist I see no problem with what any of these people do for money and in many cases admire them for it.

I listen to them when they talk to me, many of them I would count as friends, accomplices and co-workers. Some are no longer sex workers, some are, some through circumstance, some through explicit choice that this is what they love to do.

Am I to disbelieve the former stripper who laments the loss of the money and the camaraderie with the other girls, now raising her three kids on a shoestring? No. I wish she felt she could go back to it and I wish her community didn’t hate her for what she did years ago.

Am I to look down on or regard as disempowered the ladies who make their money from webcam shows and photosets because of mental or physical illness that limits their options? They’re amongst the bravest, toughest, proudest people I know. They could subsist on benefits and charity – barely – or they could take care of themselves doing something like this, that they often enjoy.

Am I to believe the prostitutes, dominatrices, escorts and others are all coerced or forced? Even when there’s no pimps? Even when there’s other things they could do, being brilliant, intelligent and tough women?’

Am I to believe the former male escort who confided in me that the women who wanted sex – and there were many – were not the kind you might expect but rather the wealthy women who had sacrificed family, relationships, marriages for career?

No, obviously not. This is anecdotal of course, my experience, their experience, but there’s statistics to support them, and principles to hold to.

There are many jobs that many of us would consider shitty, awful jobs. Cleaning toilets or road-sweeping at 3am being a couple of examples. Yet there’s people who swallow their pride and do them for the money they need to live, or the money to make life worth living and we do not look down on them. Many of them end up taking pride in what they do as well, refusing to be looked down on.

There are many jobs that people are trafficked into doing. Winkle picking, agricultural labour, meat packing, casual labour, garden work, scrap collecting for a pittance. We do not shame them, nor do we regard those who do the work properly’ as being worthy only of our contempt or pity.

There are many jobs that people are forced into doing. What else is workfare or prison slavery but free or nearly free labour mandated by the state? A modern plantation culture for the poor and the disenfranchised, the defenceless? Where are the police, smashing down the doors to ASDA or WalMart to arrest the customers and carry off the employees to ‘safe’ accommodation?

Why do we treat sex work, pornography, stripping any differently to the way we do any other job? Is there any rational reason why we should do so?

No, there is not, save the special status and fear of sex that much of society seems to have. Seven veils of moral panic, thinly disguising the prurient interest of the enviously disgusted, terrified of their own sexuality.

Much of this seems to come from modern feminism, the judgemental eyes of women who want choice, but only the choices they approve of. There’s a continuum of this feminist-led or abetted neo-puritanism running through, seemingly everything. From Mary Honeyball’s dishonest and destructive advocacy of the Norwegian Model for sex work, to Gail Dines ludicrous and misguided attacks on pornography. From the ‘extreme porn’ laws to the opt-out internet filter. From spurious prosecutions of internet trolls to rowdy and sometimes violent protests of men’s issues talks. From ‘trigger warnings’ in academia to the undermining of presumed innocence in cases of alleged sex crime. From ‘No More Page Three’ to ‘Lose the Lads Mags’.

There seems to be an attempt to police sexuality, male sexuality, commercial sexuality, in all its forms from games (Sarkeesian) to SF&F (SFWA) to convention and conference policies overreaching their bounds (Ada Initiative, Geekfeminism), to conflating sex work with trafficking  and a new slave trade. There’s obstacles to payments, to crowdfunding, to sales, not – seemingly – on any matter of actual need or principle but rather because it’s a vulnerable community to gouge for extra cash and to confiscate funds from. Nor does it even have to be directly related to anything ‘blue’, simply having worked as a sex worker or being one raising funds for something else can be enough to see their money disappear, perhaps never to be recovered.

There’s some peculiar, unholy alliance between the traditional forces of political and social conservatism and the most active, media-present forms of modern feminism. It’s an alliance that seems to make no sense but while the reasons are different the goals are the same. This is the feminism of Tumblr, of Criado-Perez of Watson, the kind that can legitimately be called ‘shrill’ and emotional. Short on facts, long on lies, propaganda and emotional manipulation. Most distressingly, it is a form of feminist that cannot tolerate dissent, even from other women, discounting their lived experiences  which are otherwise considered so important.

The price for the women to speak up is to risk being identified, outed and shamed. It is to invite huge amounts of invective, not of the pointless, trolling kind but from journalists, politicians and the general public frothing as they digest the latest lies.

For men, and which I can speak more directly about, it’s assumptions of misogyny, of desperation, of being a pimp or John rather than simply someone taking a side an an argument. If any of that sticks, somehow your opinion is not valid. It’s not as though sex workers are offering discounts for men who speak up on their behalf. It’s just the right thing to do, the best thing for all concerned.

Prohibition simply makes things worse.

 

Aethics: On Sex Work

eadycruikshanketchingbmSex work is always controversial, largely because anything to do with sex is always controversial. Within this term I am including pornographic actors, professional doms and submissives for hire, strippers, prostitutes, rent-boys, escorts and other related professions under the whole common cause of being shamed and blamed for various of society’s ills.

Currently the big conflict is the confusion between people’s concept that prostitution is synonymous with sex trafficking, and the impression of voluntary sex workers that they’re acting of their own accord. It is fair to say that there is a problem with sex trafficking issues, but it is unfair to think that everyone who sells sexual services is forced, coerced or otherwise wrangled into doing it. There are many women, and men, who are quite vocal on the topic and assert that they enjoy their work and have chosen to participate in it – for any number of reasons. There’s no good reason not to take them at their word.

What can a strictly rational approach tell us about sex work, its societal effects and what might be the best approach to it?

What are the Facts?

  • Statistics in this area are notoriously unreliable and incomplete and many of the studies undertaken are intended to be biased to confirm one point of view or another. As a grey/black trade getting hard data is going to be notoriously difficult. We must, then, proceed without the benefit of reliable statistics.
  • One study believes that there are, or were, some 80,000 street prostitutes, that is, those not working in a brothel or out of a flat/house. Whatever the number, these are the most vulnerable and exposed.
  • Prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, are vulnerable to rape and abuse from clients especially given how hard it can be to go to the police for help.
  • Sex trafficking does exist and is an horrific abuse of men, women and children.
  • Other forms of trafficking also exist and possibly/probably on a much larger scale than sex trafficking. Illegal workers are an issue in many countries, often little more than slave labour and controlled in a similar way to those who are trafficked for other reasons. Many of these workers end up hurt or even killed.
  • Voluntary prostitutes and other sex workers should be taken at their word when they say they are not coerced and/or that they enjoy their work.
  • A driving factor for many lower-end prostitutes is economic. You could frame this in the form of economic coercion, or you could see this as a way to make ends meet when no other is available. Sex industry work is also common amongst people in higher education, helping to pay fees while they work through college. Such economic factors also drive people to take less than ‘ideal’ jobs of all kinds just to make ends meet.
  • STDs are of concern and the clandestine and ephemeral nature of commercial sex contact provides a possibility for STDs to spread unknown.
  • The potential damage to existing relationships when someone pays for sex is a concern, albeit a moralistic one. Affairs are essentially the same thing, and may be more damaging being more emotional. On the other hand, access to commercial sex may enable relationships to continue despite sexual or physical problems in one partner, allow partners to explore their sexuality in different ways or to provide an outlet that prevents someone straying in a more significant manner.
  • Sex, physical relief, is a basic human need. Sexual contact promotes physical and mental health. Relationships are not viable for everyone and many people spend a lot of time outside relationships. There are people with various physical and mental issues that mean they cannot access the ‘singles scene’ and these people too have a need for physical intimacy. People who care for severely disabled partners also have needs and these can be served physically at a distance from intimacy.
  • Legality is variable and ill defined, depending on national and local laws. This makes for a confusing mish-mash that serves no-one and is often contradictory or inconsistent. For example, it being illegal to purchase (or ‘dispense’) sex for its own sake, but it being legal to do it in the production of pornography.

What can I conclude?
The truth is that we have long known what the best approach to the ‘problem’ of sex work is. The problem is not that we have no idea what to do about this, but that it is politically unpopular. This is the same issue facing drug legislation and even much broader problems such as crime. As such the issue is one of educating the general public and reaching a critical mass of voters, rather than simply knowing what to do.

The current harmful sides of prostitution – the presumed risk of STDs, the hotly contested degree of trafficking, money going to criminal organisations etc – are minimised or eliminated by bringing sex work (of all kinds) out of shadiness and darkness and into some sort of legal and regulatory basis. Trafficking would be undermined, licensed premises and sex workers could have to fulfil certain criteria for licensing, medical aid and free contraception could be targeted and provided where most required.

The only real reason, that stands to scrutiny, that anyone might be against full legalisation and legitimisation is ‘moral’, which is a rather slippery and subjective way to go about making any sort of policy. With it fully legalised people would be free to partake and participate, or not, as they wished.

Ultimately it does no real harm that people do not bring upon themselves. It provides many goods. Could contribute tax revenue, aid social mobility and despite all that what people do with their own bodies should be up to them (provided that it causes no real harm). People sell their bodies and talents in innumerable other ways without the same judgement or comment (manual labour) and there seems to be no reason that stands to critical examination to disallow people from buying or selling sex.

With pornography, including ‘extreme’ pornography, so long as everyone involved is consenting I see no reason to censor it or make it illegal. With strip clubs, lapdancing and so forth it seems peculiar to me to fixate upon the paid-for nakedness when alcohol is on sale. Clearly we’re willing to accept the unquestionable societal ills of booze in exchange for the comfort and business it brings with responsible use.

Full legalisation and responsible regulation of any and all of these professions will remove the involvement of the criminal element and create a safer environment for both customers and sex workers. It’s a complete no-brainer.