The Meaning of Rights (aka “Not Being an Asshole, The Sequel”)

A few weeks ago, it was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Renegade Evolution wrote a post on Alternet lamenting the lack of feminist commentary on the subject (not having noticed it at the time, I feel a *little* hypocritical saying something three weeks later, but remaining timely in the blogosphere, both reading and writing, has just never been a strength of mine). Though she forewarns in the post that she’s feeling “surly”, she actually ends up being quite reserved and gracious given what’s at stake. She’s right–we all have issues that affect us individually the most, and the rights of sex workers is not at the top of everyone’s list, even among feminists. She acknowledges that, but laments that there seems to be very little space on the list at all for something that she cares very deeply about. Point being, Ren’s post is actually quite kind. While I don’t have nearly the passion for the issue that she does, I would like to consider myself an ally in fighting for sex workers’ rights, not least because I consider it the most basic level of “not being an asshole”.

I have a friend who used to be involved in the sex industry. She and I haven’t talked much about her experiences or attitudes towards that part of her life, since that’s just not the kind of relationship we have. At one point, however, as part of a conversation only tangentially on the subject of violence and sex work, she told me about an old friend of hers who had been beaten and raped with a hot curling iron before being sent out for the night. She was instructed that if she didn’t make enough money, injured or not, there would be worse to come.

It’s just one story, and it’s the story of a friend-of-a-friend. But that’s what we’re talking about when we’re looking at “rights”. This is the kind of story that Ren hears about all the time, simply because she’s paying attention, and this is the kind of thing she’s thinking about while she’s listening to “feminists” who blame sex workers for perpetuating misogyny. And these are the comments she gets, immediately:

I think you’re just looking for an excuse to criticize feminists and make yourself out to be some kind of victim of feminists.

I wish no one ill, but this whole “sex workers” empowering movement throws women under the bus by validating a man’s right to buy sex from women. I don’t think they have that right. (from a comment entitled “maybe you should look to men to support since they benefit”)

Why should I spend my time supporting women or men who voluntarily support the patriarchal status quo? What ever ‘sex workers’ may claim – it is not a ‘job like any other’ fair enough do what you want to do but don’t expect me (as a father of two daughters) to give any of my energy to supporting men’s perceived right to female bodies. It’s just not going to happen.

And finally, someone gets to the real point, at the same time as missing it:

When you ask people to support “rights for sex workers”, you hand them a problem. What, exactly, are sex workers rights? How can you expect support for an undefined agenda? There may be a manifesto spelling it all out somewhere, but it isn’t encapsulated in an understandable phrase.

How and why do rights for sex workers differ from the usual human rights?

I actually support everyone’s right not to be degraded and exploited, but I don’t think that’s what the author has in mind.

Except that it is. That’s exactly what the author has in mind, she just focuses her attention on a particular segment of society whose right “not to be degraded and exploited” has been completely, heinously, maliciously ignored. I find it telling that this commenter feels the need to say that s/he “actually” supports everyone’s “rights”, as though this should be in any way surprising, outlandish or controversial to RenEv. I missed the part of her article where she advocated taking away the right to not be exploited or degraded from some other, non-sex-worker segment of society so that there’s enough non-degradation, lack of violence and non-humiliation to let the sex workers have some of it.

There’s a perfectly well-defined agenda here, and asking the question in the second paragraph pretty much hits it–sex workers’ rights are not different from human rights in general, seeing as how sex workers are human and all. The agenda is simply to get everybody else to acknowledge that. I don’t need a manifesto to figure out the general point, but if you’re looking for an understandable phrase to start with in engaging in this kind of discussion, I’ve found not being an asshole to be a useful and attainable goal.

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6 thoughts on “The Meaning of Rights (aka “Not Being an Asshole, The Sequel”)

  1. Jay says:

    1.) Total agreement…holy crap, we’re entering a whole new strata here of “Jay and Purtek agreeing on stuff”. 🙂

    2.) Men shouldn’t have a right to buy sex from women? Isn’t this the exact same thing as saying, “women don’t have the right to sell sex”? So we’re going to protect women by…denying them rights?

  2. purtek says:

    1) I know. Which one of us went crazy? 🙂

    2) Yeah, actually, it pretty much is, which is an interesting point. I come down quite strongly on the side of decriminalization/regulation of the sex industry, and this is why. The specifics of exactly how it should happen and what it implies for additional elements of exploitation, patriarchy and objectification are open for debate, but we do need to get beyond the paternalistic notion that somehow we’re protecting women by not limiting their options.

  3. Jay says:

    1.) I’m pretty sure it’s me…you were already crazy. 🙂

    2.) This is similar to something I asked Beta about on her blog recently, and the thoughts from the two of you are rattling around, perhaps coalescing into something I need to write (not an article so much as a bunch of questions I have). Dunno yet.

  4. BetaCandy says:

    Another problem I have is that “sex work” encompasses a huge variety of job types, job situations, tasks, and types of people in them. You have young girls who ran away from home where they were being raped and ended up being pimped cruelly and mercilessly, and this is not what they ever wanted. You have women who had lots of options and chose to be porn stars or phone sex operators or whatever.

    How can anyone say anything more specific than “good luck to them all”? Unfortunately, most of us imagine one type of sex worker, and all our statements hinge on her, but the others talking to us don’t know that. We all end up talking apples and oranges, and thinking we disagreed about the same topic.

    I think for a more meaningful discussion we need to break it down into specifics.

  5. purtek says:

    I think you’re definitely right if we’re talking about how to eliminate gender inequalities that exist and are perpetuated through sex work, or the specifics of how to ensure rights for sex workers.

    But (and knowing you, I’m confident you weren’t saying this, I just like to spell things out) at this point, I’d just like to be able to talk about sex workers of all kinds as though they were human beings. To my mind, the arguments that I made re: housewives can’t be feminists apply to that phone sex worker as well.

  6. belledame222 says:

    *nods to both of those last comments*

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