Sex, Drugs, Pity and Anger

Putting the Progressive Christian carnival together, while an immensely enjoyable and decidedly worth it experience, took most of my already small portion of blog-energy this past little while, so I’ve only been able to scan recent posts on all those other topics I care about. So despite my as usual late-to-the-party status (not to mention all those parties I’ve now completely missed), I couldn’t quite let this one go.

Background: Nine Deuce wrote this post asking a series of questions about the existence and philosophy of “sex positive” male feminists. The questions themselves, to my mind, are exceedingly disingenuous, and the fact that the original author and several agreeing commenters can’t seem to see just how the wording practically guarantees that it will be impossible to provide a satisfactory answer…well, let’s just say that I’m extremely impressed with those who managed, in comments or in their own posts, to put forth the effort required to answer all of them.

But the one I find myself unable to let go is the following:

If sex work is a valid, feminist choice for individual women, what are we to make of women who say that their participation in sex work resulted from dire poverty, drug addiction, etc.?

Emphasis, obviously, mine. Those who have responded to the question have already made the most important point here, which is that if sex work results from dire poverty and drug addiction, then talking constantly about eliminating sex work is really demonstrating an inability to understand the basics of causality. In other words, treat the poverty and the drug addiction, and you’ll eliminate the need for those particular women to turn to sex work. Eliminate the sex work, and you’ll eliminate one of the few options these particular women have for survival while their dire circumstances continue, likely, to worsen.

But see, beyond all that, I have to come right out and say that the beating of this particular drum angers me, and I’m not having an easy time putting words around exactly why, aside from that whole causality thing. The way addiction is discussed in these conversations seems cursory at best and decidedly lacking in compassion/understanding. There’s this vibe that people who have never dealt with drug addiction can just use the words and we’ll all understand the pathos that this entails. The desperation. The despair. The last gasp. I mean, we’ve all seen Leaving Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy, Walk the Line, whatever. Ren did a great job dissecting the difference between fighting for sex workers’ rights and waging a “save the whores” campaign, and I feel like the talk about drug addiction adds this extra layer of condescension to the bullshit saviour complex. “Of course they need saving! They’re addicts for God’s sake!”

Pity is not the same thing as compassion. Pity continues to see the pitied as other, lesser-than, subhuman. The dregs of society.

You know what scares me about the correlation between drug addiction and sex work? It isn’t sex work. I don’t know if Nine Deuce realized the implications of the causal chain she was connecting there, but she didn’t say (as some do, and as is no doubt true in some cases) that women are inclined to turn to drugs and become addicts in order to cope with the horrors of sex work. She said that they turn to sex work to feed a drug addiction. What scares me about that is that there’s a market that allows some women to realize, when they’ve been assured that they’re essentially worthless, useless, and good for nothing, that this is the last thing they have that they can barter. There’s a market for that because of misogyny, because of the specifically sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, and also because of all of the ways that drug-addicted women have already been assured that they are worthless. But that’s not really a feminist issue, because, I guess, it’s not an everywoman issue. Sex work is the feminist issue, sex work is the thing we need to talk about. If these drug-addicted women were not also prostitutes, they would not ping the radar of feminists in this contexts.

Nobody’s ever going to argue that drug addiction is a good thing, or even a redeemable thing (and here, I decidedly mean to describe the addiction, not the addict, as being irredeemable). It’s damn tough to talk about this beyond just “so treat the addiction”, because I feel like I’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner that suggests that in order to talk about sex work being potentially redeemable, I have to suggest that it might be okay or a good thing or empowering/ful to be addicted to drugs. Believe me, I have no romantic illusions about addiction. This pity schtick? This is a romantic illusion about addiction. I’d really like to see how this attitude toward addiction when it comes to sex workers translates to an understanding of addiction in men. Because, y’know, it’s the same damn disease. The actions and manifestations and strategies for how to survive are likely different based on gender as well as class, community etc, but it’s not like women are victims of it while men are criminals of it.

Moral agency in addiction is a complicated concept, but it sure as hell isn’t different for women than it is for men, though experiences almost always are. Unless you really have an understanding of a lot of that, bringing the topic into a discussion of sex work only serves to add a condescending cherry to the top of a sundae of condescension toward women who are not in this addict/sex worker category and who are actually involved in the conversation with you.

My question on this subject (and I’m only getting angrier as I get more tired and hungry as I write this) is – who is it helping? Who does it really speak the truth to? Not sex workers who aren’t addicts, as Ren and several other commenters demonstrate. Not addicts who aren’t sex workers (because we’re only saving these people from sex work, we don’t need to save them from the addiction, so…). To me, it just serves to emphasize that in the minds of many, addicts and prostitutes are both lower, pathetic, pitiful beings. If we can equate them, so much the easier.

Oh and by the way – what are “we” to make of “them”? Well, for a start, “they” are not theoretical constructs. “They” are people, and what you “make” of them and the “validity” of their lives is not really on the top of their list of concerns. YMMV, of course.

Carnival for Progressive Christians – First Edition

First, thanks to the lovely Philomela for all the work she did (hint: far more than me) in coming up with the idea for this carnival, developing the theme and gathering posts. For me, it’s obviously an extremely important theme, what with feminism/anti-oppression activism and faith being by far the two single most important defining points in my thought. I’ve encountered a few new bloggers working on this that I’ll definitely be continuing to read in the future, and I’m hopeful that this will build and lead to encountering still more. I don’t know about a location for a second edition as yet – if no one else is up for it, I’ll host another one here in early September, but I’m certainly open to volunteers.

The suggested theme for the first carnival was “community”, which I think was a really good way to start, since I suspect that others who count themselves as “progressive Christians” (which, to reiterate our chosen definition, means that we “have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” within the teaching of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental issues”) often feel themselves to be consistent outsiders, “heretics” in nearly every group they encounter. And the support of a community – or support for a community – real or virtual, is therefore something a lot of us are often seeking. I like to think that this little carnival serves as both action and words simultaneously – talking about community (among other things) and building it, just a little, at the same time.

So, without further ado…(just, you know, a cut) Continue reading

Update: Carnival for Progressive Christians

Just a quick note to say that the first edition of Carnival for Progressive Christians – initiated and ably organized to this point by Philomela – will be moving over here. Since it’s been a while since the original call for submissions, I thought I’d give a short second chance – if anyone has anything, new or old, they’d like to submit to the carnival (particularly on the theme of community), if you can get it to me by Friday, I’ll see what I can do. Since I’m new to this carnival hosting thing, send the links by email to asecretpurtek[at]gmail[dot]com (which yes, I’m now checking regularly, though I didn’t for a long while) and I’ll work from there.

I spent the weekend away with a group of people from my church in a context I honestly never thought I’d find myself, and am currently feeling so spiritually energized and renewed, particularly from the experience of community, so I’m really excited to share some thoughts and ideas on that theme and to see what other people are thinking about it (I haven’t had much chance yet to read the already submitted links). I may have to write yet another entry my own self before putting the thing up, actually, which is an excellent reason to submit your own, so as to avoid having the thing become too Purtek-heavy.

Do Men Have a Role in Sexual Assault Centres?

The Kyle Payne story has resulted in a lot of people questioning whether men can/should ever be in a position to counsel rape survivors, and several people outright saying no way, no how. I’ve already said my piece on why I find it problematic at best to go anywhere near the idea that Kyle Payne is equivalent to all male feminists, but this seems a reasonable opportunity to open up some thoughts on women-only space in general, specifically for sexual assault centres (partially as a result of the conversation on this thread b/w hysperia, myself and later, GallingGalla).

I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with women only designations in sexual assault centres. The argument in favour of this limitation is usually that women who have been assaulted sometimes (or even often) find it triggering, intimidating or uncomfortable to be around men when they are in a vulnerable position (admitting to and talking about having been assaulted/abused). I’m sympathetic to that argument, but still disagree with it for a couple of reasons. The main one is that it involves completely preventing men who need the help of sexual assault centres (men who have been assaulted themselves, or even partners and supporters of women who’ve been assaulted, but who aren’t ready/able to come to talk to someone themselves) from accessing the services because we’ve placed such a high priority on what I perceive to be a relatively small proportion of female victims getting exactly the kind of service that they want. I realize this comes off as a kind of dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, and I hope I don’t sound heartless in saying this, because it does, overall, come from caring. Maybe I’m wrong about the proportion, because all there is on that front is anecdotal evidence, but my main point is – allowing men into the space doesn’t hinder the centre from counseling these women at all, whereas the reverse is true.

Now, disclaimers on that point – I am not making a “reverse discrimination” argument. What I’m looking at is how best to get counseling services to those affected by rape and sexual violence. Period, full stop. The second disclaimer, as I said to hysperia on matttbastard’s thread, is that I think she is right that there are plenty of ways for men to access services in the mainstream medical establishment, and there are an abundance of male professionals outside of feminist sexual assault centres. True. Whether there are people who are prepared to provide the highest calibre of service to an individual dealing with sexual violence is an entirely separate question. And, again, while I’m well aware of the financial limitations faced by SACs, I think there are compromises that may be possible – could the space be women only on certain days of the week, for example, while allowing men to access it on one or two days? Female survivors who really do feel that they need to know that no men are going to be around while they start to discuss this issue can be informed of these arrangements, and schedule appointments or groups accordingly.

The issue of male counselors is perhaps more challenging, but my primary point is essentially the same as the above – our concern should be in listening to individual survivors and providing the options that they need in order to heal. And here, I’m going to switch over to talking mainly about women survivors, because I think I’ve amply covered male survivors, and yet I think that the wishes of some women are not necessarily given the same weight in these conversations about the issue (and I don’t even mean trans women and the whole horror show that is the reality that it’s okay to exclude them entirely from rape crisis centres in this country, as “men”). I’ve heard women mention that the way they’ve been treated by certain women has been worse than the way they’ve been treated by men in any context, or that women have presented more challenges in their rape recovery than men have.

I’m a very extroverted person, which means, among other things, that I talk through my shit with a number of people as part of coping and dealing. I’ve seen a number of professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, rape crisis counselors, etc – and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers or mentors about the sexual violence in my past. I’ve heard minimizing from both men and women, victim-blaming from both men and women (possibly more from women) and gotten wonderful, kind, loving support from both men and women. There were times in my life when I honestly preferred to talk to men about these issues. I never heard anyone say that though – sometimes a woman who’s been assaulted really needs a trusted male she can turn to to talk about how she feels. I heard, over and over, that many survivors find it difficult to be around men at all. I heard that women often think that only women can understand, but that we live in a society that discourages women from finding that space in which they can talk to another women about experiences like that. I’m not saying these messages had a hugely detrimental impact on me, personally (though they may have on others), because the women professionals I’ve spoken to at two different SACs have been phenomenal, but there was a sense that I felt like I should only want to talk to a woman about what I was feeling. And you know, when fragile like that, I’ll pretty much reach out for any script that someone hands me that I think might help – if I have some trust for you/your philosophy/your organization, and you tell me this is how I’m going to feel better, I’ll go that way.

Why did I feel more comfortable around certain men at times? I’m not entirely sure. It could be grounded in a lot of internalized patriarchal, male-approval-seeking bullshit, or equally bullshit granting of added authority to male voices, or a genuine need to overcome the sense that men are not trustworthy and prove that not all of my trust in men has been misplaced, or it could just have been the specific individuals that were around me at these times and the nature of our relationships. Fuck if I know. And fuck if it should matter. Plenty of people, anti-feminists among them, will point out that women’s desire to not be around any men at all following an assault is not a rational decision (the anti-feminist point being that she should therefore stop feeling that way), and…well, of course it’s not. But that’s okay, because see, listening to the woman tell you what she needs in order to get past the feelings that she finds intolerable is kinda that point. So I don’t really feel like it’s important to find a rational reason why I might feel the way I have about what I need, and I don’t really feel like it’s okay for people to tell me that why I feel that way is just wrong.

Which again comes back to the compromise point – is it possible for all of us, who have experienced sexual violence, to be getting what we need? To be listened to? To find our own way through recovery, which is going to be affected by all of our other baggage, by the specifics of the assault that happened to us, by our personalities, by whatever? I think I’ll finally be introducing a new category with this post, which is “Not Rocket Science”, because this shouldn’t feel as complicated as it does. Men can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll use positions of trust among vulnerable people to do it. Women can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll do the same. On whole, statistically, men do more damage to women in more significant ways. No, this is not an equal situation, and honestly, if that’s a point you want to argue, then I don’t think this is the place for you.

This lengthy argument is entirely from what I consider a pragmatic, practical perspective, without even touching the philosophical stuff (because there is an essentialism to saying that men are inherently, naturally, biologically, more capable of this kind of manipulation than women are, or that women are automatically safer, more understanding, more comforting…almost like they’re naturally…nurturing and empathetic or whatever). The point is to help people recover from sexual violence. Universalizing a certain kind of reaction is not okay, has never been okay, and continues in feminist and non-feminist or anti-feminist circles alike. Categorically deciding that certain people – men – can’t help another category – women, or female victims – isn’t going to help, either.

Moment of Clarity

Every so often, a situation hands you exactly that way of explaining clearly why a given behaviour is bullshit in a way that even people who really struggle with this feminism thing can find kind of revealing.

I often want to forget how difficult it is at times to explain to people why street harassment sucks, and that it’s not designed to compliment, it’s designed to intimidate. Betacandy did a fantastic job spelling a lot of this out in a general way a while ago. Specifically, I really like this point:

Most often, catcalling at a woman is a way men socialize with each other. You’re trying to impress each other with who can say the most outrageous things, or who can get a smile or glance from the most passing women. The woman is just part of the scenery, so it’s no surprise you’re oblivious to her feelings. Her responses don’t represent a person with sensitivities to you; they represent a finish line, and tell you whether or not your verbal volleys are scoring.

I don’t know how many different ways I can explain to some people that what they’re doing is decidedly not treating women they’re catcalling like human beings, so I do like these convenient anecdotal demonstrations of the point – A friend just told me a story about how she was walking home from work a couple of weeks ago and a bunch of guys started giving her the standard bullshit catcalls. “Hey baby come on over here” kind of shit, whatever whatever whatever. They’re in a group of about ten or twelve, she’s by herself. She’s ignoring them, making a point not to look at them, and speeding up her pace.

Suddenly, one of them recognized her, and realized she’s someone the entire pack of guys knew, so he said “Hey guys, stop it – it’s M. Leave her alone”. And they did. A couple even shouted apologies (which she also ignored).

If asked, I’m pretty sure these guys would not have copped to trying to intimidate random women on the street. But as soon as it was someone they knew, there was this level of consciousness to it – oh, we’re bothering her, and she’s someone we like, so we should stop. She has a name, she’s someone we’ve spoken to, she’s a damn human being – and lo and behold, as soon as that gets recognized, her emotions and discomfort are clear, and this is an unacceptable way to treat her.

Again with this women are people thing. Why the fuck is this so damn hard to grasp?

Utopian Politics

I was listening to an episode (now months old, having long been gathering mold on my hard drive) of CBC Radio’s Ideas not long ago featuring an interview with John “so not the scary Mars-Venus guy” Gray called “Utopian Dreams”. The argument he makes draws together a number of points that I seem to keep coming back to, and that I’ve seen a lot of other bloggers/people who think trying to deal with, based on the feeling that there’s a connection between the kind of mentality that promotes fundamentalist religion and a certain branch of secular politics, or feminism, or any number of other “isms”, actually. It’s probably not dissimilar to what’s being argued in the book The Fundamentalist Mind, but I haven’t gotten around to picking that one up yet.

The basic premise is that there’s a certain kind of secular political attitude that’s actually more “religious”, in that it depends on pushing society toward an ultimate utopian goal. Since Gray is a historian, one of his main points is that this kind of political thought didn’t arise until after the advent of the same belief in Western religion. Many of the specifics of Marxist theory and practice, therefore, couldn’t have happened outside of a post-Christian culture, regardless of how atheistic the philosophy is. He talks a lot in the interview about how the so-called “war on terror” generally, and the war in Iraq specifically, exemplifies this mentality – those who buy into the war (again, either generally or specifically) believe that the actions currently being undertaken will produce an “ideal” state (sometimes locally, often globally), a utopian democracy (Hell, from my outsider’s perspective, even the seemingly unquestionable notion of the inherent superiority of the US model of government, democracy etc, including the completely standard use of the terms ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘unamerican’ to automatically mean bad bad bad and wrong wrong wrong, qualifies as a utopian concept, but that’s really another story).

I feel like this premise goes a long way toward explaining the connection that I see between a number of seriously problematic political and activist philosophies – they all depend on some utopian vision at the end of it, present day be damned, ends-justify-means, and yes we CAN make this perfect world if only we can get RID of X, Y, Z. This applies, as suggested, to Marxism and to the war on terror, as well as to any kind of extreme racism/nationalism…but also, I think it applies to certain subgroups of feminism.

Anti-porn feminism emphasizes eliminating pornography and prostitution in order to eliminate violence against women and misogyny in general. There are two main possibilities for countering this point from a feminist perspective- the first is to say that the strategy isn’t going to be successful (and that maybe the productive methodology would reverse the cause-effect roles in that equation) and the second is to say that misogyny and violence are the problems in and of themselves, and that if those could be successfully eliminated, then porn/prostitution wouldn’t be objectifying, wouldn’t be violent, wouldn’t centre the male gaze and would celebrate women/sexuality of all kinds. I personally favour the second, not least because I think the first is the far weaker argument, and the one that continues to ignore the needs/opinions of sex workers (those most immediately affected by any correlation between misogyny and sex work), but also because that argument still buys into the utopian mentality that assumes we can know, with absolute certainty, what a world without sin would look like and where this teleological journey is ultimately taking us. Conversations with people who believe that they do know this can be extremely frustrating, because the very idea that it’s possible that other genuinely believe that what they are describing is not actually The Ideal is just not on the radar.

There’s a reason it feels not that different from trying to have a conversation with a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, and it’s not just that both of those categories are against pornography. I tend to think it’s also not just about the polarized view of the world or about the apparent inability to tolerate dissent. I’ve never taken a course in “Utopian Literature”, but I know a few people who have and am led to believe that the first thing you learn on that theme is that utopian literature is always dystopian literature, making the point that whatever political processes are involved in utopia creation inherently result in dystopia. I was saying in a conversation recently that (in addition to about a hundred other reasons I’m sick of the constant handwringing by feminists about the woeful state of the Movement These Days) there’s something simultaneously pessimistic and extremely naive to arguments about how feminism has lost its way, become distracted by all these *other* issues that aren’t the One True Feminism at all. I say naive because, often, these arguments depend on harkening back to First/Second wave feminism, and contrasting the fact that they achieved Monumental Social Change (citing legal reforms like suffrage, anti-violence measures and abortion rights) with the disparate, disunited, unfocussed Third(ish) wave…and it seems like the point gets missed that legal reform and actual change are two entirely different animals, and while both are necessary, mistaking the lack of the former for the completely lack of the latter is pretty condescending, while taking a nostalgic “those were the days” kind of attitude while assuming the former represents Success is really a very limited view of the situation.

Personally, I actually have to give this some more thought, because I think in a lot of ways I do subscribe to a somewhat utopian form of religion, even if I find it problematic (at best) in politics, and I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a worthwhile division to make.

What Kyle Payne Reflects

In the ever-widening discussion of the predatory actions of Kyle Payne (see Ren Ev for a roundup listing of many, many blogs that have written on the subject), there has been some discussion of whether certain groups – in particular, radical anti-porn feminists and male feminists – should have to defend themselves from all being tarred with the Kyle Payne brush. Ren (again, since she’s been most tirelessly beating this drum ever since it was brought to her attention, even despite those *horrifying* burns she’s dealing with) has a post responding to the defensiveness from some radical feminist bloggers (who had previously linked to Payne, or included him in a Carnival), in which she makes the most important point there is on the issue: Kyle Payne’s actions reflect Kyle Payne, and only Kyle Payne. They don’t reflect on anyone who believed him and trusted him, confided in him, or shared certain elements of his opinions.

I know I made a bit of a mistake in the way I expressed myself on GallingGalla’s post on this, and as I said in follow-up there, I do get that there’s a victim-blaming tone to what I said. What I was trying to get at, and I still think it’s important, is that one of the things this story (again) brings to light, is that it’s not okay – and not possible – to assume that all members of Category A are good (and by extension, non-members of Category A are less good, possibly even bad) and trustworthy on all things in all ways at all times. Kyle Payne may or may not actually be against pornography – much as many of us have been psychoanalyzing the guy, there’s only one person living in his head, and thankfully, it ain’t me. But logic 101 says that it’s pretty much irrelevant. Accepting the premises “Kyle Payne is anti-porn” and “Kyle Payne is a rapist” does not lead to the conclusion that “anti-porn activists are all rapists”. Not sure if the “not rocket scientist” in me needs to point out that if the premise is switched to “Kyle Payne is pro-porn”, the applicability of the conclusion remains the same (ie. non-existent), but…

Male feminists, same deal. Part of the point I was trying to make at GallingGalla’s place is much better elucidated by belledame and Betacandy in comments over at Feministe:

belle: but yeah, there -are- some red flags. it’s not foolproof though. I do also think that sometimes, stuff like “dick=bad, estrogen=safe” actually makes it -harder- to identify predators, because honestly that’s not what it’s about.

Beta: It’s really not easy to identify predators, and yet our culture makes victims feel bad for not recognizing them. “Didn’t you know there was something off about him?” and so on.

Post “Prince Charming as Abusive Control Freak”, yeah, I’m pretty wary of the kind of guy who dresses everything up in terms of just how completely he is going to save me, the one who seems just far too good to be true, the one who always knows exactly the right words and turns of phrase like maybe it’s actually kind of practiced…but “male feminists” categorically? Not the same thing. Because you know, the thing with predators is, if the red-flag-warning-sign for potential predator becomes “identifies as feminist” then real predator will shift identifiers, will find a new one, will adapt to the given situation.

Sometimes, as was raised in that Feministe thread I’ve linked, I worry that the more I unpack this stuff, the more I come to the conclusion that there’s no way to trust anybody, ever. And the thing is…there isn’t. Not for real, not with absolute certainty, not completely. Not on sight, real or virtual. There’s no quick answer, no quick solution, no marker that will make all of this easy and simple and protect us, forever and for always, from ever being hurt or victimized again. Hell, my grandmother is still coming to terms with the very real and very personal reality that ordination to the Catholic priesthood does not automatically make a person trustworthy and safe. My dad, a high school principal post-Columbine, was subject to demands from angry parents that he ban trench coats, with the justification that they could be used to hide weapons. His response was “And if socks can be used to ban weapons, should we also ban socks?” The delusion that we’ll find the marker, that we’ll be the ones to know, is only hurting us and making us more vulnerable to the one who doesn’t fit our assumptions.

This isn’t new. Kyle Payne reflects exactly what predatory behaviour has always reflected – predatory behaviour. Adaptation. Manipulation and deception. Showing people what they want to see. Not radical feminism, not pornography, not male feminism, not men in general, not feminism in general

(*ETA: Just to be clear, I do stand by the original reason I made that comment on GallingGalla’s post, which is that she’s right to express anger at her own categorical exclusion from radfem conversation because of who she is and what she believes, and then to get extra angry when others don’t seem to understand why she’s pointing out the multiple problems with this logic, including the fact that this exclusion doesn’t prevent predators from getting in anyway, and never can)