BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Legality, Morality, and Dehumanization

January 25, 2013 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Drugs, Inequality, Sex

According to Oliver Willis, some of us on the left are dumb because we aren’t ready to declare that a woman arrested for prostitution with her son present is an open and shut case of wrongness. He claims it isn’t about whether or not we think prostitution should be legal. It is illegal. She brought her kid. She involved “her child in what is very clearly illegal activity.” End of story.

But does Willis really think that people should never do anything illegal? Back in November, Willis claimed that Martin Luther King was one of the most important figures in black American history. And in this piece, he asked “Do people on the left think that Martin Luther King simply held one protest and those in power immediately rushed to pass the Civil Rights Act?”

I certainly don’t think that MLK held one protest. I know that he held many protests. I also know that he spent quite a bit of time in jail for breaking the law, as did a whole lot of other people in the civil rights movement. It was, after all, MLK who said “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

But perhaps Willis just meant that children should never be involved in illegal activity, even the illegal activity he might find moral. It so happens that I am currently reading Freedom’s Children, interviews of people who were children during the civil rights movement. Kids were actively recruited by MLK and others to participate in protests and nonviolent disobedience. They integrated movie theaters and restaurants. They went to jail. They got their asses kicked. Does Willis think that shouldn’t have happened? I doubt it.

What about immigration, Oliver. You said Romney lost because he “embraced in a bear hug the most fringe anti-immigrant position out there.” You seem to support immigration reform and scoff at Republicans who use the term “amnesty” to refer to legalizing those who crossed our borders without papers. Do you think immigrants who crossed the border illegally with their children should be strung up from the nearest lamppost?

No. I don’t believe that this is really about legal or illegal. I think Willis would agree that disobeying unjust, immoral laws is perfectly acceptable. If not, he has some explaining to do about his love of MLK. This is about Willis’s opinion of sex work and the people who do it. It is about his willingness to dismiss and dehumanize someone because they did something he finds icky.

Back when I took my first class on the drug war, I had this click moment in my head. Even though I had never been in favor of the drug laws, even though I knew many people who were caught up in the injustice system, I never really recognized the scheme for what it was. How I never saw the process of dehumanization is incredible to me. I mean, I had been reading about Nazi Germany’s laws against Jews since grade school. I knew how vagrancy laws were used during Jim Crow. I understood how laws were enacted to criminalize certain groups and justify their oppression. But somehow I never saw it clearly when it came to the drug laws.

And it wasn’t until relatively recently that I really gave a lot of thought to the laws against sex work. Who are they meant to control? Where did they come from? Who is getting their freedom taken away? What is the result of the War on Sex Workers?

But Willis doesn’t want to ask those questions. He doesn’t want to ask why a person might do sex work. He doesn’t want to ask why sex work is looked down upon more than working for Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t want to ask why someone might have to bring their kid to work with them. To ask those questions would mean seeing that woman as a human being and not a “criminal” – that classification which justifies taking someone’s freedom, taking their children, marking them for life.

When someone dared suggest that perhaps the woman’s choices were limited and that we should try to understand more about her circumstances before we judge, Willis chose to get butthurt that people had lower standards for the poor. Apparently, he thinks that following the rules and working hard will eventually pay off for everyone – despite all the evidence to the contrary.

No, Willis. Asking questions, refusing to completely dehumanize that woman, is not a “degrading” assumption that “a poor person must break the law to eat and that that’s somehow okay.” It is an understanding that some human beings have more limited choices than others. It is an understanding that laws are often made for the purpose of controlling certain groups of people. It is the unwillingness to dehumanize and degrade.

Willis believes in “absolutes, ” by which he means that laws are laws and should be followed by all. Nobody gets a break. The guy who stole millions in mortgage fraud schemes is exactly the same as the starving guy who stole bread.  For him, anything else means “no moral guidance, no right and wrong… anarchy.”

Except that “no moral guidance” is not what anarchy means. Anarchy means no rulers. It means no hierarchies that allow a few powerful people to make laws that oppress the rest. It means understanding that moral and legal are not the same.  It means freedom, mutual aid, and respect. It means trying to understand what your fellow human beings are experiencing and not assuming that your morals and choices are universal.

Laws against sodomy, laws against miscegenation, laws against drugs, and laws against sex work have all been used to target marginalized people. And even when some of the people who support those laws have good intentions – like those who know how destructive drug abuse can be – they cannot just close their eyes to how the laws are used. That is immoral.

The Road to Hell

April 29, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change

My mother has a platitude for every occasion. One favorite is “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I thought about that saying as I read this piece on prostitution arrests in Honolulu. I have no doubt that some of the people pressuring the Honolulu PD to make prostitution a priority think they are doing a good thing. And I understand how someone hears about really awful trafficking stories and wants to do something about it. But the end result of their pressure is that a bunch of women are getting arrested, sometimes on multiple occasions. They even published some of their names in the paper. How the hell is that supposed to help the women that they are supposedly so concerned about?

The paper notes that, in nine months, the police have arrested only one pimp.  An associate dean at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explains why:

A prostitution arrest is very easy. You can do that quickly. You can go out on the street or go on Craigslist and get the individuals involved. But to get the pimp, it is harder to make that case.

Let’s set aside the fact that a whole lot of prostitutes don’t have pimps. It is an absolute truism that the law goes after the easiest pickings. If a six month investigation will result in one arrest of someone with a good attorney (who will probably get them off), but one afternoon on the corner can result in multiple arrests of people who can’t afford an attorney, who do you think most police departments pursue?

Back in 2004, a report was prepared for the Racial Disparity Project in Seattle. Like in the rest of the country, blacks and Latinos in Seattle were being incarcerated at higher rates than whites. The researchers set out to determine why. They found that the Seattle PD focused on downtown areas where crack was sold, ignoring areas where white people were selling heroin. The researchers found no “racially neutral” explanation for the disparities. In other words, the police were targeting the black community. It is always going to be the people with the least status who are targeted by the laws. Always.

I know I have written about this before when I talked about Over Reliance on the Law and Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You, but I just keep coming up on the same mental block. People see something horrible and they feel like they would be a bad person if they did nothing. And the only thing they can think to do is pass a law or call an authority or violate a person’s rights in some way. If to save one person, you hurt ten (or ten thousand), what the hell good does that do?

I was recently contacted by one of my friends, we’ll call her Carrie. Carrie is worried about one of our mutual friends who is going through a really rough time right now. Bad stuff. Deaths and illnesses and breakups and generally more than anyone can really handle. Our friend, we’ll call her Sandy, is not necessarily utilizing the most healthy coping mechanisms. (Neither would I be, but that’s another tale.) Carrie wants to do something to save Sandy from herself. I get it. I love Sandy. She is family to me.

But trying to save people from themselves almost always goes horribly wrong. It is how you get prostitutes being jailed in the name of saving people from sex work. It is how you get minority drug addicts being jailed in the name of saving people from drug addiction. And it is how you get women being institutionalized against their will in the name of “helping” them.

I’m not suggesting that we all just think about ourselves and do nothing about suffering. If someone asks me for help, and I can give it, I will. If someone says that something I do hurts them, and I can stop it, I do. If I see injustice and I have the ability to call it out, I will. If I can be there for a friend, not judging them or telling them how to live their life, I’m there.

I realize that means that I will sometimes have to watch people that I love hurt themselves. And that sucks. But we can’t save anyone but ourselves. We can’t prevent one another from experiencing pain. We can be there to lean on. We can be kind to people. We can make people laugh. We can remind people about the parts of life that don’t suck. We can forgive people their imperfections.

We can respect that the road that they are on may be the one that they need to travel, even if it is long and ugly and dangerous. Because really, in the end, all those roads end in the same place.

Are all Johns (and Janes) the Same?

November 18, 2010 By: Mel Category: Sex

Last Tuesday I linked to an article that really bugged me, but I hadn’t quite put my finger on all the reasons why.  It was about a brothel for women that is opening in New Zealand.  The author of the article was predicting that the brothel would be a failure because women “have to be paid to have sex with strangers.”

At first I thought what was bothering me about the article was that same old tired trope about women wanting relationships while men just want to get off.  There is no way to know for sure what women would or would not want if we lived in a society where women having sex with multiple partners (or any kind of sex) didn’t come with such massive social disapproval.  There is no way to know for sure what men would or would not want if we lived in a society that didn’t hold up James Bond as their emblem for promiscuous, manly virility.

Even in our present culture, surveys show that the number of sexual partners that men have and women have aren’t very far off.  And in some of the surveys, where the numbers are farther apart, the respondents who reported high numbers admitted to lying.  Not to mention all the societies that have had much different ideas about sex. Jesuit missionaries from France were shocked by the sexual freedom that Montagnais-Naskapi Indian women had.*

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t what was really bugging me about the article. What was bugging me was the portrait this woman was painting of who would go to a prostitute and why.  She didn’t go so far as to claim that every guy who goes to a prostitute is some emotionally stunted pervert who just wants to get off without having to treat the other party like a human being (as so many people do).  But she did infer that the only reason someone would go to a prostitute was because they wanted to have anonymous sex with strangers.  And she implied that they prefered that anonymous sex to other options that they had.   But what were the other options?

Mike Jones is the gay male escort who outed Ted Haggard.  He wrote a book about his life called I Had to Say Something.  In it, he describes some of his experiences with clients.  He wrote about a client who had diabetes and lost both of his legs, about a client who was ninety and just wanted someone to touch him, about clients who were filled with shame because they lived in a society where their desires – for men, for cross-dressing – were considered vile.  In other words, a lot of his clients were people who had serious challenges to having sexual relationships. Surely it isn’t only men that face those challenges.  Should they be ashamed? Vilified? Criminalized? Abstinent?

There is something really disturbing to me about someone who refuses to see whole groups of people as human. And that goes for people who may be participating in something that is problematic in a lot of ways.  There are serious issues related to the sex industry – trafficking, violence, economic exploitation – but the people who vilify all the Johns and victimize all the sex workers are being just as dehumanizing as they claim the people in the industry are.

Isn’t it possible to understand that human beings have complex reasons for the things that they do?  Isn’t it possible to recognize the humanity of people who do things that you may not agree with, while still being honest about how they may be contributing to a problematic system?  Can’t we hold two thoughts in our head at the same time?

* From Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Arrested for Posession….of Condoms

May 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Sex

Think twice before you come home with that value pack of condoms. Police from San Francisco to Tel Aviv use condoms as evidence of prostitution.

San Francisco police continue to use condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.

In Tel Aviv, massage parlors are raided by police and, if there are condoms on the premises, they are assumed to be “brothels.”

A prostitutes organization in the United Kingdom, where condoms have also been used as evidence, wrote an open letter to the home secretary decrying the practice.

According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, arresting women for carrying condoms is prevalent in the Philappines as well.

In a moment of sanity, and in an effort to control the spread of HIV, the Chinese government recently decided to end the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

Presumably the anti-prostitution police are taking action based on their supposed concern for prostitutes, or at least for public health. So explain to me why they do something that makes prostitutes less likely to use condoms? Stupidity? Hypocrisy? Worse?

* Thanks to Audacia Ray and Stacy Swimme who brought this up at their session on Sex Work in the Time of Obama at Sex 2.0 this weekend.