Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Prostitution and Christian feminism

Back in 2011, I wrote a sort of defense of Christian feminism on this blog.  I realize that it's bad form to quote your own old posts, but it's also bad form to reinvent the wheel, so as my jumping-off place for this post let me repeat some of my own words about Christian feminism here:
To me, the initial burst of feminism, which focused on women's rights to vote, to own property in their own names, and to be treated legally and otherwise as fully human beings in their own right, is perfectly compatible with the Christian understanding of womanhood. In Genesis, after all, the word used to describe what Eve is to be to Adam is often translated "helpmeet." Scholars disagree (as biblical scholars usually do) about exactly what the original Hebrew words are supposed to mean, but they do know that it conveys a couple of ideas: Eve is an opposite to Adam, but she helps him; her role is to help him. Not wait on him slavishly or put up with abuse or bad treatment; not act like a queen and expect him to rush around and wait on her and fulfill her most outlandish whims: help him.

It is unfortunate that this idea of woman was ever twisted in such a way as to create a reality in which women were seen as secondary, second-class, or second-rate. But it was. It is one thing to say that women and men are supposed to be helping each other according to their unique gifts and abilities in the primary duty of all human beings, namely, to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next, and quite another turn it into a mandate requiring women not only to accept that men see them as inferior beings, but even to think of themselves that way, and to insist that a true understanding of God and His plan for women really does mean that women are and must be inferior to men, as too many Christian churches tell their female adherents in word and deed even today, and as society in general told women for generations.

If we don't understand that feminism began as a reaction against such an un-Christian idea of women as a sort of unhappy afterthought of God's which made it the duty of men to keep them in their place, we will never understand why we are where we are today.

But the Christian feminist can't just stop there. She can't point to the many real ills of the past, and, indeed, in some societies, of the present, and use these as a justification to attack her own female nature, to hate men, to kill unborn children or agitate for their killing, or in other ways to create an even greater rift between men and women than there was before.

The goal of Christian feminism should be a return to the idea of balance, of men and women as equal partners and helpmeets to each other in this work of knowing, loving, and serving God, in a relationship in which neither is exploited, hated, or dismissed, and neither is a tyrant or a despot, but both are respected and loved for their whole selves, including their masculinity or femininity.

I use this as the starting point for this post for a reason: I've been thinking a lot about a true vision of Christian feminism lately, and how, properly understood and employed, such a vision might really benefit Christian women and help them to recapture the notion of true womanhood, which is neither a vision of vintage femininity locked in a particular era nor a perpetual battle waged against men (or, even sillier, against male pronouns).

What prompted this line of thought of mine?  Well, lots of things, but today specifically I've seen two opposite cases where a proper philosophy of Christian feminism (and given the negative connotations of the word "feminism" I wish there were a better term, but haven't seen one used yet) might help people come to terms with certain realities that are being discussed.

The first thing is a discussion, taking place over at Rod Dreher's blog,  about whether or not legalizing prostitution has been a good thing.  As anyone familiar with Rod's comment boxes can guess, the pro-prostitution people are outnumbering us anti-prostitution folks by a significant majority.  Trying to argue that prostitution is intrinsically evil over there is pretty much an exercise in futility, but that doesn't stop me from trying.  But I also try to frame the issue in terms of the exploitation of women (and, indeed, of the vulnerable men who end up in the sex industry too) because it seems to me to be a position consistent with ordinary secular feminism as well as Christian feminism to say that prostitution is inherently exploitative, ugly, and harmful to those engaged in it.  Surprisingly enough the secular feminists seem to be more divided on the issue than I might have thought, and I realize that for many feminists, prostitution is just another form of "empowering" consensual sex, even though what is being consented about has more to do with a desire for money driven by absolute desperation than anything else.  It may be left, ultimately, to Christian women to articulate that what is gravely wrong with prostitution is that it reduces human persons to objects, just like torture or abortion reduces human persons to objects, and that in particular the women who make up the vast majority of sex workers worldwide are not only at risk morally but also substantially at risk of physical and mental harm, exploitation, and slavery from the "work" they are doing.

The second thing I saw today that made me think of Christian feminism is this article about the Irish Prime Minister apologizing concerning the infamous Magdalen laundries:
The Irish State has finally said sorry to 10,000 women and girls incarcerated in Catholic Church-run laundries where they were treated as virtual slaves.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced into issuing a fulsome apology on Tuesday evening to those held in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland.

The apology in the Dáil (Irish parliament) came about two weeks after a damning 1,000-plus page report was released detailing the way women and girls were maltreated inside the nun-controlled laundries.

Survivors groups were enfuriated when the Irish premier initially declined a fortnight ago to explicitly apologise for the state's role in sending women and girls into the Magdalene Laundries, sometimes simply for coming from broken homes or being unmarried mothers. [...]

The Taoiseach said what happened to the Magdalene women had "cast a long shadow over Irish life, over our sense of who we are".

He said he "deeply regretted and apologised" for the hurt and trauma inflicted upon those sent to the Magdalene Laundries.

Apologising to the women and girls of the Magdalene Laundries, he told parliament that they deserved "the compassion and recognision for which they have fought for so long, deservedly so deeply."

He said he hoped "it would help us make amends in the state's role in the hurt of these extraordinary women."

Believe it or not, I've heard the Magdalene laundries mentioned in positive ways in some places and among some people--people who think that the right sort of thing to do with an unwed mother is to incarcerate her in a convent, for instance, for an unspecified amount of time, and make her work for no pay and with no promise of release, just as happened in the Magdalene Laundries.  Unfortunately these people are not the secularists at Rod Dreher's blog, but some of my fellow Catholics, who think that all sexual immorality is really the fault of women, and that if women would just go back to being virtuous and chaste men necessarily would also, so it's really the fault of feminist and liberated women that men ever sin.

Again, I think the voices of Christian women, perhaps Christian feminists, are needed to counter these kinds of ideas.  Incarcerating these young women in convents, some of them not even guilty of sexual sin and deeply sad and puzzled about why they were sent away from their homes, was never a good idea.  In ages past when feminism wasn't even on the horizons plenty of men coerced or tricked or manipulated or forced women to be their partners in sin, and there were even outwardly "virtuous" women who secretly engaged with full agreement in sinful activities.  But to see sexual sin as always being women's fault is to cultivate a belief that women are somehow more fallen, more flawed, and more responsible for sin, when in fact a woman in the Middle Ages who sold herself for bread for her starving children was a lot less guilty than the man who bought her services.

There are people who think that women who engage in prostitution are always the really guilty parties, while the men who pay them are more easily forgiven.  I see women caught up in prostitution as vulnerable and often as exploited victims, since few women ever choose such a life with full freedom.  And I remember a certain life experience of a late Franciscan priest, who recounted that as a solider in World War II he would give his pay to the girls seeking to prostitute themselves to servicemen on the condition that the girls would go home (which they gladly did).  This did not make the good priest beloved by his fellow soldiers; in fact, it made them angry that this fellow soldier/future priest was spoiling their fun.  But he was trying to save the girls and was trying to save them, too, if they ever had the grace to realize it.

The Christian feminist will not excuse completely a woman who freely engages in prostitution, but neither will the Christian feminist say that a woman can easily choose for herself or her family to starve instead, or that it is easy to escape one's pimp or kick one's drug habit or overcome the other pathologies that lead to prostitution in the first place.  On the other hand, the Christian feminist will not excuse a man's sin in visiting a prostitute on the grounds that it's really the woman's fault for making herself available, but she will not ignore the reality that men and women both need each other's help and cooperation to overcome all sins, including the sins of the flesh.  As I said when I first wrote on this topic, men and women are supposed to work together as equal partners and helpmeets, and if we could strive for that, we might see a world where prostitution was seen as unthinkably degrading to men and women alike.


geeklady said...

I have generally preferred suffragette to feminist, it feels like it avoids most of the conflict between vintage femininity versus modern faminism, and really gets at the root of the matter.

I can't take credit for it though, L. Jagi Lamplighter mentioned once she preferred suffragette over feminist, and I thought she was right, so I acquired it from her.

vera said...

I once read a modern Jewish exegesis of Genesis, that translated that word as "partner." Tyndale, of course, would not have, living when he lived, helpmeet would have been the thing.

I quite agree with you about prostitution itself. But the issue of legalization is wholly different and separate from that. The issue of legalization is about alleviating harm via social policies and laws, and driving prostitutes into illegality always seems to me to bring more evils that it's supposed to cure.

B et G said...

I am glad to see this issue being treated sensitively in film recently...Les Miserables and Downton Abbey come to mind. It blows my mind that anyone associates prostitution with freedom; most people would not choose such a way of life, and like euthanasia, once such a thing is legalized, it becomes a pressure--if someone *can* support their families by that means and it is "respectable", how could they in good conscience let old-fashioned scruples get in the way, if they can't find another job? I can just see the boards for unemployment benefits making sure that folks have very *thoroughly* done their job searching...Brave New World.... @ Vera, as for the practicality of keeping it illegal--am I just being dumb to think that the difficulty could be solved by making pimping or offering/paying another for sex, illegal, with serious consequences?
Rebecca in ID

Tony said...

but some of my fellow Catholics, who think that all sexual immorality is really the fault of women, and that if women would just go back to being virtuous and chaste men necessarily would also

God created women to civilize men. When women are uncivilized, then men are worse. When women behave like ladies, it prompts men to behave like gentlemen.

but she will not ignore the reality that men and women both need each other's help and cooperation to overcome all sins, including the sins of the flesh

I will remind you of this next time the "modest dress in church" discussion comes up.

vera said...

Rebecca, the vast failures of the drug war, and the lessons of the Prohibition should be enough to show that "the difficulty" cannot be solved by making ANYTHING DESIRABLE illegal with serious consequences. Did busting hipsters for a bit of pot in their pocket work well where you're from?

I agree with you that making it "respectable" does not seem to fall into the category of "good ideas."

Red Cardigan said...

Um, Tony, where exactly in Holy Scripture or Holy Tradition is found the idea that the purpose of God's creation of women was to civilize men? Was Adam uncivilized before the Fall? That's news to me--you mean even *unfallen* men are uncivilized? Oh, dear.

And I've always said that a woman should not dress provocatively on purpose to inflame men. I just don't think that ordinary attire such as slacks or a short-sleeved shirt are automatically provocative or are intended to be so (unless they're skin tight or leather or something).

B et G said...

Vera, I can't tell whether we're disagreeing or agreeing now. I would agree that it is silly to arrest people for having small amounts of pot on them. What a waste of money and energy. And...the prohibition was silly because it did not recognize a legitimate use of alcohol. I would think you would spend your time and tax dollars going after those who making their living selling heroine rather than the users--and you'd go after pimps etc, rather than prostitutes who may be in a position of being exploited.

Kirt Higdon said...

I agree with Vera on the harm caused by making vice illegal. The war on drugs has made the US the world's leading police state in terms of sheer numbers of people incarcerated without seriously denting the number of drug users. Most prostitutes are in the business out of opportunistic desire for easy gain. Some are even very well educated and using their profession to pay university tuition to become better educated. For those who are in it against their will (usually foreigners), there are already laws against kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment which can be used to free such unfortunate women. As it is, illegality of prostitution is simply considered a cost of doing business by the willful while subjecting those in the business unwillingly to jail and/or deportation.

vera said...

Rebecca, we agree and disagree, as usual. :-)

The harm of the Prohibition was not coming from the mistaken estimation of how harmful alcohol really is. (Many people still think we should shun demon rum.)

The harm lay in its logic, and its consequences. Ok, we illegalize "this drug". What happens? This drug does not disappear. It goes underground. It becomes more expensive, there are big profits to me made, so organized crime as well as various crooks move in and violence goes up. The people who buy this drug are turned into criminals overnight, which in turn breeds disrespect for the law. The quality of this drug becomes uncertain, and people begin to sicken or die because of adulterants or because they misjudge the dose. The money made from this drug corrupts judges, the police and governments everywhere, while the potential taxes are lost. And so on. This applies to any vice people want badly. The logic is inexorable.

I am not as familiar with the issue of prostitution as I am with drugs, but I think the logic is similar, because it's rooted in economics. Illegalizing something and then punishing users or sellers never worked and never will. Do you know they tried it with coffee once? And we all know how that one worked out... ;-)

vera said...

I found a fairly recent NYT article which outlines some of the consequences of going after the pimps and johns:

"End-demand strategies could also lead to more pressure on sex workers from pimps and traffickers. “Pimps don’t accept the rationale that there’s a new law and fewer johns now,” said Paul Holmes, a counter-trafficking expert and former Scotland Yard official. “So if a girl is working 16 hours, she’ll have to work 20, and under more brutality.”

However well-intentioned law-enforcement strategies might be, they have been engineered with little attention to the wants and needs of sex workers — and to the violence many of them have faced from government employees.

A study in Illinois found that police account for 30 percent of all reported abuse, compared with just 4 percent arising from pimps. According to one young person cited in the Young Women’s Empowerment Project’s study: “I was going to meet a new john. It turned out to be a sting set up by the cops. He got violent with me, handcuffed me and then raped me. He cleaned me up for the police station, and I got sentenced to four months in jail for prostitution.”

B et G said...

I don't know, has it ever been tried? I understand that a law has to be practical and executable or it becomes not only a waste, but harms respect for the law by being impotent. So as far as I know, in many places there are laws prohibiting Adult shops, but no laws against the use of (adult) pornography by individuals. So far the laws with regard to prostitution and drugs have included prosecuting drug users or prostitutes. It seems to me worth a try to attach severe penalties to the big guys and only to them. Your quote from Mr. Scotland Yard sounds like a possibility, but why is that possibility taken more seriously than the obvious possibility that there would be greater pressure because of official state sanction, and much more exploitation going on? Or does exploitation disappear because we don't use that word anymore?

As for the idea Kirt mentioned, that we can't make "vice illegal"...really, are you prepared to say that without any qualification? Are there any lines you would draw at all? Do you draw the line at an age where you think informed consent takes place? Then after the age of consent, unless someone is physically forced, there is no exploitation if they say "yes"? I just want to be clear on that...also I want to be clear that your opinion is really that most people who sell their bodies are people who were brought up in good homes where they were valued and not abused but are just doing this to pay for college because it is easy money,...I am trying to get straight your picture of what a typical profile of a prostitute is.

Kirt Higdon said...

I didn't say that vice can't be made illegal, B et G, I said it causes harm to do so and it does. Prostitution is a highly decentralized and distributed business; it can't be stopped just by putting a few "big guys" out of business. Many prostitutes are free-lancers who advertise on various internet sites or work for escort agencies who cover themselves by having their escorts act as independent contractors and sign agreements not to engage in prostitution. Some work in massage parlors, some of which are highly coercive, others not so much, and of course some massage parlors and spas are completely legit. Others work as porn actresses or strippers. Recently there have been stories in the news of prostitutes fronting as Zumba instructors or yoga instructors, both of which occupations are probably about 99% legit.

I have no idea what percentage of prostitutes are coerced and how many are willing. I suspect the latter vastly outnumber the former but it's probably impossible to say. Making prostitution in general illegal is of no help to those who are coerced. Application of laws against kidnapping, slavery, and unlawful imprisonment would help the coerced and victimized by not charging them with any criminal offense and also by not wasting law enforcement resources on non-coerced prostitutes. Nor is it necessary to outlaw all prostitution to make it illegal for kids. It doesn't work that way with liquor or cigarettes.

vera said...

I don't know either what's been tried. I know that the Scandinavians and in Holland, they have run experiments but I have not followed them enough... and now NZ is too. If I were to design a law, I would talk to prostitutes and pimps a lot, they know the system, and what may work. Folks who have not encountered this in their lives don't really have a clue, and when they get all worked up and want to drive something into illegality, I think Prohibition. The road to hell, paved with really really good intentions.

Kirt said that illegalizing vice causes harm, not that you can't. That's what I am saying too.

I think that vice can be *regulated* with better results. I have no idea if there are data on the percentages of women who go into it as call-girls, and who go into it as exploited street women. Maybe you could look? And then, of course, there are the gold diggers who marry but really, sell their looks and their bodies for a good living...