Tag Archives: harassment

The Commodity of Sex

I’ve wanted to do a piece on sex workers for a long time (the first draft of this was in November of 2011 to give you an idea).  Sex work (prostitution) is a tricky topic in feminism with no clear conclusion either way and good arguments on both sides.  I think my problem is I’m not entirely sure where I fall, there’s just too many issues with both sides.  I’m breaking this piece into bullet points of pros and cons.  Ultimately I favor decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution…but it’s really a lesser of two evils, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with my own position even.

1. First, let’s stop pretending it’s an merely an issue of choice.  “If a woman wants to sell her body for sex, it’s her body and she should not face legal penalty for doing so.”  Well, yes, if it were that simple, then there wouldn’t even be a question.  But it’s not that simple.  Most women working as sex workers were sexually abused as children and/or raped before the age of 15 with a very large number having been raped as a child by at least 3 perpetrators.  Sex workers are disproportionately impoverished with 75% being homeless or previously homeless.  89% of prostitutes want to leave sex work but have no other means of survival.  Certainly there are some women who are not financially desperate, victims of childhood sex abuse, and work in sex 100% by choice, but they are exceedingly rare.  These numbers do NOT back up the claim that women are entering this profession by choice.  To quote Catharine MacKinnon, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices most often found doing it?”  The choice between starvation and homelessness or selling your body isn’t really a choice.  Desperation, abuse, force, and coercion are not choosing to be a sex worker.  In fact, in some cases it’s rape.  Legalization does absolutely nothing to solve these issues, but it doesn’t exacerbate them either.

2. …but let’s also recognize that in areas where prostitution is legal (even if Johning isn’t), the women in the industry have comparably better lives.  Nevada’s 12 county legal prostitution isn’t without problems, but the sex workers in that area are regulated and legally protected.  Pimping is still illegal, prostituting is not.  Women who are raped by their Johns can go to police (for those not in the know, prostitution in legal brothels is typically done in a pay-by-service model wherein a sex worker can deny clients and/or specific services at any time for any reason and acts and prices are negotiated beforehand).  Johns are required to wear condoms for all sex services.  Sex workers are regularly tested for STDs.  Brothels are strictly forbidden from recruitment or encouraging women (or men) to become sex workers.  But despite these laws there are still abuses and women are still exploited.  It’s not a good industry, it’s just comparably better than street work.  Perhaps a better example is the Swedish system that makes the purchaser the criminal, not the woman.  Since the change in prostitution laws and crackdown on Johns took place, Sweden’s sexual assault rate dropped to the lowest in Europe.  By 2008 the prostitution rate dropped by half.  Women could now go to police when they were being exploited and abused.

3. Keeping prostitution illegal hasn’t stopped prostitution from occurring.  Legalizing prostitution doesn’t remove danger but it sure as hell doesn’t help abused sex workers seek justice either.  Women performing sex work illegally are often told “what did you expect?” when trying to report rape or abuse.  However, legalizing prostitution has the burden of further solidifying the patriarchal norm of considering a woman’s body not her own property.  Ultimately as long as there is poor job opportunity, sexual abuse of minors, poor education, and cyclical poverty, exploitative prostitution will exist.  By making prostitution legal (but not necessarily Johns) and keeping pimping illegal it is a step towards helping sex workers have personal autonomy and more control over the industry they work in.  In Spain, which has very lax laws regarding sex work, sex trafficking is rampant, so legalization doesn’t even necessarily decrease the exploitation factor.

4. The prevalence of violent pornography has made prostitution more dangerous, not less, and legalization can possibly make it worse.  Nearly all porn contains anal sex and a huge amount has verbal and/or physical abuse of the actress.  This wasn’t the case even as recently as the 1990s.  Because prostitutes are often treated by Johns as outlets for sexual gratification they fantasize about or cannot get at home, sex work has taken a darker turn as well.  It is in most cases not only not really a “chosen” career, but also a violent and dangerous career.  Moves to make condom usage mandatory in pornography was met with serious outcries from industry big-wigs and from porn viewers who complained that it ruins “the fantasy,” completely ignoring the fact that it’s real people with real health concerns performing.  Sex entertainment, sex work, and sex trafficking are very closely intertwined.  The problem with legalization is that prostitution will become more like porn in that since services are more openly shown, women will more or less be forced to perform acts they might not even want to do (such as anal sex or violent BDSM) or risk losing business.  We’ve already established that most women in sex work do not want to be prostitutes in the first place, adding the element of violent sex acts just to stay “employed” is another layer of horror.

5. …but legalization and regulation allows women to openly network, form support systems, and even unionize.  Prostitution is not going away.  It’s not.  It’s idealist to say “prostitution should be illegal because it’s exploitative and makes women property.”  Yes it’s exploitative, yes it makes women’s body into property, and both of those things are bad but keeping it illegal only serves to make former sex workers transitions into the non-sex job force more difficult because it adds a criminal record to their history.  Slut shaming related sex discrimination already occurs in the workplace, having a sex-work offense on a permanent record only serves to keep women out of regular employment.  There is an international sex workers union, it would be nice for sex workers in the US and around the world to have access to this group and the legal protections it advocates.

In the end, we should work to abolish prostitution…but we should legalize sex work first.  The end goal should be to stop sex trade because it’s rooted in the sexual abuse of minors and taking advantage of impoverished women.  We need to work towards ending what causes prostitution in the first place, but we can give sex workers tools to keep themselves safer until that is achieved.

The Problem With Football is the Fans

From high school through college and up to the professional level there has been an abundance of controversy surrounding arguably the most popular sport in the US, football.  From post concussion syndrome to domestic violence to creepily objectifying behavior and a seemingly endless number of rape accusations that are almost always swept away, there seems to be an endemic problem with violence (especially against women) in the game.  Some have even called for a ban on the game at younger levels.  I would argue banning football is totally unnecessary, but banning fans might solve all of football’s problems.

Naturally I don’t expect fans to actually be banned from football, that’s ridiculous, but all of the major problems with football are from fan obsession.  How so?  It’s not team members that create the entitlement culture around football players, it’s the fans who hold up the players to godlike levels.  AJ McCarron isn’t out there saying to ESPN, “hey, look at how hot my girlfriend is because I’m a football player,” presumably because AJ and Katherine have a relationship that has to do with more than her attractiveness and his athletic ability.  But the announcers certainly did.  The millions of dollars generated from bowl games that might encourage schools to keep accused rapists on their active game day rosters isn’t from student ticket sales, it’s from commercials, media, and fans.  Even at the high school level, where huge sums of money aren’t involved, players accused of rape with video evidence are often times not faced with punishment for their crimes because their value as a football player is greater than that of some girl.  Parents in the school district openly discussed the girl as somehow deserving of the assault and argued the “boys will be boys” defense.

Rape culture isn’t a unique problem to football, indeed when Jordan Johnson was acquitted last week the assistant attorney general used the “why didn’t you fight back/scream,” argument against his accuser, which we hear in cases not involving football players as well.  What football uniquely has is this weirdly patronizing assumption that either:
A. The woman actually wanted to sleep with the football player (because he’s an “alpha” and “who wouldn’t?”) and is just having regrets after being found out.
B. That his position as a football player makes it okay to take sex from women he wants because football is just that important.

Neither of these conclusions should be considered acceptable.  If you replace “football player” with “bus driver” or “line cook” none of these accused men would have literal legions of fans supporting them and debasing their accusers.

Fan obsession doesn’t just hurt women.  In the 2012 NFL season quarterback Mat Cassel suffered a serious head injury during a game and as he was being removed from the field fans cheered his injury.  Let me say that again: a man received an injury that could likely lead to irreversible and lifetime agony and people cheered about it.  That’s not just crass, it’s sick, it’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a sociopath not from thousands of “adoring” fans.  The very existence of “injury reports” undermines the health of players and takes the ownership of their bodies away.  Players cheat on their preseason cognitive tests so the when they are concussed and actually failing the test, they can continue to play.  Retired players dealing with the horror that is CTE have to sue just to get their employers to even acknowledge that the environment they worked in was unsafe (and that they knew it was unsafe) and scramble to try and get some (what should be considered worker’s comp) medical care for their injuries.  Men are killing themselves, in both the literal suicide sense and the longer term metaphorical sense.  What has the fan response been?  “They knew the risks.”  “Football is a dangerous game.”  And to cheer head injuries.

Merle Kessler said, “Football players, like prostitutes, are in the business of ruining their bodies for the pleasure of strangers,” and I’d have to agree.  Football players have always played hard, even back in the days of small crowds and modest contracts, it’s the love of the game.  The ever-increasing size of players  (which likely has some unnatural causes), the harder hits, the playing injured, that all comes back to the fans and the money that comes from the fans.

You want to get rid of the entitlement and rape culture rampant in football?  You want to stop the horrifying brain injuries of players?  Tell the fans to shut up.  Tell the fans to stop making gods out of men.  And for God’s sake, stop pretending that a game is more important than a life.

There is no such thing as “The Friendzone”

If you spend (waste) any time on the internet for social activities/entertainment, you’ve probably stumbled upon Reddit or Tumblr at some point.  A tumblr called “NiceGuysof OKCupid” has exploded in popularity recently.  As it turns out this site is comprised almost equally of fakes (unfairly putting quotes from one profile onto the pictures of unsuspecting others) and legitimate (horrifying) pictures with profile quotations such as “No is just a yes in disguise.”  “Always friendzoned because sluts and whores always go for assholes.”

The explosion of online dating has led to a new avenue of risk for women in part because expressing violence and hatred after being denied sex is easy to do online – you don’t have to say anything face to face and risk bystanders and/or law enforcement getting involved.  Tumblr blogger JHameia (linked above) took matters into her own hands, but no doubt countless other harassers continue to degrade their victims until the woman in question deletes her profile and/or changes her email address to avoid being harassed.  Certainly these men don’t behave this way in public during in-person social interactions – they’d have a hard time interacting with anyone with the slew of restraining orders placed on them.  Labeling women as “fat/ugly, sluts, whores, bitches,” because they had the audacity to deny you sex is a particularly perverse privilege to profess (excuse the alliteration).

These sentiments certainly aren’t new, even before online dating the myth of “the friendzone” has been pervasive in young adult dating culture for decades.  How many romantic comedies do you see where the hot, nice girl who’s with a macho asshole boyfriend ends up with the quirky, less attractive, pining “friend” who was right in from of her face all along?  I don’t blame “nice guys” for thinking that “the friendzone” exists, I’m just saying they’re probably not actually nice and not actually friends.

The Friendzone implies several things:

1. That being “nice” is all that should matter in a relationship (male or female).  This simply isn’t the case – being nice is a standard of behavior, and if that’s all you offer to someone then you’re probably not bringing much to the table.

2. That sex is a negotiation wherein friendship can/is traded for physical affection (the “women aren’t just machines you put nice coins into and sex is dispensed” dilemma).  I would argue this is tied in with the myth that men and women can’t be friends without someone wanting sex/falling in love and is the crux of the false friendzone – if you approach a woman with friendship and are disappointed with the result being friendship, then you have come in to the situation with false pretenses, not the woman.

3. That women “always go for assholes/rich guys/jocks/whatever overarching group that doesn’t include the individual in question.”  And that, as a result, these women are all “shallow, whores, sluts, and bitches,” a rather hateful attitude to express towards women as a whole.

4. That all feelings and desires a man directs towards a woman, she should reciprocate.  I think this comes from the kind of entitlement society we live in wherein everyone feels that their voice should be heard and respected no matter what they’re demanding (in this case, sex).  To quote Phaedra Starling, “Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.”  Being nice to someone doesn’t put them under any obligation to you at all, period.  This goes back to nice being a standard of behavior, it is not exemplary or unique in any way.

5. That, and this is actually kind of scary, men are “owed” sex/a relationship after a certain amount of time spent being nice to a woman.  That “niceness” is a tactic for sex and isn’t genuine at all – that a “nice guy” is nice expressly for the purposes of gaining trust and using that trust to manipulate a woman into intercourse (think about it – if you’re really and truly nice, then you aren’t going to be angry about a friendship).

“These guys are only making themselves look bad/aren’t hurting anybody,” you might be inclined to say.  “Casual misogyny isn’t new and it’s not what’s causing sexual assault.”  Hear me out – this is exactly the kind of attitude that allows rape culture to exist.  When you mix a feeling of being owed sex, an opinion that women are generally stupid/”bitches”/”sluts”, and a facade of kindness, you’re creating a prefect storm for assault.

I’m not saying all “nice guys” are rapists waiting to happen.  Most nice guys are casual misogynists who need some self-reflection and to not be in the kind of echo chamber that Reddit communities and Men’s Rights forums tend to create.  I am saying, however, that they have to potential to be (to borrow again from Phaedra Starling) “Schrödinger’s Rapist,” which is to say if a man isn’t satisfied with “no” in one circumstance (taking a friendship to a next level, for example), he may be more likely to override “no” in a more serious circumstance (and commit rape).

I strive to not crutch my argument on anecdote and I’m opposed to writing about my own personal life and relationship, but it’s particularly pertinent because my boyfriend is exactly the kind of man a “nice guy” would call an asshole – he’s loud, he’s confident and outgoing, he plays a very aggressive sport at a semi-pro level, and by all accounts growing up he would have been grouped in with the “popular jocks.”  He also loves animals, is quite artistic, and (get this), he’s nice to me.   Often the label “asshole” is tacked onto a male that is guilty of nothing more than self-confidence and outgoing personality, which, yeah, is more appealing to more women.  Does that make women “bitches” and those men “assholes?” No.  Women, like men, like different things – some like loud and some like quiet, some like thin and some like fat and some like muscular, some like artistic and some like athletic, et cetera.

Everyone likes kindness, it’s not unique or special to be nice or courteous, you have to be more than that.  A nice guy who expects sex simply for functioning like any socialized human does isn’t nice at all.  A guy who presents friendship only to be angry with getting a friend instead of a girlfriend “deserves” neither.

“The Women’s Olympics”…well, not really.

From George Takei’s Facebook, comment if you know root source

I, like most other women tuning in to the Olympics this year, was so excited to learn that every country had sent at least one female athlete to compete in London.  “The Women’s Olympics!” the media was quick to dub it.

And that was about the last positive thing any major media outlet (or social media) had to do with women’s sports in the games.

We’re all well aware women’s sports doesn’t get the kind of respect that men’s sports does.  The fact that Title IX even had to be mandated illustrates as much.  But the coverage of women athletes in the 2012 Olympics was, well, embarrassing.  Let’s start out from the beginning, the title of “Women’s Olympics.”

It’s a crock.  The two Saudi women who competed were only covered by one news outlet in their home country, an English language paper, had a public shame campaign launched against them on Twitter, and oh yeah, were likely only added at the last minute to avoid a ban from future games.  It’s great that these women competed, it really is, but to act like it’s a step towards Women’s Rights is dishonest.

And while women from every nation competed, which women were given any (positive) attention was quite limited.  Before the game even started some athletes were attacked for not being skinny enough.  Yes, at an event where the very best athletes from around the world come to compete, what these women’s physical appearance is was more important than their athletic ability.  You don’t see male weightlifters being called fat, but there you go.

If not “fat,” how about “ugly, masculine, and dyke(ish)?”  That’s what British weightlifter Zoe Smith was subjected to after a documentary about women weightlifters in Britain aired.  Don’t worry about Zoe though, she got the last laugh (and seriously, great job Zoe!).

With the close of the games tomorrow, it’s important for us to look back with pride at what women around the world have accomplished, but also necessary to examine how we watched these women compete.  Was it really necessary to identify volleyballers by their asses?  Did we need a slow motion montage of unidentified, exclusively attractive athletes?  Did one of the woman athletes who had no chance of medaling need as much coverage as she got just because she was labeled, “the hottest Olympian?”  Was it appropriate to call women Olympians “Gold Diggers?”  We’ve come a long way, ladies, but until our athletes are honored for their abilities and not their bodies we will not ever have a “Women’s Olympics.”

What Role do Men have in the Feminist Discourse?

A few months ago a friend of mine who is male and a freelance writer and I got into a discussion about video games and comics and how women are portrayed.  He was working on a piece concerning how certain female superheroes were being revamped and asked me, in my opinion, could a man really effectively write on a feminist issue?


My first instinct was to say, yeah, of course, but after some additional thought I wasn’t totally sure.  Could a man really write on a feminist issue? A man can’t remove his male privilege any better than I could remove my class or white privilege, and I don’t feel as if I can responsibly write on issues that face poor or women of another race.  Is being aware of privilege, is being against privilege enough?  Well in this case…maybe.


First and foremost I do believe that men have a role in the feminist discourse.  When you consider men like Bill Baird, who stood up for abortion rights years before Planned Parenthood and dedicated his life to women’s reproductive rights, it’s unfair and disingenuous to suggest that some men aren’t involved and in fact, some men give up and risk a great deal for women’s rights.  So men do have a role, men definitely do have a role, but I think what men and what role is where things get a little shaky.


For example, women in geek culture seems to be a hot feminist topic in which men seem to try and fit their viewpoints in to some pretty disastrous results (from a  feminist standpoint).  This video, while aiming to illustrate how impractical and sexist women in video games are dressed, falls into the trap of blaming women for thriving in the only area of gaming that they’ve been welcomed into by the male dominated industry: “booth babes.”  Or this article, which while pointing out that sometimes attractive women are unfairly characterized as “fakers” in the geek realm and that women are treated pretty horribly in online gaming environments, primarily rails against “booth babe” types and cosplayers that aren’t perceived as being actual fans of the realm they’re promoting with super sexualized outfits.


Look.  Both of these men aren’t women-haters, they’re not anti-feminist, but their posts are seeping with privilege.  I already had an article about this, but my point on the women in geekdom stands: it’s not fair to point the finger and say “these women are taking advantage of geek men” when they have been encouraged and embraced into the role and often times are shunned, ridiculed, and harassed for not fitting into it.  If you’re a girl gamer and you’re attractive, you’ll be expected to play it up and “show your tits,” and if you’re not attractive, expect to be called fat or ugly or a dyke or whatever because your looks are paramount to your actual gaming ability.  I’m not exactly sure how you can tell if someone’s a “real fan” or not from looking at them anyway, but that’s the problem – when you have a man writing about a feminist issue without a frame of privilege, things like a misplaced persecution complex rears its head.  You think these women are faking it for attention and money?  Maybe the problem is they live in an environment where their worth structure and acceptance into a group is entirely dependent on their looks.


Let’s go back to Bill Baird.  In the 1970s Baird was accused of being a CIA plant, being an embarrassment to the movement, and worked only to “make women appear easier.”  These accusations didn’t come from the far right, they came from feminists and Planned Parenthood.  A man who spent time in jail, a man who lost his family, a man who was nearly murdered multiple times by radical pro-lifers was shunned from the very movement he gave everything to protect.


So you can ask me if I think men can write about feminist issues, you can ask me if men have a place in the discourse, and I will tell you yes.  But, I will hope that by saying yes it encourages responsible writing and dialog with a certain level of care and attention given to the privileges held by the men holding the pens and striking the keys.

“Feminists just can’t take a joke”

Early this fall I was speaking to a friend of mine who coaches women’s soccer at a co-ed college.  She expressed to me some difficulty she faced in the workplace with sexist comments and how she confronted the men making the remarks and she told me (quoted as best I can from memory), “they seemed to get it but they just made more jokes.  It’s like they can’t take feminism seriously because it makes them uncomfortable so they make jokes about it.”

This got me thinking – feminists have a long standing reputation for being “unable to take a joke,” particularly when said joke is overwhelmingly sexist or the question of workplace sexual harassment comes up.  I’ve never met a feminist that didn’t love to laugh; when George Carlin passed in 2008 I lamented the loss of a counterculture icon and favorite comedian of mine and certainly he had no shortage of bits that were less than feminist friendly.  So why are some jokes not at all funny?  Who gets to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?  I’m not in favor of censorship, but I do believe hate speech and oppressive words should be called out as such (a right to say something does not make saying it morally or ethically just).  Some important questions I think are good to mull over before telling a sexist joke:

  • By telling this joke, what is the underlying message which I am trying to convey (women are less intelligent, women are deserving of rape, women’s sports deserve less respect than men’s, conversely a male’s value as a person is closely related to his penis size, et cetera)?
  • Why do I feel this sentiment is necessary to convey?
  • Do I genuinely believe this sentiment, and if not, why would I want someone to believe that I do?
  • If this sentiment were expressed about me personally, would I be offended?  Why do I expect a woman to not be offended by the implications I am making?

In a recent article titled Lighten Up, Ladies!  Sexual harassment, sexual shmarassment, right? columnist Tabatha Southey says, “It’s distracting. It hurts our productivity. Some of us will now sit in a meeting with a man, listening to him talk about, say, life-threatening safety violations in our own workplace, and be wondering if he thinks he’s doing a Seth Rogen impression and when in his speech we’re meant to start laughing. Sometimes we do start laughing. It’s a defensive move. We look insane! But insane is okay. Just never let it be said that we don’t have a sense of humour.”  Why has it now become a condition of employment that women need to take being offended in stride?  I’m no fan of those “he has a sports car/giant truck/hummer, he must be compensating for an undersized penis,” jokes, but would these same people say something like that to their boss that just purchased a new red Z3?  Why is it more acceptable to make jokes challenging a woman’s worth and abilities than it is a man’s?

I find it interesting that (at least in my experience), most of the people saying “anything can be funny, nothing is off-limits,” are white middle and upper class straight males.  Can someone in the position of ultimate privilege (white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, straight privilege) really be a fair and objective judge of what’s “funny” when the chance of that individual facing any real oppression or harassment in their life is nil?  Again, I’m not arguing for censorship, I’m just proposing that maybe the people making “jokes” in the workplace that disparage people based on their gender/race/sexual orientation should take responsibility for their words and realize that when they make the statement, “this joke is being told at the cost of your dignity, it’s funny, and if you don’t agree then you are the problem not me,” it is going to breed hostility in the workplace and it does in fact make them a bad person.  Nobody goes to work to feel humiliated.

What’s the appropriate response to rape jokes in the workplace?  Why is it acceptable to tell a woman who’s offended by a rape joke to “lighten up, it’s nothing serious,” and to drag her though the mud when she files a sexual harassment claim?  Is rape really something we as a society want to convey is funny?  I don’t understand at what point prison rape jokes and “she had it coming” humor became acceptable; I do understand that we use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations but the line between softening the blow and making a mockery of victims of horrible personal violations has clearly been crossed (does anyone really believe that violent anal rape in prison is justified for minor drug crimes?).

Women love to laugh just as much as men do.  We just want you to laugh with us, not at us.

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