Category Archives: Ethics
Charley Earp is the blogger behind Radical Progress and Leftist Quaker and lives in the Chicago area. A Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel industry, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and planning to pursue a seminary degree focusing on congregational ministry and activism. No longer a Christian, yet actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 30 years, with two adult children. His current long-form writing project is a theo-political autobiography titled, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.” He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics.
C. Derick Varn: We chatted via e-mail recently about the characterization of the right and left as religious forces, and you were provoked by many of Keith418’s points in a recent interview I did with him. . Would you like to go into that in more detail?
Charley Earp: What provoked me in that interview was the statement that American conservatism is fundamentally different than its European predecessor, and therefore somehow an illegitimate rightism. Keith418 seems utterly taken up with a tradition of the Right that has very little traction in the US, though Ayn Rand’s followers are often as anti-Christian as are the kind of Nietszcheans Keith admires. The majority of the American Right does come out of a Christian milieu, but that milieu has some strange incoherence within it.
I watched as the Christian Right began to take over the churches in the Pentecostal tradition where I grew up, and it was definitely a external intervention, not something organic to Pentecostalism. This seems also true of other Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches, that is, those that defend the inerrancy of the Bible. I would almost say that what distinguishes American rightism is the presence of a large group of radical protestants that by pedigree belong in either centrist or leftist politics, not the right.
The Baptists, who comprise the largest group of Christians in the US outside the Catholics, were founded as an opposition to the very idea of a European State Church. The Methodists/Wesleyans, the next largest group of US protestants originated and subsist in perpetual tension with state churches. The modern Christian Right in the US was largely inspired by Calvinist ideas of a “Christian Nation,” a proposition quite foreign to the conversionist ethos of Baptists and Wesleyans. By definition, these traditions deny that an entity like a nation can be Christian because that title is only conferred by a conscious conversion experience to salvation in Christ. Calvinism in its original Swiss incarnation had no such conversion emphasis. Salvation was a predestined election by God that was not conferred by faith, but by irresistible grace. Therefore, no separation of secular and religious realms were recognized, law itself derived from biblical revelation.
This crypto-Calvinist incursion into Evangelical and Pentecostal churches occurred as a deliberate campaign by the architects of the New Right. What has always fascinated me is how Christian conservatives hold in tension two opposed ideas, that of a minority converted remnant church with incongruous idea that the US needs to be restored to its Christian heritage. A favorite saying of conversionist theology is “God has no grandchildren” and that means heritage is nothing, one must be saved by an immediate conversion. Most Pentecostals, even today, believe that someday very soon Jesus will secretly rapture all “true believers” from the earth, leaving behind false churches and the heathen masses to become the followers of the Anti-Christ. It is a wholly pessimistic worldview that had zero room for political activism, only for evangelism to save the souls of those who would miss the rapture. It is that tension that I believe is now unraveling as the younger generation of Evangelicals abandon political conservatism, though most don’t thereby become leftists. Why they don’t is often predicated on systemic race, gender, and class predispositions.
C.D.V.: Who precisely do you see as responsible for sneaking a Calvinist streak into all forms of American evangelicalism, particularly given the semi-socialist orientation of a lot of Protestant churches in the 1920s and 1930s in the US?
C.E.: It’s all somewhat murky to me, though I am familiar enough with various trends in the 70s and 80s that shaped the New Christian Right. Certainly the neo-Calvinist idea of theonomism and the “Christian Nation” as refracted through Francis Schaeffer’s dispensational Presbyterianism played a role. Jerry Falwell’s emergence from the segregationist right in the 60s to head the anti-abortion and evangelical Zionist Moral Majority was also significant. Underlying all of this was the politicization of the capitalist class and their bid to mold a populist right front, with things like opposition to high taxes, and Milton Friedman’s 10-part laissez-faire documentary, “Free to Choose” that aired on PBS in early 1980 just as Ronald Reagan was consolidating his presidential campaign.
Christians of the more literalist sort tended to be apolitical right up until the mid-80s, when the successes of Reagan’s first term convinced even more of them to support his policies in 1984, including my father, a Pentecostal preacher who had always voted Democrat before 1984. I personally was headed towards the pacifist and anti-capitalist left following the lead of Sojourners Magazine. If there was a semi-Socialist bent to many churches prior to the 80s, it was probably strongest among liberals in the Wesleyan and Catholic traditions. My mother still complains about the Social Gospel she heard growing up Methodist and how much it didn’t preach the true gospel of individual salvation.
These days I think the nucleus for a Christian Left lies mostly with African-American and Latino churches. White Evangelicals are coming to question their parents’ conservatism, but there is still a strong core of the (White) Christian Right out there and the Tea Party is still trying to reinvigorate that 80s right populism. If the younger generation who supported Obama in 2008 – but ignored the mid-term election of 2010, thereby hamstringing many reform efforts that might have been possible – could learn their lesson and pull off another Democratic congressional majority win like 2006 in 2014, I think the political basis for a national shift to the left will solidify. Even though I believe that a socialist movement will have to form to the left of the Democrats and the Green Party, that is, through a Socialist Party, one strategic prerequisite for that development is to shatter the social and religious basis of the 80s New Right, by advocating some form of Christian Socialism or Social Democracy. This is my motivation for the “Jesus Made Me a Communist” presentations and publications I’ve been working on since late 2012.
That turn for me personally has meant a rapprochement to my Christian upbringing, which I discarded in 1996 for a Universalist Quakerism. In fact, by 2005, I’d become flatly nontheistic and doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. I haven’t become a Christian all over again, but I have decided that it is more important to convince Christians to become Socialists and Communists than it is to convince Atheists on the Left to embrace Christians. It seems to me that a New New Left will be a largely Christian phenomenon and atheists and Marxists will become a minority among socialists by mid-century. Of course, along the way Christians will become more “liberal” and less orthodox theologically. This phenomena is already visible in projects like the “Jesus Radicals” anarchist webzine or the left flank of Emergent Christianity.
C.E.: The decline of Protestantism is probably overrated, just like the long predicted demise of religion itself. While there has been a small uptick in the numbers of Atheists in the world, religion continues claiming new coverts and baptizing more babies every day. Statistically, religion has a lead on atheism that would take decades to outpace.
If you mean US “mainstream” protestantism’s decline, I actually think that what will happen in the next period will be that more Evangelical young adults will drift towards either secularism, alternative spiritualities, emergent Church models, or back to the benighted mainstream Protestants. The megachurches will fade into history, I believe, just like the mass urban cathedrals of an earlier period of American life.
Mainstream protestants are generally committed to ecumenical mutual recognition. Denominational mergers which consolidate bloated church bureaucracies will likely make it possible for a comeback for many currently declining denominations.
My liberal Quaker conference is impacted by several trends. We’ve just restructured our denominational practices, reducing paid staff significantly among other cost cuts in the aftermath of a donor crisis. Our sister body, Friends United Meeting, may actually be fatally crippled by its own internal inability to reach agreement on a way out of that same crisis. Some FUM meetings have decided that our conference is more congenial to their values, especially on same-sex marriage for example.
We’re one of the few mainstream Protestant bodies to post growth figures in the past two decades, but one key element in that was that some independent Quaker Yearly Meetings joined our conference. I think we are slowing losing numbers, especially in comparison to population growth rates. However, an uptick in membership such as we experienced in the Vietnam era might change this quite suddenly. We were at the forefront of the same-sex marriage movement and are also quite active in environmental and anti-war concerns. We may very well have mass appeal in some quarters as the Obama era rolls onward.
C.D.V.: I can offers up some specific statistics: Pews data is as follows: even white evangelicals have seen a decline in the last years data down from 21% to 19%, which was the first reversal in a long a time. Religiously unaffiliated has grown from 5% to almost 10% in since 2005. Specifically “White” mainline protestants have move from 19% to 15%. Catholicism has maintained its percentage, but this seems to be from immigration. Pew didn’t study minority groups, which is interesting because that is where growth would actually be. Is this in line with what you are talking about? Why do you think progressive positions have left to declining populations within religious circles since the 1950s? This is a trend that can be seen all over the developed world, not just the US.
C.E.: I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.
To clarify my earlier point, the decline in mainline and evangelical churches is indicative of the contradiction of American culture. Conservative religion does very well during a general economic stasis or slow decline, like the 70s through the 90s. However, as the economic crisis grinds on, people will leave those churches. They won’t immediately go to mainline protestants, though I did when I joined Quakers in 1998. However, if something changes dramatically, either a capitalist recovery that reduces unemployment or a new sharp drop in jobs, then the picture will shift again. In the former case, conservative churches might rebound. In the latter case, atheists, mainline protestants, and progressive Catholics might enjoy a new growth.
Those Catholics are unusually good at keeping their church alive. Over a millenia. It ain’t going away anytime soon. So, why doesn’t the left get over its view that it has to wage a secular revolution? The American and French Revolutions were secular liberal revolutions, why imitate them? Even blowing up churches like the Soviets did had little staying power, as Ross Wolfe documented recently.
Liberal secularism is based on the privatization of fundamental human passions. We keep the churches out of politics, just like we keep the masses out of politics. It wasn’t that long ago that all of Europe was nominally Catholic. When the Reformation tried to replace an international church with national establishments, it only succeeded in a few places, though they were key, England, Germany, Sweden, Holland, etc. Italy, France, Spain, and Eastern Europe remain solidly Catholic (or Orthodox) and also among those places where Communism has met with significant success. Liberation Theology didn’t come to Latin America because of liberal secularism, but because Catholic priests studying in Europe were exposed to Marxism and the synthetic and dialectic methods of theology dominant in Catholicism made an appropriation of Marxism almost too obvious.
My admiration for Catholic Leftists is only matched by my distaste for the hierarchy, especially at its higher levels. And yet, Catholicism continually makes corrections like adopting evolution and social democracy that many Protestants can’t make. The Church of England is in a funny way more aristocratic than the Catholic church, which doesn’t have many monarchs, dukes, and lords in its membership these days.
C.D.V.: I know you are not a Marxist, but do you see something dialectical about this? Also what do you make of both Badiou and Zizek calling for a serious consideration of the Christian identity while also sharply condemning theism itself?
C.E.: I confess that I don’t always know what Marxists mean by “dialectic.” I’ve been told that the interpretation of Hegelian thought as thesis>antithesis>synthesis is a vulgar misreading. However, I also don’t think I am just a linear thinker.
So, can you can say more how you see a dialectic at work in the religious situation today?
C.D.V.: The beginning of a dialectic is a contradiction within manifestation of a idea or material condition which enables an opposition or a countervailing tendency to emerge, and the resolution of this contradiction through various forms of negation sublates the problem and leads to something new. Do you see something like this at work?
C.E.: You assert that Badiou and Zizek “condemn theism.” I’d like to see how that is actually expressed. I’ve read a good bit of Zizek and while he asserts his atheism, he identifies theism with the Lacanian “Big Other” that is, an imaginary person outside one’s self who one believes incorrectly will come to one’s rescue. What is interesting for me is that my Pentecostal experience was that God did rescue me many times from bad choices. God, as I think about it now, functions as a kind of super-super-ego. God is the being with both a perfect moral will for each of us and perfect knowledge of the consequences of any specific action. Being sinful, we are prone to disobedience, which God knows in advance, and God created a world with beings who will disobey him constantly. His reason for doing so (according to classic Christian doctrine) is that this requires God to become an incarnate sacrificial lamb and redeem us from our sins. I used to love to quote Norman Geisler (though I’m not sure it’s his original phrase), “this is not the best of all possible worlds, but the best of all possible ways to become the best of all possible worlds.”
I don’t think theism is irrational, unless one wants to say that all of human history is irrational. I think gods have a certain deep logic, that of trusting our parents when we are children. As a kid, I knew very little about how much danger there was in the world, so I often chafed when my parents interfered with my choices. Now, I believe they were very wrong about some of their interference. Having raised two children, I am convinced that some interference with my ignorant volition was necessary for my survival. Theism is a projection of that benevolent protector onto the cosmos itself. Hey, we exist, the natural world must care that we exist. We know now that this is a hasty conclusion, but only after centuries of accumulating scientific knowledge. I think theism is hard-wired, nearly every kid believes in invisible beings of some kind.
C.D.V.: Why do you think the impact of Liberation Theology has been so varied?
C.E.: The impact of Liberation Theology is still growing, though not as fast as I would like. Liberation Theology has two basic roots, the Black Civil Rights struggle of the 60s and the radical Catholics of neo-colonial Latin America. The successes of the Sandinistas and the election of Lula would have been impossible without it. Even Chavez owes his success to it. Does that mean it is going to ever become the dominant understanding of Christianity? Maybe outside the US. Inside the US seems less likely, but that is partly for the same reason that socialism in general has had very little success.
C.D.V.: In the past two questions there is so much to respond to here that I am going to just focus on two things. You think theism is hard-wired, but you posited that notion with a notion of divinity is just a supernatural non-physical being, there have been cultures without any sense of the moral impulse or creation given to it’s divinity claims, so that is so thin a definition of God that it amounts to “most children believe in something like mind-body dualism innately.” Which I suppose stances to reason, but this would be illogical to draw any metaphysicals claims from it. It would be an informal logical fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, to use the hardwiredness of dualist beliefs to argue that they are true, which is not what you are necessarily doing. But let’s clarify here. I find that much less compelling than the idea of divinity’s working as a kind of super-super-ego, but this really seems like a modernization of a pre-modern understanding.
But let’s get away from critiques of theism for its own sake: I noticed your drawing out of a God myth that resembles the scapegoating myths of Rene Girard. Do you share Girard’s view that Christian myth is an answer to necessity for violence as a basis of group bonding?
C.E.: Let me try to clarify. “Supernaturalism” seems to me to have arisen in late antiquity as a result of early Greek natural philosophy, perhaps due to the experience of building an international empire. Before this logic emerged, there was only one world, a wholly supernatural world created by god(s), peopled by spirits, and humanity themselves were special creations of god(s). The separation into two realms of incommensurable substances – spirit vs matter – arose when it began to dawn on the early philosophers that the gods couldn’t actually be part of the world they were beginning to examine with geometry and early physics. Our hard-wired theism then got mapped onto that duality as it became ingrained in Western culture. It’s interesting that this dualistic worldview arose just in time to be merged with the Christian movement in the second century.
I was certainly taught the Christian fall/redemption myth. Adam ate the forbidden fruit and passed on his disobedient genes to us. God is perfect so every sin must be atoned, and only a perfect sacrifice can do that, ergo the incarnate Christ gets crucified and resurrected. Girard’s view, with which I have a passing familiarity, implies that this myth has its basis in the tribe’s need for blood vengeance against lawbreakers within itself. I can’t say that whether I believe that is the true source of sacrifice myths. I’d want to do a cross-cultural analysis of sacrifice/redemption myths, which I have not.
The influence of Liberation Theology on me was to break down the sacrificial mythology and replace it with a “Christus Victor” mythology of Jesus as the miraculous revolutionary initiator of a millennia-long subversion of the bondage of the world and its people to a Satanic overlord who ruled via capitalism, tyranny, patriarchy, racism, and ecocide, which would culminate in a global overthrow of those systems by the oppressed. I’ve seen this sort of view working in various places, even in the US among Christian Anarchists, Black Churches, and the Evangelical/Pentecostal Left. This is why I believe that Communism can be embraced by Christians in the future without them abandoning theism.
I pose to the left that they can either work to change people’s theology or their politics, but changing both doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen many Christian abandon the faith and become libertarian atheists. Therefore, I try to change their politics by using the immanent critique of Liberation Theology to steer them towards the left.
C.D.V.: Do you see Christianity in specific as being key to liberation theology?
C.E.: Christianity is strategic in that it is the largest living religious tradition in human history. Liberation theology holds an important place as the “new left” period’s – 1955-75 – expression within Christianity. As I read the history of Communism it began as a religious idea first named “communism” by Etienne Cabet, who explicitly identifies the early Jerusalem church that “held all things common” as his inspiration. Then, it spread into secular left movements within the Enlightenment. Marx himself is tied to Christianity, both through his religious upbringing, but also by his Hegelianism. Liberation Theology reconnects the Christian origins of Communism – not only Cabet, but the Munsterites, Diggers, Hutterites, etc. – with its contemporary expressions, especially Nicaragua, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Judaism has its own connections to Communism and therefore a Liberation Theology also implicit. A literature has developed in the 2000s. I think Islam also has this potential, and there were some important expressions of “Islamic Socialism” that have been largely suppressed by Islamist movements and governments.
Other religions, such as Buddhism and Neo-Paganism can also develop liberation theologies that don’t rely on monotheism, but build from within their traditions and sources to connect their visions of ultimate value to a revolutionary politics. Atheism can also benefit from considering the emergence of Liberation Theology as a “worldly turn” that increases the possibilities for creative cooperation in left politics for religious-secular alliances.
Just as Badiou sees communism as implicit in the origins of Western philosophy, especially Plato, I see Christianity and Judaism as also containing important source material for elaborating a new Communist politics and culture.
C.D.V.: What do you predict will happen to North American Christianity over the next 50 years?
C.E.: I believe that a variety of post-conventional theologies will come to dominate at the lay level and eventually even most of the leadership levels. If the US turns to the left in the next half-century – as I sincerely hope and work towards – then religion will follow. As Caucasians become a de facto minority, both the overall percentage of Christians will decline, as will the strength of orthodox doctrines and the white supremacist versions of Christianity, which includes all the Continental traditions such as Lutheran and Catholic, as well as varieties such as fundamentalism.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
C.E.: My view remains that the Left needs to develop its capacity to collegially embrace religious diversity. For too long it’s been hostile or indifferent to religion. That needs to be replaced by a principled diversity. A quote is attributed to Augustine of Hippo “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Since for a political movement the essentials are practical matters of principled action, this means that in the expression of religion, we should encourage liberty and diversity. I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.
A columnist on the Electronic Intifada (a website dedicated to news, information, and blogs on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank), Benjamin Doherty, recently pointed out in an article how the Israeli Army has directly and indirectly used Instagram and other social media outlets to promote it’s image. Some of these pictures are provocatively sexualized, with Israeli soldiers posting photos of themselves posing half-naked while holding an M-16 rifle. Doherty has a name for this phenomenon among the Israeli Army, “War Sporno”. As he puts it to use “male and female bodies to eroticize the military, to displace violence against Palestinians, to encourage Western public’s to identify with Israeli soldiers.” While I agree partially with Mr. Doherty’s analysis of this, I think there is another, even more dangerous and devious side to this “War Sporno”. Because it doesn’t just work to present a positive image of the Israeli military (and State of Israel as a whole) by “de-uglyfing” the imagery of the occupation and Israeli soldiers. Even worse, it is trying to erase morality and ethics from the political situation entirely by portraying violence against the Palestinian people as a part of an almost romanticized justification. Surpassing even any necessity to present oneself as moral or “good”, because the moral question no longer applies. Though there is a difference between the official Israeli Army’s use of War Sporno, which is just trying to “de-uglify” the image of the occupation and Israeli soldiers by presenting them in a positive and “beautiful” light, and the unofficial, regular Israel soldiers use of War Sporno, which evermore represents something of a conflation between the oppressive violence against the Palestinian people and the sexualization of the Israeli army (and people).
War Sporno represents a dangerous product, some produced through decades of oppression and dehumanization of the Palestinian people. In the end, the goal of such dehumanization is not to try to present oneself as the moral good of a conflict, but to present evil as something positive in the face of such a conflict. And to make that evil seem all the more attractive through the use of a sexual image of violence. With talk of annexation of the West Bank increasing as well as the growing political hegemony of the right-wing in Israel, we shouldn’t throw out the possibility that in such a scenario, there will not be members of the Israeli far right who may consider that political Apartheid over the Palestinians is not something permanent. That eventually Israel will undergo the same faith as South Africa and will be ruled mainly by an Arab majority. And that with already most of the world condemning this near-future Israel, the only way to truly end the “Palestinian problem” is through total genocide of the Palestinian population. Whether through mass murder or sterilization of the populace. And in such an event, dehumanization of a people prove to be a great tool in the perpetration of absolute atrocities.
But if this is the case, then War Sporno is nothing new in the history of human conflict. The linking of sex and political violence have occurred in many conflict zones, from the Serb army in the Bosnian war to both sides of the Liberian civil war, where a stunning 75% of the women in Liberia during that war were reported to have been raped. We must realized that correlating violence in any such a matter as being romanticized is inherent dehumanizing and ethically immoral, especially if this violence functions on a mass political scale. When this happens, truly horrific things can occur, and we lose all sense of our basic humanity.
Sophie Hirschfeld is a writer for various websites, manager of shethought, activist, performer and professional dominatrix. She run the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project and often focus on educating the public about the adult industry. Sophie is the second in my interview series on the North American “skeptic’s movement” but we primarily focus on the politics of sex work and not on epistemology or science activism, so this is placed in both marginalia series.
Skepoet: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions of the sex industry both in terms of workers and in terms of consumers? In an interview you did on Culture Wars Radio, you said that one of your responses some feminist critiques of sex work as exploitation and objectification, you point out that most work is exploitative. Why do you think there is so much focus on the exploitation in sex work as opposed to be most wage-labor in general?
Sophie Hirschfeld: I’m not going to pretend I can sum up the misconceptions about sex workers in one response, because there are many. Also, most of what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have data. It bothers me that there is nothing for me to offer beyond mostly experience and a little educated observation. The reality is, many of these issues aren’t examined through testing or studies because few academic institutions are willing to deal with something so controversial.
I’ll highlight what I think is most important, but be aware that this is a very inadequate response and a more accurate response would require a very lengthy book.
Sex workers are seen as a kind of underbelly of society. They’re often clumped together as a stereotype keeping company the likes of murderers, con artists and thieves. In movies, they’re seen as people trapped in a violent world that is inescapable and generally unpleasant or they’re considered the unpleasant, manipulative force. Because the sex workers who otherwise lead normal, healthy lives are not seen by most of society, that stigma is reinforced. The sex workers who tend to be noticed by the public are dysfunctional because the dysfunction is what makes them memorable. It is a tough stigma to get rid of.
In the community of sex workers out there, sex workers have about the same range of function or dysfunction as the rest of the population. There are workers of all types and personalities. Some people suck, some people are awesome.
Another problematic belief is that all or most sex workers are victims. I don’t want to say that there aren’t victims in the sex industry, because there certainly are. However, victimization is not the norm and painting non-victims as victims clouds the water and makes it tougher to help real victims. Painting the adult industry as the problem in matters such as the human slave trade forces ignorance regarding the real problems. It becomes a very dangerous red herring. As long as we’re directing people’s attention to the sex industry as a whole in order to protect victims of the slave trade, the slave trade is better able to function with our attention diverted. The accusation that the sex industry is somehow tied tightly to the human slave trade is probably one of the most damaging myths out there. Yet, it is largely ignored.
Furthermore, continuing along the problem of seeing sex workers as victims, this belief implies that the workers, themselves, are incapable of making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives. It implies that we can’t make decisions about our sexuality, in at least some context, without somehow being forced. It implies that sexuality somehow becomes non-consensual within whatever set of circumstances might involve money. Interestingly, the money as a coercive factor is rarely applied to anything else. In fact, the very suggestion that people in other industries are all coerced by their income is considered absurd by most people.
Sex workers are also stereotyped as stupid and without skills. Sex workers who are successful tend to be business-oriented. It isn’t that there aren’t those without skills, but some skill sets are needed when working in the adult industry. A good business sense is extremely important. There is this attitude that sex workers do what they do because they can’t do anything else. The reality is, other options are not as appealing. Why would a person work stocking shelves in a grocery store when they can have a far more pleasurable job and make more money? For me, the adult industry is more beneficial than the health industry, where my degree is. For others, it is better than bagging groceries, waitress or driving a garbage truck. Sex workers don’t lack skills, they lack the desire to do jobs that are less pleasant or that will make less money. They often want to apply their skills and attributes in a way that is better for them. It isn’t a lack of ability that lands them there.
There is also an economic stereotype that needs to be picked apart. The idea that people in the adult industry are all after the money is problematic. The sex industry isn’t easy money. In fact, while there is no objective information on it, people in the adult industry make a range of incomes. Some people in the adult industry make as much doing, for example, erotic texting, as they would bagging groceries. Sex work isn’t easy money for everybody. Some people do well and prosper and some people make very little. Like with any attempt at running a business, a sex worker is subject to economic fluctuation, market preference and product visibility. Sex work isn’t “a good way to make money,” as many like to say. It is, instead, a way to make money that some people are good at. It is important to note that difference.
As for clients, there’s also far more misconceptions than I could possibly address in one reasonably-sized response. The ones that I think are the most damaging are that people using adult services are socially dysfunctional, disloyal, women-hating and lonely.
In popular culture, with a few exceptions, people who use the adult industry are seen as socially inadequate or, oftentimes, downright evil. They’re seen as violent and uncaring of those who’s services they use. Abuse is often involved and stereotypes about the adult industry and patrons are used to set up victims and villains. Clients are stereotyped as either lonely or the bad guys. The public seems to believe that, too. This is a tricky stereotype to deal with because one of the goals of SWOP is to reduce the instances of violence against sex workers. The reality is, the social environment that sex workers lives in enables violence, but that enabling isn’t there because our patrons are all evil and violent. That problem is there because there’s really nothing out there to protect us. With lack of legal protection, we’re easier targets. To further complicate the problem, we’re social outsiders and, per the norm for human behavior, it is acceptable to harm an outsider. The underbelly of society is expendable, in the public’s mind. Thus, we come to more harm and the stereotype about clients being violent is naturally reinforced. Most clients, though, are like the average person as well. They are empathetic. While there are some that may not care, most of them seem to be understanding and normal, caring people. Just as with sex workers, the patrons of the adult industry are from a range of types of people and stereotyping them as violent and uncaring simply harms everyone.
Another dysfunction that patrons are stereotyped as is socially inept. They are often seen as people who “can’t otherwise get laid” or who can’t keep a girlfriend or properly communicate with those they would be interested in. They’re painted as lonely and unable to resolve the problem of loneliness without using the adult industry. This stereotype poses two problems. Not only does it paint the wrong picture about most of the people who use the adult industry, but it also implies that those who might use the adult industry because they might be dysfunctional are somehow bad. Much like the habit people have had of accusing others of being gay as a part of an insult, creating a stereotype that only the socially inept would use the adult industry, as a form of degradation to those who are socially awkward, is insulting. When people have problems and they find practical solutions for them, we, as a society, should reward that. Instead, we use it as a way to measure ourselves against others and we discriminate accordingly. That’s not healthy for us and it is not healthy for those we’re bringing down in the process. Most people who use adult industry services, though, are pretty average.
The stereotype about lack of loyalty in those who use the adult industry is its own tricky topic and, really, deserves its own article, sometime. The truth is, some disloyalty is often involved with clients. However, I don’t think the patrons of adult services are any more or less disloyal than anyone else. It is simply the case that in the act of using adult services, the lack of loyalty to one’s partner is far more obvious than it is when someone has an affair. There is no objective data on it, but if I had to guess, I would say the relationship status of most of those who use sex industry services are probably pretty close to that of the general population. There are countless problems with the disloyal stereotype, too, that are difficult to address, here. How people decide if someone is disloyal varies tremendously. Some think that if a person watches porn, they’re somehow unfaithful to their partner. Others feel that cheating is a matter of who someone is having intercourse with and others see cheating as a purely mental or emotional thing. With no clear lines drawn, socially, the stigma about clients and loyalty to their significant others is often over-exaggerated.
I’ve already touched on this, some, but the common believe that those who use adult industry services are somehow misogynistic and woman-hating is pretty far off base. Again, the range of individuals adult workers see is pretty much representative of the general population, so there are going to be some woman-hating guys who are generally unpleasant. For the most part, though, patrons of adult services are normal guys, some of whom even see women in the adult industry as liberated and independent. Many of them hold women in high-regard and, quite honestly, if they didn’t see interaction with women as some sort of need, they wouldn’t be using the adult industry in the first place.
It is tough to trace the origins of the idea that sex work is exploitative, but it appears to originate from the various waves of feminism. The goals, originally, were to separate women from the idea that they were only something for sexual use. That goal wasn’t necessarily bad, but it had a bad, probably unintentional, side-effect. Coupling that with the fact that sex work has frequently been seen, in history, in the context of really shitty situations and you have a social recipe for justifying the soup of discrimination that is seen against the sex industry. When we see things in a bad context, it is tough for us to separate what is causing those bad things and what is simply there. We look at ghettos and discriminate against the context, but we have a tough time seeing that the majority of those in the ghetto are innocent and only there by chance, not by personal flaw. So, when people have looked at the adult industry in the past, and even in the present, they’ve seen it scattered amongst things like poverty, racial disparity and a criminal culture. And the biggest association the sex industry had with something bad, for years, was sex. Sex was bad, ergo, selling sex must be bad. In that sense, it has been easy for people to judge the adult industry as much as whatever they think surrounds it.
Because of this, the sex industry, which is already seemingly evil, is easier to target. As people often discuss from sociological standpoints, the us vs. them mentality encourages people to find more ways to discriminate against the “other.” We’re more willing to destroy the “other” if they are seen as bad or if their situation is bad. If exploitation is a main feature of sex industry work, it is easier to keep it firmly rooted as the “other.” It is easier to hate. As sexual liberation becomes more accepted and an ongoing theme in our culture, and sex, itself, is seen as less evil, the most glaring reason to hate the adult industry is slowly vanishing. Exploitation is one of the strongest evils others can point to to keep society opposed to sex work.
As for why people target the concept of exploitation in sex work and not the rest of the work force, that has everything to do with how people compartmentalize ideas. It is a flaw in the way humans think. The condition of work being sexual makes exploitation somehow not-OK, whereas the condition of a normal job is just not something people think about because most people have the normal job. It isn’t highlighted as a problem and ideas surrounding exploitation in regular jobs is not something that saturates our culture.
S.: I remember, somewhat strangely, seeing feminists that I was studying in graduate school such as Andrea Dworkin cited by conservative Christian students in Georgia, who would have been horrified by her politics, when they are arguing against pornography. Then I looked into several of the studies that in anti-pornography arguments by feminists and saw that they were done by Christian-influenced and heavily conservative researchers. This immediately confused me. Do you think this is a case of confusing “current exploitation” (or even past exploitation) as a baseline for any possible “adult industry/sex work”? This seems to me to, like you said, to actually protect more serious abuse and also to put sex work in a special category of exploitation (when I think most wage labor is exploitative).How do see this victimization narrative as a means of avoiding how to deal with the real social issues within sex work and the adult industry?
S.H.: By making Sex Workers out to all be victims, it is a kind of red herring. It is a distraction from other real issues. It would be like trying to solve a puzzle by shaking the pieces in the box. That isn’t to say that there aren’t sex workers who are victims — of course, there are some sex workers who are victims, but by claiming all sex workers are victims, we’re not resolving the problems the individuals who are victims are facing. Instead, we’re blanket attacking something and doing very little that is productive. Oftentimes, claiming all sex workers are victims makes people think that sex work, itself, is the problem and needs to be eliminated. Since sex work isn’t going to just randomly go away, focusing on getting rid of it enables people to think they’re working on something productive and, yet, they’re not finding actual kidnapping victims and freeing them from sexual slavery. We have real examples of this. Last year, I wrote about Annie Lobert’s claims that she makes in her program, Hookers for Jesus. She makes claims about who she is saving and sex work in general that are deceptive.
There is very little evidence that she deals with the issues that she claims. Of course, it isn’t the deception, itself, that is the biggest problem. It is that her deception actually causes harm and that is a problem.
I think that painting sex workers as victims prevents us from looking at the very real problems that they face. When sex worker seeks help, for example, from a trauma they’ve experienced and the counselor can’t get past their idea of a sex worker being a victim, the trauma never gets addressed. Similarly, on a societal level, if sex workers are all victims that are in need of being saved, issues such as laws which prevent sex workers from seeking help when a crime is committed against them are likely to remain in place under the assumption that they are protecting those who they actually harm. Furthermore, painting sex workers as all victims removes responsibility from them. How can a sex worker be a liberated person if it is assumed that their choices are not theirs? How can we properly have freedom if this assumption keeps laws in place that ultimately pose a threat to us? That’s what arguments against the adult industry tend to do. In fact, attempts to ban pornography are constantly using the excuse that porn harms women. Frequently, they misquote studies (or make them up) or cite instances where real people were really harmed and instead of blaming the people who did the harm, they blame the adult industry.
S.: If how much do you think a failure to contextualize sex and sexuality leads to this sort of thinking?
S.H.: I think that many people are trained to see sex and sexuality as separate from regular life. Sex is only for certain purposes, sex is not to be talked about, we treat sex as if it is a completely different culture, sometimes. We even refer to people who are openly sexual as members of “the kink community,” even if their “kink” is simply having multiple partners (which is extremely common).
Of course, not addressing sex as a normal behavior is only part of the problem with dealing with issues facing the adult industry. It does play a major role, but even as it has become less common to demonize sexual behavior that used to be considered a punishable offense, sex workers have only seen their noose loosened just a little. The progress is slower, which seems to indicate there are other problems.
I think one problem is that in the attempt to find sexual liberation, sex work was wrongfully accused of being a culprit in the oppression of our sexual personas, especially that of women. This accusation didn’t come from one side of the debate or the other it came from both. The more conservative people on one side saw the accusation as a validation of their claims against normal human sexual behavior and those seeking liberation saw the accusation as a part of a vehicle to finding their own freedom and possibly saving others along the way. Even now, there is a strong movement against the adult industry from feminist groups and from religious organizations and from most political parties and a part of that justification is the claim that sex workers and/or most sexual imagery, is harmful to women and causes problems ranging from abuse towards women to unreasonable beauty expectations to anorexia to community break downs. It appears to be the case that society wanted sexual liberation, but they wanted sexual liberation to remain invisible and in order to keep it invisible, the most sexual of all beasts, the sex worker, seems to have become the prey of society.
S.: Do you see this as a part of a larger general social problems in regards sexuality?
S.H.: The problem with society’s view on sexuality is another issue that plays into this. An aversion to open sexual discussion makes it difficult to deal with issues sex workers face. The aversion to sexual discussion highlights people’s fear of open sexuality, which is why many people claim that sex work is exploitative. I frequently hear people tell me, when they hear about my participation in erotic productions, that it is a job they wouldn’t want to do. They seem to think something extreme would have to happen to them for them to do it and they may be correct, but the problem is that they assume that based on their understanding of their world, not with an understanding that I have of my own world. As a result, their assumption that something dramatic must happen to others must be what causes them to go into the adult industry is bad reasoning. It is kind of like saying I wouldn’t be a cook at a fast food place unless something dramatic happened in my life. Of course that is true, but I wouldn’t assume that every person who works at a fast food place has had bad experiences that led them there.
Alongside that, an aversion to open sexual discussion means that discussing real issues in the adult industry, such as abuse and violence, STDs and legal issues are off the table in most contexts. Again, even in the context of such a conversation, sex work gets blamed for things it shouldn’t. Instead of providing safety outlets for victims of violence, the advice is to leave the adult industry. To put that in context, we never tell people in most other lines of work that because they are a victim, they should leave that industry. Even police officers who are shot are not necessarily encouraged to leave their line of work. Instead of reinforcing education about sexual safety, encouraging the use of condoms, dental dams and birth control, it is again the case that people blame the adult industry for disease. Yet, if someone is dealing with a serious STD, it is only the extreme abstinence promoters who wrongly assign the blame and fail to connect the problem with safety.
S.: What do you make of the arguments I have seen floating around the web about how legalization of prostitution has not stopped human trafficking even in Scandinavia?
S.H.: The problem is that they are using the assumption that the two are tightly linked. Human trafficking isn’t the same as prostitution. Though, legalizing prostitution has enabled countries to work with prostitutes in order to help find those who are trafficked within the industry. Trafficking within the industry is only a small part of human trafficking. The human slave trade is a very serious matter and blaming the adult industry has caused most people to ignore various truths about it. The sex industry is neither the cause nor the function of most of the slave trade.
S.: What do you think the skeptic’s movement role should be in issues of sexuality given the political (but also scientific) nature of skeptical activism?
S.H.: I think that the skeptic community should be examining the issue more thoroughly. I’ve been trying to get opportunities to teach the skeptic community more facts about the sex industry, but finding people who will listen can be difficult. There is so much opposition to my point of view and the subject is so sensitive, many people will ignore it. They have to get past what they think they know about the industry to even allow it.
S. : What do you think would be needed to get over pre-existing biases within the skeptic’s community?
S.H.: That is tough to predict. Social change is not an easy task and it usually requires a population to begin to understand the damage their beliefs do. When it comes to sex work or sex-related issues, not only do they have to see the damage being done, we have to dispel myths about the industry, some of which have existed for thousands of years (just look how the Judeo-Christian belief system approaches sex and the adult industry).
S.: Do you think the Watson/Dawkin’s controversy a few years back has made the issue more front and center than it was in say 2008 when I first got involved?
S.H.: I think the Watson/Dawkins controversy highlighted some individual biases and misunderstandings in how gender should be approached. I don’t think it focused very much on things like open sexuality or sex work. It would have been nice if it could have led us down a path where we could discuss things like consent, sex and culture and so on, but it became a petty battle, instead. I think everyone lost that battle.
S.: Anything you would like to say in closing?
S.H.: Most of the way society views the adult industry is distorted. It is so distorted that it causes harm and we can’t fix it until we work on fixing it. I would hope, if anything comes from the work I do, that it is some measure of progress in getting people to rethink how we view sexuality and the people who openly express themselves and use their sexuality in a healthy way. That includes the ability to see sex work as a normal, acceptable act that should be done safely and respectfully.
Historically, minorities have stepped forward, on occasion, and given the World a simple message, which the World eventually acknowledged. Many people in the adult industry have the same message: We are human, please treat us accordingly.
There is a ideological binary opposition presented in much of the popular media for the last few decades about nature and nurture being opposed: it works itself up into the academy too with sometimes strong genetic determinist arguments–generally from scientifically questionable speculations by evolutionary psychologists–and then (admittedly rather rare) arguments from the humanities that everything is sociologically constructed (generally pulling from either Foucaultian influenced post-structuralism or structuralists visions of ideological apparatuses). Really, though, this dialectical opposition seems rooted in the early Enlightenment when both biological determinism and Cartesian special-pleading for the self set out two different visions of the human future.
I, however, increasingly doubt this move: The structural elements that wanted do deal only with the synchronic and not diachronic elements was a methodological move that gets reified into a stance that views ideas as either without a history or having a history, but biology is a historical science. It describes the development of organic life over time through processes that we have not entirely understood but have several mechanistic grasps of. This was why I always found the idea of nature problematic: nature implies as non-human totality, which seems to be special-pleading for the human species, or an undifferentiated totality, which is cognitively empty.
This has led to in re-reading Althusser, which I still find as problematic as I ever did as his hermeneutic for interpreting Marx implies that Marx either didn’t mean or didn’t understand his “true” methodology because even late works have “lingering” Hegelian idealism. This led me to take Althusser’s statement that ideology is not “ideal” but physical as manifested in the way we live and pair it, admittedly even to my mind, dangerously, with some ideas I have seen about the acceleration of human evolution. What I am about to articulate takes care of my view that Althusser’s synchronic understanding of historical materialism actually has the structure of the “means of productive forces” in ideology emerge almost without a history before there was an ideology there.
Even when I was in anthropology classes in the late 1990s, I remember being told that it was the consensus view that human evolution stopped with agriculture removing “natural” pressures from the evolutionary ecology of humans. I remember thinking though: How come Europeans developed lactose tolerance if this were true? Then I read Gregory Cochran’s The 10,000 Explosion, which is controversial and has some severe limitations even in my lay mind, but does talk about how social pressures would have genetically selective impulses and this could show up from disease immunities and, more controversially, relationships to authority and impulse control. Cochran admits that there are real limitations here and that there isn’t enough anthropological fieldwork paired with genetic testing to prove or disprove, but sexual selection in early agricultural society was exactly more extreme than in hunter-gather society since there was far more restrictions put on the survival of children, and in certain extreme examples, chieftains sometimes out reproduce serfs 1000 to 1.
Now I don’t know if we can take it as far as Cochran does, but he get to a point: Ideological and social impulses, which emerge from social arrangements in resource production and distribution actually change us physically. Furthermore, there is evidence that culture exists in any social mammal and thus emerges from “natural” conditions. This is say that both the “essentialist” view and the “social construction” view would largely miss the point: there is no dialectical opposition between “nature” and “nurture” nor does genetic determinism limit all social arrangements, but they modify each other in a feedback loop. Both the rubric of “nurtural” stances (or sociology) and “natural” stance (biology, comparative genetics) describe two different ways that human societies develop and interact. The question of dominance or innateness may miss the point: furthermore, both seem to assume that culture somehow emerges as a modern human conception out of nothing, or solely out of the means of production in ways that make “evolution” not possible. This confuses morphological differences with other differences too easily. There would be little morphological difference in modern humans because our social technologies have enabled us to stabilize our environment, but a variety of pressures socially would emerge to have influence on sexual selection.
So not only is ideology physical in the way Althusser meant as manifested by what we do and not just what we “believe,” but ideological pressures factor into to sexual selection ‘naturally” and thus have real effects there as well. It’s not eugenics or anything so crude at play here but developments from “natural” social responses because unless one believes the structures of production and the structures of society emerge ex nihilo, the social interactions come out of our biological and ecological limitations.
The dialectic of “nature/nurture” isn’t a dialectic at all. It is a false binary. Naturally.
Finally, after a day of travel all of the North end of South Korea, I am back at dorm room apartment. Oh, the life of an expatriate lecturer, one gets to live in a “dormitory” well into their early 30s. Anyway, after vowing to move this blog anyway from abstractions, and mix things up a bit.
I am getting married to a wonderful woman: I was hesitant in some ways for a variety of reason, and I am hesitant to talk about my views on the contradictions within our concept of marriage. With a caveat, I opposed the idea of marriage for most of my early 20s and did, again, after my first divorce. My ex-wife and I are actually still great friends and both did and didn’t divorce for the common reasons: it was not infidelity, it was lifestyle incompatibility and money issues that stem from said incompatibility. I used to joke that I being a “Married male of any orientation should be a different gender category from an unmarried one.” I still, actually, feel that way in a sense.
Now, I am also a believer that no marriage arrangement is entirely natural: both polygamy and monogamy come with some strain and tension with most individuals inclinations and thus cannot be said to be or not be natural unless the social and environmental constraints are accounted for in a realistic fashion. I also a believer that very little avoidances of marriage are entirely without their aleinations even in a particular context, in Northern Europe where divorce and marriage are no longer common, the unmarried relationships often assume a form resembling in almost all domestic aspects a marriage. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá document pretty convincingly that most narratives on sexuality have had a present bias and a pretty moralistically bleak view of libidinal economy, even in good works by Darwin and so forth. The book “Sex at Dawn” which is often taken as a defensive of polyamory can be properly be read as a defense of contextual relationships.
That said, both the abstracted notions of sex on sees in liberal-radicals like Judith Butler (who would never use that phrase) as well as hyper-conservative notions on sees in most people who defend traditional values as “biological” is highly problematic. Traditional values may have been biological in a specific context, but it takes more than will-power for a traditional context to make sense. In this sense, it is not without problems to see our current openness about sex and hook-up culture as a form of liberation. It seems to me that it makes the real objects of sex taboo and also allows us to turn people into objects in lieu of taking about the real objects of sex.
I use “objects” and not object because I think both “radical” and “conservative” discourse about sexuality is entirely reductive to a stupid degree: if sex were about merely procreation then we would have “heat” cycles to ensure pregnancy like, well, most other males, and if it were merely about pleasure then the female orgasm would not be so elusive. Evolution is a harsh mattress and not a teleologically consistent one: it’s an ad hoc universe in the biological sphere. (This, of course, makes speaking about “nature” coherently almost in possible? Even nature has a context).
This is not to deny that there are real limits to human sexuality and real battles fought over it. But in a way, our dialogue on what the “meaning” of sex is may be incoherent to the point of schizotypal because a decoupling of social context and biologic context, but a severing into a dialectical tension that which is not in fundamental contradiction in its unalienated state.
Wait, here I revere to tendencies I dislike about philosophy writing, the tendency to over-abstract: people love and people fuck for a variety of different reasons in a variety of different contexts. Almost none of us are comfortable with that because some form of “other” enjoyment indicates a lack created by our ability to articulate.
What is it Lacan says? Lack is created by language. Before we speak, we cannot postulate that which is not?
So I’ll try to avoid name dropping, with the caveat that Foucault’s basic premise that sexuality is a socially situated, seems to be more or less right. The problem is, as always, that our conceptions of biological and social are falsely separated: while I am critical of the metaphor as “nature” as a “machine,” I do fundamentally think that social structures and biological structures are in a feedback loop. I desire someone both because I have a genetic impulse to desire them, but how I desire them and what forms that relationship takes are, in no small part, socially shaped. The real dialectical conflicts come when social notions no longer fit biological reality, even if biological reality has changed for essentially social reasons.
Technology changes who you are. How can you not think it changes your relationships to people?
This leads to all sorts of issues: I am gay or straight or bisexual? How is that it appears that while sexuality is definitely determined by social pressures and yet we cannot castigate certain practices out of existence? Does it make sense to get married?
In my personal life this plays out in a lot of strange ways: I am getting married to a woman because I love her. Now, I realize in the grand scheme of things, even from personal experience, love is a weak reason for marriage. In fact, it’s not even a good predictor of martial happiness. The information on arranged marriages startlingly conflicts with the notion that peer-love marriage is a good means for contentment for most people who are belong a certain social class and income range. Even the sexual revolution, interestingly, has been more positive for upper middle class women and men who seem to benefit from promiscuity then still get into relatively stable marriages (of varying degrees of openness) whereas the poor who often value marriage more as a social good see fewer marriages and fewer of its benefits? I love a few women quite deeply, and yet I choose one of them because I love her and it seems conductive to that kind of social relationship.
In a way, just talking about fucking is avoiding the a lot of the larger issues here isn’t it.
Nothing in modernity seems to be without its contradictions. Particularly in sex where anything viewed long enough and believed in general in mass culture seems to be fraught with outright contradictions. I, as I stated, am no exception: the polyamorous man entering into a relationship that is rooted in monogamy. Doing so willingly and knowing from personal failure the dangers involved, and yet when I am honest with myself even in my most polyamorous moments my relationships have been based on fundamental rules and commitments that are both from my partners and the larger social milieu. Sometimes, I find it more than a little ironic that liberals for all their emphasis on social importance and social contextualization, take a completely individualistic view on love and sex.
Funny how so many refuse to look honestly at the contradictions in their lives: dialectics, as I understand it, is a way to look at one’s contradictions honestly and try to move past them. Most people, however, from the pain of cognitive dissonance cannot do this: doing this in one’s most intimate relationship is even more traumatic.
But it is spring time, after all, and thus we like to think we should talk about love.