November 25, 2008 at 10:04 pm (Feminism, sex workers, voltairespriest)

Only Rights Will Stop The Wrongs!This is just a short post by way of a debate with my little left-footer chum Red Maria, who has a post here imploring people advocating views which approximate those of many sex workers’ self-advocacy groups and professional workers in the helping services to stop “bullying” commentator and nationally profiled journalist Julie Bindel by disagreeing with her support for Jacqui Smith’s retrograde and counter-productive new rulings on sex work. I’ve made comments on Maria’s blog already about what a betrayal of the liberationist ideals of self-definition and self-representation I believe Bindel’s stances represent. What’s more, I think this reveals a genuine issue with the sort of politics that Bindel and some other feminists (they do not represent, incidentally, all feminist commentary on this question) have revealed by their stances on the question of sex workers.

Since when precisely do “radical” or “progressive” political activists of any kind seek not only to make truth claims about what oppressed groups should do, but also about who they are? I’ve seldom seen such essentialising comments about any oppressed group as there have been from people supporting the Government’s position in the debate about how best to help sex workers. Sex workers are cast into the role of 19th-Century figures – assuming of course that we ignore the Lady Chainmakers’ Strike and countless other incidences of self-emancipation which do not fulfil the victim narrative – oppressed by a brutal male world around them which is the sole root of their problems. If that world could be pushed back or made to realise that it is “bad” and therefore control its animal instincts, then the sex industry would disappear and these women would go on to live happy and full lives, presumably thanking their wise Rad-Fem sisters for having told them what was right along the way. I simplify and exaggerate, but not much.

The reality of the situation is of course much more complex. There are multiple reasons why women and men get involved in the sex industry and no amount of high-handed blame games (which are in any case proxies for other over-arching ideological battles) will resolve it. Indeed in the case of sex workers, the bizarre quasi-Victorian moralising spouted forth by the likes of Bindel will surely only serve to make the situation worse, as I have argued in a previous post.

But what, exactly is with the essentialising statements from Bindel. When she isn’t effectively accusing the GMB’s ground-breaking unionising programmes for sex workers (and de facto genuinely admirable figures such as Ana Lopez the International Union of Sex Workers) of legitimising pimping, Bindel also argues that women who were born as men (ie transgendered people) are not real women. This position is simply shameful, marginalising and belittling as it does one of the most vulnerable groups of people on the planet. Once again as well, she finds herself with some interesting right wing bedfellows; doubtless when he was taking time out from making bigoted statements about feminists and gay people being responsible for 9/11, the Reverend Jerry Falwell would have been more than happy to sign off on that particular stance of this “champion of the oppressed”.

You see, I think it comes down to that world-view again. It’s all about a Manichaean battle between men and women, which overrides questions of class, of race, even of gender and sexuality unless they fall within that convenient dichotomy. It’s an understandable view from some perspectives but it is crude and it is fundamentally false. In short it’s BindelBollocks. Sadly, she’s not the only person making pronunciations about complex issues on the basis of a crudified worldview, but I suspect she is one such.

She’d just be so much more convincing as a voice of the victims if she could manage to sound less like a Rad-Fem Savonarola on questions like these.


  1. Lobby Ludd said,

    That was not a short post.

    I’m beginning to think you are right about prostitution (or should I say the ‘sex trade’?)

    Prostitution still creeps me out, man.

  2. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Yes, it got longer as I went.

    I’m not a fan or advocate of the trade itself, it’s just that I honestly believe the only way to help street sex workers (those at the bottom of the heap, whom I believe very, very rarely go into the trade through choice) is to draw them out of the shadows as far as possible; rules like those Jacqui Smith is proposing make doing that even more difficult than it already is.

  3. Southpawpunch said,

    Well it may be the view of some rightwingers, but it is the view of some leftwingers including this one -men are not women and vice versa (I’d leave out the ‘real’ myself).

    If somebody wishes to live as the opposite sex to which they were born and have operations to ‘change’ this (and with a few exceptions, such as those born with mixed genitalia) they should be able to do so without fear or harassment but it is ludicrous to suggest they have changed sex even after operations. Are ovaries or any internal indicators of the male sex removed – No. If I had my eyelids and a few other features altered in a certain way could I become ‘oriental’? Of course not but the surgery undertaken would be a lot less extensive than ‘changing’ sex.

    It is never a good idea to have your genitalia, breasts, Adam’s Apple etc removed (save because of cancer, etc) and such damage to the body should not be encouraged (although also allowed) in the same way as wanting to cut off your nose and replace with a ‘better’ one would be a bad idea.

    But let me put blame where it is due – some men and some women feel they are more feminine or masculine than their gender peers and find life can be unpleasant for them if they don’t act like a typical man or, more sublimely, feel innately as though they are the opposite sex Sexist expectations of young people can be devastating. I also expect some ‘transgendered’ people are homosexuals who want to be in ‘normal’ cross sex relationships because of the bigotry they face or feel.

    So whilst I think it is perfectly understandable some feel they were born the ‘wrong’ sex that is as mistaken a view as feeling you have been being born the wrong race (or even species) so socialists should argue against (but not prevent) people mutilating their bodies in such a way and argue for a world on which people can live socially, sexually etc as any type of man or woman.

  4. Red Maria said,

    I think that’s pretty much what the much maligned Julie Bindel said on the topic, Southpawpunch. She also got pretty angry about the case of Kimberley Nixon, a transsexual who filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal about the Vancouver rape relief and women’s shelter which refused to allow her to counsel rape victims. The tribunal ruled that a lifetime as a woman was not a prerequisite for counselling raped and battered women and awarded Nixon $7,500 for hurt feelings. The ruling was later overturned by the British Columbia Supreme Court but had it not been, the award could have bankrupted the shelter.
    Whatever the merits of arguments for transsexualism, I think a lot of people would agree with Bindel that this was not the best way of demonstrating them.

  5. Voltaire's Priest said,

    That actually doesn’t have anything to do with Bindel’s ignorant and nonsensical argument, Maria.

  6. Voltaire's Priest said,

    SPP: no but you could be a caucasian born in Shanghai, and thus be a Chinese-speaking “oriental” even though you looked white. That sense of being, and not the surgery itself, is the essence of transsexualism.

    Furthermore, gender roles are so socially constructed that actually I don’t buy into essentialist models when it comes to that whole area. Which makes me sound like a postmodernist though I assure you I am not. It’s actually a question of oppression by dominant ideologies of gender, of minority gender/sexuality groups. That fact that Bindel of all people should be facilitating that is really bizarre.

  7. Ed said,

    Transsexualism is certainly a puzzle, in the sense that I don’t understand it – either why it occurs, or the experience of it. But I have no doubt that people’s experience of it is real, and that those people can be rational, measured, etc – not the masochistic crazies implied by SSP’s argument above. (Of course, for instance, they *can* really be gay and want to ‘fit in’, and this happens in Iran and other places – but trans people accept this is true. It’s not an argument against there being a genuine experience of transsexuality).

    It should be added, btw, that even biologically gender is a much less rigid thing than is often supposed. It takes a lot more than a Y chromosome to make you male; ‘hermaphrodism’ of one sort or another is surprisingly common.

  8. Charlie Butler said,

    “I also expect some ‘transgendered’ people are homosexuals who want to be in ‘normal’ cross sex relationships because of the bigotry they face or feel.”

    Of all the radfem arguments against SRS this is the one that I find it hardest to believe anyone takes seriously. It may hold true in the very peculiar circumstances that currently exist in Iran, but in Britain transsexuals surely face at least as much bigotry as homosexuals – and not only from Julie Bindel. This isn’t at all to belittle the existence of homophobia, which is real and very dangerous; but transsexuals seem to be more or less where homosexuals were a generation ago, in terms of its being ‘acceptable’ to hold them up to casual ridicule or worse.

    SPP’s other arguments seem to depend on conflating gender roles with gender identity. This is an understandable mistake, but a crucial one. Your “Caucasian born in Shanghai” analogy nails the differences well.

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