The issue of prostitution is a deeply divisive one. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Chris Hedges’ latest essay, the Whoredom of the Left, has ruffled feathers, especially on the left, who he accuses of indifference towards the suffering of trafficked women. Having lost friends on social media for arguing in favor of legalized prostitution, I’ve learned the hard way that, like the Israel/Palestine conflict, prostitution, and sex in general, are subjects on which wise men say nothing. Nevertheless, while I disagree with his defense of the Nordic model, the idea of decriminalizing the act of selling sex but punishing the act of buying sex, I think Hedges is at least partly getting a bum rap. I still think he’s wrong. But he does frame the debate around class and race in ways pro-sex-industry leftists do not.
Hedges, a former Presbyterian minister, turned journalist, turned secular fire and brimstone prophet of doom, doesn’t mince his words. In a short profile of Lee Lakeman, a battered woman’s advocate in Vancouver Canada, he talks about “feckless liberals who think physical abuse of a woman is abhorrent if it occurs in a sweatshop but somehow is acceptable in a rented room, an alley, a brothel, a massage parlor or a car.” When it comes to sex trafficking, he argues, the first-world left is racist. “For women of color, prostitution is an extension of imperialism,” he quotes Alice Lee, a member of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. “It is sexualized racism. Prostitution is built on the social power disparities of race and color. Women of color are disproportionately exploited through prostitution. This racism is not acknowledged by those in First World countries, including the left. Sexualized racism renders us invisible and irrelevant. It makes it impossible for us to be considered human.”
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
Hedges, as a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, is almost certainly familiar with Matthew 13:12. While Jesus is not talking about sex, it is probably the best description of how sex works under capitalism. Sex, in a class society, is a descent into hierarchy. Far from the liberating force that vulgar Reichians from the 1960s talk about, sex locks us into our already existing class status more tightly than we would be if we simply avoided it. For a middle-class woman in a first-world country, therefore, marketing your body is one of many entrepreneurial choices. Is it better than working at Starbucks for 10 dollars an hour? Of course it is. For a woman or a girl of color in a third-world country, on the other hand, prostitution is a more brutal form of exploitation than factory work or agricultural labor.
When the pro-sex-work left in the United States and Western Europe talks about prostitution, they refer almost exclusively to people over the age of 18 engaging in consensual sex in exchange for money. Chris Hedges argues that there is no such thing as consensual sex for money. “Those who sell their bodies for sex,” he writes, “do so out of desperation. They often end up physically injured, with a variety of diseases and medical conditions, and suffering from severe emotional trauma. The left is made morally bankrupt by its failure to grasp that legal prostitution is another face of neoliberalism. Selling your body for sex is not a choice. It is not about freedom. It is an act of economic slavery.”
But he’s wrong.
Even though he correctly identifies the economic compulsion that drives many women, and girls, into prostitution, Chris Hedges sees the state as a possible solution. “In the progressive left it is popular to be anti-state,” he quotes Lee Lakeman as saying. “It is not popular to say we have to press the state to carry out particular policies.” It’s not an unreasonable thought. I’ve made a similar argument for gun-control, that a popular movement that pushes the state into taking firearms away from the violently racist and mentally ill, a push to repeal the Second Amendment, is democracy, not repression.
The problem is that the “Nordic Model” won’t be enforced equally. Rich, white, heterosexual men who can afford to traffic women from Eastern Europe or Asia will face little or no consequences. Gays, transpeople, men, and people on the margins will suffer. Using the state to protect the powerless only gives the state a greater ability to repress the powerless. Anti-prostitution laws will serve gentrifiers, not trafficked women and girls. Men who get sent to jail for buying sex won’t be members of Congress or corporate CEOs, unless, of course, like Elliot Spitzer, they’ve tried to prosecute corruption on Wall Street.
Chris Hedges is a gifted self-promoter who was fired from the NY Times in 2003 for his opposition to the Iraq War. Unlike Gary Webb, he has managed to build a career outside the corporate media. But he occasionally falls victim to his instinct for marketing his writing. When he talks about how western leftists get outraged over poor people being brutalized in sweatshops but not in alleys, brothels, massage parlors, or cars, he gets it exactly backwards. Sex sells. When the feminist weblog Jezebel faked a story about how Scott Walker wanted to stop Wisconsin college students from reporting sexual assault, they did so because they assumed that most Americans wouldn’t get outraged over Walker’s screwing workers out of their right to organize unions in a way they wouldn’t get outraged over sex. Sadly, they probably assumed correctly.
In 2015, fire and brimestone sermons work best when they talk about fucking. 17th Century English Puritans were not, in fact, overly obsessed with who slept with whom. What really pissed them off were raised alters, Latin masses, and “Popery.” But nobody remembers that. Vulgar Reichians in the 1960s argued that sex would be our liberation. Today, secular, left Puritans like Chris Hedges argue that the degraded sexual culture of late, decadent capitalism will be our doom. They’re both wrong. Sex will neither liberate us nor doom us. It’s a symptom, not a cause. It simply reflects what we already are.