Chris Hedges on Prostitution

riding-hoodThe 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.”

He’s right.

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.

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9 comments

  1. Just a few thoughts: I authored the first national position paper advocating the decriminalization of prostitution, while an intern for the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. It was sent to every NOW chapter in the US. I wrote it after doing extensive research on the conditions in which prostitutes work. One of the main theoretical bases to my argument was that prostitution is a 2-person crime in which only the woman gets punished. That’s why it should be immediately decriminalized. It’s a huge waste of law enforcement resources, and it results in sex workers having criminal record and subject to harassment and arrest by cops.

    As a result of my research, I became phone friends with Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE. When I lived in DC and was one of maybe 3 working class students at Catholic University Law School, I became friends with a woman who was at Antioch, and was putting herself through law school by hooking. She was from Tennessee, and fled a marriage where she was being battered, and had 2 kids to support. Prostitution did not seem like a tremendously fun occupation from my conversations with her, unlike the Ivy League students who can chicly dabble in it to earn extra money, then can move on to bigger and more respectable lives. Women of color and poor women rarely have that option.

    I’ve been discussing the issue with a lot of people in the past few days. The image that Hedges wrote about that sticks in my mind is that of the woman getting anally pummeled for hours a day, because prostitutes have very little negotiating power in sexual boundaries once the door to the room is locked and the customer wants what he wants. And that’s the whole point of prostitution – for men traditionally to be able to purchase women in order to control them for an hour or so, aside from those who are merely lonely or losing their virginity on somebody’s treat.

    Prostitutes don’t generally get to pick and choose their customers, especially those who are poor and working the streets. To me, getting paid $500 for a night is not worth the money if the result is rectal prolapse. Hedges notes the occupational hazards of prostitution. Sex work differs fundamentally from other work, because it is not socialized or collectivized and does not lend itself to such. It is by nature private and private property-based. For an hour or so, a man gets to own and control a woman. That’s pretty much the case with a pimp, unless a woman is part of a prostitution collective, or a New Age-style “temple goddess”. Workers in offices, in bars, in construction, in food service, may have certain occupational hazards. But there is the ability to organize and discuss common experiences, and be out in the open. The very nature of prostitution is secretive. It’s generally upper middle class or wealthy men cheating on their wives or getting esoteric desires met.

    The exchange is money given for a blank check on one’s bodily orifices, energy, and even health. You can catch herpes while the virus is “shedding” and the person giving it to you can have been totally asymptomatic. You can get rectal prolapse, which according to Hedges, is extraordinarily sinful and requires multiple surgeries which may not repair the damage. You can be killed, strangled, or abused and left for dead.

    In no other occupation do workers work alone, isolated, in a locked room, and naked, with the exception of stilettos and maybe a garter belt or lingerie. And we all know how fast a woman can run in stilettos. I don’t think most straight men are willing to imagine themselves in a woman’s place doing this work, & what she could be experiencing.

    I agree with Hedges that for many women in the Third World, prostitution is likely to bee more dangerous and more violent.

    I don’t have current statistics on violence towards sex workers. I know in the 70s, WOC and poor women in general, were disproportionally hurt or killed by pimps.

    The fact is that the human body is not designed to have sex for 6-8 hours a day, 5-7 days per week. It’s inherently numbing and destructive. The price that women have paid is emotional numbness and a hard outer shell. You can’t deny that you have emotions and engage night afar night in sex with people you do not pick and who you may even find repulsive physically, and not have that as the result. That means men who smell bad, taste bad, are gruff, clumsy, verbally abusive, rough, or violent. A different approach to structuring sex for money would involve health protections for women, and some general rules and boundaries that women would have the right to negotiate-something that is no possible with a pimp.

    In no other profession is a worker in direct intimate contact with another person and totally exposed and vulnerable. The work of prostitution is qualitatively different. Many female prostitutes also perform emotional work for their customers. Being emotionally intimate and having to turn that on and off like a switch is as damaging as repetitive stress syndrome can be to assembly-line workers. People are not machines and we are not meant to be treated like machines.

    The effects of sex work do not necessarily lead tot wanting to outlaw it. Back in the 70s, I favored decriminalization after studying the system of legalized prostitution in LV that involved a great deal of mandatory STD testing for women, registration and licensing.

    Prostitution is inversely proportional to women’s poverty and low status economically.

    The best way that women can engage in prostitution if they choose, is to do so in collectives, with clear boundaries, health insurance, safe sex practices, and rules for participants, with the right to terminate the session. It might necessitate self-defense training as well. But certainly, anything would be preferable to the situation we have now, where it is criminalized and so often dangerous.

    Other than some people who have done extreme things, like Grace Quan’s sex diary, I think that most people, if they were engaged in sex on demand, with no choice in whom one is servicing or often, how, for 6-8 hours a day, would wind up being exhausted, numb, and burnt out.

    If we’re going to have sex work, I think it should be without fear of arrest, it should be enjoyable, it should not be of longer duration than the worker can manage, and it should pay well with good health benefits. There should also be job training available so that the worker can transition to other types of work, given the relatively short duration of a sex work career, which is not unlike dance. Except in dance, you get to move into choreography.

    1. Hedges is getting hammered for that column. I’m probably the only “moderate’ out there.

      Here’s my question. If Hedges thinks that prostitution is the essence of neoliberalism, why does he stop at prostitution? Isn’t all sex under capitalism infected with commerce? Isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey popular because it tries to square that circle (between commerce and romance)?

      Isn’t his insight into the essence of sex under neoliberalism the best argument against his own argument against criminalizing the purchase of sex?

  2. As someone who did 2 college theses on Reich, I’m interested in who you consider to be the “vulgar Reichians” that you refer to? There is actually a school of therapy that was very popular in the 60s and 70s, based upon Reichian theories, bioenergetics. Thee are specific exercises designed to free up a person’s breathing, core energy, and vitality. They are designed to rid the person of internalized emotional trauma, and to promote unblocked emotional expression.

    1. Any one of 100 self-help manuals that says sex is a good in and of itself outside of a social context, that if you only have enough orgasms you can cure yourself of the ills of capitalism.

      We all know where that ended, in vulgar hedonism, in lots of gratuitous sex separate from any emotion. It actually helped pave the way for the societal ills Hedges talks about.

      Anti-sex utopianism is the mirror image of pro-sex utopianism. The idea that if only we give cops, judges,and lawyers enough control over our bodies we will save women from male predation is the flip side of the idea that the orgasm will bring in the millenium.

      1. Gilbert · · Reply

        agree

  3. I agree that there is both anti-sex and pro-sex utopianism. But my understanding of pro-sex utopianism is more what people into polyamory believe: in breaking down patriarchal relations and bonding epitomized by the nuclear family, and creating more outlets for love for everyone that go beyond possessiveness. I don’t see the opposition in the 2 things you’ve posited, because “giving cops, judges and lawyers control over our bodies to save women from male predation”
    is not the opposite of a sex-positive society. Reich’s work was based on the notion that most people’s energy was dammed up. The polarity he set up were people who suffered from the “emotional plague” and who were repressed and dammed up, and those who were not bottled up and repressed, and had freed up their sexual energy. The polarity that Reich posited was more about compulsion versus unblocked release.

    The whole anti-sex shaming took place before the modern nation-state and according to Reich, is linked to authoritarian familiar and social relations. That’s what he wrote about in “Listen, Little Man”.

    Hedges’ point recently seemed to be that prostitution was a metaphor for sex devoid of emotion. Everything is tainted by capitalism, but I think there’s a continuum. Just like Americans in general live in a culture that fosters narcissism, people are on a spectrum. When he was talking about the transformation of the arts into entertainment as spectacle, much of hit hyper-sexualized, he was railing against a loss of intimacy, of bonding, of attachment.

    I think you made the point in your comments on the film “Her”.

    I think “50 Shades” is popular because it’s the culmination of all of the values of TV reality shows combined with real-estate porn. Christian is the penultimate urban Master of the Universe. And yes, I see your point that Hedges’ argument is a bit of a conundrum.

    1. re: “But my understanding of pro-sex utopianism is more what people into polyamory believe: in breaking down patriarchal relations and bonding epitomized by the nuclear family, and creating more outlets for love for everyone that go beyond possessiveness.”

      And what does that mean under capitalism? More specifically, how does it influence the growth of prostitution? When monogamy (if it ever existed as anything more than a middle-class ideal) breaks down, does it mean more sexuality equality or less?

      Prostitution, in the 19th-century was partly about sexual repression. There were “nice girls” you married and there were prostitutes you fucked. By these days it’s as much about consumerism as it is about repression. Rich German and American tourists going to Thailand to buy underaged girls aren’t doing it because they can’t get sex at home. They’re doing it because sexual consumption under late capitalism is an addiction. You need more and more of the extreme to satisfy yourself.

      re: “The whole anti-sex shaming took place before the modern nation-state and according to Reich, is linked to authoritarian familiar and social relations.”

      But current anti-sex shaming has a lot more to do with capitalism than with patriarchy. It’s not “how well do you obey the father.” It’s “how well can you market yourself.” A broken down old prostitute can no longer market herself. An unattractive “nice guy” is someone who’s never been able to market himself. Sure, patriarchy still exists. But it’s patriarchy in conjunction with consumer capitalism.

      re: “I think “50 Shades” is popular because it’s the culmination of all of the values of TV reality shows combined with real-estate porn. Christian is the penultimate urban Master of the Universe.”

      Is he? Or is he the culmination of the female sex fantasy under late capitalism? In the film, he really doesn’t order people around so much as buy a lot of things. There’s nothing very fatherly about Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey. He’s a good looking frat boy with lots of money. Compare him to Michael Fassbender in the 2011 Jane Eyre. Fassbender is patriarchal in that film.

  4. I think your comment on self-help books thought begs the question. The fact is that the people who move and change history, are those who lack shame, and who resist the internalization of oppression. Anyway, this is a great song that says what Hedges says, but in a different way. It’s one of my favorites, Les McCann & Eddie Harris: “Compared to What?” It ‘s really a masterpiece. The song starts with “We live to lie, and lie to love, hang in’ on to push and shove, possession is the motivation, that’s hang in’ up the goddam nation, looks like we always end up in a rut, trying’ to map it real, compared to what?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzvlivbptXk

    1. re: “I think your comment on self-help books thought begs the question.”

      What’s the question? You deny that “vulgar Reichianism” exists. But you don’t prove that by asking the same question over and over again and rejecting the answer every time it’s given to you. Reich believed the orgasm would save our souls. In the 1960s and 1970s that idea was marketed as a sexual revolution. It crashed and burned in the AIDs epidemic. Right now, nobody thinks orgasms will save your soul. Feminists (male and female) and anti-sex left puritans like Hedges seem to believe that policing our language, not giving offence, and eliminating male sexual aggressiveness will somehow lead to female economic and political equality. Different decade, different form of bullshit utopianism.

      p.s. If you want a good example of vulgar Reichianism (and just how much “good” it does for women) in film, check out John Cusack’s character in Maps to the Stars. He’s a vulgar Reichian therapist (vulgar Reichianism mixed in with a smidgen of Hollywood Buddhism).

      https://stanleyrogouski.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/maps-to-the-stars-2014/

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