“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.
“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”
– Summary of Playing the Whore from goodreads.com
Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women.
Those involved in sex work, whether they use the label of prostitute, sex worker or something else, belong to a part of society largely overlooked by society. Like the homeless or the unemployed, society, generally, looks down upon them while rarely offering respect for their human dignity or considering their current state as a temporary one. Leaders in both public and private sectors rarely given them a chance for inclusion into the rest of society.
Grant’s Playing the Whore is a simple yet exhaustive study of all the areas which affect sex workers, including the police, the media and the groups who see themselves as the ‘savior’. Largely excluded from the discussion on criminality, depiction or alternatives are sex workers themselves.
Just as women of colour and lesbians of generations past had to face off against straight white feminists of movements past, sex workers who seek autonomy and respect have to face off against anti-prostitution feminists today who offer neither. Grant documents how feminists in the anti-prostitution movement organize events and talks about sex work while, without seeing the problem, never including sex workers.
Female sex workers, like the many others who preceded them in the women’s liberation movement, continue to counter the conservative values, often shaped by Christian morality, that come to control their daily life. Although those people who buy sex sometimes face arrest, the burden falls predominantly on the woman. Sex workers face widespread violence and harassment by police officers. Sadly, the rest of society does not value sex workers much better.
In the same way that substance abuse is now seen as a health concern and something that shouldn’t be treated with criminalization and imprisonment, prostitution should be seen as an issue of employment needs. Unfortunately, politicians, supposed “advocates” and others refuse to see their place as seeking harm reduction, as is being done for addicts. Similarly, the role for police in both instances is to protect citizens – all citizens – especially those most vulnerable to receiving harm.
The central element of the book, which is signaled by its subtitle, “The Work of Sex Work”, is that of employment. Bringing her own stories as well as other sex workers, Grant describes the informal nature of today’s sex work. The women’s liberation movement has long been about women’s economic liberation. From unpaid care work to the gender pay gap, women have long suffered from an economy tailored not to them but towards men. Sex work is no different. Grant connects the work of sex work to other forms of self-employment within the informal sector, such as hair stylists, and service industries, like retail. Until all women are given the economic opportunities to live a dignified and comfortable life, these forms of informal or part-time employment will have to be used.
The debate on economics applies to countries around the world. As Grant points out, the movement to “rescue” sex workers in Asia and elsewhere does not address the economic, political and social disadvantages sex workers face inside and outside the profession. Even if victimized women are rescued, they receive little more than job training to low-paid labour. A sign in a Cambodia textile shop employing former sex workers point to this realization. It reads:
DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT SEWING MACHINES. TALK TO ME ABOUT WORKERS’ RIGHTS.
Until we begin to see women – all women – as equal members of society, short-term fixes will not have the power to liberate sex workers when they continue to live in poverty. For those women who are left without alternative employment, decriminalization and support should be a first priority, not fear of the police and exclusion from ‘mainstream’ workers.
The debate between a woman’s right to self-determination and conservative traditional values in society is linked to another contentious issue: abortion.
The first feminist wave gave women the right to vote. The second wave gave women the Pill, and control of their reproductive rights.
In the United States, like most countries around the world, abortion was important for family planning but seen as a criminal action. This period, half a century ago, was also marked by near total male representation in politics. In 1973, the US Supreme Court determined that abortion was a constitutionally protected act with Roe v. Wade. Since then, conservative groups have fought to make abortion illegal or impossible to get.
The documentary TRAPPED showcases doctors who perform abortions in some states in the United States who have fought against so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. Since 2011, states in the South and Midwest have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions — TRAP laws, admitting privilege requirements, rules for how medication abortions may be performed, bans on abortion after 20 weeks (and sometimes earlier), longer waiting periods, and greater impediments to teenagers seeking abortions without parental approval.
Earlier this year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the US Supreme Court found that TRAP laws in Texas placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and thus violate the Constitution. This is a major victory for women’s rights and may signal the beginning of TRAP laws being overruled across the nation.
TRAPPED follows in the footsteps of other documentary films shining a light on the battle over a woman’s right to choose. Six years ago, 12th & Delaware revealed the fight on the titular street corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, between a for-profit abortion clinic and a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic whose mission is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. While the abortion clinic takes precautions against threats of violence and fends off protesters, the pregnancy clinic actively spreads misinformation to women about the dangers of abortion.
A decade ago, Lake of Fire depicted the heated abortion debate that was already waging for decades in America. Leaving no stone unturned, it featured graphic footage of actual medical procedures and presented people on both pro-choice and pro-life sides of the issue.
These films add to the lengthy abortion debate in the United States and reveal the tactics of those groups opposed to a women’s right to choose how her pregnancy is managed. Ultra-conservative and Christian groups lie to pregnant women, spreading misinformation and fear. They set up anti-abortion pregnancy centres, which act as red herrings to women who are seeking abortions, while never disclosing their real ideology. These tactics show no respect towards pregnant women who, for whatever reason, have decided that a medically-assisted abortion is the right decision. Instead, they fool pregnant women, delaying their decision beyond what the law allows and, in effect, force vulnerable to follow through with their pregnancy against their will. A shameful game of politics over people.
The abortion debate in the United States has not been peaceful either. Groups like Operation Rescue and others promote violence to achieve their ends. It’s not just psychological violence. Although conservative and Christian groups regularly protest outside clinics and yell at women who enter, they also conduct terrorism. Male opponents to abortion (it’s almost always men who become violent) have repeatedly assassinated doctors and fire-bombed clinics, spreading fear and pressuring providers to close their doors. The entire anti-abortion movement ultimately furthers these horrendous acts of violence through their misinformation and shaming protests. Sadly, this violence in the name of opposing reproductive rights is not limited to only the US.
The concept of rescue is found in the ideologies of both anti-prostitution and anti-abortion. Rescue from what? Rescuing women from themselves, it seems. From decisions about their health, their well-being, their finances, and their work. The debate doesn’t typically expand past what to do once women are “rescued”. They are thrown back into society to fend for themselves without the political, economic or social support they may have wanted in the first place.
It’s difficult to ignore the irony at the center of debates on women’s rights: the loudest voices aren’t women. Men make up the majority of anti-abortion advocates. One of the biggest anti-abortion voices is the Catholic Church, which is built around female subservience to male clergy. Male legislatures pass laws without talking to female voters.
Although women are often found protesting prostitution and abortion, the organisations they represent are, more often than not, led by men. Men who will never be pregnant. Men who have more employment opportunities than women and who can purchase sex from prostitutes without fear of much prosecution or persecution.
Men need to stand aside and listen, rather than stand at the front and dominate the discussion. We need to stop making decisions about those we know little about.
Ultimately, the fight is not over whose morals should dominate because this is not a debate over ideas; it’s a debate over people. People who have the right to determine their own lives. All human beings deserve dignity.
All struggles are connected since, as the organisation Black Women for Wages for Housework said, “When prostitutes win, all women win.” Hookers and housewives unite!
Last month, I watched a number of new documentaries. Three of these stood out thanks to their connective stories.
Three stories that each follow an American protagonist.
Three legal battles over ideology, whether good or bad.
Three very different areas of society that link past challenges to future opportunities, through present discussions.
Past: Welcome to Leith
White supremacist Craig Cobb tries to take over a small town in North Dakota. As his behavior becomes more threatening, residents wrestle with democratic principles as they try to get rid of their unwanted neighbor.
Welcome to Leith looks at the two unfortunate realities in the United States that intersect in a small town in North Dakota: the economic decline of rural America and the long history of white nationalist hatred. Leith is a town of about 30 people, where the mayor also drives the school bus. With many people leaving for the opportunities, land and houses are for sale for extremely low prices.
The United States has a long history of white supremacy, going back to the end of the Civil War and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It’s not surprising that hate groups formed, since the country was founded on the economic model of enslaving humans of a darker complexion. These early hate groups used terrorism against groups they hated (African Americans) as well as groups that challenged them (white Americans). It hasn’t ended either. Many hate groups now use Nazi propaganda and imagery to continue to promote white supremacy.
With its small population and isolated geography, one white supremacist moved into town and tried to turn Leith into a fascist paradise. Craig Cobb and his associated started by flying Nazi flags and interrupting town meetings but soon moved to patrolling the community with guns. This was too much for the town and inevitably lead to Cobb’s arrest.
This confrontation between a small town and a group with small-minded ideas should not be seen in isolation. Hate groups have a long history within the United States and need to be taken on by everyone, especially white Americans who have sat by while these groups spread hate and commit white terrorism inside the country.
Present: Unlocking the Cage
Lawyer Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project file lawsuits to give animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants limited personhood rights.
Steven Wise is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Thee NhRP fights for the rights of highly intelligent nonhumans who have long been seen as things and not beings. Unlocking the Cage follows their recent battles to have chimpanzees freed from their cages using the legal writ of habeas corpus (freedom from unlawful detention), which has never been applied to nonhuman animals before.
Across the world, several groups of people are fighting for their rights – right to be recognized as fully human. In the United States, it wasn’t too long ago that African Americans were deemed to be worth three-fifths of a white American. It took time but this injustice was eventually overcome through changes in the law and fights in the courts. Steven Wise wants to give the same rights to the most intelligent of nonhuman creatures, those who can speak and think like a human child can.
Biological, psychological and other scientific research in recent years has shown that the animals that the NhRP fights for – chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants – have the ability to use language, to use tools, to pass learning down through generations, to develop communities, to understand complex thoughts. These discoveries are broadening the understanding of what our world truly offers. We, as human beings, must work towards ending the pain and violence directed towards highly sentient creatures, understanding that they are not just things.
Unlocking the Cage continues the path of humanity towards a more just world where all beings, whether human or not, are deserving of respect and a peaceful existence. Here’s hoping that the NhRP will continue their legal fights and begin to challenge society’s consciousness for the better.
Future: Deep Web
A feature documentary that explores the rise of a new Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law.
Deep Web chronicles the rise of the black market website Silk Road, were users could purchase illegal drugs anonymously, and Bitcoin, a digital currency that is all but untraceable to authorities. Beyond the hidden nature of these tools, the film explores the politics that led to their creation and use.
The film covers the trial of Ross Ulbricht, known under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, who was convicted of creating and running the Silk Road until his 2013 arrest. On its surface it is difficult to know whether Ulbricht is responsible for all of the crimes alleged since the DPR account was used by multiple persons.
Deeper down, the understand the saga of the Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht is to examine the United States’ “War or Drugs” and the response of libertarian free-market solutions crafted by Ulbricht and many others. Ulbricht wished to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind” and claimed that he was “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”
Like the mythical Hydra, the Silk Road has now sprouted dozens of offshoots with the same purpose. Bitcoin is becoming a household name and being used for purchasing more products digitally each day. Ultimately, politics and economics will become more intertwined with the Internet and digital technology in the future. Whether society is ready to deal with that fact is to be seen.
Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. But, what type of men?
In the documentary The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the masculine qualities found in the United States today, asking the viewer to question the harm they are causing to boys. (The film is available online; click here to watch.) This is Newsom’s second film as part of The Representation Project, following the documentary Miss Representation, looking at depictions of women in the media. Although the discussion and research for The Mask You Live In is focused on the U.S., the film’s message is important to millions of boys and men around the world.
“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity. There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”
The Mask You Live In resonated with me and my childhood. Each area discussed – sport, relationships, work, etc. – provides opportunities for growth…but also provides opportunities for perpetuating harm. The harm in question is that of patriarchy.
There are three lies about masculinity that every boy learns in America:
- We associate masculinity with athletic ability
- We associate masculinity with economic success
- We associate sexual conquest with masculinity
These three lies pave the foundation for a life of men feeling inadequate.Boys who don’t achieve a fictional level of manliness and are unsupported in alternative achievements live without the self-esteem needed to be happy. As one interviewee notes, “Comparison is the thief of all happiness.” As the film shows, boys and ultimately men struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.
This all starts at a very young age, when boys enter school.
- 1 in 4 boys report being bullied at school
- Only 30% of those who are bullied notify adults
(All stats come from the film.)
One of the main reasons for bullying is societies binary view of gender: Men are masculine; Women are feminine. This outdated view of a person’s range of self-identification is framed around femininity being about emotion, relationships, and empathy. Men and masculinity are everything that isn’t these attributes, and any boy who exerts emotion or empathy will be bullied for not adhering to it.
The conservative view of masculinity – one that doesn’t leave room for emotion and relationships between boys – also breeds homophobia. Boys learn very early that if they do anything remotely seen as feminine or loving towards fellow boys that they will be labeled a “sissy” or other sexist language than harms all genders. Society has taught boys that girls are the only one who are free to care about boys.
This inevitably leads to loneliness among boys and men. One way to combat these feelings is to self-medicate, which young men do by taking drugs and alcohol.
- By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
- The average boy tries drugs at age 13
- 1 in 4 boys binge drink (consume 5 or more drinks in a row)
These social problems are made worse by society’s inability to let boys talk about their feelings, whether good or bad. In the film, a male teach gets a group of young male students to do an exercise. Each takes a mask. On the front they write what image of masculinity they present to society. On the back they write what they are hiding. This simple exercise gets to the root of so many problems, yet is still difficult to build into a reformed education system.
Until everyone understands the root problems of masculinity, boys and men will continue to experience inadequacy, loneliness and the mental health problems these feelings produce. Ultimately, many will turn to suicide if these problems go untreated.
- Every day 3 or more boys commit suicide
- For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
- Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help
Even in the small village I grew up, we had a fellow student commit suicide. Many students and adults could not understand why it happened. It’s a shame that the teachers and staff in that school were not better trained to understand the root problems discussed in The Mask I Live In. It may have prevented this needless death and other, unseen pain.
In the last century, thanks to the fight of the women’s rights movement, girls and women now have greater equality in attaining educational success. Unfortunately, during that same period of time, men in power did little to change the way boys learn. Schools were punishing boys through humiliation, such as by making them write on the board. Rarely did they ask why is this kid acting out. This has meant that boys are under-performing in school, as compared to their female counterparts.
- Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
- Compared to girls, boys are: 2 times more likely to be in special education, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be expelled
In a world that limits boys’ ability to talk about themselves, most turn inwards and spend their time in solitary activities – many of which spur harmful notions of masculinity.
- In a week, the average boy spends: 40 hours watching TV, sports, movies; 15 hours playing video games; 2 hours watching porn
- 31% of males feel addicted to video games
- 99% of boys play video games
- 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence
- 50% of parents don’t monitor ratings
- The average 18 year old has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen including 40,000 murders
Even when boys are outside, playing sports and interacting with other boys, they can be prone to the same negative examples of masculinity. Sports encourage play that is violent and competitive. Coaches often act as father figures, which can do an awful lot of good and an awful lot of bad. A coach can instill the same type of homophobic, anti-girl language that recycles through generations of unchanged language.
In the film, when asked “how would you feel if your coach called you a ‘sissy’?” a boy responded that it would “devastate” him. What does this mean for how we teach boys about being a girl.
Sports has the wrong mix of power, dominance, control, moral clarity. A ‘Win at all cost’ culture in sports means winning at the expense of character development. The myth that sports builds character can only become true if coaches teach and model it.
The Mask You Live In documents four male archetypes in media:
- Strong silent guy, who is always in control
- Superhero character engaging in violence to maintain that control or in order to achieve whatever goal is in front of him
- Thug, man of colour, who are pigeon holed into violent roles
- Man-child, who is in perpetual adolescence, whose body doesn’t have lots of muscle. He purports masculinity in another way – through degradation of women, engaging in high-risk activities
Media has a definite effect on people’s behavior. If it didn’t, advertising would collapse.
Violence on TV, movies and video games adds to the culture of boys being made to think that ‘real’ men must fight to be respected. There’s a reason the US army trains people using video games. It’s because it gets them used to some of the experiences.
A report on youth violence by the US Surgeon General found that violence in media has the following three effects:
- Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering of others.
- Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
- Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.
These same forms of entertainment, combined with pornography, push an agenda of dominate men and submissive women – a fundamental lie of masculinity.
- 34% of youth online receive unwanted pornographic exposure
- 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn
- 68% young men use pornography weekly and 21% of young men use pornography daily
These harmful portrayals of both men and women can be overcome through reasoned sex education. Unfortunately, many parent in the United States are opposed to this, due largely to conservative views about talking openly about one’s sexuality and alternatives of sexual identity.
- Only 22 states require public schools teach sex education
Because of shame around sexuality, porn is sex education for most people. Without sex education in the school and with silent parents at home, many boys turn to their computers for guidance, with terrible consequences. The internet provides “excess in social isolation”.
- 83% of boys have seen group sex online
- 39% of boys have seen bondage online
- 18% of boys have seen rape online
- Exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%
Boys are being conditioned towards violence.
By the time boys reach puberty, society has implanted the worst forms of masculinity, through school systems that allow bullying and punish expression; through media and sports that promote violence. Porn then teaches boys “what women want and how men are supposed to perform”. Both of those are wrong. It’s difficult to think, but “rapists are being produced by our culture”.
Researcher in the film call this the Great Set-Up: “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human”. So we set boys up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.
Boys enter their teenage years being told that “A man is always supposed to be on the prowl” or “I’d like to hit that” or “I’d like a piece of that” or “I’d like to tear that shit up”. In all of these cases the woman (or sometimes man) is an object, an “it” or “that”. And violence – “hit”, “tear” – is the means to the sexual end. This teaches boys not to see the humanity in girls and leads to a culture of sexual violence against women. Young men are then sent to universities with toxic ideas of sex and sexual expression.
- Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted
- 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it
- 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault
Young men on university campuses represent a recipe for failure: 18 year-olds desperate to prove their masculinity to 19 year-olds. Campus environments provide two things for young men: horizontal solidarity by bonding with your ‘bros’ (hooking up, initiations, hazing); and the feeling that girls can’t do these things (hierarchy – men are superior to women).
The Mask You Live In notes a unique ‘code of silence’ found in American society. This is the conflict between the heart that wants to the right things, and the head that has been conditioned to do the opposite. This is the fear that many men have that prevent them from acting ethically and continues the ‘male peer culture’.
“Choice is rooted in our privilege.”
Not only is sexual violence perpetuated by men, mostly, it attacks both women and men, girls and boys. The culture of silence that our society has instilled into boys prevents them from seeking the medical and mental health services to overcome these violent crimes.
- Over half of all boys are physically abused
- 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused
- Abused and neglected children are 9 times more likely to be involved in crime
America is unique for its culture of guns. These guns are the weapons of choice for many boys and men who seek suicide as an end to their pain – an end with immediate resolve. The films summarizes this as: “Whether its homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when feeling overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.”
“While we as good men don’t perpetrate the violence, we are part of the collective socialization.” Men and the culture that works against progress are the fertile ground that’s required for the violence to exist.
- Every hour more than 3 people are killed by a gun. That’s over 30,000 lives annually
- 90% of homicide perpetrators are male. Almost 50% are under 25
The male role belief system is a recipe for violence: Men are defined as superior, women are defined as inferior. And to be a real man, you also dominate other men. Respect is linked to violence. These notions and all that was explored above collectively explain the level of violence that remains in society, as well as the phenomenon of ‘mass killings’ in America.
- Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks
- 94% of mass homicides are committed by males
- The youngest mass shooter was 11
- The rate of mass shooting has tripled since 2011
- And there has been almost 1 school shooting per week since Sandy Hook
At its core, The Mask You Live In creates a dialogue between healthy and unhealthy ways to define manhood. These dialogues have for far too long been absent from education institutions and the wider society but are slowly being openly discussed. Debates among men are addressing many long-standing problems, such as ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ where men in positions of power feeling entitled to power and that they’re not getting that power anymore.
The Men’s Rights Movements sees the end result of patriarchy – suicide violence, depression, rape against men – and feels that its the result of women’s liberation without understanding where the struggle really lies. Until men understand that the system that produces inequality between genders (as well as racism, homophobia and other discrimination) is harmful to others as much as it is to themselves, men will never be free.
The liberation of men and boys is inextricably linked to the fight by women and girls against patriarchy. The language and actions of men towards boys must start with peace and respect. Violence can not be condoned in any form; language that assists violence must be countered in every instance. Homophobia must be challenges alongside recognition that all males have the right to be feminine, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
The coming revolution in mental health will help boys open up and discuss their needs with other boys, who were also sitting silent with the same concerns. Parents should take the opportunity to encourage their children to challenge the harmful masculine and feminine stereotypes in society through their words and actions. Individual action is not enough; a new society needs to be created.
Everyone deserves to feel whole. Starting the process of talking about these issues, as early as possible, for both boys and girls, is essential for future improvements to solving society’s problems. Talking across gender line is needed at all ages.
Each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.
Watching The Mask You Live In is a good place to start and should be required viewing in all classrooms.