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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Feminist Cocoon: a cursory dissection

Kerry Howley at Reason (ht: Julian Sanchez) on the feminist wing of the blogosphere on legalizing prostitution in the wake of the Spitzer scandal:

I find this incoherent precisely because I share all the poster’s intuitions about problematic cultural norms. Of course sexism restricts autonomy in all sorts of ways that deserve consideration when discussing the prevalence of prostitution or the choice to enter sex work. Of course it’s deplorable that sexually adventurous young women are constantly told they are “degrading themselves” by seeking out various experiences, that every bit of enjoyment eats away at some secret store of purity. This whole tradition–the idea that women need be preserved in glass so as not to “ruin” themselves, lest they diminish their sexual value by “giving it away”–restricts the lived autonomy of women in ways I can’t even begin to articulate. None of the slut-shaming makes sense unless you assume women live to give themselves to men in their purest possible form.

If you find all of these cultural pathologies unfortunate, what is the public policy you should prefer? It seems to me that it is not the policy that deems it a crime against the American people to open your legs. Anti-prostitution laws add a layer of legal sanction to all of our worst intuitions about the treatment of sexually independent women; they strengthen and validate the idea that women who bed men with any frequency are sick, marginal, pariahs. Even decriminalization, which treats Johns as outlaws and sex workers as victims, assumes that all sex workers are damaged, that no woman would ever love sex enough to make a career out of it. And why not? Well, because every woman knows that she is her sexual purity rating. No sane woman would ever choose to mess that up.

In sum: If we are ever going to introduce a conceptual distinction between the moral character of individual women and the integrity of their hymens, it seems extremely important not to criminalize aberrant sexual behaviors.

First of all, to nitpick, it is a caricature to reduce the "traditional" (for lack of a more neutral term) moral view on sexuality to the view that one's entire moral being can be reduced to how one behaves sexually. The traditionalist certainly believes that one's sexual behavior is an integral aspect of morality and cannot be divorced from honest moral reflection, but this doesn't imply that morality can be judged by a virginal litmus test.

Howley's argument against the traditionalist view (she might prefer the term patriarchal view) is that "[n]one of the slut-shaming makes sense unless you assume women live to give themselves to men in their purest possible form." Fair enough, but it also deserves mention that most traditionalists believe that men should live for the same thing. Admittedly there has been a double standard in terms of how "society" views those who don't live up to this standard, but this is distinct from the "traditional" position on morality.

In the murky waters of feminist theory, this failure to understand the traditional and religious pronouncements on this subject is a cause of blindness. It's very easy to make grand proclamations about what "society" and "the man" inculcate about various aspects of social mores when you don't have to reference explicit traditional beliefs, which are hardly the caricatures Howley makes them out to be.

Granted, this is apparently an internecine dialogue, but the lack of precision and care is a sign that these sorts of discussions are a bit too insulated from common sense.

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:47 AM

    " Of course it’s deplorable that sexually adventurous young women are constantly told they are “degrading themselves” by seeking out various experiences..."

    And the way they crush the autonomy of men, telling them not to whup their wives and all!

    ReplyDelete
  2. John,

    I'm not touching this topic with a ten-foot pole, but tell me: How did you put the horizontal lines around your quotation?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bob, just highlight the text and click the "" icon.

    ReplyDelete
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