Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  – respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.

2 thoughts on “Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

  1. Brilliant Scott. Thanks so much. Good advice about trying to meet the people at the top, but sex workers are all banned from coming to the US for Washington AIDS conference….
    IAS forgot about that when selecting Washington. We are holding an alternative event in Kolkata as a hub of the conference. But we should see if we can get a small delegation to go to HRW at some other time, maybe when people are there for some UN spend-a-thon and the US feels some obligation to give a few sex workers ome visas…..

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