Via @LoveExAsia on Twitpic.
The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work. Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change. The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon. And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.
“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.
Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.
One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.
Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.
Who writes this stuff for the Times? (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.) Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen? Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features? Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself? Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”
The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:
As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.
Is this guy a pimp? Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.
And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:
In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.
Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:
I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.
The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising. Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.
The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.’” But:
Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.
Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.” Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,
Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.
But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether. We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times.
Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice. Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof. In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”
The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm. In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:
When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.
Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …
In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.
For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”
The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial. “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,” said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”
It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.” Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.
In a speech to a huge mob of pitchfork-wielding, witch-incinerating, rabid conservatives today, Rick Santorum opposed the whole idea of including contraceptives in insurance plans. Surprise! His argument, though, wasn’t so much moral as economic:
[I]nterestingly enough, here is what they are forcing them to do—in an insurance policy, they are forcing them to pay for something that costs just a few dollars. Is that what insurance is for? The foundational idea that we have the government tells you that you have to pay for everything as a business. Things that are not really things you need insurance for, and still forcing on something that is not a critical economic need, when you have an economic distress, where you would need insurance. But forcing them even more to do it for minor expenses.
Of course, the kids you might have otherwise (or the abortions) aren’t exactly minor expenses, so this might turn out to be a bit of a false economy in the end. Still, it reflects his sense that sex is not a “need,” or a drive, or even an impulse. It’s a cheap treat, like the mint a restaurant gives you at the end of a meal.
In the nineteenth century, pr-st-t-t–n, sometimes along with other illicit forms of s-x that couldn’t be named in print, was often referred to as “the Social Evil.” As a way of describing our running obsession with the morality of human arousal, I much prefer this to the term “Culture Wars,” which imputes a degree of excitement to the endless sex conflict that, in its rhetorical monotony, it really doesn’t possess. Moreover, “Social Evil” is multivalent. It can mean the sex itself, or the way we think about it, or the way we try to suppress it, or the fact that we think about it at all. I’m inclined to use it to signify the latter, but that’s neither here nor there. In any case, whenever I say “Social Evil,” think culture wars and all they contain, and let healthy images of Rick Santorum nude mud-wrestling Ellen Degeneres fill your mind.
And now that you’ve vomited: the Social Evil is back. This presidential season was all supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs, and suddenly it is all about sex, sex, sex. First there was the Planned Parenthood fracas. You know about that: funding withdrawn from a major provider of mammograms because the right wing feared any medical services might somehow be infected by the proximity of abortions. Then there was furor when the Obama administration decided that employee health insurance plans offered by religious charities, hospitals, and universities had to cover contraception in the same way other employers’ would. In the middle of this, the Ninth Circuit in California dissed the opponents of same-sex marriage, holding there was no compelling reason for Proposition 8 to snatch away the right the State Supreme Court had granted. And Rick Santorum won three states on Tuesday. The French Revolution is coming, he said, along with ”the guillotine”: “if we do and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.” Presumably the fat king and his jewel-encrusted wife will die, along with plenty of priests. (A warning to Newt Gingrich?) The French, he went on, had a constitution that
was very similar to the American Constitution. But it was one difference. Their constitution was based on three principles. Liberty—good. Equality—good. And fraternity—brotherhood. Brother-hood. But not fatherhood.
A stiff dose of patriarchy keeps the Social Evil away.
Although pundits affect some surprise that this diversion from the Important Issue of the economy is taking place, in fact it’s not shocking at all. Culture is what Republicans talk about instead of talking about class. (They talk about race, too, but it requires more caution and so is less fun.) And culture means sex; the whole intellectual apparatus that the left-wing cultural elites try to foist on the uncorrupted masses, from nudie pictures to sweaty and shoulder-rubbing subway rides, is one giant excuse to stimulate the nether organs and jump-start nonprocreative copulation. In a year when inequality has become, against all conservative predictions, a central political issue, yelling about sex is not just a diversion for the right wing: it’s an attempt to translate an anger that most people are feeling, out of an incomprehensible language of economic justice into a vocabulary of resentment Republican leaders can understand.
The contraception battle, though, is perhaps the most revealing as far as the attitudes of the right wing go. For those interested in the question’s legal ramifications, you can turn to David Boies (attorney and gay-marriage maven), who together with Joan Walsh explains it as “an issue of labor law, and the government’s regulation of employers (relatively minimal, compared to other countries) on issues of health, safety and non-discrimination.” The Christian Science Church may believe that modern medicine is a submission to the sinful world of materiality, but that doesn’t mean the Christian Science Monitor can refuse to cover surgery in its employees’ insurance. To make contraception a part of (near) universal health care coverage, meanwhile, is to recognize the reality that women want to have sex more often than they want to have babies. This fact is bound up with their health and well-being, as well as their autonomy. By institutionalizing the requirement, Obama has not so much promoted “broad, societal liberalization” (as Dana Goldstein wrote in the Daily Beast last summer) as brought policy into line with what’s already taken place.
This case persuades plenty of Catholics, but not the hierarchy. Catholics for Choice offers up a useful graphic: 98% of sexually active Catholic women use contraception banned by the Church. (I like the two stylized bishops to the right, representing the other 2%; at first I thought they were nuclear warheads.) It may then seem self-defeating that, as the New York Times points out, the US Catholic hierarchy has spent seven months preparing for this fight. But:
The speed and passion behind the bishops’ response reflects their growing sense of siege, and their belief that the space the Catholic church once occupied in American society and the deference it was given are gradually being curtailed by an increasingly secular culture.
The conflict puts not just the White House, but also the bishops to the test. Will their flock follow their lead? And are they sufficiently powerful, now that they have joined forces with evangelicals and other religious conservatives, to outmuscle the women’s groups, public health advocates and liberal religious leaders who argue that the real issue is contraceptive coverage for all women, and that the Obama administration was right?
The desire of most women to control their own bodies (along with the desire of some priests to control the bodies of little boys) has caused a catastrophic collapse in the prestige and influence of the American Catholic Church. Trying to move the conflict to the grounds of “religious liberty” is in fact a theatrical bid to regain that power, and the loyalties of individual believers. In the process, though, the church — and the evangelicals and Republican politicians who are supporting them — show that, fifty years after the Pill was introduced, they are still unreconciled to birth control as a woman’s freedom and decision. The Catholic bishops made this clear this week. Their head lawyer said:
“There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular … We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed.” That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” ”If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate.”
No covered birth control for anybody! Fast-food cooks breeding compulsorily the way God wanted! Santorum, a Catholic and an exceptionally candid politician, repeats at every opportunity that while “many of the Christian faith have said, well that’s okay, I mean y’know, contraception is okay: It is not okay.” But even evangelicals, who lack the Papal devotion to the dignity of the unconjoined egg and sperm, regard contraception with horror: feminism and the sexual revolution, modernity’s whole Gomorrah-bound slouch, emerged in their view from birth control’s defanging of of a principal control on sex. The war on a small provision in health-insurance policy is a war on the social acceptability of contraception — and on its recognition as a right in law.
Santorum on how birth control is bad for women
It’s in this light that one should judge the “accomodation” Obama announced today. It lets religious organizations refuse to include birth control coverage in their employee insurance plans. But in that case, the insurers themselves must offer contraception coverage to workers directly, and cover the cost themselves. Women won’t lose contraceptive care. It’s just that their employers won’t have to pay for it.
The new policy has already stimulated wonky debate. Catholics for Choice argues that “this compromise relies on insurance companies doing the right thing.” In fact, even before Obama’s announcement, Matthew Yglesias laid out why the insurance companies will do just that:
While birth control costs more than nothing, it costs less than an abortion and much less than having a baby. From a social point of view, unless we’re not going to subsidize consumption of health care services at all (which would be a really drastic change from the status quo) then it makes a ton of sense to heavily subsidize contraceptives. … [J]ust on the dollars and cents subsidizing birth control is a no-brainer. The unfortunate thing is that under the American setup the subsidies tend to be passed through the employer, which has set the stage for this controversy.
Obama, of course, just took the subsidy cost away from the (religious) employer and landed it on the insurer. But by Yglesias’s argument, the insurers should be happy about this; the contraception costs are less onerous than the alternatives. They might even save money, and the premiums the employers pay for other things may go down. (Others are less sure. Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post contends that somebody’s premiums will have to go up. But, according to the Guttmacher Institute, it adds up to less than $22.00 per premium to put contraception in an insurance plan. Even if the costs for a small number of religious-institution employees get spread around among the much larger number of employees who work elsewhere, the increase would hardly be crippling.)
The more interesting thing is the way Obama is grasping the moral high ground. Jonathan Cohn notes that while the US Catholic bishops are likely to reject the “accomodation,” the Catholic Health Association immediately endorsed it. (The CHA similarly split with the men in dresses in supporting Obama’s health care reform bill.)
This difference of opinion is not surprising. As a veteran health care operative once pointed out to me, health care is a reality for the nuns who run the hospitals. For the bishops, it’s more of an abstraction. And so while the former think long and hard about how to improve access to care, for the sake of their institutions as well as their patients, the bishops tend to focus more on other imperatives, like the church’s declaration that contraception is a sin.
But the right wing continues to roar, and to make it clear they want everybody exempted from the mandate to provide contraception. Four conservatives, including a former Vatican Ambassador to the U.S., condemned the administration’s
insistence that religious employers, be they institutions or individuals, provide insurance that covered services they regard as gravely immoral and unjust. Under the new rule, the government still coerces religious institutions and individuals to purchase insurance policies that include the very same services. [emphasis added]
A Nebraska Congressman vowed to defend not just the bishops, but Taco Bell to the death: “Congress should protect the religious liberty and conscience rights of every American who objects to being forced by the strongarm of government to pay for services to which she or he has deeply-held objections.” Of course, once you let employers opt out of any coverage to which they can muster a moral objection, you’ve pretty much ensured that thousands will discover their deep religious discomfort with the extra $22 on the premium. And you’ve turned health coverage into Swiss cheese. Different holes will riddle each job’s insurance plan. No worker will have a right to much of anything.
American women are unlikely to stand for the all-out war on birth control that the bishops and their allies have opened. And even people who dislike Obamacare, and have an workplace-based insurance plan that suits them well enough, won’t want their health care infinitely exposed to a hirer’s moral vagaries. As Amanda Morcotte at Slate interprets the administration’s strategy, Obama’s been
letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concerns but without actually reducing women’s access to contraception, which is what this has always been about. … With the fig leaf of religious liberty removed, Republicans are in a bad situation. They can either drop this and slink away knowing they’ve been punked, or they can double down. But in order to do so, they’ll have to be more blatantly anti-contraception, a politically toxic move in a country where 99% of women have used contraception.
Last summer, a spokesman for the bishops said: “We consider [birth control] an elective drug … Married women can practice periodic abstinence. Other women can abstain altogether. Not having sex doesn’t make you sick.” That’s their vision for women’s health (and sanity). Obama is betting that most of a modern country will resoundingly reject it. Let’s hope he’s right.
Brazil has its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, as you may be aware. Why, then, is a Brazilian feminist complaining that “The government wants to send Dilma into our bodies? I’m feeling stabbed anyway. And what is worse: in the back!”
Because Rousseff’s administration is cooperating with those black-and-blue forces, the Church and the Law, that want to find out exactly what is happening inside women’s organs. The day after Christmas, the President, along with the Ministry of Health, promulgated a new decree that creates –what should one call it?– a state-sponsored speculum, ready to inspect women’s reproductive systems willy-nilly.
Provisional Measure 557 (MP 557) creates a “National System of Registration, Tracking and Follow-up of Pregnant and Puerperal Women for the Prevention of Maternal Mortality.” It aims, so it says, ”to ensure better access, coverage and quality of maternal health care, notably for pregnant women at risk.” And it mandates “universal registration of pregnant women and mothers, to enable identifying pregnant and postpartum women at risk, and assessment and monitoring of health care they received during prenatal care, childbirth and postpartum care.” Registered pregnant women will be eligible for up to R$50 (around $27 USD) in assistance. The measure states, in Article 19-J, that “public and private health services are required to ensure pregnant women and the unborn the right to safe and humane pre-natal care, delivery, birth, and postpartum care.”
It is, as Brazil’s authorities surely know, hard to criticize measures couched in the admirable goal of preventing material mortality. But the scary thing for women about this huge new surveillance mechanism is that the decree explicitly elevates “the unborn” as rights-bearers to the same status as the mothers. Brazil, which many calculate is the largest Catholic nation in the world, bans abortion except in the case of rape, severe genetic abnormalities, or danger to the mother’s life. Women face prosecution and prison if they terminate a pregnancy. Yet a 2010 study showed that one in five Brazilian women has had an abortion, and the Health Ministry estimates that 200,000 are hospitalized each year as a result of unsafe, clandestine procedures.
As opposed to its neighbors, Uruguay (which is on the verge of decriminalizing abortion) and Argentina (which saw a first-ever parliamentary debate on the subject last year), Brazil seems determined to reinforce its draconian restrictions. According to Maria José Rosado, of Catholics for Free Choice in Brazil, a member of Congress has previously proposed a similar pregnancy registry, “declaring his objective loud and clear: to fight abortion.” The Chamber of Deputies is now considering a bill to pay a pregnant rape victim who does not have an abortion a minimum wage until the child reaches 18 — creating what activists call a “rape pension.”
Brazilian feminists show little doubt that MP 557, which was launched without any consultation with women’s movements, can and will be used to control reproductive freedom.The clear parallel to the new database in the land of “order and progress” is the practice of Romania’s defunct Communist dictatorship. Nicolae Ceaușescu, obsessed with raising his country’s birth rate, banned both abortion and birth control. He required all women of childbearing age to undergo regular, six-month gynecological exams. Someone who proved pregnant at one examination had to come back in half a year with a child, a bigger fetus, or a good explanation. So unpopular was the regime of pro-natal surveillance that the abortion and contraception bans were the first measures scrapped by Romania’s post-revolutionary government in 1989.
What Ceaușescu did in the name of nationalism, Rousseff pursues as part of a prolonged political flirtation with Catholic and evangelical forces. Feminist activist Fátima Oliveira says:
Unfortunately … Dilma, who is our first female president, is throwing in the trash all the commitments made by Brazil in the arenas of the United Nations in the area of women’s health. Together with Brazilian women’s struggle for full health care and sexual and reproductive rights, which began in the military dictatorship. A setback of 30 years, unprecedented. …
I have the moral authority to say what I say now, because at the time of the Constituent Assembly [the 1988 convention that wrote Brazil's democratic constitution], I have collected many signatures for freedom of religion in Brazil. I defend the right of everyone in authority to have the religion they want. Only that religion is a thing of personal intimacy, for domestic consumption. The religions of the rulers can not be the rule for the exercise of public power. In public office, religious issues cannot be conducting public policy. …
It’s time to say to the government that our bodies belong to us and cannot be a bargaining chip with anyone.
Kirk Cameron, the former child star and British Prime Minister, has threatened developing countries with dire consequences if they do not eliminate the sodomy laws that his distant ancestor Alan Thicke brought in his hand baggage on Qantas. Trapped in a loveless civil union with coalition partner and former rapper Marky Mark, Cameron made the move to bolster falling poll ratings among key fans. Possible sanctions include plagues of boils, locusts, and frogs, conversion of first-born children to child stars, and massive increases in agricultural development aid that would reduce the entire population to starvation. “These countries don’t want to be left behind,” Cameron said, referring to the popular series in which twelve contestants from all walks of life, stranded on a remote island in an exotic location after the Rapture, compete in tests of skill to keep God from throwing them into eternal damnation. “British aid should have more strings attached, in terms of do you persecute people for their faith or their Christianity, or do you persecute people for their sexuality.”
No. No. This is all wrong. It’s late; my mind isn’t working. Former child star David Cameron is the current British Prime Minister. Kirk Cameron, current child star and former Prime Minister, lives in Moldova, where he eats children in his converted castle on the Transylvanian border.
The silliness and posturing over Cameron I’s proclamation that he will tie overseas aid to LGBT rights issues has started. It is risible indeed, but it’s no laughing matter to the people whose rights will be affected. An advisor to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC that Cameron had a “bullying mentality”:
“Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state and we are tired of being given these lectures by people … If they must take their money, so be it. … But this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying: ‘You do this or I withdraw my aid’ will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.”
The main political consequence? Repressive leaders and regressive initiatives now have a new excuse to couch themselves as anti-colonial assertions of independence. In Nigeria, where a new bill to restrict LGBT people’s rights is moving forward, a news source reports:
One of the backers of the same sex prohibition ban … told USAfricaonline.com that “Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron still think [sic] we are under his colonial rule. Let him keep his financial aid and same sex agenda. Nonsense. He wants to run our country for us?”
And in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s supporters are wielding Cameron’s comments to undercut opposition leader (and Prime Minister) Morgan Tsvangirai, who recently voiced support for including sexual orientation protections in a new Constitution.
“It is possible that Morgan Tsvangirai could have been told by whites in the UK that part of their support to him would include him publicly supporting issues to do with gay rights in Zimbabwe. That could be the threat he was issued by the British and we all know that Tsvangirai has never been his own man,” said Mr Alexander Kanengoni [an author and former Mugabe propagandist who was allotted a farm in the violent land reforms ten years ago]. …
Zanu-PF spokesperson Cde Rugare Gumbo said it was clear that the British were pushing Mr Tsvangirai to support gay rights in Zimbabwe. “There is a clear link between what Cameron said and what Tsvangirai is now advocating, and it is not surprising. They (MDC-T) [Tsvangirai's party] are sponsored by the British and the West and they have to toe the line. Failure to do so would cost them British support,” he said.
It’s still not clear what Cameron’s initiative means in practice. When the UK cut back on aid to Malawi in July, after months of bluster about human rights, the reductions were limited to general budget support – a form of assistance that allows governments maximum flexibility in allocating the funds, “to deliver their own national strategies for poverty reduction against an agreed set of targets.” Money shifted to other channels, and the overall donation figure didn’t change. But the scope of what will happen matters less than the publicity, which makes LGBT people’s human rights look like neocolonial meddling. As a coalition of African activists wrote last week, their movements have
been working through a number of strategies to entrench LGBTI issues into broader civil society issues, to shift the same-sex sexuality discourse from the morality debate to a human rights debate, and to build relationships with governments for greater protection of LGBTI people. These objectives cannot be met when donor countries threaten to withhold aid.
Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell has stormed into the fray, with a press release warning that
“The British government is wrong to threaten to cut aid to developing countries that abuse human rights. … Cuts in aid would penalise the poorest, most vulnerable people. Many are dependent on aid for basic needs like food, clean water, health care and education … Instead of cutting aid, Britain and other donor countries should divert their aid money from human rights abusing governments and redirect it to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects that respect human rights and do not discriminate in their service provision.”
“I stand in solidarity” with the African activists’ statement, he proclaims. This is a welcome move. Tatchell, of course, has a long record of supporting aid conditionality. In a US speech in 2008, he said:
“We must urge the US State Department to make foreign aid and trade conditional on the recipient countries agreeing to respect human rights, including the human rights of LGBT people. Tyrannies should not be rewarded: No US aid for anti-gay regimes.”
And during the controversy in 2010 around a Malawi couple’s brutal imprisonment under a sodomy law (during which Tatchell’s self-publicizing made his white, British visage the possibly uncongenial face of homosexuality over a large swath of Africa), he urged cutting UK assistance: “If [diplomatic negotiation] fails the UK should reconsider its aid and trade agreements with Malawi. There can be no blank cheque for countries that violate human rights.” But even mountains move: usually after an earthquake that brings down houses on their inhabitants.
However, redirecting aid “to grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects,” as Tatchell demands, has its own problems. Such redirection is one of the strategies African activists urge on governments in their letter, but is hardly plausible for the full aid package. Some rights and needs — “food, clean water, health care and education” — are arguably the state’s proper business. To saddle NGOs with responsibility for the water supply is not much different from privatizing it: turning something that should be a general good over to particular, and perhaps partial, hands. And while civil society in some places has played important roles in providing health care and schooling the young, treaties and international law still make these core tasks of governing. There is no reason to think that NGOs, without the resources and experience of a state, can do an adequate job on their own. Redirection by itself echoes the neoliberal solutions of the 80s and 90s, practiced at home by Thatcher and Reagan and enforced abroad by the IMF and World Bank. Governments sloughed off responsibilities for their peoples’ welfare; civil society was told to pick up the slack. Advocates who had pushed for improved state action necessarily transformed themselves into exhausted, overburdened service providers. The poor, sick, uneducated and disenfranchised got more so.
Nor is it certain that rights-based and non-discriminatory service providers will be the ones to take advantage when aid to governments, and consequent state capacities, dwindle. It’s a truism that the growth of political Islamism in the post-70s Middle East came in the wake of lender-promoted government retrenchment. As welfare and services shrank, movements flush with Gulf oil money moved in to provide what the state once had, in older days. In the process, they built networks of gratitude, dependency, and political support. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, education is already as much the province of Christian churches as of the government. It would not much benefit LGBT people to promote policies to make it even more so.
All this means simply that the politics of aid are unsimple: complicated, full of unpredictable consequences, and fraught with both political and ethical concerns They are not susceptible to simplifying rhetoric. But rhetoric almost childlike in its simplicity is what the UK government is offering the domestic constituencies it strains to entice. Talk about growing pains! — but while British policy struggles to grow up, the pains will be felt in other, distant corners of the globe.
NOTE:| In reference to yesterday’s post, lawyers working with Peter Tatchell and Judicial Watch have pointed out that we may have exaggerated the number of Michele Bachmann’s foster children, whom she doesn’t actually dig from the trash with specially trained pigs, but buys by the dozen at Costco. The large execution device next to the orgone box in Rick Perry’s kitchen is not technically an “electric chair”; it is a La-Z-Boy wired to an old car battery, and causes death by vibration. Also, contrary to what we reported, Rick Santorum’s own sperm may well have played an undetermined role in the conception of his children. We apologize for any misunderstanding.
Rick Perry has had a rough month. He started as the right wing’s favorite candidate for President of the U.S, a sort of Reagan redivivus, complete with shellacked hair, crinkly face, and a stable of writers to feed him lines. Unfortunately, it turns out not just that he has a propensity for forgetting his cues and collapsing into stammers, but that this man –who carries a gun while jogging, let James Earl Ray name his summer camp, and keeps an electric chair in his kitchen where the toaster used to be, to kill the socialist mailman if he runs late — this man is not conservative enough. Despite all his manly virtues, he made enemies of a little virus that right-wingers consider one of their closest friends, maybe second only to the Koch brothers as a comrade-in-arms. The ins and outs of this story haven’t been well reported. But they show a lot about what American conservatism thinks not just of science, but of women’s lives.
Perry’s sin is that, as Texas governor, he ordered all schoolgirls vaccinated with Gardasil prior to entering the sixth grade. Gardasil is a relatively new treatment that prevents getting the genital human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is transmitted by sexual contact, can cause genital warts and other minor afflictions, but can also lead to cervical and other forms of cancer.
For this he has been roundly attacked by fellow Republican presidentiables Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Here they go:
Although the vaccine is in fact “administered intramuscularly in the upper arm or thigh,” you would suppose, to hear Bachmann, that little girls were being raped with a construction crane. And if you were a relatively innocent right-winger, you might think: what a missed opportunity! As long as the government is scraping around in those girls’ vaginas, it could do a virginity test, and ship off any spoiled maidens who fail it to Abstinence Camp, where the Big Matron will make them work their fingers to the bone sewing hymens for starving children in Alabama. So what exactly is the problem here?
Bachmann and Santorum are, of course, competing to be even crazier than Rick Perry, which is hard. But they prove it’s not impossible. Bachmann, whose husband tries to cure gays by subjecting them to endless mashups of The Brady Bunch with Kirk Cameron’s face pasted over Greg’s body, believes that the HPV virus causes mental retardation, largely because she found traces of it in her chili at Wendy’s. Santorum, who personally inspects the genital setups of toy dogs and amphibians to determine how gay men can best penetrate their anal cavities, believes that the HPV vaccine drives people to have constant uncontrolled sex, often with humans, but failing that with hamsters, centipedes, and electric fans.
It is also interesting to contemplate the different but very serious family values these two candidates embody. Michele Bachmann raises eighty-five foster children, whom she picked up by going through the trash cans outside Angelina Jolie’s home. Rick Santorum, who has been a virgin since he was a tiny fetus, has thirteen and a half children who were immaculately conceived when an angel poured a vialful of frothy brown lubricant down his wife’s ear.
More seriously: the coverage of this has focused on Perry’s ties to Merck, the pharmaceutical giant that makes the vaccine and is a big donor to his campaigns. But there’s another reason, beyond so-called “crony capitalism” or opportunism or moral outrage on behalf of violated girls, that motivates the right-wing rage at Perry.
Conservatives have loved the human papillomavirus for a long time. Why? The secret is that it is one of the very few sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) that condoms can’t prevent. Because it’s spread from and to areas outside the genitals themselves, laminating the penis isn’t enough to stop it. Hence this little bundle of amino acids, created by God along with instant coffee on Day Six, has become a poster child and symbol for the right, as much as Terry Schiavo or Ground Zero. It features in their classroom presentations, their videos, their home-school curricula. Resiliently disregarding rubber, it proves that condoms don’t work. There is at least one dangerous condition against which they’re, literally, impotent. The lesson for the horny and unmarried is: only abstaining completely from all activities below the waist that are unrelated to shitting, pissing, or footwear can save you from certain death.
When Gardasil first appeared, then, conservatives reacted as though the Jews were proposing to recrucify Christ. One of their best friends was going to be exterminated in a holocaust of triple-injection doses. They fought a long campaign to keep the vaccine off the market, despite lack of any credible pointers to harmful effects. The right distributed or concocted accounts of adverse reactions practically as bad as a Pentecostal visitation:
A 14 year-old girl took six steps after being injected with the vaccine before she collapsed to the floor unconscious and foaming at the mouth. The girl regained consciousness after “a 60 second grand mal seizure” and had “pale clammy skin” and blood pressure of 60/40. … ”Given all the questions about Gardasil, the best public health policy would be to re-evaluate its safety and to prohibit its distribution to minors,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “In the least, governments should rethink any efforts to mandate or promote this vaccine for children.”
Judicial Watch is a wealthy litigation center for the US right. One of its founders, Larry Klayman, is close to Michele Bachmann, who happily recycles this propaganda. The truth is that before the US Food and Drug Administration licensed it, Gardasil was subjected to worldwide clinical trials in which over 29,000 people participated. The US Center for Disease Control offers a full report on findings and concerns about vaccine safety, and says, “Based on all of the information we have today, CDC recommends HPV vaccination for the prevention of most types of cervical cancer.”
The real concern about the vaccine was that, by rendering HPV less scary, it undermined abstinence-only programs. Michelle Goldberg, in Kingdom Coming, her book on the Christian right, sums up the story.
[As] the British magazine New Scientist reported in April 2005, American religious groups “are gearing up to oppose vaccination.”
“Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV,” the Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher told New Scientist. [Family Research Council is one of the largest US right-wing groups.] “Giving the HPV vaccine to young women would be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex.”
“I’m very concerned about the HPV vaccine,” [Leslee Unruh, head of a Christian anti-sex group called the Abstinence Clearinghouse] told me. “You know, here we go again.” To her, the vaccine, like condoms, is just another way for people to avoid living as they should.
The Bush administration appointed a honcho from Christian-right powerhouse Focus on the Family, one Reginald Finger–yes, that’s his name–to the FDA panel advising on the HPV vaccine’s fate. Finger told the press, “if people begin to market the vaccine or tout the vaccine that this makes adolescent sex safer, then that would undermine the abstinence-only message.” He added, “There are people who sense that [the vaccine] could cause people to feel like sexual behaviors are safer if they are vaccinated and may lead to more sexual behavior because they feel safe.”
Despite all this — or, more likely, because people like Finger and Unruh were dumb enough to make their exact fears public — the vaccine was eventually approved. But what the scandal shows is a right wing that could care less, despite its pious claims, about young girls’ lives. The National Organization for Women says Christian conservatism “relies on a fear of cancer death to promote abstinence.” Fewer dead, less fear. The more who die, the more who are scared straight. So much for a “culture of life!” Death = power. Disease = political advantage. Virus = virtue.
And the backlash against Perry for doing one halfway smart thing in his political career shows that people who defy the opportunism of fear to save lives will pay for it. I almost feel sorry for Rick Perry (no, not quite). This single proof of unreliability will haunt him. And more accusations against this one-shot savant in kook’s clothing, this closet liberal dragged up as a respectably crazy man, will follow. What can you expect of a candidate who was born in Paint Creek, Kenya?