Friday, May 21, 2004

Consent

Okay, so here's the issue: how do we meaningfully define 'consent' as in "consenting adults"?

The issue came up in a discussion over at Alas, a Blog (who I'll have a link to as soon as I figure out how the hell blogrolls work around here) while we were discussing prostitution, pornography, & related issues. Being a pretty committed civil libertarian, my argument has always been "look, pornography and prostitution may not be good things in any way, but do we really want to start denying consenting men and women the ability to decide for themselves?" Anyway, the rejoinder, as it usually is, was that prostitutes are not "consenting" in any sense that we would traditionally understand. They tend to come from backgrounds of poverty and abuse and are trapped in a system that amounts to sexual slavery. A similar (although, I believe harder to back up) argument can be made for pornography.

Anyway, that's the question. Is it really "consent" to do what you need to do in order to survive, even if you believe you have few other options?

If the answer is no, then wouldn't the shitty minimum wage jobs I've worked count as nonconsentual, even if they didn't involve any kind of sexual exploitation? How about the office job my wife has that's killing her hands through carpal tunnel related issues? She has to keep it for us to pay the rent, but it's affecting her physically in a serious way.

I guess my issue is, where do we draw the line? Is is just sexual exploitation? If so, why? Does psychological or emotional exploitation count? I mean, if my job is making me horribly depressed, but I need to keep it in order to buy food, am I in a nonconsentual position? Does the salary level offset any of this? Is a line-cook being exploited nonconsentually while an executive isn't? If so, then is a streetwalker being exploited nonconsentually while a high-priced call girl isn't?

I'm not trying to downplay the possibility that prostitution ought to be considered nonconsentual at all, and I apologize upfront if this post comes off that way, but I'm not so much making an argument as, seriously, saying 'hey, I don't know, and I think it's worth discussing.'

Where is the line drawn?

3 Comments:

Blogger Samantha said...

To answer "Is it really "consent" to do what you need to do in order to survive, even if you believe you have few other options?" you should note that prostitution is often called sexual slavery not because there are few other options but because, as is the case with slavery, there are no other options and escape is actively thwarted by the actions of pimps. Not eating is not an option, nor is not having protection from the elements or, for addicted persons, not having the substance they're physically and psychologically dependent on for survival (which, as is often the case with battered women, can be her abuser.) You would have to believe the average prostitute is choosing from a few poor options among which are the 'options' of starving, continued rapes at home, and suffering exposure damage.

According to a 5-country study of 475 prostitutes, 92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately but could not because their pimp would hurt them, because they had addictions, because they were minors who couldn't return home, because there were no other jobs for females, etc. These are the conditions of extortion (from the Latin root for 'torture'), not the conditions of what any reasonable person would consider meaningful consent. There are quantifiable differences between extortion and consent most courts (and most people) recognize.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Myca said...

First, let me apologize for not responding sooner.

Now, on to the meat of the argument!

Not eating is not an option, nor is not having protection from the elements or, for addicted persons, not having the substance they're physically and psychologically dependent on for survival (which, as is often the case with battered women, can be her abuser.) I'll stipulate the first two (and get to those in a moment), but the third gives me pause. "I'm addicted to X, so I have to do this," isn't an argument that flies real well in criminal court, nor does it resonate with my personal logic or experience. I have known many, many addicts, and although I am, indeed, sympathetic to how difficult it is to kick your addiction, I know that it can be done. To label actions taken to satisfy an addiction as 'non-consentual" seems to stretch credulity. I mean, after all, does that mean that I was 'forced, non-consentually to rob that liquor store'? How about a pimp who's addicted to something? Is he being 'forced, nonconsentually to run prostitutes'?

Okay, now, as far as the first two arguments go ("Not eating is not an option, nor is not having protection from the elements"), I agree, to a point, that those conditions can be enough to consider a situation non-consentual . . . but then, once again, we're getting into the issue of whether or not a crappy minimum wage job I take so that I can pay rent and feed myself ought to be considered non-consentual. My wife's job is doing serious damage to her health, and she's looking for another one, but, thus far, none have been forthcoming. Is her job non-consentual?

According to a 5-country study of 475 prostitutes, 92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately but could not because their pimp would hurt them, because they had addictions, because they were minors who couldn't return home, because there were no other jobs for females, etc. First, where can I find and read that study? I'm hoping it's not the one you linked to from Ampersand's place which contained the line, "We began this work from the perspective that prostitution itself is violence against women," because I'll really no more trust that study then I'd trust a study on abortion containing the line, "We began this work from the perspective that abortion itself is violence against women," which then found that (quel surprise) abortion is evil evil evil. It's not a swat at the people who did the study, but if you begin a political inquiry with a certain set of political beliefs in mind, it ought not to surprise you (or anyone) when those beliefs are vindicated. This applies all over the political spectrum, to all issues, and I feel that for the sake of intellectual honesty, it's something I like to hold fast to.

Second, "wanting to leave prostitution but being unable to because your pimp will hurt you" is 100% non-consentual, and you get no argument from me there. None whatsoever. That's kidnapping, sexual slavery, abuse, rape, and many other horrid things that the pimp deserves to be jailed for. I do question, however, whether that's an argument against prostitution itself or whether that's an argument against kidnapping, rape, abuse, etc. Whether prostitution is legal or not, consentual or not, all that stuff is clearly both illegal and nonconsentual.

Third, when we get into issues of minors who can't return home, women who can't find other jobs, women with addictions, and so on, my question is: "how many other options can a woman reject before we begin labeling her choice of prostitution as consensual?" Seriously. For minors, there are youth shelters, contacting the police, sleeping on friend's couches,or foster homes. For women who can't find other jobs, there's unemployment, welfare, joining the military, or going to a homeless shelter. For addicts there's rehab, there's kicking the habit yourself, there's getting a different job to support your habit . . .

Now look, I'm not saying that these are easy, happy options. I'm not saying that these are good choices to make, but my point is that they ARE choices. It's entirely possible that, for the women surveyed, prostitution was the best of a bad set of choices, but does that make it 'not a choice'?

Last, I wanted to refer back to the discussion we were having on Alas, a Blog a while back, where you linked prostitution and pornography as essentially the same thing. I'm still curious as to how you justify that, considering how much disconnect there is between a large chunk of pornography and anything most people would consider prostitution and that you still haven't offered any evidence that the same level of non-consentuality (even using your definition) exists for porographic actors and actresses.

---Myca

9:33 PM  
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