Is being an abolitionist a 'red flag'?

Last week Newsweek published an article covering an extensive study on men who buy sex done by Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education. The study revealed that which is known by many feminists, critics of the sex industry, abolitionists and even, I would go so far as to speculate, that which is known by most men (though whether or not they perceive this as problem is a whole other issue). That is, as one man put it, buying sex means: ‘you’re supporting a system of degradation.’

Because the many various forms of buying sex are so normalized in our culture, Farley noted that the researchers had trouble finding men to interview who actually didn’t buy sex. Activities like going to strip clubs and using pornography are simply seen as things that men do, not as activities that exist within a system that has married capitalism and patriarchy in a way that makes women and women’s bodies and sexualities products that are marketed, bought and sold.

Critiques of this study and the Newsweek article were indignant. How DARE we insult the male porn users of the world! Don’t you think their feelings will be hurt? Don’t you think they will be angered to be grouped in with other men who share their view of women as sexualized objects? What about their penises?! How will THEY feel? I can’t imagine that it is very comfortable to be confronted by the reality that your pleasure may not be as ethical as you would like to believe. I can imagine that, after having spent years telling yourself that degradation is hot and it is your right to access said degradation whenever the urge strikes you, it would indeed feel like an affront to your image of yourself as a ‘normal’ and decent man whose penis deserves respectdammit! if someone were to tell you that you too, like those poor, sad, lonely johns, were purchasing women’s bodies and, in that sense, you were buying sex from women.

In a piece written by Tracy Clark-Flory for Salon, she makes note of this, sure to point out the ways in which men are likely to be offended by such an insinuation, pointing us to a tweet from sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel, who wrote: “Dear @Newsweek — I wonder what would happen if everyone who’s watched porn, given/gotten a lap dance or erotic massage stopped reading you.” And you know, I think she was right to point this out. I mean, we don’t need to look very far to see why the sex industry is so massive and so normalized. What Clark-Flory made very clear was that, indeed, men hold power in this world and there is little we can do to challenge these industries because their power is vast. What if every man who had ever watched porn stopped reading Newsweek? Well, they’d lose a lot of readers, that’s for sure.

While Clark-Flory’s point was not, I don’t imagine, to point to the ways in which male power really does make the world go ’round and has an incredible impact on what we view as ‘perfectly natural’ in our society, she did. We are all, just has she and Bussel point out, under threat. I mean, if we suddenly told men that they couldn’t buy sex anymore and that women’s bodies were no longer for sale, not in any form, they would probably be pretty choked. They would probably wield their power as best they could. No one gives up privilege easily.

Are we really surprised to hear that “[T]he attitudes and habits of sex buyers reveal them as men who dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation.”? Are we surprised that men who treat women as objects don’t feel empathy for them or view them as human beings? Of course not. That is, after all, how this whole system works.

What is surprising, though, is that so many of these critiques of Farley’s study are aghast that this research would be “conducted by self-declared prostitution “abolitionist”. What! A feminist? Doing critical research on men who commodify women? Well, now I’ve seen everything. Clark-Flory writes about Farley’s abolitionist stance as though she has revealed some dark and hidden secret; pointing out that Newsweek doesn’t mention Farley’s ‘view that prostitution is inherently harmful and should be eradicated’ ‘until more than halfway through the article’.

She, and others, call this a ‘red flag’. A sex worker blog, Tits and Sass, also represents the discovery of this information (which is, in no way a secret, though these writers seem to think they are outing Farley in some way, as though being an abolitionist is something to be ashamed of) as though it has been discovered via some kind of incredible investigative reporting: ‘She’s a self professed “abolitionist”. Dun dun DUNNNN. Is there any particular reason why a feminist, who is critical of prostitution and pornography, who is working to end this form of normalized misogyny, would not do this particular kind of research? Why this research would or should be viewed as invalid because it was someone with a well developed feminist analysis of the sex industry who did the research? Who, exactly, should be doing this research? Who would be viewed as a credible source, a credible researcher? Maaaybe….This guy? For some reason I’m not hearing any great objections to a white man doing research on johns whose sole goal is to ‘prove’ that they are just regular guys, that they are not violent or abusive, just, you know, men who think they have the right to purchase sex from women? I mean, these are all just married, educated men! Which is, of course, exactly the point. It isn’t just freaks and losers who buy sex. It is men with privilege, men with families, men with wives, men with jobs and educations and social lives. Or not. The point is that the vast majority of men think that buying sex is ‘normal’ and that it should be their right.

Clark-Flory unintentionally points to a common assumption that contradicts Atchison’s study, quoting journalist Susanna Breslin who says that in her research she: “…found that most men seek out sex workers for one simple fact: they are lonely. They are looking for companionship, they crave intimacy, they are looking for some kind of a connection, and because they cannot find it any other way, they buy it.”

It would seem as though any research that normalizes the buying of sex is credible. Even if it is contradictory. Are these guys just friendly, normal, married men? Or are they lonely social outcasts? Who cares. The moral of the story is that buying sex is ‘normal’. It is ok. And any research that seeks to prove this point is credible. Feminist research on the other hand, done by a woman who has been involved in feminist activism challenging pornography, who *gasp* ‘enter[ed] stores that sell Penthouse and destroy[ed] copies of the magazine in protest.’ (again, how DARE she! Not the sacred pornography!), who is, according to some, ‘biased’ because she is a feminist, is without credibility. What does this mean for the future of feminist research? If feminism is a bias, who gets to do the studies? Let’s just leave it to those completely unbiased white men, right? Let’s just leave it all up to the, as Charlotte Shane writes, in her post on Tits and Sass, the ‘real academics’ [one can only assume Shane did some serious detective work to figure out who the ‘real’ vs the ‘fake’ academics are (hint: they are ‘like scientists’)]. Essentially, what I’m picking up here is that anyone who doesn’t give men the respect they demand deserve have worked very hard to have earned  (hey, they can’t help it if women are saddled with oppressive vaginas) and challenges dominant ideology and who doesn’t base their research on a patriarchal mode of thinking that tells us men have an uncontrollable, biological urge to objectify women, is without credibility. Anyone who dares to point out the obvious, that is “that sex buyers were more likely to view sex as divorced from personal relationships than nonbuyers, and they enjoyed the absence of emotional involvement with prostitutes, whom they saw as commodities,” that “Prostitution treats women as objects and not … humans,” is ‘biased’ and not to be trusted.

Whether it is pornography or a lap dance or the purchasing of an ‘erotic massage’, the underlying idea is the same. Women are for sale. And anyone who claims otherwise must be silenced. Whether it be under threat that those who publish or cover this kind of research will lose readers or by claiming that having credentials as a feminist activist deems a researcher untrustworthy and ‘not a real academic’, we can’t have this kind of talk.

What’s that feminism? Shhh…The men will hear you…

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.