Male progressives who support harm reduction need a lesson in feminism and in radicalism

I’ve covered the failures of progressive media platform, Ricochet, when it comes to “the woman question,” in the past, but Switzerland's drive in "sex boxes," brought in to make prostitution "safer."feminist critiques have not dissuaded their male writers from pontificating on violence against women without actually being accountable to women.

On Monday, Ricochet published an article by Brad Hornick, a member of the committee that organized State of Extraction —  the committee that tried to cancel Chris Hedges’ keynote speech because the journalist dared to challenge the global sex industry in an article for Truthdig.

Hornick writes:

In the article, Hedges supports the position of those who advocate abolition, the idea that the sex trade should be eliminated through forms of criminalization.

To be clear, because this statement is not, Hedges allied with a number of women’s organizations, activists, experts, feminists, Indigenous women’s groups, and frontline workers who believe that the sex industry harms women — as individuals and as a class — and who support the Nordic model, which decriminalizes prostitutes and criminalizes pimps and johns. The model is a comprehensive feminist and socialist one that incorporates systems and services to help women exit the industry and works explicitly towards gender equality. It is, in these ways, the only model of its kind.

Hornick goes on:

While laying claim to the “feminist” position, Hedges is critical of many other radical, feminist, inner-city, frontline activists and organizations working towards an agenda of harm reduction. This model strives to decrease the adverse health, social and economic consequences of sex work without necessarily requiring abstinence from such work. Serious harms associated with sex work include drug use, disease, violence, discrimination, debt, criminalization and exploitation.

He puts “feminist” in quotations here, inexplicably, as the Nordic model is, in fact, the only expressly feminist model that exists, in terms of addressing the system of prostitution. Hornick also mistakenly characterizes the harm reduction model as a potentially radical one, despite the fact that it is anything but.

Radical means “root.” It means to address the fundamental nature of something. Within the feminist movement, “radical” refers to women’s fight against patriarchy — the root of women’s oppression. Feminists who are called abolitionist take a radical approach to the sex industry that is comprehensive and seeks to move beyond superficial “solutions” that fail to address the reasons why women enter into and become trapped in prostitution. We see prostitution as something that exists because of, perpetuates, and exemplifies male power — that is, “patriarchy.”

Harm reduction, on the other hand, does not address prostitution (or anything else, for that matter) in a comprehensive or radical way. Rather, the intent of harm reduction models is to attempt to address the most basic, most superficial issues at hand. What this can look like, in the context of drug addiction, is access to clean needles and crack pipes and safe places for addicted people to use. In the context of prostitution, this can mean handing out condoms to women. While these efforts are not useless, they do not attempt to address the root of the matter. Harm reduction does not question why people are addicted in the first place (the vast majority of female addicts have suffered some form of abuse in their lifetimes) nor does it question why men buy sex in the first place or look at whether or not we want to live in a world wherein this behaviour, from men, is acceptable.

The harm reduction model sees harm in and of itself, in a superficial, non-comprehensive way that does not include a feminist analysis. It does not take into account the psychological and emotional trauma women and girls experience in prostitution, nor does it, therefore, understand the dynamics of abuse.

Abuse (and I speak from personal experience as well as based on what I’ve learned from other women and feminist research on abusive relationships) is not limited to physical violence. While many women do experience physical violence in abusive relationships, much of what they experience is invisible. This is part of the reason why we, as a society, have failed to deal with domestic abuse in an effective way. We don’t understand why women stay, we don’t understand why women enter into these relationships in the first place, and we don’t understand why the trauma of abusive relationships lingers for years, sometimes even for a lifetime. What children in residential schools, for example, experienced, was not only physical and sexual abuse, but also extreme psychological trauma from which many of them never did or will ever recover. What women who have been in prostitution have told me is that what hurt them the most was not the physical abuse they experienced, but the more subtle behaviour from johns — the degradation, the way the men would speak to them, the way the men would look — or not look — at them, the way they would touch them. Women with pimps are, essentially, in a form of abusive relationship with their pimps. If we were to attempt to address domestic abuse through a harm reduction model, our solution would be to clean up cuts and bruises, but, at the end of the day, treat the abuse as something individual women choose, of their own free will and, therefore, refuse to interfere with the behaviour of the abuser. As feminists, we want to stop men from abusing women. Not just to try to approach the issue once it’s too late — not just to put band-aids over her injuries.

And so, as feminists — feminists who take a radical approach to prostitution — we, likewise, want to move beyond superficial, temporary, faux-solutions. We want to address the industry as a whole and the systems that support the industry. We will not clean up prostitution, on the surface, in order for people to feel better about it’s existence or in order to ensure men have easier, safer access to prostitutes.

Hornick writes, “In Hedges’ binary argument, there is no nuanced reflection on the latter’s advocacy for harm reduction that would temper his damning accusation above regarding the actual enabling of ‘physical abuse of a woman.'” Ironic, because what’s clear is that the author has not incorporated “nuance” into his understanding of male violence. If he had, he may have considered that his understanding of “abuse” is a rather naive one, not to mention unsympathetic and inhumane.

What does it mean to “reduce the harm” of patriarchy? Well, this approach is an explicitly liberal one — not entirely without merit; I continue to believe liberal feminists can do good on certain issues — that seeks to create “equality” by working within the system. This approach wants women to feel empowered, on an individual level, by the “choices” they make, but not to address the context within which these “choices” are made. Certainly it does not deal with the reasons why men abuse and exploit women, and until it does, we will never see an end to violence against women.

Harm reduction, as Erin Graham, PhD, notes, is a medical intervention — one that is meant to reduce public disorder, mortality, and morbidity. It is a public health model. It ensures the poor remain poor but do not spread disease. It ensures marginalized groups remain marginalized, but that they remain contained and unproblematic to the middle class. It does not address the cause of the harm or the harm that cannot be seen in physical impacts such as STDs. It protects johns and their families from STDs but does not protect the women those men pay for from abuse. It most certainly does not address or question male behaviour.

In her thesis, “More than condoms and sandwiches: A feminist investigation of the contradictory promises of harm reduction approaches to prostitution,” Graham writes, of the harm reduction strategies advocated for by groups like Pivot, “This deliberate erasure of men’s responsibility for women’s misery, and the notion that prostitution is ‘the oldest profession’ constructs the contradictory idea that prostitution is something women choose.” In order to avoid having to “actually do anything,” Graham says, “to change the structural conditions of women’s lives,” these groups instead try to present prostitution as not only inevitable, but simply a job like any other — one that can be made “safe” through unintrusive “harm reduction” strategies. It becomes, then, not a source of oppression or abuse, but rather a viable employment option for desperate women (who are, of course, offered no other option.)

Hornick believes Hedges’ article, “The Whoredom of the Left,” was “vitriolic,” and perhaps it was, towards men like him — men who don’t want to hear the truth about their brethren and who don’t want to be held accountable for their collusion in our oppression, as women. Hornick argues that Hedges approach created an “unsafe space” for “dialogue,” which, actually, exemplifies his approach to the issue of the sex industry and, more broadly, male power.

This is not a tidy, clean, or “safe” debate. It is very messy. It is challenging. It is painful. Men who desire “safe space” to discuss our liberation, or rather, how best to put a band-aid over our very real suffering, as a class, are men who do not understand — or care to understand — the real issues and how those issues impact our very real lives, as women.

Will wearing a condom reduce the impact of rape? If our partners abuse us without leaving a mark, will we feel more safe? If our fathers or brothers or uncles commit incest, but within the safety of our homes, and clean us up afterwards, will this mitigate harm? If I “consent” to letting a man penetrate me because, if I don’t, I won’t be able to pay my rent, but he doesn’t give me chlamydia in the process, does that mean what happened to me is ok? That I should feel good about it? That society should turn away? I wonder why it is that harm reduction advocates believe sexual assault hurts women? Is it the physical consequences or the long-lasting mental and emotional trauma? And if they do understand the reality of rape and abuse, why is it that they refuse to admit that the harm of prostitution cannot be dealt with through condoms and brothels?

“The talk that Hedges gave,” Hornick complains, “should have been prefaced with a trigger warning.” For what, I wonder? Too many unpleasant words? Too much uncomfortable reality?

I imagine Hornick and is ilk have already turned away, labeling this conversation “too vulgar” for their delicate sensibilities. But I can only hope that discussions of female subordination and abuse do, in fact, “trigger” something in them. The truth hurts, as they say… “Safe space” is something I hope never to offer men who wish to talk about violence against women. “Safe space,” as I’ve argued elsewhere, is primarily brought up nowadays, it seems, when progressives wish to shut down individuals and positions they find disagreeable.

I welcome men who are willing to speak the truth about male power and violence. So long as the men who do so have listened to and learned from feminists and don’t try to take the easy way out — the way that allows them to do the least, in terms of demanding change.

Hornick concludes by saying,

Men need to display the humility of a male ally in the presence of the varying concerns of women and inquire in good faith into the lived experiences of those with concerns…

…Most important, of course, are the voices of women who continue to face violence in their daily lives (and the women who support them) as a result of male violence and structures of oppression, including patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism. My deep hope is that the overriding effect of the State of Extraction conference, including Hedges’ contributions, the discussions and networking in its aftermath and all we have collectively learned from it all, will uphold the voices of these women.

As such, I’d argue that it’s about time the male left stopped explaining how the violence they are complicit in is too upsetting or offensive to discuss. It’s about time, as Hedges himself called for, the left stopped falling back on liberal discourse that ignores the very structures of oppression Hornick offers up only as empty words in his defense of liberal solutions. They need to stop telling us how best to sweep patriarchy under the carpet or make it tolerable. If Hornick and his cronies at Ricochet don’t understand the dynamics of abuse and the interlocking systems of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism, never mind the meaning of terms such as “feminism” or “radical,” perhaps they should consider taking a step back in this debate.

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.