Monday, 12 February 2018

The President's Club, Sex Workers, Social Media and Conservative Protectionism

Mrs Merton, once hilariously asked Debbie McGee, “What was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” A similar question might be asked of the wives of Donald Trump. The concept of women prepared to marry older, and often not very attractive men, who happen to have lots of money, is not new. The fact, is that sex has always been a commodity, and like any other commodity, it can be sold for money, or exchanged for value in some other form. And, Engels himself, as his correspondence with Marx, from Paris, illustrates was no stranger to such trade. 

There was moral outrage at the revelation that the President's Club fundraising event was something akin to a Roman orgy. Who'd have thunk it, that a male only gathering, of the rich, privileged elite, employing female only hostesses, told to wear provocative clothing, might descend into such debauchery? The moral outrage, which led to some front bench politicians resigning, and charities that had benefited from donations from the event, sending back the money, follows on from the #metoo movement that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein revelations. There is a reactionary, puritanical element that surrounds some of this moral outrage. It smacks of the kind of Victorian attitude towards sex, and relations between adults that you might find in a Jane Austen novel, in which propriety was assured by the use of strict guidelines and etiquette in the process of courtship, along with the requirement for any contact to be monitored, and assured by an appropriate chaperone. Today, the same thing seems to be aimed at by setting down all such terms of contact via the use of Internet dating websites, and so on. 

One pundit I heard on radio commented on how they could not believe such behaviour and events still occurred. Really? Where have they been living? Have they not been aware of the growth of Internet pornography, of the growth of lap-dancing clubs, and so on? I have no doubt that MP's of all parties, and other members of the elite are frequent visitors to all of these, along with huge numbers of other members of the population. Have they not seen Channel 4's “Naked Attraction”?The figures for the number of people, men and women, who access porn even from their work computers illustrates the point. Internet development, and before it the video industry was driven by pornography. This again smacks of the kind of Victorian hypocrisy that Marx and Engels and others railed against, whereby everyone pretended that sex didn't exist, that women should have no interest in sex, and that their only role was to lie back and think of England, as they performed their wifely duties for their husband! 

And, the implication, in much of the prudish narrative, is that it is only men who buy these sexual services. Yet. even going back twenty years, remember The Chippendales or The Full Monty? In more recent times, a whole industry has grown up providing for Hen Parties that are frequently as raunchy as their Stag equivalents. Alongside the term laddish, we have had the introduction of the term ladette. And why not? Do we really want to go back to the reactionary, prudish days, prior to the 1960's, which was the dream of Mary Whitehouse and others? Sexual liberation, and the removal of the dead hand of the state, imposing its censorship rules for social and sexual mores, comes with risks and responsibilities, and it thereby places responsibilities on individuals to act as mature adults, in being able to think for themselves, to be able to make distinctions, and to respond to situations accordingly. A clumsily placed hand on a knee, as a speculative sexual advance, can be removed, if its recipient does not welcome the advance. It is not the same as rape, or a sexual assault, and it only diminishes the seriousness of the latter when that distinction is blurred. 

For decades people were able to deal with requests for a kiss underneath the mistletoe without feeling that they had been seriously violated. As kids of 10-12, we used to play “Kiss chase”, as part of the process of learning the unwritten, and imprecise rules of these interpersonal relations without the risk of being branded a sex pest by an irate parent.   When, we learned how to whistle properly, boys and girls, the first thing you did was learn how to wolf whistle!

I had a boss once who said that a friend of his had told him that whenever he got talking to women he fancied, in a pub etc., he would always at some point openly ask “is there any chance of a shag?” In nine cases out of ten, it would result in him getting a slap across the face, and the end of the discussion. He felt it was worth it, because in one case out of ten, he would get a positive response. The point being that he took the chance of the slap, as the price of being open in his advances, and those who were in receipt of the advance were able to respond accordingly. The appropriate response to the cheeky advance by anyone who was offended was the slap across the face. 

Of course, there is the question of power. A boss is in a more powerful position than a worker. In fact, it's that difference, the fact that a worker needs to work to live, that enables capital to insist that the worker provides some labour for free. Workers cannot escape that requirement by going to work for some other capital, because all capital requires that tribute to be paid. But, that does not mean that workers are not free to seek employment from capitals that pay higher wages, and to refuse to work for those capitals that pay lower than average wages. It is that which leads Marx to describe it as free wage labour, and it is this ability to move freely, that leads to competition between capitals for labour-power, that drives towards the formation of an average wage, equivalent to the value of labour-power, just as competition drives towards the formation of an average annual rate of profit. 

That doesn't stop some capitals paying lower than average wages, or offering worse than average conditions. If the long-term answer to that within capitalism is that such capitals tend to go out of business, as labour moves to better paying employment, the short-term solution is that workers form trades unions to protect themselves against such abuses, and that includes protecting themselves against sexual harassment by the firm's bosses. But, not all interrelations at work are between bosses and workers. There are interrelations between workers and workers. Again different power relations might exist, but the question of being able to think, and to make distinctions is important. 

When I was 18, I worked in an office as an administrator in a small firm where the large majority of workers were female machinists. On the factory floor, there was a male foreman/engineer, a male cutter, and a young lad of about 16/17 who helped the cutter and engineer. One Summer's Day as part of the kind of rights of passage, and general larking about that happens on such factories, the dozen or so women chased the young lad around the factory, threatening to remove his trousers. He eventually took refuge up on the roof, from where he laughed at them. The women, because of their age - some of them were mothers of people I had been at school with – and numbers had more power than did the young lad. But, neither he nor anyone else thought that this amounted to sexual harassment, or that he was in danger of being raped. The situation would have been quite different had it been a dozen or so men chasing a 17 year old girl around the factory, threatening to remove her jeans or skirt. 

But, not long after, I worked on a potbank, where during the Summer, it was quite common, on a hot day, for the women to sit at their benches wearing just their bra and knickers. Again it was a workplace, as with most potbanks, where the women significantly outnumber the men. As a young man at the time, whenever I had to walk through the factory, you got used to getting whistled at. It sometimes caused me to blush, but I never felt that I had been scarred for life by the experience. My son who was filming on a potbank a while ago, said that similar things still occur today. 

For some time now there has been a debate over sex work. Some see it only in terms of sexual exploitation, despite sex workers themselves arguing that it is inherently no more exploitative than any other form of wage labour. Indeed, to the extent that the workers themselves are able to be self-employed, or to form co-operatives and collectives, it might be less exploitative than wage labour. Those who see it only in terms of exploitation focus on the examples of human trafficking, violence and necessity. Yet, sex workers themselves point to the fact that it is criminalisation of the work that creates the conditions for violence etc. They point to the number of sex workers who enter into it, out of their own choice, to provide income whilst they are undertaking studies at University etc., and yes, even those who enter into it, because they enjoy sex! The denial of the latter itself reflects a falling back into those Victorian, and prudish concepts of sex, where women were somehow not supposed to enjoy sex, but merely had to endure it. The current discourse, is in fact, anti-feminist, in that it paints a picture of women in which a victim mentality is inherent, of women as fragile creatures who must be protected from the world. It is a mild version of the kind of ideology that wants to wrap women from head to toe in the burkha. 

The reality is that sex has always been a commodity that could be sold - and as Richard Gere depicted in "American Gigolo" it can be sold by men as well as women.  There is a big difference between someone who decides to sell sex, or to exchange it for something else they desire, and someone who is raped or sexually assaulted, just as there is a difference between a free wage labourer who decides to sell their labour-power to employer A rather than B, as against a slave who is forcibly made to work for the slave owner. In Ken Loach's film “The Spirit of '45”, there is a bit where a woman, who has been trying to get a council house for a long time, relates how, in the end, she got one by going into the Housing Manager's office, locking the door behind her, and giving the Manager “what he wanted”. In essence, it was a bribe, but paid in sex rather than money. The housing manager was corrupt, and took bureaucratic advantage of his position, in a way that is common where goods and services are rationed bureaucratically rather than by the market, but the woman wasn't raped. She made a conscious choice to act corruptly herself, in bribing the manager, rather than doing what others had to do, and simply wait for their turn in the housing queue. In making that choice, she equally took advantage of her position of being prepared to sell sex – and maybe others who were prepared to do so, were not as attractive to the Manager – in order to obtain what she wanted. 

There is little difference here to actors, or anyone else who sells sex to get a lucrative job. In the end, they have the choice to do that to get the job or not. And, there is a big difference between the necessity even to get a council house, or to get any kind of job, compared to getting a job paying hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, as a film actor. They might feel ashamed of themselves afterwards for having done so, especially when they look back on the decision from the comfort of having obtained a comfortable career and lifestyle, but the fact remains that, unless they actually were forcibly assaulted, they had the choice of saying no, and not getting the job, just as a prostitute, or a lap dancer has the choice of doing that work for money or not. 

These are completely different situations to where someone is not actually given that choice, but is the subject of rape or other serious sexual assault. From all accounts, many of the women employed as hostesses at the President's Club event had gone back for several years. Many reportedly enjoyed it, not just because some also obtained other work through it. And why not? It's not just that we no longer live in the prudish world of the 1950's that Mary Whitehouse wanted to take us back to, and so sexually liberated women can go to see male strippers, have raucous Hen Parties, but it's also women as well as men who go to Swingers Clubs, who produce as well as buy pornography and so on. Its a world in which the proper response to an unwanted advance should be a slap across the face, or a clear rejection, not a court case, or the branding of the “offender” as a pervert, because in a sexually liberated world, where people do not require chaperones or strict codes of courtship, people will misread signals, try their luck and so on. 

Failing to distinguish between actual rape or sexual assault, and these other situations can only, in the end, diminish the seriousness with which the former is seen. But, that distinction is being blurred by the moral panic that has been whipped up, that now turns every touched knee, every piece of risqué banter into a sex crime, and the perpetrator into a pervert. It is also being conflated into a series of unrelated issues, for example, over gender equality. It has a thoroughly reactionary, prudish undertone that seeks to put all human interaction into tightly censored and constrained boxes. 

Social media means that the pressure to conform becomes almost irresistible. For the media, it is like a Christmas present every day, because salaciousness, and scandals are what they live on. They would be happy if some story could be produced everyday about some politicians, celebrity or whatever, however insignificant, no matter how unfounded or unsourced, that enables a press furore to be whipped up demanding another resignation, because for the media it is more readers and viewers. 

For conservatives and reactionaries, it provides them with a field day, because any bit of banter by a John McDonell, for example, can be turned into a touchstone by which every Labour spokesperson is judged, in the same way that in N. Korea, everyone is judged by their profusive acknowledgement of the Glorious Leader. Because alongside this requirement to view interpersonal relations in this prudish manner, goes the growth of the requirement to avoid anything that might be considered offensive by someone, somewhere. Every Corbyn supporter is open to charges of misogyny, or anti-Semitism, and bullying by every opponent of Corbyn, that the media will actively take up as being absolute truth. 

On the one hand, the Tories are rightly prepared to criticise the lunacies of the “Safe Spaces” movement in Universities, that is an affront to the liberties that workers and others fought for over centuries, but on the other, the Tories are prepared to adopt exactly the same stance and to describe as “anti-Semitism”, statements by supporters of Corbyn, whether they are or not, simply as a means of the Tories attacking Corbyn himself by proxy. Every Labour MP, every Labour Councillor who finds their previous cushy career being threatened by Labour members, calling them to account, is free to rush to the media to shout “bullying”, “misogyny”, “anti-Semitism” without any real evidence, and to receive a welcome, unquestioning reception. Then we see Labour spokespeople being required to condemn those involved, in the same way that the Spanish Inquisition required those brought before it to recant, and denounce, or as was required by those brought before the Salem Witch Trials. 

This requirement to conform has been well researched and documented by psychologists. Milgram, for example, wondered why it was that camp guards in Nazi Germany could be persuaded to act in such barbaric manner, and why so many ordinary Germans went along with the barbarity. He conducted tests using actors who played the part of people who others were asked to administer electric shocks to, whenever they answered a question wrongly. He found that the majority of ordinary people were prepared to continue to administer the shocks when told to do so, even when they believed that the shocks might be lethal. In his series on the Human Brain, Michael Mosley related these experiments, and undertook others to show the extent to which people would accede to a request, even from someone not in authority, for example a request to give up a seat on a park bench. Around half did so, unquestioningly. The reason appeared to be that there is something ingrained in human behaviour that leads to a willingness to respond positively to requests to conform. The main problem he found, as was reported in the initial experiments, was a feeling of discomfort himself in making what was in reality an unwarranted request, which again suggests that we are led to behave in ways that are themselves conditioned by accepted norms of behaviour. 

Time after time, we see public figures questioned about this or that statement or action, to which they are expected by their interrogators to disapprove, and who are visibly unable to resist, because they feel this requirement to conform with what has become a popular meme.  The requirement to say that you "respect" the EU referendum result is a good example, when, in fact, Labour politicians  should say that it was a stupid decision that will seriously damage the interests of workers!  Yet, in many of these cases, the politicians should simply say “Really? Are you seriously seeing it in that manner? You need to get a grip, and show some sense of proportion and context!” Does anyone seriously believe that John McDonnell was actually calling for Esther McVey to be lynched, or was seriously supporting such calls by others to do so? In fact, does anyone seriously believe that those he was quoting were actually calling for that either? Of course not, any more than anyone seriously believes that when Kenny Everett stood up at a Tory Party event in the 1980's, and shouted “Let's bomb Russia!”, he was seriously calling for that either. It's supposed to be Americans who don't understand, British irony. Yet, week after week, we see media presenters repeating the comment of McDonnell, and demanding that he recant, and that others denounce him for the comments. The only thing missing is the instruments of torture, and the stake and bundle of sticks waiting for the fire to be lit, as they repeatedly pose these “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” questions. 

The real irony, of course, is that whilst no serious person believes that McDonnell was calling for McVey to be lynched, the actual policies that McVey, and other Tories were promoting that led to the comments, did cause actual pain, anguish, injury and, yes, even death, to some benefits claimants! Yet, the media fail to address that actual violence that was being done by Tory policies to millions.

A couple of weeks ago, Miriam Margolyes, appearing on Peston on Sunday related a story about when she auditioned for a part in “Reds”. She told of how, having been ushered into Warren Beatty's trailer, he met her with the comment, “Do you fuck?” “Yes”, she replied, “but not with you, I'm a lesbian.” Beatty responded according to Margolyes, “Can I watch?”, to which she in turn told him to get over himself, and get a grip. The audition proceeded, and she got the part. 

Perhaps those of us of that generation are made of sterner stuff. Perhaps in fighting against an oppressive and authoritarian puritanism, we recognised that freedom also comes with risks and individual responsibility. For the last thirty years, the conservative free market ideology ran rampant, and in the shape of Trump, Le Pen and others, it is today facing a swing of the pendulum in the other direction, towards state intervention and protectionism. The same swing of the pendulum appears to be happening in terms of individual liberties and interpersonal relations, attempting to once more impose that dead hand of the state, as a substitute for individuals learning to think, to differentiate, and to take risks, knowing that sometimes the risk leads to mistakes. But, it is the fact that sometimes we make mistakes, that we might get rebuffed, slapped across the face and so on that teaches that actions have consequences, and so we learn to balance the risk against the consequence. It means that if you are buying a house in a flood plain, you know the risk that the house is going to get flooded, and you shouldn't expect someone else to bail you out for your ill-judged action, just as if you buy shares in banks that take big risks, you shouldn't expect the state to bail you out, when the bank goes bust.

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