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Posted by on Feb 4, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Ethics, Law, Philosophy | 17 comments

The FEMEN paradox – nude protests against prostitution

I’ve been involved in a discussion on Twitter about the Ukrainian protest group, FEMEN. The paradox that my interlocutors seem to be asserting is that there is something contradictory about a group of women who go nude (or, rather) topless in public to protest, among other things, prostitution – and perhaps pornography, although I can’t quickly confirm this. Doesn’t this seem paradoxical, or even outright contradictory?

I don’t know a great deal about FEMEN, though I gather that one of their main dislikes is, indeed, prostitution. However, they also seem to dislike clothing restrictions on women, such as legal requirements or social pressure to wear burqas. I don’t know what their viewpoint is on pornography, but let’s entertain the idea, for the sake of the discussion, that they might be opposed to all commercial pornography or perhaps to some kinds of commercial pornography. It’s not clear to me that they favour eliminating all clothing restrictions or just the most extreme ones such as those relating to the burqa. Obviously, however, they think that it’s at least morally acceptable, or even morally virtuous, to go topless at their protests.

Is this incoherent? Could it be an internally consistent political and moral position or not?

Well, depending on their exact position, it may be coherent. Forget for a moment the question of exactly what moral and political view FEMEN  take. Perhaps, in the end, the actual organisation does have an incoherent position. What I want to suggest in this post is not that the position of the actual FEMEN organisation is internally consistent, but merely that there are possible positions in the vicinity that are perfectly coherent. I am not going to defend any such position in the sense of saying that it is justified, or that its associated empirical claims are true. My argument is simply that such a position can, if you accept its empirical and philosophical claims, be internally consistent.

So, imagine an organisation that does actually argue against prostitution, and imagine that it also argues against much in the way of contemporary pornography. At the same time, it may (1) argue against any dress restrictions (so that public nudity becomes completely legal), or (2) merely argue that topless protests by women are justified in a class of cases. Is this necessarily contradictory? I don’t see why.

The most plausible arguments that I have seen against prostitution, as actually practiced by professional prostitutes, have nothing to do with nudity. They are arguments that having sex day after day, with many different men, most of whom you would not choose as lovers, forces you to adopt psychological tactics such as disassociating during the act of (commercial) sex. It is then claimed that this is, over a period of time, eventually psychologically destructive. Finally, it is argued that the state may quite properly forbid a course of action that is psychologically destructive in this way, even if it is the person’s own decision – i.e. this kind of state paternalism is justifiable. Furthermore, all this might be supplemented by an argument that (empirically) there is something special about the case of ongoing commercial prostitution that makes paternalism appropriate, even if it is not usually appropriate. For example, it might be argued this is a case where the people who end up being harmed are especially unlikely or ill-placed to foresee the harm that they are likely to suffer.

Note that I am not endorsing this argument. It makes at least one controversial empirical claim (about the likely psychological destructiveness for a woman of having sex day after day with many, many men whom she would not have chosen as lovers), and a controversial claim in political philosophy (about the propriety of state paternalism, at least in certain circumstances). Nonetheless, there is nothing internally inconsistent so far.

Notice that this argument about (engaging in ongoing) commercial prostitution would not apply to informal one-off acts that involve some sort of sexual quid pro quo, perhaps with a friend. Nor does it seem to apply to going nude at the beach, or topless (or nude, if it comes to that) on the street, or even engaging in other forms of sex work such as working as a stripper. It applies quite precisely to the kind of commercial prostitution that involves having sex day after day with many different men, many of whom you wouldn’t choose (based on your liking for them, sexual attraction to them, etc.) as lovers. It might also apply to “sex tourism” if this means entering a country that permits this kind of prostitution, in order to take advantage of that country’s laws.

If you buy the empirical claims and the political/philosophical theory, then, you can be against the most obvious kind of prostitution and the sex tourism that goes with it, while also having very liberal views about other kinds of sexual freedom – including nudity, “ordinary” promiscuity, informal and one-off quid pro quo arrangements among friends, etc., etc., even including such things as working as a stripper.

What about pornography? Well, it depends on what sort of harm you see in pornography. You might think that the production of some kinds of pornography involves the risk of psychological harms very similar to those you see in prostitution. You might think that some kinds of pornography display women’s bodies in ways that encourage callous or misogynist attitudes to women – whereas you might not think that is the effect of a woman merely going topless at the beach or at a political protest (as in the image I’ve used, from Wikipedia, to illustrate what we’re talking about in this post).

If you want to ban some forms of pornography, this might require you to accept state paternalism, and/or to embrace “upstream” laws that are intended to deal with highly indirect harms. But that is not an inconsistent position in political philosophy. Again, however, your combination of empirical claims about the effects of some kinds of pornography and your position in political philosophy might not entail that there is anything wrong with a woman wearing sexy clothes or even going nude… or even participating in more softcore kinds of pornography. And even if you are female and think that merely going nude has some very small tendency to produce callous attitudes toward women, you might think this very small tendency is outweighed in a particular case by its utility in attracting attention to important political protests (or simply the utility in your enjoying the sun and the sea on your naked body at the beach).

None of the positions I’ve discussed above are necessarily my own. I have not yet been convinced by any arguments for banning prostitution or for banning any forms of pornography involving only adults, but nor do I reject them out of hand. I’m not convinced, partly because of my general resistance to state paternalism and upstream laws, and also partly because the empirical claims are controversial. So I’m not advocating any of these positions. Nor do I know what arguments FEMEN actually put. I do, however, think that positions something like FEMEN’s could be logically coherent.

Presumably the reason why they might seem logically incoherent on their face is that they seem to be for “sexual freedom” in some areas and against it in others. Or they seem to be favouring conventional (anti-)sexual morality in some areas, while disfavouring it in others.

However, it doesn’t have to work like that. The issues don’t have to be cast in those terms. There could even be utilitarian arguments for a lot more pornography of some kinds and for a lot less pornography of other kinds – if you think that seeing certain kinds of pornographic (or merely erotic, if that’s a genuine distinction) images actually tends to make men have less callous attitudes toward women, while other kinds tend to make men have more callous attitudes. It all depends on what empirical claims you find plausible (hopefully based on scientific evidence, but more likely based on experience and intuition).

The moral of this post is not that you should adopt a certain combination of attitudes to pornography, prostitution, nudity, promiscuity, striptease, or anything else. It is merely that all sorts of positions – even novel and unexpected ones – may turn out to be more internally coherent than you initially think, depending on what sorts of empirical claims, philosophical views, and linking arguments actually underlie them.

As a further point, that is a reason why it is always worthwhile trying to explore the nuances of someone’s position, rather than simply assuming that they hold an overall position that you recognise from encounters with others, and which agrees with them on the particular point that’s come up in a conversation. There are so many positions and viewpoints on offer these days that we should always show a bit of care – with appropriate caveats, “I thinks”, “it seems to me’s”, etc. – when we draw conclusions about someone’s beliefs and attitudes from a limited sample of what they’re doing or saying.