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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.

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  • In regards to FEMEN, one of my issues with them is that they may not even have much of a coherent stance on this question and many other issues. Certainly nothing I’ve seen from their English-language website, or other English-language media, indicates that they offer much in the way of in-depth explanation of the ideas behind their actions, but perhaps they’ve published more in-depth in Ukrainian and I’m not aware of what they’ve written. My other case pointing to their seeming contradictions is that they’ve been on record as supporting reintroduction of the death penalty to Ukraine, which I don’t think makes sense if one at all consider yourself supporting any kind of social justice (and I thought feminism was supposed to be part of a social justice agenda) and have thought the issue through. As a reaction against the staggeringly horrendous crime that precipitated the call, I completely understand the sentiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Oksana_Makar. Again, maybe they have really good reasons provided somewhere why they support the death penalty and think it would be a good thing for women, but I suspect it’s more likely that they’re simply driven by a kind of sensationalist, emotional politics. In fact, based on what I’m seeing here: http://goo.gl/Yy7mZ , I’d characterize FEMEN as being to feminism what PETA is to animal rights.

    Now as to whether it’s possible to support sexual freedom while also supporting a prohibition of prostitution without contradiction, I guess it could make sense in the abstract, but it entails what I see as a very odd position – one has the right to all manner of sexual freedom, casual sex, promiscuous sex, etc, but the moment money enters into the picture (and as sex worker activist Maggie McNeill has pointed out, even the suggestion of money), then one becomes either a criminal or a victim. Now maybe that might be consistent if one is coming from a very radical anti-capitalist position that condemns commercial exchange in general, but in practice, it doesn’t. So somehow, one has to carve out a position that the sex is OK, commerce is OK, but somehow sexual commerce is uniquely wrong or coercive. And I don’t think there’s a strong case to be made there, hyperbole about selling sex to multiple partners leading to PTSD or “dead souls” aside.

    In practice, however, those active in opposing the sex trade seem to almost inevitably have problems with the very idea of sexual freedom, and that seems to be true whether they’re coming from a religious conservative position or an unreconstructed radical feminist one. It comes through in the almost inevitable condemnation of BDSM by these same activists – clearly, they feel that there are broad areas of sexuality that are just too risky to individuals or society for people to make their own decisions about, and that some kind of strong, very “upstream” paternalism is merited to keep people from going the wrong way.

    I think the stance of being pro-sexual freedom but anti-porn is even less compelling. True, one could treat paid sexual performance as a subset of prostitution and condemn it on that level, per the above discussion. But if you’re condemning it just on the level of imagery, then what you’re saying is “Do whatever you want sexually, but if you share images of it, this is harmful.” If sex is a not a bad thing, why is showing it via media suddenly wrong? I don’t buy the distinction – I say if you think some kind of sexual images are so wrong that you should prevent other adults from consensually viewing them, then I think there’s at least an implicit condemnation of those acts being done in private, even if one doesn’t support extending a legal prohibition to the latter.

    Getting back to FEMEN, I think an antiporn stance is even a bit more of contradiction, because in their media, which is quite professionally done, includes slick, professional photography that clearly comes under the heading of softcore pornography: femen.livejournal.com/?skip=315 (scroll through their Livejournal for many more examples). So are they saying as a voluntary organization this is OK, but it’s a man photographing women the same way for profit, it’s “fascism” or whatever? I’m not sure, because, as I’ve said, they don’t seem to explain themselves very well, and where they do, it merely seems reactive.

  • RussellBlackford

    The thing is, I don’t necessarily have to disagree with any of that – you and I seem to be allied on most of these issues in practice. As I said in the post, I don’t really know the detail of what the actually FEMEN organisation thinks or what arguments they would use to support it.

    It did, however, want to show how, depending on what else you think, you can be quite consistent in opposing prostituting while adocating or engaging in public nudity. I think you’ve basically conceded that. You might have to think some things that are incorrect, or that seem (to you or me) implausible, but that does not mean that your overall position is logically inconsistent, which was all I was talking about on Twitter.

    Indeed, I suspect that there are many people who are, in fact, cool about nudity but not with prostitution because they take a position similar what I describe. Once again, even if they wrong about something their position might internally consistent.

    This is the moral of the story from my point of view. You can’t assume, for example that someone is happy about prostitution just because they favour or are relaxed about public nudity. It depends on what else they think. And you can’t assume that someone is being inconsistent if, for example, they favour public nudity but want to ban prostitution. Given some other assumptions that you find plausible there may be an inconsistency. But there may not be any inconsistency given the assumptions that they make (e.g. that engaging in prostitution causes something like PTSD, as you put it. That may be wrong, but someone who believes it may have a strong defence against any charge of inconsistency. (As a mere philosopher I am not qualified to have an opinon on such an empirical matter, though I do suspect that the claim is exaggerated, and in any event I’m not a fan of state paternalism.)

    This is a point of general application way beyond debates about FEMEN, nudity, pornography, prostitution, etc., and a lot of debates might contain less vitriol if people kept it in mind. I.e. you can’t assume that someone’s overall position is massively different from yours – or that the person is somehow a bad person – just because they disagree about one thing. If we all kept that in mind there would be a lot less of the reputation trashing, etc., that has marred so much discussion in the atheist blogosphere.

    Again, the real-life FEMEN may actually have come to its position based on some anti-capitalist viewpoint, some theory of “exploitation”, or whatever. And again… if you make those assumptions, FEMEN may have a position that is internally consistent, even it is wrong. But my point was never about the merits or otherwise of the real-life FEMEN. It was about the nature of consistency.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    It needn’t be contradictory, but it’s hard to know without further interrogating their position. One obvious possibility would be that their opposition is not to the idea of prostitution or pornography, but the manner in which those industries are actually operated in their – and maybe also our – society. There’s no reason in principle why either of those trades need be inconsistent with autonomous choice, but as a matter of fact, both are often characterised by high levels of exploitation or even coercion.

    Maybe their message is something like: look, we’re cool with sex, and sexual displays, and we’re by no means puritans, so when we say the sex industry in Ukraine is rotten, don’t tune us out.

  • Well, sure, but easier said than done when that one difference (if it really is just one – it more often than not points to a very different world view, in practice) is something that compromises your basic rights or even harms you. It’s why abortion is such a bitter issue – one side viewing abortion as literally murder, and on the other, many women basically being told that they don’t have rights when it comes to their own body or fertility. In my case, having somebody tell me I’m straight up not allowed to view certain kinds of pornography because the thoughts it puts into my head are something I just can’t handle is something that gets my back up. Or, in the case of advocacy of some of the kinds of laws like the UK has, that I should face jail time for possessing porn where the images are too “extreme” (whatever that means). And that’s to say nothing of the point of view of sex workers who’s well-being and sometimes lives are compromised by well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded policies.

    So yes, people on the “other side” may not be bad people (again, whatever that means), but considering the stakes of some issues, not taking it personally may not entirely be possible. Of course, it’s possible to take that point a bit too far, and in the atheist gender wars, I’ve seen people get a lot of mileage out of the idea of not being civil because the stakes are ostensibly high in any issue around identity, to the point of drawing some pretty dogmatic lines in the sand over areas where there really should be room for differing interpretations by people with more or less common goals.

  • But I have to ask, if the issue is the conditions of the sex industry, just where are the voices of Ukrainian sex workers? (Even ex-sex workers.) Because they don’t seem to be represented in or by FEMEN, and it’s their perspective that carries a hell of a lot more weight with me when it comes to that issue. So far, the only response I’ve seen from the sex worker community came from a group of Polish sex workers who did a nude protest of their own with the message, “FEMEN! Get the fuck out of our business!”: http://t.co/2ozw5s79

  • Colin Gavaghan

    It’s possible that they are wrong about the working conditions in the Ukrainian sex industry, but Russell’s question was whether their opposition was consistent with a generally sex-positive worldview. I think it could be, for the reasons given.

    Now, as to whether they are wrong about those working conditions: certainly, the testimony of workers in that industry would be an important piece of evidence, but I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into their failure to stand up and be counted. There could be other reasons for that. I’ve no idea whether any FEMEN members are current or former sex workers.

  • I forgot to add, a point concerning FEMEN, nudity, and consistency. Nude protests by feminist, even radical feminists, is something that goes way back to the 60s and 70s. Here in California, an anti-porn activist named Nikki Craft was notorious for this. Even though I totally disagree with her ideas and many of her tactics, I don’t see that the topless protests her group used to do were inconsistent with any kind of antiporn message. Basically, it was old-fashion “naturist” nudity, nothing very sexualized or particularly “hot” about it. FEMEN’s presentation is very different, though – they’re definitely playing on the classic kind of “come hither” nudity of softcore porn. I don’t think it’s pure chance that the women they choose for these actions are conventionally good looking (often strikingly so), well made-up, all young, none fat, mostly blonde, etc. (Albeit, Ukraine has a higher than average proportion of conventionally highly attractive women, which is why it’s such a “source” country for both the sex and modeling industries.)

    So, basically, FEMEN is using the language of softcore porn to attack the sex industry. Now maybe there’s a strategy behind that, but if so, they haven’t spelled it out. Are they taking on that look to critique it? They’ve been around for several years now, and so far, I’ve seen no indication that they’re playing on beauty and sexiness in a self-subverting way.

  • Vic

    I could be wrong, but I guess the article was written when the author was still heavily influenced by the twitter conversation?
    And I guess further the internal consistency in an abstract sense, in philosophical thought, was one of the heated points? And that’s the reason for the focus on this narrow point?

    I find myself in agreement with the consistency of the arguments in the abstract (and with the point that many other positions, which may not appear to be so at first glance, are equally consistent if seen in a strictly philosophical sense).

    But then, how many theistic arguments are consistent in the abstract, if seen purely from a philosophical point of view? How many deistic?

    So, to be clear: I agree with the article under the conditions laid down by the author. The arguments of FEMEN are not internally inconsistent.
    But its focus on the purely philosophical appears to be rather narrow when discussing an activist group whose actions can have real life consequences?

    That critique is, however, very minor, since it was explicitly the stated purpose of the article not to delve into that.

    What occurred to me just now, is that I probably didn’t give enough credit to one statement: that we should not label other arguments inconsistent when they are foreign to us or our views. I think to allow that is the first step into the direction of open-mindedness; e.g. a creationist who honestly allows evolution to be consistent in the abstract is more open to the empirical evidence, if he should be presented with such.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, I originally wrote the post largely because I was struggling to explain on Twitter, in 140-character bursts, why a position that was pro-nudity but anti-prostitution might nonetheless be internally consistent, even though, as you say, it might be foreign to us, or some of us (because the reasons for one of the positions might not be the obvious ones to us, and might not entail a parallel position with the other issue).

    I found it getting more and more interesting as I tried to tease it out.

    I do think there’s a point here of some importance in philosophy and argument generally, and worth keeping in mind in all sorts of debates. If we don’t keep it in mind, we might draw all sorts of dubious inferences about people, for example.

    Theistic systems, etc., might also (often) be internally consistent. What interests me about them, however, is that theologians can struggle to keep their systems that way (i.e. internally consistent) while also encountering empirical facts about the world. They often end up in positions where they are forced either to deny clear-cut facts (as fundamentalists often do) or to thin out their claims in some way (e.g. by saying they are metaphors), or to save the system’s consistency with highly ad hoc, or otherwise implausible, supplementary claims. If you find yourself doing that, you might want to start again, and if you see someone else doing that you might well decide you’re just not interested. I think this is one of the big problems for theological thinking, and especially for theodical thinking.

  • This is getting away from a conversation about logical consistency and into the area of legal ethics, but I will point out that making laws without consultation with the actual stakeholders is profoundly unethical from my point of view, and represents the very worst sort of paternalism. From my point of view, Ukrainian sex workers are the primary stakeholders on this question, with FEMEN being at best a secondary interest group.

  • Probably veering from the primary point of the conversation in a different direction this time, but this is an interesting question in the “Has science replaced philosophy?” argument. On one hand, I think, “Hell, no!” because I see some branches of philosophy as being as primary to science, yet not actually a scientific discipline, as is mathematics. You really need these primary tools of how you carry out logical inference and properly designate a scientific question to do good science, not to mention the more complex questions brought up by Popper and Kuhn on just what science is and how it proceeds.

    But on the other hand, there are entire branches of philosophy that are profoundly anti-empirical, theology being the clearest example, and it’s entirely possible to spin huge internally consistent bodies of thought from ideas that have no grounding in empirical reality, and may even be grounded in outright mythology. Is there really much truth-value in these endeavors, simply because some good philosophical thought has gone into them?

  • RussellBlackford

    I’m not even sure that it’s good philosophical thought. I suppose it’s good to the extent that creativity and logic are being exercised to keep the system internally consistent. But as more epicycles get added to do that – with no independent reason to believe them – the whole enterprise starts to look dishonest. At best, it starts to look as if the people concerned are desperately defending something that they believe on entirely different, non-rational grounds (e.g. as a result of socialisation or emotional experiences). And I think that it’s worth the while of secular philosophers and others to point this out.

    I should add that a consistent pro-nudity, anti-prostitution position such as I sketched could start to show the same problems, e.g. if it continued to make the empirical claims it relies on even if the evidence didn’t seem to support them, and it then developed an explanation for why the evidence was unreliable, and that, in turn lacked independent support, and so on. Eventually, the whole system could simply become implausible to anyone not already committed to it, even if it remained internally consistent.

  • Charles Sullivan

    I’ve found that the creepiest thing that happens at nude beaches (when it happens) involves dressed young men on the periphery, lurking, pointing fingers, and making crude sexual jokes. I think that most people who go to nudist venues don’t do so for prurient reasons, and that prurient motives can make many (most?) people feel uncomfortable, especially women.

  • I don’t disagree with that. But a good faith attempt to gauge the views of sex workers would need to involve more than waiting for them to stand up and denounce their pimps.

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  • FMTH

    “More internally coherent” than YOU’D think – I don’t happen to conflate nudity with selling sex at all. Why would you? A woman has a naked body, just like any other human. Engaging in sex for money has nothing to do with choosing to take you clothes off – hell, you could do it with your clothes on – does that mean women who protest with clothes on about prositution are potentialy contradictory? No.

    I personally can’t stand Femen for many reasons, but they ARE using their bodies as commodities to ‘sell’ their protests – that’s how their male founder promotes it anyway.
    Basically, a naked woman might look like a naked woman to you, but to women there’s a massive difference between being paid to take your clothes off/have sex and choosing to take your clothes off. Always remember this is about women who are *people* not just objects that happened to be covered up or not.

  • RussellBlackford

    I set out in some detail in the original post why the FEMEN position may well be coherent, contrary to crude or knee-jerk assumptions to the contrary. FMTH – you seem to be offering a similar or complementary analysis, though (understandably in a comment on someone else’s post) with less detail. So who is this “YOU” whom you are addressing in what seems like a hostile way? I.e. when you say more internally coherent than “YOU’D” think? Are you addressing me or someone else in the thread?
    As I said, I wrote this post in response to interlocutors with whom I’ve had dealings elsewhere (i.e. on Twitter) who see something incoherent about FEMEN’s position. I explain that in the post, then analyse why I don’t think there is necessarily anything incoherent in that position after all. I offer an analysis according to which FEMEN’s position may be quite coherent, perhaps even intellectually attractive. Do you have a problem with that?

  • FMTH

    The YOU’D was directed at you, and in caps for emphasis – my point was that by saying FEMEN’s nudity is more coherent than YOU would think, you’re saying it could be contradictory, but I don’t think it should be contradictory for a woman to take her clothes of to protest against sex work (whether that be right or wrong to protest against is by the by), because the two are completely different activities they are using their bodies for. Perhaps you see it as possible incoherent because you’re a man and to you a naked woman = sexual, whereas to women, well we have these naked bodies under our clothes whether we have sex or not and getting beaten up and arrested by security guards and police is not something sexual, however it may look to you. Nudity does not equal sex.