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Negative Survivorship: Reclaiming “Victim” and Embracing Unhealthy Coping

Date: November 21, 2012

Here’s another presentation from last week’s Harm Reduction Conference. It is part of the project I’m calling “negative survivorship,” which is one of the things I’m feeling most passionate about these days. Enjoy!

Gender-critical feminism is trans-positive feminism.

Date: August 22, 2012

In response to a discussion I’ve been reading recently:

Radical feminists are correct to criticize the equation/conflation of gender roles with gender identity. But that is not a position many transgender people I know hold. That orthodoxy comes from psychologist John Money’s 1972 book, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl: The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. This is the same John Money from the notorious John/Joan experiment and coverup John Colapinto wrote about in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl.

Money wrote, succinctly:

gender identity is the private experience of gender role, and gender role is the public expression of gender identity

I know many transgender people who do not desire to fit into either of the standard sets of gender roles, and whose gender identities are not based on their desired roles in the society in relation to their gender. For many transgender people, gender identity and gender roles are not internal/external sides of the same thing, but are clearly separated.

Unfortunately, we do not have a better way to explain gender identity, which explains why this antiquated conception of gender identity remains in circulation within medical community, among some transgender people, and in the society.

But I do not believe that transgender people should have to explain their gender identity: it just is. Or as feminist philosopher Naomi Scheman once wrote, “Transsexual lives are lived, hence livable.”

Once the society and its medical “gatekeepers” stop requiring transgender people to explain their gender identity, we can eliminate the need for transgender individuals to (either uncritically or strategically) go along with the lies John Money told, simply to receive medical care, win social acceptance, and survive.

“Unhealthy”: On Coping with Pain in Socially Inappropriate Ways – New Zine Release!

Date: October 12, 2011

I am announcing the publication of a brand new zine, “Unhealthy”: On Coping wiht Pain in Socially Inappropriate Ways. It is a very personal zine about negative strategies to cope with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. It is written from the perspective that the “trauma industry” of psychiatry, self-help books, therapy groups, etc. alienate some (possibly many) survivors when they glorify individualistic internalization of positivity, optimism, and hope as normative. The title comes from performance artist Penny Arcade’s famous line from the show “Bad Reputation”:

being a bad girl is not about wearing too much makeup,
too short skirts, or fishnet stockings
it’s about being cut out, and left out of the society
because you can’t handle the pain in your life
in a way the society thinks is appropriate
so you’re mute with rage, you act out, you’re bad

From the introduction:

i have been making zines for about ten years, mostly on social and political issues that affect me and my friends. this zine also addresses an urgent social and political issue that impacts me and too many people that i know, but it is much more personal than anything else i’ve created in the past. that is: this zine deals with the topic of childhood sexual abuse and its continuing impact in my and other survivors’ lives.

this zine also challenges ways in which social service industry and the anti-violence movement have promoted a singular mode of “healing,” the cult of compulsory positivity, that does not work for some survivors.

for many years, i had difficulty expressing why i despise “affirmations” and other exercises designed to improve our self-esteem, or the whole notion of “healing” that presumes a “healed” state to which i am expected to aspire to. people haven’t been receptive to my objections, and suggested that i either needed to try a little bit harder, or that i was “not ready” to heal just yet. “don’t worry, it is a hard work but you will get there when it’s time.” i found these comments invalidating and patronizing, but didn’t know how to respond.

this zine is an attempt to formulate a response to these challenges and to connect with other survivors who also feel invalidated and excluded by people and institutions that are supposed to help us. i also hope that this zine might in some remote way inform people in the helping professions as well as those of us whose loved ones, family members, and friends are survivors of abuse (that should include all of us, whether or not you realize) understand survivors’ (or at least some survivors’) experiences better. i hope that this zine helps them become better at supporting survivors who use survival strategies that involve negativity, defeatism, withdrawal, lowered expectations, hopelessness, pessimism, emptiness, ambivalence, contradictions, self-injury, indecision, inappropriate feelings, passivity, masochism, silence, substance use and abuse, promiscuity, melancholy, and other so-called “unhealthy” or “maladaptive” behaviors some (or most) of the time.

this zine definitely isn’t for everybody or for every survivor. i wrote it because i feel that it might help someone somewhere (possibly just me) feel less crazy, and might lead to a fuller societal understanding and appreciation of survivors’ resilience in whatever ways it may manifest. but this zine could be a double-edged sward: if for any reason you feel that reading this zine might make it more difficult for you to survive rather than less, i ask that you trust your intuition and refrain from reading on, even as i explore and embrace counter-intuitive approaches to survival.

I want to make this zine accessible to other survivors who is interested in reading it, but I don’t want to put it for download or order online: it’s too personal for that mode of distribution. For now, there are three ways to get hold of this zine: 1. I will be carrying some copies on me at one of my presentations or other public events I attend (Seattle Spit this week, for example); 2. If you already know me personally, email or facebook message me; 3. If you don’t know me personally but you still want a copy, get to know me by emailing me and telling me why you want a copy.

I apologise for inconvenience…

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Additional comments on Farley’s Scottish research, 2008 vs. 2011 versions

Date: July 19, 2011

After Iamcuriousblue informed me that Melissa Farley’s 2008 “study” on men who purchase sex from prostitutes in Scotland had been accepted for publication in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, I spent a couple of hours comparing the 2008 report with the 2011 manuscript describing the same “study.” Below are some additional comments after reading both versions side by side.

Overall, the 2011 version removes many (but not all) unsupported editorializing and adds further statistical analysis. For example, a comment like this has been removed from the 2011 version (emphasis mine):

46% told us that going to a prostitute made a man a better lover. The opposite is likely the case. Women in prostitution train men to ejaculate quickly in order to decrease the men’s traumatic intrusion into their bodies.

The paragraph below (emphasis mine)

Another punter was a frequent prostitution tourist in Asia. He detailed the harsh conditions women were subject to in Thai and Cambodian prostitution. Exposing his narcissism and his sadism, he rationalised the commission of sexual violence against women and children. “I don’t get pleasure from other people’s suffering. I struggle with it but I can’t deny my own pleasures.”

is modified in the 2011 version as

Another study participant was a frequent prostitution tourist in Asia who spoke about the harsh conditions women were subject to in Thai and Cambodian prostitution. Rationalizing the commission of sexual violence against women and children, he told the interviewer, “I struggle with it but I can’t deny my own pleasures.”

Similarly, the following phragraph (emphasis mine)

Against common sense, the punters we interviewed insisted that the women they bought for sex were sexually satisfied by the punters’ sexual performances. Half (49%) of the men deluded themselves that the prostitutes they purchased were sexually satisfied 50%–100% of the time. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

has been modified as follows:

Many of the interviewees stated that the women they bought for sex were often sexually satisfied by the men’s sexual perfor- mances. Approximately half of the men (49%) asserted that the women they purchased were sexually satisfied 50% or more of the time. On the other hand, 85% of the men also stated that prostitutes do not enter prostitution because they like sex.

There are several contradictions between the two versions. For example, the 2008 version states (emphasis mine)

They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then some men would rape women who were not prostitutes. While none admitted that they themselves would rape, they were adamant that other men were incapable of controlling their impulse to sexual predation.

while the 2011 version claims (emphasis mine)

They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then men would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes. Although few admitted that they themselves would rape, they asserted that other men were incapable of controlling an impulse to sexual aggression.

Iamcuriousblue suggests that the discrepancy can be a result of Farley’s “notorious lack of transparency in how she derives numbers from qualitative interviews.”

Another example of contradiction is the description of the newspaper ad Farley et al. used to solicit participants. In the 2008 version, participants are offered “an interview fee,” while the 2011 paper states that the ad promised an “honorarium.” While the discrepancy may appear to be inconsequential, they are both presented as the exact phrase used in the recruitment ad, and the fact that there is a contradiction between the two reports brings into question the authors’ handling of other materials such as men’s responses in the interview.

Also, there appears to be an internal contradiction in the 2011 paper when it states

Approximately one-third of the men justified prostitution simply as a means for men to satisfy their sexual desires. This was the most frequently offered justification for prostitution.

despite the fact more than one-third of the men agree with other justifications, for example:

Forty-one percent of the study participants subscribed to the belief that there is an inverse relationship between prostitution and rape. […] They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then men would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes.

Finally, both versions (unsurprisingly) contain many logical fallacies such as this:

The men we interviewed often simultaneously held diametrically opposing attitudes about prostitution. Nearly all the men (96%) stated that to a significant extent (50% or greater extent of agreement) prostitution was a consenting act between two adults. Yet at the same time, 73% noted that women prostitute strictly out of economic necessity, and 85% acknowledged that women did not enjoy the sex of prostitution.

The notion that prostitution is usually a consensual act between adults does not contradict the belief that “women prostitute strictly out of economic necessity” (or perform any other kind of labour for that matter), or that they do not necessarily enjoy the sex (or any other task one has to do to get paid in any occupation). And yet, Farley seems to think that these beliefs are “diametrically” opposed.

Farley apparently believes that commercial sex is unconsensual and violent unless prostitutes engage in it purely because they enjoy the sex, which is a ridiculous standard that is not applied to any other forms of labour. That is, most of us do not engage in other forms of income-earning activities (i.e. work) purely and solely because of the joy of performing them, but that alone does not make all of us victims of involuntary servitude.

But this ridiculous assumption is the foundation for Farley’s incoherent position that prostitution is inherently exploitative and violent, and I am disappointed that Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy would extend her the academic legitimacy that she does not deserve.

Some thoughts on the Newsweek story on the new Farley “research”

Date: July 19, 2011

Leslie Bennetts who apparently drunk the prostitution-is-violence-against-women cool-aid wrote an article in Newsweek (07/18/2011) titled “The John Next Door,” which is based on anti-prostitution “researcher” Melissa Farley’s new “research” on men who purchases sexual services.

The “study” was made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we can’t actually read the report itself. So my comments are preliminary but here are some quick (and not so quick) thoughts:

1) The report is made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we don’t know what methodology they used beyond what is included in the story (which is very little). Melissa Farley, the author of the report, has produced multiple previous “researches” on johns in different countries and regions, none of which (as far as I know) has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The article does not refer to any other studies on the johns that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. (Edited to add: Apparently one of Farley’s articles have been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. See comments for detail.)

2) In her previous “researches,” Farley recruited study participants (men who have purchased sexual services) via newspaper ads that read “Ever been a client of a prostitute? International research team would like to hear your views”, offering financial compensation. I don’t know how they recruited the participants this time around, but whether subjects who have been recruited this way are representative of all men who purchase sex is highly questionable. The new report seems to be different from the previous studies in that it includes the control group, but we do not know how the control was recruited either.

3) Much of the article consists of anecdotal statements that are supposedly illustrative of general tendencies among men who purchase sex and those who don’t, but there are no quantitative comparison between them. It is impossible to tell if the statements are actually representative of each group.

4) There are many unfounded editorializing and logical leaps. For example, one paragraph reads: “Many johns view their payment as giving them unfettered permission to degrade and assault women. ‘You get to treat a ho like a ho,’ one john said. ‘You can find a ho for any type of need–slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do.'” But the john’s statement (i.e. you can find a sex worker who would agree to participate in the enactment of violent fantasies like those described) does not indicate that he views his payment as giving him “unfettered permission to degrade and assault women.”

5) The story states “Farley’s findings suggest that the use of prostitution and pornography may cause men to become more aggressive.” She has made similar claims in her previous “researches” which have not been (and will probably not be) published in peer-reviewed journals, but has not provided the evidence that one causes another.

6) The story states that prostitutes “typically enter ‘the life’ between the ages of 12 and 14,” which is based on a demonstrably faulty interpretation of data. T.O.M.’s story is sad and infuriating, but its use as “a case in point” is questionable, as her experience (i.e. having been sold for the first time at age four) is very unusual.

7) The second half of the story slides the discussion on to sex trafficking rather than adult consensual commercial sex, as if they are the same thing. But it is the illegality of commercial sexual transaction itself that makes it more difficult to separate the two and confront the actual abuse and exploitation of children and women (and others).

8a) The article cites the 2004 study in American Journal of Epidemiology by Potterat et al. to indicate that “Prostitution has laways been risky for women; the average age of death is 34.” But this is misleading, because it does not mean that the average life expectancy for prostitutes is 34 or that the average prostitute dies at age 34. Potterat et al. are simply reporting that among the active prostitutes who died in the studied period, the average age at which they died was 34. If that is not clear, consider this analogy: average age at death for those who die while enrolling in college is probably somewhere near 20, but nobody would claim that the average college student dies at 20.

8b) The article also cites the same Potterat et al. study to say that “prostitutes suffer a ‘workplace homicide rate’ 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.” But working in a liquor store is not “the next most dangerous occupation.” Potterat et al. state that taxicab drivers are much more likely to be murdered than liquor store clerks: the “workplace homicide rate” for prostitutes is seven times higher when compared to taxicab drivers. That is still pretty high, but why does Bennetts feel the need to exaggerate the already horrible figure?

8c) Further, “the overwhelming majority” of the “prostitutes” in this study were streetwalkers, and almost two-thirds were recruited at sexually transmitted infection clinic. Other participants were found at HIV testing sites or addiction treatment facilities, or identified by the police. Thus, the study systematically excludes prostitutes who are less visible to public health and law enforcement officers (e.g. escorts), who are likely to be much less prone to violence.

Anyway, it’s hard to say anything about the new Farley “study” until the actual report is made public and the research methodology is made transparent (and hopefully Farley would submit the paper for publication in peer-reviewed journal this time).

Also read: Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women by Elizabeth Wood