On sex work and demand.

On sex work and demand.

I have only occasionally paid for sex work. 

At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits.  At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s.  After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films.  While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.

For the massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy thong underwear.  Then a trained professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females – rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our muscles.  There wasn’t the sort of rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.

Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started.  Whoops.

Although, after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his childhood.  His parents were Indian, and massage was a totally normal part of their culture.  And so, during a family vacation to Mexico when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of the tents near their beach. 

Midway through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly pumped back and forth.  My friend was alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop.  So he assumed that the easiest way to get through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than England.

The masseuse cleaned off his belly.  He sheepishly exited the tent.  His mother asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”

He averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”  Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.

She would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker. 

Sex work is a slippery concept, though.  In the process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I failed.  You could reasonably argue that all massage therapists are sex workers.  Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.

A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with.  In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm.  After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva.  A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image.  An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.

A writer who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too.  The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can certainly reach orgasm.

In practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex work.  Because the term “prostitution” is so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.

Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law.  Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them.  Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough?  And, he’s a pillar of his community!  We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!

From Bloomberg.

Instead, we punish people who are already marginalized.  Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our prosecutors.  Go ahead and lock them up.  Fine them.  Deport them.

Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work.  On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):

The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’.  In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.

Vague and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice.  Police officers haven’t been raiding the apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates; instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.

It should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have such difficulty even discussing this topic.  We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking; for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights as they travel and work. 

The solutions we propose are equally divergent.  Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law, giving more power to the police.  For sex workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.

Mac and Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex work.  But there is a danger – if we are too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem. 

Most sex workers don’t like their jobs.  They sell sex because they need money.

When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.

We are not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that any client has a ‘right’ to sex.  We are not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex itself, is intrinsically good or bad.  Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe.

In the sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex industry abolitionists’.  As the English Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’

[Anti-prostitution feminists] position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable.  Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work. 

It’s not work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again.  One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’  Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.

Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we weren’t being paid.  Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free. 

Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London.  In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.

Work may be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the conversation, like high-profile journalists.  However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or workers in general (or even many journalists). 

Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free.  Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious.  This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.

Mac and Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell sex.  Barring that, they would like to see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy suggestions that would help.  Their proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.

Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police.  There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.

From the Economist.

But, even if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex workers.  If any person involved in a transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous.  Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.

Similarly, U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused worldwide harm.  Mac and Smith write that:

SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished.  SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could. 

One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get.  Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’

[Note: clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac and Smith.]

It could seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation, instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent.  But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and makes workers more vulnerable.

When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.  When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.

We’re doing the wrong things.

Politicians are targeting the wrong sort of demand.

In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic.  Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary.  When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.

Supply and demand.  In this sort of crude approximation, elastic demand would be represented by a relatively horizontal line (quantity changes significantly if the price changes) and inelastic demand by a relatively vertical line (quantity stays the same no matter the cost). Image from GrokInFullness.
What happens to demand when the effective price goes up because of a risk of punishment. Note that the intersection point between the red & dotted lines is lower than the original intersection point. Even though sex workers aren’t being directly punished, they’re now earning less money. Image from GrokInFullness.

By way of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or medicine are all inelastic.  When you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.  That’s why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living conditions in people’s home countries.

Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe.  Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world.  We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.

I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:

To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on.  If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.

Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book.  It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.

I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack.  Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?

Misogyny dies hard.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On translation.

On translation.

Before stumbling into a life of drug addiction and bank robbery, the protagonist of Nico Walker’s Cherry served in the Army.  He’s miserable overseas, but, to be fair, he was miserable in the United States, too.  He eventually blames all his problems – the drugs, the crime – on a lady friend’s promiscuous behavior while he was in the service.  He takes great pains to describe all the readily-available sexual encounters he forwent to stay true to her, even claiming that he would not think of anyone else while masturbating.

But he does a great job of describing the misery of military service: the trauma is understated, focusing instead on doldrums and drudgery.

Oo!  Ta-ah!  Here come the Warrior Medics!

The refrain was to go on indefinitely, till we were signaled to stop.  That’s how it went.  And from that day on, whenever the company was called to attention (something that happened no less than a million times on a given day), the company cheer was to be recited in its entirety.  No exceptions.  To make matters worse, after a while it got to be expected that the guidon bearer would do the robot throughout the refrain.

So don’t ever join the fucking Army.

Soon, he is in Iraq.  His patrol relies upon interpreters to communicate with anyone they meet.

The patrol leader asked the mustache haji questions about what he was doing out so late and where he was coming from and where he was going.  An interpreter translated.

The car was clean.

The radio said to let the hajis go on their way.

The patrol leader said to the interpreter, “Tell that that from now on they must respect the curfew.  It’s for their own safety.  They could’ve been hurt out here tonight and we don’t want that to happen.”

And the interpreter said something.  As far as what he said, we’d have to trust him.  So that was that.

American soldiers don’t trust the interpreters, feeling sure their sympathies are secretly with the other side.  As it happens, the Iraqis don’t trust interpreters, either.  By translating, the interpreters keep everyone safe because they allow the two sides to communicate – sometimes words can resolve disputes, instead of bullets. 

But the interpreters themselves were endangered.  In Sympathy for the Traitor, literary translator Mark Polizzotti writes:

As recently as 2011, the Armed Forces Journal reported that interpreters in Iraq were “10 times more likely to die in combat than deployed American or international forces,” because neither the troops they were interpreting for nor the enemy they were speaking to had complete confidence in the fidelity of what they were relating.

Both sides assumed that the translators had some hidden agenda or secret loyalty to the other.  There is always the danger, when we speak for someone else, that our own interests will distort whatever message we’d been expected to deliver.

This happens even with my kids.  Our two-year-old says something to me, then I tell my spouse, “She’s worried because you said that … “

“No,” she interjects.

“What?”

mumble mumble garble digger mumble

Well, great, kid.  I misrepresented your intent, but only because I have no idea what you’re trying to say!

When translating literature, there’s an additional difficulty.  Most languages have ways to communicate common human experiences – what can I eat?, how much will it cost me?, how do I get there?  But literature draws upon the whole set of meanings and associations that link words to concepts.  In general, there won’t be a direct equivalent between languages.

In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Perry Link writes that:

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for _______?”

I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.  Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

And, beyond the fact that languages differ from each other, every reader is unique.  In “Does Talking About Books Make Us More Cosmopolitan?,” Tim Parks writes that:

To exist as a book, the pages with their letters and spaces need a reader.  We may think of books as unchanging material objects, but they only, as it were, happen when read; they have no absolute identity.  And the nature of that reading – an experience extended over many hours, then mulled over for many more, for the book does not cease to happen the moment we turn the last page – will depend, to a large degree, on who the reader is.

I grew up in the United States, speaking only English during the years when my brain would have absorbed new languages most easily, so I read a lot of literature in translation.  This is suboptimal, I know.  I would enjoy a richer experience of humanity if I could read more of our world’s literature in the original.  But my life would be dreadfully impoverished if not for the charitable exertions of many translators, because then I wouldn’t have a chance to read many stories at all.

I am personally unqualified to translate any piece of literature, or to judge how well a particular translation conveys the sense of the original, as a native speaker who lived contemporaneously to the author might have understood it.  But I am an experienced reader, and I am the reader’s premier expert on the way literature makes me feel.  Occasionally I find myself musing, despite not knowing how to speak the source language, whether I might rephrase certain passages.  Especially when primed with excellent notes, such as in Hayden Pelliccia’s review of two translations of the Iliad.

The Iliad opens with a word generally translated as “wrath,” yet this is the direct object of the first sentence.  In Greek, this makes sense, but in English we identify subjects and objects based upon their location in a sentence.  Pelliccia writes that

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language.

I couldn’t help but draft my own variant:

Wrath, hubric wrath of Achilles

As sung by the goddess

Wrought pain & devastation for the Achaians

Droves hurled to Hades, souls hewn from heroes

Their bodies leavings for dogs, a feast for vultures and crows –

So was His plan fulfilled

Set stirring in that moment

Agamemnon and Achilles

Parted in fury.

Obviously my second line fails to convey what Homer wanted – “sung” has a waft of fate to it, as though this story was preordained by the goddess, whereas Homer exhorts his muse to relate the tragedy after it occurred.  My failure is unsurprising, considering both my lack of Greek and Pelliccia’s assertion that every professional translation available to date has failed as well.  But the experience of translation was a success – another reader might well be dissatisfied with my lines, but creating them changed me for the better.

Although Ezra Pound could not read or speak Mandarin, his translation of classical poetry for Cathay had a huge influence on both his own writing and the subsequent work of other English-language poets.  Although Christopher Logue could not read or speak Greek, his adaptation of the Iliad is a fantastic work of poetry. 

Homer lavished attention on the myriad ways that humans might die upon a battlefield.  And in War Music, Logue interlaces Homeric myth with modern nightmare:

         Drop into it.

Noise so clamorous it sucks.

You rush your pressed-flower hackles out

To the perimeter.

         And here it comes:

That unpremeditated joy as you

The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip

Happy in danger in a dangerous place

Yourself another self you found at Troy –

Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid skum!

Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then again more wonderful

A bond no word or lack of words can break,

Love above love!

         And here they come again the noble Greeks,

Ido, a spear in one a banner in his other hand

Your life at every instant up for –

Gone.

         And, candidly, who gives a toss?

Dead: pointlessly, unmemorably dead.  By depicting the utter dehumanization of war – “who gives a toss?,” and female captives referred to with just the pronoun she, as in the opening scene when Achilles is enraged because Agamemnon announces that “I shall take his prize she” – he demonstrates just how precious life should be.

Logue knew no Greek, but his Iliad changed my life for the better.

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories.  Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are.  And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness is a nebulous concept, however.  There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do.  For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?

There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …

Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.

A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order.  Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence.  (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)

Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

But punishment invites further punishment.  Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.

Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies.  On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal.  The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.

But forgiveness is hard.  Sometimes people do terrible things.  After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people.  (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

#

Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation.  Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him.  The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him.  Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.

Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance.  The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts.  But what if many stray pieces were collected?  An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s.  The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from.  And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look!  Here is a body, victim of the attacks.  Here is a dead man we can honor properly.

In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out.  Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.

And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts.  In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):

“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.

“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

“But the killing had only begun.  At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of.  He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies.  The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame.  But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death?  The man who assaulted her?  That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach.  But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.

Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?

Do I blame myself?  As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others.  Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task.  Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”  This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue.  He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components.  This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.  The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.

On Brett Wagner’s “Apocalypse Blaze.”

On Brett Wagner’s “Apocalypse Blaze.”

A friend of mine, whom I first met when he was a student in my poetry class, was writing a post-apocalyptic novel.  There’s nuclear fallout; civilization crumbled.  A few people who haven’t yet caught the sickness are traveling together, fantasizing that they could restart the world.

When the bombs fell, governments collapsed.  Not immediately, but within the year.  The idea of government is predicated on people getting things done: fire fighters who might rescue you, police officers who might protect you, agencies who maintain the roads and ensure the water is safe to drink.  All of which requires money, which the government can print, but those slips of paper don’t mean much if no one will accept them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep.

“Hangrith,” that’s a beautiful word.  It’s archaic, means a realm in which you can expect security and peace.  Literally, “within the grasp of the king’s hand.”  While you are here, the government will protect you.

Within the grasp. Image by Enrico Strocchi on Flickr.

My friend was skeptical of the concept.  The king’s hand wasn’t cradling him, nor wielding a protective sword to keep orcs at bay; instead, my friend felt the gauntlet at his throat.  We’d met in jail, where he’d landed for addiction.  We volleyed emails after he left, while he was working on his novel.  And then he was in my class again.  Failed check-in.  Once you’re on probation, you’re given numerous extra laws to follow – people on probation don’t have the rights of other citizens, and minor transgressions, like missing a meeting or late payment for a fine, can land you back in jail.

And so it wasn’t difficult for my friend to imagine a world in which there was no government to rely upon.  To reach their destination, his heroes have to barter.  Which meant that, suddenly, my friend’s skills might be treated with respect.

After all, what would people be most willing to trade their food for in a world where waking life was a ravaged nightmare?

I took a patch with me underground when shit hit the fan.  Grew it hydroponically.  Cared for that shit like a baby.  Gave me something to do while I was in that shelter.  Weed is my money.”

Rampant economic inequality, fractured communities, and the spread of attention-grabbing toys that prevent us from making eye contact with one another – these have all contributed to the increase in drug use and addiction in contemporary America.  But the world could be worse.  After the blast, everyone would share the stress and trauma that people in poverty currently weather.

Methamphetamine lets people keep going despite crushing hopelessness and despair.  Meth use is widespread in many hollowed-out towns of the Midwest.  It’s a problematic drug.  At first, people feel good enough to get out of bed again.  But methamphetamine is metabolized so slowly that users don’t sleep.  Amphetamines themselves are not so toxic, but lack of sleep will kill you.  After five, ten, or twenty days awake, vicious hallucinations set in.  The drug is no longer keeping you alert and chipper enough to work – static crackles through your mind, crustacea skitter beneath your skin, shadows flit through the air.

They walked on, their path lit by the moon, among the wreckage of cars and piles of trash and useless electronics that were heaped up until they came to a concrete slab with a manhole in it.

This is my crib, where I sat out that day.”

Image by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

After the fall, experience in the drug trade lets people carve out a living.  And experience on the streets lets them survive.  All the ornate mansions, people’s fine wood and brick homes, have fallen into disarray.  Their inhabitants caught the sickness, or else died in the initial blast.

The survivors were people who slept outdoors, protected by thick concrete.  Not in bunkers; the blast came too suddenly for that.  Beneath bridges, tucked into safe alcoves, or down on dry ledges of the sewers.

My friend understood what it meant to make shelter where you could find it.

After Pops gave me the boot, I had to find a way to support myself; that’s when I learned my hustle.  And Penny here was one of my biggest customers.”

You used to be her dealer?”

Damn, dude, you make it sound dirty.  Weed ain’t no drug, it’s medicine.”

The heroes plan to go west, aiming for San Francisco.  When I was growing up, I had that dream too – I’d read a little about the Merry Pranksters and failed to realize how much the world might have changed.  People living around the Bay Area are still interested in polyamory and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice.  It was heartbreaking to see how racist and ruthless the people there were, especially since I’d expected to find a hippie paradise.

And so my spouse and I moved back to the Midwest. 

But I understand the dream – we’re surrounded by a lot of retrograde cudgleheads, here.  The only problem is that people are pretty similar everywhere else. 

An agrarian based society.  Where everyone works to grow what they eat.  The soil might be okay.  We won’t know all the affects of the radiation until later.”

Well, I know for sure it’s mutated animals near the hit zone.  I’ve seen all kindsa freaky shit.  People too.  It’s like the wild west again, where we’re going.”

The actual “wild west,” in U.S. history, was horrible.  Racism, genocide, misogyny.  But the ideal – a lawless land beyond the hangrith where a person’s ingenuity reaps fortune instead of jail time – might be enough to keep someone going.

And it worked, for a while.  My friend carved out months of sobriety.  He was volunteering at the community food kitchen.  In the late afternoons, he’d type using a computer at the public library.  He was always a very hopeful person; while he was in jail, he asked me to bring physics textbooks so he could use the time productively.  You can get a sense of his enthusiasm from his poetry:

“BIRD TOWN, TN”

by Brett Wagner

Picture this young boy

whose favorite color was the blank white

of a fresh page.  We went running once

on the spring green grass.

As I’ve heard it said,

“There’s nowhere to go but everywhere”

so we ran anywhere in this

jungle gym world.

Somewhere the clouds didn’t smother us

and the hills didn’t exhaust us,

where robins, blue jays, and cardinals sing

like boddhisattvas that have taken wing.

But then he slipped.  A first drink led to more.  He’d been in sober housing; he was kicked out, back onto the streets.  A friend, another New Leaf volunteer, gave him enough money for a few days in a hotel.

We had several cold snaps this winter.  Two nights after his hotel money ran out, temperatures dropped. 

We’d made plans for my friend to join us for a panel with Dave Eggers, where we’d discuss storytelling and incarceration. 

Instead, at 29 years old, Brett Wagner froze to death.  His novel is unfinished; his heroes will not build a new agrarian society.

They had grim odds.  Nuclear fallout is a killer.  But my friend was felled by the apocalypse that’s already upon us.

Header image for this post by akahawkeyefan on Flickr.

On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.

On consent.

On consent.

When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.

It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!

But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.

She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.

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In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”

But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.

Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”

Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.

And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.

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One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.

This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.

The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:

A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.

In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.

But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.

And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.

Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.

And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are so prevalent.

From Orenstein’s editorial:

When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.

When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.

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In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.

And Asghar’s poem is excellent:

Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –

that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open

Photo of Fatimah Asghar by S L O W K I N G.

Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.

People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.

Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:

Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card

& plastic & science & sway & say:
No.
Today, this body
is mine.