Monday, September 22, 2014

When People You Respect Break Bread with the Far Right

For the most part, it's easy to condemn the Religious Right when it engages in disturbing activism, such as attacks on LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights. What do you do, however, when the Religious Right collaborates with people you respect on important issues?

The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation is one such collaboration that leaves me with mixed feelings. According to its website, the coalition was created to address pornography, help victims of sexual exploitation, and allow activists to network and share resources.

I believe that we as a society need to have public conversations about unethical practices in adult entertainment, the harms of depicting violence against women in porn, and the consequences of commodifying sexuality. We need to have public conversations about what healthy, egalitarian sexuality looks like, and how we can promote an enlightened sexual ethic for all people. In that sense, I respect efforts to foster that public conversation and aid those who have been ill-treated by the adult entertainment industry. However, when organizations with dubious reputations join that effort, I find myself wondering what their motives are.

The website for the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation has a list of member organizations, which includes both feminist groups and right-wing groups. The feminist organization Stop Porn Culture was among its members. Unfortunately, so were countless Religious Right Organizations, including  C-FAM, American Family Association, Family Research Council, Family Watch International, Illinois Family Institute, and Concerned Women for America. I was alarmed to see a feminist organization listed among so many right-wing groups. What's an organization like you doing with a crowd like this? I thought.

In May 2014, the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation took part in an anti-pornography conference in Tysons Corner, VA. Hosted by Morality in Media and PornHarms, the conference featured well-known anti-violence and anti-pornography activists. Gail Dines, president of Stop Porn Culture and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, delivered workshops entitled "Sex, Identity, and Intimacy in a Porn Culture" and "Winning the Argument: Messaging to Young Adults". Cordelia Anderson and Sharon Cooper, board members of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, participated in a panel discussion on "Pornography and the Colonization of Childhood".

I was pleased that Dines, Anderson, and Cooper were among the speakers, since they have worked hard to confront violence against women and children. Unfortunately, alongside these advocates were activists with less savory backgrounds. Among them was Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International and one of several anti-gay activists profiled in the Human Rights Campaign report Export of Hate. Slater was scheduled to deliver a workshop entitled "Exposing and Halting the International Sexual Rights Agenda: There is Something Everyone Can Do". Laila Mickelwait, manager of policy and public affairs at Exodus Cry (an anti-trafficking ministry), took part in a panel discussion entitled "Inside Porn: What Is the Real Truth?" Exodus Cry is a department of the International House of Prayer, a New Apostolic Reformation ministry with a history of anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice, and patriarchal rhetoric.

Moreover, the conference was co-sponsored by right-wing groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, and Family Watch International. The Family Research Council was one of several organizations that provided scholarships for attendees.

When I saw advocates I respect on the conference program alongside Religious Right voices, my heart sank. I oppose trafficking, exploitation and adult entertainment that dehumanizes its participants, but I do not trust the Religious Right to tackle those problems without ulterior motives. Can organizations with long histories of anti-LGBTQ and patriarchal messaging be trusted to promote an inclusive vision of healthy, egalitarian sexuality? I don't think they can.

I struggle to understand why otherwise enlightened activists are breaking bread with Religious Right groups. Is it because these issues are so important that they can't afford to be picky about allies? Is it because they seek to promote anti-trafficking, anti-violence discourses wherever they can, even in right-wing quarters? Is it because left-leaning organizations are reluctant to engage in anti-pornography efforts, compelling anti-porn activists to seek allies elsewhere? I don't know.

I worry that alliances with right-wing organizations could come back to haunt these well-meaning activists. The world is becoming increasingly aware of the Religious Right's activities at home and abroad, and well-meaning organizations that collaborate with the Religious Right may be criticized for those collaborations later. Furthermore, if the Religious Right dominates the public conversation on adult entertainment and sexuality, they could shape the conversation in unpleasant ways. I could imagine that conversation veering away from how to create a healthy, egalitarian vision of sexuality, and veering toward a heteronormative, patriarchal vision. In our efforts to tackle social problems, we must be discerning about who we embrace as allies.


  1. The anti-porn and anti-prostitution cranks are totalitarians by nature, regardless of what rationalizations they have for being against those things. The Christian Right and the gay-bashers are their natural allies because they have the same mentality.

    If merely depicting violence in porn led to violence in reality, Japan would have the highest rate of sexual violence in the world instead of one of the lowest (I've seen stuff in Japanese porn you wouldn't believe). All the actual data from every country show that the correlation goes the other way, which is really what you'd expect. Human sexuality has a lot of very dark impulses associated with it (and this is true also in primitive societies and in ancient times and even in other ape species, so it's nothing to do with modern culture), and it's much better to help those impulses express themselves through fantasy than actual behavior.

    The best thing we could do for sex workers is to decriminalize prostitution so that it can be regulated and workers given the full protection of the law like in any other occupation.

    "Stop Porn Culture"? "Pornography and the Colonization of Childhood"? Even the names and rhetoric are enough of a clue that these people are exactly the same in spirit as the people who are always warning us about the threat to society and children posed by evil faggots. To be surprised at the two groups collaborating is like being surprised at two tentacles of the same octopus working together.

    1. Infidel -- I disagree. First, prostitution does have a dark side, and those who draw attention to it are not automatically "cranks". While some ministries might have ulterior motives, there are plenty of reputable organizations that do good work. Polaris Project, GEMS, Thistle Farm, and Samaritan Women are among the groups doing positive work.

      I've written about the topic of trafficking more in depth here:

      Second, when sexual violence is depicted and celebrated in adult entertainment, it normalizes such violence, which is cause for concern. As for the argument that pornography decreases violence against women, evidence indicates the opposite. Research shows a correlation between porn consumption and sexual harassment perpetration among youth.

      While the relationship is complex and other variables do come into play, research also shows a correlation between porn consumption and sexual aggression.

      Research also shows that subjects who consume porn are more likely to believe rape myths and less likely to engage in bystander intervention.

      As for Japan allegedly having low rates of violence against women, a World Health Organization study found that 1 out of 7 Japanese women have experienced intimate partner sexual assault or domestic violence.

      Other studies show that domestic violence and sexual assault are significant problems for Japanese women. In one study, two-thirds of female respondents reported experiencing psychological, physical, or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. All that hentai over there is NOT preventing violence against women.

      Regarding the blog post, the anti-porn and anti-trafficking activists, at least the feminist-aligned ones, don’t strike me as rampaging totalitarians. (The ones from the Religious Right are a different story.) From what I've heard and read from them, they're genuinely concerned about violence against women. I think that some of those activists have made a deal with the devil by partnering with the Religious Right, however.

  2. Both your post and Infidel's comment have really made me think, Ahab. I don't know the answer to your question about whether this collaboration is a positive development or a red flag. Or, as Infidel says, are the two groups different appendages of what is fundamentally the same monster?

    It is clear that porn exploits and harms women (especially, but not exclusively). I also agree that we as a society need to promote healthier attitudes about sexuality. And of course, sex trafficking is a serious and seemingly growing problem that must be stopped.

    I can only speak from my own experience so here is a little different spin on these issues. Some background first.

    As you know I grew up in a very sexually repressed culture (Mormonism). Frequent and repeated topics of Mormon sermons are chastity/sexual purity and avoiding/overcoming porn addictions. Yet porn and unmarried pregnancies are both huge problems in the Mormon community.

    Porn is also big business among the sexually repressed. For example, Utah has the highest per capita online porn subscription rate in the nation.

    Think of it this way. Mormon women are conditioned to feel ashamed of their bodies from the time they are very young children. It is their job to control men's thoughts (and keep their d***s in their pants) by not showing too much skin or displaying too much femininity. Although some of these and other sexist attitudes are changing at a glacial pace and only as a matter of political expediency, the idea that "it is the woman's fault" is still very much alive and entrenched in Mormon culture.

    From an ex-Mormon perspective and as a lawyer, I have observed literally dozens of criminal cases in Utah courts involving forcible sexual abuse of children. The defendants are overwhelmingly devout Mormons on the surface, but with dark secrets that finally come to light when they are charged with the crimes.

    Another angle. I know several men and women who were either not raised in Mormonism or they've left it behind. They have very healthy attitudes about their own sexuality and, by and large, they are not interested in porn. They have better and more interesting things to do with their time.

    So it seems apparent to me that when something natural (not porn, but healthy sexuality) is considered taboo, that's when people develop unhealthy obsessions that can end up creating innocent victims and other societal harms. I don't know the numbers but I would put some money on the proposition that most porn subscribers are religious men. Eliminate unhealthy sexual repression and much of the market would dry up.

    So back to your question. Maybe what these groups have in common is their misguided focus on porn as the problem and exploiter, instead of as a symptom of the real malady: The fear and demonization of a healthy sexuality.

    Check out some of the right-leaning (understatement alert) comments following this article for a taste of what I'm talking about:

    Just thinking out loud and rambling now ...

    1. Agi Tater -- I remember when that study came out, and Utah was at the top of the list. So much for their squeaky clean image, huh?

      I agree that there is a relationship between unhealthy or repressed sexuality and porn consumption. We live in a society that is paradoxically fascinated by sex and uncomfortable with talking about it. If people talked about sexuality, accepted it as natural, and cultivated sound values around it -- consent, mutuality, equality, fun -- it could do wonders.

  3. "Can organizations with long histories of anti-LGBTQ and patriarchal messaging be trusted to promote an inclusive vision of healthy, egalitarian sexuality? I don't think they can." Nor do I, Ahab.

    1. Donna -- I worry that these Religious Rights groups will replace one unhealthy vision with another.

  4. Sorry Ahab, you are being naive. They do not care about trafficking. The Christian Right has been around for 40 years and they never lifted a finger to stop trafficking in all that time. Then suddenly, a few years ago, their concern emerged. But not for all trafficking victims. No, sir. If a woman is trafficked for slave labor, they aren't interested. If children are trafficked for organ harvesting, not their problem. If babies are trafficked to families who want to "buy" a son or a daughter, these groups couldn't care less. No, for some odd reason, only sexual trafficking matters.

    Bottom line: They are only using the issue as a framing device, a way to suppress the sexual activity of adults. They use "trafficking" as a way to curtail legal pornography and prostitution in the same way they use the crisis of fatherless homes as a way to attack marriage equality or the way that conservatives generally use a feigned concern for "jobs" as a reason to eliminate the estate tax. While in theory, you could collaborate with the Religious Right where there is a genuine alignment of interests on a particular issue. But in this case, it is fake. Because of that, folks genuinely concerned about trafficking, you won't get anything out of a collaboration with these people.

    1. Anonymous -- Please read my post more carefully. The point of the post was that the Religious Right is bad news, and secular anti-trafficking and anti-porn groups collaborate with the Religious Right at their peril.

      I've seen Religious Right groups use the language of trafficking for ignoble purposes. For instance, FRC slammed Planned Parenthood with flimsy accusations of facilitating trafficking a few years back. I don't believe for a second that FRC was concerned about trafficking; they just wanted to tarnish Planned Parenthood.

      For me, the criteria for whether an anti-trafficking group is legitimate revolves around whether it directly or indirectly helps victims. Regarding service provider groups, do they help trafficking victims find housing, medical care, legal advocacy, etc. without proselytizing? For other types of anti-trafficking groups, do they contribute sound research, policy recommendations, etc. to the field? If they do that, no problem. It's groups that use anti-trafficking rhetoric with ulterior motives that I have a problem with.


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