Students and sex work

Research conducted by Kingston University, London shows that more students are turning to sex work to pay their fees and meet the costs of student living. The study claims that the figure has risen by 50% in the past seven years, coinciding with the introduction of tuition fees. The article (and the reader comments that follow it) assume that it is only female students who are working in the sex industry. I’m not sure if the study also looked at male students. If it didn’t, it should have done. (For what it’s worth, I reckon uncovering that kind of data would be harder, since working as a male prostitute is surely even more taboo than being a female sex worker.) Read more here.

Women of Color and the Academy

Campus Lockdown:

Women of Color Negotiating the Academic Industrial Complex

   The Campus Lockdown conference will center women of color in the academic industrial complex. 

We will consider its structural constraints, as well as the implications of our scholarship.

Saturday, March 15, 200810:30 – 5:00pmMichigan UnionUniversity of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Speakers include:
  • Piya Chatterjee, University of California, Riverside
  • Angela Davis, University of California, Santa Cruz (via teleconference)
  • Rosa Linda Fregoso, University of Southern California
  • Ruth Gilmore, University of Southern California
  • Fred Moten, Duke University
  • Clarissa Rojas, San Francisco State University
  • Haunani-Kay Trask, University of Hawai’i
Schedule at a glance:
          10:30 – 12:00   Panel I:  Women of Color in the Academic Industrial Complex
          1:30 – 3:30      Panel II:  Why Women of Color Scholarship?  Social Justice, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s Studies
          3:45 – 5:00      Closing Event

The registration deadline is February 29, 2008.  For more information & to register online, please visit

On Dogwhistles

Zuzu at Feministe has a fascinating discussion of Dogwhistles, a very important concept to those interested in the role and effects of biases.  Her focus is on some really troubling remarks by Obama about Clinton. I think the Dogwhistle concept is ripe for some philosophical discussion.

The whole point of dogwhistles in politics is to send a message to a target audience that goes over the heads of most people, because those people might be offended or turned off if you came out and said it. One way the going-over-the-heads-of-most-people bit is accomplished is to speak in code, such as when George Bush suddenly blurted out something about the Dred Scott decision during a debate with John Kerry, in response to a question about abortion. A whole lot of people were scratching their heads about that one, but he had a target audience, and they understood *If elected to another term, I promise that I will nominate Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.*Bush couldn’t say that in plain language, because it would freak out every moderate swing voter in the country, but he can say it in code, to make sure that his base will turn out for him. Anti-choice advocates have been comparing Roe v. Wade with Dred Scott v. Sandford for some time now. There is a constant drumbeat on the religious right to compare the contemporary culture war over abortion with the 19th century fight over slavery, with the anti-choicers cast in the role of the abolitionists.Another way to send your message to your target audience while maintaining deniability is to go the wink-wink-nudge-nudge route, where you know that many people not in your target audience will pick up your meaning, but because you’ve crafted your statement to be facially innocuous, anyone who objects will be accused of being hysterical, hypersensitive, or overreacting. The second option is the one that Barack Obama went with when he said while campaigning in Wisconsin: 

This is, I understand Senator Clinton periodically when she is feeling down launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal.  

And that’s exactly what’s happened — all over the place, when anyone has objected to this statement as a sexist dogwhistle, they’ve been accused of overreacting. Of trivializing *real* sexism. Of seeing things that aren’t really there. Of stretching. Of ignoring context… Melissa McEwan has made the point many times that Obama has been praised for his rhetorical skills, for his ability to craft a message using just the right words. On the surface, this statement appears to be saying merely that Clinton goes negative when she’s behind. But then you look at the words he chose to make that statement: Periodically. Feeling down. And you have to ask yourself: Why did he choose those words to make this point? And the answer, unfortunately, is to send the message that Clinton is a big girly girl ruled by her hormones. This isn’t the first time he or one of his surrogates has used this kind of coded language to remind voters that Clinton is a woman. Among other things, he’s dismissed Clinton’s experience in the White House as having tea; he’s said that Clinton’s “claws come out”…

I think this whole Dogwhistle concept is very important, and that there might be several forms of it, which might well lead to different assessments of culpability in different cases. Here are some that occur to me, with respect to sexist Dogwhistles:

  • The Dogwhistle is a deliberately crafted effort to appeal to audience’s sexism.
  • The Dogwhistle is an unconscious product of the the speaker’s sexism.
  • The Dogwhistle is not a product of sexism (perhaps the speaker is from a subculture in which the phrase carries different connotations), but it nonetheless appeals to the audience’s sexism.
  • Not sure about this one: The Dogwhistle is the product of the speaker’s cultural associations, but it is not a product of sexism. (This would depend heavily on formulating a definition of sexism that is restrictive enough to make this possible.)
  • What do you think?

    Vibrators VS Guns

    In a follow-up to our previous post on Texas’s new acceptance of vibrators, check out this astounding photo and caption regarding the story, from the Washington Post (H/T Feministing).

    Vibrators or Guns?

    Should buying sex toys be as easy as buying guns?

    My questions range from the nerdily linguistic to the cultural (I’m sure you can tell which is which):

    (1) I’m sure this is my new favourite example of *something*.  It feels a lot like presupposition, given the way that a bare ‘yes’ and ‘no’ both seem like the wrong answer. This is just like the classic example, “Have you stopped robbing banks?”  (OK, that’s not precisely the classic example…)  But note the way that it differs. One can perfectly well answer it by saying either “No, because it should be much easier to buy sex toys than guns;” or “Yes; and in fact it should be even easier to buy sex toys than guns.” But while “Have you stopped robbing banks?” can be answered with “No, because I never started”, it can’t be answered with “Yes; in fact I never started.”  Is this difference a significant one? Another thought I’ve had is that *it should be easy to have guns* might be merely an implicature of the question.  (Implicatures carried by questions is an under-explored topic, but David Braun has a nice recent paper about it.) This would explain the feeling I have that *it should be easy to buy guns* is more weakly suggested than *I have robbed banks*.  I’m very rusty on presupposition, so thoughts from those more up on it are much appreciated!  

    (2) As readers may know, I’m a US expat living in the UK. I’ve gradually learned that newspapers here make jokes– that is, just slip them into regular stories. This is something that didn’t happen in US newspapers last time I checked. Has it started happening now? Or is the question being asked in earnest? I’d be grateful for guidance from My Fellow Americans. If it is being asked in earnest, ‘culture shock’ doesn’t begin to capture what I’m feeling.

    Is Your Department Women-Friendly?

    There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog and others about ways in which philosophy departments are unfriendly to women.  But some lucky people are in departments that *are* friendly to women (at least in some ways), and this is well worth knowing about, recognising, and celebrating.  SWIP-UK has an initiative to do just that– primarily by recognising specific intiatives, but also by recognising whole departments, if there seems an outstanding case. Does your department do something women-friendly?  If so, let SWIP-UK know, so that they can recognise it.  Aside from being well-deserved recognition, it may help to inspire others.  The call for nominations can be found here. Note that this is open to non-UK departments as well as UK ones.

    Stanley Fish says Identity Politics can be rational (+ addition)

    and his supporting point is important enough that I’m not going to argue about details (unlike here and here and here), though we’ll see that his conclusion leaves us with some questions.

    Fish distinguishes between a thin and a thick invocation of race or gender to support one’s vote.  The thin reason says you will vote for someone because they are like you.  But a thick reason appeals to interests, ones that – to judge from his examples – have a place in the political sphere.  His example of an African-American’s thick reason for voting for an African-American:

    Yet every African American – conservative or liberal, rich or poor, barely educated or highly educated – meets with obstacles to his or success and mobility that are all the more frustrating because they are structural (built into the culture’s ways of perceiving) rather than official. To the non- African American these obstacles will be more or less invisible, especially in a country where access to opportunity is guaranteed by law. It makes sense, therefore, that an African American voter could come to the conclusion that an African American candidate would be likely to fight for changes that could remove barriers a white candidate might not even see. A vote given for that reason would be a vote based on identity, but it would be more than a mere affirmation of fellowship (he’s one of mine and I have to support him); it would be a considered political judgment as to which candidate will move the country in a preferred direction.

    In addition to the relief to see someone in such a visible arena actually describe one of the problems keeping racism in place – that the inequities are not even always visible to others – he provides a contrast that has seemed to me to be lacking in the discussion. And that is the contrast between voting for someone just because they are of one’s group, race or gender, and voting because they will represent one’s interests in a way the others seem less likely to.

    But should we vote on interests that are the product of one’s ‘identity’? Women are now over 50% of the US population, but still you might feel that if you are voting in a US primary, you should have more impersonal interests at heart. (And of course I hope that elections in other countries will simlarly reflect their population’s diversity, as some definitely have led the way in doing.) Fish’s response is that there is no alternative to voting on interests:

    What this means is that the ritual deprecation of “special interests” makes no sense. All interests are special interests – proceed from some contestable point of view – and none is “generally human.” And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological [thick]and not merely tribal [thin], constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

    Fish’s claim is not obviously true. The 18th century philosophy Hume argued that we need to have a more general point of view toward humanity in order to act morally, and it seems true that we might want a candidate who will take action to stop the murders in Darfur even though that is perhaps not in our special interests in any intuitive sense. At the same time, his point that all interests proceed from some contestable point of view appears plausible, despite the efforts of some philosophers to find a point of view that isn’t contestable.

    So Fish leaves us with some questions. My own view of Fish’s arguments is that voting on identity might be imperfect, but it might well be the best one can do. Certainly, feminist thought has made me (and surely many others) wary of assuming one has found an impersonal point of view. At least in many people’s hands, the impersonal point of view is what leaves the inequities invisible.

    Addition:  Since writing this, I’ve wished I had paid more attention to the word “interests.”  I’m very inclined to the Humean (and others’) view that we are interested in others’ welfare and that it is a basic interest, not to be explained in terms of other interests.  The interest might be limited; we may need to work on expanding it to all human beings, but it is not a self-regarding interest.  Fish’s idea of interest might be quite different; he might really think that all reasons are really self-regarding.  That puts a quite different take on his arguments.

    There’s recent research that suggests even young infants care about others’ welfare; have a look at: “Social evaluation by pre-verbal infants” by Kiley Hamlin et al in Nature, 2007, p. 557.

    Sex-reassignment surgery and US companies

    Many of us do not think of large US financial institutions as hotbeds of progressive social change.   We all know that the rush over the last decade to form “business ethics” courses was in response to a very visible need.  And many of us worry that the plight of the planet and its people is tied  to the practices of these large companies.

    Still, we also think that progressive social practices just work better.  If that’s so, wouldn’t these companies get on board pretty quickly?  Indeed.

    From the NY Times:

    Goldman Sachs bankers and traders enjoy famously big bonuses and, this year, a little extra job security thanks to their firm’s ability to steer clear of the worst effects of the subprime mortgage debacle.

    Now, they can add something else to the list of reasons why life is great at Goldman: free sex-change surgery.

    … A recent survey of more than 1,000 employers conducted by the Human Rights Campaign found that many banks, law firms and other large companies have added at least partial coverage of transgender treatments to their medical plans.

    Bank of America, Wachovia and Deutsche Bank are among the firms who now cover such treatments to some extent, said. Goldman and Bank of America will cover the cost of the actual operation. At Wachovia, sex reassignment surgery is considered elective, and so the operation is not covered but related prescriptions and post-operative counseling are.

    But here comes the kicker; can you imagine many philosophy departments professing the goals in the first para below, or even considering the link made in the second?

    Goldman’s enhanced medical coverage is part of the firm’s efforts to “recruit and retain a more diverse workforce,” a Goldman spokesperson told Fortune.

    The expanded coverage may cost employers a bit more in the short term, but it’s a small price to pay to attract and keep top talent, Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, told Fortune. “[A]ny employer that does not clearly include gender identity in their employment policies may send a signal that they’re not supportive,” she said.

    Cool Cat Cab and a more serious note in Black History Month

    Cab Calloway, featured earlier, was an exciting performer who epitomized what “cool cat” means.  As I searched for videos of him and others who performed during the earlier stages of film history, I was also aware that February is Black History Month in the US, and that, because of Barak Obama’s campaign, the US is having some hopefully beneficial discussions of prejudice, both racism and sexism.

    Because of this perhaps, I was especially worried about putting up clips of  Calloway and other Black performers because I was also aware that part of understanding what was going on in the scenes involves at least some awareness of what is borrowed from, and what is imposed by, White values.  And one wants to be able to consider how much the Blacks in some movie are presented as seen by the White gaze.  I’m not sure that my reading of women in 1930’s and 40’s films is all that accurate, but I became aware of the fact that I was pretty clueless about how to understand early films involving Black people.

     Not entirely clueless, however.  There are some very obvious features, such as the restrictions in social status that Black roles signify.  The Blacks are portrayed as a doorman or butler not just because the plot needs one, but because that’s the highest status to which Blacks more generally are confined, one suspects.**  One consequence is that magnificant performances are painful or sad to watch.  That shouldn’t mean, I hope, that we want to lose track of them.  So here are two of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who may have been the inspiration for the song “Mr Bojangles.”  He’s often said to have been the greatest tap dancer.  He did die penniless, and Ed Sullivan is rumored to have paid for his funeral, but New York turned out for a final tribute to him; he was given “a hero’s farewell“.

    The last clip is of the very remarkable Ethel Waters.  A comment on YOUTUBE says

    this was a racial protest song… Look at Waters’ expressions as she says “Darkies never cry, who would ever hear our sad lament, live to laugh, to die, that’s the way we’ve learned to be content…” Turns the whole “contented black folk” stereotype on its head, while ostensibly stating its case. Wonderful early film performance by Ethel Waters.

    ** Readers may notice that in the first clip, Robinson is portraying a performer portraying a doorman, and not himself portraying a doorman. But clearly in a culture that represses an under-group, having a member of the group perform the role of an actor performing an exalted would is as unacceptable as having them portray the exalted person directly. There are interesting questions here about the logic of the situation.