Note to Bob Herbert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

Herbert’s column in the NY Times this morning reprises his claims about the misogyny of prostitution and pornography but in a different context this time and with some unwittingly apt parallels.

Readers of this blog know that I have a very different analysis of sex work, one that doesn’t assume that prostitution or pornography are inherently and essentially misogynistic, so I won’t reprise that here. (You can get a glimpse of some of that here and here) Instead, I’d like to point out some of the things I think make Herbert’s analysis here especially weak, including some false assumptions about causality, and unfortunate parallels to sports and the military.

Let me start with the false assumptions about causality. Herbert seems to be asserting that the existence of pornography and prostitution, as evidenced by legal brothels in Nevada, serve as evidence of the misogyny in American culture that then leads to the epidemic of violence against women. Wrong. Are more wives and girlfriends murdered by their partners in Germany or the Netherlands where prostitution is legal? No. I would say it is our culture of violence that leads to violence of all sorts. (Note: I am not asserting a direct connection between watching violent movies or playing violent video games and committing violent acts. I am suggesting that in a culture where violence and aggression are rewarded, as they are here, that you get more violence and aggression.)

The other problem with Herbert’s argument is his assertion that sex work is somehow uniquely problematic. The fact that he uses sex work and pornography as the sine qua non of misogyny tells us that he sees those things as uniquely and irredeemably degrading and dehumanizing to women. One of the bits of evidence Herbert shows us — again — from his Nevada trip to support his claim that the brothels there degrade women (and I have no doubt that some are run in degrading ways) is that the women must answer to a bell. Now others have previously pointed out that school kids answer to bells, workers in factories and other locations often answer to devices like bells or buzzers. I bet even Mr. Herbert has a Blackberry or some other device that vibrates or rings in his pocket, and causes a Pavlovlian response where he hastens to comply with some instruction from his employer. Oppressive? Yes. Unique to sex work? Not a chance.

In fact, Herbert mentions the men at the Jets games, which made me think about the way that professional athletes, while much better compensated than sex workers, are also selling the use of their bodies in dangerous circumstances, governed by whistles and commands, for the entertainment of others and the profit of a few immensely wealthy owners and media corporations.

Herbert also raises the very real — and too little examined — problem of sexual violence in the military, but again he misses an important connection. He completed passes over the degradation rituals common to military life. Think drill instructors shouting insults at new recruits as they train. Think chants about blood and killing. Think hazing-type rituals as groups are formed and as their members shuffle in and out.

Think leasing your body to a male-dominated institution for a period of years to be used as the leaders of that institution wish. They can send you to another country. They can separate you from your family. They can command you to kill and send you on missions where your chances of being killed yourself are incredibly high. And you can’t refuse without breaking the rules.

Think your only option for escape, if they don’t want to let you go, is to commit the crime of desertion.

It is all the more clear now that Herbert opposes prostitution and pornography specifically because they are centered on sexual transactions. But degradation and dehumanization in work are problems that are not unique to the sex industry, and the sex industry ought not be uniquely condemned for them.

The Times ran an article on Sunday about the violent crimes committed by returning vets and noted that about a third were committed against spouses, girlfriends, kids or other family members. If Herbert wants to understand the causes of violence against women he needs to look beyond pornography and begin examining the toxic aspects of conventional masculinity — including the valorization of violence and aggression — and he also needs to remind himself of the economic exploitation and oppression and hardship facing so many families, including those of returning vets, that cause so much stress and anxiety in people’s lives. If he understood the intersection of those problems he’d be much closer to understanding how the misogyny that does still percolate through American culture puts women at great risk.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at the community site Sex in the Public Square dot Org. If you haven’t visited, check it out!

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Filed under Bob Herbert, culture, feminism, pornography, public discourse, sex, sex work

3 responses to “Note to Bob Herbert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

  1. sunbathinglizard

    just stumbled across your blog. and i especially like this post – it can not be pointed out enough that the lines that are conventionally drawn between working in the sexindustry and working in other places are strange ones – everybody working in an office is also renting out his /her body… it seems that the fact that the sex in sex-worker seems to cloud the ability of a clear analysis. but then your post has been very clear – so what am i blabbing on here? ; )
    so – just wanted to say that i appreciate your work here.
    cheers, sunbathinglizard

  2. Thanks, sunbathinglizard. If you like what you read here, I do hope you’ll surf over to — it’s got more like-minded folks and you’re welcome to “blab on” there as well.


  3. perhaps better evidence of misogyny would be the number of women columnists relative to the number of men columnists for the New York Times….