Thursday, December 14, 2006
Murder in Ipswich posted by Richard SeymourSo, anyway, Dr Infinite throws the London Paper down on the pub table, and the story says the killer may be "losing control". "Oh, d'you think? He's killed five people, for fuck's sake!" Yep, he's about to lose the shackles of civilisation and do something crazy. The misogynistic, prurient bile is not as salient as it once was, but it persists: prostitutes being described seriously as "vice girls" is one instance. And I don't want to be sanctimonious, but some of the contrived 'sick humour' going around (which I'm not about to republish), is another. And this insight into the psychology the killer brings you the expertise of Dr Ian Stephen who says:
"My worry is that his perception of women will change and he will see any woman who's out on the street at night on their own as a prostitute."
Oh, you mean he might start killing real people, then? For fuck's sake. Aside from the sinister implications of that offhand statement, there is the pointmissingness of it. Without getting into the crimmo psychology, the attack on these women isn't just an attack on prostitutes but is an act of violence against women as such. Based on a bit of common sense and what the experts say, it looks as if the decision to target prostitutes reflects a) the choice of an 'acceptable' target for male rage and b) the attempt to discipline femininity, as in Thou Shalt Not.
Salma Yaqoob pointed out a while back on Question Time that the issue of prostitution is fundamentally one about the commodification of women, and the already implicit violence in that process (which is an extension of the logic of the commodification of labour, which is underwritten by the implicit violence of the state). It is a form of sexual slavery, and not only because the vast preponderance of those who get involved start as children, and are usually addicts to boot. Even where the motive is pecuniary, you cannot seriously claim that people working in that trade are free. That would be to take the bourgeois ideology of 'free labour' to an absurd conclusion - reductio ad absurdum, in fact.
The fact that the demand for prostitution is increasing tells us something about the parlous condition of gender relations in this country. The growing number of clubs like Spearmint Rhino opening up across the UK, the 1990s spurt in 'lads mags', the sexualisation of especially young girls in popular culture - all are an expression, through market transactions, of the oppression of women, of the massive, fundamental and daily material disadvantages that women face in this society. It isn't only the 30% pay cut you take for being a woman; it isn't only the specific way in which 'labour flexibility' (the massive growth in part time, low paid, temporary work) and cuts to benefits affect women in particular; it isn't only the huge burden of domestic labour. These do explain in part why women are driven into sexual slavery, and into being objects of fantasy for young male consumers, but they are also expressions of something more fundamental. The social relations between men and women, rooted in a traditional family structure that is under real stress, condition every other relationship between them (between us, not to leave myself out of the picture). The family unit has been the chief way in which the reproduction of labour has been guaranteed under industrial capitalism. The woman's subordinate role in the household and in society has ensured that the exploited male worker can go home from an exhausting, brain-numbing day, and have time to recuperate in a small, controlled environment in which he can consider himself the boss. However, the breakdown of that structure, partially a result of real advances made by women, and partially the result of social atomisation and a disinclination of populations in late capitalist society to sustain these forms of comity, has not come about in a way that frees women. On the contrary, the entry of women into the labour market has, as noted, seen the reproduction of traditional structures of oppression through the market.
This is global. It is emphatically not simply a matter of crazy fundamentalists, although conservative religious doctrine is an enabling factor. Only a short while ago, we had the spectacle of a man shooting up Amish schoolgirls, nominally because of a 20-year-old grudge. It wasn't so long ago that a man in Staten Island engaged in a custody dispute decided not only to kill the spouse with whom he was battling in the courts, but also another women with whom he had fathered a child. Just because. The response of the father of one victim was to decry on national television the encroachment of liberals, the breakdown of Christianity, the anti-family agenda, and all the rest of it. This conservative reaction to murderous women-hatred was to insist that a return to traditional, 'organic' modes of oppression would protect women, which is structurally homologous to how religious conservatives in Afghanistan react when confronted with the rape of women there. And of course imperialism brings no liberation, at the very least because practically every imperialist adventure involves a massive escalation of sexual slavety, often child sex rings, whether in Bosnia or Kosovo or Haiti or elsewhere. The American military is sustained wherever it goes by the deliberate enslavement of women. More fundamentally, it is because US imperialism wants to reproduce and intensify the structures which sustain the oppression of women.
The oppression of women, as I've tried to indicate, illuminates and intersects with every other axis of oppression and exploitation in society. And since prostitution, as an aspect of that oppression, is itself a type of commodified labour, the response should at least in part be to show solidarity with a vulnerable group of workers, to demand that they be protected by the law, not criminalised. It is outrageous that the police are begging for information but have not as yet offered any form of immunity from prosecution to sex workers who come forward. The English Collective of Prostitutes is demanding an amnesty, and we as socialists should support that as a minimum. If you want to catch this bastard, stop criminalising his victims. And more generally, legalise prostitution, recognise fully the unions formed by sex workers, and outlaw Page 3.
I hope that's not too obtuse.