Feminist Batwoman Explains It All: Quit Calling Things “First World Problems”

Cell phones and makeup aren't exclusive to the US and Europe. Starvation and police brutality aren't just "third-world problems" either.

Cell phones and makeup aren’t just things here in the US. Starvation and police brutality aren’t just “third-world problems” either.

I have always loathed the term “First-World problems” for more reasons than can be expressed properly here. This post by Feminist Batwoman on Tumblr is a thing of beauty that really articulates how it enshrines some really bad misconceptions about what life is like in the so-called “third world.”:

If you’re ever tempted to say “first world problems,” do me a favor, and pull down a map. Tell me EXACTLY where the “third world” is. Make sure you correctly identify Switzerland as part of the third world, and Turkey as part of the First World. Don’t forget that Djibouti is a part of the first world.

Literally sit down and learn what “third world” means and why people from nonwestern nations  think it’s a total bullshit term.

Second: you think people in the so-called third world don’t care about shit like makeup, and love, and technology? You think they don’t care about internet harassment? You think women over there don’t care about street harassment? You think they don’t care about fashion and clothes? You think they don’t care about music and video games?

Because THEY DO.

Right now, there is a woman in burundi teaching herself how to do a cut-crease eyeshadow look. Guaranteed.

“Third world” nations have fashion shows and fashion magazines. They care about street harassment. They care about the internet. They play video games. They know more about anime than your sorry ass every will. And the idea of “first world problems,” which makes it sound like all women in “third world” nations are dealing with starvation, rape, war, acid attacks etc.

Is bullshit.



Women in Iran spend shitloads of money on makeup. Women in the DRC don’t just care about rape. Rape – the ONE THING westerners can be expected to know about women in Congo-Kinshasa – ranks NUMBER FOUR on the list of issues women in Congo want addressed. Political participation is number 1. Economic empowerment is number 2. Women in India are passionate about information technology, and you know what they hate? Coming to the United States, where Indian women in STEM are suddenly considered LESS GOOD than their male colleagues.  My friends in Senegal taught ME how to download movies off the internet. Zimbabwe has a fashion week.  [More. Read the whole fucking thing.]

The terms “first world” and “third world” are confusing, especially since they’ve been functionally obsolete in their original meaning since the end of the Cold War. They evolved as a way to describe the divisions between capitalist and communist countries and their respective allies: The “First World” was the United States and its allied countries; the “Second World” was the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, and the countries aligned with them; the “Third World” was the countries that were aligned with neither. Just as elections are fought over the moderate middle, the Cold War was fought mostly in the Third World, especially when it turned into actual war, instead of the metaphorical kind.

Now, its meaning is rather ambiguous at best, and functionally means little more than “countries that are brown and poor.”

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Better In Context

 Every time I see something that really makes me cringe on that blog, it’s got his byline on it. Today, Terry’s trying to defend Sam Harris using the “out of context” argument. That can certainly be a valid argument, but it’s also something that a lot of people use as a weasel excuse when someone calls them on saying something particularly stupid and appalling. In Harris’s case, he got called on saying something appalling when this image started getting passed around Twitter:

Head shot of Sam Harris with quote: "Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them."Terry thinks that the use of that one line to represent Harris’s views is a dishonest smear. But frankly, it doesn’t sound any better when you place it in context. Here’s what Harris himself considers to the be the proper context. From pages 52-53 of his book The End of Faith:

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

(Emphasis added)

It’s crap like this that made me instantly dislike Sam Harris. Of all the Four Horsemen, he was the only one that I instantly, irrevocably loathed. Dennett I found to be an amiable but well-meaning sort, Hitchens was problematic but could have witty and devastating insights when he wasn’t determined to be a total prick, and Dawkins seemed to be an intelligent and compassionate person with a sense of moral integrity. I could see certain problems with him even then, but thought that he had the moral integrity to challenge himself and find his way past them. That’s turned out not to be true.

But Harris, even in the early chapters of his first book, flaunted authoritarian and racist tendencies that just made me want to distance myself from him as quickly as possible. This is an excellent example of why.

Terry and Harris may think that context somehow changes the meaning of the line, but all it does is expound further on the original theme. Harris really does think that it’s perfectly ethical to kill people for what they think, not what they’ve done or are about to do.

Harris repeatedly finds himself using the “out of context” excuse, trying to explain that the words on the page don’t actually mean what they say. It’s been a theme in his career ever since he started to make a splash in the media. In this case, the only thing I can figure is that he expects that the original context means people that we see as “other.” By conjuring up the specter of ISIL/ISIS, he wants his readers to understand that he’s only in favor of killing people that we’ve already decided are okay to kill:

The flag of ISIL/ISIS

The larger context of this passage is a philosophical and psychological analysis of belief as an engine of behavior—and the link to behavior is the whole point of the discussion. Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men—once again, only if we couldn’t capture them—because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.

Notice how he’s changing the rules here: This doesn’t say the same thing as the original line. Here, the action that he’s advocating is only about ideas at the most abstract level. In practice, it’s about defending yourself or someone else against an imminent, physical threat, not an idea.

Sam Harris can rest assured that although I think he’s an asshole with dangerous ideas, I’m not going to advocate killing him for them. It’s too bad that he can’t write clearly enough to reassure other people of the same thing.


Images courtesy of Unknown Source and Wikimedia - Creative Commons

The Cell Phone: Savior of Democracy?

Demonstrators in the streets of Hong Kong, September 28, 2014  I’m starting to love cell phones more and more. They have their share of frustrations, and sometimes corporate policies piss me right the fuck off, but I think that they\’re turning out to be a great tool for democracy. A lot of the discussions that we’re currently having about police abuse would not be happening if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is carrying around a miniature television studio and photo lab in their pocket. We’re not just seeing that these things happen; we’re seeing proof that they happen regularly. Of course, there were always people who knew this — people of color, queers — but by definition, the people who get the shit beaten out of them by cops are the ones without power, and they’re asked to prove what they say over and over again. The pictures coming out of cell phones have been that proof for all but those who are determined to defend the police at all costs. The demonstrations in Hong Kong give another great example of smartphones as tools of democracy. There’s been a lot of furious debate over allowing governments to have a “kill switch” to shut down the Internet in case of crisis. It turns out that might not be as easy as some people might like to think. The demonstrators in Hong Kong are using modern tech to talk to each other and organize whether the networks are up or not:

As throngs of pro-democracy protesters continue to organize in Hong Kong’s central business district, many of them are messaging one another through a network that doesn’t require cell towers or Wi-Fi nodes. They’re using an app called FireChat that launched in March and is underpinned by mesh networking, which lets phones unite to form a temporary Internet.

So far, mesh networks have proven themselves quite effective and quickly adopted during times of disaster or political unrest, as they don’t rely on existing cable and wireless networks. In Iraq, tens of thousands of people have downloaded FireChat as the government limits connectivity in an effort to curb ISIS communications. Protesters in Taiwan this spring turned to FireChat when cell signals were too weak and at times nonexistent.

via How Hong Kong Protesters Are Connecting, Without Cell Or Wi-Fi Networks : All Tech Considered : NPR.

Image courtesy of Alex Leung

The “Age of Entry” Statistic is a Fake: Silencing Sex Workers With Numbers

Last Friday, I published an article that I’ve wanted to write for a long time: it’s a debunking of the too-common claim that the average prostitute starts when she’s 13. It’s an excellent example of how myths are privileged over the voices of the people who are actually affected by the laws and policies against prostitution. It’s also my first article in The Atlantic, which is one of the few big magazines that I still respect. Now I know why. Working with Rebecca Rosen, the Business Editor, was a genuine pleasure. She was supportive, enthusiastic, and actually asked me to expand the piece when I expected her to cut it. I think it’s a much better piece because of her.

Most current government and nonprofit policies on sex work define their goals as “rescue,” which makes perfect sense if the age-of-entry statistic is central to your understanding of the sex industry. Child abuse and trafficking are crises that require certain types of interventions. But these crimes do not characterize the sex industry more generally. In reality, many sex workers come into the industry as adults and without coercion, often because of economic necessity. By seeing the sex industry through the lens of the misleading age-of-entry statistic, we overlook the people who are most affected by discussions about sex work—the workers themselves.

♦ ♦ ♦

One of the strongest and most thorough critics of the statistic is activist Emi Koyama. Koyama says that even when applied only to underage subjects, the stat doesn’t hold up, which does a disservice to the most vulnerable in our society.

Emi Koyama has done some of the best research into the problems with the "age of entry into prostitution" factoid.

Emi Koyama

“It conceals the reality that most of the young people in the sex trade come from families affected by poverty, racism, abuse (including homophobia and transphobia in families), parental imprisonment or deportation, or from broken child welfare systems, and do not have safe places to return to,” she told me in an interview. “In fact, many young people are trading sex as a way to escape from violence and abuse that they have experienced in their homes and child welfare systems. By treating them as innocent and helpless ‘children,’ we fail to listen to the young people who are struggling to survive in hostile circumstances. We also fail to address the root causes of their vulnerability, and instead promote further surveillance and criminalization of street culture—which actually harms young people who survive there.”

Even by mathematical standards, the numbers don’t add up. In order for 12 or 13 to represent the national average age of entry, there would need to be a significant number who enter at ages younger than that. “The vast majority of young people who are ‘rescued’ by the law enforcement during Operation Cross Country sweeps are 16- and 17-year olds,” Koyama says, “and there are rarely any under the age 13… For the average age to be around 13, there needs to be many more 5-12 year olds that are forced into prostitution than are empirically plausible.” If the massive numbers of children exist in quantities enough to offset those who enter in their late teens or as adults, they’re not showing up in the arrests made by the Federal government, even high-profile ones like Operation Cross Country.

In addition, Koyama says, the age of entry statistic flatters Americans that their own communities are safe, while playing on the fear of outsiders: “It gives the impression that children were safe until ‘bad people’ came into their communities to take them away, and therefore we must arrest and prosecute these ‘bad people’ (often racialized).” —Read More

Mindy Chateauvert, author of "Sex Workers Unite!" traces the early history of the "age of entry into prostitution" stat.

Melinda Chateauvert, author of “Sex Workers Unite!”

After you read that, I strongly suggest that you go and read this piece, by Melinda Chateauvert, who goes even farther than I do in my article. Just after the article went up, she said on my Facebook comments, “I really wish you’d contacted me about this,” and boy, do I wish I had. Turns out that she had some of the exact information I’d been looking for. See, although the most common reference for the statistic nowadays is The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, by Richard J. Estes and Neil A. Weiner, it’s been around before 2001. The earliest citation I’ve seen is a 1982 paper by Mimi Silbert and Ayela Pines. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of me find a copy of the paper. All I had was a title. Mindy does a great job of debunking the pre-2001 version of the “average age of entry” factoid:

The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 [1982]: 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.)….

It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)



Images courtesy of Steve Rhodes, Chris Hall | Literate Perversions and

Poe’s Law, As Applied to Breastfeeding

Woman Breastfeeding Baby. Her breast is pixellated with a giant caption: Bottle Not Boobs

Bottles Not Boobs

It actually did take me a few minutes to figure out whether this was real or fake, which shows you just how solid Poe’s Law really is, when you apply it to real life. For the record, it is a parody, taken from the Facebook page of a group called Christians for Michele Bachmann. Naturally, that’s another factor against me: Bachmann herself has intentionally taken enough stands that were totally out there that it’s not entirely beyond the scope of reason that this might actually be from her, or a group supporting her.

However, Christians for Michele Bachmann is way too honest about the things that she’s actually said in real life. For instance:

There are also quiet a few people, left and right, who have really weird obsessions about women who breast-feed in public. All that said, I’m relieved that it’s a parody, although I do kinda love the term “sinbags.”

Images courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

New Post at Slixa: Decriminalization Isn’t Enough

"Belle" -- Statue in honor of sex workers in Amsterdam.Although I shamefully neglected to mention it in the actual piece, my most recent post at Slixa was done as part of Maggie McNeill’s Friday the 13th event, in which she encourage non-sex workers who are allies to write about the decriminalization of sex work. Mine talks not only about decriminalization, but about how we have to destigmatize it as well. Tolerating sex work with a distasteful grimace is little better than calling for its prohibition:

But ironically, decriminalization is as inadequate as it is radical. The stigma around sex work is at least as damaging as the laws. Stigma adheres to all branches of sex work, whether legally or not. It might be perfectly legal to make, market, and sell Lesbian Spank Inferno, Vol. 17, but having it on your résumé will guarantee you don’t get a job teaching grade school. The idea of sex workers as “fallen,” broken, or amoral is the soil in which the laws grow. The State of California was able to enact a regulation denying aid to victims of rape because stigma allows people like Ms. R to be considered disposable.

In the end, decriminalization isn’t enough: we have to say that sex workers — like any other legitimate work — can be a positive thing, not an inevitable blight that has to be tolerated. That’s not just radical in the current climate, but unspeakable. Right now, it’s hard enough to get people to use the phrase sex work  without a lewd, patronizing grin.

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

Would You Ask Me to Guard Your Computer?

Photo Booth - Self Portrait

Do you want this person guarding your laptop?

I keep wondering why the hell people in coffee shops look at me and decide that I’m just the kind of guy that they should ask to guard their expensive computer hardware while they go take a poop. I have that kind of sullen, brooding look that should rightly be associated more with the leader of the Satanic cult that moved in down the street just before all the dogs and cats started disappearing from the neighborhood. Not the all-American boy who would never think of walking your precious laptop down to the pawn store and hocking it. [Read more…]

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

Listening to Anger: Two Good Responses to JT Eberhard and Atheist Racism

I can’t even say how deeply disappointed I am in JT Eberhard’s recent behavior on the subject of racism. But even more, I’m disappointed in the failure of the atheist community to address it better.

Bria Crutchfield

Bria Crutchfield

Actually, some prominent atheists have addressed it very well: Jen McCreight and Greta Christina articulated the problems with JT’s comments about Bria Crutchfield and his defense of those comments beautifully. The fact that Jen, a white feminist, was one of the first people to speak up gave me some initial optimism; when white people create a mess, white people should be first on the scene to clean it up. It should not constantly be up to people of color to explain what’s so fucked up about racism. [Read more…]

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

Can Carrying Condoms Be a Crime?

I have a new piece up at Slixa, about the fight to ban New York police and district attorneys from using condoms to arrest people for prostitution.

"I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I'm staying at because right now I don't have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms." Art by Lauren McCubbin

“I was walking towards the LGBT youth center I’m staying at because right now I don’t have another place to live, and the police stopped me. They searched my bag & took away my condoms.”
Art by Lauren McCubbin

In light of the decision yesterday that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional, my piece seems to be especially well-timed. “Condoms as evidence” is little more than a sub-category of stop and frisk that’s used to target the people who need safer sex resources the most. The fact that it’s been allowed to exist as long as it has is due to the fact that over the last couple of decades, it’s become more and more acceptable to criminalize whole populations of people, instead of behavior that actually does harm.

But in the eyes of district attorneys and police departments, condoms aren’t for everyone. For white, middle-class, straight-looking people, a few condoms in their pocket or purse represents a sophisticated, responsible sexuality. For those who fit police profiles of sex workers, having condoms on their person might be the thing that gets them arrested on prostitution charges.

“That’s something that we’ve had to clarify again and again,” says Emma Caterine, from New York’s Red Umbrella Project. “I think it’s just a habit in any kind of rights-based activism and organizing to say, ‘Oh, this could happen to me,’ and of course, that really isn’t the case in this situation. The people who are affected by this legislation are people who are profiled as sex workers. That includes sex workers, of course, but it also includes people who are profiled as sex workers because of different stereotypes we have about sex workers.”

The people who fit law enforcement profiles of sex workers are overwhelmingly young, low-income, people of color, or visibly queer or transgender. In other words, arrests target precisely those populations most at risk for transmission of HIV and other STIs.

This seems like a particularly cruel joke in New York, the only major American city to issue its own official condoms. Since 2007, the city’s much-acclaimed “NYC Condoms” program has distributed tens of millions of male and female condoms per month to the five boroughs. In 2012, the city distributed 37.2 million condoms — about 70 per minute. This February, NYU commemorated the program’s five-year anniversary with a retrospective of graphic design and public relations material.

But even as New York’s elite celebrate the condom as a pop icon, thousands of residents are faced with a dilemma: carry condoms to protect themselves against STIs, or risk harassment or arrest by police. “These are the populations that the CDC and other public health authorities have targeted for universal condom access,” says Megan McLemore, a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re really trying to make sure that these populations use condoms every time. So the fact that people who are doing this work and who are profiled as doing this work are carrying fewer condoms than they need has serious consequences for HIV prevention.”

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Equals Signs

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

Clockwise from upper left: Atheists; Sex Workers; Queers; Undocumented Immigrants

I have to admit, at first the little red squares on people’s Facebook profiles made me cringe. There were two reasons: first, this sort of thing has always triggered my most cynical side. Even in the 1990s, when people started wearing red ribbons to express solidarity with HIV/AIDS patients, I had really complicated, ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it was a definite improvement over the dominant attitudes of the 1980s, which ranged between malign neglect and homicidal scapegoating. But on the other, the red ribbons seemed to quickly become more of a fashion accessory than an active political statement. Sometimes they seemed to be more about the person wearing them than the people who were at risk. It was even worse when Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” bracelets hit the scene. Imitators hit the scene before everyone had completely absorbed the idea of the originals. Even more than the red ribbons, they came to represent marketing more than social justice.

I have more examples of that sort of thing than I care to think. Every other day, it seems like we’re being asked to tweet a hashtag, recolor our avatars, or buy a special product to show what good people we are. We do it, and nothing changes, because we’re not really doing anything. [Read more…]

Image courtesy of Chris Hall | Literate Perversions