Archive for April 19th, 2013

Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.  –  John Kenneth Galbraith

The Signing of the Declaration of Independence by Jonathan TrumbullAmong the enumerated grievances against King George III included in Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence was the following:  “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…the…King of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where men should be bought & sold…” The delegates from the Southern colonies (predictably) objected; the words clearly condemned the institution of slavery, in which they were heavily invested.  Argument ensued, and the dissenters made it clear that if the offending passage were not removed, they would refuse to sign the declaration.  Faced with this threat, the declaration committee had little choice: either the slavery clause went, or the South did.  And so the slaves were, in modern idiom, “thrown under the bus”; their rights were sacrificed to a political deal to establish a new nation.  And though those men acted as they thought best, their choice erupted into the greatest bloodbath in American history only three generations later.

Though I can understand Galbraith’s point expressed in today’s epigram, I also recognize that it’s a bitter thing indeed to be a member of a group whose rights are sacrificed as part of a political deal brokered among a large group of governments with differing (and often conflicting) beliefs and concerns.  Furthermore, I wonder if choosing the unpalatable at the cost of inflicting the disastrous on one’s descendants is really the wise and moral decision.  The particular political deal I wish to discuss today is not remotely as momentous as the sundering of an empire, and the sacrifice lacks the enormity of consigning an entire race to continued slavery; I certainly hope the consequences are dramatically less severe than the devastation of the American Civil War.  But it’s a serious enough matter for those involved, and as a member of the group “thrown under the bus” I can’t help but resent being sacrificed for a deal from which we will reap no benefit.  Here’s how it was reported in the Guardian:

UN officials and activists expressed relief and delight over news that an agreement had been reached at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)…After months of behind the scenes lobbying and two weeks of difficult negotiations in New York, the outcome document included strong agreements to promote gender equality, women’s empowerment, and ensure women’s reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services…the agreement was hard fought and civil society groups expressed “deep concern” over attempts by some conservative member states and groups to derail the process…NGO ActionAid…said… “A small but significant number of countries, led by Iran, Russia, Syria and the Vatican, have pushed hard to roll back language on women’s rights to where we were decades ago”…Vivian Thabet…[of] CARE-Egypt, said… “Women’s rights have become a kind of bartering chip to be traded away for political agendas that have little or nothing to do with the interests and wellbeing of women and girls”…The outcome document emphasised the need to end harmful traditional practices, including child marriage, and called on member states to ensure services were focused on marginalised groups, such as indigenous women, older women, female migrant workers, women with disabilities, women living with HIV, and women held in custody.  Protection for sex workers was understood to have been dropped…

thrown under the busThere it was, in the last sentence; if you blinked you may have missed it.  Several countries (including, you can be sure, the United States) opposed language calling on governments to end institutional violence and discrimination against sex workers, so we were simply bartered away in order to close the deal on some other contentious issue.  Perhaps it was the right thing to do in the long run;  after all, I have no idea what phrase or sentence my rights were traded for.  But I think I’m justified in being annoyed about that only being worth one sentence in the Guardian’s article and no mention at all in that of the Huffington Post (despite complaints about the lack of language protecting gay men in a document concerned specifically with the rights of women).  As a result, this is how I read the quotes from delegates and commentators:

By adopting this document, governments have made clear that discrimination and violence against women and girls has no place in the 21st century.”  Except for discrimination and violence against sex workers, which are still quite welcome.

We will keep moving forward to the day when women and girls can live free of fear, violence and discrimination.”  Unless they have sex for reasons with which we disapprove.

The 21st century is the century of inclusion and women’s full and equal rights and participation.”  Except for the right to choose their own work.

It sends a clear and unified message to the world that there is no place in any society for acts of violence against girls and women.”  Except for state violence against sex workers, naturally.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh; after all, several UN agencies concerned with health have recommended absolute decriminalization of sex work and the sex industry everywhere, and advocates of human rights are all beginning to recognize the importance of our cause.  And as I said above, I have no way of knowing what our exclusion gained, nor can I read the minds of the negotiators; perhaps they were just as agonized as Jefferson and company, and signed us away for something they considered extremely important.  What’s more, I can’t be sure I wouldn’t do something similar: What if one day, I’m part of a team negotiating a decriminalization deal, and our political opponents say they’ll accept total decriminalization of indoor prostitution if street work remains criminal?  Will I turn down rights for the 90% on principle?  Or will I accept the deal, reasoning that we can more effectively work toward street work decriminalization from an improved legal position?

Goddess help me, I only wish I knew.

(This essay first appeared on Cliterati on March 24th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.)

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