In case you missed it: tl;dr I quit a libertarian media organization last week because they made a not-especially-well-qualified porn star their most prominent spokesperson. I had qualms about being publicly, professionally associated with such a group, and I didn’t want to appear tacitly condoning of either the pornography itself or the “anything goes” sexual culture it exemplifies.
Much freakout ensued. Although the resignation turned out to garner much more support than I expected, negative (even hysterical) responses were also in ready supply. I write here not to harp on the issue but to clarify a number of repeated questions and misunderstandings that arose. Feel free to jump around…
- I thought you were a libertarian… why do you care so much what someone does in their bedroom?
- So even if you are technically libertarian, aren’t these meddlesome preferences anti-libertarian in spirit?
- Why do you hate sex workers? Why do you think it’s ok for you to speak for sex workers and silence them?
- Ok fine, but why are you such a slut-shamer?
- Why do you think that one porn star is contributing so heavily to the degeneracy of society?
- I’m disappointed to hear about your sex negativity, I thought you were cool?
- Say more about your libertarian case for reduced promiscuity.
- But isn’t Miriam Weeks/Belle Knox an eloquent defender of liberty that we should be glad to have on our side?
- Aren’t you going to have to quit other organizations and get new friends? I saw [other incriminating thing] your associate [name] said over here.
- I was with you right until you said that you’re a “survivor of hookup culture,” wtf is that even supposed to mean, I can’t with this victim mentality.
- I thought you said you watch porn, doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?
- Why not stay and work things out within Young Voices?
- Why didn’t you just quit quietly? You didn’t have to make this all about you.
I thought you were a libertarian… why do you care so much what someone does in their bedroom?
I am a libertarian. I explicitly wrote that I think sex work, including pornography and prostitution, should be legal. This position is located very far to the libertarian side of the political spectrum (and if you think it isn’t, that’s because your Liberty.me filter bubble is even more insulated than I thought possible). Miriam Weeks (a.k.a. Belle Knox) and Cathy Reisenwitz (Young Voices) seem to believe that maximal “sex positivity” (i.e. lack of informal social standards for sexual conduct, other than that it be consensual, and unwavering support for people’s consensual sexual choices) is part and parcel of libertarianism. That is factually inaccurate.
Libertarians, like me, think that it is none of the government’s business what you do in your bedroom, and that a beneficially free society does not subjects its peaceful citizens to the sex police. At the same time, in becoming a libertarian, you do not thereby abdicate your prerogative to hold opinions on what other people do, to exercise first amendment rights in discussing other people, and to associate or disassociate with them as you see fit (for moral or other reasons).
So even if you are technically libertarian, aren’t these meddlesome preferences anti-libertarian in spirit?
Not at all. First of all, there’s nothing “meddlesome” about my preference that people not hold up extreme pornography as a means of female empowerment, or my preference that I not be professionally associated with porn stars. The latter part of the preference has only to do with myself, and I have taken no action on the former part of the preference other than to pen a personal blog post. That hardly constitutes “meddling” in anyone’s life. If you genuinely think someone talking about you is “meddling,” then frankly it’s time to grow up.
This episode has illuminated that many libertarians fundamentally misunderstand the nature of social norms. Norms are sometimes locally, temporally too oppressive (e.g., sexual norms maintaining that the bastard children of unmarried mothers are marked for life and inferior to other children for that reason alone). However, in general, norms and coercively enforceable rules like laws are substitutes for each other. In small communities, like clubs, you don’t need many formal rules because the social fabric of the membership takes care of things (through ostracism of gross norms violators, praise and word-of-mouth sharing about the well-behaved, etc). If you have fewer laws, you need well-functioning informal norms to keep society running smoothly. The norms are not decreed by anyone top-down; they are emergent from the many voluntary, peaceful, unilateral actions of individuals – like my writing a blog post, and us discussing it on Facebook.
A “totally free society” with no norms and no laws would be non-conducive to human happiness, because people would face huge coördination problems, constantly fail to learn from each other’s mistakes, etc. Social norms in any particular domain are ceteris paribus morally less problematic than laws in that domain would be, because “enforcement” is undertaken through the voluntary and peaceful actions of decentralized individuals and not via the barrel of a gun wielded by a distinct political class (i.e. the state) which holds a monopoly on force. You seriously want to live in a world where people e.g. do not expect each other to wait in line for things as appropriate, and where people do not “punish” defectors by giving line-cutters a sideways glance? Give this some more thought, and give me a break…
Why do you hate sex workers? Why do you think it’s ok for you to speak for sex workers and silence them?
I don’t hate sex workers. At no point in my piece did I express any attitude towards Ms. Weeks other than (1) mild, passive concern that she might regret her choices later, (2) moral disapproval of the industry and specifically the way she participates in it (loudly, unabashedly, in the name of libertarianism and female empowerment). Considering that people express moral disapproval with other people’s industries all the time (think: finance, law, bars, gambling houses, etc) this kind of criticism is definitely fair game. Indeed, libertarians criticize employees of one particular industry – the government – on moral grounds constantly.
At no time did I “speak for” Ms. Weeks; indeed I cautiously refrained from speculating as to her exact state of mind in making the decision to perform in pornography. Ms. Weeks has been published in a variety of high-profile media outlets, with countless people reading. On the other hand, I was told hysterically on Twitter that my writing was “unnecessary” (by Ms. Weeks) and threatened that I’d have trouble professionally if I didn’t go through Young Voices with my writing in the future (by Ms. Reisenwitz). Surely if anyone is being “silenced,” it’s me (not that I would reduce myself to easy, jargony appraisals of the situation in the first place). That is some real woman-on-woman “policing” for ya.
Ok fine, but why are you such a slut-shamer?
If by slut-shaming, you mean giving ordinary humans, especially women, a hard time basically merely for behaving like sexual creatures at all, then I don’t do that (read this: I’m trying to make “sex shaming” a thing). If you mean to include in “slut-shaming” literally any instance of criticizing a woman for her sexual choices, then sure, I’m a “slut-shamer.” But the latter interpretation of the term is the much less useful and plausible one. Not wanting women to come under undue criticism for their sexual natures is a rightfully less controversial stance than not wanting anyone to pass judgment on anyone else’s sex lives ever (even when negative externalities are involved).
Why do you think that one porn star is contributing so heavily to the degeneracy of society?
This is the best type of criticism I’ve received: it demonstrates that the interlocutor has read my argument carefully and considered it in good faith. The answer is that I don’t actually think one porn star is contributing so heavily to the degeneracy of society – and I could have been clearer about that.
If you don’t approve of your society’s sexual culture but you don’t want to be a totalitarian about changing it, your options are pretty limited: improve your own behavior, and talk about ways in which other people could improve theirs. I did improve my own behavior. Young Voices happens to be the only even slightly high-profile respect in which I could project an opinion regarding one aspect of our dysfunctional sexual mores out into the world. So I did, more because it was accidentally set up to be a good opportunity for this kind of social signal, not because Ms. Weeks is herself such a high-priority target in the scheme of Things I Would Change If I Could.
I’m disappointed to hear about your sex negativity, I thought you were cool?
I am cool, and I’m not sex negative. I am “sex positive” precisely insofar as sex actually contributes beneficially to people’s lives. Unfortunately, the “sex positive” folks are reacting so strongly against what they perceive to be antiquated, repressive sexual norms that they fail to entertain seriously that some kinds of sexual behavior really might not be great for you even if undertaken consensually and are best discouraged. Part of why you probably thought I was “cool” in this way is because the young, hip sex positive people talk about their positions alot online and others are loath to criticize them for fear of looking puritanical. Oh well, I’m happy to take the (unfair) fall for being some backwards prude if it’s what it takes to get this conversation started.
Say more about your libertarian case for reduced promiscuity.
You’re right, this topic deserves more attention than I could pay to it in Amateur Hour (although note that it’s not a “libertarian” case, merely consistent with libertarianism as a political philosophy). I’ll write a whole post about my all-things-considered judgment that more people should be less promiscuous in the next week or so. For now, I will say that I think many people have agent-relative (i.e. personalized) reasons to engage in less casual sex because it seems to frustrate their own purported goals to a greater extent than they’ve been encouraged to realize.
But isn’t Miriam Weeks/Belle Knox an eloquent defender of liberty that we should be glad to have on our side?
I didn’t previously criticize Ms. Weeks’ writing substantively because that seemed like punching down, to be honest (God knows I wouldn’t want my writings from age 19 subjected to much public scrutiny). However, I don’t think she’s an especially precocious communicator of libertarian ideas, and there’s no evidence that she’s genuinely familiar with the libertarian canon on, for instance, whether the benefits to education constitute a “public good,” or possibilities for atypical financing options (like Milton Friedman’s income-contingent loan proposal). Ms. Weeks doesn’t even appear to know the most basic fundamentals of Economics 101, considering her laughably incorrect assertion that the demand for porn is “inelastic.” So, no, I don’t know why we libertarians would be particularly thrilled to have Ms. Weeks, as a debater, on our side.
Aren’t you going to have to quit other organizations and get new friends? I saw [other incriminating thing] your associate [name] said over here.
This is obviously supposed to be some kind of “gotcha!” criticism, but I never claimed that it’s important to associate only with people who you find morally perfect, ever. Rather, I expressed concern over belonging to a public-facing professional organization whose new, most prominent claim to fame is their involvement with a high-profile person of whom I do not approve. Do you even nuance?
I was with you right until you said that you’re a “survivor of hookup culture,” wtf is that even supposed to mean, I can’t with this victim mentality.
I’m sorry you can’t recognize an incongruous-with-the-argument, mildly self-deprecating reference to cultural jargon when you seen one. Public schools just don’t teach rhetoric like they used to :(
I thought you said you watch porn, doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?
I said I’d seen porn before, mostly to show that I’m not some naïve puritan about the matter. I don’t consume porn regularly (and if I did, it would not be of the kind Ms. Weeks produces, that’s for damn sure). When the topic comes up, I encourage my friends to abstain from porn consumption for prudential reasons in addition to moral ones.
Why not stay and work things out within Young Voices?
The organization was designed to accept people who are libertarians and then project their work out into the world, not to facilitate conversation amongst members. That’s fine and totally their choice but, especially with such a strong personality on their small administrative team, means it would have been way more trouble than it’s worth to me personally to hash it out with them. It’s not as if I can’t write now that I’ve quit (hey look, I’m writing right this second). Indeed, from the perspective of anyone who approves of this new face of Young Voices: with my departure I just effectively increased the proportion of porn stars within the organization!
Why didn’t you just quit quietly? You didn’t have to make this all about you.
This kind of comment just shows that you don’t at all understand my point about the social distribution and enforcement of norms (even if you don’t agree with it). When I joined Young Voices, I posted about it online, but no complicated explanation was necessary because it’s obvious what joining a libertarian media organization means.
Like most decisions, I made this one for multiple reasons. I quit partly to avoid a bad professional association, and this part of my goal would have been achievable with a quiet departure. But I partly quit to avoid contributing to the perception that doing porn is just an empowering lifestyle choice to which every decent person must literally be indifferent (if not actively supportive). If you don’t publicly state and act directly upon your values, then they can’t get considered and potentially taken up by others.
The celebrated libertarians of history have carried on a long, interesting, and appropriately complex conversation about the legitimacy of social norms and how they work, especially in concert with (or in opposition to) formal laws. How did (internet, if not academic) libertarianism go so incredibly far off the rails that basically all my most insistent detractors have to say is: “STOP. BAD LIBERTARIAN. BAD FEMINIST. YAY SEX!” ?
Image: photosteve101 / Flickr