When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free. – Charles Evans Hughes
Language changes over time; words come and go, and new words are used in place of older ones. One word which was common in my youth but has since declined sharply in popularity is “chauvinism”, meaning “blind and fanatical devotion to something”. A chauvinist is one who believes his own group, belief system or whatever is superior to all others and refuses to even consider the possibility that it is not so; usually, he is willing to use state violence to enforce his own views. So although we’ve devised a plethora of neologisms over the past several decades, usually ending in “-ism” or “-phobia” and often cumbersome, awkward or improperly derived, we actually don’t need any of them because “chauvinism” covers the whole spectrum without having to add yet another term to the ever-growing list. Furthermore, the word correctly places the stress where it belongs, on the bigot rather than on those toward whom his bigotry is directed, and thereby makes the behavior pattern far more obvious.
When one accepts at face value the excuses by which chauvinists justify their positions, the true connections between those actions may be obscured or even wholly invisible. But once attention is focused on the chauvinism itself rather than on its targets, the connections suddenly appear. Take, for example, the current moral panic over “human trafficking”, a term so nebulously defined that it is nearly impossible to make any valid factual statements about it at all. Looking at the various phenomena to which the label is applied – exploitative labor, arranged marriage, unorthodox immigration, usury, surrogate motherhood, sex work, even attempted rape – it’s difficult to understand how they’re connected other than the fact that most of them involve sex, travel or both. Furthermore, sometimes things which clearly seem to fit the popular definition aren’t called “trafficking” at all, especially when a government or multi-national corporation is the “trafficker”.
But if one stops listening to the claims of those who spread the hysteria, and instead looks for common factors, it soon boils down to chauvinism: every single one of the things called “trafficking” is a transgression against conventional middle-class white Western ideas of morality and propriety. Nobody is concerned about immigrants doing awful work that middle-class people don’t want, so this is rarely labeled “trafficking” even when it clearly fits the standard definition; but because sex work offends both conservative Christian and radical feminist notions about “proper” female behavior, it is labeled “trafficking” even when it clearly involves neither travel nor coercion. Once we recognize that Euro-American chauvinism has become widespread enough to maintain a xenophobic panic, one can also predict that other forms of institutionalized bigotry around issues of sex and travel should be popular right now, and indeed that is the case: In Europe we see persistent attempts to ban pornography and Muslim clothing, and in the US assaults on abortion rights and mass deportations. Superficially, these things may seem to be unrelated, but in actuality they are all motivated by exactly the same thing: the quest to purge from Western society everyone who is different from “us”. Our persons, practices and ways of life are assumed to be superior to everyone else’s, so obviously every nonconformity is a contaminant to be removed, by violence if necessary.
There is one exception, but it proves the rule. Gay rights was for a very long time an uphill battle, especially in the pathologically-prudish United States. Yet in the past few years, opposition to the cause has quickly withered and died with astonishing speed…astonishing, that is, to anyone who fails to take chauvinism into account. If one insists that the cause of opposition to gay rights is “homophobia”, in other words a particular aversion to homosexuals, the rapid turn of the tide makes no sense whatsoever. But when one realizes that the same hatred is dispensed to anyone who is outside the norm, the reason for the change becomes clear: same-sex marriage. While gay people were chanting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”, progress was achingly slow. But once they started to stress how little different they were from heterosexuals – “Look, we even want to get married and form families like you do, see?” – opposition to granting them rights rapidly dissolved. Once the majority came to see gay people as sufficiently “normal”, their chauvinism was no longer an issue; the same can be said for European Muslims who adopt Western dress. The problem is not any specific form of bigotry against race, religion, sexuality or anything else; it’s a general bigotry against anyone who is viewed as the “other”. And that is why the chief purpose of my own blog is to demonstrate how typical sex workers actually are; once the majority realizes that we are not dangerous “outsiders” determined to bring down their culture, they will stop treating us like an infection to be eradicated or quarantined.
(This essay first appeared on Cliterati on April 7th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.)