Hooker Hunting in God's Country

By Sarah Braasch

[Editor's Note: Please welcome Sarah Braasch back to Daylight Atheism for her second guest post! You can read Sarah's bio from a post last month.]

A few months ago, through some fault of my own, I found myself on a driving tour of Naples, Italy, assiduously avoiding the unwanted sexual advances of some US Navy boys. I was not enjoying myself much at all when one of the sailors suggested we go hooker hunting, as he so charmingly phrased it. I was suddenly rapt with attention and very keen to experience the famed seedy underbelly of Naples. I was also more than a little concerned that my companions intended to do more than window shop, but that was not about to dissuade me from witnessing the Neapolitan sex industry first hand.

I will never forget their eyes. They were either vacant and dead or hostile and menacing. Some were Eastern European. Some were from the Maghreb. Some were sub-Saharan African. Almost all of them wore either mini skirts or hot pants with fishnet stockings and bustiers. All of them wore heavy makeup. Most of them were at least decently attractive, with long, thin legs. They were congregated in small groups of twos and threes, seemingly along racial or ethnic lines. The Eastern Europeans were leaning against street signs outside of the train station in the middle of the night. The Africans relieved themselves next to their shaded deck chairs along the side of the highway.

I could tell when I made eye contact with them that they knew I was a curious but casual sexual tourist, not an active participant. I wondered if it made them angry or embarrassed. I wondered if they felt shame. I wondered if people ever took pictures of them. Suddenly, it felt very shameful to be viewing these women, as if I were conducting a laboratory experiment. It reminded me of a very painful memory from my distant past.

When I was an undergrad, a classmate and I were interns at Boeing in Seattle. I had accompanied her to Los Gatos, in the Silicon Valley, just outside of San Francisco, to visit an elderly couple, distant family members of hers. They must have been in their late eighties or early nineties. They were charming and kind and hospitable. They took us on a driving tour of all of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Then, they drove us through East Palo Alto, an economically depressed, crime-ridden area with a high minority population. They called it East Palo Africa. They rolled up the windows and locked the doors. They pointed at the black men, women, and children and laughed. I was in a state of shock, and I was paralyzed. I knew that they were very old, but I couldn’t believe that people still behaved like this. I knew that I should have done something. I should have said something. I should have asked them to stop. I should have jumped from the car. I should have yelled or screamed. But, I didn’t. I didn’t do or say anything. And, I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve never stopped regretting my inaction.

“This is different,” I tried to tell myself. “I’m doing this so that I can write about this experience, so that I can expose this atrocity, these human rights violations.” But, as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, I felt sick and vile, like a monster, and I wanted to go home. The sailors continued to point and laugh and make prurient and lewd jokes.

The nonchalance of the entire enterprise baffled me. Cars pull up to negotiate their sexual purchases while the vendors hawk and flaunt their wares. No one bats an eye. Twenty feet away, families greet one another with loving embraces after long journeys. Police cars roll by. On Sunday, we watched desperate trollops chase after wary buyers on the freeway. Apparently, there is no Sabbath for streetwalkers. How can human beings be so inured to the suffering of their fellow creatures? As a human rights activist, I am sometimes awestruck by the absence of humanity in humans. And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back?

I think religion is holding us back. It is all too easy to view human beings as unworthy of your sympathy and care if you think of them as the damned and filthy heathen hordes shunned by your Almighty. I should know. This is how I used to think as an inculcated Jehovah’s Witness child. It’s amazing how easily the prevalence of religious law lends itself to lawlessness. I was flabbergasted by the lawlessness. The irony was not lost on us. Here we were, in the ancestral home of the Catholic Church, in one of the most religious countries on earth, where 85% of the population considers themselves Catholic, and the market for cheap sex was apparently insatiable.

I have visited some of the most religious and some of the most irreligious places on earth. I have yet to experience this so called disparity in morality, in favor of religion, which the advocates for religion seem to assume exists. In fact, as far as women are concerned, my experience has revealed an inversely proportional relationship. The more religious the society, the worse the human rights violations perpetrated against women, the less “moral” men behave towards women. I find the claims to some sort of moral superiority on the part of religious societies and pundits to be specious at best, if not down right disingenuous, not to mention sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic.

I guess it all depends on your definition of morality. If it includes, as it does in so many religious societies, the reproductive and sexual enslavement of women by men, then, yes, of course, religion does impart morality.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • The Pink Ninja

    The link to religion here seems tenuous in the extreme…

  • Dave

    Perhaps the link is not with religion per se, but with how male dominated and conservative / fundamentalist is the sect. Fundamentalist christians and fundamentalist muslims seem to treat women equally badly.

    The further you move along the scale toward progressive societies and their sects, the greater the equality. Does this trend hold all the way from theist, to deist, to agnostic and atheist?

  • Jormungund

    The part about religion came out of nowhere. I don’t see how religion caused women to become prostitutes. It seems to me that poverty (Eastern Europe and African people are poor) is what made them do this.
    So: there are poor women that sell sex, there are sailors that laugh at this, there are families and police that don’t care about this. Ok. I understand that. Then out of nowhere: religion is holding us back/religion is the cause of callous disregard for other people. I just don’t see it. The author is trying to hard to attack religion in this article.
    Imagine if someone wrote this same article, but near the end of it blamed all these things on the amoral and unsympathetic atheists. We would all immediately see that the conclusion was wrong and does not follow from what was previously written. Hopefully everyone sees that the random attack on religions is exactly the same as ending this article with a random attack on atheists.

  • paradoctor

    You bemoan the semi-humanity of actually-existing humanity. The problem, I think, is neurological; each of us is equipped to recognize only about 200 individuals as individuals; everyone else is an extra in our movies.

    Since we now routinely live in cities of millions, we cannot rely upon natural empathy to maintain order; therefore we create systems of artificial empathy. We have only enough natural love for our friends; for strangers we can have only synthetic love. Therefore law, government, markets, and yes, religion.

    The trouble with religion, like all systems of synthetic empathy, is that it is often ineffectual, or even counterproductive. To these general evils religion adds the evil of dogmatism; being ‘stuck on stupid’.

    All systems have flaws; so the greatest flaw of all is the need to have a system. Alas, that’s us. Religion can be no more enlightened, nor government any more just, nor the market any more honest, than the people. And actually-existing humanity is still an evolutionary work in progress.

  • Soulless_Wolf

    I am afraid I must agree with Jormungund, this attack on religion seems unwarranted. The only link to religion I can see in the situation at all is that you happened to be in a country that is religious. It seems a bit of a stretch to blame this one on religion. After all, Naples is hardly only place in the world were you can find women forced into the sex trade. You can find this sort of thing in practically every large port and city on the planet. The fact that it exists in Naples is nothing special. You seem a bit too eager to write off the indifference of the locals as another evil caused by religion.

    Most people harden their hearts to the suffering of others simply because it is easier than doing something about it, and it is much easier to write off these women as either naive or foolish than it is to do anything about it. You appear to be either incapable or unwilling to do so, but you are a rare breed.

    I suspect that you are correct in suggesting that religion provides some people with a rationalization for why they don’t need to help, but it also provides many others with the motivation to help those in need. By helping others these people believe that they are doing good by god and feel that they are increasing their chances of getting into heaven and I would guess that many people who would otherwise do nothing give for this reason alone.

    Even if religion vanished from the minds of every single person on the planet, I doubt that the sex trade would vanish in the same instance. People will still be motivated to commit such atrocities for the very same reasons and sticking you neck out for someone else will be just as dangerous and costly as it is today.

  • Samuel Skinner

    As opposed to starving to death? While some people might like the job, most of these people probably took it because the alternatives were worse. Unless they were slaves of course.

    The best course of action is to regulate the industry to avoid abuse, not to declare it is evil and ban it. Until we get good enough VR, there will always be a demand and until we have a worldwide livable standard of living, there will always be a supply.

  • Soulless_Wolf

    @Samuel Skinner
    I think the implication of the story here is that this women effectively are slaves. While not owned in a legal sense, they have no ability to support themselves and will be brutalized if they do not submit to whoever is turning them out.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I should disclose — I’m the author. I find these comments terribly interesting. Thanks for the feedback.

    I have a question for the posters:

    Why is it so easy for you to see that religion is an egregious obstacle to humanity’s development in so many regards, but not when it comes to the subjugation of women?

    This seems to be the typical response when I present this argument –

    moral development — religion is an obstacle

    scientific and technological development — religion is an obstacle

    legal development — religion is an obstacle

    political development — religion is an obstacle

    The subjugation of women — that’s just the way it is and always will be — nothing we can do about that — religion or no

    I think I have to take issue with that line of thinking.

    Or, perhaps — you feel the world would be in the same sorry state w/o religion as it is now in every regard. But, if that’s the case, why bother fighting against religion at all? Or espousing atheism at all?

    And, I am fighting against religion and all dogmatic thinking.

    You might just think I failed to make a strong connection in this piece. That’s fair enough. I admit that whatever evidence I present here is purely anecdotal. The piece is meant to provoke thought more than anything else.

    I wouldn’t normally comment on one of my own pieces, but I am very interested in hearing the responses to these questions.

    Thanks again. It is such a pleasure to be able to share my work here. Daylight Atheism is such a fantastic community.

  • valdemar

    I, too, found the religious angle a tad surprising. Italy, like most European countries, is quite secular these days. The Catholic Church is forever lamenting the collapse of its influence. That said, you could argue that centuries of sexual hypocrisy, much of it religious, helps fuel the sex trade. But it is an American prejudice to assume that a society with lots of fancy churches is religious. In my homeland (England) we are up to eyes in churches, but hardly anybody prays in them.

  • Alex Weaver

    The best course of action is to regulate the industry to avoid abuse, not to declare it is evil and ban it. Until we get good enough VR, there will always be a demand and until we have a worldwide livable standard of living, there will always be a supply.

    The neurotic anti-sex attitudes of most prevalent religious sects and the secularized internalization of those attitudes by most of the population of America in particular and, until fairly recently, most “civilized” societies in general; Ludditic and technophobic tendencies of many religions and quasi-religions; and the blame-the-victim attitude most religions take towards poverty and other social ills – however many religious people we find whose humanity overcomes their santimoniousness and motivates them to help in human terms – all form significant impediments to any of these reforms.

    I think the implication of the story here is that this women effectively are slaves. While not owned in a legal sense, they have no ability to support themselves and will be brutalized if they do not submit to whoever is turning them out.

    This is the sort of situation that could be almost eliminated if the religion-inspired attitudes that A) those who do not abide by religion-approved standards of “respectable” sexual behavior deserve, and especially B) “wicked” women who “tempt virtuous men into sin” (*snicker*), deserve whatever they get, weren’t in the way of legalizing and regulating the sex work industry in much of the world.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I don’t think this is about blaming religion; it’s about exposing religion for its hypocrisy; for not having the good effects on society it indirectly claims whenever it blames godlessness for something bad In Italy, the center of the greatest church on Earth, we find clear evidence that life in a religious country is no better than that in a godless one. As Soulless_Wolf says, without religion, we’d still do the same things — but religion provides an excuse to deny it. To deny our humanity, our own essential morality, that makes us who we are and does not necessarily come from God.

    The claim that is that a faithful country would not see waves of immorality; these, when seen, are ascribed to a lack of faith. Given statistics, this is clearly farcical, and yet that is what religion claims. A Vatican spokesman, or a talk-show host, that claims that godlessness is the root cause of a societal mess, probably needs to think again.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    In my preferred world, prostitution would be legalized, regulated and taxed heavily. I’d like to think it would keep some of these sorts of scenes from playing out.

    On the other hand, like with working in fast food, prostitution is almost never a first career choice someone makes. Even were it legal, I’m sure very few of those involved would be happy in what they’re doing. They’d probably still have the dead-eyed stare mentioned in this article and familiar to many of those in the fast food industry.

    I’m not sure that I buy the arguments centered on religion here. I do think that religion keeps us from approaching this issue in a rational fashion, though.

  • Jormungund

    “You might just think I failed to make a strong connection in this piece. That’s fair enough. I admit that whatever evidence I present here is purely anecdotal.”
    I would go a lot further than that and say that you presented no evidence that this disregard for their well being is caused by religion. There wasn’t the slightest connection between the first part of the essay and the last three paragraphs.
    When I say you randomly attacked religions in this article, I mean it. Out of nowhere and with no connection to anything else previously discussed, you blame religions for this. I fail to see the difference between blaming religions on this without reason and blaming atheists on this without reason. This literally holds as little merit as a religious person claiming that atheism and the decline of the influence of churches cause people to callously disregard the well being of others.
    There are so many real things that churches do that we could complain about. Let’s not waste efforts complaining about imaginary wrongs.

  • Soulless_Wolf

    @ Sarah Braasch

    I do not believe there is such an inconsistency in my beliefs as you would suggest. I do feel that religion does stand the way of technological, scientific, moral, legal, and political progress; this is because they actually stand in the way.

    -You try and teach evolution and they actively oppose it or require the side-by-side teaching of religion (and that is all creationism is).

    -You try and extend marriage rights to homosexuals and they actively appose it, quoting the bible and invoking god.

    -You try and preform biological or medical research on stem cells, they actively oppose it, claiming that to do so is to “play god” (whatever that means).

    -etc.

    To my knowledge, and you have provided nothing to challenge this view, groups that try and rescue women from the sex trade are not opposed by any religion, and are often hosted by a church. In fact a quick Google search for “churches helping prostitutes” yields a host of articles that support this view.

    I did not intend to suggest that there is nothing we can do about it, though I can see how it would seem that way. I hold much the same stance for this that I do for murder, that is, it is going to happen but there is a great number of things we can do to minimize its occurrence.

    Religion does not create the sex trade nor does it stand in the way of abolishing the sex trade. Simply put, I do not see how this evil is religion’s fault.

    ———————————————————————————-

    @Jennifer Burdoo

    You pretty much sum up how I feel about this story. It serves as good evidence of religious hypocrisy and points out that people often use religion to demonize others simply keep themselves from feeling bad about the suffering others go through. It should be pointed out that religion does not hold a monopoly on heart hardening rationalizations and often times causes people who worth otherwise turn a cold shoulder to suffering lend a hand to someone in need.

    I am unsure if I believe that religion is a source of apathy towards suffering or simply a group that is accepting of apathetic individuals.

  • Bechamel

    @Chris Swanson #12
    The problem with your preferred-world scenario (assuming you’re looking for something that would actually work in the real world) is that of taxing *heavily*. The more heavily you tax, the more likely the black market will stay exactly as-is, since to all but the rich, the legal service is just as unattainable as before.

    Leave the sin taxes out, and you may have a shot at achieving the results you want.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    OK, I want to start off with a compliment: that is quite frankly one of the best titles for an article that I have ever seen. That said, this seems to have false cause fallacy written all over it. Or affirming the consequent. Look, I definitely agree that from religion, you can get to all sorts of evils, among them being misogyny, racism, and other forms of bigotry. However, from those very same evils, you simply cannot therefore conclude that religion – one potential cause among many for such things – is what’s to blame. Can religion cause misogyny? Absolutely! Does it? Most certainly! But not all the time, and not every time. Thinking that religion is to blame when you see one specific instance of misogyny is to ignore all of the other possible causes.

    I have to say that religion looks like an innocent bystander in this case. Religion just happened to be around. Look at Thailand, where almost 95% of the population is Buddhist and an absolutely enormous sex trade exists. Would you say that Buddhism is to blame for that? It seems to me to be perpetuated mostly by a combination of politics, cultural attitudes, and organized crime.

    Religion is most certainly an obstacle to improving the status of women in the world. No doubt in my mind. But is it the only obstacle? Absolutely not. Neither is religion the only obstacle to any of the other forms of progress you list, and nobody ever said it is. You yourself mentioned that you did not make a strong connection between religion and the thing you’re blaming on it, and as I read it, that is exactly the point of commenters such as Jormungund and Soulless_Wolf. If you had instead discussed a prostitution ring that leveraged supernatural mumbo-jumbo to justify the evil they do, then you might have been on to something.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “I think the implication of the story here is that this women effectively are slaves. While not owned in a legal sense, they have no ability to support themselves and will be brutalized if they do not submit to whoever is turning them out.”

    I meant actual slavery- there is supposed to be a major trafficing problem in Eastern Europe. Having limited opportunity is not the equivalence of slavery.

    ” but not when it comes to the subjugation of women?”

    It is (although it depends on the religion). However, paying money for sex appears to be entirely unrelated to religion- in fact modern puritanical attitudes towards it have lead to its illegality in the United States.

    “Or, perhaps — you feel the world would be in the same sorry state w/o religion as it is now in every regard. But, if that’s the case, why bother fighting against religion at all? Or espousing atheism at all?”

    Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was anti-homosexual due to his “pro-family” policy. Religion is NOT the only thing that makes people irrational. It is just the most incidious because it declares that it is not subject to question and protects itself from the outside world. By contrast, even communists are more open to the evidence.

    “That said, you could argue that centuries of sexual hypocrisy, much of it religious, helps fuel the sex trade.”

    Actually, sexual puritaness has varied, century to century. Even the Puritans did not have the extreme sheltering view of sex (hint- people didn’t have multiple bedrooms in their house). The current attitudes are from the Victorian era and, amazingly enough, we managed to export them to the whole world, most egregiously India. Just today their supreme court declared that gay sex is okay
    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Delhi-High-Court-legalizes-homosexuality/articleshow/4726608.cms

    “all form significant impediments to any of these reforms.”

    These are all recent attitudes and the anti-societal are mostly American. Throughout history the church did actually consider helping the poor to be an important duty, but “screw the poor” apparently is more popular when you have a populance that shops for religions.

    ” we find clear evidence that life in a religious country is no better than that in a godless one. ”

    Italy is around as religious as the US. They have a higher life expectancy though so they are actually better off. Because of the power of Godless socialism!

    “legalized, regulated and taxed heavily.”

    Fun killer.

    “Even were it legal, I’m sure very few of those involved would be happy in what they’re doing.”

    M-O-N-E-Y. It makes some people happy.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    Money can indeed help bring happiness, despite all the tropes to the contrary. And I’m sure that were I to lose my current job and not be able to find any other that pays as well, I’d probably accept going back to fast food work, since that’d be better than nothing. At that point, I’d at least be earning enough to live and would, by certain standards, be “happy”, but I’d by no means be happy with my job.

    Were I more attractive, and the option were legal, I could perhaps go into prostitution (were I to try it looking like I do, I fear I’d be massively in debt within a week). I’d be making money, so I’d be happy by certain standards, but I rather doubt I’d be happy with my job.

    And yes, I suppose taxing heavily would probably be a bad idea, but certainly taxing period would be fine. As California is learning the hard way, taxes make the world go around.

    Well, taxes and physics. :)

  • TommyP

    I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of prostitution, as an idea. But how it’s practiced in so many places, the way people who are unwilling are nevertheless forced into it, that I have a huge problem with. It seems that the social safety nets so despised by many conservative people are a good way to prevent the unwilling from becoming prostitutes. But these nets are truncated and eliminated, in favor of prayer and religious charities. So, no effective safety net for these men and women, and then you have the Attitude of the Righteous, which just stomps down on these people and would gladly throw them in all jail for a decade, if only the damned liberals would let them. It’s a nasty mix, religion and the real world. How hard would it be to help people who need it, really? And how hard would it be to just let people make money so they can pay their bills? How hard would it be to protect people who need it, instead of treating them like trash? It’s not that hard, unless the thought of it brings up images of a frowning God eying you, stroking his lightning bolts, every time you do something humanistic.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Hi all,

    I want to defend Sarah here, and to say that I think some people missed the point:

    The part about religion came out of nowhere. I don’t see how religion caused women to become prostitutes. It seems to me that poverty (Eastern Europe and African people are poor) is what made them do this.

    Nowhere did Sarah say that religion was directly responsible for these women being forced into prostitution. Admittedly, rereading this piece, I can see how someone might come away with that impression. But in my reading (and I’m sure she’ll correct me if I’m wrong), her actual point was a different one. This is the key passage:

    How can human beings be so inured to the suffering of their fellow creatures? As a human rights activist, I am sometimes awestruck by the absence of humanity in humans. And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back?

    I think religion is holding us back. It is all too easy to view human beings as unworthy of your sympathy and care if you think of them as the damned and filthy heathen hordes shunned by your Almighty.

    The real point here is that callous, misogynist attitudes toward women, such as one sees in the sailors who came to gawk at the prostitutes and treat them like tourist attractions, are largely the product of religious dogma. Our culture has a serious virgin/whore complex – it idolizes sex and yet treats women as dirty and depraved if they participate in it – and that’s almost certainly due in part to the body-hating, anti-female theology that’s been a part of Christianity since the beginning. Read 1 Timothy chapter 5 to see how the Bible’s authors viewed women, and consider that these awful views have been shaping our culture for two thousand years.

    There are other manifestations of this misogyny as well: for instance, the fundamentalist Islamic societies that deny women an education, forcing them to either be financially dependent on a man or else turn to prostitution. Then there are the judgmental, sanctimonious preachers who have an unrealistically narrow view of human sexuality, and would rather condemn these women as “sinners” than make a serious effort to change the conditions that led to them being forced into this (think supporting birth control and female empowerment in developing countries).

    Prejudice against women is still far too common, and the more religious a society is, the more likely it is that you’ll find it, and the worse it will be. That’s a correlation that’s difficult to deny. Until we see the world’s religions make a serious effort at shedding the misogyny of their past (a few have; most haven’t), they will continue to be an obstacle, rather than an aid, to the ongoing cause of female equality.

  • Sarah Braasch

    D, thanks for the compliment. I love that. And, I love all of the comments. They are so intelligent and articulate. Thanks for defending me, Adam. You’re the best. But, no worries — I’m tough — I love the criticism. It makes me aware of how I failed as a writer to get my point across, which will only make me better.

    Yes, it’s a shame that God didn’t think to establish a control experiment of humanity without religion, if only to prove a self serving point.

    And, I’ll concede that the specificity of the sex trade was perhaps a poor choice as an example. I was deliberately trying to make use of a provocative personal anecdote.

    Regardless, the historicity of religion’s wrongs against women, and all of humanity, for that matter, are anything but imaginary.

    Where would we be if religion had never existed? Of course, it’s impossible to say.

    And, religion may have played a vital and beneficial role in our development.

    Whatever purpose it once served, it now threatens our demise, and none more so than women.

    I stand by my claim. Religion is not merely hypocritical — it is detrimental and immoral. We would be far better off without it – along with all other forms of dogmatism – especially women.

    This, however, presents an epistemological problem, as was well highlighted by the comments here. This conversation usually devolves into the one side bringing up the Inquisition and suicide bombers and the other side bringing up Mao and Stalin. Relatively godless Scandinavia always comes into play, as well as whatever statistics are available to account for levels of well being and happiness. I don’t just want to argue that religion is untrue. I’m not sure if it’s enough to argue simply for both freedom of and from religion. Personal and anecdotal evidence is compelling, but limited, in terms of its persuasiveness.

    Without that control experiment – I guess the only recourse is to argue for secularism in politics and the law and to hope for the best. I hate to be defeatist, but I’m not sure if it’s enough.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    I think we’re doing a lot of talking past each other. Here’s a gross oversimplification of the conversation so far:

    Sarah: Women are mistreated in the modern world, and in some pretty horrible ways if you know where to look. Religion stands in the way of making this better.
    Comments: I don’t see how that follows. You’ve made a logical misstep in your argument.
    Sarah: OK, maybe I made a misstep, but the fact of the matter is that religion stands in the way of improving the situation of women the world over.
    Comments: Look, OK, your conclusion is true, but your argument is not sound. You’ve shown a specific instance of humanity being selectively inhumane to itself, and then asserted that religion shares in the blame for this general phenomenon without connecting your anecdote to your assertion.
    Ebonmuse: Commenters, you may be missing the point. Sarah’s saying that religious attitudes generally prevent such situations as these from being improved. Looking at the structure of religions and their general effects upon a human mind, this is to be expected.
    Sarah: I still think that what I said is true. Religion is doing evil in the world.

    The criticism here is that there is a sort of schism in her essay (right around the point you quoted, Ebonmuse) where she jumps from a depressing story about women being mistreated to blaming religion without drawing any connection between the two. Is there a connection between religion and misogyny? Definitely, and I think everyone in this thread would agree to that – but Sarah’s story does not show this connection. What we’re criticizing is the lack of support that her particular conclusion is able to receive from her particular story; her point, in the last three paragraphs, is not strongly connected to the foregoing and that is the thrust of the criticism. Nobody is saying that her conclusion is false, but rather that her story does not support it.

    In other words, it’s not what Sarah said, but the particulars of how she went about making her point, that’s got everybody’s dander up. Her anecdote, while certainly illustrative of the misogyny that cuts deep into the Western world, shows women being mistreated but not at the hands of religion in this particular instance. She could have chosen from a million different stories that do support her conclusion directly; our criticism is that the particular one which she did in fact choose does not accomplish this.

    I hope this helps bring some clarity to the ongoing discussion. Happy Independence Day to all Americans, and a wonderful Saturday to the rest of the world!

  • Scotlyn

    Nice summary, D. I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Sarah, I read some of your other articles – your first post here, and the two it referenced – and I found them riveting and convincing. This one stuck me as a beginning and an end, with no middle. Personally I disagree with nothing in that beginning or that end, but am left hungry to find out what was in the left-out middle? I do hate to be so negative, but that was my experience here, too.

    I am looking forward to more of your posts, though, so please don’t take the hump! :)

  • Jormungund

    The real point here is that callous, misogynist attitudes toward women, such as one sees in the sailors who came to gawk at the prostitutes and treat them like tourist attractions, are largely the product of religious dogma.

    Other commenters and I have recognized this point. We just don’t see how religion causes the lack of empathy for prostitutes.

  • Chris

    We just don’t see how religion causes the lack of empathy for prostitutes.

    Uh, by directly condemning them? Theoretically, under many religions, disapproving of what someone is doing isn’t supposed to lead to lack of empathy for them as a human being, but in practice, it often does. So when a church describes prostitution as bad, then those who accept the church’s judgments have less empathy for people who practice it.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Context, Chris. Jormungund acknowledged that we recognize that “callous, misogynist attitudes… are largely the product of religious dogma.” That obviously extends to the sex trade, so when he says two sentences later that “We just don’t see how religion causes the lack of empathy for prostitutes,” I think it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to granting that he meant “in this story as you told it to us,” or “from the evidence you’ve presented us with.”

    Again, the criticism here is related to the form of Sarah’s argument, not the content of her conclusion.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Sarah,

    I really enjoyed your first essay, and I really enjoyed 90% of this one. Still, I couldn’t help but to nod in agreement with the many commenters who seemed to feel religion entered the discussion out of left field. Whether intentional or mere Freudian slip, this was clearly just another argument painting the Judeo-Christian religions as responsible for misogyny, lawlessness and callous indifference to human suffering, when in reality these unfortunate misgivings are caused by several interweaving and overlapping socio-cultural and economic factors, both religious and secular. I’m not surprised Ebon let this one slip through the editorial cracks, because its a powerful rhetorical argument against religion, but the fact remains that you gave “religion” as your singular answer to the question of “what’s holding us back [from rising above our indifference to human suffering]” when I think it’s fair to say a reasoned look at reality suggests the problems are more complex.

    I ended up writing a full response to this post, so you succeeded given the stated goal of provoking thought, but ironically, part of my argument is that which you suggests stems from religion exists to the Nth degree right here in secular San Francisco where you said you took your tour, and similar patterns exists in most all major American cities. Would you be so quick as to suggest an inversely proportional relationship between modern American secularism and misogyny? Drug abuse? Prostitution? Indifference to human suffering? What of the relationship between American neo-capitalist commercialism and misogyny? Why make religion the sole scapegoat for humanity’s shortcomings?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not contesting the fact that just like any other expression of human authority, religion can beget moral hypocrisy up to and inlcuding the subjugation of women, and of course the sailors in the story were acting repulsively. Yes, it was also most certainly ironic that what you described took place in the Vatican’s shadow, but to just blame it all on religion a la Dawkins and hoist that as a petard for atheism doesn’t cut it.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Wow. Daylight Atheism is a tough crowd. And, I love it!

    Thanks for all of the comments. I hope to win you back over next time.

    Back to studying for the bar exam.

    Happy 4th!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    If I may join in the pile-on here, I thought the insertion religion at the end was rather abrupt and out of place. Particularly, since Christian doctrine is against prostitution and extramarital sex, the horny sailors were definitely not being guided by religious teachings in their comments and exploits.

    What is holding us back is the notion that exploiting people in poverty and desperate circumstances still seems to be acceptable to a significant segment of humanity. In that regard, religious people can play a positive role just as can those of use who are secular.

  • KShep

    Well, I for one didn’t have any problem making the connection Sarah was trying to establish. She asked:

    As a human rights activist, I am sometimes awestruck by the absence of humanity in humans. And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back?

    And then gave a possible answer, based on experiences in her JW upbringing:

    I think religion is holding us back. It is all too easy to view human beings as unworthy of your sympathy and care if you think of them as the damned and filthy heathen hordes shunned by your Almighty.

    Religious leaders all over the world like to look down their noses and tell all us heathens how shunned we are, while simultaneously reminding their followers how righteous they all are. It isn’t much of a stretch to take that constant admonition to the next level and start laughing at prostitutes, is it?

  • Jormungund

    It isn’t much of a stretch to take that constant admonition to the next level and start laughing at prostitutes, is it?

    But this article never says that the sailors were religious. For all we know the sailors were non-religious and laughing at the prostitutes. Had the author said “these sailors all regularly attended a church that degraded prostitutes” then I would see the connection between religions looking down on heathens and the sailors looking down on/taking sick amusement from the suffering of prostitutes. Unless the author knows the sailors’ religious leanings, we can’t blame their callous attitude on churches encouraging them to look down on outsiders. We don’t even know if these sailors went to church at all. We don’t even know if they are theists or atheists. So it is a HUGE leap to go from “sailors go ‘hooker hunting’” to “churches encouraged them to do that.” If we knew that they went to churches that encouraged this, then there wouldn’t be this unreasonable leap. I guess my point here is that the author needs to explain the connection; because I don’t see it presently.
    Not to mention that I doubt that a church encourages ‘hooker hunting.’ I took ‘hooker hunting’ to mean that the sailor(s) wanted to purchase the services of prostitutes. Did they merely look at prostitutes or did some of them buy sex acts? ‘Hooker hunting’ seems to be the kind of thing that a church would condemn. Are we sure that a church somehow urged them on to do this?
    We can say that the (mostly religious) people of Naples should be showing some empathy rather than disregard for the prostitutes. Their religious leanings apparently don’t give them any more empathy than the sailors showed. We could rightfully complain against their religious leanings for that failure of empathy. But that doesn’t count for the US sailors because we don’t know their religious leanings.

  • Soulless_Wolf

    I feel that I must still object to the conclusion itself. As rephrased by Ebonmuse, “The real point here is that callous, misogynist attitudes toward women, such as one sees in the sailors who came to gawk at the prostitutes and treat them like tourist attractions, are largely the product of religious dogma.” I think you are wrong, and I do not feel that religion itself is the source of misogyny, nor do I think it is primarily responsible for the perpetuation of misogynistic attitudes.

    I would agree that there are religions and religious traditions that subjugate women, but not in a way that perpetuates the sex trade. Abrahamic faiths all tell their followers that a woman is less than a man. I agree that these faiths pose an obstacle to equality between the sexes and people with differing sexual preferences, but I do not think it an obstacle to helping the women who suffer in the sex trade. I have already brought up the ease of finding evidence to support my view that churches actually do some good, but I feel that I should elaborate. These churches aren’t merely taking streetwalkers in and telling them they just need to love Jesus more and they will be saved from their life of sin – they are taking them off the streets, giving them shelter, food, psychological help, and providing opportunities for them to get jobs or go back to school. They aren’t trying to simply rid the streets of prostitutes so they don’t have to see them, they are trying to solve the problems in the lives of these women that cause them to be out on the street in the first place.

    The claim I believe you are trying to make, and feel free to correct me here, is that people use their religion as a means to shield themselves from people who want to attack them for their misogyny. Actually allowing a misogynist to simply defend his views as religious is in fact a way to earn himself carte blanche for feeling as he likes on this topic, but it seems that you are going too far with this claim. You would not suggest that bullet proof vests cause people to rob banks, even though they can help individual bank robbers perform individual bank robberies. Nor would you blame bunkers the world over for antisemitism just because the bunkers on Normandy beach aided the Nazis. Furthermore, just like people in bunkers aren’t all Nazis, not everyone outside of a bunker is not a Nazi, and this is the thrust of my argument. Misogyny – like racism, homophobia, and other kinds of bigotry – are artifacts of outdated ways of thinking, but ones that do not get their start in religion; rather, some religions, having been spawned within cultures that supported these bigotries, share these cultural opinions.

    People around the world are misogynistic and this isn’t a new thing. I would wager it predates religion by thousands of years. We can see evidence of misogyny around the world, existing in areas well before any Abrahamic faith was present. If we take a look into the history of Japanese and Chinese cultures we can see very strong evidence for this. If a man owed a debt to another man which he could not repay, the owed party could instead take his wife or daughter and force them to work in a brothel in order to repay their husband’s/father’s debt. The subjugation of women did not end there, a wife was expected to wait on her husband hand and foot, going way beyond cooking and cleaning: women were expect to serve their husbands’ every whim, waiting on him to finish his meal before they could begin their own. Women in this culture were not under any such strong faith, though – people had local gods that they paid worship to, but were not the zealous dogmatists that are present in Abrahamic faiths. Still, women were seen as possessions, and prostitutes were held in even less regard.

    For the same reasons you have provided to blame the suffering of women in the sex trade on religion, religion could be said to be at fault for racism as well. All throughout history, groups claiming religious virtue have committed all kinds of heinous acts of racism in the name of their gods. Here we are today and people of many races still struggle for equality, but great strides have been made in the way of making people see that everyone is human just like them. Religions today offer the same sort of rationalizations to commit these acts as they did in the past, but their prevalence has decreased. The very same people who lynched blacks in the south while claiming divine justice still exist today, and are still just as racist as they were then, having managed to use their religion to shield their minds from the advance of reason. But like it or not, reason is entrenching itself in the minds of their children, and their children’s children, and will continue to do so as long as there is an open dialogue about the topic.

    Yes people use their religion as a shield to spare them from criticism for their bigotry, but that is not the fault of the shield and just like those who used it to protect their racist bigotry, those who use it to protect their misogynistic bigotry can only protect themselves, not the bigotry itself.

  • KShep

    But this article never says that the sailors were religious…….

    Correct. But I think Sarah was trying to say that religion’s influence, since religion does indeed have enormous influence over all society, plays at least a small part in the sailors’ actions; whether they are religious or not is mostly irrelevant.

    That’s what I took away from her essay, anyway.

    …..So it is a HUGE leap to go from “sailors go ‘hooker hunting’” to “churches encouraged them to do that.”

    Gotta disagree, for reasons stated above. Religion’s influence in society is alive and well far beyond the confines of the local church. Everyone here should know that.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I feel bad that this article was obviously so poorly written that very few people actually “got it”. It is not, and was never intended to be, a dissertation on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Neapolitan sex industry. It’s bothering me, so I wanted to try to clear things up. This is how I see it:

    A description of some act of brutality, which I have expressed an interest in witnessing, and which I do witness.

    Tremendous feelings of guilt over having participated in this brutality, even if only as a witness, which precipitate a great deal of reflection on my part. The remainder of the piece is my thought process as I grapple with my guilt and the inhumanity of so many human beings.

    I think religion is a source of tremendous inhumanity in the world. It creates an us / them tribal mentality. Anyone outside of the tribe is subhuman. The survival of the tribe is predicated on the control of female sexuality. It promotes lawlessness and misogyny and immorality. It is inherently hypocritical. And, in my opinion, no one suffers more from this divinely ordained inhumanity than women.

    How do I know this? I rely upon my experience growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, as well as my experiences working/studying/traveling as a human rights activist.

    That’s it. That’s exactly what it was meant to convey.

    When I blamed religion for the lack of care human beings show one another, as well as humanity’s lack of development as a whole, I will admit that I should have included all forms of tribalism, including their respective dogmas. But, as a commenter mentioned above, religion is probably the most vile form, given its claims of divine authority and impunity, and its fear and loathing of female sexuality in hyperbole. Not to mention the fact that this is clearly an anti-religion opinion piece, and I don’t feel any need to extend any equal time to other idiocies.

    The comments above seemed to center on the complaint that I am unable to prove that the sex industry would not exist if religion did not exist. Or, that I did not even attempt to show how religion foments an atmosphere conducive to the creation / support of a brutal sex industry (although I don’t think this is much of a stretch).

    I hope I’ve made it clear that such was not my point.

    If you just didn’t like the structure of the piece — well, oh well. It was deliberate. I was happy with it. I hadn’t intended for it to be such a hindrance to comprehensibility, obviously. I will say that I don’t enjoy hand holding, but Proustian opacity is not desirable in an article meant to be persuasive either.

    The last prong of the criticisms seemed to fall along the lines of, “You can’t show that religion makes anyone do anything bad – there are so many other factors in play. How do you know that we wouldn’t be just as bad off without religion? Why don’t you blame atheism or Buddhism or capitalism or socialism for immorality and lawlessness and misogyny? So many people do good things in the name of religion.”

    I have to admit that I find this last criticism more than a little surprising on a blog that espouses atheism and decries religion. It smacks a great deal of an argument believers make – the whole “moral vacuum” stance. Like I mentioned above, if you see religion as completely benign, why bother arguing against it or espousing atheism?

    I think many atheists are content to engage in atheism as a polite intellectual exercise, which makes them feel good about themselves. If they argue against religion at all, they take the stance that religion is untrue.

    There is another group that argues that religion is hypocritical – that religion has no claims to any moral superiority over any other dogma or atheism. The we don’t need religion to be good folks.

    I argue, and others do as well, of course, that religion is an obstacle to morality, an obstacle to rule of law, an obstacle to human rights, and an obstacle to humanity’s development, including its scientific and technological development. And, especially, an obstacle to women being recognized as full human beings with inherent dignity and full autonomy.

    There are many atheists who don’t want to go that far. I think a good number of them fear being labeled as cultural imperialists.

    Are there other obstacles as well? Sure there are – plenty, but few others are as insidious and pernicious and prevalent as religion.

    I think there is much evidence to support this claim – much of which I mentioned above. But, as I also mentioned above, absent that control experiment Yahweh failed to provide, I don’t know exactly what our society would look like without religion. I can’t prove to you that we will all treat each other fabulously sans religion. I do know that things aren’t going so swimmingly with religion, and I sure would like to get the obstacle of religion out of the way, so that we can at least try to build a better world.

    I would never support criminalizing religion. I support both freedom of and from religion. I would never impose my views upon anyone else. But, I will voice them. That’s why I think this website, and so many others like it, are so important.

    I beg your forgiveness for having trespassed upon your time as I have. I hope this clears things up. Thanks so much.

  • Entomologista

    I didn’t have any trouble understanding her argument. There are all kinds of bullshit religious justifications for treating women like second-class citizens. Atheism eliminates this rationale for subjugating women. (This is why I find the majority of religion incompatible with feminism.) However, atheists or not, we live in a patriarchy, which is at least partially a product of patriarchal religions (no, a religion does not have to be Semitic to be patriarchal). So whether or not these sailors were theists, the idea that it is ok to laugh at women forced into prostitution is a product of living in a patriarchy. And the patriarchy is a product of religion. Get it?

    What is the patriarchy, you ask? “Patriarchy, which invisibly persists as the world’s most popular social order, is a really bad scene based on an oppressive paradigm fetishizing dominance and submission. Benefits in this culture of domination are accrued according to a rigid hierarchy at the top of which are rich honky adult males and at the bottom of which are poor female children of color. Within this hierarchy, women, regardless of race or any other status markers, constitute a sub-human sex class.” – Twisty Faster, of IBTP

    I would like to point out that just because religions may say they are against extra-marital sex it doesn’t mean they actually are against extra-marital sex. They are against extra-marital sex for some women. This is to ensure that there is both a pool of marriageable “good girls” and also a pool of “bad girls” for men to use, because boys will be boys. Why am I having to explain these very simple concepts? Go educate yourselves.

  • Scott

    I have to say I enjoyed the essay, it gave me some good images and it was well written. I can honestly say that I can see both sides of the arguments that are going around in the comments but I think a lot of people have perhaps missed Sarah’s point.

    “And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back?

    I think religion is holding us back.”

    This is the only party of the essay you need to read to truly get Sarah’s point. The sex trade is just an interesting story that can be used to get to this point; that our inhumanity can be justified through religion. We can choose to ignore those who our holy text tells us are sinners and when we do so, we hide behind a shield of ‘religious morality’.

    I believe Sarah’s point was that in order to become more ‘human’ we need to find our morality amongst humans, not the ‘divine’.

    Though I cannot speak from experience, having never set foot inside a church or been affiliated in any way shape or form with a religion, I am fairly certain many different churches go out of their way to ‘help those less fortunate’

    Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong Sarah!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Sarah

    I beg your forgiveness for having trespassed upon your time as I have. I hope this clears things up. Thanks so much.

    I hope I speak for many when I say you definitely have not trespassed anywhere. Ebonmuse invited your piece and it has attracted much interest and comment. Just because the structure of your argument has come under critiscism doesn’t mean the conclusion isn’t correct or that many of the critics don’t agree with you. As you said earlier we can be a “tough crowd”. Personally I found it interesting that several commentors who would use your assumtions about the evils of religion if debating a theist on this site, have played devils advocate with you. This is healthy. If Ebon extends another invitation please do not be put off accepting.

  • Scotlyn

    Sarah,
    What Steve said!!! And I look forward to hearing more from you in future! I do not think any of this has been a waste of time.

    One of the subtexts, for me, of the subject matter of your article above, is the Madonna/Whore set of archetypes that are alive and well in Catholic countries – two of which I have some experience of. There is a permissiveness towards men having it off with “bad” girls whenever they need to, but a requirement that they marry “good” girls – putting “bad” girls pretty much outside of the marriage market. This is not as marked as in previous eras, but the striking thing, that still persists, is the difficulty for a woman to move from being a “bad” girl to being a “good” (ie marriagable) girl. Whereas in former times, any type of pre-marital sex would have disqualified you, nowadays a bit of pre-marital serial monogamy is usually ok, but there is still a line, somewhere between that and prostitution that marks off the really “bad” girls.

    Comparing this with your experience in Morocco, Sarah, it seemed that one difference between Muslim culture (as you experienced it) and Catholic culture, is that there did not seem to be any such thing as a “good” girl, in the view of the men you dealt with, just an “owned” girl.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The point that landed most on target for me:

    And, how to account for the insensitivity?

    Why God, in his Perfection, made us that way. Any real atheist would know that.

  • KShep

    I beg your forgiveness for having trespassed upon your time as I have.

    You owe no apologies. I’m most definitely not the smartest person on board here, and I figured it out. Sometimes we all fail to see the nose on our faces.

  • Danikajaye

    Thank you for your post Sarah, I had no trouble with it, maybe because I myself has seen prostitues in Italy (mostly Rome- not far from vatican city but also in Naples) as well as the sex industries in Germany, Netherlands, Thailand and Australia.

    If you see this link to the rates of “Religousity In Europe” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Europe (Sorry don’t know how to do the nice blue link- eeeek!) Now I travelled through around 28 countries in Europe by myself a couple of years ago as a 21 year old lone female. Whether is is purely coincidence or not, my level for personal safety seemed to be inversely proportionate the percentage of god belief on that list. I had the most trouble in Greece, there were large gatherings of men (approx.300) outside my hotel in Athens at some type of “men only” market. I was leered at constantly (and I made sure I wore modest clothes despite the 40C heat wave) and I was routinely stalked everytime I left my hotel. I couple of times I had to break into a sprint. I affectionately called it “running the gauntlet”. It got worse as I travelled closer to Turkey. I also had a few sticky situations in Italy where men tried to lure me away from public places (how stupid did they think I was?). As a general rule I found the more religious a country was, the more I had to deal with leering men and the feeling I was a piece of meat. Now in contrast I felt the safest in Helsinki, Finland ( I walked around at night by myself with no problems) and also in the Netherlands which coincidently has a roaring sex trade.

    The major difference between the religious countries and the less religious countries was not if they had a sex industry or not and not if less or more of the population had sex. Every country has a sex industry and in every country people are having sex regardless of the religious statistics. The major difference can be seen in the attitudes towards women and whether they are respected as individuals and as sexual beings. I don’t think anybody would disagree that there is a glaring double standard when it comes the socially acceptable sexual activities of men and women in almost all countries. It appears to be socially acceptable for men to be sexually aggressive but unacceptable for woman to even contemplate sex in some places. In searching for the origin of this gross disproportion I would point my finger squarely at religion. Ebon has presented countless examples on DA of religion outrightly presenting women as inferior to men. It was there right from the start with original sin. I sometimes feel that as a female I am viewed in a religious context as nothing more than a womb that somehow grew legs and learned how to talk. Womens sexuality has long been used as a tool to control and degrade them. How many times have you heard the word “slut” or “whore” used in reference to a man? The influence of religion, even in western countries, effects women every day. The attitudes stem from religion but have managed to pervade society and are ingrained to such an extent that non-relious people often don’t even realise. I would bet there are many men in western society that believe that women should not have “too many sexual partners” and that men can “play the field” but could not tell you why. The view of women as property or as lesser than men impacts upon the health, safety and propsperity of women all around the world every day. Whether it is a rape victim that gets cross examined about her sexual history or behaviour, a woman in the middle east accused of having an affair that gets stoned to death or a woman in an office that gets passed over for a promotion because their boss thinks a man would do a better job I believe religion is to blame.

    Is it any coincidence that the most socially progressive countries, for example those in Scandinavia, are also the least religious? Somehow I think not.

  • bob

    thank you for this article.im a girl. it gave me hope that someone isn;t misogynistic, and actually has empathy for prostitues, considering them as who they truly should be : human beings. thank you.


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