Taslima Nasrin’s baffling posts on prostitution

So I’m really, sincerely not sure how to react to two recent posts by Taslima Nasrin, the latest addition to the Freethought Blogs team. The first one equated prostitution with slavery. After criticism by Greta and Natalie (as well as a relevant guest post at Crommunist’s blog), Taslima then posted this response. And I have a huge problem with Taslima’s approach to this issue.

The problem I have with is not that she’s wrong. Everyone’s wrong about some things. The problem is, well, let’s start with her first post. There’s been plenty of very good criticism of it (see the links above, including the comments on the post itself), but the worst part has to be the list of “lies” and “truths” that make up the latter half of the post. Some of the lies are easy targets, but others are things like, “Women choose to enter prostitution.” And the list of “truths” contains nothing in the way of counter-arguments, just counter-assertions.

I do not think it is always wrong to call your opponent a liar in a debate. Some people do try to win arguments by lying, and the world (and the cause of truth) needs to be protected from such lies, and the way to do that is to point them out when possible. But to do that, you actually need to have good evidence that your opponent is lying, which Taslima doesn’t present.

Poorly-supported accusations of lying are common enough. Accusations get made on little evidence, or people have good evidence that someone is wrong but unfairly assume the worst about their motives. Those things happen all the time. But in Taslima’s post, there’s little effort to argue that the lies are even untrue. There’s no attempt to argue, for example, that women never chose to enter prostitution, just counter assertions.

So the problem isn’t that she’s wrong, or isn’t up to the level we should expect for reasoned discussion. The problem is that what she’s written is two or three levels below what we should expect for reasoned discussion.

Then we get to the comments on the post. In one exchange, someone tried to argue that one of Taslima’s sources was not credible. To which she responded (this is her whole response):

Free thinkers should believe in women’s human rights. Men and women who treat women as equal human beings do not want anyone to be sex slaves. You are talking like a promoter of sex industries.

To which someone else responded:

Your response there, Taslima, is a breathtaking example of dishonest argument.

Nobody here supports sexual slavery.

We just don’t agree that sex work is by definition sexual slavery.

Taslima does not seem to have understood this response. Then there’s this exchange:

As a sex worker activist and active sex worker, what I want to say the most is *please listen to our voices.* We want rights, not rescue. Those speaking for us have trampled our voices for far too long.

In the United States and around the globe, sex workers are forming collectives and unions to fight for our rights. Mainstream feminism and patronizing anti-trafficking orgs have continually propagated lies about sex work statistics and have actively shut down our organizing efforts. The sex worker led efforts to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, CA were largely opposed by feminist organization and one of the biggest anti-decriminalization donations came from Gloria Steinhem herself.

Please listen to us. We don’t need to be saved, we need to be supported.

To which Taslima gave this astonishingly insulting response:

House slaves did not want the abolition of slavery because they were treated considerably better than field slaves. Would you say slavery should not have been abolished only because some privileged slaves wanted to remain as slaves?

She got called out on it too, but doesn’t seem to understand the problem with that either.

Then there’s the first paragraph of her post responding to criticism:

I hope we all Free-thought bloggers believe in freedom of expression. My opinion on prostitution  is nothing new. Most feminists believe prostitution or sexual slavery  must end. I do not want to be misunderstood. But  it looks like a war started against me on  FTB because I said something politically incorrect.  I feel suffocated because I am opposed by a group I proudly belong to, a group of atheists, secularists, humanists, rationalists.

No Taslima. No war has started against you. There has been no invasion, no bombings, no blockade. Just reasoned criticism. Nor are you being suffocated. Your expectation that people you agree with on some subjects won’t oppose you on other subjects is completely unreasonable. It makes no more sense than it would for them to expect you to automatically agree with their views on prostitution, just because you’re an atheist.

And it’s ridiculous to imply, on these grounds, that they don’t believe in freedom of expression.

The bulk of the rest of the reply post is links and quotes from other people who agree with Taslima. For example:

What is prostitution? Andrea Dworkin was a prostitute. She knows what prostitution is. ‘Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body.’ Please read

Yes Taslima, Andrea Dworkin was a prostitute. But so were other women who disagree with her. You have not given anyone a reason to believe Dworkin over them.

The most promising link in Taslima’s reply is one labeled “prostitution researchers.” When I first saw it, I sincerely believed for a moment that Taslima had found some serious journal articles supporting her views, and that maybe I couldn’t criticize her for failing to provide any real evidence for her claims. But when I clicked the link, I found what was very obviously not peer-reviewed research, but an advocacy group (to put it politely–actually, it was the advocacy group whose credibility someone in the previous thread had questioned.)

When I try to think of a time I have seen such an extreme case of unargued assertions, of not understanding what people who disagree with you are saying, I struggle to think of one. Except, maybe, in my encounters with street preachers. But Taslima is not a street preacher, she’s a fellow Freethought Blogger, an atheist who hasn’t been stopped from speaking out against Islam in spite of having had a price put on her head. I’m pretty thoroughly conditioned to put anyone who meets those requirements in my “person who deserves respect” category, no matter what else they’ve done.

So I mean it when I say my brain is having a hard time processing this one. Even though I’ve gone ahead and posted a reaction, while not sure it’s the right one.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I disagree with most of what she’s said, and she’s clearly being more hyperemotional than rational; but in fairness to her, most of what she said about prostitution and sex-slavery could well be true in the particular countries where she’s had experience. As Greta has said, there’s plenty of people in the relatively prosperous and advanced West who choose sex work freely and manage to benefit from it; but I’m sure such people are vanishingly rare in much poorer and more backward parts of the world — both because they have so much fewer alternatives, and because sex workers are treated so much worse there than here.

    Also, in such parts of the world, non-sexual slave-labor may be more routine, and more taken for granted; so that would explain why she only notices the sexual kind of slavery. Besides, the advocacy groups she works with may simply not be able to take on the larger mega-problem of patriarchy and extreme oppression of women; so they end up scapegoating one symptom, prostitution, instead.

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      I can understand that, but that doesn’t make her posturing that she’s being persecuted for being politically incorrect any better, nor does it excuse her frankly misogynistic treatment of Maggie Mayhem.

      • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

        True. I’m not agreeing with her, just trying to explain where she might be coming from — and what kind of mindless opposition we’ll face whenever we try to make our treatment of sex workers any more decent or sensible than it currently is.

  • http://haphazardhermit.blogspot.com/ michaeld

    As to the war on her comment, there have been plenty of prominent people which people disagreed with at one point or another. Dawkins, Hitchens, Phil Plait, Bart Ehrman (just last week) all readily spring to mind as prominent people who have said something at sometime that people took issue with.

    These disagreements aren’t wars nor are they necessarily a bad thing as it gives (at least the readers) a chance to try reevaluate their positions on an issue. Nor does it mean that they’ll suddenly be muzzled or shunned because for the most part we all have very similar goals. We just don’t all agree on all the details of all the issues.

  • slc1

    There’s a big difference between the run of the mill prostitute who is often forced into the trade to pay for her drug habit, and a high priced call girl such as the working girls frequented by such as Eliot Spitzer. The former can all too often be characterized as sex slaves to their pimps. The latter are entrepreneurs who are making a good living off their “clients”.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    My first issue with Ms. Nasrin’s posts is with her conflation of trafficking, exploitation and sex work. While there is a lot of overlap, these are separate problems that are better dealt with separately. My second is the apparent presumption that women, and only women, are forced into prostitution. Working to free women from sexual slavery while ignoring the boys and men who are also forced into sexual slavery will not bring an end to sexual slavery.

    Having been, by choice, in the sex trade myself some years ago — the details are in a reply to Ms. Nasrin’s second post, if it ever gets out of moderation — I can state categorically that there are people who enter the field voluntarily and that there are many who are not women.

    I understand and appreciate her zeal to protect women from the choices that others have forced upon them, but I find it objectionable that Ms. Nasrin is doing the same thing: forcing her own views on sex work upon those who do not share those views. Her unwillingness to consider alternate views — her outright rejection of alternate views — is no different from a theist who condemns evolution, or a climate denialist refusing to consider evidence of a warming planet.

    • MNb

      I agree. While I have sympathy for TN’s standpoint – as I wrote elsewhere I do not take my liberal views for granted – I’d like to see a source for that 90% of the prostitutes wanting to get out.

      • http://iacb.blogspot.com Iamcuriousblue

        The source for the “90% figure” is one of the studies by Melissa Farley, aka “Prostitution Research”, mentioned above. Farley’s studies have *enormous* selection bias, in that they’re based on oral interviews with sex workers in places like jails and emergency drop-in clinics. Also, if you look at the “methods” sections in her papers, her research methods are just shoddy. She gives no clue about how she goes from a generalized oral interview to reporting a response as somebody “wanting to leave prostitution”.

        There’s very good reason why the Canadian courts rejected much of Farley’s testimony in the Bedford decision:

        http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2010/2010onsc4264/2010onsc4264.html#_Toc270411950

      • http://iacb.blogspot.com Iamcuriousblue

        Looks like the blog software is eating my comments. I’ll try again.

        The source for the “90% figure” is one of the studies by Melissa Farley, aka “Prostitution Research”, mentioned above. Farley’s studies have *enormous* selection bias, in that they’re based on oral interviews with sex workers in places like jails and emergency drop-in clinics. Also, if you look at the “methods” sections in her papers, her research methods are just shoddy. She gives no clue about how she goes from a generalized oral interview to reporting a response as somebody “wanting to leave prostitution”.

        There’s very good reason why the Canadian courts rejected much of Farley’s testimony in the Bedford decision:

        http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2010/2010onsc4264/2010onsc4264.html#_Toc270411950

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    FYI, the link to the Crommunist post is broken.

  • penn

    I was really put off by her response to the criticism. She is someone who knows what real censorship is like. She knows what it means for a war to waged against a person for their outspoken views. It’s unfathomable that she can equate that with the criticism she received from her commenters and fellow FTBers. Her pieces come off more as propaganda and sloganeering than rational evidence-based argument. I admire her courage, but she so far appears to be a disingenuous debater.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

    My response to Nasrin’s followup is that her entire approach represents an absolute failure of skepticism, for all the reasons you’ve given above. My response has yet to make it out of moderation, and somehow I don’t think it will.

    While I don’t think being a skeptic absolutely dictates any kind of political ideology or “line”, including on the issue of sex work, I do think that if you’re going to call yourself a rationalist or skeptic, then you should make an effort to take positions that are evidence-based and look at your sources critically. And if you’re going to take an “abolitionist” line on sex work, then I’d say you have an uphill battle, since much of the case that movement has made is built on some very bad studies by advocacy-based researchers that any skeptic worthy of the name should call out. Claims like “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13″, “1 in 5 pornographic images is of a child”, and “sex trafficking jumps dramatically in areas where major sporting events like the World Cup or Superbowl are taking place” are all claims that have been thoroughly debunked. And all too often those making such claims simply ignore challenges or respond with ad-hom attacks, as Nasrin is doing now.

    I also have to say, this is a problem with PZ Myers whole approach to tie skepticism so closely to feminism. If one wants to be a skeptic and a feminist, great! But don’t try to impose an official ideology on skepticism, whether it’s feminism, libertarianism, dialectical materialism, or anything else. When the Soviet Union tied their atheist state to “scientific socialism”, they ended up with Lysenkoism, after all. And in this case, we’re seeing a supposedly rationalist blogger base her case not on hard evidence, but on what her political ideology tells her is so.

    • http://haphazardhermit.blogspot.com/ michaeld

      Well posts away looks like a large chunk of posts awaiting moderation have gone through. It’s pretty unfortunate that this whole incident happened right as she arrived here probably wouldn’t have had all post sitting in moderation if that weren’t the case.

    • MNb

      What bothers me even more is her way too simple “prostution is bad so forbid it” view.
      Let’s assume she’s right and 90% of the prostitutes wants to get out. If there is one thing we know for sure is that simply forbidding by law will make the circumstances of prostitutes even worse but does nothing to get them out.

    • Tyrant of Skepsis

      @Iamcuriousblue

      I also have to say, this is a problem with PZ Myers whole approach to tie skepticism so closely to feminism. If one wants to be a skeptic and a feminist, great! But don’t try to impose an official ideology on skepticism,

      I don’t understand in what sense the brand of feminism that PZ epsouses, is an ideology in the sense of Lysenkoism. For me it always felt just like a corrolary of general human decency. What does “imposing an official ideology on skepticism” mean anyways? It’s not like PZ, or anyone else, is the despot ruler of skeptistan.

      • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

        I don’t think he’s exactly a depot ruler, but a pretty polarizing figure, and during “Elevatorgate” seemed to want to “excommunicate” Dawkins. I think he can be quite obnoxious about marrying skepticism to certain political ideologies, and I think it shows in several “Freethoughtblogs” that are more about cultural politics than anything to do with science or reason. Nasrin’s, I have to say, being the worst to date, because she appears to have abandoned skepticism entirely.

        All of this is problematic, when creationists come back with the argument that skepticism is just applied liberal bias. I think they’re quite wrong in general, of course, but they could certainly point to certain “skeptic” blogs that are pretty much just about an unexamined set of politics rather than anything evidence-based.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          Dare I ask which blogs you think those are?

          • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

            “Dare I ask which blogs you think those are?”

            Taslima’s, definitely. Which right now I consider as operating at several steps below the level of argumentation I’d expect even from the Discovery Institute.

            Pharyngula itself, quite often I’m afraid. Far too often the locus of utterly stupid drama and denunciations from the “feminist blogosphere” than a forum for a rational perspective on current events.

            A few other FTB blogs that come a cross as garden-variety far-left rhetoric, though I’d have to look at them more closely to see if that’s really all that they’re about.

            To name some blogs I *do* like here. Crommunist is a good example of somebody combining strong political views with solid rational analysis. Also, Greta Christina’s, except perhaps when it’s fielding drama spillover from PZ’s. And for this blog, I think this particular post is right on the money, but I’ll have to read more of your blog before I can form an opinion more generally.

            One of my favorite skeptic/rationalist podcasts/blogs is Point of Inquiry (not a “Freethoughtblog”), which represents the deep thinking that represents the best of what the rationalist community has to offer. I see DJ Groethe is on PZ’s shitlist now too, apparently over, as one could guess, “feminist” drama.

        • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

          There’s a reason this is the Freethought Blogs network and not Atheist Bloqs. Looking at cultural politics with a rationalist lens is largely what Freethought is about.

          • Tyrant of Skepsis

            xe’s a “Dictionary Freethinker” :)

    • http://strangesally.wordpress.com/ SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant

      Pardon me? Episodes like these illuminate exactly why skepticism MUST be tied to feminism. The data support certain positions and not others. This can help resolve long-standing disagreements within the feminist movement, thereby helping move the cause of women’s liberation further ahead.

      Seriously, this is not a problem for skepticism or feminism. You think that just because Taslima Nasreen is having trouble applying skeptical principles to her feminist political positions, that means that feminism is somehow hobbling skepticism with its inflexible dogma? And yet the most informed and passionate criticisms of Taslima are coming from other feminists.

      Your concern is noted.

      • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

        Well, Sally, you make a very good case for why feminism needs skepticism, but not such a great case for the reverse. All I see from the other side is a bunch of radical feminist “abolitionist” types pounding their chests about how theirs is “true feminism” and largely made-up claims of conflict of interest against anybody who doesn’t agree with them. And if we’re simply going on who can lay claim on ideological purity, I suppose they win. If we go on empirical evidence, of course, they don’t have a case at all.

        And, yeah, I think I do think there’s a problem with an ideology that can dismiss valid criticism with *condescending* claims of “concern trolling”.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    When I try to think of a time I have seen such an extreme case of unargued assertions, of not understanding what people who disagree with you are saying, I struggle to think of one. Except, maybe, in my encounters with street preachers.

    In my experience in on-line forums (quite a few years, actually), that kind of behavior is very common.
    That applies not only to theistic forums, and is not limited to theists. For instance, it’s really common in political debates, moral debates, etc.

    But Taslima is not a street preacher, she’s a fellow Freethought Blogger, an atheist who hasn’t been stopped from speaking out against Islam in spite of having had a price put on her head. I’m pretty thoroughly conditioned to put anyone who meets those requirements in my “person who deserves respect” category, no matter what else they’ve done.

    That puts her in the ‘very brave’ category.
    But that a person is brave does not imply that he or she will not hold some beliefs in an irrational manner. Religions and a number of other false ideologies present plenty of examples of that.
    In fact, I’ve not seen evidence of any correlation between bravery and a lower propensity to hold irrational beliefs – there might or might not be such a correlation, for all I know.

    As for whether she deserves respect, I’d say she deserves praise for speaking out against Islam, and respect to the extent any person does, but that does not change the fact that she’s not assessing the evidence properly, thinking with a cool head when it comes to prostitution and how to best deal with it (which may well vary with social environment), or treating her opponents on this matter with much respect.

    I do not see any objections to calling her on that.

    That aside, a problem is that there might not be a way back from this kind of confrontation, where someone has expressed such a strong commitment to some belief that she may perceive a challenge to said belief as a threat to her reputation, at least among some groups (which isn’t necessarily a mistaken perception, in the sense that admitting a serious error might hurt her reputation among people she cares about); I’m not suggesting any deliberate failure to admit mistakes on such considerations, but rather an unconscious defensive reply.

    Then again, maybe if she reckons that her reputation in the long run overall probably will be better if she apologizes for misunderstanding what her critics were saying, and moderating her position, that might help. But then again, I do not know about her social environment enough to make an assessment as to what’s the best course of action for her reputation.

    I hope reason will prevail, but if what often happens in forums debates is any indication, that is possible but improbable.

  • jg29a

    Andrea Dworkin is also a master of unreasonable and underhanded argument, leading to such notoriously sweeping claims as:

    Seduction is often difficult to distinguish from rape. In seduction, the rapist often bothers to buy a bottle of wine.

    The common erotic project of destroying women makes it possible for men to unite into a brotherhood; this project is the only firm and trustworthy groundwork for cooperation among males and all male bonding is based on it.

    A commitment to sexual equality with males is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.

    That her name is invoked in a post such as Taslima’s certainly doesn’t incline me to give the latter the benefit of the doubt.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Richard Carrier posted a thorough response that makes some great points: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/925

  • msironen

    So the problem isn’t that she’s wrong, or isn’t up to the level we should expect for reasoned discussion. The problem is that what she’s written is two or three levels below what we should expect for reasoned discussion.

    Exactly this.

  • Pingback: Taslima Nasreen on the 72 virgins thing | The Uncredible Hallq

  • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.com/ BecomingJulie

    Much logical reasoning goes along lines such as
    “x ∈ A; A ⊂ B; ∴ x ∈ B”
    or
    “x ∉ B; A ⊂ B ; ∴ x ∉ A”.
    Even if your premises are false, you can still apply sound reasoning to them. You just end up with a false conclusion, is all.

    So, whenever you see a false conclusion being derived and there is no obvious flaw in the reasoning, ask yourself the question: What outlandish premise could I assume, from which this conclusion would follow?

    I think what Taslima is missing here is the idea that two people could have sex; and afterwards, both of them would be happier than they were before. Which is actually very sad, in its own way, when you think about it.

  • http://nil Enamul Haque

    Taslima,
    I also believe prostitution or sexual slavery must end. It shouldn’t be a part of human life. I respect all human but i do respect more the females of the world cause they are created by God as the beautiful object, I always want to see the beauties on it but don’t want touch it untill married and i did the same. (one wife only).


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