What Does A Commitment to Gender Equality Imply?

January 7, 2009

Some may find it difficult to believe, but as late as 1975, women could not even open bank accounts in Spain without their husbands or fathers co-signing. As the linked article from the   New York Times explains, this restriction was a reflection of the influence that Catholic doctrine had on Spain at the time.

Religion has, for the most part, devalued women and supported absurd and unjustifiable restrictions on women’s rights. Not unexpectedly, humanists almost universally support civil equality for women and men.

But what does a commitment to gender equality entail? Some answers to this question are easy. Obviously, women and men should have identical voting rights, the same opportunities to become political candidates, indistinguishable legal capacities to acquire, manage, and dispose of property, and so forth.

But some humanists believe that to achieve meaningful equality for women, personal freedom for some must be restricted. Humanists have traditionally opposed censorship and supported the right of consenting adults to engage in whatever sexual conduct they find acceptable. However, some feminists argue that pornography degrades women and that prostitution should be banned because no woman can freely choose to sell her body. (I take no position on these issues here other than to note that banning pornography and prostitution on the ground they exploit or degrade women raises an interesting question about how we should deal with gay pornography and gay prostitution.)

Since the percentage of humanists who are aficionados of porn or utilize the services of prostitutes is presumably not very high, those particular issues may not be considered that important. But most of us work for a living and do not want to be discriminated against because of gender.

We all favor equal pay for equal work, and none of us, I assume, believe an employee should receive less compensation because of her/his gender. But how about pay based on “comparable worth”? Similarly, we oppose discrimination based on sex, but does that require support for affirmative action?

Before answering that question, we would probably need to define “affirmative action” because different people have different understandings of that term. Some equate affirmative action with set-asides or quotas. This term has been used that way in the past, but after the 1978   Bakke decision, it is clear that quotas (at least for public employers and institutions) are illegal. In the United States, employers can, for the purpose of increasing diversity, favor a woman or a minority for hire   provided all candidates for the position are similarly qualified. Of course, therein lies the rub. How is the similarity of qualifications determined? Those who oppose affirmative action suspect that it operates as a cover for quotas, whereas those who favor affirmative action maintain that, properly applied, it is a legitimate tool for achieving truly meaningful equal opportunity.

Many people are passionate about these issues. That’s not bad in itself—these are not issues for which indifference is a virtue—but this passion sometimes results in an exchange of invective, insults, ad hominem attacks, and the usual sort of intellectual gibberish produced by overwrought emotions.

Here’s a news flash: someone who supports affirmative action for women isn’t necessarily anti-male, nor is someone who questions the methodology of comparable worth necessarily a misogynistic pig.

Personally, I find that all these policy questions both significant and difficult. In my view they require careful study, and we can hope to arrive at an acceptable resolution only if we utilize the methods traditionally used by humanists—reasoned arguments supported by empirical evidence.

But what’s your take on these issues. Should humanists try to ban pornography? Should prostitution be legalized or prohibited? Is affirmative action (as you define it) laudable or morally questionable? Moreover, given the disagreements among humanists about these matters, should CFI ever take an official position on these issues?

You now have the floor.

[FULL GENDER BIAS DISCLOSURE: I AM MALE; MY COMPANION IN LIFE AND LOVER IS FEMALE; I HAVE A DAUGHTER; I HAVE A SON; OF THE THREE CATS WHO OCCUPY MY HOME, TWO ARE FEMALE, ONE MALE]

 

Comments:

#1 Michael (Guest) on Wednesday January 07, 2009 at 6:30pm

Since prostitution and pornography are not exploitative in all cases, and because the exploitation is not a necessary outcome of the activity I think banning it would be equivalent to banning any other instrument that can be used legitimately but has a high chance of being used for evil. (The first example that pops in my head is alcohol.) So I don’t think any sort of ban can be defended.

#2 Kevin (Guest) on Wednesday January 07, 2009 at 7:56pm

I never quite got the thrust of either of these arguments.

“[S]ome feminists argue that pornography degrades women and that prostitution should be banned because no woman can freely choose to sell her body.”

Actually, I’ve never heard the last phrase before now, and it strikes me as particularly problematic. [Anyone know a link/source of someone actually using this formulation of the argument?] What’s the justification for a statement as broad and sweeping as “no woman can freely choose to do x”? That’s quite an extraordinary claim (which as outspoken atheists and paranormal investigators continually remind us, requires extraordinary evidence). The first part of the sentence is completely irrelevant. Arguably, lots of different things could be considered degrading, but in no other case (that I know of) is this grounds for a legal ban. I don’t really have a stance on the legalization of prostitution issue, but I would not support a ban without much better reasons than those given as examples above.

“In the United States, employers can, for the purpose of increasing diversity, favor a woman or a minority for hire provided all candidates for the position are similarly qualified.”

I don’t mean to be idealistic (if indeed I am), and I know full well that the system we have is far from perfect. None the less, I think affirmative action is a terrible solution. All it does is turn potential discrimination on its head. I’m not ok with making hiring/firing decisions based on gender or race, even if it is favorable to the minority. As a policy, it actually encourages discrimination based solely on the basis of gender or race. I chalk this “solution” to racism right on up there in effectiveness with fighting for peace and screaming for quiet. I don’t want to deny that it’s done good things—I honestly don’t know what its success rate is. I just disagree with it in principle, as I understand the principle.

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 7:16am

To answer Kevin’s question, the late Andrea Dworkin, an atheist,argued that prostitution is intrinsically evil and not only that prositutes are not free but also that no woman is truly free as long as there is prostitution. Just use her name and “prostitution” in a web search and you should find the assertions you are looking for.
Youv can also use this link: http://www.fcap.btik.com/p_ProstitutionIsAHumanRightsIssue.ikml. This will conect you to some assertions in favor of the claim that prostitutes (or at least 98% of them) are not free. FCAP stands for the Feminist Coaliton Against Prostitution. In providing this information, I am not endorsing the arguments set forth in these cites; I am just bringng them to your attention.

#4 Jeff P (Guest) on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 8:08am

The stories about sexual-slavery, those situations where naive and vulnerable young women are promised opportunity and then find themselves in life-threatening situations as human slaves, are abhorrent. 

Any and all things possible should be done to prevent and stop such human atrocity.

I have to suspect, but don’t have empirical evidence, that people who employ themselves into sex-related business often don’t have better opportunities, or experience life-situations where given the choice, they would do something else. 

I thought reading “Gig” by John Bowe, was revealing.  He interviews several people in the sex-entertainment and prostitution-type businesses, and they share frankly about their experiences and lives.  Some of their stories seem predictable, others weren’t. So I didn’t get the sense that all prostitutes were particularly “enslaved,” but I know that’s a slippery slope.

A humanist approach that incorporated a desire for no harm to any party would be a wise choice, but it would be difficult to specify (I think) pointed policy or prohibition.

#5 r strle (Guest) on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 3:46pm

“However, some feminists argue that pornography degrades women and that prostitution should be banned because no woman can freely choose to sell her body.”

How could it be that “NO” woman can freely choose to sell her body.”  This just does not make any logical sense!  There was an interesting piece on CNBC that showed how obviously untrue this is.  I see this issue in very much the same way as abortion.  It is really all about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.

Wouldn’t it be great viewing to watch the fundies (and maybe the far out feminists) go nuts if the Supreme Court were to hand down a decision on abortion similar to Roe v Wade.

Just wishfully thinking…again

#6 r strle (Guest) on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 5:04pm

“we would probably need to define “affirmative action” because different people have different understandings of that term.”

I think the definition of affirmative should be determined by the looking to the goals.

As I understand them the initial goals of Affirmative Action were primarily —to ensure that all minorities and genders were proportionally represented in those afforded an opportunity to a quality education, “the” good jobs and professional advancement.  But like many well-intentioned “good Ideas” things can go awry and so unfortunately there were too many cases where it ended up where the functional definition of Affirmative Action was:

The hiring or placement action necessary to meet some arbitrary quota so that minority individuals having less than adequate qualifications because they were raised in impoverished environments, having limited or no access to adequate educational opportunities, or who were born the “wrong” gender are selected in place of other highly qualified individuals so that they are afforded the opportunity to fail or drive an economic system to mediocre performance.

Still it doesn’t seem, as some propose, that throwing the idea away is the way to go.  Perhaps tweaking as others have proposed is a better solution.

#7 r strle (Guest) on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 5:16pm

I must apologize for being a typing klutz. 

“However, some feminists argue that pornography degrades women and that prostitution should be banned because no woman can freely choose to sell her body.“

How could it be that “NO” woman can freely choose to sell her body?  ‘This just does not make any logical sense!  There was an interesting piece on CNBC about high-end prostitutes and the business executives that showed how obviously untrue this is.  I see this issue in very much the same way as abortion.  It is really all about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.

Wouldn’t it be great viewing to watch the fundies (and maybe the far out feminists) go nuts if the Supreme Court were to hand down a decision on PROSTITUTION similar to Roe v Wade.

Just wishfully thinking…again

#8 Rachel (Guest) on Thursday January 08, 2009 at 6:06pm

I don’t think that gender equality can be achieved as simply as implementing affirmative action or outlawing prostitution. A fascinating discussion between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke (

#9 Matthew 10:10 on Friday January 09, 2009 at 1:42am

As humans, not having asked to be born, we are all equal. Regarding the gendered bodies that we were born into, one body type can be a bit trickier to live with and empathy from both types toward the challenge is healthy.

Meeting quotas to fullfill our Affirmative Action is forced intergration, which is still necessary for a population of people who have hsitorically not shown themselves as ethical judges of each other.

Ideally, the best suited person for a job, should get the job, regardless of irrelevant personal characteristics. These characteristic are very relevant because we have made them relevant as history reveals our carelessnees with these issues.

We created affirmative action to restrict employers (people) from unethically discriminating between cultures. Any qualified human, or overly so, should receive due consideration for employment. Until more than 10-15% of the Earth’s population can recognize that we are all merely human, and simpler, we will need these quotas and laws to prevent humans from following the mistakes of the past.

These mistakes are not necessarily instinctual. In other words, a mojority of the human race may not always be racist and sexist as prior systems of belief have rendered them, en masse. We are finally further than we have ever been, still with further to go.

We still need our laws, and to make adjustments to them. We still need to work on the thoughts that have crept their way through time into human minds via lack of knowledge and the substitutes for that incredible lack of knowledge, religions, primarily, and there is more, as most secularists and atheists have become aware.

This is my first post here. Nice topic. I hope that I danced close enough to it.

#10 Matthew 10:10 on Friday January 09, 2009 at 1:51am

Prostitution is our consentual choice as humans, and of course laws should govern its evolution, especially with regard to health and zoning regulations both geographic and virtual. Sexual exploitation is a bit too heavy for children, we might all agree.

If you are silly enough to spend heaps of money on prostitution and porn (like drugs), then you are just behaving sillily, while someone, who’s aware of your tendency, receives your heaps of money. Fun! Right? Better drink some more to make it more funner. Dar!

#11 JerryW (Guest) on Friday January 09, 2009 at 2:06am

No doubt these issues do need “careful study” but this wasn’t it, just a few noncontroversial opinions strung together (like my response). Who cares what Dworkin thinks? Few bother to refute her bizarre arguments these days.

In my experience virtually every act of sex is bought and sold, in some way. You try to get any woman into bed without employing flattery (and most often, a wallet). Uncomfortable thought, but true?

One more point: because men and women are demonstrably different, full gender equality is logically impossible (are cats equal to dogs? How could you tell?) and will never happen, since there will always be a tension in one direction or another. Still, keep trying by all means, it’s better than doing the opposite, as we mostly have until recent times

#12 Karen D. (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2009 at 6:40am

Making prostitution illegal only bans “one off” transactions, from those performed by streetwalkers to those performed by individuals such as Eliot Spitzer’s Ashley.  There’s an issue of public health, not just degradation, as these persons have sex with many, many more partners than average, and can greatly contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted disease. 
Pornography is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore it should be legal barring the exploitation of children.  Images that, hundreds of years ago, were considered exclusively for the bedchamber are now hanging in museums.

#13 Ubiquitous Che (Guest) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 8:07pm

Prostitution should NOT be made illegal.

Prostitution should be legal. The rights of sex workers should be enshrined in legislation and strictly enforced to ensure their health, safety and physical security. Sex workers have the same rights for health, safety, and physical security as a member of any other service industry.

That said, sexual slavery is, of course, abhorrent. So it is important to emphasize that prostitution isn’t synonymous with sexual slavery. The informed consent and protection of basic human rights of sex workers in the sex industry is what makes all the difference.

#14 Ubiquitous Che (Guest) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 8:21pm

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my country. It’s one of the things that makes me proud to be a Kiwi.

#15 r strle (Guest) on Wednesday January 14, 2009 at 7:00am

Yea New Zealand!!

#16 Matthew 10:10 on Wednesday January 14, 2009 at 10:35am

Sorry to stray from the subject, but I am from NZ as well. My Mum and Sis still live there in Wellington. Gma is in Rotarua. My mother’s side of the fammily is all still there while I am here in AZ, USA.

Double yeah NZ.

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