I got involved in a discussion on Twitter the other day about the Ukrainian women’s group FEMEN, whose members are famous for appearing nude, or at least topless, at political protests – some of which are in opposition to the liberalisation of prostitution laws. So, here we have a group that appears to be rather relaxed about public nudity (some of its other activities seem to go even further in celebrating and advocating nudity, but I may be wrong about this interpretation), while being opposed to prostitution and the “sex tourism” that can go with it in countries where the law is relatively liberal.
One response that this receives is a claim that the FEMEN protestors are being inconsistent. “How,” the rhetorical questions are asked, “can they be in favour of (or at least relaxed about) public nudity, while being against prostitution? How can you be in favour of sexual freedom in one context but not in another?”
There’s much to say about this. For one thing, being relaxed about, or even favouring, nudity may not be based on anything as broad, possibly amorphous, as “sexual freedom”. It may be based on some narrower or different (perhaps not clearly sexual at all) set of attitudes and values. At the same time, even if you do favour sexual freedom in the abstract, this does not imply that you will favour every practice that is associated with sexual freedom in our culture. You may value other things as well, and these may outweigh sexual freedom (however defined) in certain contexts.
In a post over at The Hellfire Club, I laid out some possible combinations of empirical and philosophical views – views that go with certain values and attitudes – which might lead a person, quite consistently, to favour nudity (and perhaps many other things such as striptease, some sorts of erotic or pornographic art or images, etc.) while disfavouring prostitution (and perhaps certain other things such as some other kinds of porngraphy). Such a position might be quite consistent, though unusual in our (or “my” or “your”) culture and experience. Perhaps it is based on a combination of beliefs, attitudes, etc., that we simply haven’t encountered to date.
I won’t spell out the possible details again here, you can check that post for yourself and make up your own minds how plausible it might seem.
I didn’t claim to have explicated the system of assumptions, beliefs, values, etc., of the real FEMEN. Perhaps FEMEN actually rationalises its moral and political positions on some other basis, such as some kind of antipathy to commercial transactions. Or perhaps it simply places a lot of weight on the value of attracting attention to its protests. Or perhaps the real FEMEN actually is inconsistent. My point was only that, given some logically consistent sets of beliefs, attitudes, etc., it is possible to be principled and consistent in being in favour of public nudity, and even about relaxing the laws against it, while being against prostitution, and against relaxing laws against it.
I’d actually go a bit further. I think that some people probably do hold to a combination of underlying beliefs, attitudes, etc., similar to what I postulated, and this would tend to entail a pro-nudity/anti-prostitution position. And perhaps I should add that, although I don’t really subscribe to that combination of underlying beliefs, attitudes, etc., I don’t think it’s wildly implausible. I suspect that there are probably plenty of pro-nudity but anti-prostitution people around, even if they don’t make a lot of fuss about it, and they might well have quite strong arguments for their position.
As a philosopher, though, I want to bring out a more general point. We ought to hesitate before we dismiss a position as internally inconsistent. It might seem that way based on assumptions that you tend to make, or which you find plausible. But it may not be on the basis of the assumptions being made by the person actually holding the position. There are probably more sets of possible underlying assumptions than any of us ever encounter from day to day. When examined, some of the unusual ones may be at least as plausible as those with which we are more familiar.
In the immediate case, you cannot assume that someone who opposes pornography (or some kinds of it) necessarily opposes people merely wearing sexy clothes or engaging in partial or entire public nudity. Likewise you can’t assume that someone who cheerfully goes nude at the beach is in favour of liberal laws on prostitution or pornography. It is going to depend on a lot of other things that they might defend or believe, or place value upon.
By similar reasoning, someone who opposes gun control laws and so appears to be “conservative” might have specific reasons that do no prevent this person taking “liberal” positions across a wide range of other issues – and this person might be principled and consistent. We could multiply many examples like this. We really need to know why people take the particular stances they do, which might turn out to be surprising yet impressive.
If we bear this in mind we might be more cautious before assuming that somebody is, in a wider way, an ally… or an opponent. It’s going to depend, and it comes down to the details of their reasoning and what they value. Some people doubtless do hold stereotyped sets of positions, perhaps based on tribal loyalty to a party or commitment to a common ideology. But I suspect that many individuals, including many ordinary educated (or not-so-educated) people, do not. They may have more plausible reasons for their combinations of views than is apparent. That might make them more interesting to talk to if we do so in good faith.