Where Are The Women, All The Women?

A few weeks ago I posted this on the Whorephobia blog, talking briefly about the strange and disturbing story of how the SS, which had imprisoned sex workers as ‘asocials’ suddenly saw the benefit of paid sexual services and became pimp and trafficker. There was a response to this here. I set out below my comments on this response.

Firstly it may be the case that I didn’t cover all aspects of this story. That was never my intention. This was a short blog post making readers aware of a story which is not particularly well known. Above all I wrote specifically about the issue of forced prostitution and not about the issue of sexual violence against women more generally. I do not dispute that women were raped and sexually abused in a variety of contexts during the Second World War and not only by the Nazis. The behaviour of the Red Army during its advance on Berlin is rightly notorious and even allied troops were involved in incidents as they liberated Western Europe in the months following D Day. I did not talk about these as they were outside the scope of my post.

On a second point we need to disentangle this from the story of the Holocaust if by Holocaust we mean that the mass murder, some of it industrialised killing, of Jewish people that was once better known as the ‘Final Solution’ or ‘die Endlösung der Judenfrage in Europa.’ These days the word Holocaust is used rather loosely to talk about the story of the Nazi camps more generally but this is not helpful. Jewish people played no role in the story of the brothels either as forced prostitutes or as ‘clients’.

Pennington makes certain specific points to which I wish to respond. Pennington says that not only sex workers were sent to the brothels. I agree. This was what I said and indeed it is fundamental to my argument. I am unsure what point she is making by saying this.

Pennington begins her discussion of the issue of homosexuality by saying

“I have some personal reservations about the brothels being developed to combat homosexuality within the camp system since the men who were incarcerated for the crime of homosexuality were subjected to sexual violence and medical experimentation. “

In saying this she is confusing two distinct phenomena. Many gay men were imprisoned for their sexuality. They wore the pink triangle on their uniforms and were at the bottom of the camp hierarchy. As such they did the hardest and most unpleasant jobs and were subjected to additional torments and humiliations. Their presence in the camps was not a significant factor in Himmler’s decision to set up the brothels.

It is, I think, well known that incarcerated men who are not gay by orientation can and do engage in sexual acts with other men, consensual or otherwise, to relieve their frustration.  This happens today in prisons throughout the world even where officially forbidden. It happens in British prisons in 2013. It happened in the Nazi camps and Himmler was both aware and afraid of it. It is primarily for this reason that he decided to set up the brothels. Pennington concedes this two sentences after her initial remarks:

“The problem within the camps was sexual relationships between men who were not homosexuals and the rape of teenage boys by adult men. Both issues need far more research.”

She seems unaware of the inconsistency in her argument.

The issue of the brothels is, therefore, unconnected with the presence of gay men in the camps. Nonetheless gay men do have a role in the story. Pennington writes that “being a known homosexual was much more likely to result in death than a pass to the brothel.”

This is not entirely true. The commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höβ wrote his memoirs after the war while awaiting execution in Kraków. This is an interesting if depressing read, and much of it is the self justificatory ravings of a delusional psychopath who wants posterity to believe that he was really quite a nice man. It contains, however, a lot of interesting detail about his career. He makes reference to the use of the brothels to assess gay prisoners. Gay inmates were, on several occasions, taken to the brothels and their interactions with the women observed. If they proved capable of arousal and penetrative intercourse they might be deemed “cured” of their “perversion” and released.

Pennington takes issue with my description of the ‘clients’ as victims. For her they are perpetrators who freely chose to visit the brothels. I think this is a very harsh judgement and one that exposes the logical inconsistencies of those who, like her, argue from a radical feminist perspective. It is true that they had a choice and the women did not but what choice was it? Consider the context of camp life. These were men whose daily lives consisted of  following a harsh regime designed essentially to destroy their individuality. Life in the camp was not one where choice played a role. It is argued by radical feminists elsewhere that that where women make choices in contexts of restricted choice that these cannot be regarded as free choices. I am thinking particularly of the choice some women make to offer sexual services for money. It is inconsistent for people who argue this to see the choice made by a male camp inmate as an entirely free choice. I think we should all be very hesitant about judging these men. We have not had the misfortune to be sent to a concentration camp.

This line of argument leads to a double standard.  Men always make free choices. Women do not. Men are to blame. Women are not. This is something that infantilises women.

This brings me on to my final point. Pennington’s piece is entitled ‘Where are the Women?’ She accuses me of leaving out the experience of the women. This is not entirely true: the account of some men seeking a little solace rather than penetrative sex, for example, comes from the testimony of female survivors. In a short piece I did not say much about the direct experiences survivors of either gender. I do however have to take issue with this comment:

“This failure to acknowledge the very gendered nature of the Holocaust has led to women’s lives being written out of history”

Firstly, as I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, the issue of the brothels has, strictly speaking, nothing to do with the Holocaust. Secondly, the idea that the Holocaust was gendered is problematic. Is Pennington seriously arguing that Jewish women suffered more than Jewish men? What historical sources would provide evidence? What basis of measurement would she use? In any event who are we to pass judgements of this kind on the sufferings of the millions of victims of National Socialism? We can no more say that women suffered more than men than we can assert the contrary. I find this using of the Holocaust to make radical feminist debating points frankly distasteful.

Pennington’s piece is entitled ‘Where are the Women?’ I will throw the question back at her because she has not mentioned a group of women that I mentioned in my piece. The story of the women camp guards is one I may tell in a future post. It is fascinating, if dark, one. The motivations of these women were varied but, crucially, none of them were forced to work as camp guards. We know too that many women failed to make it through their basic training or were dismissed soon afterwards. The reason? They were too nice to the prisoners. Those that enjoyed careers distinguished themselves by both their brutality and by the relish with which they carried out their tasks. We know from survivor testimony that it was often the female guards that the prisoners most feared.

It is perhaps not a surprise that Pennington fails to mention them as they do not fit easily into the dualistic framework of men as perpetrators and women as victims that is the unspoken assumption underlying her analysis.

I believe that women can and do make free choices and that they bear full moral responsibility for those choices. To say otherwise is to deny women their full humanity, surely a paradoxical position for a feminist. The uncomfortable truth is that some women, like some men, will freely choose what is wrong, what is criminal, what is evil. The cause of equality cannot be advanced by pretending otherwise.

A Few Thoughts from Poland

This post begins and ends with a holiday. Recent news from the Irish Republic about the abortion debate reminded me of my first ever visit to Ireland, a cycling trip with a friend from Dublin to Dun Chaoin at the end of the Dingle Peninsula with its magical view out over the Great Blasket to the vast Atlantic stretching away behind it. This was in 1983 when the big news topic was the upcoming referendum to amend the constitution to include a clause protecting the unborn, effectively putting abortion, or rather the ban on abortion, beyond the legislative reach of the Dail. It became quickly apparent just how much power the Roman Catholic hierarchy exercised 60 years after partition. We didn’t , of course, know that, just a few streets away from where we were staying, ‘fallen’ women were still slaving away in laundries for the good of their immortal souls.

This was before the child abuse scandals which, conventional wisdom has it, have broken the Church as a political force. Recent reports from Ireland, concerning both abortion and possible legislation to criminalise sex work, suggest that the demise of the Church has been much exaggerated.

Further east the position in one of Europe’s arch Catholic countries was a little different then. Communism was crumbling in Poland to the extent that only a military coup had been able to shore up the system and 1983 was a from year of shortages, power cuts and so on. Nonetheless it had brought some benefits to women. Abortion and contraception were both freely available. Not that I wanted to exaggerate the benefits. Most women worked and received little help at home with cooking and child rearing. They also bore the brunt of the soul destroying waits in queues before empty shops. Nonetheless they were spared the worst effects of ecclesiastical misogyny.

This all changed in 1989. It is important to say that Poland has become a relatively stable democracy in the last twenty four years. The clergy have had to learn the hard way that Poles will not put up with instructions from the pulpit on election day. Indeed between 1995 and 2005 neither the President nor Prime Minister were Catholics. This was a disappointment to the likes of the Primate Cardinal Glemp who genuinely wanted Poland to become a confessional state but he soon discovered that he could bully governments of any colour and the list of demands was soon handed in, a Concordat was demanded and granted, Church lands confiscated by the Communists were restored, resulting in an unseemly land grab, while a systematic attack on the rights of women was orchestrated.

A ban on abortion was introduced in 1993. This has resulted in two important cases being brought to the ECHR. The first was that of Alicja Tysiac who wanted an abortion for health reasons, specifically that she had impaired vision and her pregnancy carried a threat of her losing her eyesight altogether. Polish law would actually have allowed her to have one but she could not find a doctor willing to perform one. The other case involved a 14 year old girl, pregnant following a rape, who was similarly denied an abortion. Polish law does have limited exemptions to the ban as I mentioned above but in practice the right to a termination can be difficult to enforce. Even these limited exemptions are under threat. There are some on the right pressing for an Irish style amendment to the constitution but, thankfully, nothing has come of this yet.
What the Church wants, it generally gets. There will be no in vitro fertilisation anytime soon, and no gay marriage. I have discussed Poland’s antediluvian attitudes to LGBT people here. Having said that Poland does not have its first openly gay MP and the world’s only transgender MP, Anna Grodzka. They are both members of the Palikot’s Movement party, named after its founder, a millionaire businessman called Janusz Palikot. this party standing on an openly anti-clerical platform achieved 10% of the vote in the last elections and as much as 25% amongst first time voters suggesting that things are changing.  Palikot is saying things that need to be said but has a history of opportunism and if advances in women’s rights and LGBT rights are in his hands we need to worry.

The Church is keen to promote the idea of the ‘Matka Polka’ the devoted mother who stays at home to care for her children, to cook and clean for her husband and so on. In reality most women in Poland work. Low wages mean that families with children cannot survive on one income. At work they enjoy little job security. What does the allegedly pro-life Church have to say about employers who sack women for becoming pregnant? You’ve guessed it – nothing. At home, as in Communist days, the work falls mainly on their shoulders.

Domestic violence has never been taken seriously by many in Poland. It doesn’t happen, many people think, because every Polish man is a gentleman who opens doors, gives up his seat on the bus and would never dream of raising his hand against a woman. Some twenty years ago a left of centre government funded a helpline for victims of domestic violence, with a hard hitting poster campaign to publicise it. The scale of the problem quickly became apparent, painfully so for many Poles, so much so, in fact that a minister in the subsequent right of centre government withdrew funding on the grounds that it was encouraging Catholic mothers to desert their families and, therefore, wrong. He had nothing to say about the abuse that drove women to do this.

So we arrive in 2013 and my latest holiday. I had the chance to discuss these issues with some women but sadly the general awareness of them is low. One woman I spoke to suggested that Alicja Tysiac was a ‘whore’ for wanting a termination to save her sight. Feminism is seen as the hobby of a handful of educated metropolitan women and of no relevance to others in their daily struggle to make ends meet. Some Polish women have had successful careers in business and politics. They are the exception. The power of the Church has been a major factor (but not the only one) in making Polish women second class citizens in their own country. If the position of Polish women in 1983 was in some respects better than that of Irish women it certainly isn’t now.