Big mother is watching you, kids

Technology now lets you spy on your kids all the time. This is why you shouldn't.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

The other day, my 11-year-old son handed me my iPhone with an accusatory air, as if to say: So this is what you people do behind our backs. While he was looking at stocks, he came across a news item reporting that AT&T, with another company, was about to introduce a snap-around-the-wrist, GPS-tracking, emergency-button-featuring, watch-like thingie for children. It’s called FiLIP, comes in bright colours, and has two-way calling and parent-to-child texting. It allows you to set safe zones, so that you’re alerted when your child enters or leaves a designated area.

A little stunned, I checked it out online. FiLIP, I found, is far from the first such gizmo; this one just has more bells and whistles than most. “The world used to be a little simpler,” went its mom-and-apple-pie pitch. “Kids ran free and returned at dinnertime, and parents didn’t worry so much. But today, parents are under more pressure than ever. ... FiLIP has a simple mission - to help kids be kids again, while giving parents an amazing new window into their children’s lives.” Right. And the Invisible Fence collar on my late lamented cairn terrier let my dog be a dog.

All parents have to let their children off the leash eventually - to let them go out unsupervised, to grant them free-ish range on the internet. That moment always comes before you’re ready for it. For me, it came after a ninth birthday, when we hooked up a Nintendo Wii, then discovered, months later, that it could be used to roam the Internet. Another point was reached toward the end of elementary school, when my children announced that they were the very last kids in their class to get a smartphone. I stalled. Then my son showed me the FiLIP ad, and I discovered a universe of options.

For the iPhone I will soon be buying him, I can get an iPhone Spy Stick, to be plugged into a USB port while he sleeps; it downloads Web histories, emails, and text messages, even the deleted ones. Or I can get Mobile Spy, software that would let me follow, in real time, his online activity and geographical location. Also available are an innocent-looking iPhone Dock Camera that would recharge his battery while surreptitiously recording video in his room, and a voice-activated audio monitor, presumably for the wild parties he’s going to throw when his father and I go out of town.

Had such science-fiction-worthy products somehow become acceptable while I wasn’t watching? Apparently they had. When ZDNet conducted an online debate about parental espionage a few weeks ago, 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that parents “should be able to observe the full data feeds of what their children post and receive via Facebook, text, email, and any other application or service used on their devices. It is a parent’s right to 'violate' their child’s notion of 'privacy'.” When a media researcher interviewed 21 parents in three Canadian cities in 2011, only three said that they had faith in their children and that they found such hypervigilance "harmful".

I don’t think of myself as lacking vigilance. I police homework and try to control junk-food intake. I have a password-protected laptop and parental controls activated on the house Mac. I’ve refused to set up the Xbox Live for multiplayer gaming with strangers and turned on the anti-pornograpic SafeSearch feature on Google. But I can only go so far. In a moment of laxness I’m not as ashamed of as I probably should be, I let my son open a Gmail account without demanding his password. I’m declining to investigate whether he may secretly have a Facebook page. His friends do their communicating online, just as mine do, and it makes me queasy to force him out to the edges of the conversation.

As it happens, those concessions may be endangering my children in a way I hadn’t foreseen. I learned that lesson this month, when Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, arrested two girls for the online bullying of a seventh-grader who committed suicide. He charged them with aggravated stalking, but blamed their parents for not "doing what parents should do". And what should they have done? Smash each girl’s cell phone “into a thousand pieces in front of that child,” he said. “Watch what your children do online,” he added.

Those girls were nasty, but comments like that, from a law-enforcement officer, are appalling. I didn’t become a parent to play undercover agent for the state surveillance apparatus. Admittedly, I grew up in a now-unthinkable age of Rousseauian parenting, when a child’s innate curiosity was not to be overly interfered with. I also ran with a crowd that, well, sometimes tried drugs. I survived. But parents whose spy software uncover similar entanglements might be tempted to ship their teenagers off to institutions for troubled youth that could ruin the rest of their lives.

Margaret K. Nelson, a sociologist at Middlebury and author of the thoughtful 2010 book Parenting Out of Control, tells me that I’m reacting like a typical "professional middle-class" parent. I scoff at overt methods of control, preferring instead to hover over my children in a half-trusting, half-doubting, entirely inconsistent way. If I lived in an iffy neighborhood, if I were raising a male African American child, if my husband and I both worked outside the home and could afford only intermittent or no child care—then I might welcome all the help with limit-setting I could get: GPS devices, NetNanny, IAmBigBrother.

But even if class influences the way you react to these technologies, that doesn’t make them OK. You may have no choice but to spy on your children, and yet it can’t be healthy for them to unfurl inside a bell jar. Total transparency fosters a creepy combination of slyness and boundarilessness. An overwatched child may acquire a knack for sneaking around. At the same time, and paradoxically, he may never quite learn not to overshare. He certainly won’t learn not to pry. You have to keep him safe from online predators, but you also have to let him push away and even defy you. Adolescents in particular need to shed their identities as daughters and sons and try on others until they come up with ones authentically their own.

Yes, they will make mistakes, and those embarrassing selfies may take up permanent residence on Facebook and in other corporate or governmental databases. But think of how easily our children accept others’ compilations of their personal data. What if the invasions of privacy that occur within the family are helping to train the next generation to expect the same from larger social entities? I called Kevin Haggerty, a criminologist at the University of Alberta, to learn about “surveillance creep,” the gradual expansion of the zone of scrutiny. We started, he explained, by electronically tracking the dangerous and the vulnerable - inmates, terrorists, Alzheimer’s patients, pets, and our own children - and we’ve wound up putting radio-frequency chips in students’ and employees’ IDs. Haggerty and I didn’t discuss the pernicious activities of the National Security Agency, which evolved over the same period of time, but the scariest endpoint of surveillance creep, it seems to me, will have been reached when the government’s yottabyte farms no longer strike us as sinister or illegal.

And there’s another, possibly even more insidious, consequence of eavesdropping on our offspring. It sends the message that nothing and no one is to be trusted: not them, not us, and especially not the rest of the world. This is no way to live, but it is a way to destroy the bonds of mutual toleration that our children will need to keep our democracy limping along.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Parents are enabling surveillance culture. (Photo: Getty)
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Let's not abolish sex work. Let's abolish all work

To describe sex work as "a job like any other job" is only a positive reframing if you consider a "job" to be a good thing by definition. 

Is sex work "a job like any other" - and is that a good thing? Amnesty International today officially adopted a policy recommending the decriminalisation of sex work around the world as the best way to reduce violence in the industry and safeguard both workers and those who are trafficked into prostitution. 

“Sex workers are at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including rape, violence, extortion and discrimination,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Law and Policy. “Our policy outlines how governments must do more to protect sex workers from violations and abuse.

“We want laws to be refocused on making sex workers’ lives safer and improving the relationship they have with the police while addressing the very real issue of exploitation,” said Mutasah, emphasising the organisation’s policy that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are human rights abuses which, under international law, must be criminalised in every country. “We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to.”

The proposal from the world’s best-known human rights organisation has caused uproar, particularly from some feminist campaigners who believe that decriminalisation will "legitimise" an industry that it is uniquely harmful to women and girls. 

As sex workers around the world rally for better working conditions and legal protections, more and more countries are adopting versions of the "Nordic Model" - attempting to crack down on sex work by criminalising the buyers of commercial sex, most of whom are men. Amnesty, along with many sex workers’ rights organisations, claims that that the "Nordic Model’"in fact forces the industry underground and does little to protect sex workers from discrimination and abuse. 

The battle lines have been drawn, and the "feminist sex wars" of the 1980s are under way again. Gloria Steinem, who opposes Amnesty’s move, is one of many campaigners who believe the very phrase "sex work" is damaging. "'Sex work' may have been invented in the US in all goodwill, but it has been a dangerous phrase - even allowing home governments to withhold unemployment and other help from those who refuse it,” Steinem wrote on Facebook in 2015. “Obviously, we are free to call ourselves anything we wish, but in describing others, anything that requires body invasion - whether prostitution, organ transplant, or gestational surrogacy - must not be compelled." She wanted the UN to "sex work" with "prostituted women, children, or people". 

The debate over sex work is the only place where you can find modern liberals seriously discussing whether work itself is an unequivocal social good. The phrase "sex work" is essential precisely because it makes that question visible. Take the open letter recently published by former prostitute ‘Rae’, now a committed member of the abolitionist camp, in which she concludes: “Having to manifest sexual activity due to desperation is not consent. Utilising a poor woman for intimate gratification – with the sole knowledge that you are only being engaged with because she needs the money – is not a neutral, amoral act.”

I agree with this absolutely. The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term "sex work" is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.

To describe sex work as "a job like any other job" is only a positive reframing if you consider a "job" to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply "the way of the world".

The feminist philosopher Kathi Weeks calls this universal depoliticisation of work “the work society”: an ideology under whose its terms it is taken as a given that work of any kind is liberating, healthy and "empowering". This is why the "work" aspect of "sex work" causes problems for conservatives and radical feminists alike. "Oppression or profession?" is the question posed by a subtitle on Emily Balezon’s excellent feature on the issue for the New York Times this month. But why can’t selling sex be both? 

Liberal feminists have tried to square this circle by insisting that sex work is not "a job like any other", equating all sold sex, in Steinem’s words, with "commercial rape" - and obscuring any possibility of agitating within the industry for better workers’ rights. 

The question of whether sex workers can meaningfully give consent can be asked of any worker in any industry, unless he or she is independently wealthy. The choice between sex work and starvation is not a perfectly free choice - but neither is the choice between street cleaning and starvation, or waitressing and penury. Of course, every worker in this precarious economy is obliged to pretend that they want nothing more than to pick up rubbish or pour lattes for exhausted office workers or whatever it is that pays the bills. It is not enough to show up and do a job: we must perform existential subservience to the work society every day.

In the weary, decades-long "feminist sex wars", the definitional choice apparently on offer is between a radically conservative vision of commercial sexuality - that any transaction involving sex must be not only immoral and harmful, but uniquely so - and a version of sex work in which we must think of the profession as "empowering" precisely because neoliberal orthodoxy holds that all work is empowering and life-affirming. 

That binary often can leave sex workers feeling as if they are unable to complain about their working conditions if they want to argue for more rights. Most sex workers I have known and interviewed, of every class and background, just want to be able to earn a living without being hassled, hurt or bullied by the state. They want the basic protections that other workers enjoy on the job - protection from abuse, from wage theft, from extortion and coercion.

A false binary is often drawn between warring camps of "sex positive" and "sex negative" feminism. Personally, I’m neither sex-positive nor sex-negative: I’m sex-critical and work-negative. 

Take Steinem’s concern that if "sex work" becomes the accepted terminology, states might require people to do it in order to access welfare services. Of course, this is a monstrous idea - but it assumes a laid-back attitude to states forcing people to do other work they have not chosen in order to access benefits. When did that become normal? Why is it only horrifying and degrading when the work up for discussion is sexual labour? 

I support the abolition of sex work  - but only in so far as I support the abolition of work in general, where "work" is understood as "the economic and moral obligation to sell your labour to survive". I don’t believe that forcing people to spend most of their lives doing work that demeans, sickens and exhausts them for the privilege of having a dry place to sleep and food to lift to their lips is a "morally neutral act".

As more and more jobs are automated away and still more become underpaid and insecure, the left is rediscovering anti-work politics: a politics that demands not just the right to "better" work, but the right, if conditions allow, to work less. This, too, is a feminist issue.

Understood through the lens of anti-work politics, the legalisation of sex work is about harm reduction within a system that is always already oppressive. It's the beginning, rather than the end, of a conversation about what it is moral to oblige human beings to do with the labour of their bodies and the finite time they have to spend on earth.

Sex work should be legal as part of the process by which we come to understand that the work society itself is harmful. The liberal feminist insistence on the uniquely exploitative character of sex work obscures the exploitative character of all waged and precarious labour - but it doesn’t have to. Perhaps if we start truly listening to sex workers, as Amnesty has done, we can slow down at that painful, problematic place, and exploitation more honestly - not just within the sex industry, but within every industry.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.