The Temptation of Chastity Belts

The Temptation of Chastity Belts

The Temptation of Chastity Belts

Science, technology, and life.
April 29 2008 7:40 AM

The Temptation of Chastity Belts

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Here's the report from Indonesia, courtesy of Paul Watson in Sunday's L.A. Times :

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In a bid to prevent any hanky-panky between masseuses and their clients, several massage parlors ... are insisting that the women wear padlocks across the zippers of their work pants. ... [The instigating parlor owner] settled on black pants that zip up at the side, where a padlock is slipped through two cloth loops and snapped shut each time a masseuse meets a client. ... He stores the padlocks and keys in a special box at the cashier's counter. When a customer arrives for a massage, given in a private room behind a curtain, the "cashier calls one masseuse, asks her to prepare things and locks her pants," ... [and] "when the client is done, the masseuse comes to the cashier, and the cashier opens the padlock."
Several other parlor owners have supposedly decided to adopt similar locks. A local official says, "We expect this policy to be enacted as city legislation."

Any time somebody tries to take society back a few centuries, I like to know why. The instigating owner, Franky Setiawan, says he resorted to the belts because men "bombarded" his masseuses with sexual demands, and he wanted the women to feel safe. He says he and other owners have been looking for ways "to handle some naughty guests."

Ah. The old feminine-protection rationale.

The idea isn't crazy. To say that men often behave like pigs is to insult pigs. Boorishness, harassment, and sexual coercion are real problems. But let's think this through.

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To begin with, there's the small problem of excretion. What the man thinks of as his—or some other guy's—way into the woman happens to be, rather more importantly, her way out. That's why, as Setiawan mentions, the masseuse "usually pees" before the cashier locks her pants. So, we're starting with a glaring engineering mistake: inconveniencing the victim more than the perpetrator.

Next, there's the political context. "In recent years, conservative Islamic values have gained influence" in Indonesia, Watson reports. "Last month, Indonesia's parliament passed a bill that makes it a crime to look at violent or pornographic material on the Internet. The penalty is up to three years in prison." So when Setiawan talks about how the chastity outfits will improve his industry's public image, you can see how workplace protection serves as a fig leaf for his awkward mix of puritanism and financial self-interest.

Finally, there's the telltale language of sexual paternalism. The problem with the some of the industry's male clients, according to Setiawan, is that "they try over and over and over again, persuading our workers with their dangerously sweet words."

Persuasion? Sweet words? This is the crisis? Words are intolerably coercive, but chastity belts aren't?

You can see how easy it is, as a paternalist, to talk yourself into absurdity. Once you get it into your head that motive is more important than method, you and your excellent motives are on the way to dystopia.

Before you deride the Indonesians, look at what's happening in the United States. Legislatures are passing laws right and left to mandate provision of ultrasound images to women seeking abortions. I support the idea of viewing an ultrasound before you make the decision. But when legislators add doctor scripts , patient viewing mandates, waiting periods, and other heavy-handed paternalist garbage, count me out.

Now comes a ballot initiative in Missouri that would hold doctors liable for "medical negligence" unless, prior to any abortion, they administer a formal psychological evaluation to ascertain whether the woman has been pressured into it. The measure's sponsors propose that women be asked: "Is someone else encouraging you to have this abortion? Do you want this abortion to satisfy your own needs or are you looking to do this to please someone else?" These questions are necessary because, as all paternalists know, women don't really want what they came to the clinic for. "The sad reality is that many abortion providers simply do abortions on request, no questions asked," the measure's sponsors lament . By failing to second-guess their patients, these providers fail "to help women in the ways they want and deserve."

I'm not saying coerced abortions never happen. There's clear evidence that they sometimes do . But you can see from the Missouri initiative how easily the notion of feminine vulnerability leads to interference dressed up as protection. And this is the crucial lesson of chastity belts, abortion regulation, and most other paternalist measures: The pressure from which you set out to protect women, bad as it may be, is seldom as ugly or coercive as the pressure your intervention imposes.