Other harm reductionists have to deal with extremists too

by Carl V Phillips

A quick aside today, though one that ought to be very interesting to those who are aware that the “traditional” harm reduction community — those focused on illicit drugs and sex — have generally refused to support THR.  You might know that a few of us worked for years to try to make THR part of the agenda for the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA — which recently changed its name to HRI, but everyone still seems to think of it as IHRA).  This effort was led from the inside of that community by Gerry Stimson, arguably the dean of harm reduction (at least one of a very small number of people who deserves that title), and from the THR side, mostly by me and my shop.  There are definitely many in that harm reduction community who see the value of THR and support it, but not enough.

As far as I am concerned, the fight to join forces is over and lost, and I have no intention of wasting more time on it.  It seems that the people who speak up for and try to protect the health junkies and prostitutes — err, sorry, I mean IDUs and sex workers — think that smokers are just not worthy of the same consideration.  Punishing those other behaviors and letting people suffer needless risks is unacceptable, but somehow they find it acceptable to just tell smokers they must quit or die.  Besides, the tobacco/nicotine industry is evil and should just be shut down — apparently in contrast to, say, the heroin industry.

Ok, in fairness it is not quite that simple, though it is remarkably close to that.  It is very frustrating and disappointing trying to deal with those people, so I have to admit a bit of schadenfreude in running across this post that points out the frustration of defenders of harm reduction approaches for sex workers.  They are unhappy about feminists who take an extreme anti-sex-work view that tends to interfere with rational, practical, harm-reducing, freedom-respecting approaches.

Those “radfems” (which I gather from the comments is their version of “ANTZ”) seem to be operating from the ANTZ playbook.  The post, written as a parody guide for the anti-harm-reductionists tells those extremists,

The feminist movement really is in a pickle these days. It used to be a given that things like prostitution, pornography and stripping were bad, but nowadays there’s some resistance to these time-honoured notions. Women are increasingly coming out as sex workers and demanding rights. As feminists seek to shut down strip bars and criminalise clients, those women are complaining not just that they’ll lose their livelihood, but that they’ll be at increased risk of abuse and violence if their industries go underground! You can’t let such trivial concerns get in the way of your crusade, so below are some handy tips for discrediting these pesky meddlers. Remember: being an actual sex worker doesn’t entitle her to speak about sex work!

The post goes on to invoke familiar claims like: no one really wants to do this; everyone involved is just a victim and a dupe, no matter what they think; it is all about greed and profit; and the mere appearance of this in society is more important than the actual outcomes.  It also include tactics for creating biased “evidence” and making sure that policy makers pursue purity over concerns about people.

It is truly amazing how closely this resembles the world of ANTZ and their anti-THR efforts.  Read it (trust me — if you read this blog, you will find it worth a few minutes of your time), and I think you will agree.

And because of that, it is all the more pathetic that THR is opposed by so many of the same people who experience frustration like that in other areas.  It just goes to show…  well, show something about human nature.  I am too tired to figure it out right now.

4 responses to “Other harm reductionists have to deal with extremists too

  1. The comment left by Hermia on the sex workers blog post rang a lot of bells with me, too, especially 4, 5, and 6. (Edited to fit our situation.)

    4. Trying to hide the supreme contempt and disgust that this attitude reveals by pretending that they are only trying to help tobacco users.

    5. Telling us that they know what is best for tobacco users.

    6. Coming up with legislation and so forth without making much, if any, effort to find out how it will actually benefit/harm people who smoke and/or use other forms of tobacco. And then going on to ignore protests from the very people concerned.

    • I think most harm reduction advocates for illegal drug users and sex workers support strategies for reducing harm from other risky activities (including smoking), but that they are primarily (or exclusively) focused on their favorite harm reduction issue, which often involves behaviors with which they are most familiar.

      Funding plays a huge role in determining which harm reduction issues get the most attention and advocacy, as billionaire George Soros has funded many/most of the campaigns to legalize medical marijuana (BTW Washington and Colorado voters just legalized adult use and sale of cannabis), to promote clean needle exchanges and safe sites for IV drug users, and to reduce harm for sex workers. But Soros has spent very little money on tobacco harm reduction, while giving lots of money to Obama, whose appointees at DHHS, FDA, CDC, SG and other health agencies have made many false and misleading claims about THR and have aggressively campaigned against the products (including FDA’s failed attempt to ban e-cigarettes).

      • Carl V Phillips

        Bill, Good points. It certainly is true that Soros pulls many of the strings in that area. I am not sure there is any reason to believe he is anti-THR, but he is pretty clearly not interested.

        While you might be right about what most advocates (defined as anyone involved in the cause) think, it is my experience that the leadership is sufficiently anti-THR to be a problem. Similar things can be said about some (not all) ANTZ organizations too, of course. To the extent that there is rank-and-file opposition, it actually seems to have more to do with the fact that they see THR as a threat to the smoking so many of them like so much (especially the ones who have given up other drugs). People who are immersed in smokers’ rights issues realize that those of us who promote THR for ethical reasons are basically on the same side, but someone who is defensive about smoking and not expert might not realize this.

  2. a coincidental peculiarity more than anything else, but the ‘Swedish experience’ is also a focal point for arguments over sex work. except it runs the other way from tobacco harm reduction – Sweden criminalised the act of the purchase of sex (so the buyer commits the offence, the seller does not) which critics argue hasn’t been helpful in reducing the harms that occur during sex work.

    I mention it is as a consultation on similar proposals is underway in Scotland, and I’d like to read more evidence about the Swedish experience, but like tobacco, it’s hard to find commentary on the evidence of the Swedish law that is free from bias (on both sides). if anybody reading this knows any good refs for research on this, I’d be grateful if they could share.

    at a presentation on THR I heard Karl Fagerstrom – a Swede, but as far as I know not an expert in sex work – say something like ‘it probably hasn’t made things worse, but it also probably hasn’t made things much better’ of the law, but interested to know more.

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