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March 05, 2004

Comments

dsquared

No fair; all I've ever said on the subject is that you can't expect that lefties are going to be pleasant about it, or that it's a politicaly neutral thing to do. My own little boy is looked after by a nanny two days a week, otoh I gave up any real ambitions of being considered a Good Person ten years ago when I went into the City.

In general, when I think someone's a jerk I tend to express myself pretty clearly, so anyone who I haven't called one to their faces can assume they aren't.

Belle Waring

Sorry, dsquared. I was putting words into your mouth. We can raise a glass to our non-Good Person status together sometime.

Russell Arben Fox

Interesting post, Belle; thanks for sharing. Your caveat that you're often ill (and I'm very sorry to hear that, especially given your current pregnancy; that's a double burden for a body to bear) changes the calculus significantly in my view, even if you do say you probably would have made the same choices if that wasn't the case (which, of course, is probably unknowable--if you weren't chronically ill, then that fact would be absent from whatever reasoning you go through to make, for example, living in Singapore appealing). Taking a correct socio-economic stand in the world is one thing, doing right by your children is another (and much more important) thing. My mother was also often ill and unable to interact with us growing up, while my father was a rarely home workaholic. My mother's mood, and her ability to enjoy her children, was greatly improved when they finally broke down and hired a couple of women to come in and clean the house regularly.

As for exploitation, as your post demonstrates, the context for domestic labor is very different in East and Southeast Asia than it is in the U.S. Daniel A. Bell has an interesting discussion of foreign domestic workers in the first part of his book, East Meets West: Democracy and Human Rights in East Asia. And as for the bouregois ethics of the whole thing...well, is having a live-in maid and nanny really such a big component in your and John's domestic tranquility? I confess I find something vaguely discomforting about the idea of domestic service coming to play such a role in the minimizing of anger and arguments in the home, but I'm not sure I can articulate that feeling very well.

Chun the Unavoidable

The only people I'm criticizing for having people clean up after them are those who could do it themselves. I also think that the definition of "being able to do it yourself" is subject to considerable revision as the ability to pay someone to do it rises.

If I were in your situation, I would also employ a maid without any qualms at all. And I don't think that's inconsistent with what I originally wrote.

Ray

I'd be with Chun on this (and reading Ehrenreich reinforces the opinion). Cleaning up after yourself just takes energy* and some time (assuming you are healthy and able-bodied). Very few people are so completely lacking in either that they can't go around the house with a hoover and a damp cloth at least once a week. 'Not cleaning up your own mess' just seems, I don't know, almost like a _definition_ of laziness. Sure, you can pay people to do it for you, and they might be glad of the money, but you could also pay people to carry you around in a litter all day, and their willingness to do the job doesn't make you any less lazy.

(The situation described in SA is kind of different, I think, because the cleaner was tied to a particular set of apartments. She wasn't missing out on some hypothetical customer, she was missing out on the custom from an identifiable fraction of her potential business)

Chun the Unavoidable

Actually, I skipped over "in perfect health and other friends" remark when first reading this, which I don't, obviously, agree with.

Timothy Burke

But Ray, why doesn't that pertain equally in the US, then? The cleaning service that now comes in once a month to do the industrial-strength stuff comes from somewhere, and has an interest in all the customers they can obtain; were all of their potential customers to refuse to purchase their labor on the grounds that they can do it themselves, they'd be in the same boat that the family living behind my flat in Zimbabwe was. I lived Chun's prescription in Zimbabwe, doing everything for myself that I was capable of doing, and I ended up committing an act that everyone around me--and I mean everyone--regarded as socially unjust. I didn't pay for what I could pay for, and kept my wealth to myself. Never mind that I started by thinking that I was committing an act of civic virtue.

There are many things I could do for myself that I pay for. I buy restaurant meals that are at some point labored on by low-wage service workers. I can cook for myself and my family and often do--but not always. I buy brewed coffee in stores; I can brew it myself. I get some clothes dry-cleaned now and again: I don't need to do that, but I do. We take my daughter to swimming lessons now and again: I could do that myself. I've used caterers now and again for events at the college that I'm responsible for organizing: I could do that myself. I'm able-bodied and probably have the time if I care to find it. I could empty my own garbage in my college office, but the college hires a person to clean and maintain my building who does it every morning before I get there.

All those things I do because I can, because I've got the money to hire those services. Does that make me lazy? I suppose so. Such is the nature of privilege. There are some services I shun because I don't want even further intrusions on my privacy or domestic space. There are some services I don't hire because I can't afford them. There are some services I don't use for sheer bloody-minded cultural logics. There are some services I'd never hire because I enjoy doing them myself. There are some services I avoid availing myself of because I believe I can do them faster and better myself.

But the idea that one should not pay for one can do oneself, because it it definitionally wrong to pay for anything that you can do yourself is impossible to contain to maids or nannies, no matter how blandly Chun might assert that it is. That's a blanket morality that intrinsically spreads with great rapidity across the entirety of everyday life if you believe it with the apparent seriousness that Chun does. Russell at least tries to salvage the situation by maintaining that the household is completely distinct from anything else in our lives, but that's arbitrary, ignores the way that the household is also a domain of labor comparable to every other laboring situation, and probably overlooks the ways in which other people's labor outside the household invariably infiltrates it (through education, through food preparation and much more besides).

Chun the Unavoidable

We should be clear on something: the hosts of this site and Timothy Burke are certainly very thoughtful, well-meaning, and generous people who've thought very carefully about the power-relations and other implications of their domestic labor situations.

They and their like compose a negligible percentage of the maid-employing classes. In the U.S., at least, the vast majority of those with maids, cleaning services, etc., richly deserve being the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

Russell Arben Fox

Tim: You're right that I'm trying to draw a bright line here, perhaps without much success. (Indeed, now that I think about it, I wonder if this isn't related to the disagreements we had on CT over the amount of cultural "control"--read "unpermeability"--ought to be aspired to or assumed in regards to the home.) Maybe it's a fool's errand. Still, I do think it's possible to deny, at least partly, that the home is or should be "a domain of labor comparable to every other laboring situation"--the examples you give (education, food preparation, etc.) are telling, but wouldn't you agree that there's still the possibility of distinguishing between such acts and others (say, reading to your children, playing with them, teaching them household chores, etc.) that one really should insist belong to a realm "completely distinct from anything else in our lives"? If so, then we haven't invalidated the whole idea of domestic labor, but we have given ourselves grounds by which to judge the ethics involved in making use of it. Frankly, that's all I'm hoping for.

Chun: I agree completely.

Ssuma

I would like to follow up on what Tim Burke said (link messed up, sorry) about people cleaning up his messes giving him the hebie-jebies. It is sort of an uncomfortable thing, and I think that this is in part because you are introducing a commercial relationship into what is supposed to be a non-commercial space.

Chun cites Barbara Ehrenreich, saying “If you're healthy, and someone else is cleaning your house, you need to check yourself. I don't care how many kids you have.” Lots of other people chime in pointing out that we hire people to do work for us all the time, but I think they are missing the point that Chun and Ehrenreich are making, although they might reject it. The home is a sacred space and housework is one of the duties of a woman. We’ve modernized a bit so that the guys can help out, but a lot of the opposition to hired help is that there are some things you can’t hire others to do. Good old domestic ideology is alive and well on the left. Maids, nannies, etc. are all bringing commerce into the home.
Another side to this is American egalitarianism. Burke felt uncomfortable I assume because there is no more obvious sign of social distinction than having someone come into your house and scrub your toilets. That bothered him. It bothers me too. One of the things I hated about my grad student apartment was the big dumpster outside that would often have someone rooting around in it for cans. Walking past my garbage when another human was rooting through it was wrong, it violated all the things I had learned about the proper relationships between people.

As both Burke and Belle point out, this proper relationship is culturally determined. Belle’s maid can provide personal services without either of them feeling that she is degraded thereby, something that it would be hard for two Americans to think. Burke’s potential housekeeper probably would have been annoyed that he was failing to live up to his role as an rich American and thus cheating her out of money because of some bizarre American fixation. Had he talked to her she might well have been insulted not by cleaning his underwear but by his apparent belief that by taking money from him she would be less human.

Here is a bit of a story to illustrate some of this. (My experience with servants is limited) When I was in Grad school I went to spend a couple of weeks with my Uncle who was an oil pooh-bah living in Jakarta. He had a big expat oilman’s house with at least 6 servants. The servants came with the house, and he could not really fire them. The servants ran the place the way it was supposed to be run regardless of what the supposed employer thought. When we first arrived the butler-type guy met us at the door with two frosted mugs of Heinekin (The Dutch influence I guess.) He did this every time an adult male came home and would not do it for women or people he though were too young. (I was old enough, I guess) The whole thing used to annoy my uncle a bit, since Heinekin was not his favorite beer and my aunt liked beer too. I sort of agreed with him, although on the cosmic scale of oppression being met at the door with a cold beer does not rank very high.

Life in that house was a little weird. You could choose light or heavy starch in your underwear but not no starch. You could not leave your swimsuit hanging in the bathroom or it would be washed (I hid mine.) Mealtime was a constant struggle that my aunt usually won (she was an old hand at this) but still a struggle. The point of all this is that the house was a network of relationships and roles that we had to go along with. Tim Burke is happy enough to get his underwear washed by a stranger if he drops it off and there is no social relationship. Chun and Eherenreich are presumably saying the same thing; how can you have someone in your house without some sort of relationship? What sort of relationship could there possibly be between an American servant and an American employer?

Well, I could go on at some length but I need to get home. Got to get the house cleaned up for the maid.

Jeremy Osner

Fascinating... it seems to me there is less to be said in favor of "using a cleaning service" than in favor of "hiring an independent-contractor maid" -- cleaning services such as Merry Maids (tm) tend to be quite exploitative and your pay is subsidizing the exploitative company's management and advertizing; when you hire an individual you are paying her (generally 'her') directly. (If she is being exploited it is by you not paying her as much as she deserves.)

Timothy Burke

Very penetrating comments, Ssuma. And actually, you nail it right on the head vis-a-vis domestic service in Harare circa 1990--I did talk to the family living behind the block of flats, I explained my views. At first they thought I was just nuts or didn't understand English, but when they got it, they thought exactly as you say, that I was refusing to hire them because I saw them as less than human, unfit to touch my underwear, making me more racist in their eyes even than the ex-Rhodesians living in my building. This, as you might guess, made me really anxious. The second time I lived in Zimbabwe, I found a "laundromat", but you couldn't use the machines yourself--you dropped off the laundry and they washed it for you in the machines. Made me happier, but it really was no different in terms of the relationship between my social ability to buy labor and the labor being performed.

I think that my phobia about service goes significantly to what Ssuma is talking about, and I frankly think it goes to what Chun and Russell are articulating. For some it's ok to pay for other people's labor, to exert privilege, as long as it doesn't follow the sociocultural logic of rendering service. And that's what happens when labor comes physically into the home: it makes the social relation in the purchase of service clear to us, intimate to us. But it is the same social relation even if it's in a restaurant: it's just that in that context, the person performing service is out of sight in the kitchen or is removed from the unavoidable intimacy of the household enough that we can just pretend that we're not doing what we're doing. Once you make your peace with the fact of privilege, whether it's a restaurant or a cleaning service is all the same to me. If you can't make peace with privilege, you can't make peace with any form of labor-purchasing that you volitionally do as a middle-class person.

Jeremy Osner

Timothy, I don't quite get your restaurant example -- surely the visible service in a restaurant (waiter/ress, maitre d'hote if applicable, buscritters) is a huge part of what you are paying for, not just the kitchen service that you don't see? The people who serve you are performing a service and (at least in the U.S.) you are explicitly paying them for it in your gratuity. I felt a little uncomfortable about this as a teenager but got over the discomfort -- though I would like to see better wages for waitrons I am not letting that desire keep me from patronizing restaurants and tipping well.

Russell Arben Fox

"For some it's ok to pay for other people's labor, to exert privilege, as long as it doesn't follow the sociocultural logic of rendering service....But it is the same social relation even if it's in a restaurant....Once you make your peace with the fact of privilege, whether it's a restaurant or a cleaning service is all the same to me."

I'm not sure if you're describing your own perspective or making a more general claim, Tim, so I apologize if I'm misunderstanding you. That said, I just don't think what you say is truly the case. Think about Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London: one of the conclusions he draws from his crude labor experiences is that there are qualitative differences between forms of labor-purchasing (though of course he doesn't put it that way), differences that can give rise to appropriate judgments. For instance, he concluded his disturbing account of working in the highly exploitive economy of restaurants (he was a cook's errand boy) not by saying he'd never eat in one again, but by noting the kinds of restaurants he'd avoid. There, and elsewhere, and especially in the home, I think one can and should make distinctions. Relying on plumbers to fix your sink, and relying on maids to change your child's diapers are equally instances of middle-class privilege, it's true, but I don't see why that should oblige us to see them as morally equivalent. Maybe the good of functioning pipes is compataible with specialization and transfer, whereas the good of cleaning messy children is compromised by such? It's worth arguing about, in any case. Granted, maybe my beliefs rest upon some kind of "ontology of the home" which perhaps can and should be dimissed as a "domestic ideology" in Ssuma's words. But wouldn't doing so mean one would have to begin with arguments about the construction of the domestic sphere, rather than assuming that human beings operate in the home pretty much the same as everyplace else?

jam

I don't think it's people feeling really strongly you ought to clean your own toilet. Rather it's as Tim Burke implies: people preferring not to engage with servants.

Pre-C20, houses meant to be run by servants were architected so as to keep the servants and "the family" separated. You had a morning room and a drawing room so you could have private conversation in one while the other was being cleaned. You had a backstairs that the servants and only the servants used. Your husband had a dressing room so you could be lady's maided and he valetted without the servants seeing the wrong half of the couple in deshabille.

There are lots of stories about servants having to hide or freeze when they were about to encounter the master so that he could pretend not to see them.

And even today people tend to schedule their occasional servants to come to the house/apartment when it's empty: "I'd just get in their way." The effect is of magical little people. You just lay out money (and the makings of lunch) and the house cleans itself.

It seems to me that there's a history at least in England of psychological discomfort evinced by masters to their servants. Lord Peter and Bunter are fictional.

So we shouldn't be surprized if some moderns find it psychologically easier to do the work oneself.

Laura

We don't have a house cleaner, not because of moral reasons, but because of student loans. Even if we didn't owe Uncle Sam our next born, I am not sure if we would get a maid. We don't spend all that much time cleaning around here, and we have a high tolerance for dirty showers (a side benefit of wearing glasses).

I've been enjoying the discussion here and at Chun. I'm a little disturbed by the number of women who feel that they have to get maids to preserve their marriages. I just got an e-mail from a reader who said this. Men just won't do their share, women are tired of nagging, and thus, hire maids. Domestic bliss has a price.

Invisible Adjunct

"But wouldn't doing so mean one would have to begin with arguments about the construction of the domestic sphere, rather than assuming that human beings operate in the home pretty much the same as everyplace else?"

I might be game. How much time do we have? :-)

I'm all about the transformation of domestic economy (the moral, political and economic governance of the household) into two supposedly separate and different branches: political economy (which then becomes economics) on the one hand, and domesticity on the other. Or, to put it another way, the shift from "household" to "family," with household designating an explicitly hierarchical unit, governed by a father, organized around master-servant relations and understood as a smaller version of the larger world ("a little commonwealth," say), and family designating the newer form of conjugal unit, organized around putatively voluntary relations of affection and intimacy, presided over (if not governed) by a mother, and understood as something separate and distinct from the broader world (a "haven in a heartless world"). It all happened (well, most of it) over the course of the long eighteenth century. I'll spare you the gory details on early modern domestic economy ("oeconomicks"), which meant household management, which included large doses of frankly economic (and frankly exploitative) exchange, which was called political economy when its principles were applied to a broader field (eg, the state).

The main point is that the notion of the home as a private, protected space, free of the contamination of economic exchange, is of relatively recent coinage. And while it certainly does represent some real gains (in the development of rich interiority and intimacy), it's always been just a tad problematic on several fronts, most significantly in relation to women. And since the "haven in a heartless world" is a specifically modern notion (it simply would not have made sense to people in Europe and America c. 1650, or even 1750), and may also be a peculiarly western notion, it seems to me that some of the burden of proof in this discussion lies with those who want to suggest that human beings *don't* "operate in the home pretty much the same as everyplace else."

What's significant, I think, is that the transformation of domestic economy -- into domesticity on the one hand and economics on the other -- renders housework invisible as work. In a modern wage economy, if you don't get paid, you're not really working. When people hire maids and cleaners, wages enter into the picture, which then renders the "workness" of this work visible. I suspect this is one of the main reasons why some people feel more squeamish about housecleaners than about restaurant dishwashers or office cleaners.

(Sorry for such a long rambling comment).

Belle Waring

Thanks for all the kind and interesting comments. Russell: I didn't mean to imply that John and I would be at one another's throats all the time if not for the intervention of Tena. We managed just fine as graduate students, even when my health was worse (but the house was messier than I would have liked, and we didn't have a small child). I just know that in our present situation, it would be a real struggle for me to take care of Zoe all day and clean up and get dinner ready, with the result that John would have to do lots of things too even though he is the sole breadwinner. This would make for resentment. This is partly me being sick, but partly something that would happen in any home with a stay-at-home mom, I think; I would be yearning for a break from tot duty just at the moment he walked in the door from work yearning for a cold beer, and I think both of us would feel put upon to some degree. In our case it's either Tena or some combination of cleaning service and day care, and Tena is both cheaper and a million times superior to either.

I was surprised that none of you commented on what I thought would be the most interesting part of the post, namely Tena's own preference for a domestic sitation over many of the comparabe jobs we have been discussing (cleaning up in a public sphere) as forms of labor that it is less disturbing to buy. For her, the prospect of cleaning a toilet used by strangers (or sheets used by strangers; she also mentioned working in a hotel as less preferable) is much grosser than cleaning one in the house where you live or for people you know. For her the personal intimacy of dirty dishes or sinks or what have you persists across the "it's just a job" barrier of having a job for a cleaning service, restaurant, or hotel, so that it actually seems worse than working for a family. She also thinks a domestic situation allows for a variety of obligations that is more interesting than just doing one thing over and over (she also nixed factory work, although I'm sure she's thinking of sweatshop clothing assembly and not a well-paid unionized job at GM). What about that? Obviously there are cultural differences here, and I think that since Americans and Brits think of it as more shameful to be a servant, it really is so. It's not an accepted part of the culture anymore, except for types who are patently ripe for revolutionary wall-backing.

Russell Arben Fox

IA, I take your point, but it sounds to me like only half the story. Yes, I agree, "the notion of the home as a private, protected space, free of the contamination of economic exchange, is of relatively recent coinage." But by the same token, isn't the notion of the public sphere as a competitive, contractual space, defined by economic exchange, also of "relatively recent origin"? Perhaps it's older by a century or two than the "home is a haven" vision, but still--aren't both sides of the coin equally constructed? And if so, why should the burden of proof be upon those (like, I admit, myself) who believe that certain operations of the home ought not conform to the exchange model? Shouldn't it equally rest on those who assume that the intimacy of the domestic sphere (and I don't mean romantic intimacy, though obviously that can be part of it; I'm talking about the mutuality of roles and duties) is ultimately powerless before the market--that's putting it too harshly, I know, but for the sake of argument--and that therefore all us moderns cannot help but end up operating the same no matter where we are? Is the home an unknowing (and gender-dependent) enabler of the bifurcation of the modern world, or can it actually exist in opposition to it? Obviously I'd like to believe latter possibility, and I don't think it has been disproven.

Rich Puchalsky

Middle-class Westerners are often very concerned with their personal virtue. And in posts like this one, that concern tends to hijack the story. I think that we should just stipulate that no one can be free of the power relationships in their society. There is no way to be pure, even if you don't hire a maid. On the other hand, I've never met a middle-class person with a maid who didn't boast about how well they treated their maid as opposed to all the horrible exploitative employers there must be somewhere out there. Often this is done on more or less racist or at least nativist terms; "oh, maids hate working for those foreign people!" That part I could do without.

I think the reaction to Belle Waring hiring a maid should be about the same as if she posted about hiring a personal sex worker. All the same statements could be made about the sex worker (let's assume it's a woman): she makes good money, she says she'd rather do me than work in a brothel and do lots of people, it'd be worse if she wasn't legal, she enjoys her own room and our family life, our family has a particular situation that means that we really need her while less virtuous others might not, etc. Is there any real difference between the situations?

Russell Arben Fox

Rich, I can't tell if you're being ironic or not. Is your comment "Is there any real difference between the situations?" meant to imply that there isn't, in the sense of an approving "hey, sex or vaccuming, it's all just power relationships"? Or is it meant to imply "yes, sex and vaccuming are tarnished by the same brush, thus we ought to rethink the latter"?

In either case, in answer to your question: yes, there is a massive difference between the two situations, whether or not they occupy the same socio-economic category.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, Russell, maybe you could explain what you think the difference is between these two occupations primarily occupied by women in the same socioeconomic category. I would encourage you to think of my comment as being either ironic or not, depending on which you find most helpful in provoking thought. If the difference is only that "our society thinks one is wrong, and the other isn't" then what does Belle's story have to tell us, unless we're living in Singapore?

I find the similarities inescapable in this thread. There is the same concern with "introducing a commercial relationship into what is supposed to be a non-commercial space", the same feeling of ickyness from some about the thought of having someone outside the family in their personal space (with underwear mentioned repeatedly), the same thought about whether there are traditional family roles that you shouldn't be handing off to someone else, the same kind of defensive feeling I'd paraphrase as "but whenever my worker talks to me, she says she's really happy".

One important difference is that personal sex workers -- kept women, concubines, etc. -- have traditionally been for men, while maids and nannies have traditionally been for women. But , as Belle says, don't blame her and not John for the fact that they needed to hire someone to help out with the work that they wanted done and yet didn't want to do themselves.

Matt McG

I've written quite a lengthy response so it's here. It's too long to post in a comments box.

However, the point I want to make is that being a domestic employee (maid, nanny, au pair, etc.) is not like most other service jobs and the potential for abuse/exploitation is there in a way it is not in most other service jobs.

Belle's case seems a near-ideal case of the employer/employee relationship in this kind of case but it's simply not like that. I write from direct experience because both my wife (as an au pair) and I have been in this type of job (in my case as precisely the kind of hospital/school cleaner that Belle's maid would not want to be!)... and I would, in direct opposition to Belle's maid, take the latter over the former any day.

More here

Russell Arben Fox

Matt, thanks for the very thoughtful post. In many ways, it cuts right to the heart of the concerns which Chun (and Ehrenreich) we're highlighting in the first place.

Rich, I'm still not sure where you're going. I think those addressing this issue have been pretty consistent in their concerns about commodification across categories; even if it does just boil down to a feeling of ickiness (which I doubt), then I don't think there's any question that both wife and husband are implicated in such. But anyway, to answer your challenge: the difference between these two socio-economically similar occupations (maid and prostitute) is that sexuality pertains to the human person--to one's identity and worth--in a way that vaccuming does not. Consequently there is a reasonable basis to distinguish between the marketing of the two, even if their similarities are instructive.

Invisible Adjunct

"aren't both sides of the coin equally constructed? And if so, why should the burden of proof be upon those (like, I admit, myself) who believe that certain operations of the home ought not conform to the exchange model?"

Yes, definitely two sides of the same coin. And of course the burden of proof should be shared. What I meant was that your position should not be taken as the given, the normal or natural mode against which any alternative must be tested. If exchange relations have recently entered the home, or perhaps (and more likely) were never really absent from the home, then it seems reasonable to ask what's at stake in continuing to assert a notion of home as noneconomic realm.

"Is the home an unknowing (and gender-dependent) enabler of the bifurcation of the modern world, or can it actually exist in opposition to it? Obviously I'd like to believe latter possibility, and I don't think it has been disproven."

I'd say the home is partly a "gender-dependent enabler of the bifurcation of the modern world," but that it's not only that. There's a lot that's good about the development of a private sphere, and for women no less than for men. I certainly would not want to go back early modern patriarchal governance (master-servant relations through and through).

And in some ways, I think domesticity really is (or else should be) some kind of "haven in a heartless world." But that world will not become less "heartless" unless and until we leave off what I think is an artificial and unfortunate division. I honestly don't see why the home should exist in *opposition* to the rest of the world. Instead of a firm division, I guess I see things on a spectrum, with the home at one end and the workplace at the other, but with overlapping functions, characteristics and qualities.

And since you're a communitarian, I wonder why you want to hold onto this possibility. It seems to me that the split -- competitive individualism versus private altruism -- is one of the main reasons for the impoverishment of our notion (or maybe our lack of a notion) of the commons (ie, through the privatization of care, nonmarket values and etc -- nice stuff that you do in your own private realm, but of no relevance to any other goals or constituencies).

Rich Puchalsky

Russell Arben Fox: "the difference between these two socio-economically similar occupations (maid and prostitute) is that sexuality pertains to the human person--to one's identity and worth--in a way that vaccuming does not"

Hmm. I still see difficulties here, though perhaps they are more difficulties for liberals than conservatives. Isn't the point of a lot of feminist theory and so on that one's sexual activity does *not* determine -- I'm not sure what "pertains to" means in this context -- one's identity and worth? We aren't supposed to any longer stigmatize people for the consensual sex that they choose to engage in. If you are supposed to be free to have whatever consensual sex you like with other consenting adults, isn't that a little inconsistent with saying that selling your labor as a maid is OK but selling sex is not? Certainly I would assume that libertarians wouldn't see any difference. What's more, isn't there a lot of theory that says that that stigmatization of sex work is just a dodge so that men can preserve power over it? After all, it still goes on in any case.

You originally asked whether I was saying that the comparison should make us look at the case of the sex worker as being better or at that of the maid as being worse. I have to admit that I'm not really sure myself. I mean, look at the example of Tena. She's already seperated from her children, living full time in someone else's home, doing a lot of menial work. Maybe if she was actually a sex worker, she could have her own apartment, would have to do less work, and perhaps could see her kids more, and would actually be better off while her youth lasted, even though you feel that she should she feel worse off.

Russell Arben Fox

IA: Very good question; that's an angle I hadn't considered before. I guess my response is that I see the home as a source of critique--that the intimacy and mutuality possible therein show that alternatives to the liberal order are conceivable. (When I say the home exists in "opposition" to the modern economy, I mean that it is literally a "counter" to it, something which resists it.) So I want to defend the distinction, because it seems to me that without the ability to persuasively claim that "labor" in the home does and ought to operate in light of different, more communitarian realities, our language of common possibilities would be that much more impoverished. But perhaps you're right that the unintended upshot of my argument is more a celebration of the private than a reproach to the world around it. I'll have to think about what you say.

Rich: Ok, now I think I understand your original comment a little better. As for my reaction to it, perhaps I should make it clear that I'm not a "liberal" in the way you're talking about. The consensuality of a particular sexual relationship isn't a trump card, in my book.

Rich Puchalsky

Russell, I didn't think that you were a liberal, I assumed from your other comments that you are some variety of conservative. For that reason, perhaps, I don't find your answer very convincing.

I quote from a previous post of yours: "why should the burden of proof be upon those (like, I admit, myself) who believe that certain operations of the home ought not conform to the exchange model? Shouldn't it equally rest on those who assume that the intimacy of the domestic sphere (and I don't mean romantic intimacy, though obviously that can be part of it; I'm talking about the mutuality of roles and duties) is ultimately powerless before the market?" I don't find arguments about who has the burden of proof very illuminating. We're talking about two categories of existing economic / power relationships that at least superfically appear to be very similar. Your answer seems to amount to "I believe that certain operations of the home ought not to conform to the exchange model" and sex is emphatically one of those operations while vacuuming is not. Well, why? What prioritizes selling sex for economic reasons over selling your time and menial labor and seperation from your children for economic reasons?

Invisible Adjunct

Rich Puchalsky,

Does it matter to you that many women who work in the service sector industries actually *wouldn't* see selling labor and selling sex as one and the same thing? that many would be deeply offended by the suggestion that if you're cleaning someone's house you might as well be selling your body to the highest bidder? I mean, are they just dupes of patriarchal ideology? And even if they are mainly or mostly dupes of this ideology (which point I wouldn't actually assume), well, they still have selves (socially constructed and historically contingent selves, granted), and those selves probably don't see the issue as you've framed it. Are you saying their own sense of self and identity should be thrown off in order to conform to some larger logic of consistency (it's all the same if it's a service in exchange for pay)?

To put it another way: are you quite serious about this? or is this some kind of epater les bourgeois tactic (if you're hiring a maid, you might as well be hiring a prostitute -- which might look a bit different from the perspective of the maid, no? -- or does that matter to you?)

Rich Puchalsky

Am I saying that "their own sense of self and identity should be thrown off in order to conform to some larger logic of consistency"? No, of course not; people make or have made their own decisions about their sense of self and identity, and I wouldn't know how to change them even if I wanted to.

As for "many would be deeply offended" -- please. Why should I care whether many would be deeply offended? Are the maids of the world, and their employers, delicate flowers to be protected from the ideas of mean old me? How are you even supposed to discuss feminist ideas if you aren't willing to consider whether there is a real difference between sex work and other woman dominated fields? I assure you that I am not the first person in the world to come up with this notion.

As for "am I serious", I'm serious about it to the extent that I find it to be an interesting idea. I was motivated to bring it up because I suddenly realized that so many of the items I was reading in both the original post and ensuing comments were so well fitted to both subjects. Surely there must be some articulable reason why the two cases are definatively different, or why they are basically the same. If they are basically the same, then perhaps you could learn a good deal more about one from the other. And even if they are really different, I think that there's an interesting commonality of apologetic rhetoric between them.

drapeto


So, is our blissful life infected from within by the evil of exploitation?

uh...yes. yes, of course. could you imagine the answer being otherwise? (so is mine in any number of ways, i hasten to add.)

but i'll say what i really find exploitative about maids/nannies in particular is the way that they mix private and public. that bit about your daughter loving the maid made me more uncomfortable than anything else. and from what i know from domestic workers group and from friends in the labor movement, it's those emotional connections employers use that make domestic work more difficult to make equitable than other occupations.

Doug Muir

Belle has made several good points that are getting neglected in subsequent discussion. Here's one:


I just know that in our present situation, it would be a real struggle for me to take care of Zoe all day and clean up and get dinner ready, with the result that John would have to do lots of things too even though he is the sole breadwinner. This would make for resentment. This is partly me being sick, but partly something that would happen in any home with a stay-at-home mom, I think; I would be yearning for a break from tot duty just at the moment he walked in the door from work yearning for a cold beer, and I think both of us would feel put upon to some degree.

Yup, that's exactly right.

Claudia and I live in Romania, I work and she doesn't, we have a two year old and an eight month old, and we have a nanny.

Click on my name to get Claudia's take on this (blog post with today's date). As for me, an emphatic yes; having the nanny removes or diminishes a whole constellation of potential stressors. She works 9-5 and so is gone by the time I come home -- but I definitely know she's been there.

Yearning for a break from duty at the exact moment that the husband comes in wanting a cold beer -- yes. That's exactly how it is.


Doug M.

Rich Puchalsky

The above post is just the kind of thing that caused me to develop my comparison between maids/nannies and sex workers. All this stuff about diminishing stressors, and yearning. I mean, people just don't usually write about hired labor this way. And the whole bit I paraphrase as "I'm supporting families because these people are so poor compared to me that I can pay them well" reminds me of, maybe, those Thai sex tours that Japanese businesspeople take. I quote from the article that Doug Muir links to: "I just can't bring myself to feel as an exploiter. Principles are nice if you live somewhere where people can afford them."

Claudia
And the whole bit I paraphrase as "I'm supporting families because these people are so poor compared to me that I can pay them well" reminds me of, maybe, those Thai sex tours that Japanese businesspeople take. I quote from the article that Doug Muir links to: "I just can't bring myself to feel as an exploiter. Principles are nice if you live somewhere where people can afford them."

Thanks for taking something out of context to serve your points. So, to live up to your personal ethics, you'd rather have two people who are perfectly happy with their jobs, to go off and, say, work in a factory where the job is poorly paid, potentially hazardous and will make them both miserable?

Geez. What is this high-browed attitude that despises the work a nanny or a maid delivers as so unspeakably gruesome? What is the difference between a maid and the room-service in a hotel? Are you cleaning the toilet in every hotel you stay? Are you washing the dishes in every restaurant you eat at? Because if you don't, and if you eat in countries like Indonesia, or Romania, or Mexico, you cannot ever be sure whether those employees are better off than a maid that I employ. (And please leave the example in the respective countries -- you can't compare working as a maid in Romania with working at BMW in Munich.) I'm creating two jobs. Two jobs that did not exist before. If I were to hire two people to do my typing and coding, you'd have no problem with that.

I do take offense at your comparison with sex tourism. You are not only offending me but also Vali and Anda. Kindly refuse from doing so.

Rich Puchalsky

Claudia, maybe once people start writing about how they yearn for the break that their typist gives them, or how the work that their coder does really diminishes stressors in their family, I'll stop making this comparison that offends you so. (And I'll take your word for it that it also offends your two domestic servants. After all, we pretty much have to take your word about how they feel about everything else).

I agree that you are using the tremendous differential between what you are paid and the going rate for unskilled work in the place where you live to create new jobs. So is the sex tourist. I also agree that your workers would rather be working for you than in a factory. Leaving out issues of illegality, so would sex workers. (At least if we're talking about the higher end of the trade, which your story represents in terms of hiring domestics.)

So what's the difference between your job creation in the personal service sector and the job creation of someone who uses unskilled labor in, say, the manufacturing sector? After all, when people go to Romania and build a factory, generally no one complains.

I see a number of important differences:

1) It's assumed that manufacturing workers still have families. You have a full time nanny, which is in this sense no different than any other full-time job, but others like Belle have live-in nannies. That means that they are directly giving up the ability to be in contact with their children in order to help you with yours.

2) Manufacturing workers learn skills, or at least someone in their country generally does, so that eventually people in Romania learn how to build whatever the factories have been making. This applies to coders as well.

3) Manufacturing workers are sometimes unionized, or at least there is pressure for them to be. For that matter, sometimes, so are the people who clean your hotel or your office. Try Googling "Justice for Janitors".

4) Manufacturing workers and most service sector workers don't have one-to-one relationships with their employer that involve "bringing them into the family". Others have commented on how this makes it more difficult for the worker to negotiate, and how it brings capitalist relations into the family sphere. I would add that it's paternalistic. Just listen to yourselves and how you write about your happy serfs; it's straight out of some 19th century Russian novel.

Doug Muir

Belle: Thank god for the maid/nanny.

Rich: Maids are like sex workers.

Russell: I don't see that.

Rich: They are so.

Russell: I still don’t see that.

Rich: Are so.

Doug: What Belle said. Thank god for the maid/nanny.

Rich: See, that’s what you’d say about a sex worker. Nobody thanks god for a typist. Maids are like sex workers.

Claudia: I don't see that, either. Also, I find it offensive.

Rich: Your nanny would be better off in a factory, where she might learn skills and join a union. You talk about her like a Russian serf.


Oo kay.

Y’know what, Rich? Nobody’s getting convinced here. You’ll continue to have some vague but strongly held idea that the relationship is inherently exploitative and wicked. Confronted with conflicting evidence, you’ll either pooh-pooh it – “we pretty much have to take your word about how they feel” – or ignore it.

Meanwhile, Tena will still be living with John and Belle and Zoe. And Vali and Andra will continue to work for Claudia, until and unless they feel they’ve got a better deal elsewhere. At which point Claudia will /break out the knout and the wolfhounds/... sorry, shake them by the hand, wipe a tear from her eye, and wish them luck with the factory job or whatever.

And the bad old world will roll, roll on.


Doug M.

Rich Puchalsky

Doug characterizes Belle's original post as "Thank God for the maid/nanny". Really? I would characterize it as "Don't think I'm a bad person for hiring a maid/nanny -- look my nanny says this is great work too!" The same goes for Claudia's post. It's not a celebration of the personal qualities of her nanny, or those of nannies in general, it's an apologia intended to morally justify a particular example of an economic relationship. Convincing people of your moral goodness, and salving your apparently guilty conscience, is what you made it about from the start.

Well, I don't much care about your moral goodness or your guilty conscience. As you say, these economic relationships are going to go on until the direct participants change their minds, whether I or anyone else approve or not. So I'm more interested in your rhetoric for its own sake, and about what it says in describing actual economic relationships. If my discussion of these ideas offends you, maybe that's your problem. Why start a discussion claiming "I am a good person for participating in this type of economic relationship" and then get offended when someone says, "well, this relationship appears little different from many others that people find exploitative"?

By the way, I didn't pooh-pooh the claim about your whether your nanny would be offended. I just pointed out that we have no way of knowing how she really feels about it, any more than we do when some john claims that when he's with a sex worker, she's always really thrilled. You might consider that she has a motive for lying to you about how happy she is and about how offended she would be at the suggestion that her job isn't any less exploitative for being "respectable". But if she is really offended, I don't see why I should care about that any more than I care about offending you. Caring more about her would imply that she is some form of lesser being to be protected, who can't speak for herself -- a serf, maybe.

Doctor Memory

A few steps back, before this thread got quite so convoluted, Rich asked (roughly paraphrasing) if there were any overt dissimilarities between sex work and domestic work that would argue against considering them as essentially similar.

To which there has largely been a stunning silence, and I'm a little boggled by that. I realize that we're aiming for a fairly highbrow tone here, but it seems precisely pertinent to ask: are you fucking kidding me? Emphasis on the nominally profane word in that sentence, as the differences do rather hinge on intercourse. To wit, I am willing to accept it as a given that nannies and maids, as opposed to prostitutes, run a substantially lower risk of contracting:

- HIV
- Syphilis
- Infertility (secondary to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, itself secondary to any number of otherwise relatively "benign" STDs)
- pregnancy

...as a nearly statistically inevitable side-effect of their employment. (And yes, I'm aware that domestics can be and are sexually abused by their employers; the point is that prostitutes must court these risks, while domestics might.)

I would also suspect, although I'm willing to consider it unproven for the sake of this argument, that domestic employees, on the whole, suffer substantially less by way of physical abuse, rape and murder from their clients than do prostitutes. (Whether that is a necessary condition of the work itself or a symptom of its illegality is another argument, to be sure.)

It also seems perhaps pertinent to mention that even in the more classically exploitative modes of domestic service (for whatever your personal value of "more exploitative" happens to be), the domestic is usually still getting paid some amount of money for her services. This emphatically not even close to universally the case in the world of prostitution: many of the aforementioned Thai sex "workers" are outright slaves, and see no renumeration whatsoever for their efforts.

drapeto


Belle has made several good points that are getting neglected in subsequent discussion.

Which is what, having a maid is fucking convenient? This hardly seems worth disputing.

I see the point of the nanny/sex worker comparison -- both are outsourcing services which are socially constructed as part of love, which are generally regarded as superior when given as part of love, and which have all kinds of problems in just treatment of workers because of the work's sentimental associations.

The "love" bit was raised by Belle, do note.

(That's not even taking up issues like the fact that in the US, maids/nannies are routinely illegals who don't get their Social Security paid.)

"I just can't bring myself to feel as an exploiter.

I wonder if your maid could bring herself to think of you that way.


Rich Puchalsky

Wow -- two commenters who think this isn't just some weird troll subject. Thanks to both Doctor Memory and drapeto.

Doctor Memory, I think that your answer is pretty good. First I want to point out its difference in *kind* from the answers supplied before; instead of the claim that selling sexuality "pertains to the human person--to one's identity and worth", you've delivered an answer that's basically about occupational hazards. Instead of "my maids [or all maids] would be offended at being compared to prostitutes", which says that selling sex is assumed to be immoral or not respectable, you've made the case for it being a bad job. Which is an answer that is a good deal easier to understand as a cross-cultural claim, and doesn't assume what it sets out to prove.

Of course, the problem with this answer as a distinguishing factor between maids and prostitutes is that, as you say, you wonder whether some of these hazards are a necessary part of the work, or part of the illegalization of sex work to keep it from being the only truly high paying woman-dominated field. I recommend the article at http://www.unesco.org/courier/1998_12/uk/ethique/txt1.htm, which contains a good discussion of the differences between abolitionist and prostitute's rights groups, each of which can make a somewhat convincing feminist case.

But let's leave that aside for the moment and consider a one-to-one comparison between the high ends of both fields. After all, the people defending the hiring of maids and nannies here are presenting themselves as ideal employers. Exploitative people who hire maids in Asian countries often don't pay them anything; there are many cases where the maids are pretty much indentured servants. So let's compare the maid not to a streetwalker or a Thai outright slave, but to my original comparison, a personal sex worker -- a mistress or kept woman. Since they presumably have to have sex with only one person, the risk of STD would be a good deal less. Pregnancy is not really much of a risk with modern contraceptives. And presumably the sex worker would be well paid and not under too much additional risk of violence. I don't really see that case as being, in terms of occupational hazards, all that different from the case of the construction worker who knows that they might get asbestosis but still takes the job because it pays better than other work.

So I finally don't find this answer fully convincing, although I think it's a better answer than the others.

drapeto's answer is, I think, pretty convincing. All of these occupations represent outsourcing not just of love, but of activities that are the closest parts of family life.

Doctor Memory

Quoth Rich: Wow -- two commenters who think this isn't just some weird troll subject.

I'm not certain I'd go that far. I strongly suspect I'm treating your question with a lot more seriousness and respect than it deserves. Statements such as:

All of these occupations represent outsourcing not just of love, but of activities that are the closest parts of family life.

...go a long way toward reinforcing that suspicion.

Closest parts of family life? I see an entire textbook's worth of unexamined assumptions crammed into that statement. (Not to mention a mountain of irony viz your pooh-poohing of "middle class" moral concerns.) Oddly, in my mind's eye, that textbook appears to be titled "Introductory Anthropology". It's also a bit worn in the binding and appears to have a lot of doodling in the margins, but that's my imagination for you.

Sticking to unassailable generalities like "no one can be free of power relations" might be a better course.

Good day.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, Doctor Memory, whenever someone says something like "I strongly suspect I'm treating your question with a lot more seriousness and respect than it deserves." I notice that they aren't really saying anything. Perhaps the next time you want to assail a non-generality, it might be a good idea to actually do so.

Good day to you too.

Sandy

Since all employees are slaves, that means that nannies are slaves. But parents are also slaves. Servants are slaves. Entrepreneurs are slaves. Even masters are slaves to their slaves, so why do all people want to be slaves?
http://www.geocities.com/sundiii

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