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On Amnesty and that open letter

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As most readers of this blog will probably be aware, Amnesty International recently proposed adopting a policy in favour of sex work decriminalisation. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – a radical feminist organisation for whom “trafficking” means, simply, prostitution – had kittens, and got a whole bunch of celebrity women (and others) to sign an open letter calling on Amnesty to reject this proposal. You can read the proposal here and the CATW letter here. (There’s also a counter-letter from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, an actual sex worker-led organisation, which you can read and sign here. And please do.)

Much has already been written about the CATW letter, so I’ll limit my own critique to two points:

1. Any anti-sex work argument that cites Germany and/or the Netherlands without even mentioning New Zealand is either ill-informed or simply dishonest. The celebrities may fall into the former category, but CATW and many of the ordinary signatories know full well that New Zealand, and not those other countries, is the preferred model of “the HIV/AIDS sector, including UNAIDS” – which CATW’s own letter describes as the main inspiration for Amnesty’s proposal. Their failure to mention it can only be deliberate, presumably in an effort to prevent the ill-informed – the people who do think Germany and the Netherlands are what decriminalisation means in practice – from learning of the existence of the New Zealand model, and deciding to find out more about it.

2. It is equally dishonest to portray the policy proposal as one that “sides with buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited”. This is what the draft policy actually says:

Amnesty

It is patently clear from this paragraph – the only one in the draft policy addressing client and third party criminalisation – that it is precisely “the exploited” (by which CATW mean all sex workers) whose rights Amnesty is aiming to protect. CATW are free to disagree that decriminalisation would protect them, of course, but an honest response to this paragraph would require at least acknowledging that as Amnesty’s aim.

On top of that, the policy has an appendix – the summary of research findings Amnesty undertook with sex workers in four different countries (Argentina, China, Norway and Papua New Guinea). This runs to four pages, and includes a number of direct quotations from the sex workers Amnesty spoke to. I’ve read and reread and reread the four pages, and I can’t find any direct quotes by clients or third parties.

Here’s a sample of the quotes from Norway:

Amnesty 2Amnesty 3Amnesty 4

One would almost have to wonder what CATW think it means to “side with” a person, if not to support abolishing a law that that person says puts them in danger.

Now it could be argued that we don’t know how many sex workers told Amnesty that actually they think criminalising their clients is in their interests. This is true; we don’t. But the fact is that every research study I have ever seen from anywhere on the impacts of client criminalisation has found that sex workers consider it to put them more at risk. Every last one. Even the official reports used by the Swedish and Norwegian governments to justify their laws. Even the City of Oslo report used by statistically illiterate radfems to justify the laws. So to make that argument would be disingenuous. But to not even acknowledge the existence of the research findings, while simultaneously claiming that Amnesty is siding against sex workers? That’s worse than disingenuous. It’s bad faith.

And if you are a journalist who reported on the CATW letter without reading and referring to what the Amnesty document actually says? Shame on you.

 

Identity Ireland? Xenophobia is NOT my Irish identity.

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Twenty-five years ago the phone rang. I’m a little hazy on the details- you have to remember, I was only seven at the time. I remember that I’d been excited, because my dad was going to see my uncle John living in America, and that uncle always sent me on the best presents. Toys you’d never get here- polar explorer play sets, a gorgeous illustrated hardback Hobbit that I wouldn’t appreciate till years afterward.

There was always a kind of glamour to our overseas family, wasn’t there? You’d only see them once or twice a year at most. Their visits were filled with drama- the excitement of meeting them at the airport or in a house stuffed with family, a few days or a week to fit in months worth of experiences, and before you knew it you were saying goodbye again.

I say ‘were’, of course, but the present tense would be just as appropriate, wouldn’t it?

Of course- this won’t surprise you, since I led with it- that phone call twenty-five years ago was different. The details I’m gonna keep to myself, but my uncle- less than a decade older than I am today- had died suddenly.

It happens. It was horrible, of course. Of all my childhood memories- almost all hazy- the feeling of walking into my Nana’s house later that day, the silence of the aunts, uncles and cousins filling the living room lives in sharp, full-colour contrast.

I don’t know the details. I was only a child. But I think that it took days to bring his body home.

Let’s fast forward a few years, shall we?

To the Tea Cosy. Y’know the drill, the rest is over there

Neural Tube Defects: Systemic Problems and Individualised Answers.

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Yesterday in the Irish Times, Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, had something to say about folic acid. Up till now, you see, women people planning to become pregnant have been advised to take folic acid supplements daily. Ireland has a high rate of neural tube defects– which cause everything from spina bifida to anencephaly- the majority of which can be prevented with folic acid.

As of yesterday, this advice has changed:

“Up to 50 per cent of all pregnancies are unplanned, but a baby’s crucial neural tube develops in the first few weeks of pregnancy when many women may be unaware they are pregnant,” Dr Mahony said. …“Women who are sexually active should start taking the vitamin daily even if a baby is the last thing on their mind”

Taken at face value, this seems like good advice. If you’re at risk of getting pregnant, then taking a simple step to prevent painful or fatal birth defects seems sensible. And from a purely medical standpoint, I can see her point. Unplanned pregnancies happen! If I were at risk of getting pregnant and thought there was a reasonable chance I’d keep any pregnancy that resulted, I would seriously consider adding some folic acid to my daily routine. And I’m sure that, as a medical practitioner, Dr Mahony sees more of the suffering that neural tube defects can cause than most.

However, this doesn’t mean that Dr Mahony’s perspective- while important- is complete, or that she fully understands the context in which she speaks. Because medical advice is never given in a vacuum, and in this context Dr Mahony’s well-intentioned advice is ill thought-out, ignorant of context and in certain cases may be actively harmful.

Let me explain. Let’s go to the beginning.

Check out the rest, over at the original post in the Tea Cosy

What TORL aren’t telling you about those “trafficking” stats

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Earlier this week, the Central Statistics Office published its latest reported crime data, which included a figure of 33 “human trafficking offences” – up from 22 in the last report.

Predictably, this was seized on by the Turn Off the Red Light campaign to bolster its call for the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients:

Now as I’ve noted a number of times, Irish “trafficking offences” can encompass quite a number of things that have nothing to do with sex work – including unlawful sexual activity with a minor and helping a person enter the State to seek asylum. So, quite apart from the obvious point that we don’t know whether the increase relates to sex trafficking or labour trafficking, we don’t even know if it relates to trafficking in the Palermo Protocol sense at all.

So, I decided to do something I’m pretty sure never occurred to TORL to do: I emailed the CSO’s crime data section to ask for further detail on these offences. Within a few hours, I had a reply inviting me to telephone them to discuss my query (see how easy that was, TORL?).

Unfortunately, the very helpful person who answered the phone was unable to provide any detail, because the CSO don’t have it: the figures were reported exactly as they came to them from the Gardaí. I asked if they could even be broken down into which statutory offence was reportedly committed, but the answer was no: literally all the CSO were told was “33 human trafficking offences”.

Furthermore, the CSO told me, this doesn’t necessarily even represent things that are legally defined as human trafficking: “It’s a Garda definition, not a legal definition.” So anything the reporting Garda considers trafficking would go into that figure. The lack of any kind of standard renders the statistic wholly unreliable evidence of anything at all.

And, finally, I was told that the figure may include inchoate offences, such as conspiracy. So there is no need that any actual trafficking had taken place – it is enough that there was an agreement in place to do so. Presumably, the figure may also include complicity offences, such as aiding and abetting.

What is apparent then is that the “33 human trafficking offences” need not relate to 33 separate incidents of (whatever kind of) human trafficking, i.e., 33 victims. And since the same was true of the previous report’s 22, we can’t judge the significance of the 50% increase in any meaningful sense. It’s a number on a page that tells us nothing about anything – except, of course, the willingness of crusaders to manipulate data for their own ends.

This is why we can’t have nice things; Upping the price of drink in Ireland

The Oireachtas Health Committee is due to launch a report soon that will propose the government introduce a law to ensure that there is a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Much is being made of the fact that this will mean you won’t be able to buy a single bottle of wine for less than a tenner anywhere in the state. Compared to many other European states, the price of alcohol in bars is already ridiculous. The Vintner’s Association must love this. They’ve been banging on about how they’re losing business to people drinking at home for a long time, so an Oireachtas committee has decided to help their businesses by trying to prevent people from doing that by making it more expensive under the guise of a health initiative.

Despite the fact that Alcohol Action have been banging this drum as a health initiative for quite a while it’s painfully obvious to anyone who isn’t after necking a bottle of wine that using price to control behaviour unfairly penalises those on low incomes. There can be no equality of outcome in this situation.

Well-meaning but misinformed lobbyists have consistently put forward lines which are untrue such as “Minimum pricing, by definition, impacts on those that drink the most.” Clearly this is incorrect – the impact will be felt by those on lower incomes. The subtext of the statement from Alcohol Action is that those that drink the most are poor –  and they must be stopped from drinking. They must be saved from themselves. Increasing the price of pints wouldn’t have stopped TDs from drinking and then getting up to vote or speak on some of the most important Bills in the history of the current cabinet. Ensuring that a bottle of wine is more than €10 would not have stopped former TD Jim McDaid from getting behind the wheel of the car while absolutely hammered and tearing up the wrong side of the dual carriageway on his way home from the a race meeting at Punchestown. Nor would the cost of alcohol per unit have stopped other political figures such as Liam Lawlor, Labour’s Michael Bell, Senators David Norris, Joe O’Toole and Deputy Ruairí Quinn from being convicted of drink driving. That isn’t really how drink driving works. I hate cultural stereotypes that position all Irish people as pissed up, because they aren’t correct and are the product of anti-Irish racism of Victorian England. In saying that, Ireland is probably one of the only places where you can be convicted of being drunk behind the wheel and still have a reasonable run at a presidential election or subsequently hold the position of senior government Minister. Our attitudes to alcohol are simply different to other places, and making alcohol more expensive isn’t going to change the practice of well-paid middle class parents in south county Dublin who put Cabáiste and Quinoa to bed at night and then neck two or three bottles of wine. That leads to long term negative impacts on an individual’s health and the healthcare system – but that’s ok because it’s not poor people doing it. The cost of the drink isn’t the issue, it’s actually the mind of the people drinking it and the culture that surrounds them. Bags of coke don’t come cheap but that doesn’t stop people snorting Dickhead Dust to beat the band in certain circles. The price, or legality for that matter, is irrelevant.

Rightly or wrongly, drinking is a culturally accepted social past-time in Ireland. The Guinness toucan is an internationally recognised symbol of Irish cultural experience and we play up to it. We celebrate writers like John B. Keane and Brendan Behan whose grá for a jar is well known. Yes, alcohol contributes to a lot of terrible aspects of Irish society; Dublin is like a warzone after 3pm on St. Patrick’s Day; we’re a pretty depressed population and drink doesn’t particularly help that; and our A&Es are overrun with people getting charcoal stuffed down them at the weekends when staff and hospitals are already near breaking point. But increasing costs isn’t suddenly going to mean that there’ll be less vomit on O’Connell Street early on a Sunday morning. It just means that when someone rings in to complain on Joe Duffy, a government Minister can say “Well, it’s not our fault! We did something!” and some people will have a bit less in their pockets to pay for their breakfast rolls in Centra that afternoon.

Budget day always brings a collective whinge from the nation when there’s an increase in the price of alcohol, but adding a set rate per unit of alcohol simply stops those on lower incomes from engaging in what is a cultural norm without having the evidence to back up whether this is going to have a significant public health benefit for those you want to target. The definition of poverty is if people’s income is so inadequate they are precluded from engaging in activities and having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society. Why shouldn’t someone who goes out and is exploited by doing a week’s work on Jobbridge for €50 quid on top of their dole and the luxury of keeping the social welfare off their back have a drink of something cheap at home at the end of it? Those drinkers aren’t really the problem but they’re the ones who will pay for it.

The problem of alcohol consumption in Ireland, like drug abuse, isn’t going to be solved overnight, and this is just the latest proposal that’s well intended but isn’t going to change anything. Headshops were closed down and people are still doing yokes. The price of drink will go up, and government TDs will still be in the Dáil chamber three sheets to the wind. The more things change the more they stay the same and a policy that looks like it has emanated from the mind of someone with a superficial grasp of Leaving Cert economics won’t even scratch the surface of deeply embedded social problems.

Lies, damn lies, and TORL statistics

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Guest post by Laura Lee

Following Stormont’s passing into law of Lord Morrow’s prohibitionist measure not so cunningly disguised as saving the victims of trafficking, it’s not surprising that the various anti sex work groups in the Republic have jumped on the back of that. Why, less than twenty four hours after the law came in, the ICI are claiming that this has already resulted in a mass exodus of sex workers across the border. You’ll forgive my instant suspicion of any statistics coming from the ICI, but as they are members of Turn off the Red Light with such illustrious partners as Ruhama, they have a vested interest in creating unfounded moral panic.

On the 5th of December last year, an article appeared in the Connaught Tribune which stunned me into silence, a real feat indeed. That article claimed that in Galway, 87 women were advertised “for sale” [sic], 97% of whom were immigrants and therefore trafficked. Wow. A quick check on Escort Ireland of today’s figures shows 42 sex workers in total, and that includes men and people advertising as “transsexual/transvestite”. All trafficked ? I think not.

Yesterday saw the publication in the Belfast Telegraph of yet another festival of made up statistics from the ICI. To break them down, they claimed that –

  • Donegal has increased from 14 advertisements to 24 – there are 18 today.
  • Louth has increased from 18 advertisements to 25 – there are 21 today.
  • Leitrim has screeched from 2 ads to 9 – there are 2 today.

If we take a snapshot of the number of sex workers advertising in the border counties, the numbers change dramatically all the time. That’s because by its very nature, the sex industry is fluid, with sex workers moving from location to location. In the short period from 19/11/2014 to 3/12/2014,* the number of female sex workers advertising in the southern border counties varied each day between 45 and 67, with the numbers tending to increase in the run up to Christmas. And the same is true for the rest of Ireland, from Wexford to Belfast to Kerry and all points in between.

Looking at Galway during the period 19/11/2014 to 3/12/2014, the numbers fluctuated there too but not once did the total exceed 57. So where were those 87 sex workers, 97% of whom were trafficked, and why weren’t the Gardai helping them? ICI wouldn’t just be making statistics up, would they? Make your own mind up.

 

*stats available on request

Marriage is not Equality: Thoughts on #MarRef from a worried radical queer

This article is based heavily on the script for the 15/05/15 episode of my radio show, 30 km/s, which airs live online every 2 weeks on www.subcity.org

I also recommend reading this compilation of writings put out by Aidan Rowe, one of the many people in Ireland eloquently providing a radical critique of the very concept of marriage equality, as well as other real problems with the Referendum campaign, from an anarchist-queer perspective.

It’s been with interest and trepidation that I’ve been observing the campaign for the Marriage Referendum from afar, desperately wanting to be there. Between the overt homophobic abuse spouted by the ‘No’ campaign and the rather horrid effect of single-issue liberal politics and policing of identity from the mainstream, acceptable parts of the so-called ‘Gay’ community, I’ve felt quite homesick for Dublin, where I lived for 11 years.

While I’ve resided in Glasgow for the past couple of years, I came out as a trans woman and a lesbian, and began transitioning, in Ireland. I was heavily involved in the LGBTQ community/ies, both with the mainstream and the more radical elements. I’ve been a member of numerous LGBTQ organisations, such as TENI, and the late Queer Spraoi and PinC, and was the content editor for the defunct BoLT magazine, a magazine by and for LGBTQ women and trans people of all genders. I am still a strong part of the community with numerous bonds of friendship and solidarity with my LGBTQ friends living there, and I try to make it over at least a few times a year (especially for my fave Pride festival, Northwest Pride, when I can manage it!).

However, I feel the referendum has brought out some of the worst aspects of Irish society, both the homophobic, bigoted, misogynistic right-wing elements (church-led and otherwise) as well as the assimilationist, clean-cut ‘we are just like you’ part of the gay community, which seems more focused on adapting to a cishet norm than actually fighting for queers in the streets. To the extent of advising people to call the police on LGBTQ people who take down and vandalise the homophobic posters put up by the No campaign.

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re in Ireland, do I think you should vote yes, no, or abstain?

Vote yes. Clearly. Obviously.

Voting no is simply objectionable. Voting yes grants LGBTQ people rights that we should already have. If you’re a particularly politically minded LGBTQ person, abstaining should not be an option, considering the rather ghastly politics that make up the No side, from the homophobic and misogynistic Iona Institute to other typical right-wing, antifeminist elements in Irish society. And for many people, the rights granted are crucial and life saving: Adoption, citizenship, visitation rights in hospital, etcetera are all sorely needed. The state declaring that same-sex relationships are equal in the eyes of the law can have a strong effect on other parts of society as well.

Are we cool on that? Because from this point on, things get complicated.

Let’s start with the institution of marriage. If you’re in love, committing to someone for life, if that’s what you’re both into, that’s rad! Go ahead and do it, more power to you. But why do we need the state to get involved?

On a practical level, the issues around rights I’ve highlighted above are an obvious answer. But I ask you to take a step back and ask yourself: Why does citizenship depend on marriage? The fact of the matter is, historically, the state are heavily invested in regulating who comes and goes from their countries, and how family units are organised -a cursory look at the last 30 years of Irish history is proof of this. At different points in history, states will encourage immigration or discourage it through policies as well as promoting xenophobia, like we have seen in recent years. So I pose another question: why are our rights limited by whether or not we get access to a specific state-sanctioned form of relationship? What if we need those rights but we do not want the state involved in our affairs? What about the other things we have a right to but are often marginalised in? Housing and homelessness, unemployment, poverty, which studies in Ireland, the United States and UK show LGBTQ people overrepresented in those categories in proportion to the general population? Not to mention many other areas of discrimination in every day life I couldn’t hope to cover. Check out the following studies and reports that show marriage isn’t the only, or even the central, issue:

Ireland

List of publications by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (I couldn’t link just one they’re all bloody important)

United States

Injustice at Every Turn – A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey

New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community

UK

An Examination of Poverty and Sexual Orientation in the UK

Debunking the ‘Pink Pound’ – LGBT Poverty and Place in Scotland

One answer is that marriage equality is something that is achievable within our lifetime. All of your radical ideas about no borders, abolishing capitalism, etcetera, are all well and good, but they are unrealistic and impossible to achieve, the argument goes.

But let me ask you: would we have gotten to where we are now in terms of achieving same-sex marriage in many countries, if people had not fought for that specifically? The interesting thing is that back in the late 60s, when queens and dykes and faggots were being beaten up by police in New York, incarcerated and abused in my native Argentina, when the revolutionary voices of Stonewall and so many other places rose up, were they calling for a seat at the table of mainstream acceptability? Were they asking for marriage equality?

No. They were saying the table rests on the back of people like us. the poor. the disabled. the ones who are not acceptable faces of a marriage campaign. The migrants, the sex workers, the people of colour, the people with mental health issues and physical disabilities. Not to mention the majority of people who live in poverty. In the face of this, Gay Liberation was a call to arms for us who were considered deviant by society due to breaking gender and sexual norms, for us to reform society from the ground up for a radical concept of equality. Not equality based on a single law, a single yes or no question, but rather on true equality for all.

My problem isn’t with marriage per se, but marriage does not exist in a vacuum. The fact is that same-sex marriage will change absolutely nothing for 99% of queers I know. I accept that is a biased sample, but most of the LGBTQ people I know fall under one of the many following categories: Disabled with either physical or mental disabilities; people of colour; survivors of abuse; migrants; with experience of homelessness; sex workers.

What does marriage do for us? We are poor. We are kicked out of welfare systems designed to keep us in poverty. Trans people are frequently targeted to be kicked out of social welfare system due to conflicting documentation.

We have an asylum system in both the UK and Ireland that is despicable in its utter dehumanisation of people. And if you add to that the extra scrutiny afforded to LGBTQ asylum seekers, the picture is grim.

Sex workers struggle with the violence of a state that will deny the right of vulnerable people to try to make a living, often in really difficult situations.

Racism in Ireland and the UK is an everyday occurrence, as is xenophobia, ableism, misogyny.

And let us not forget the elephant in the room: how marriage equality does nothing for those members of the LGBTQ community that need an abortion and are not able to get one in Ireland.

We can’t address all of those issues at once, of course. But is ticking ‘yes’ on a box all we can really do? Is our political imagination so constrained? Why must we accept reducing everything we are and all we live and suffer through to whether this referendum passes?

Here’s where the rub comes in for me: the famous saying that a society or community can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Irish LGBTQ community as a whole has an appalling record in this regard. Racism, misogyny, ableism, and even transphobia have been rampant and unchecked for a long time within it, and not enough has been done to fight this. The mainstream LGBTQ community does precious little work for asylum seekers and people of colour. There’s virtually no campaigning around LGBTQ people with disabilities and/or in poverty.

So, with all of these issues, I have more questions to ask: Why are we campaigning for marriage now, instead of working to help the vulnerable sectors of the LGBTQ community in Ireland? Where is the money coming from for all the signs, vans, etcetera? And after the referendum, if it’s a Yes, where will all that money, energy, door-to-door canvassing, go to? If Ireland follows precedent, all that political mobilisation will vanish overnight. If we’re lucky, it will help mobilise for gender recognition for trans people as it did in Argentina, but even that will not fix all the other problems I’ve mentioned.

The fact of the matter is that marriage, in general, is a reform that is easy to attain and does not disturb the capitalist, patriarchal status quo. Marriage has always been, from the point of view of the state, about organising workers and property, determining who lives where and how. It is not a revolutionary institution and it will not bring about the change the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in Ireland sorely need.

Will the money and huge organising energy from the Yes campaign go to campaigns to abolish the direct provision system? Will money be raised by the big orgs to help out LGBTQ asylum seekers? What about campaigns to help improve the standard of living in local communities?

Ireland has a chance in this regard, because in all other countries, once they got what they wanted, these campaigns disbanded. They didn’t mobilise the LGBTQ communities over which they have so much sway to fight poverty, police violence, or for the decriminalisation of sex work. The system of global capital will still stand. Will the Yes campaigners stand with us?

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