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Don’t go anywhere: Risk management for women

You leave your house very early in the morning. It could be anywhere between 6am and 8am, but it’s mostly around 6.30am. You take the bus to work. The streets are deserted. Most mornings, your boyfriend walks your dog down the road beside you to the bus stop. Some days, you are on your own. On your days off work, you would like to walk your dog across town at 6am, the route you would take in the daytime when there is hustle and bustle, but maybe it isn’t safe enough when it is early. There aren’t enough people about.

There are shady looking characters that lurk around the streets in the morning. You get nervous when you see them. You wonder should you alter your route to the bus stop but each route you would take would require you to walk down a street that might be a little bit too desolate at that hour. You need to weigh up the risk more.

You love the summer, because when you are going to and coming from somewhere, the days are lighter and longer and it means that you can see further ahead and further behind you. You used to only walk with your keys in your hand if you were alone at night.

You do it in the daytime now too – ever since you read about that woman who was attacked in broad daylight in the park. A 19 year old man pushed her in the river. She fought him off. You would like to walk your dog in the park at the back of your house but it is too quiet, too empty and too risky. A man told you on the beach last week about how he lets his dog off-lead at 5.30am in the morning when there’s no one around so she can get a good run. Your leashed dog is jealous of his dog. You are jealous of him.

You would not go to a deserted beach at 5.30am in the morning.

It would be too dangerous. What is it like to be completely alone on a beach and not be scared?  You do not know. You could go to the beach on your own of course, but if something happened people would say “that really wasn’t wise” and “what was she doing on a beach on her own at half five in the morning?”

You do not really go anywhere alone between 10pm at night and 6am. There is an unspoken agreement between you and your boyfriend that he will meet you from the bus or train if it is after 8pm, but definitely if it is after 10pm. You are jealous of the time that your boyfriend has with his thoughts when he wanders alone through empty streets before coming to meet and/or protect you on the way home.

You are jealous but you are glad he is there.

Your house is a ten minute walk from the nightclub, but you take a taxi at 3am. You use an app to take the taxi, because you don’t know who you are flagging down on the road. You text your Mam who is a bad sleeper and probably awake anyway to let her know you are in a taxi and on the way home. You are glad there is cctv outside the pub across from your house. You text your Mam again and tell her you are in your house. You wait for the texts from your friends to tell you that they’re home. Your boyfriend comes home from football and pints with the lads. He walked. He kisses you goodnight and goes to sleep but is not woken by the ping ping of his friends whatsapping him to tell them they are home ok. You envy their carelessness. They will not feel guilty for coming home and falling asleep straight away and forgetting to text their friend. They do not have to.

You lie in the space between sleep and wake until the last message is received from your friend to let you know she’s home ok. Her battery had died so you were panicking over nothing. That taxi driver was fine after all.

You take the bus to work but it’s busy so you can scan the seats for a space beside a woman. There are none, so you sit beside the man who looks the least creepy but you know that even that might not be a safe bet as you recall the time a friendly old man who did not look weird at all sat beside you on the bus when you were 19. You are in the window seat. He asks you about university and keeps touching your arm, but you feel he would think you impolite if you told him how uncomfortable it is making you. He gently places his hand on your left breast as if it is no big deal while he is talking to you and you are so shocked you have to get off the bus twenty miles from your house and ring your friend to collect you. While you are waiting you ask yourself over and over again, did that really happen? It happened.

Now you sit as close to the driver as possible but it sometimes means a split-second judgment call on whether the man in the seat beside your prospective seat looks like a weirdo. You wonder which seat is the safest. You text your friends to let them know you made the last bus.

Ten years later, you feel an uninvited hand brush your bottom as you stand waiting to cross at the lights. He looks you in the eye after and crossed the road. You wonder if that was an accident but you know that you do not accidentally touch someone with the palm of your hand while waiting for the green light that indicates it is safe to cross the road. You sit beside Molly Malone and watch him until he disappears and wondered if you should run after him but what would you say if you caught up? Would anyone believe you anyway? Something similar happened to your friend recently while walking her dog beside the canal. You are all running the gauntlet. Molly stands still. She has seen it all.

You wear longer cardigans and longer shirts now. You wear longer coats like a flimsy shield. Summer is good because the days are longer, but the coats are shorter or not there at all so it’s a catch-22 really. You remember how these things happened during the daylight and wonder why you ever thought daylight was a defence in the first place.

You go home and make dinner. You feel safe. Your house is your fortress. You remember when it wasn’t. You think of a time, in a former life, when someone else lived there. You hear the names he called you and the sound of the walls he punched. Daylight was no use to you then and you try not to think about it. There is a knock at the door but you aren’t expecting anyone so you ignore it. It could be anyone really. You wonder why pepper spray is illegal in Ireland but remind yourself to get the small tin of wasp-killer spray from under the sink and keep it in your handbag. You read that it does the same thing. You wonder is there a point to any of these Oprah magazine safety tips at all. You feel you should be more defiant. You double check the doors and windows are locked.

When you wake, you quietly wake up your boyfriend.

You need to get the bus to work.

A favourite piece of research for Swedish model advocates throws up a few surprises

Guest post by @pastachips

Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?“, a 2012 study by Cho, Dreher and Neumayer, is cited everywhere as evidence that ‘legalised prostitution’ increases trafficking into the sex industry. This article from last month is a recent example. The study’s conclusions have already been called into question, basically because the paper doesn’t distinguish between different meanings of the word trafficking, either in terms of taking account different countries’ laws – are we comparing like with like? – nor in terms of making a distinction between something-that-might-be-legally-trafficking-but is-essentially-undocumented-migration, and something more like cross-border kidnapping. Making that kind of distinction is pretty important if you’re trying to say something coherent! As is comparing like with like! The papers’ authors caution against treating its conclusions with too much weight, noting that “the quality of data is relatively low”, and that more research “will require the collection of more reliable data to establish firmer conclusions” (p26), but I think their data is actually way worse that they’re letting on.

They focus in on comparing Denmark, Germany and Sweden, and tell us: “in terms of human trafficking victims, the ILO estimated the stock of victims in Germany in 2004 to be approximately 32,800 – about 62 times more than in Sweden” (p25). I looked up their reference for that 32,800 figure, and found that the ILO paper cited as the source – Danailova-Trainor & Belser, 2006doesn’t even mention Germany. I discovered that by reading it, but you can also test it by clicking through and doing a command-f search for the words “German” or “Germany”, which you might reasonably expect to occur in a document that mentioned Germany.

The same 2006 paper is also cited as the source for the numbers on Denmark, where the claim is made that “… the ILO estimates the stock of human trafficking victims in Denmark in 2004 at approximately 2,250, while the estimated number in Sweden is about 500”, and the bracketed reference reads: “Global report data used in Danailova-Trainor and Belser, 2006” (p24). Again, I looked for those numbers (or any mention of Denmark) in vain in the Danailova-Trainor & Belser 2006 paper. I also checked out the “Global Report” mentioned as the source for Danailova-Trainor and Belser’s data, which I figured was probably a reference to the ILO’s 2005 report titled ‘A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour’ – there’s nothing else published that it plausibly could be; I checked. The 2005 Global Report doesn’t contain any country estimates, let alone numbers like those cited by Cho, Dreher and Neumayer.

I assumed that the 32,800 figure regarding Germany must have come from somewhere, so I dug around for ages on the ILO site, and found that the ILO seems to mostly resist giving country-specific numerical estimates (cf this 2005 report on trafficking in Germany, which really won’t be drawn on numbers). The only figures I could find for trafficking in Germany in 2004 were these official lists of identified victims that put the 2004 number at 972 (for all officially identified trafficking victims, not just sex trafficking victims). Obviously a list of ‘officially identified’ victims is unreliable – for instance, surely everyone knows these lists massively under-represent the number of men trafficked into agricultural work. But I feel like at least that list has an available methodology, which you could for instance replicate to see if you would get a similar number, or critique or challenge (as I would). How do you assess the validity of the process which produced an unreferenced 32,800, that appears to have come from nowhere?

It’s probably worth noting that I’m not invested in “defending” Germany’s record on ‘sex trafficking’ (scare-quoted because I think a lot of what is referred to in that phrase is more complicated that is generally allowed). I’ve focused in a bit on Germany because the study does. I don’t support Germany’s legal model in terms of sex work, and nor do any sex worker-led organisations in Ireland or the UK that I’m aware of; sex workers are perfectly capable of articulating why and how laws like those in Germany harm us, and disproportionately harm the more marginalised of us. I just feel like having references that go somewhere is quite a low bar in terms of the social sciences – especially when you’re citing very large numbers that apparently don’t appear anywhere else! – and I’m pretty surprised that the Cho/Dreher/Neumayer study seems not to clear that bar.

I also noticed that the study’s info on sex work laws around the world (167 countries! such big study wow!) is from, uh, 1995. (See p46.) The authors of the study are aware of some potential problems with this, noting: “for some countries, prostitution law changed during the 1996-2003 period: … Germany (2002), Denmark (1999) … Netherlands (2000), New Zealand (2003), and Sweden (1999). Our results are robust to the exclusion of these countries” [emphasis mine; some countries removed because if you want to see the full list you can follow up my reference] (p37). Norway implemented the sex purchase law in 2009; Iceland in 2007. In short, the effects of the ‘Nordic model’ are not actually included in the data of this study, and nor is the effect of the New Zealand model. “Our results are robust to the exclusion of these countries”. This might arguably make the study a not-totally-solid citation for you, if you’re looking to argue that the Swedish model is great and the New Zealand model is 💩. Here’s maybe the most interesting surprise. Cho, Dreher and Neumayer include a handy list of all the countries they’ve “looked at” (scare-quotes because hmmm), sorted into categories according to whether those countries have “very high”, “high”, “medium”, “low” or “very low” trafficking ‘inflows’. (See p44.) Sweden is listed in the “medium” category, along with … New Zealand.

Now, I don’t think that’s actually meaningful! Because I think that the data used to produce the conclusions of this study was 🌸 garbage 🌸. In general I think you get information that’s meaningful about sex work, trafficking, migration and exploitation by asking migrants who sell sex about their experiences and their policy suggestions. This study is a good example of that. But if you do think the conclusions of the study are meaningful – for example, if you’ve cited this paper as part of your argument in favour of laws like Sweden’s – then it should probably concern you that a study-you-apparently-consider-reliable ‘reveals’ Sweden is actually no ‘better’ at tackling trafficking than New Zealand. Whoops!

I know “the point” of this study is that it’s not “just about” individual countries; it’s trying to see patterns on a macro scale. But – that’s kind of a design problem with the study? In order to have relevance to policy debates, you have to organise your data in a way that is coherent with the terms of the debate – or at least, not egregiously incoherent. The global sex worker rights movement isn’t arguing for the (massively varied!) laws that this paper puts in the pile it calls “legalisation”; we’re not campaigning for “oh, laws that look something like the ones they have in Nevada, or Amsterdam, or Germany, or New Zealand; the details don’t matter, we don’t really mind”. We do mind! We’re trying to work towards (and improve on) the sex work laws they have in New Zealand. Sorry if this idea is complicated, but: aggregate data from Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and the Netherlands doesn’t make sense if no one is arguing in favour of the legal system in Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, and when people who are pro-criminalisation refuse to understand this, they don’t derail us so much as make it obvious that they don’t care about the detail of the laws because they won’t be affected by them. Which isn’t that great an advocacy look, tbh. My focus on comparing New Zealand to Sweden in this study’s (broken and out-of-date) data isn’t because I’m scared of what will be ‘revealed’ by the aggregated global data (except in the sense that I’m finding this study scarily incompetent); but because I think it makes sense to talk about legal systems in a way that’s precise enough to be coherent.

Plenty of people have cited the Cho/Dreher/Neumayer paper as if it closes the argument, or as if it has some kind of weight or meaning. People who have been using it (presumably without reading it) probably need to decide whether the study – once read beyond the abstract – shows that New Zealand and Sweden have pretty much the same outcomes in terms of ‘sex trafficking’, or whether it’s actually so unreliable and badly put together as to be functionally useless (ding ding ding). While they decide which angle to take, I’m gonna write to the journal that published this paper and raise a few concerns.

Sexism in Medicine: Try not to talk about it

*Dr. Madeleine Thomas is the pen name of a GP working in Ireland.

When asked to write a piece in reaction to comments made recently by Dr. Gabrielle McMullins, an Australian Vascular Surgeon on the topic of sexism in Medicine, which attracted much controversy, I must admit I had to stop and think carefully before agreeing to do so. I am an Irish, Irish educated female doctor. I graduated from Med School nearly 7 years ago. I have never before written about my experiences working as a female medic, I simply vent to poor unfortunate friends & family instead.

To recap, Dr. McMullins, who Irish media pointedly referred to as having studied in Trinity College Dublin, for reasons I’m not sure why, (was it there that her view of gender in the workplace was meant to have been corrupted?) was attending the launch of her book entitled ‘Pathways to Gender Equality: The role of Merit & Quotas’ when she made comments that referenced the case of Dr. Caroline Tan, an Australian surgical trainee who, after successfully winning a sexual harassment case against her boss at the time, Dr. Chris Xenos, subsequently failed to secure work in her chosen area of speciality in any Australian public hospital. Dr. Tan herself, in an interview made to an Australian paper, in light of the furore surrounding the comments made by Dr. McMullins, reported that she had been shunned by her fellow colleagues following the case and had been overlooked for positions, she feels as a direct consequence of speaking out. Her previous boss, Dr. Xenos continues to work in the hospital where Dr. Tan was sexually harassed.

But what did Dr. McMullins actually say? Ok, admittedly it doesn’t sound good on first reading: “What I tell my trainees is that, if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request.” I confess, I initially read this quote as presented, almost entirely out of context and was shocked. But is that what she really was trying to say? She went on to further clarify her comments after the headlines had been grabbed and condemnation had come from everywhere. “Of course I don’t condone any form of sexual harassment, and the advice that I gave to potential surgical trainees was irony, but unfortunately that is the truth at the moment, that women do not get supported if they make a complaint. It’s not dealt with properly: women still feel that their careers are compromised if they complain, just like rape victims are victimised if they complain.”

The reactions of condemnation from Australian Medical Training Bodies to her comments were swift and predictable. Michael Grigg, President of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), said the idea female surgical trainees should “silently endure sexual harassment (was) disappointing and quite appalling”. He said complaints about sexual harassment were taken seriously by the college and “investigated and acted upon at the highest level”. Kate Drummond, chair of the RACS Women in Surgery committee, told ABC that sexual harassment does happen, but she said the idea that speaking out is a career-ending move is incorrect. So was this simply a case of a doctor with a book to sell overstepping the mark and encouraging a culture of silence and submission or was she trying to call out the sexism that she feels still clearly exists within Medicine? It’s all very well to encourage women to be vocal about cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, but if there is no practical, robust response to such complaints, nor adequate support for those who have been victims, how could anybody have any confidence in the systems that are meant to ensure equitable working conditions and career opportunities? Is there a fear that by speaking out, you’ve effectively isolated yourself professionally and irreversibly damaged your career in the process? In other words, can we honestly say that case of Dr. Tan is an isolated event? Sadly, I believe it not to be.

Of course sexism exists in a variety of workplaces, but Dr. McMullins specific reference to sexism as experienced in medicine resonated with me as a female doctor. Have I ever encountered examples of sexist behavior in medicine? Of course I have. Have I personally ever experienced sexual harassment? Straight up, no I have not. Have I made career decisions that have been in some way influenced by expectations of gender? I don’t believe so. Do I know others who have? Certainly. Have others said to me on numerous occasions that my chosen area of speciality training, General Practice, was a good choice for reasons of starting a family, that “it’s less hardcore than surgical training” or “hospitals are tough for women”? Yes, many times.

Where are these attitudes born out of though? There are more women in medicine than ever before, yet still there are few women holding senior medical academic posts and completing training in disciplines such as surgery in proportion to their male colleagues. There is a growing debate, albeit mostly from UK based media sources, about the feminisation of medicine. In an article by Professor J Meirion Thomas, a self described feminist, (probably part of the ‘but I love women! Some of my best friends are women’ club) “Why having so many women doctors is hurting the NHS: A provocative but powerful argument from a leading surgeon”, he argues that because there is now a gender imbalance within the NHS, continuity and delivery of service is being steadily hampered by female doctors having the temerity to choose part time work in order to facilitate selfish lifestyle choices like, raising a family and pursuing post graduate academic careers, among others. He even states that “Women in hospital medicine tend to avoid the more demanding specialities which require greater commitment, have more anti-social working hours, and include responsibility for management.” Of course, he also references the great British taxpayer in his piece, questioning whether they should accept such a flagrant waste of their money in training these female doctors, only for them to go off and have families and not want to spend every waking hour entrenched at the coal face of hospital medicine, the very cheek. As it happens, female doctors often do spend every waking hour working in hospitals, it’s called being ‘on call’. We even work weekends, just like our fully dedicated male colleagues.

The reality is that his is not a singular opinion. The face of the Medical Workforce in Ireland is changing, just like in the UK. In a report by the Medical Council of Ireland, the proportion of female doctors registered on the Medical Register has risen from 37% in 2008 to just over 40% in 2012. Interestingly, amongst graduates from Irish medical schools, there is a higher proportion of female versus male graduates in all age groups up to the age of 45. There is no doubt that this will present challenges for workforce planning in the future, but is it necessarily a bad thing that the status quo, which in some cases has previously taken the form of a boys club arrangement, will stand to be changed?

Is there really a boys club mentality still in existence? Surely not, it’s 2015 and female doctors, as Professor Thomas has indicated are basically ruling the roost, right? Well, not quite; In terms of where women fit into the medical workplace, there are still huge barriers to female doctors working in the specialities they have chosen. Undeniably the training path of a surgical trainee, for example can at times be arduous and punishing, with demanding workloads, 36 hour shifts on a regular basis and the pressure to maintain academic pursuits. Many, if not most trainees will be expected to complete Masters degrees and PhDs in order to be considered for Consultancy posts. The notion of achieving any form of work/life balance after all this can, for the most part be just that, a notion. But hey, this is the life we signed up for and sympathy is hard won at any rate. What really stings, is when it can transpire that at times, you’re just not really on the same playing field as everybody else when it comes to long term career prospects. Not only did you not get to tog out to go on the pitch, but you’re not even going to be invited for the post match drinks.

Of course Ireland is a small country, the Irish medical community is even smaller and job interviews can sometimes take the form of a casual word of mouth process. It is for this reason that I fear doctors of both genders can often be reticent to call out mistreatment or inappropriate behavior by a colleague or superior. People need solid references in order to progress unhindered in their careers and when you have people striving to gain a position that they have spent anything up to a decade or more of their lives working and studying to achieve, when they have families to support or student loans to pay off, the stakes are undeniably high. Nobody wishes to become the difficult member of the team, to be spoken about in hushed terms, to not be considered for a post because of their attitude and thus often behavior that on paper would be considered to be reprehensible often goes unchecked. I think this is really what Dr. McMullins was trying to highlight, although I feel she, as a Senior Medic would have preferred to have conveyed her argument more constructively.

As a GP trainee, I have overall had incredibly supportive male colleagues and mentors, but nearing the end of my training I am faced with the prospect of interviewing for GP jobs for which I may not be considered as equal as some of my male peers. Irish GP practices are primarily run as Small or Medium Enterprises, or in other words, as businesses. A female GP is more likely to work on a part time basis than a male colleague for reasons such as maternity leave and family commitments. I’m not saying my male colleagues are any less dedicated to raising their children, but the creche or child minder probably has Mam on speed dial and as for the maternity leave, well, I know I’m the doctor here, but you don’t need me to explain that to you right? GP practices can often have to arrange expensive locum doctor cover to replace any doctor that is on leave and this can affect the running of the business and concurrently the income generated. Whilst you could never question a job candidate openly about her family life for fear of being hauled in front of an employment tribunal, there’s no law preventing you from thinking that it may. As a Practice Manager once told me, it would be easier just to hire the male candidate.

A female colleague I met at a conference told me how she had recently discovered that a male doctor who started work at her practice at roughly the same time as her, was at the start of his employment, offered a three year contract with the prospect of partnership in the business. She, who was equally qualified, was offered just a one year contract. Whilst women’s presence in medicine is stronger than ever before, the glass ceiling for women, just like in other careers, definitively exists. With still relatively few women in senior positions, especially in leading academic roles in universities and colleges, is there any hope of meaningfully challenging gender bias and the status quo? Will we, in years time be reminiscing over Dr. McMullins comments and denying that there was any basis to what she was saying, or will we have acknowledged that an open discussion about issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination against female doctors, and the career paths open to women in Medicine needed to be had? Being a doctor is tough enough, but try not to be difficult about it, ok?

On trafficking stats and Irish media fail

It’s a source of constant frustration for me that Irish journalists take such a wholly uncritical approach to the spin coming out of the TORL camp. Statistics are blandly repeated as if there was no reason not to believe them, their logical connection to the TORL argument taken for granted; there is never any questioning as to whether they would really support that argument even if they were true. I’m not suggesting this type of “churnalism” is unique to Ireland, of course, but it’s too widespread here to attribute only to individual reporters or specific news organisations. Whether due to editorial direction or sheer laziness, the Irish media have essentially acted as the PR wing of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, doing their work for them by treating their every press statement, every stunt as it was the result of some real journalist’s investigative work.

The latest example of this was the media coverage of this Ruhama statement. The headline, of course, is no different to what Ruhama have been saying for a few years now, and I’m not quite sure why RTÉ thought it merited a whole video report. (Contrast with their total failure to cover a genuinely newsworthy event – the launch of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland’s policy paper a few days earlier.) I suppose the “hook”, if they needed one, was the claim that if the Oireachtas doesn’t hurry up and introduce a ban on paying for sex, there will be an influx of clients from up north in June when the Six County ban comes in. Ruhama spokesperson Sarah Benson says she knows this by reading online forums, where the clients are supposedly discussing their plans to become cross-border sex tourists once that law comes into effect. And this right here is a perfect example of how an unquestioning media becomes a propaganda delivery machine – because if they’d gone on those forums themselves they’d have seen plenty of clients discussing their intention to continue visiting escorts after the law is brought in, and even sharing tips on how to get around the law. Some do say they won’t risk it, of course, but the full picture is considerably more complex than the “pimps and punters will come south” rhetoric we’ve been hearing since Stormont passed the bill – and our journalists would find this out pretty quickly if they would just do the barest bit of research now and again instead of letting themselves be spoon-fed all the time.

But what really needed interrogating in that article is the assertion that the 82 victims of trafficking assisted by Ruhama last year were “mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa”. In itself, there’s nothing remarkable about that statement – there are certainly plenty of African women in Ireland, and most of them would have required visas to come here (a trafficking risk factor) and most of them would have no entitlement to work here on arrival (also a trafficking risk factor). So in that sense, it’s perfectly believable that they would be overrepresented in trafficking statistics.

But to state the obvious, a large number of African trafficking victims in the Irish sex industry would mean a large number of African women in the Irish sex industry – and this is where questions start to arise. Using the advanced search function on Escort Ireland, I come up with a grand total of three Sub-Saharan African women advertising tonight. Even accounting for the fact that some might have given a false nationality, there’s still a loooong way to go to reach “mostly” out of 82. Africans are not known to be over-represented in street prostitution here, and while we know some direct provision residents are forced to sell sex, the indications are this is mostly because of our appalling government policy of not letting them do any other work and forcing them to live on €19 per week – not because they have been trafficked here for prostitution.

So if we assume that 82 figure is accurate (or if it’s only the “tip of the iceberg”), then this conclusion logically follows: there is a lot of sex trafficking going on that has nothing to do with the online escort sector, nothing to do with street prostitution. It could be, as a 2012 report on sex work and trafficking in London suggested, that the market for African women operates through word-of-mouth community networks – making such cases particularly difficult to detect.

But that leaves us with another question, which is: why is it that these women are so much more likely than women of other nationalities to seek the assistance of Ruhama? Are trafficked African women somehow more likely than other trafficked women to escape their predicament and make their way to All Hallows? Are trafficked women of other nationalities drawn to different services, or to none at all? Or could it be that there just really isn’t much trafficking in the more visible sectors, so there aren’t as many non-African victims who need these services?

These are questions that need to be asked, particularly in light of the looming law change. If most sex trafficking really is taking place in a closed migrant community setting – or by other means that don’t require an Escort Ireland profile – then criminalising Escort Ireland customers won’t do much of anything to stop it. It would be the legislative equivalent of looking for a lost item in a room you didn’t lose it in just because the light is better there.

And even if that’s not the case, the fact remains that there’s a striking discrepancy between the nationalities of most of Ruhama’s clientele and the nationalities of most visible women in the Irish sex industry – a discrepancy that surely has practical significance in terms of what kind of services and prevention measures are needed. It’s worth interrogating regardless of what it means for the usefulness of the proposed law. Irish journalism really needs to start unpacking these TORL soundbites, instead of just swallowing them whole.

Happy tenth birthday to the Telegraph’s brothel job hoax

Posted on

“If you don’t take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits.” As of today, this line has been doing the rounds for a full decade. It ricochets around my brain, gradually sounding more and more like a crazed parrot. The Telegraph certainly came up with a catchy headline, and never mind that it was fiction: ten years on, this article continues to be shared regularly by wave upon wave of scandalised readers. “You couldn’t make it up,” some of them splutter. Actually: yes, mate, you could.

The story, written by one Clare Chapman (best known, apparently, for this alone), claims that a 25-year-old unemployed waitress was told by a jobcentre that she had to take a job “providing ‘sexual services’ at a brothel in Berlin”. This actually harks back to an incident reported on a German website a year and a half previously, except the waitress was in fact encouraged to contact the brothel because they needed a bartender. And even the supremely clunky autotranslation manages to let us know that “the job offer was not mandatory”. So, the staff could have handled it better – letting the woman know in advance what kind of business it was, for example – but at the end of the day there really wasn’t much of a story here, until Chapman came along and tweaked it.

A great deal of those jumping on the scandalised bandwagon seem to be oblivious to the article’s timestamp, reacting as if all of this happened just last week. Its swift debunking by Snopes, as well as by numerous other commentators, hasn’t enjoyed anything near the same amount of exposure. So far, the article has seen a combined 25,000 shares on Facebook and Twitter, though neither service was in public use when the story first came out, so let’s not forget the additional mileage it got from forum discussions and blog posts. For prohibitionists, this urban myth is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Undine de Rivière is the press spokeswoman for BesD, Germany’s Professional Organisation for Erotic and Sexual Services, and notes the broader ramifications of this story. “Although in fact the jobcentre never forced a single person into sex work,” she says, “it’s still used by abolitionists to paint a picture of what’s allegedly going to happen once we fully decriminalise (and try to destigmatise) sex work.” And of course, this strategy is employed internationally to hold up the mythical German case as a cautionary tale. Somehow, nobody seems to have paused to consider that maybe, just maybe, if legislation is introduced to legalise or decriminalise sex work (the two approaches often being conflated, of course), it might also be possible to add a clause that safeguards jobseekers from being forced into it. In fact, as de Rivière notes, “We have sexual self-determination as a fundamental right in Germany, too. That, by itself, excludes sex work from the list of ‘reasonable’ jobs (i.e. jobs you have to take on or lose part of your benefits). That’d also remain the case if we’d ever gain equal social recognition.” Veronica Munk, representative of the TAMPEP International Foundation in Germany, adds that “a job centre cannot force or threaten anyone into sex work, because sex work, although recognised as an activity, is a special one because it requires or demands physical intimacy.”

While everybody got distracted by wringing their hands over a work of fiction – or proclaiming that if it hadn’t happened yet, it was just around the corner anyway – one issue that’s generally been neglected is the reverse scenario: how does a former sex worker navigate the benefits system? First, de Rivière explains what individuals can do while still working in the sex industry: “We don’t need to register as sex workers, [but] the government is planning to change that, which would be awful. So far, all we need to work legally is a tax number, which isn’t connected to any specific profession. Sex work is taxed as ‘other income’ at our annual tax declaration, which is a good thing for those wanting to keep their job secret. We’re able to access benefits like everybody else […] dependent on residence permit status, citizenship, duration of living in Germany, having paid into the system or not, etc.”

However, although at this stage the state is friendly towards sex workers, it’s a different story for those who leave the industry and need benefits. “Accessing welfare involves an outing because you have to give details about your situation,” says de Rivière. “I’m not sure if there is a way to prevent that and [I’d imagine] there are people avoiding the welfare system because of the outing involved. I know cases of ex-sex workers having been faced with doubt by the social welfare office – they were blatantly accused of secretly continuing to work, [although] I also know quite a few cases of just that actually happening.

“I’ve heard so many shitty stories of humiliating treatment at German social welfare offices, no matter the applicants’ job histories or backgrounds, and I know several colleagues who took up sex work to avoid just that and regain their dignity. I’m actually not sure if it can get any worse for a former sex worker. [It] probably depends on the personal issues the individual official has with sex work.”

Problems faced by actual sex workers, though, are possibly too mundane compared to the imagined horrors that can take centre stage in stories by and about non-sex workers. And plenty of people are willing to accept outrageous claims at face value, often content to have them confirm pre-existing prejudices. (Besides prohibitionists, the Telegraph myth has been promoted by an impressive collection of people busily factoring it in to their arguments against liberalism, welfare, godlessness, Europe, and Israel. David Icke jumped in, too. I am just saying.)

Clare Chapman’s brothel job hoax is ten years old today. After ten years of this nonsense, it’s time for hypothetical bullshit scenarios to take a backseat, while we focus on highlighting and dismantling laws that put sex workers at risk, as well as ending demand for sensationalist, inaccurate reporting.

Media outraged over playground insult while Irish Water bullies roam free

Media outraged over playground insult while Irish Water bullies roam free

RTÉ’s outrage over protesters insulting the president illustrates the hypocrisy at the heart of the media establishment. Let’s be frank here; no one in RTÉ gives a toss about ableism. Of course it isn’t nice to see someone being called a “midget parasite”. It is ableist language and pretty nasty, and not a word that should be bandied about like that.

I’m not unfamiliar with pointing out when people use rubbish or offensive terminology, but I’m finding it really hard to jump on the condemnation here. It’s not that I think this is fine behaviour or in any way acceptable, or that I have some special regard for the office of President (although while I’m on the subject I don’t think protesting against the president because he signed a bill into law and refused to do an Article 26 referral is a good politics. It’s silly and lacks an understanding of what the implications of a finding of constitutionality under Article 26 actually are). It’s just that I literally do not care that a bunch of people did this in Finglas to register their dissent given what’s going on elsewhere.

The media are gleefully hawking this video around like snuff at a wake but their fury has nothing to do with ableism or even affording appropriate respect to the office of President. Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins called it “incitement to hatred” on twitter mere weeks after tweeting about the “free world” and the hashtag #jesuischarlie. RTE expressed outrage, and anyone who wants to say Paul Murphy is an apologist for hooliganism is given a platform to air their views. Michael D is a man that goes to League of Ireland football games, so I’m pretty sure he’s heard worse and much less cares, but to RTÉ, Finglas is rapidly taking Jobstown’s place as Ireland’s home for a feral community intent on destroying civilisation as we know it. Production staff on Morning Ireland would probably save themselves time if they just played Tony Harrison from the Mighty Boosh on a loop screaming “It’s an outrage!”

But as I said, I don’t really care about what happened in Finglas.

I really don’t care that a bunch of people said some mean things to the President when he is surrounded by a gaggle of Gardaí to protect him. Sure. They shouldn’t have said it, but I don’t care because I have watched too many videos of people being beaten with impunity by the guards and having excessive force used on them.

I don’t care because as I type this a private police force decked out in balaclavas is roaming through Stoneybatter and Broadstone assaulting people, abusing pregnant women, and filming  people coming  and going from their homes all at the behest of Irish Water. I don’t care because I have listened and watched as Irish Water staff screamed at my next door neighbour that he was a “cunt” at the top of his lungs. There are plenty of videos on youtube where the Gardaí stand by and watch as Irish Water staff abuse and assault people, and more where the guards assault people.

I don’t care because two people using the word “midget” to the president is a convenient mechanism for distraction for a lazy media (including the government mouthpiece RTÉ) who can wring their hands over this instead of airing stories about communities under siege and families in poverty looking at prospects of Irish water bills that will push them over.

That protest was last week so why is the video only coming out now? Oh that’s right. There’s a protest this weekend. It’s the equivalent of throwing a stick for dog to distract him from chewing your shoe. If there was half as much righteous indignation in the media over Garda brutality and Irish Water and GMC Sierra as there was about name-calling, it would be in much healthier shape.

The feigned shock and condemnation is hypocrisy at its worst and there really are bigger and more urgent things to worry about. People need to stop falling over themselves to try and be the most respectable game in town.

Get over it.

Get organised.

Get out on Saturday and show the zero fucks that you give about this.

More on sex trafficking in Sweden, from the Swedish police

Just over a year ago I wrote this post, analysing the Swedish police’s annual human trafficking report for 2011. A few months later, the 2012 report was published in Swedish; I didn’t have the time to Google Translate it so I figured I’d wait until the English version came out. Unusually, though, it never did. And now, I see the 2013 report is available – but again, only in Swedish. Perhaps the powers-that-be in Sweden have realised these reports aren’t exactly helpful to their international propaganda campaign.

So, Google Translate it is.  As it turns out, much of the 2013 report just repeats more-or-less-verbatim what I already quoted in my summary of the 2011 report (and I really do encourage you to read that, particularly if you still buy the TORL disinformation). But a few things jumped out at me from Section 3.1 of the current report, the section on “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”:

sex trafficking is not just an urban phenomenon but … these crimes also occur in small towns throughout Sweden (p.15)

They probably said that in the last report too, but it strikes me now how similar it is to Diarmuid Martin’s widely-reported New Year’s Mass, in which the Archbishop of Dublin solemnly informed us that trafficking is happening in every nook and cranny in Ireland. Hype about the spatial distribution of sex trafficking is an interesting subject in and of itself, though not one I’m going to spend any time on here.

In 2013 the police established a total of 41 complaints concerning trafficking for sexual purposes. … The above statistics can be compared with the situation in 2012, when 21 reports of human trafficking for sexual purposes were established. (p.15)

I’ve said repeatedly that I think trafficking statistics are pretty much meaningless, because they only measure what officials detect and identify as trafficking, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the actual amount of activity taking place that fits the legal definition of “trafficking”. But let’s be honest – if this was a Dutch or German study showing a 95% increase in sex trafficking in a single year, don’t you think we’d be hearing all about it from the Mary Honeyballs and Rhoda Grants and Equality Nows of this world?

As in 2012, there was also in 2013 a return to more brutal methods in trafficking cases. (p.16)

Hmmm. Is this the “normative effect” Minister Fitzgerald tells us she expects from the law?

According to Europol … the victims of sex trafficking brought into the EU from third countries particularly come from Nigeria. This is the case even in Sweden. (p.16)

TORL supporters in Ireland have repeatedly claimed that this is the case in Ireland, too, which again undermines the argument that a country’s prostitution laws make the difference.

In cases where women are exploited in prostitution in Sweden and able to be contacted by the police or NGOs they are offered the opportunities for support and assistance. If they are not willing or able to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in an investigation of human trafficking/pimping, they may in some cases be inadmissible under the Aliens Act. [Footnote: According to Chapter 8, Section 2, first paragraph of the Aliens Act, “an alien is inadmissible if it can be assumed that during their stay in Sweden they will not earn a living in an honest way.”] (p.17)

Let’s condense that a bit: “In cases where women are exploited in prostitution in Sweden but not willing or able to cooperate with law enforcement, they may be deported, because we don’t want their kind here.” Such a caring compassionate approach to “women exploited in prostitution”, isn’t it?

Some victims told police that were they exploited in prostitution by sex-buying men, pimps and traffickers in several other EU countries before they were transferred to Sweden. According to Europol, it is common for criminal networks engaged in human trafficking to move victims from country to country and often within countries. This is how traffickers regularly offer men the sex-purchase of new women and maximize their profits. (p.19)

I think this is quite noteworthy, in light of previous claims that traffickers avoid Sweden because they can’t make any money there. 15 years of the sex purchase ban, and police say that traffickers are still moving victims to Sweden in order to “maximize their profits”. What does that tell you about how effective they think their law really is?

Another subsection looks at the online sector, and the last paragraph merits quoting in full:

National Police can confirm that subjects relating to the purchase of various sexual acts, escort services and prostitution activities still, despite a ban on the purchase of sexual services, engage men in Sweden. On the site Sexwork.net and on the discussion board Flashback are hundreds of pages with thousands of discussion threads about these topics. Some of the threads contain reviews, written by sex-buying men, of women who are exploited for prostitution purposes. The reviews related inter alia whether the woman corresponds to the man’s expectations of the sex purchase, her appearance, physical attributes and her willingness to perform the “services” as promised on the website. That the woman ordered is actually offered is also important information for the sex-buying man. Moreover they exchange male sex-buying experiences such as how they can avoid detection by the police or family members, or avoid being exposed to robbery or extortion. The language used by these men in reviews is often highly sexualised, derogatory and abusive towards women. The threads on the web forum Sexwork.net are divided into different regions; Sweden, other Nordic countries, the Baltic States, Europe and Thailand. (p.21)

I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

Now, a couple points on what’s not here. One of the most striking revelations of the report I reviewed last year was the near-trebling of Thai “massage parlour” brothels in Stockholm between 2009 and 2011-2012. There are no up-to-date figures in this report, but it does confirm those findings. So, for any pro-criminalisation people who were hoping the 2013 report would say “er that was wrong and actually there really are no brothels posing as massage parlours in Stockholm”: sorry to disappoint.

And finally, there’s a whole subsection – 3.1.3 – devoted to “Support for voluntary return and reintegration of persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or prostitution”. It takes up approximately one page of the overall five-and-a-half page section on sex trafficking. Curiously, there is no section on integrating trafficking victims into Swedish society. But then, we’ve already seen why that is: because their only value to Sweden is as a law-enforcement tool. It seems the Swedish state uses them for its own purposes, and then discards them like unwanted goods.

I’d call that exploitation.  Wouldn’t you?

ETA: The Swedish police have now released a press statement on this report, which can be read (in Swedish) here. This part of the statement is notable:

Human trafficking for sexual purposes makes most people think of foreign girls and women who are lured into sex slavery, something that the progress report also describes. But there is also a domestic problem in which minors, mostly girls, living in Sweden sell their bodies on the net. …

There are many who do not understand this explosion of girls who sell their bodies on line, says [Detective Inspector] Kajsa Wahlberg. These young girls have a need to be seen and get confirmation, while there is a great demand for young bodies.

This law is an abject failure. How can anyone claim otherwise?

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