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Taking Ideology to the Streets: Sex Work and How to Make Bad Things Worse

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“If you drive it underground so no one can find it, it wouldn’t survive.” – Rhoda Grant, 2012

In many ways, Dana fits the profile. She’s a twentysomething woman with a drug addiction. She was abused in childhood and her partner is occasionally violent towards her. They’re in and out of homeless accommodation, and she works on the street to fund both their habits. You could hold her up as an example of someone who does not want to do sex work, and you’d be right. You could score points with her story. You could insinuate that anybody who rejects total eradication of the sex industry simply doesn’t care about her. And that’s pretty much what the campaigners were doing when they lobbied for the criminalisation of her clients.

It’s late 2007, and the Scottish Parliament recently passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act, outlawing kerb-crawling. Dana’s clients are now breaking the law. If she worked indoors, this would not (yet) be the case, but she doesn’t; she wishes she could, she knows she’d be safer there, but most brothel managers don’t take too kindly to injecting drug users, plus it would be hard to hold down structured shifts given how each day and night is arranged around the search for heroin. The law change hasn’t caused her to pack up and go home (what home?); instead, it has complicated and compounded an already difficult situation.

As I make her a cup of hot chocolate and count out free condoms, Dana takes a seat, tells me about last night. She waited on the streets for hours, frequently changing location in order to avoid police attention. The boyracers were out as usual, yelling abuse and throwing eggs as they sped by. She was rattling – experiencing heroin withdrawal. Gradually, the few remaining clients wore her down, and she agreed to do business with them for less than the usual price. She was out so long that she missed her hostel’s curfew and had to stay out until five in the morning; tried to sleep in a bus shelter. It’s late 2007 in Scotland, and the streets are cold.

“I used to complain about having to come out here to work,” she says. “I had nothing to complain about compared to now.” And this is the statement that sticks with me, a statement so simple and yet so clear, a statement which demonstrates that, despite how Dana’s supposed advocates, her would-be protectors – anti-prostitution campaigners – characterise sex work and how she experiences it, Dana herself knows the difference between a bad situation and a worse one. She is now in the latter. The support organisation I work for is severely underfunded (just over a year from now, it will be forced to cease service provision altogether). Waiting lists for drug treatment are lengthy, and missing an appointment, no matter how valid the reason, can land someone back at the end of the queue. When women like Dana are stopped by the police, sometimes they receive sympathetic treatment, but really it’s a lottery. There’s a serial rapist going around, but even though the women know about it, some of them are taking their chances with him anyway because there are so few clients to choose from. Maybe he’ll just be a bit rough, they rationalise. His behaviour escalates.

Those whose primary goal is to ‘send a message’ are worlds away from these women on the street. Their prioritisation of ideology over safety speaks volumes about their own motivations. It’s one thing if they simply don’t understand the practical repercussions of passing laws such as this one, although it’s too important an issue to excuse a lack of research – these are people’s lives we’re talking about here. But it’s quite another thing if their ignorance is a conscious decision, if they reject concerns not because those concerns are found to be invalid but simply because those concerns are raised by people they don’t want to hear from, including sex workers themselves. Those concerns interfere with a simplistic agenda which, in allowing no room for the nuances of real life, is set to fail. Harmful legislation is steamrollered through by people who block out dissenting voices and allow their supporters to believe there are no dissenting voices, or that those voices are dissenting only because they would rather see women ‘bought and sold’. This sorry state of affairs does no favours for the people they talk about helping.

***

It’s a cold grey morning on the Grassmarket, a few years before the introduction of the kerb-crawling legislation. The Swedish delegation is in town and I’m attending their presentation in a hotel function room. The usual stuff: prostitution is violence against women, it needs to be abolished, etc. A woman gets up, explains that she made an informed choice to do sex work, and then leaves the room. After she’s gone, Gunilla Ekberg, ambassador for the Swedish model of criminalising clients, says that she doesn’t believe any woman would really choose prostitution, but that if it’s true, it doesn’t matter anyway because they’re only a minority.

I’m still kind of new to these formal settings and these important bigshots who speak with an air of authority. I’m probably the youngest person in the room and I feel too intimidated to say anything. I wonder whether anybody else notices what’s wrong with this picture.

Afterwards, I walk up the street with a middle-aged feminist who I know from a previous project. We see eye to eye on most things, I guess, but now my focus is sex work and that changes things somewhat. I outline some basics of harm reduction to her. She finds it interesting, but I’m not sure if she files it anywhere practical. Instead, she says, “But at the end of the day, you wouldn’t want your daughter doing it, would you?”

Quiz: Your daughter is doing sex work. Please pick the best option from this limited range.

a) Criminalise her clients, increasing her risk of experiencing abuse, violence and exploitation, and likely incurring her to do business with more clients in order to make up for a fall in prices, while disrupting support networks and making it harder for her to leave the sex industry.

b) Ensure she works in an environment in which she is empowered to make her own decisions, to turn down clients and sexual acts as she sees fit, to access help from services, and to be taken seriously as someone who knows what her own essential needs are.

c) It’s too horrible to contemplate. Just don’t think about it.

***

In my angrier moments, I think: You want an emotive argument? Well-intentioned people are backing laws that lead desperate women to get into cars with known rapists. Anti-prostitution activists say that prostitution is violence in and of itself, as if the levels of violence experienced by sex workers cannot rise or fall, as if the scene has always been as violent as it has been post-2007. But it hasn’t, and the women on the streets know this.

***

“Who are these fucking interfering bitches? Are they going to feed my kids?” demands Sandra. In conjunction with the Swedish visit, the criminalisation of clients was promoted on a Scottish radio programme today, discussed as a worthwhile goal. Sandra is outraged at the notion that what she needs most is to have her business taken away. She’s seen it all and doesn’t take shit from anybody. She’s kicked drug addiction but remains working on the streets, preferring to keep all the money she makes rather than handing a portion of her earnings over to a receptionist. With her wealth of experience, she’d have a lot of insights to share if anybody in power was willing to listen. As a non-drug user, she’s in a minority on the streets, but she’s still real.

***

To introduce a law without any risk assessment, and then walk away, is no victory for women’s rights.

This attitude is what I struggle to get my head around in 2008 when I take part in a Q&A following a screening of Lilya 4-Ever. I describe the effects of the kerb-crawling legislation and the Swedish model, and their very real and negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety. “There are fewer clients and the ones who stick around are more likely to be violent and to demand services that the sex workers previously refused to provide. The clients want to avoid police attention, and the sex workers need to adapt to the clients’ wishes, so they go into more isolated environments. If they’re on the street, they no longer have time to spare to negotiate with clients, which would provide an opportunity to assess them before making a decision; they need to get straight into the cars and they need to go. They have less opportunity to share safety information with their colleagues, and it’s harder for outreach agencies to make contact with them.” I pause for breath; this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“So you’re saying it is possible to reduce demand?” asks a middle-aged woman in front of me, leaning forward.

For a moment, I’m speechless. And then, having grown up with the idea that when you’re asked a question, you should answer it, I stumble through a “yes”. I probably say more, but when I try to remember it afterwards, it’s a little hazy. “Yes, but” something. All the same, I kick myself for a long time. I should not have engaged on her terms. I should not have allowed her to reduce something as fundamental as women’s safety to the black and white issue of a goal based on ideology.

Yes, but it is not okay to condemn sex workers to increased levels of abuse.

Yes, but if you think reducing demand is more important than reducing harm, you need to keep the fuck out of this.

Yes, but I can’t believe you displayed such a lack of empathy in front of all these people, and I can’t believe that they are not reacting with horror.

***

The concerns of Dana, Sandra and their colleagues are not considered particularly important when the Scottish Parliament decides what’s best for them. (The concerns of their indoor-based counterparts, representing around 90% of Scotland’s sex industry, are likewise set to be ignored if MSP Rhoda Grant’s proposal to criminalise all purchasing of sex gets the green light.) Routinely, the voices of sex workers and allies are shut out by campaigners, policy makers and feminist groups. Words like choice, empowerment and representative are used to score points and to discredit. Labels like sex worker versus prostituted woman are fought over alongside differing perceptions of objectification, agency, victimhood. But regardless of which words are given centre stage, women continue to work on the streets and indoors. Some of them make an informed decision. Some of them want out. Some of them have short-term goals that they want to meet before they’ll be ready to consider leaving the sex industry. And none of them have their needs met by legislation like this. All of them are endangered by it, and those with the fewest available options – women like Dana – are endangered the most. There is lack of exposure to the full story, and then there is rejection of that story: there is wilful ignorance. Caring and criminalisation are not compatible, and this is made all the more apparent when those who push for the latter in the name of the former refuse to consider what happens next.

About Nine

Writer, editor, traveller. Member of the redundancy club since 2009. @supernowoczesna

45 responses »

  1. It feels funny to write “excellent piece” under an article that so perfectly describes an outrageous injustice, but that it is: an excellent summary of how uncaring anti-prostitution campaigners are and what the real effects of such laws are. I also liked how you worked your own experiences into the article. Bookmarked.

    Reply
    • dana is homeless, a drug addict and a victim of abuse I think rehab, councelling a permant home are more importont to helping her than a change in sex laws.

      Reply
  2. What on earth can I say …I want to grab those anti;s over at hobby and make them read thsi!

    Reply
    • Sounds like a great idea. :P

      Reply
    • Yep. I’d love to FORCE EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD to read this. Unfortunately, as Nine noted on twitter, they have a funny tendency to, um, not exactly *audibly* respond to things like this. It’ll be because they’re too, too busy out there listening to coerced women, for sure. Right. Right?

      Reply
      • Haha. Yes, I’m sure that’s why. ;)

        Reply
      • I said this before (more briefly) on Twitter, but on a few occasions where I feel I’ve made headway with these arguments – where the person seems to be reluctantly conceding that these policies don’t actually have their intended effect, and carry their own dangers instead – what stops them from altering their position is that they’re just not willing to give up the desire to punish the men who buy sex. They feel so strongly about how wrong it is (for men) to buy sex, that that overrides everything else – even whatever concern they may have to protect the women who sell it. As a feminist, I just don’t understand why the consequences for men would be their priority.

        Reply
        • A former sex worker.

          I think you may find that is because the whole campaign has been fueled by misandry and misplaced indignation. It was never sold with any more than a nod at the well being of sex workers “and we can get more funding to help them” tacked on at the end of every refrain like “a partridge in a pear tree” was alays about the limit of the interest shown.

        • It does seem to me to reinforce the John Waters image of feminism.

        • Oh god. For a minute there I thought you meant John Waters the film director.

        • I have to explain him every time I refer to him on Twitter.

        • You’re driving at something, but you’re also kind of missing it. It’s not about punishing men per se. It’s about punishing people who do things wrong to women. Buying sex from women who are still in poor working conditions (abusive pimp, no regulated facility, no reproductive and sexual health care, etc.) is kind of seen as the same thing as buying a sweater from a Chinese sweatshop.

          I’m not saying that they’re right in the laws they support. But I’m saying I can understand the sentiment. Especially considering that I support fair trade laws, unionization, and the like. So, it’s been hard for me to deviate from those sorts of standards.

          I’m still not exactly sure which laws I support in regards to prostitution and sex work. I know I support decriminalization, but beyond that I have not seen any good models of law to work from.

          I can definitely understand the argument for criminalizing the consumption of “street prostitution” or what-have-you, since I see at as being in the same vein as fair trade laws. Unfortunately, those sorts of laws do not always have the effect you want them to. But what has actually worked better? Deregulation? I don’t think so…

          It’s a frustrating thing to try to grapple with, and I don’t think judging anyone who is at least trying to come up with a solution is going to help.

        • It’s not about punishing men per se. It’s about punishing people who do things wrong to women. Buying sex from women who are still in poor working conditions (abusive pimp, no regulated facility, no reproductive and sexual health care, etc.) is kind of seen as the same thing as buying a sweater from a Chinese sweatshop.

          Except that the people who I see expressing this viewpoint have as much of a problem with the men who bought sex from Belle de Jour. Some time after I left that comment, I actually saw it expressed perfectly in the comments page of another blog; unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the link, but it was essentially a complaint that men who pay for sex are skirting the requirement that they have to earn it by being nice to women. Which I think brings up a whole lot of other issues, not least of which is that it really does make the subject of sex work all about “teh menz”.

  3. Fantastic article about a horrible situation.

    Reply
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  5. Hmm… that is all for now.

    Reply
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  7. Incredible article. This is exactly the point, and yet some continue to want to in effect throw people under a bus.

    Reply
  8. These people are horribly dishonest and cunning. Not only are they careless with the people least able to fight back, they make sure those with the will to present the most reasonable arguments are sidelined, discounted. They don’t want *anyone to be able to sell sexual services, and the lengths to which they’ve gone in misleading the public are abhorrent to me. I’ll am for women’s rights but I am not a feminist.

    Reply
    • There are plenty of feminists who fight for sex worker’s rights, many of whom call themselves sex-positive feminists. You can’t have better working conditions for women in sex work if the work force in general isn’t better for women. That is why feminism is still necessary.

      Reply
  9. A former sex worker.

    I think all these terrible, spoiled, selfish abolitionists should be forced to *LIVE* this reality for a few weeks, and learn a little reality and humility.

    The legislation they want will literally kill some of the most desperate (and don’t be fooled into thinking all of those work the streets desperation is where it occurs), and torture many, many more for years to come.

    You do not help a desperate woman by talking away the demand for the only thing she has to offer, any more than you help her by trying to indoctrinate her into sharing your ridiculous belief that black is white.

    How much better off is anyone with their whole life indefinately at the mercy of NGOs with no empathy or sense of consequence who want to demand that she rewrite her reality and pretend to become someone she is not, than with a an hour or so at the mercy of a serial rapist who can be showered and scrubbed away and then forgotten?

    What I see of this issue, every day, appals me. I *KNOW* with certainty that, in a few decades the psycopathic disregard of these campaigners for the human beings who’s lives they have chosen to target WILL be a bigger scandal than the Magdalene Laundries, and common names that attach themselves to their ideology will become pejoratives. But, by then, it will be too late for SO MANY people who deserved SO MUCH better and more honest a reality.

    Somehow along the way the information age has become the propaganda age, and I know that I spend a portion of every day watching the exact same techniques that built Nazi Germany revived and turned against sex workers.

    Facts and realities seem to have become completely irrelevant. As long as you support “ending the demand” you can claim green men have landed from Mars and a dozen voices will leap to validate you.

    Reply
  10. Reblogged this on Atheism, Music, and More… and commented:
    Read this. It’s important.

    Reply
  11. I’ll be sharing this around. A very good piece on the shitty situation that is caused when politicians put ideology before people

    Reply
  12. you show that while class and privilege are not the only issues, they do affect all issues. the sanctimony of those who would rescue the ‘lesser’ among us from themselves is something i constantly come up against in the world of activism. great article. i am re-blogging it.

    Reply
  13. Reblogged this on Sean McAlpin and commented:
    This is a great piece. It shows that while class and privilege are not the only issues, they do affect all other issues. And when class and privilege pervade activism we end up with arrogant rescuers re-creating the disparities they think they are attempting to solve.

    Reply
  14. The sanctimonious silencing is quite incredible. Sex workers aren’t allowed to speak, as they are meant to be too appallingly victimised to talk at all. If they mention that actually this isn’t true, then they are told they are Not Representative. And clients aren’t allowed to speak either as they are all meant to be Evil. So no one who is directly involved in sex work is actually listened to on the subject, and the radfems can jump in and hog the conversation, even though they appear to be on another planet.

    Reply
  15. Reblogged this on Sex Texts and commented:
    This post is long, but absolutely worth the read. It is a nuanced, convincing piece about how criminalization does not help sex workers, and how the harm caused by criminalization is real and tangible, and putting sex workers at risk.

    I couldn’t help thinking about it in terms of Measure B, another legislative measure that is supposedly for the benefit of the people it impacts, but does not take into account their own concerns about how it will increase their risk (link NSFW).

    Reply
  16. Fantastic piece. I’m in the process of writing my submission to the consultation for Rhoda Grant’s proposed bill – I’m opposed to it, obviously. The only sign of any research in her draft is a few fudged statistics and there’s no sign she’s so much as spoken to any sex workers. It’s all pious moralising and emotive (an incorrect) statements.

    Reply
  17. My answer to the question asked in the piece is (b), and why the hell do these people think I want to know the details of my daughter’s sex-life anyway? So long as she’s happy & nobody’s assaulting her, that’s all I care about.
    Trouble with the prohibitionists is, at heart they still feel any sex is a ‘fate worse than death’, which is why they gladly share platform with the Religious Right who would shut women away in darkness to ‘protect’ them, and lock gay men in prison (again!)

    Reply
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  19. Here’s the problem with this. Yes, Sweden’s law that criminalizes customers of sex workers has bad repercussions. Can you name one country where legal sex work has worked out any better? I mean, really. I don’t mean the usual rhetoric about the utopian Amsterdam red-light district (which actually has a serious child sex trafficking problem).

    I understand your concern that the laws criminalizing any aspect of street prostitution have unintentional consequences. But that doesn’t automatically mean that every proponent of those laws is hateful and spiteful towards sex workers.

    None of this pointing fingers is helping anything.

    Reply
    • Who talks about the “utopian Amsterdam red-light district”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sex worker or activist singing its praises. New Zealand’s strategy of decriminalisation, while not perfect (what is?), is generally seen as the best model currently in practice.

      Certainly, some advocates of the Swedish model are hateful and spiteful towards sex workers – specifically, those sex workers who assert their right to do sex work and who clash with their ideologies. However, calling for the criminalisation of clients is generally done out of concern for women who want alternatives to working in the sex industry. But if that concern lasts as long as getting some legislation through, and doesn’t stick around to consider what then happens to the very women they claim to care about, then I feel compelled to point out that they are doing the opposite of helping, regardless of their motivations.

      Reply
  20. @ A Former Sex Worker, in reply to “You do not help a desperate woman by talking away the demand for the only thing she has to offer, any more than you help her by trying to indoctrinate her into sharing your ridiculous belief that black is white.” ….

    The only thing she has to offer? Really? You don’t think that’s objectifying at all? Not even the least bit?

    Reply
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  26. Sharing this on my tumblr… This was very excellent.

    Reply
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  28. I think that there is a misunderstanding about the motives of the people who promote these laws and the visiting delegates from Sweden etc.

    The don’t care about the women or hate the men.

    All they care about is their own ego and power. They then choose easy targets. Ones the that would not be able to defend themselves.

    Then they bring in Laws that look good in the right wing press. Anyone who disagree ‘s is either an apolotist for abusers or not believed.

    I have seen the results of people like this many times.

    They are the same people who think that prohibition works.

    If you want to reduce the amount of street prostitution, decriminalise drugs, offer proper treatment (even prescription heroin if required) so that people do not need to beg, commit crime, become street prostitutes to fund their habits.

    However a practical approach is not acceptable in our reactionary country.

    Reply
  29. Pingback: Taking Ideology to the Streets: Sex Work and How to Make Bad Things Worse | Soul Destruction

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