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Happy tenth birthday to the Telegraph’s brothel job hoax

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“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.

We Are Here To Win

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Nine:

A really powerful statement from the Philippine Sex Workers Collective on the appropriation of their voices by prohibitionist groups and the challenge they face with the Anti-Prostitution Bill, based on the Swedish model.
“Society has made us invisible so to have women of power speak for us was a blessing or so we thought. It was not a blessing. It was exploitation. They were not speaking for us, they were speaking for themselves in our name.”

Originally posted on And Deliver Us From All Our Saviors:

Sex workers have always been treated with great disdain in Philippine society. To call a woman a prostitute (puta) or the daughter or son of a prostitute (anak ng puta) would perhaps be the gravest insult you can throw on any Filipino. Credit this to the Catholic Church and Christian fundamentalists (the Catholics make up 88 % of the country’s population while the Christian groups account for 8%. The rest are Muslims.) They have ingrained in the minds of the people that sex outside of marriage is dirty and immoral. To most Filipinos therefore, prostitution is a moral issue and those involved in it must be condemned. This has led us, sex workers, to be treated with stigma and discrimination.

As sex workers, we are forced to hide who we are and what we do for fear that if we are outed, we and our families would…

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Enduring (the) Myths: Sex Work, Decriminalisation and the Nordic Model

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“When prohibitionists do cite other researchers’ findings, they sometimes distort the results and assert the exact opposite of what the cited researchers found.”

– Ronald Weitzer, The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy (2010)

In early March 2013, the Huffington Post published an article with the title Debunking The Myths: Why Legalising Prostitution Is A Terrible Idea. I was not desperately keen to read it, but I proceeded to anyway because I am generally interested in what people are saying about sex work. And then I was angry. And then I went away and did something else, but I’ve had to come back to it again, a month later, because this one has specific features that make me particularly angry, and I need to share with you what they are.

It was written by Jacqui Hunt, London director of Equality Now. And despite its title, its scope is not limited to legalisation: she believes decriminalisation is an equally bad idea. At first glance, her article looks fairly reasonable and well researched, citing studies from various countries in which sex work has been legalised or decriminalised. It should be noted, however, that any legal model can be tweaked: whichever approach to sex work is selected by authorities, sex workers’ rights and well-being may or may not be prioritised in the accompanying legislation. Germany’s legalisation model is not identical to Austria’s (given the choice, I’d pick Germany). This means that negative outcomes might very well indicate the need for better legislation, rather than conclusive proof that legalisation or decriminalisation should never be entertained again. On the other hand, criminalising sex workers’ clients, as per the Nordic model, has specific, negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety, and there is no conceivable way to criminalise clients that won’t result in those negative repercussions.

I’m not going to address each and every claim Hunt makes about legalisation or decriminalisation: my intention in writing this post is, instead, to examine the ways in which some of her claims have been made, ways which I believe undermine her credibility. My main interest here is in references she makes to New Zealand, where I recently visited the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) to specifically discuss the effects of decriminalisation. And because the primary source for her observations on New Zealand reveals a markedly different picture from the one she has chosen to paint, I’m given to feel that all of her claims ought to be thoroughly investigated before anyone takes them as gospel.

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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.

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Just Don’t Call It Slut-Shaming: A Feminist Guide to Silencing Sex Workers

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

I don’t believe you; you don’t realise the harm you’re doing to yourself

This is generally your starting point. There you are, explaining that no woman really wants to work in the sex industry, and then some bint pops up claiming that her existence proves otherwise! Aim for the ‘false consciousness’ tactic here: citing statistics from research that the audience doesn’t need to know has been widely criticised by academics, you can imply that you know better than she does what’s good for her. Bonus points for using a strategy also employed by opponents of abortion rights!

a) You think the sex industry is the best thing ever!
b) What you said just proved that sex work is bad!

Keep her on her toes: if the sex worker claims any degree of autonomy or job satisfaction, paint her as a naïve fool who believes that the entire sex industry is a magical fairytale land of flowers, rainbows and sparkly dildos. Your own points about abuses in the industry should outweigh anything she has to say, rather than combining the two to give the audience a greater understanding of the diversity of human experience.

On the other hand, if the sex worker at any point mentions having a bad day at work, outlines the safety precautions she takes, or even jokes about clients with smelly feet, be sure to pounce on this straight away as evidence of the inherent harm of the sex industry. Don’t budge an inch if she tries to point out that none of these things are unique to sex work. It’s different, because it’s sex. Got that? Soon enough, she’ll stop publicly discussing any problems related to sex work, for fear that you’ll use them to call for complete eradication. And once she’s shut up about them, you can safely return to point a). Genius!

You’re only concerned about losing business

Goddammit, what is with these people? You’re only trying to send a message about equality between men and women, and they’re raising hell about disrupted support networks and a rise in violence! But that’s okay. As long as you make them out to be purely motivated by greed, you needn’t actually address the issues they’re highlighting, let alone the reasons why they might need money in the first place. Bonus points if you’re able to employ this one against, say, an escort who’s concerned about the increased vulnerability of street-based sex workers. Don’t for a moment entertain the idea that there might be solidarity across the sex industry.

You’re being paid off by pimps and traffickers

This is a great one. It’s a bit preposterous, but if your audience has already lapped up everything you have to say, you can possibly get away with the notion that the only reason people might disagree with you is that they’re the sockpuppets of shady criminal masterminds.

You’re letting all women down

If, despite your best efforts, the audience seems in danger of accepting that your opponent genuinely chose sex work, experiences it as a relatively worthwhile pastime and, furthermore, has some points that might be worth listening to, quickly play your trump card: it’s not about her, it’s about all women.

Although, once upon a time, feminism was concerned with questions such as “Does lesbianism discredit the movement?” or “If I like painting my nails, buying shoes and sucking cock (for free, of course) am I letting the side down?”, these issues have largely been cleared up in the name of freedom of choice. Luckily for you, though, feminism on the whole does not (yet) look so kindly upon women whose choices include sex work. Keep it black and white and don’t let any nuance get in there. Base your argument here on claiming that the sex industry promotes negative attitudes to women – for bonus points, use objectifying language to describe sex workers while explaining that objectification is bad. You’ve already established that consensual paid-for sex is wrong, so a woman who willingly provides it is clearly a traitor to your gender. Under the guise of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, you can proceed to being as nasty as you like to those uppity sex workers: they didn’t listen to you when you warned they were making the wrong choice, so they’ve already forfeited their right to sisterhood.

You’re not representative

Feminism has fought long and hard to dispel stereotypes and push for more rights for all women. Cast that legacy aside for now and focus on the task at hand! You may be advocating a course of action that will affect everybody in the sex industry, but you can still get away with claiming that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t count. Plus, if you play your cards right, manage to keep the dissenters in their place, and get the law-makers to agree that your ideology is more important than women’s safety, eventually the sex industry really will become a wholly unpleasant place to be. Those who have the means to find other work will at long last understand that it’s time for them to do so, and the only people left will be the ones who were already having a hard time of it and have no alternatives. Then all sex workers really will meet your standards of ‘representative’! It’s a bit of a circuitous route, grinding down a diverse industry until it encompasses nothing more than a homogeneous group of abused victims of pimping and trafficking, with no agency of their own and uniformly miserable experiences. But by then, at least, everybody will be exploited and unhappy, just like you were saying they were all along. You’ll have proved your point. Congratulations, and thanks for your contribution!

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