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Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

Rape is not an ordinary crime. Few people will contemplate whether or not to report being mugged because the police might not believe them. No one sees their car window smashed and thinks “I’m not sure if reporting this is wise. I was drinking last night so the police might think I said it was ok and I consented to them smashing it..”

 

The worst outcome for a rape complainant is that she is not believed. During the Belfast trial, a narrative was created that a the victim had participated in a drunken threesome and then cried rape afterwards because she was worried that “it would be talked about on social media.” The idea that any woman would subject themselves to what is entailed in making a rape complaint, simply because she regretted how she had sex or who it was with, would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

 

When a woman makes a complaint to police she will usually spend hours or a day (or more than a day) literally recounting her story over and over again; following this she may be brought to a sexual assault treatment unit where trained healthcare professionals will collect forensic evidence and do a head to toe exam collecting samples from under her nails and her hair and her mouth. They will examine her genitals and take photographs. She will likely have to tell her story again to the healthcare practitioners so they know which photos to take. She will not be allowed tea or coffee in case it interferes with evidence in her mouth. Depending on where she lives, she might have to travel for 3-4 hours to get to this unit because her local hospital won’t have one. If there’s a risk of head injuries, she’ll be sent to the Beaumont first, but that has implications for evidence collection of course. If the police believe her, they may send her story to the DPP. They also might not believe her. They also might prosecute her for false reporting. They might laugh at her and snigger it was her own fault.

 

Rape myths are very common, and police and gardai are as susceptible to them as any other person you meet in the street. Of course, they are not meant to be, but we know they are. They make rape jokes too. It isn’t that long since the gardai were making rape jokes on tape in relation to Shell to Sea protestors. That wasn’t solely about animosity towards protesters, it was because they found rape funny and unless they’ve retired since 2011, they’re still employed by An Garda Siochana. The transcript of that exchange could be a twitter exchange.  

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^ Garda Rape Tape Exchange

Of course false report convictions are rare much the same way that false reports of rape are rare, but the fear of not being believed and the consequences that follow are a shadow over every victim’s decision on whether or not to report. They are rare, because women do not put themselves through the trauma of reporting because of what it entails, and the glaringly obvious fact that largely, she will not be believed.

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In the best case scenario, if the victim is believed by the Gardaí she must tell her story over and over and over and over again; then if she is believed by the DPP and then after having repeated her story over and over again, a case will be taken. Following this she will listen while her credibility is systematically picked apart by the defence counsel. She will see her knickers passed around the court. Her own credibility will be on trial. They will discuss what she likes and what sex acts she would engage in. The papers will discuss the colour of her labia in print. People on the internet will speculate on where she was in her menstrual cycle and whether the vaginal lacerations she has were from rape or not. Her text messages to friends about being raped will become a matter of public record. A newspaper will write a story in which they wonder whether the blood was from internal bleeding from vaginal injuries or from her period as the defence counsel suggested. In some cases fear of retaliation from the perpetrators will be a worry, whether that retaliation manifests as a physical threat or a threat to make life difficult, or the retaliation might manifest as the forces of privilege in society standing together to paint you as a liar. Anonymous or not, she will be stigmatised and the minutiae of every move she makes will be under scrutiny. Some of the jury will believe that if a woman was drinking, she was asking for it, and other myths, like the style of clothes being an invitation to have grope. Men who barely know the alphabet, let alone the intricacies of criminal law will call for her to be put on trial. They will call for her to be named and shamed. They say this because a lot of society thinks that if you cannot secure a conviction in a rape trial, the victim complainant has been proven to be a liar. Rape trials always mean the victim is on trial as much as the defendants. In the Belfast case, people know who the complainant is, there is no need to name her. Men will share that information. The Belfast verdict in many quarters has been seen as a victory for men. Women will simply return to secret Facebook groups and chats and informal conversations in which the words, “be careful of him” are uttered.

 

The scale of rape and sexual assault is a global health issue. If one in four people were getting mugged, we would likely examine the root cause and the members of the Oireachtas and other parliaments would probably convene a joint special committee. The media has a key role in this. They, whether they like it or not, shape the public discourse on rape and sexual assault issues. When they produce salacious gossipy reports on the case or the colour of a rape victim’s genitalia in their paper, it matters. It matters because those words are taken and repeated on twitter, with a multitude of shitty opinions attached.

 

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Most rape victims do not report to the police. Convictions do not simply require 12 members of a jury to believe you. They require the police who are questioning your demeanor, level of intoxication and consistency of details, to believe you. Your credibility must be sturdy. Impeccable in fact. It helps if you are not a poor or marginalised woman. During the Belfast trial Stuart Olding’s barrister commented, “Why did she not say no? Why did she open her mouth? Why didn’t she scream? A lot of middle class girls were downstairs, they were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that. Why didn’t she scream the house down.” The implication being that us working class women would hear it and just go back to adjusting the hun buns and acrylic nails and drinking cans I suppose. The clear message to rape victims in this, and every other trial is “Do not report, it isn’t worth it.”

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Reporting to the police means you must be able to withstand victim blaming and questioning and trolling statements and people attempting to hunt your family down on twitter. You must be able to handle that, if you defy traditional gender roles or consume alcohol prior to your attack you are more likely to be attributed a higher rate of blame for your own rape than others. You must be able to overcome whatever obstacles are put in place by privately educated rugby playing people and people who are members of professional associations who have connections and know journalists and other important people.

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When you make a report you must be able to deal with the fact that if you were passed out on the ground unconscious and the gardai happen upon you with a strange man kissing your neck and touching you, they may initially think that it isn’t that serious until they find CCTV footage. If you were a teenager working in a low paid carer job providing care for an elderly client, their adult son might sexually assault you. If your rapist was actually convicted, he might initially walk out of the court with a suspended sentence after drugging and raping you in your sleep. If you are 6 years old and your Uncle convinces you to go to your house for biscuits and he subsequently rapes you, he might also get a suspended sentence. If you are a group of five women abused by the same person, he might get a suspended sentence too. Your rapist might even get a partially suspended sentence for sexually assaulting two women having previously finished three jail terms for rape offences. Your uncle who abused you when he was still a priest might get a suspended sentence too. If your rapist dies, the Council might try and pass a motion of condolence for him.

If the text messages from your attackers reference your crying, and imply the group nature of your attack, as if they had great craic during a drinking game, you will still not be believed. This is what society needs us to know.

 

Screenshot 2018-03-28 22.31.26When your attackers are on trial, it will be you who is made to feel like a criminal. These “talented, promising sportsmen” who all had a different version of events, who deleted text messages and met up when they usually didn’t (but *not* to get their stories straight, remember?) were always going to be found ‘not guilty.’ It didn’t matter that there was a witness testimony confirming the witness’s description. It didn’t matter the taxi driver was concerned and said she was crying. What mattered was that they were privileged men, whose victim was always going to be torn asunder on the stand. Privilege begets privilege. Don’t you always bawl your eyes out and bleed through your jeans in a taxi home after a fun night?

The question that many feminists are asking now is why would any woman who witnessed this trial report a rape? If a friend discloses rape, how do you say to her in good conscience “would you consider reporting?”

 

They don’t want us to. The system is not designed for the victim. It serves an entirely different process. The victim was painted by the barristers involved as a wanton slut who was up for anything. Paddy Jackson, one of the defendants was painted as a poor little boy whose favourite hobbies included “drawing super heroes,” whose only mistake was wanting to have fun.  

The complainant in this case did everything that victims are supposed to do, she kept her clothes, she went and made a statement. Experts confirmed vaginal injuries. She told her friends what had happened. The defence still made out that she simply regretted a consensual experience and was afraid she would be labeled a slut. They labeled her a slut anyway not to mention, does any woman in 2018 under the age of 40 really give a fuck about someone having a threesome?

I know an awful lot of victims of rape. So do you. But I have never known anyone that has seen their rapist prosecuted. There are people who are friends of friends but it is truly remarkable that given the scale of it, convictions are rare.

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We all know, as women, we are routinely not believed, but for whatever it’s worth, I believe her.

 

@stephie08

 

#ibelieveher

Happy St Brigid’s Day – Ireland’s first abortionist

[This post originally appeared on the Choice Ireland blogspot]

Ireland’s only female patron saint, Brigid of Kildare, celebrates her feast day today, February 1st. A date that is traditionally the first day of spring, and chosen presumably because of the associations St Brigid has with fertility. She was a conglomeration of the pre-Christian goddesses that preceded her – a Celtic figure appropriated by the Church to boost pagan conversion. She was subsequently ousted in favour of the patriarchal figure of St Patrick and the impossible virgin-mother Mary.

While many will know that Brigid is a patron of healing, fertility and learning, the Church are not so quick to tell us she was in fact Ireland’s first recorded abortionist. In 650 AD a biographer of Brigid, Cogitosus, told the story of a young woman who had broken her vow of chastity and fell pregnant as a result. The young woman went to see Brigid, who took care of the problem:

Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the fetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.

Today, of course, Brigid would be excommunicated for this ‘miracle’, which explains why this particular biographical sketch does not appear in any of the annals of history sanctioned by the Church. It is well documented in detail in the original writings of Cogitosus and yet it conveniently remains absent from modern translations. In the 7th century, Brigid performed an abortion on a young woman. This was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the Church then and her ability to ’cause the fetus to disappear’ was considered nothing short of a miracle. If she lived today, Pope Benedict XVI would tell us that she was ‘co-operating in evil’. How times change.

Current Church teaching on this is a manifestation of patriarchy. Just as ‘Saint Brigid’ is an embodiment of goddesses past, the story of her kindness in helping another woman reflects what women have been doing for each other since time began – privately, and with love and consideration. A woman’s autonomy over her own life and body should not be crushed in order to achieve a moral or religious goal. This is something that Brigid herself acknowledged, and the Church would do well to remember – before labelling those who support the modern equivalent to the actions Brigid took as the ‘gravest injustice’. It is time to take the rosaries away from ovaries and today remember just who St Brigid was – Ireland’s first abortionist.

On pregnant women and disabled children, in a society that cares for neither

For as long as I can remember, women have been warned to adjust our behaviour – before and during pregnancy (as if there was no third option) – to keep us from having disabled children. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t get pregnant after 40. Take folic acid. The need to prevent the birth of disabled children has become such a societal imperative that women have found themselves harassed for having a glass of wine while pregnant, refused service, criminalised, and even sterilised to achieve this goal. The message that underlies all this is clearly one of the undesirability of disability (as well, of course, of it being the woman’s fault).

Obviously there’s a difference between trying to prevent disability in an otherwise healthy pregnancy, and terminating the pregnancy you actually have because of a disability. But that difference isn’t captured by many of the arguments we’re hearing from the anti-repeal side, which talk about birth rates for children with Down Syndrome in Iceland and solemnly warn about a future with no disabled children, in language appropriating the Holocaust. Their stats about Iceland are wrong, as we know, but what if they were right – and what if the reason they were right was not because of high abortion rates where DS was detected, but because of health or lifestyle changes that helped diminish the incidence of DS pregnancies in the first place? Would they be out protesting folic acid suppliers for their role in the genocide of disabled children?

Of course they wouldn’t, and this most of all is what bothers me about the use of children with Down Syndrome in anti-abortion campaigns. It’s a sort of fetishisation of disability, something they would otherwise find deeply undesirable, something they would actually put women in prison to prevent. I’m aware of course that people with disabilities have their own – non-homogeneous – views about their disabilities (no doubt deeply influenced by the barriers society places in front of them, something anti-choicers show little concern about) but that’s not the place where the anti-repeal leaders are coming from. Especially when you know they’d be the first to criticise women for not doing pregnancy right.

Damned if we do have disabled children, damned if we don’t. Almost as if it’s not really about the children at all.

 

With thanks to Danielle and Beth

An open letter to the organisers of the “We Need to Talk Tour” from a group of feminists in Ireland

We write as cisgender feminists in Ireland to the organisers of the ‘We Need To Talk’ speaking tour who plan to hold an event in Ireland in February.

 

The main purpose of the ‘We Need To Talk’ tour is to promote opposition to the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK. The reformed act would allow people to self-declare their gender  (currently in the UK people are forced to go through the indignity of medical diagnosis in order to have their gender recognised). This proposed legal reform is a necessary and urgent step toward undoing the stigma, discrimination and violence that trans people in the UK currently endure. The organisers of ‘We Need to Talk’ are making a stop here in Ireland, under the guise of talking about abortion. However, their motives remain clear to us, and we write this letter to show that their exclusionary, discriminatory attitudes to trans people – in particular trans women – are not welcome here in Ireland. We will not sit in silence while the organisers of this meeting peddle ideas and opinions that are actively harmful to the well-being and safety of our comrades.

 

Trans women and men in Ireland have the legal right to self-declare their gender. Trans people and particularly trans women are an inextricable part of our feminist community. The needs of trans people are part of our campaigns. There is no difference between ‘feminists’ spreading transphobic and transmisogynist ideas or spreading racism or homophobia. We want no part of it, and we don’t want it here. So yes, we do need to talk.

We can see from your social media posts about your tour and its contents, that your opposition to the GRA is based on the idea that feminist organising and women’s rights will somehow be harmed through trans inclusivity and organising with our trans sisters. We know this is not true. We, the signatories of this letter, organise hand in hand with our trans sisters. Together, cis and trans, we are Irish feminism. Trans women are our sisters; their struggles are ours, our struggles theirs. They were our sisters before any state-issued certification said so and will always be no matter what any legislation says, either now or in the future.

 

In the south of Ireland*, trans women have been able to declare themselves women and have the state change their documentation to reflect that declaration since 2015. The sky has not fallen. Cis women have not lost anything whatsoever from this. If anything, all of Irish feminism has gained: our struggle for bodily autonomy gains in strength and momentum through this victory for our trans sisters. There are few things as feminists in Ireland we can say we have been pleased to see passed by the state. This, although flawed in its lack of recognition of trans children and non-binary people, is one.

So tell us: what is it that you know of Irish feminism that you feel entitled and authorised to come here and lecture us on? Dublin has not been part of the UK since 1921, yet you originally described ‘We Need To Talk’ as a UK tour while still including Dublin on your list of venues. This gives us some idea of how little you know about Irish realities, north or south.

 

We do not need you here. We have not had your support in our fight for #repealthe8th, our fight against the historical and ongoing impact of the Magdalene Laundries, our fight for taking back control of our hospitals from religious orders, our fight for justice for women and babies tortured and entombed in Mother and Baby homes.

 

Do you know, for example, that in the north of Ireland, legally part of the UK, women still cannot access safe and legal abortion? Have you campaigned on this in any way? If you have, why don’t we know about it? Did you strike in solidarity with us on March 8th last year? Did you even know we were striking and for what? Do you have any kind of concept of what a feminism in a country shaped by struggle against Empire looks like? Did you take even a second to consider that, in assuming you have the right to come here in any kind of position of feminist authority, you’re behaving with the arrogance of just that imperialism? We have had enough of colonialism in Ireland without needing more of it from you

 

We neither want nor need your lecture tour. You’re not welcome here.

Read the rest of this entry

Statements, sentences, and the stories that hold up in court

The author of this piece wrote this as a reflection on her own experience of the court system as a victim of violence several years ago. As is frequently the case, the perpetrator entered a guilty plea, which meant the only court appearance for the victim was a sentencing hearing at the Circuit Court for the offence of assault causing harm.

The judge sentenced her abuser to 2 1/2 years but suspended the entire sentence, in part because of his “character”. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I’ve felt sick about the Tom Humphries case all day.

Character references in court are common, and they’re bizarre, but the totality of courtroom storytelling is even weirder, and I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the victim to see the rush to humanize him so much you’d think he’d just won a prize.

You really start to grasp the narrative injustice of a sentencing hearing when you look at the character reference in relation to its counterpart: the Victim Impact Statement. The Victim Impact Statement is still a relatively new introduction and is the only time the victim has a voice in a sentencing process.

The convicted person gets a whole production team to write his character. They write him a hero’s journey, from childhood, with the help of experts who even cast supporting characters to help narrate his story along the way. In contrast, the Victim Impact Statement can only reference the individual event the conviction is for, and can cite the effect of only this particular incident on life afterward, and nothing more.

I got a call to turn up at the garda station at midnight on a Saturday a few days before the sentencing. I got no brief, I just dictated some shit to a couple of prompts, and the garda wrote it all down. She asked me to read it over for accuracy, but she’d paraphrased badly, and it read like a school essay. I told her that in court, when I read this out, it wouldn’t sound anything like me.

You just read it from the page, she said, it’s just about the facts.

I said, there’s no way this is a believable version of me. I don’t even give facts this way.

But I didn’t get to have character, I just got to be one.

I learned when I arrived at court that anything outside of a single night of my life was inadmissible. I had added too much detail because how can you reduce a long and consistently injurious experience to one decontextualized moment? They took my statement and edited again, until it was essentially reduced to: it was bad and now I’m sad all the time. And they weren’t even my words.

So then you sit and listen to the twisted and carefully written hagiography of the convicted person: the good family he comes from that loves him very much and are here in the courtroom with him (as opposed to mine, whose absence didn’t go unnoticed), that that he was ‘student of the year’ in 1998, that he is a loving friend to all around him, and a talented designer (but honestly, even in 2012 he still thought Flash had a future, and what fucking good designer still thought that).

You just read lines that even you don’t believe are yours.

While the accused gets eulogized, you’re reduced only to your statement, which presents you, by design, as a thinly written cipher, who existed, briefly, as a device in someone else’s redemption narrative. This is his life, and this is your life.

Not only that, because the perpetrator’s side has done their opposition research, and the prosecution is mainly focused on making the case for the State, they barely mention you, lest they provoke a right of reply. Even if they care about justice enough to include you in their concerns, mentioning you again would just give the main character a chance to offer a reason you deserved it.

In the end, the judge makes a decision based on his or her interpretation of the sentencing guidelines. Which means that the severity of the punishment is determined by who has told the best story.

So then you walk out with the inverted trauma narrative running in your head, the one that is your worst fear: what if it was me? what if I just made it all up? what if I exaggerated everything because I can’t accept what a loser I am? It is, in fact, the story you’ve just heard: He’s a good person (so you must be the bad guy), you’re without worth (because your character got written out) and your merit is worse than irrelevant (because how dare you overestimate your importance to the story).

He’s a protagonist, you’re the background player who got killed off too early to need a backstory. Everyone knows who you’re supposed to root for.

I imagine that sentencing procedures were even worse before the Victim Impact Statement was introduced. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, instead of giving the victim a voice, at best, it provides texture for the main character, but mostly it amounts to replacing a deleted scene.

That’s its own form of narrative injustice.

Letter to my (often feminist) friends who are concerned about those in “prostitution” and think that criminalizing those who pay for sex really can’t be such a bad idea.

Guest post by Susann Huschke

I write this with you in mind, those friends of mine who are generally open-minded, critical, progressive leftists. We agree on a lot of things – like, that capitalism is a problem, that Theresa May needs to go, and of course Trump, too, and that gender equality continues to be worth fighting for.

But when it comes to “prostitution” – that is, the selling and buying of sexual services – you are not so sure about my views. You have heard me argue that criminalizing those who pay for sex is a bad idea, but perhaps I have not done a good enough job explaining why that is. I believe it would be fair to sum up your position as follows: “We want to live in a society where women do not sell sex to men. And to get there, we think that it would help if we made it a crime to buy sex.”

I believe that you have good intentions, thinking this way, and that you are not driven by hatred of women as sexual beings, like for example, those fundamentalist Christians who lobby for the criminalization of sex work around the world.

Before I go into details, let’s check we’re on the same page. If you answer NO to any of these questions, we’re not starting from the same set of assumptions, and in that case, this article is not written for you.

1. Do you generally feel that the people who are affected by a given change in policy should have a say in the policy process?
2. Do you feel that women, or indeed all (adult) people, have the right to determine what to do with their bodies, for example when it comes to reproductive rights and LGBT+ rights?
3. Do you believe that sound empirical social research is a worthwhile endeavor and should be feeding into political decisions and public discourse? And by sound empirical research I mean research that is a) designed and conducted by people who have been trained to do research; b) reflects critically and transparently on research questions, research methodologies, funding sources and researcher bias; and c) does not do any harm to the communities that are targeted in the research?

If you answered those three questions with a YES, you cannot possibly agree with the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the buyer of sexual services. And here is why.

1. Sex worker movements do not support the criminalization of buyers, not in Sweden, not in Ireland, not anywhere (http://prostitutescollective.net/2014/03/today-sex-workers-oppose-criminalisation-of-clients/; http://www.pivotlegal.org/sex_workers_rights; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/oct/17/northern-ireland-sex-workers-oppose-new-law; http://www.sweat.org.za/sexworkiswork/). Yes, individual former sex workers (or survivors of prostitution as they prefer to be called) are often very prominent supporters, for whatever their reasons may be. But if you actually look at groups, movements and organizations that represent the diverse people who work in the sex industry – they don’t want criminalization. Why not? For example, because they feel that the more their way of making a living is criminalized, the less safe it is for them. And because they feel that criminalization adds to the stigma that is one of the worst parts of their job. And because they feel that those who propose these laws have not actually bothered to meet them; listen to them; engage with them in any meaningful way.

Interesting fact on the side: the Swedish model is often hyped up as punishing the punter (by criminalizing the purchase) and helping the sex worker (by decriminalizing the sale of sex). Now, in Ireland, both North and South, we only got the first part of the bargain. Sex workers continue to be criminalized, for example when they work together in pairs for safety – that is deemed “brothel-keeping” with the two sex workers “pimping” each other, and they continue to get arrested for that. Now, you might say that policy-makers just forgot to decriminalize sex workers because they were busy with the really important social issues. Or you might say they actually don’t give a rat’s ass about the well-being and safety of “fallen women” – they just want to sound like they do.

2. Among the most prominent supporters of the Swedish model are right-wing Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Surely, that should make you suspicious about their motives, and perhaps about the policies they propose. If you are ever in doubt about this, just take a brief look at the kind of worldview the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is spreading, and ask yourself if they are really your political allies?

3. There are many things that are unsound about the kind of “research” or statistics that get cited to support the claim that the Swedish model “works” – that is, that it really reduces sex trafficking and shrinks the sex industry, and that sex workers are happy and grateful about the law. Let me just highlight a few issues. For example, the fact that the Swedish police do not have many victims of sex trafficking in their statistics does not necessarily mean there are none. A very basic rule of thumb in research: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It might mean that they can’t find them, or worse, didn’t actually look for them because they were too busy policing consensual sexual acts between sex workers and clients. As a Northern Irish police officer explained to me in 2014, commenting on a collaboration with the Swedish police on an international crime network that exploited women in the sex industry: “They had no idea this was going on in Sweden. They said ‘we normally just go after the punters.’”

It is also a good idea (in any field and for any contested political question) to question the source of information. I am going to give you a very concrete example, and you will have to trust me that this is not an exception but a typical example of how research is misrepresented in this debate (or you start following the information back to the source like I did, which I highly recommend).

Supporters of the Swedish model present the view that sex work always constitutes violence and abuse. They pretend that this is a view based purely on empirical evidence, rather than a view based mainly on ideology – based on picking and choosing and tweaking selected bits of evidence rather than actually engaging with all the existing empirical data. See, if they clearly stated that their policy proposals were driven by their moral and political standpoints, at least we could have an open debate about these. None of us are morally neutral, especially when it comes to sex and money. [And if you are wondering what my moral and political position is, please re-read the questions I posed above, particularly No. 1. First and foremost, I am a firm believer in people’s right to self-determination, self-expression and self-representation, none of which are compatible with the views expressed by proponents of the Swedish model].

Now, let me give you an example of the misrepresentation of empirical evidence in this debate. In Northern Ireland, supporters of the Swedish model liked to support their view of sex work by arguing that the majority of people started selling sex when they were children or teenagers. This argument is explicitly presented, for example, on the website of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (a very successful lobby group across Ireland) as one of the “10 facts about prostitution.” They state that 75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children, citing as a source a conference paper by Prof. Margaret Melrose from 2002. I read the original paper and learned that Prof. Melrose’s research specifically investigated the exploitation of children in the British sex industry. And logically, because she wanted to know about child sexual exploitation, she recruited participants who had experienced child sexual exploitation, that is, people who had entered the sex industry before the age of 18. In her presentation, she states that 75% of the people in her sample, 75% of the people she interviewed, had started selling sex when they were children, i.e., 14 or younger – not 75% of all people in the sex industry! Huge difference!! And pretty obvious, even to the untrained lay eye. I also emailed Prof. Melrose to ask her about this rather distorted use of her study, and she replied to me saying:

“The findings were never intended to suggest that 75% of ALL women involved in sex work become or became involved [as children] – only those included in the study – and as we were looking at adult women who became involved before they were 18 this is hardly surprising. I am aware that the work has been used by those who argue that all sex work is violence against women – it is not a position I adhere to myself.”

Now, my last point. After everything I just presented to you, you might still say: But what about the kind of society we want to live in, should we not envision a world without “prostitution”? And you know what, I might actually agree with you.

But I also envision a world without Amazon, where temporary workers run from one shelf to another all day long to meet the targets, and get punished for taking sick leave. And a world without large scale agricultural businesses that employ undocumented workers who get paid shitty wages and are exposed to poisonous chemicals on a regular basis. And yes, also a world without neoliberal universities trying to compete in a market by running their staff into the ground until we end up with “burn-out”.

How do we get there? I would say, first and foremost, through solidarity with the workers. And second, through a critique of the social structures that enable exploitation. Distributing books, growing vegetables, investigating the world, and having sex, mind you, are not inherently problematic activities that need to be eradicated. It is the ways in which they are integrated into the current economic system and tied up with multiple forms of oppression along the lines of gender, “race”, class, and nation, amongst others, that is problematic!

So, what sex workers could really do with is, for example: free access to higher education, equal pay for women, decent social welfare, erasure of their criminal record when they try to leave the sex industry, legalization of their immigration status, and gender norms that do not instill in young people that men need to fuck (lots of) women and women need to please men.

So how about we align ourselves with the workers – of whatever industry you fancy – and fight for a better, more just, less violent society, rather than spending our time applauding a bunch of narrow-minded, hard-hearted misogynists and their (perhaps) well-meaning, yet out-of-touch feminist allies, for a judgmental, regressive, and ineffective law.

If you want to read more, check out, for example, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.