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Brothel laws criminalising sex workers: a feature, not a bug

It happens with depressing regularity, but reports of sex workers being prosecuted for “brothel-keeping” have actually got a fair bit of attention recently, both in mainstream and social media. None of it, of course, from the Turn Off the Red Light campaign or its leading member organisations, who are campaigning hard for new legislation which will double the penalties for this offence.

Supporters of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 have done their best to keep this aspect of the bill quiet, regularly insisting that the bill “decriminalises” women in prostitution even after The Journal’s Fact Check established that it does no such thing. On the rare occasions they’re pressed on it, they usually witter on about how this law is “intended to punish pimps”, sometimes even suggesting that it’s the only mechanism the law has to do so.

They’re wrong on both counts.

To take the second point first: the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, which currently governs sex work law, contains an offence of “organising prostitution” as well as one of “living on the earnings of prostitution”. Both of these offences will remain under the new law, so there’s no reason that any “pimps” found keeping brothels could not continue to be prosecuted if the brothel-keeping law was removed.

The first point – that the law is not aimed at pimps, but at sex workers themselves – can be proven clearly enough just by looking at how the law is actually used in real life. As Lucy Smyth’s media analysis shows, nearly all the reported prosecutions have in fact been of sex workers, not of anyone managing or controlling them. So maybe it’s a case of the Gardaí misusing the law and just in need of better guidance?

No, it’s not. Go back to the original debates over the 1993 Act and you see very clearly that sex worker prosecutions are a feature, not a bug, of the brothel-keeping law – which was intended to address the public nuisance factor of brothels. Introducing the bill to the Seanad, then-Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said:

I would now like to briefly explain the thinking behind the provisions in the Bill on prostitution. Prostitution is not, and never has been, an offence. The criminal law has no role in trying to regulate sexual arrangements made in private between adults, whether or not money is a factor in those arrangements. What the law has in the past sought to regulate are certain public manifestations of prostitution which can cause upset and distress to members of the public, such as soliciting in public or the operation of a brothel. I think it must be acknowledged that these activities can cause genuine problems for the public, and that is a reality of life that we as legislators must deal with.

Over in the Dáil, meanwhile, Michael McDowell (of all people) attempted to introduce an amendment which would exclude from the definition of brothel “the bona fide home of a prostitute unless the premises are used by any other prostitute for the purpose of prostitution”. Implicit in this amendment is the understanding that the offence would be used against sex workers. The Minister rejected the amendment, saying:

As the Deputy rightly states “brothel” is a common law term and means a place resorted to by persons of both sexes for the purpose of prostitution. There must be at least two women or men plying their trade as prostitutes in the place. If two persons are using the premises for prostitution, the place is a brothel and it is immaterial that one of them is the occupier. Therefore, the home of a prostitute is not a brothel unless another person is also using the premises for prostitution.

So again, it was clearly envisaged by the law, at the time it was introduced, that a sex worker would be prosecuted under it – even in her own home, if she allowed someone else to sell sex there. This is not a law about pimps.

Which is not to say that the brothel-keeping law could never be used against pimps. It’s a hybrid offence, meaning it can be prosecuted either summarily (before a District Court judge) or on indictment (in the Circuit Court, before a jury, and at the risk of a much higher penalty). In real life, sex workers who are prosecuted under this law are inevitably prosecuted summarily; it’s only in the rare “pimp” prosecutions that indictment occurs. And – I think this is pretty significant – the new bill only increases penalties for the summary offence of brothel-keeping, while leaving the penalties for the indictable offence unchanged. In this respect, the new law is clearly going directly after sex workers. Not pimps.

And if you need any further evidence, just look at Frances Fitzgerald’s recent contribution to the Committee Stage debate on the present bill. Rejecting amendments that would reframe the brothel-keeping law to only target third parties, the Minister stated:

Women would come under pressure to claim that they were working independently when that was not the case and the Garda would be limited in the actions it could take to close brothels and disrupt the activities of pimps and criminal gangs.

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: sex workers – not pimps – are intended to be prosecuted under this law, in order that Gardaí can shut down their workplaces. The fluff about women being pressured to lie about their working arrangements is a complete non-sequitur; if anything, such pressure is probably more likely in the present set-up. When managed sex workers take the fall for the “real” brothel keepers, after all, there’s less incentive for the guards to go after their bosses.

So make no mistake about the brothel-keeping law. It is not an anti-pimp measure with an incidental, unfortunate side effect of occasionally catching the wrong target. It is not being misapplied by overzealous Gardaí who just need a bit of training or direction. Gardaí who go after sex workers with this law are doing exactly what it’s designed to do, and they will keep doing it as long as the law allows them to, and regardless of the dangers it creates for sex workers. And the Gardaí are doing it with the explicit approval of the Minister for Justice, and with the effective acquiescence (if not silent approval) of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, and its constituent NGOs who continue to pretend they have these women’s interests at heart.

Sex workers are literally dying because of this law. We owe them at least our honesty about why we allow that to happen.

Star Wars: (She’s A) Rogue One: Believing Women and Creating Hope

*****CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!!******

Please do not read any further if you haven’t seen Rogue One yet. Or read it anyway but don’t complain to me when it’s all spoilered for you.

jyn-erso

Read the rest of this entry

Citizens’ Assembly Submission

There are over 4,500 submissions to the Citizens’ Assembly. I am worried my story, my voice will be lost in the mass. I want to be heard; I want to be valued. I want to #repealthe8th

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I am writing to tell you my story as an Irish woman living in Ireland who needed an abortion. I would like to attach my name to this as I am not ashamed; however I am now a mother to 2 small daughters and I cannot afford the risk to my family of the potential jail sentence for having needed an abortion in Ireland using the abortion pill.

It was 2010. I was 26 and studying for my Masters. I’d gone back to college when the recession hit to reskill. I was in a quite new relationship with a man I’d known for some time and had been seeing off and on for a while, and finally both of us were living in the same place and we began going out seriously. He was working in a call centre. Those jobs have no security and don’t pay well. He worked with a man who was fired for being less than 5 minutes late 3 times in 2 months – at the start of those 2 months he’d just become a father.

2 months into that new relationship I realised I was pregnant. My period was late, I was feeling sick. I took a test. It was positive. I knew immediately I wasn’t ready to remain pregnant and eventually have a baby. A large part of why I knew I wasn’t ready was that I knew we were not in a position to be able to afford to have a family. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree and get employment.. His salary wasn’t enough to support us all. Rents were already starting to rise; we weren’t living together, we were renting rooms separately in shared houses and couldn’t have afforded our own place. I didn’t want my life, my partner’s life and the lives of the children I did eventually want to have with him to be trapped in the grinding poverty that they would have been if we had continued that pregnancy. I checked out what we would have been entitled to in state support and social welfare. It wasn’t enough to get by on. Looking at the friends I know now who are trapped in situations of relying on those payments I know that if anything I overestimated how much we would have been entitled to. I find it very emotionally difficult to think about the financially stressful and for me, misery-stricken life we would now have; it brings me to the point of tears. I think it is very likely we would now be among the huge amounts of homeless families in Ireland today.

I told my partner about the pregnancy and that I knew that wanted an abortion. He said he would support me in whatever I chose. He also said that he had personal struggles with abortion and that while he would never feel he had the right to force someone to go through with a pregnancy against their will he would find this very difficult and asked me to think about it for a few weeks. I of course agreed. I knew about the existence of Women on Web and said that I would contact them anyway so we would have that option there. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford all the costs of travel for it. I researched the cost of childcare, wanting to be able to continue in college – I knew there was a creche on-campus that took children of students at a reduced rate. I looked up the fee for students. It was still €680 a month. That was considerably more than the rent I was paying at that point. There was absolutely no way either of us, or even both of us together could afford that. We looked at it all the ways we could. There was no way we could afford to remain pregnant. I know now that childcare costs in Ireland are the second highest in the world.

I filled out the consultation form for Women on Web. I used the address of a friend of a friend in the North to get them sent to. Customs here will seize them and then send you letters threatening to prosecute you. There was a bit of a panic there as his housemate signed for the package on delivery and then forgot to tell him about it, and the pills are time-sensitive for use – you can only use them if you’re under 9 weeks, and I was 7 weeks at this point. You’re counted as being 4 weeks pregnant from the time you miss your period so it’s really not very much time at all. We eventually got that sorted and got the pills to us.

I took them when I was 8 weeks pregnant. The embryo I was pregnant with was the size of a kidney bean. I took them in my bedroom of the rented house I was living in at the time with my partner there to look after me. I wasn’t ready for how painful it was. With what I know now, I would genuinely compare the pain of it to fullblown labour. Without any access to any medical reassurance, any support from midwives, any medicine to ease it or anyone who knew what was going on and could tell me and my very worried partner that I would be okay and that this was within the bounds of normal. We were fully aware that what we were doing would be punishable by a potential life sentence if we were caught. (This was 2010, before the PDLPA which now means that I’m ‘only’ liable to 14 years.) There was no way I would feel safe presenting to a hospital or calling a doctor if something went wrong. I knew the pills were very safe and I knew I would almost definitely be fine but I also knew that if I weren’t I would either have to risk my health on my own or risk pretty much the entire rest of my life with medical support.

I am sure there are some of you who are reading this who think that I deserved everything I went through for daring to want to end a pregnancy rather than continue it regardless of the personal cost to me and my partner. That I deserved to be frightened and alone with my partner during that abortion, that I deserve to be locked up for choosing not to continue to grow the pregnancy, for wanting an abortion at all. That because my pregnancy was the result of consensual sex rather than rape I should have been forced to continue it against my will; that because my pregnancy hadn’t been diagnosed with a fatal abnormality I should have had to go through the entirety of pregnancy, birth and motherhood regardless of the fact that my country, who would have forced me into it, would not support me through it and would see me and the resultant child trapped in a lifetime of poverty because of it.

I do not think I did. I do not think that I do. I do not think that the many women like me who need to self-administer in Ireland every day deserve it either. I am quite open about my experience on social media and as a result am frequently contacted by women who need to find out how they can access the abortion pill. There is not enough room in Irish jails to hold us all, believe me.

Since completing my Masters and finding secure employment, my partner and I have had 2 daughters. We are now married and in a considerably more privileged position than we were during that first pregnancy and yet it has been the most difficult time of both of our lives. Parenthood in this country is isolating, impoverishing, and unsupported. I have had postnatal depression after both of my children which is only starting to resolve now. I also nearly died when I was 13 weeks pregnant with my second daughter from a pregnancy complication, pulmonary embolisms, which I would be at high risk of again in any subsequent pregnancy. I chose to continue that pregnancy regardless of the risk to my own health because we as a family were in a position to have that child. I would support any other woman in her decision not to. I do not think that should I become pregnant again and the risk to my life and health become even greater, if say it does not respond to medication this time, that I should be forced to continue that pregnancy at the risk of leaving my existing 2 daughters without their mother and my husband without his wife.

I think it is beyond barbaric that Ireland forces people, particularly those women who are least able to access abortion, poor women, migrant women, disabled women, into motherhood and then leaves them high and dry without any meaningful social support or attempt to integrate society around families. The cuts to lone parents allowance and the ongoing attempt to financially coerce lone parents (who are 86.5% mothers) into leaving their children who are 7 or older at home alone by cutting off their lone parents’ allowance and pushing them onto jobseekers is not only horrendously cruel to those mothers but dangerous and discriminatory to their children. 60% of all lone parent families live in deprivation. Why is it, if Ireland cares so much about babies and children that it must force us to remain pregnant at any cost to ourselves, that it cannot even adequately fund a decent standard of living and of care for those babies and children once they are born?

Even if you are of the opinion (as I hope you are) that Ireland should do that, it is completely beyond the scope of the Citizens’ Assembly to enforce or even recommend that. I really hope that you want to stop criminalising those like me, stop us being forced to listen to ‘debates’ on this that paint abortions like mine for ‘social reasons’ as selfish and flippant and something we would indulge in because we have a holiday booked (I cannot count the amount of times I have heard this on the radio and it gives me a knot of stress and rage in my stomach every time), stop women with no resources being forced into continuing pregnancies motherhood they can’t afford and which will trap them in poverty for the rest of their lives. I hope that you do not believe that a woman pregnant with an 8 week pregnancy like I was should be forced to continue gestating that regardless of her opinions on the matter, and regardless of the knock on effects on her life; that the potential baby that might result from that 8 week pregnancy (1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage anyway) is far more important than anything else.

Most of all I hope you do not believe that you know better than me or than any other woman, any other person making that decision what is best for us. I hope you can understand that I am an adult human being capable and competent of making my own decisions for my own wellbeing and that it should not be up to you or anyone else who doesn’t even know me and has never walked in my shoes to override them. I hope that you do not think that my small daughters, should they ever as adults find themselves pregnant with a pregnancy they cannot continue, should have to endure what I did and be criminalised for it as I am.

I want to end this by pointing out that a recommendation to repeal the 8th doesn’t mean that you personally would choose an abortion in every circumstance that a woman who has chosen abortion would. It just means you don’t think you have the right to stop us.

On learning in intersectional feminism as a privileged woman

This post is adapted from a post I wrote for a specific feminist facebook group. 

So this is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while. It’s coming out of my own experience of having grown up as a very privileged woman, who bought into a very media-pushed, capitalist, patriarchy-lite version of feminism that was essentially the feminism of the second-wavers, and over the last 8 or so years doing a massive amount of learning around how flawed and damaging and still oppressive a view of the world that is; if you are making your way to the top of the pile but stepping on other women to do it, women’s oppression isn’t ended even though your job title might be CEO of all the world.

The word learning doesn’t necessarily sound immediately difficult to lots of us I’d imagine; it certainly didn’t always carry those connotations to me. I learned in school very easily and quickly; I performed well, I garnered plaudits and praise. The kind of learning that I’m talking about now though isn’t that kind of easily, painlessly (for me) absorbed knowledge transfer; this kind of learning is difficult, often painful, and frequently inducing of defensive behaviour (for me). It’s learning that involves facing your own privilege and acknowledging when and where there are others with more lived experience of other oppressions than you and who have considerably more of a right to speak on some topics and lead feminist thought on some issues than you; as someone who was very used to the feminism I was familiar with being White Feminism™ the concept of not being capable of speaking with authority on matters affecting women as a class, as a broader group, was a difficult and yes, painful, one to process and absorb. I frequently embarrassed myself in feminist discussions around this. My toes are curling up with cringe thinking of some of the defensive, hypercritical and unhelpful ways I responded (mostly, thankfully, online and anonymously, back in the days of discussion forums) to others who were sharing their opinions and theories backed up and borne out of their own lived experiences of their own oppressions.

It’s learning that has been of, and I mean this literally, priceless worth to me though. Those discussions in which those women and people used up their valuable time and labour in explaining to me and others the way in which the world operates on more than one oppressive axis, and why my white, middle-class view of the world is not a comprehensive or indeed accurate one, taught me more than anything I ever learned in college. I genuinely value this learning more than I value my degrees; it was harder come by for me, which is again my privilege talking – but I’m putting this out there because I know there will be those of you now who are where I was then on my journey.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts and the things I have learned though on what in my experiences from both sides of the fence, how the least painful for all involved, way to explore someone else’s reality and opinions born of their lived experience, without trivialising, dismissing, or walking over their real and valid emotions and hurt. This is really not meant to be preachy. I’m sorry if it comes across to anyone like that. It’s meant to offer help.

  1. When someone expresses an opinion that contradicts my view of the world in a way that challenges my acceptance of the status quo (by which I mean the capitalist and patriarchal hegemony we all live under), particularly if it elicits a very defensive response in me, I do my utmost to take the time to sit with that feeling for a while until its immediacy passes. This might take a few minutes; it might take a few days. It might take longer.
  2. If the person talking is oppressed in a way that I am not, I take the time to think on what they’ve said and process it inside my head until I have absorbed it as truth; their truth. If there are aspects of their opinions I can look for further reading on via Google I do that. I only read feminist-slanted reading on it.
  3. If I would still like to be enlightened on some of how they have come to the stance they have, and if I think that it would not hurt them to be asked, and if they have not expressly said they haven’t got the spoons to do the emotional labour of teaching me, I try to ask in as minimally demanding a way as possible if they could possibly explain a small bit of where they’re coming from on this.
  4. I do my utmost to accept however they respond in good faith and with good manners. A vital part of this is to accept what they respond with as fundamental truth and assume that all of their interactions with me are meant as well as that person can possibly mean it at that moment.
  5. I thank the person for their time and energy.

There are certainly times I am sure people reading this will have seen me NOT behaving in this way online in conflicts; those times are when I’ve been hurt myself by people insensitively treading on me in ways I’ve been oppressed and damaged. Those times though have really helped me to find empathy for others I see responding with anger and hurt when questioned or queried.

Most of all I do my best to approach women/trans people with, at a minimum, respect. If I can manage it, I approach them with loving kindness.

I am posting this in the hopes that it may help someone who is where I was a few years ago; not to set myself up as some kind of expert in conflict resolution in feminist circles, because that I most certainly am not. I am posting to try to share what I have been given from others.

On ‘whataboutery’, echo chambers, freedom of speech and playing the devil’s advocate – or: Why can’t we all just get along?

Originally posted on Linnea Dunne’s blog – reposted with permission

As someone who is regularly accused of hiding in an echo chamber of angry feminists patting each other on the back, I thought I’d write to those of you who accuse me of that, who think that I’m not doing feminism right. If you’ve ever thought that I’ve been too angry, that I’ve been wrong to disengage myself from a discussion, that I’ve overreacted to a seemingly innocent statement, that I haven’t tried hard enough to convince the other side – this is for you. Please read it.

First of all, I want to highlight that all of the below has been written about beautifully and powerfully and poignantly many times before; but that’s the thing with the echo chamber, isn’t it, that those important articles may well have hit a wall somewhere along the line and never made their way to you. But the beauty of the echo chamber is this: it helps pick people up, it is safe when the outside world feels too scary, and it helps us make sense of those difficult debates we want to deal with but can’t while being shouted at by a nonsensical Twitter troll. What I’m writing here is nothing new – yet it so badly needs to be written again and again and again. So here’s my first point: it’s only an echo chamber if you allow it to be. If this is somehow new to you, chances are it will be to your echo chamber friends too – so share it.

Point two, which is related: you need to take responsibility for your own learning. Inside your echo chamber or elsewhere, there will be people who get something that you don’t get, and if getting it requires you to check your privilege it’s likely that explaining it to you would be really draining and exhausting and maybe even triggering for those who do get it. They get it because they’ve experienced it – ‘it’ being rape or emotional abuse or racism or transphobia or cultural appropriation or a life of being monitored and kicked at by patriarchy – and you can be sure that they are forced to justify their feelings and reactions and sheer existence to mainstream liberal discourse day in and day out without you adding to their workload. And here’s the thing: that’s not their job. You might think that you’re being nice by asking – ‘Tell me again why I shouldn’t use that word you claim is so offensive?’ – but don’t you think it might be nicer for them if you say that you hear them, that you trust them, and then go off and figure out whatever it is you don’t get using your search engine of choice? Be that enlightened liberal you window dress your Facebook feed with and go read the voices of oppressed and minority groups. Then share them widely.

Point three – again, related: stop playing devil’s advocate. Just stop it. People who spend day in and day out talking about and reading about and writing about and experiencing oppression in some shape or form don’t need your assumption that you, a person who doesn’t talk about it quite that much and who’s never really experienced it, have just thought about this one aspect they’ve failed to cover, which will blow their entire argument to pieces. You know, it might happen. You just might be that guy. If that’s the case, you definitely will get your fifteen minutes of fame at some point and that argument will fall; but most likely – just trust me on this one – they’ll have heard your unique insight a thousand times already and somehow managed to still feel how they feel, despite them constantly and persistently wishing that feeling away. So when that devil inside you raises his voice, turn the other cheek and play devil’s advocate with yourself instead: why is it that it would be so incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for you if their experience was really real and their argument truly held up? Is it maybe possibly plausible that seeing and acknowledging and committing to scrutinising your own privilege is just really, really hard?

Next – let’s talk about that anger. I snap sometimes. Someone writes something on Facebook or makes a joke somewhere or shares a funny YouTube clip that – shocker – I don’t find funny. And it seems so innocent to you, yet I turn into that feminist killjoy and snap. Why can’t feminists just chill? The truth is that many of them can, and I admire that in them, but remember this: we’re in this all the time – day and night, wherever we go, since the moment we were born. It’s not like an annoying person at work or a bus route that is consistently unreliable; it’s not even like that unspoken, ever-growing mountain of irritating, hurtful words and comments and insinuations in a toxic relationship that keeps nagging at you until you want to scream at the sheer thought of it and can’t even begin to try to explain it without bursting into tears – worse: it’s relentless in the most literal and vicious sense of the word. So when people don’t bother reading up on stuff and you are patient enough to take all those conversations, when they keep playing devil’s advocate and refusing to check their privilege, and then they go and share that seemingly innocent yet so fundamentally damaging video clip – you snap. Because you’re exhausted, and you’re sick of not being heard, and yes, you’re angry because you are constantly made to feel small and insignificant and untrustworthy and meaningless, day in and day out, by a constant stream of supposedly innocent clips and jokes and comments and devil’s advocates. Perhaps ask yourself this: why is it that your discomfort with the anger and tone and shrillness of it all must blind you to the very reasons behind them?

Next – also on tone policing – logic. I’ve been in conversations where I’ve been trying to understand something and I’ve brought my very Scandinavian consensus-seeking reasoning to the table, and somehow it’s gotten me nowhere. (I quote Björk: “I thought I could organise freedom; how Scandinavian of me.) I’ve been trying to reason out the different sides of the argument using logic, plain and simple logic, because one and one is two and no one can argue with that, so why can’t we understand each other if we put all the cards and facts on the table? Ideological hegemony is why. What was logical to me – a privileged, white, middle-class Swede – was very much logical to me because of the norms of the society I grew up in, the worldview I inherited, the experiences I’d had, and the rules of the world we live in. Really, truly checking your privilege involves shedding layers of truths and logic the way they’ve been handed down to you – yes, even via some of those red-brick university reading lists – and daring to listen to voices you’ve never previously understood. Sometimes they’ll sound shrill, other times their logic will seem flawed. But if you want to understand them, you have to try to read their logic and trust that they’re speaking the truth, their truth. Solidarity is about more than passive tolerance. Real change doesn’t happen in comfort zones.

Now a word on ‘whataboutery’ – because it’d be nice to get it out of the way so that I don’t have to go through this every time someone what-abouts me and I refuse to engage and they think I’m being a hypocrite. I find it acutely frustrating that my feminism is taking up as much of my time and energy as it is. If I could un-see the oppression I see and stop taking the arguments and worrying about the consequences and struggling to enjoy mainstream films, I would – I would hand it all back for just a bit of peace and quiet and a laugh and a chance to engage with some other kind of activism for a while. Because when I see my male peers share stuff about this issue and the next, seemingly informed about everything from immigration policy to global warming and macroeconomics, I feel jealous. I care about that stuff too, but everywhere I look I see the effects of patriarchy and that fire in me comes to life again and I can’t see beyond it. So when I talk about women’s rights and you ask what I’ve done for starving children, I don’t hear sympathy for how I’m feeling – I don’t hear you say ‘hey, I bet you wish you could campaign about this stuff too’. I hear a refusal to talk about women’s rights. I don’t expect of you to read every article I read about reproductive rights, and I don’t expect of you to feel as passionately as I do about body positivity and the domestic division of labour – but I think that’s all the more reason for you to listen to me when I talk about it. What about the men? the internet echoes every time a woman mentions the patriarchy. But why is it that we hear so little from these same voices about toxic masculinity and extended paternity leave until we start talking about women’s rights? And why is it that we’re asked to carry that issue too? Do we not seem burdened enough? Truth be told, I don’t think the whataboutery is all that much about men’s rights. I don’t hear these people stroll up to Greenpeace demonstrators asking ‘What about the men?’. I don’t see them below articles calling for an end to direct provision, commenting to point out that men have rights too. Let’s not play the RTÉ game – let’s not talk masculinity purely for the sake of balance. We all deserve better than that.

Last point before I wrap up: free speech. You have a right to your opinion, and you have a right to voice it. You do not, however, have a right to any given platform, nor to the shoving of your opinions down anyone’s throat – especially not if said opinions border on hate speech. So when someone talks about not getting Katie Hopkins on The Late Late Show and someone else cries freedom of speech, they’ve got some catching up to do. It takes a lot to silence a privileged public person with column inches in one of the biggest UK tabloid papers and a huge social media following; refraining from inviting her onto an Irish public service prime time chat show will have little or no impact on how loud her voice is and how far her messages reach. If we’re really interested in the right to be heard, we would do well to ask ourselves why feminist friends of mine have been dropping off the internet like never before, slowly but surely, one after the other, since Donald Trump was elected. These people whose only platform is social media, who are suddenly faced with twice the misogynists and trolls and devil’s advocates and just can’t put up with it anymore – I don’t hear anyone crying freedom of speech when they stop talking.

Finally (and if you’ve made it this far, thank you!), a disclaimer. You might think I’m placing myself on a pedestal, all self-righteous in what a brilliant co-feminist I am. Trust me, I’m not. For the sake of argument, join me for a moment as I recall the year of 2001: I had dreadlocks and a turban (yes, both – simultaneously!) and was singing backing vocals with a reggae band, the singer in which put on a fake Patois accent, and if you had told me about cultural appropriation I would have laughed. There – you’re welcome. I’m highly flawed, but I’m learning. Can’t we all just admit we’re flawed, check our privilege and learn?

We are not better than Morocco, we just think we are.

I was walking over Kevin Street one night a few years ago and there were three kids, who couldn’t have been anymore than about ten, throwing stones at a black man and shouting racist abuse at him. I did what any right thinking individual would have done and roared at them “HERE, quit that yis little bastards.” One of them in turn picked up a stone and fired it at me where it pelted me full force inside of my leg and left a massive bruise roughly shaped like Belgium. Normally I wouldn’t care, but the problem for me was that I had planned to attend a wedding two days later and didn’t have time to get a longer dress that would cover the bruise. So I began a Google search to find the concealer that would cover it.

There were literally thousands of results on how to cover bruising. Recommendations from forums about what types of concealer; how to do it with lipstick; the best brushes to use; the way to apply without causing any further stressed to bruised skin. There seems to be an awful lot of women with an awful lot of bruises to cover. Facelifts are popular but they couldn’t be *that* popular. Even the Daily Mail once had advice from make-up artists who outlined in detail how to cover up bruising after a woman wrote in having fallen down in the street. I know a woman who falls down in the street regularly, but it’s usually after her boyfriend has seen her chatting to another man or after he’s been drinking.

There was mass outrage this week when a Moroccan public broadcaster aired a daytime show including a segment on how to cover up bruising after a beating from your husband. It’s makes for pretty grim watching as the make-up artist chit chats while she’s masking the bruising. Much of the uproar on twitter after it was due to the fact that Morocco is a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. The logic to the outrage was “Look at these barbarians in this Islamic nation! See how they beat their wives! See how normal it is for them.”

We got one of those smart tellys a while back at home and sometimes I watch YouTube make-up tutorials on it in the evenings. I rarely actually use any of their tips because I’m lazy and refuse to buy more foundation until the one I’m using runs out, but there’s something weirdly soothing about watching someone layer on the primers and highlighters and  use eyeshadow to make what is essentially art on their faces. Sharon Farrell is a make-up artist from the West of Ireland who lives in Australia now and is definitely my all time favourite, mainly because she’ll tell you which eyeshadow palette from Catrice is the closest dupe to a Mac set, but also because I am convinced she is more of a wizard than a make-up artist.

Anyway, I watched one of her videos one day and she had a bit of bruising because she’d had her lips done, so this tutorial was about how to cover it up. Just after three minutes into the tutorial my beloved Sharon turns to the camera and says, “If you need to cover up bruises because someone is hitting you, that’s not cool, and it’s not ok, and there are people that you can talk to and there’s help available to you and I’ll put the numbers below the video……and if someone is beating you that’s not cool and you shouldn’t have to accept that in your life.” This was a great thing to do because make-up artists like her are going to reach a wide audience.

Obviously, and rightly, there was no public outrage over this. I spoke to my sister (also a Sharon fan) and concluded that what she had done was a good idea; a simple acknowledgment that some women seek help in covering bruises because men beat them. The video has had almost 179,000 views to date. That’s 176,000 more than this Women’s Aid awareness video.  

The Moroccan tv segment is jarring because, if the translation is correct, there is an aspect of normalisation to this. The women speak of bruises from their husbands as being a very standard thing that you just have to get on with. But this is on a spectrum; Farrell’s video to an extent is acknowledging the normalisation of domestic violence too. That is not a defence of how the Moroccan broadcasters handled the issue or a criticism of Farrell, but to point out that so many women are experiencing domestic violence, that for them this is the norm. As a make-up artist, Sharon Farrell would be well aware of the thousands of forums that I came across on my google searches researching the best foundation that will give enough coverage to make a black eye and bruised jaw disappear. Farrell and the hundreds of other make-up artists with similar videos aren’t condemned for this subtle acknowledgment because they’re white and western. Would we be less appalled by the Moroccan tv segment if they’d included a phone number for a domestic violence hotline? Would that have made the men criticising it less concerned about Islam in Morocco and more concerned for women’s well-being?

The sad thing about the Moroccan tv outrage is that it was mainly directed at the women who participated in this – rather than the men who beat their wives so regularly to the extent that it appears to these women to be a perfectly reasonable to have a daytime feature on hiding the fact you’ve taken a beating from a person who is meant to love you.  Do we think we are better in Ireland because Irish men mostly beat women where the bruises don’t show? Because we aren’t.

Domestic violence is an enormous problem. Just because a make-up artist here adds the phone number for women’s aid at the bottom of her video does not make us better than Morocco. You’re not likely to see a segment on The Afternoon Show about how to cover your black eye, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Irish women who would look for similar information online. 6,000 women and children were turned away from refuges in Ireland during 2015 because there wasn’t the space to take them in. A lot of the 16 women turned away every day will inevitably return to their partners, weighing up the risk of a beating against the risk of living on the streets. Domestic violence is exacerbated by the State and the community when it will not give a woman an exit route.

Organisations like Women’s Aid do fantastic work in Ireland, but the men on twitter saying domestic violence is a result of Islam are insulting. Wasn’t Clodagh Hawe’s husband at mass the Sunday before he murdered her and her children and then shot himself in an act of cowardice?

A third of women in Ireland have experienced extreme psychological violence from men. A quarter of women have experienced violence by partners in Ireland.  

We are not better than Morocco, we just think we are.

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The Women’s Aid Helpline is 1800 341 900.

Follow me on twitter @stephie08

 

Why We Need To Change Our Thinking on Bullying

I’ve been working with victims of domestic abuse for 6 years now. And during the course of this work I began to see a direct link between children who bully and adults who abuse. Many of the families I have worked with have had at least one child who has begun abusing the mother after she leaves an abusive relationship. These children have had abuse role modelled for them, and disrespect for their mother’s role modelled for them and it takes a lot of work to undo the dangerous ideas they hold.  The link between child bullies and adult abusers is a contentious subject, but an important one for us to consider as it affects so many of us and should be shaping the bullying policies of our schools and universities.

Children who grow up in abusive households are significantly more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves or to be abused. 1 in 3 women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence, most commonly from a partner, so we are talking about a huge portion of the population that is affected by these issues. And yet for women seeking help and support from domestic abuse services there is little help once they have left the relationship and even less support in supporting them to parent children who have been exposed to abuse. Thus the cycle of abuse starts up again, as many survivors of abuse don’t have the skills, energy, time or knowledge to undo the damage done to their children. These children are often abusive to their mother and sometimes to other kids in school. When I first started looking into this 6 years ago I couldn’t find any information, online or otherwise on child to parent abuse. Now though child to parent abuse awareness is spreading and it has in the last few years become an issue that is finally being talked about. Because bullying isn’t just something that happens at school. Lots of children who have grown up in abusive households bully their non abusive parent. Bullying needs to be looked at within a wider context. And it needs to be looked at alongside abuse.

People with abusive mindsets share two things. A core belief in inequality and a sense of entitlement. Bullies also share these two beliefs. In my head bullies and abusers are interchangeable terms. They both mean the same thing,  bully being a kid-friendly term for a child abuser, adult abusers getting called out for what they are.

The fortunate thing is that children are much easier to work with and less fixed in their ideas than adults. It is depressing that the world’s leading rehabilitation program for domestic abuse perpetrators has less than a 40% success rate, but this is probably because the main issue is that an abusive mindset is not a psychological problem within the abuser’s brain, but a cultural and societal problem. It is the result of the toxic masculinity created from being raised in a patriarchal society with rigid gender expectations and unhealthy beliefs about the value of women. And it is constantly reinforced by the media, by the options on supermarket shelves, by the fashion industry, by governments and more. It is everywhere we look. All aimed at controlling women and portraying them as inferior to men.

Studies have shown that the behaviour of abusive people is mostly deliberate. They actively choose to behave in a way that exerts domination and control over their partner, in order to get their needs and wants met. In other words, they KNOW what they are doing. Their actions are intentional.

I do not know anything about rehabilitating abusive adults. I do however know about helping children who have been taught by their abusive parent to be bullies. I know how to help their mothers to parent them in such a way that will guide them towards being respectful people. And much of the work I do with mothers and their children works equally well in a school setting.

I was on the committee that developed our primary school’s anti – bullying policy where we defined bullying as ‘an act with intent to harm’. Most school’s approach bullying as being repeated actions. I disagree with this. Bullying is the softer, kid-friendly word we use for abuse. One act of abuse is enough to call it abuse. One act of bullying is enough to call it bullying. Why do we diminish the experience of the victim by insisting that they be repeatedly abused before we will give the matter the level of importance that is requires? I see this as a gross negligence  of the hurt child, and further evidence of how as a society we protect abusers, at all costs. It seems preposterous that a child must be hurt repeatedly before we will take the incident/s seriously and call it for what it is. In what other area of life would this be the rule? “Oh you were only broken into once Mrs Smith, come back when you’ve been broken into again and then we’ll deem it a burglary.” “Someone put their penis in you without your consent? Well when it happens again that will be rape!”

Who does this ‘repeated actions’ definition of bullying help and support? Only the child doing the abusing (except not in the long run, as being indulged in your abuse of others is incredibly dangerous to all of us, no matter what our age). In my view the important and crucial part of defining bullying is ‘intent to harm’. This is where bullying links in with the adult abusive mindset. Both abusers and bullies are driven by a desire to cause intentional harm to others in order to have some need or want of theirs met.

The great thing is what with kids we can (most of the time) undo the toxic programming they have received from  their abusive parent. Of course there will be children who will bully who have not grown up with an abusive parent as well, and children will bully for a variety of reasons but bullying can be handled the same way regardless of why the child is bullying. The important thing is that they are not able to get away with it, that it is recognised for what it is and action is taken to stop it and support the victim. That cannot happen until we re-define what we consider bullying to be. We should be putting the victim’s needs at the centre and calling any act with intent to harm what it is – Bullying.