RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Debating Choice at TCD

Posted on

A strange and unusual thing happened last week. I popped along to check out TCD’s debate on whether “This House Believes Abortion Is A Woman’s Choice“. In all honesty, my expectations were pretty low going in- I was mainly showing up to see Feministe’s Jill Filipovic in action. From the debate, I expected the usual suspects and more of the same- accusations flying from all sides, a lack of common ground so extreme that it’s surprising that we’re all technically speaking the same language.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I am, by the way, a dyed-in-the-wool pro-choicer. I believe fervently that our bodies and our lives are our own. We should not be punished for our sexualities. We should not be forced to give up decades of our lives for the sake of someone else’s principle. While as a good skeptic I cannot deny the possibility of changing my mind, I consider that possibility remote.

Before I talk about the arguments I found useful and interesting on the part of the pro-life speakers, however, I’d like to take a moment to discuss those which were neither. These arguments were based on essentialist and demeaning ideas of gender. They’re getting a TW for transphobia and misogyny, so I’ll clearly mark when I’m done talking about them if you’d like to scroll past them.

The Bad Stuff- TW for transphobia, extreme sex-negativity, misogyny, and discussion of sexual assault.

“The ability to give birth to children is the essence of what makes a woman a woman”

According to this speaker, what makes a woman a woman is the ability to bear children. That is it. That is all. The sheer degree to which this dismisses those who cannot or do not have children- infertile women, trans women, many queer women, childless/childfree women- is difficult to exaggerate. Are these women not women? Are we really going to determine our entire identities by the presence or absence of a functioning uterus? How incredibly insulting is that to the women in the audience who are unable to have children? Who do not wish to have children? To adoptive parents, to non-birth mothers in same-sex couples, to women whose children were born through surrogates? And what about the many trans men out there who have given birth? Or the women who have given birth to the children they raise, who consider themselves to be women above and beyond their role as mothers? This statement is not only insulting to all of the above people. It is also, quite simply, wildly inaccurate. It’s just plain wrong.

“Abortion is not a woman’s choice but a thing that men make women do.. abortion leads to men treating women like objects and doing whatever they want with them”

I find it difficult to imagine how allowing women a choice makes other people do “whatever they want with them” in a way that taking her choice away does not.

Listen. I wish we lived in a world free of sexual coercion. I really do. If banning abortion led to a world where women were not objectified, where we were not sexually assaulted and abused? In that world, us pro-choicers would have a lot of explaining to do. However, we don’t live in that world. Women are objectified. Women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to be the victims of sexual coercion and abuse. These things happen whether or not abortion is legal. Legal abortion, however, gives women one small area of choice within this. It lets us have one small space of sovereignty over our own bodies.

“Abortion disenfranchises half of the people in the pregnancy”

In case you’re unsure, this person was talking about men, not fetuses. Women having abortions without their partners’ agreement hurts men’s feelings, you see. There are two people in every pregnancy, and those are the two people who brought the pregnancy about.

I’m sorry, but no. Yes, there are generally two people involved in bringing about a pregnancy- assuming that nobody is being sexually assaulted or raped at the time. Which happens. But even in a situation where a person gets pregnant through a consensual act, there are not two people in that pregnancy.

Men’s feelings have the potential to be hurt- deeply- if a woman aborts a fetus who could have become their child without their agreement. This is absolutely true. Emotional hurt is no small thing. However, women’s feelings as well as our bodies and our rights to bodily integrity all will be hurt, permanently altered and disenfranchised if we are forced to carry to term and to give birth without our consent.

“If a woman did not use contraception or early abortion, she should not have the right to later abortions”

In an ideal world, this might be an argument. In a world where there was no stigma around pregnancy, where everyone had access to clear and comprehensive education around bodies, sexuality, consent and contraception. In a world where people’s circumstances never changed dramatically and unexpectedly. In a world where nobody learned well into a pregnancy that their fetus’s life was inevitably going to be agonising and short. In a world where nobody developed medical conditions in pregnancy which threatened their own life, health, or well-being. In a world where nobody was in an abusive relationship, family or living situation which threatened their ability to exercise their own free choices.

In that world, maybe this would be reasonable. But we don’t live in that world.

Now for something a little more interesting

Fortunately for those of us at the debate, the tired old arguments above were not the only things the pro-life side of the debate had to say. One argument in particular impressed me. Here’s the gist:

Legal abortion creates a false sense of choice for women. Our choices are not only to give birth or not to do so- these choices do not and can not exist in a vacuum. Where we have a situation where women do not have access to all the supports they need to be mothers as well as engaging fully in other areas of their lives, where women are forced for economic reasons to not be mothers, their choices cannot be free. Legal abortion, by giving women an easy ‘out’ from motherhood, also gives employers, other institutions, and the state an easy ‘out’ from providing for the needs of women who are mothers as it allows them to deem women to have a made a free choice to not participate fully in these.

That there?

That is a frackin’ point. Women are often forced to choose between careers and motherhood. Women who are mothers are excluded from many areas of life by the assumption that they will take on the majority of caring responsibilities. Women are forced not to be mothers by their economic situations. Women’s lives are stunted by this lack of support for mothers- for parents! This is a major, major issue.

Of course, none of this means that using women as pawns to force the hand of wider institutions in providing for the needs of parents is a reason to remove legal abortion from women. But when we speak of reproductive choice, it is incredibly important to do so with an awareness of all of the factors- social and economic as well as legal- that get in the way of women’s choice. The reproductive rights movement, and those of us who are pro-choice, need to be sure that we’re fighting for women’s rights to choose freely, to be supported in the choices we make, and to not face marginalisation or crushing poverty for those choices. And- let’s face it- the lack of legal abortion as an option in Ireland hasn’t resulted in employers falling over themselves to offer better maternity and paternity benefits and leave.

From the pro-choice side

I’m not going to spend as much time on these arguments as the pro-life side- mainly because all I could add to the conversation would be thumbs up and enthusiastic nods of agreement. But here’s a taste of what people had to say:

“If you really love a woman, how could you want to subjugate her body for nine months? If we tried to control the bodies of men for nine months, we would see violence in the street”

“For every woman who wants to work when she’s pregnant, there’s another who simply doesn’t want a kid”

“Why should women have to pay for the violation of their own bodies, with their own bodies? Even if you have sex and end up pregnant, you should be able to walk away with your body intact and not be labeled a slut and a whore. Gender equality is impossible in any real sense if women live under constant threat of having their bodies taken from them.”

“Its time to remove the idea that women deserve to be punished for having sex. This debate does NOT happen in the abstract, and the women most affected by this are those whose bodies have never been given the real credit of belonging to themselves”

One more thing..

This was from the closing speech of the speaker who made the economic argument against abortion above. Again, I may not agree with her about abortion, but lady has a point.

“How can we come together on our shared goals and stop driving ourselves into corners? …What about violence against women, pregnancy at work, listening to women who had abortions and adoptive birth mothers?”

Yep. That. Let’s do that.

What happens to the victims?

Regular readers may have noticed by now my deep scepticism that Sweden’s sex purchase ban has actually reduced the amount of sex trafficking to Sweden. There are a couple of reasons for my suspicions. First, as I wrote in this post on another blog, the definition of “trafficking” is so easily (and so often) manipulated to suit particular agendas that I’m automatically sceptical of any claims made about it, anywhere. (Actually, I’m increasingly coming around to doubting the usefulness of the term at all, but that’s a subject for another post.) The second is that when you strip away the Swedish spin and look at the number of trafficking cases their police are actually finding, as detailed in a number of my posts on this blog, it becomes pretty obvious that the country is in a state of collective denial.

But let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong, and that the ban actually has had the claimed effect on sex trafficking to Sweden. Obviously, if you’re a member of a Swedish government party or a police official coming under pressure to “solve the trafficking problem”, this looks like a very good thing. But here’s a question I’ve never actually seen answered (or even asked) by the law’s advocates: what happens to the victims?

Because there seems to be this assumption that if sex traffickers can’t get their victims into Sweden, they’ll just give up and go home. Why would that be? There’s nothing special about sex trafficking into Sweden that would lead traffickers to make a career change if they couldn’t do it anymore. So what would they do instead?

One well-noted side effect of the almost singular focus on trafficking into the sex industry is the tendency to overlook this type of exploitation in other sectors. In fact, trafficking for non-sexual purposes wasn’t even criminalised in Sweden until 2004 – two years after sex trafficking was specifically outlawed, and five years after the sex purchase ban was introduced. Yet Swedish police reports confirm significant incidences of other types of trafficking:

The fifth item there is “Human trafficking for other purposes, total”, and as you can see the numbers are actually higher than for the second item, “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”. The usual caveat about actual vs detected cases applies, but it seems to me there are one of two possibilities: either the chart understates the amount of sex trafficking and there is actually far more than the Swedish police know about (in which case the law really is a dud, at least from that perspective), or trafficking for non-sexual purposes is a bigger problem than sex trafficking. And if the latter is true, then that suggests that to the extent (if any) that the law has reduced sex trafficking, the traffickers are simply placing their victims into other industries. (For those who are tempted to believe that this in itself is a victory, on the theory that any type of trafficking is better than sex trafficking, please do some reading on the abuse faced by migrant domestic workers and then come back and tell me that sex trafficking should be “solved” by shifting victims into that sector.)

An alternative possibility is that sex traffickers haven’t changed industries at all, but merely destination countries. This in fact is the position advanced by the Swedish government, which regularly compares its “foreign prostitute” count to that of its neighbours in order to promote the deterrent effect of the law (although, as Laura Agustín has pointed out, it’s relied on erroneous data to do so). What if we assume that the law actually has reduced the number of migrant sex workers in Sweden compared to its neighbours, and that this in fact represents fewer sex trafficking victims (an unsafe assumption, but one we’ll make for the sake of argument)? Well, again, this is all very good from the Swedish government’s perspective: it makes those victims someone else’s problem. But what does it do for them? And why is this issue so thoroughly ignored by the law’s advocates?

“But it isn’t,” abolitionists might protest. “We want all countries to adopt the same law, so that there is no other country the traffickers can go to.” But if that’s the best they can come up with their plan is doomed from the start. Realistically the law is not going to be adopted in every single country, and even if it was it would not be identically enforced everywhere. Sex traffickers would simply find the countries where it was easiest to get around the law at any particular point in time, and operate there. If anyone has any doubts about this just bear in mind the apparent displacement (as noted here) of migrant sex workers to Sweden after Norway adopted its own sex purchase ban.

Some abolitionists, it seems, aren’t even aiming as high as a worldwide ban. I can’t find the page now, but a week or so ago I read an article advocating the spread of the Swedish model in order to make Europe a cold house for traffickers, or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. Even if we got past the problem of non-uniform laws and enforcement, where do they want the victims displaced to? Iran?

I’m not suggesting there is no place for criminalisation in counter-trafficking work. There is – for genuine cases of exploitation. But if we are actually interested in preventing people becoming victims, and not just keeping those victims out of our backyards, we simply have to go beyond deterrence strategies aimed at traffickers and service users in particular sectors. We need to look at structural issues, issues around development in source countries, the interrelationship between sex trafficking and trafficking for non-sexual labour, inadequate labour protection for workers in general and migrant and sex workers in particular, and how fortress-like border policies drive labour migrants and refugees into traffickers’ arms.

These are not easy issues to address, especially given the lack of political will to address them. But how much easier would it be to pressurise countries to address them if abolitionists weren’t giving them an easy way out by allowing them to say they’ve done their bit by cracking down on prostitution?

The simple fact is that even if the sex purchase ban worked to prevent sex trafficking to Sweden, there is no reason to believe it has prevented a single person from being trafficked. None whatsoever. It is not, in any sense of the matter, a solution to the trafficking problem. And it is diverting people’s energies from looking for real solutions. Trafficked persons, and persons at risk of being trafficked, deserve better than being told we’re “helping” them by trying only to keep them out of our country.

More on those non-existent Swedish brothels

In this post last week I questioned the bald assertion by Stockholm Police Department Detective Inspector Jonas Trolle that it is “impossible to run a brothel in Sweden” thanks to the country’s sex purchase ban.

Now we have this article in which no less than the head of the anti-trafficking section in the very same police department laments that there may, in fact, be a brothel on every Stockholm corner:

Police and the tax authorities have launched closer surveillance of Thai massage parlours in the country, suspecting that the sharp increase in their number indicates sex trafficking and tax evasion…

“We also hear of and witness other, more advanced sexual services, which means that you may soon wonder if we have a brothel on every or every other street corner,” said Ewa Carlenfors, head of the section against trafficking at Stockholm police

Do these Stockholm police ever talk to each other? Or do they just agree to lie to people from other countries?

Norwegian sex workers’ views of sex purchase ban

As supporters of the Swedish model never tire of pointing out, Norway and Iceland have also recently banned the purchase of sex. How’s that working out?

Well, in Iceland it seems to be a total flop, as Icelandic police have decided they have better things to do with their limited resources:

police authorities claimed they neither had the funds nor the manpower to fight prostitution which… is clearly thriving in Iceland in spite of it being illegal.

In Norway, a couple different media reports (both in Norwegian) claim a resurgence in that country’s sex trade; neither is particularly a credible source, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual research on the subject. The closest I could find, apart from the Pro Centre report mentioned below, was this police report (also in Norwegian) on human trafficking for sexual and other purposes, published in August of this year. Like the Swedish stats I discussed in this post, it shows higher numbers after the law’s introduction, though it’s equally impossible to be sure whether this reflects more victims or just better detection. It is silent on the amount of prostitution generally.

On this page, on the website of the Norwegian sex workers’ organisation PION, I found a statement about their own views of the law. Because of the importance of this information and the lack of an English translation on the site (at least that I can find) I have run it through Google Translate and copied the translation of the crucial bits below, with minor grammatical edits (only where obvious) and paragraph breaks added for ease of reading. Corrections from actual Norwegian readers are welcome.

It is difficult to estimate whether the law has helped to reduce the amount of sale of sexual services in Norway, but there is little doubt that the law has contributed to a significant weakening of prostitutes’ rights. The law has led to women in prostitution now experiencing a major invasion of privacy. This happens for example when the police reveal sensitive information to homeowners and hotels, or when the police deliberately carry out their operations with the press in tow so that the woman’s identity will be published in the media (pion Annual Report 2010).

Previous research and current surveying shows that women in prostitution are highly vulnerable to various forms of violence and abuse (Bjorn Dahl and Nordli 2008). The sex-purchase law has helped to raise the threshold to report violence and abuse, so abuse now increasingly remains unannounced and with impunity. There are also clear indications that the extent of violence has increased (PION Annual Report 2010).

Despite the fact that there is no prohibition against the sale of sexual services in Norway, women in street prostitution are chased away from the street by the police with the message that they encourage criminal activity. The health situation of many women in prostitution is exacerbated, in part because many are now reluctant to have contact with service providers. The buying-sex act seems to have contributed to the development of a service with significant health risks for women in prostitution, including sex without using condoms. There are reports of an increase in the number of pregnant women and STD, especially chlamydia and gonorrhea (Pro Centre Annual Report 2010).

A vulnerable group that has been further marginalized by the introduction of the sex-purchase law is female migrants, with and without legal residence status, who often lack basic knowledge of Norwegian, networks and relevant education. This is also the group that has experienced the biggest obstacles to getting out of prostitution and into regular employment.

The statement is titled Rejected and censored: PION’s contribution to women’s convention shadow report and it notes that opposition from certain other women’s groups (not identified) prevented sex workers’ views from being included in the said report. This silencing is something that sex workers around the world are all too familiar with.

I will return to the Pro Centre report at a future date.

Some thoughts on Department of Justice report on Sweden visit

I’ve been looking over the report published this week by the Irish Department of Justice, on the visit of its officials to Sweden last year to examine the sex purchase ban.

I was expecting the worst because, as Stephanie and I noted in this post, that visit involved meeting with a sum total of zero sex workers or representative organisations or allies. Every single person or group they met, at least in an official capacity, was in favour of the law.

Does the report reflect that omission? Well, yes and no. Sex workers’ views of the law are absent from the report, and consequently so is any mention of the law’s significant negative consequences. But that (rather large) complaint aside, it’s generally a measured, considered document with a healthy little dose of scepticism. This is mainly in terms of whether the law could be applied within the Irish legal and constitutional systems, but it also raises a few questions about the merits of the law itself.

The Irish Times has excerpted a lot of the Department’s key concerns here and I won’t repeat them. I did, however, want to single out a few of the report’s passages for attention:

Attempt is considered difficult to prove with the result that, in cases of street prostitution, the police deliberately wait until the sexual act has begun, and the offence has thus been committed in full, before intervening. (page 6)

This strikes me as a strange way to deal with an offence that is supposed to be as inherently damaging as the Swedes and their supporters portray commercial sex as. It’s not unusual, of course, for police to delay intervening in crimes-in-progress for just long enough to ensure the offender has done enough to make himself liable, but it’s hard to imagine that if they believed a man was about to assault a woman they would stand back and let it happen just to get their arrest in. If they did – and especially if they made a practice of doing so – I imagine there would be outrage from feminist groups. And in the ideology of those who support the Swedish law, a man who pays a woman for sex is assaulting her, so where is the outrage? Are advocates of the law simply not aware of this practice, or are they aware but accept the explanation for it, and if the latter then how do they square it with their view about the intrinsically harmful nature of paid sex?

It’s interesting also that the report specifies street prostitution. In the article I linked to yesterday, a man who bought sex indoors was arrested after leaving the brothel; the police listened through the letterbox to get the “proof” they needed for the arrest. This aural voyeurism has been reported before, in this case, which describes the police who listened in as being “treated to a symphony of grunts and moans”. So, no interruption at all there; they let the poor prostituted woman endure her paid rape (as the Melissa Farleys of this world describe it) for god only knows how long. Again, where is the outrage?

it might also be argued that policing operations to target the purchase of sex – which would be a minor offence – would divert law enforcement from operations targeting serious and organised crime, including human trafficking. (pages 9-10)

This is really a serious question. While there are shootings and burglaries and tiger kidnappings going on – and while our police are under a recruitment embargo and subject to the same swingeing cuts affecting all our public services – do we really want them spending their time hanging around outside people’s houses listening to them fuck?

While it was never an intended consequence of their legislation, Sweden’s 1999 ban on the purchase of sexual services was followed by complaints from Norway and its Baltic neighbours about displacement.

Ironically, this has also worked the other way around: in their most recent report on Trafficking in Human Beings for Sexual and Other Purposes, the Swedish police note “mainly in Gothenburg…a marked increase in the numbers of Nigerian women who are being exploited in prostitution, which is considered to be the effect of Norway’s new Purchase of Sexual Services Act which came into force”.

Think about that for a minute: Sweden’s sex purchase ban displaced sex workers to Norway, and then Norway adopted the ban and displaced them right back to Sweden. It is worth asking why, if Sweden is really so inhospitable to the sex industry, they weren’t displaced to a country where buying sex is legal – such as Denmark, which is only a few hours from Gothenburg on the ferry.

the Attorney General might be asked if the Law Reform Commission could be requested to examine the legal and constitutional implications of a ban on the purchase of sex. This could be done in the wider context of a review of our legislation on prostitution and include an international comparative analysis of different legal regimes to combat the phenomenon, not just in the Nordic region.

A visit to New Zealand, perhaps?


The report has two Appendices. The first, “Main Findings of Swedish Evaluation of the 1999 Ban on the Purchase of Sexual Services”, is drawn from the English-language summary of the 2010 Swedish government report. It’s a shame that the Irish officials didn’t read the entire Swedish report, because the English-language summary leaves some of the more revealing material out, such as the fact that the Swedish evaluators consider increased stigmatisation of sex workers to be a “positive effect” of the law.

Appendix 2 is a selection of criticisms of the Swedish government evaluation. These are said to be drawn from “the print media” but there is no further identification of the sources; I recognise some of the quotes from Laura Agustin’s critiques. Again, this is a shame, because the ordinary reader won’t be able to gauge the credibility of those doing the criticising. It would have been useful to point out, for example, that Sweden’s Discrimination Ombudsman, National Board of Health and Welfare, and Federation for LGBT Rights were among those who deemed the evaluation to be biased and methodologically unsound.

But the significance of the Irish report lies not in its power to persuade readers – after all, it wasn’t written for public consumption, at least as far as we know. What’s important is what it says about where the Justice Department’s head is on the issue. And it strikes me that the sheer number of the criticisms it includes – where it could have simply noted that such criticisms exist – suggests that the Department officials were trying to make a point. As I said, a healthy scepticism.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that sense will ultimately prevail. The government is, after all, run by politicians, and politicians are being subjected to an inordinate amount of pressure on this issue. (If the Attorney General decides the law would be unconstitutional in Ireland, how long do you suppose it will take before we start hearing calls for a referendum?) But suddenly the Irish debate doesn’t seem as completely one-sided as it has been up to now. The Irish Times, which has gained a reputation in recent years for refusing to publish the letters of sex worker allies, even ran an editorial opinion piece today opposing the law. That would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

No wonder so many of the law’s Seanad supporters opposed allowing time for a public debate on the issue. When you have a public debate – a real debate, that is – you have to let other voices in.

I Was A Teenage Bisexual: An open letter to Dan Savage.

Posted on

Hello Dan,

Hey, how’s it going? I’m a big fan of yours. Love the Lovecast. Love It Gets Better. I think what you do is pretty awesome. Which is why I’m very, very disappointed to have to do this.

Catching up on my podcasts this morning, I listened to Episode 257 of Savage Love, where you were asked by a listener to discuss recent research showing that bi men do, in fact, exist.

Your response in a nutshell was to spend several minutes ranting about how the discrepancies between research methods (in particular participant recruitment) between this study and Bailey’s 2005 study show that you were right to be skeptical of the identities of teenage bis, or bis without sufficiently gender-balanced relationship histories. And to talk about that scepticism. A lot. And how we should all be sceptical.

Dan, I need to explain how you are wrong.

I don’t want to say that you are wrong about some people changing their identification, or about some people being unsure of how to label themselves. Those are real things, and it’s important to acknowledge them. What I want to talk about is the difference between what is appropriate for researchers and appropriate for activists. I want to talk about how your own perspective prevents you from showing the same empathy for bi kids as you do other LGT kids.

Let’s talk about the difference between study design and outreach.

In the study you quoted, the researchers weren’t looking into the diversity of bi experiences, or differing narratives of sexuality, or how behaviour and inclination interact in different cultural circumstances. They simply wanted to see if there was such a thing as a genuinely bi man. It didn’t matter at all if they eliminated some genuinely bi men from the study. What mattered was that the guys they included were bi, so they set the bar extremely high. That’s fine. Good use of limited time and resources.

What makes good study design does not always make good outreach.

In research, our aim is to answer a particular question. In outreach our aim is to, well, reach out to people and make their lives better. It doesn’t matter a jot if half the people we’re talking to don’t turn out to be in our target group(s). If I talk to a bunch of, say, twenty people who identify as bi, and ten (or twelve, or fifteen) of them aren’t ‘really’ bi? It doesn’t matter. The others will have heard me.

Here’s the thing. When you talks about young bi people, one of the first things you say is that you don’t believe they’ll still be bi in ten years time. You identified as bi yourself, you see, and you’re gay now. And you’ve met tons of people with the same story. So you’re hesitant to take bi-identified people at their word until they’ve had a good long time to prove themselves.

The people you forget about here? Are the bi people. The real, honest-to-goodness bi kids who are, as much as everyone else, looking for some affirmation. In this case, of their very existence. Taking the perspective of the gay kid who uses bi identity as a safer place to explore their queerness erases that of the bi kid who, along with all the homophobia they have to deal with, has to contend with the assumption that they couldn’t be what they say they are.

Bi kids need our support as much as gay kids do. Bi kids need to know that we acknowledge them, that we affirm their identities and experiences, as much as gay kids do. Bi kids are as vulnerable as gay kids are. They are at risk in the same way that gay kids are. By denying them the safety of acceptance in a queer community, we only increase their isolation.

I was a teenage bisexual. Of my friends who identified as bi back then, some are gay. Some are straight. Some are bi. The same goes for my friends who identified as straight then, and even those who described themselves as gay.

I was a teenage bisexual who was lucky that the support I needed was there. Dan, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this? Please understand that your own ego and your own ideas about teenage bisexuals are getting in the way of being a support to the bi kids out there. The ones who need us to stand up for them, and speak out for them, and promise that our community will be there for them. Dan, if you won’t listen to me, then listen to this:

“Bi orientation is associated with worse mental health than heterosexual orientation… with the homosexual group falling between the two” (Korlen et al, 2002)

The emphasis is mine. Dan, I’ve heard with my own ears how heartbroken and angry-as-hell you are at what is done to gay kids every day. I need you to understand that whatever your own opinions, we need voices like you to support bi kids as much as their gay and lesbian peers. Bi kids need to hear that they exist. They need to hear that they are not alone.

I was a teenage bisexual, and now I’m a bi adult. I don’t mind if some of the people growing up with me identified as bi for a while. If my identity was a safe haven for them as they figured themselves out? I’m happy it was there for them. I’m happy they could stay here a while.

Dan, as activists and people who reach out to kids, our purpose isn’t to prove ourselves right. Our purpose isn’t rigorous study design and eliminating false positives. Our purpose is to be heard by the people who need to hear us. It’s to let them know that they’re not alone, and that there are others like them out there.

When one of the major difficulties a group faces is doubt over their very existence, then we need to stand up for that existence. We need to tell bi kids that their experiences are real. And when sometimes, a few years down the line, it turns out that we weren’t always right? We need to swallow our damn pride and do it all over again.

I hope you can listen to this.


“It’s impossible to run a brothel in Sweden.” Really?

Just a quickie here (ha ha). In a previous post I questioned the assertion by Swedish police officer Jonas Trolle, cited in this Irish Times article, that it is impossible now to run a brothel in Sweden.

Shortly after that claim was made, this article appeared in the Swedish English-language media about a man who was caught buying sex as…

Swedish police were carrying out surveillance against a suspected brothel in Bromma, a suburb of Stockholm, where they suspected that several Romanian women were working as prostitutes.

More evidence of the Swedish authorities’ willingness to stretch the truth in efforts to persuade other countries to adopt their sex purchase ban.

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 3

I hadn’t intended to do another Dodgy Stats post so soon, but then a friend sent me this document and, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

The document is titled “Prostitution – Fact or Fiction” and it comes from the website of End Prostitution Now, which describes itself as “a campaign led by Glasgow City Council”. At the end, under the heading “Acknowledgments”, it refers to Demand Change, a joint campaign by leading British abolitionist groups Eaves and OBJECT, and to the Women’s Support Project, a Scottish feminist group addressing issues of male violence against women. Similar documents are indeed found on both those group’s websites, but while I haven’t done a detailed comparison between the three it is clear that EPN made some changes and added claims of their own. I’ll therefore confine myself to addressing the EPN document, though I may go back sometime and look at the detail of the other two.

There are a lot of typical abolitionist errors in the document,  such as generalising stats about street workers across the entire industry, repeating the myths I’ve addressed in other posts about the Swedish experience, and taking Melissa Farley’s work seriously. There’s also a totally bizarre claim about what low union membership among German sex workers means, but really I want to focus in on three “facts” that I find particularly revealing, in terms of what they demonstrate about abolitionism’s concern for evidence.

68% meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Ramsay, Retal, 1993).

Let me start off by saying that I have a bee in my bonnet about Harvard referencing. Used correctly – that is, with a proper bibliography at the end – there is no reason it can’t be a reliable method of showing the origin of an assertion. Unfortunately, it easily lends itself to being used incorrectly and therefore absolutely worthless. I mean I could write here that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College and then next week some other blogger on the other side of the world could repeat that claim and cite it as “(Lyon 2011)”, and it would look academic and impressive to readers who didn’t know any better. Alas, it is not the case that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College – at least as far as I know.

Since EPN are among those who don’t use the Harvard system correctly, I can’t tell from their document what exactly “Ramsay, Retal, 1993” refers to. Googling it produces nothing except links back to the exact same text, which is always a bad sign. After trying a few fruitless variations I finally discovered this article which is by an “R Ramsay, C Gorst-Unworth and S Turner” = Ramsay R et al 1993? A sloppy mistake, but one I wouldn’t kill them over.

What’s more serious is the article’s subject matter: “the psychological well-being of 100 survivors of torture and other forms of organised state violence”. It’s behind a pay wall, so I can’t tell if prostitution is one of the forms of organised state violence discussed therein, but if so it would be a remarkable exercise in dishonesty to generalise stats from those “survivors” across all sex workers.

In fact, I think what EPN have probably done here is simply cited the wrong document; that figure is usually linked to a Melissa Farley study which purported to show a 68% rate of PTSD criteria among sex workers. And as for the Farley study, I’ll just quote from what Paul Henry de Wet, head of Forensic Psychiatry at the hospital attached to the University of Pretoria, had to say about it in his affidavit in South Africa v Jordan: “In the absence of proper control groups for the research and in the absence of proper diagnostic methodology I find the diagnosis of PTSD as well as the allegations in respect of its alleged causes to be wholly inappropriate.”[1]

If it is just a case of citing the wrong document then, again, that isn’t a particularly grievous error. But it does show a lack of attention to detail which I think is typical of a lot of these campaigners, and demonstrates why their assertions must not be simply taken at face value.

In New Zealand, complete decriminalisation has led to the illegal sector expanding to make up 80% of the industry (Instone and Margersion, 2007)

 This doesn’t even make logical sense. If there is complete decriminalisation there can be no illegal sector, by definition.

In fact, New Zealand does not have complete decriminalisation, although it’s probably about as close as we’ll ever see in our lifetime. Managed brothels are regulated, not decriminalised; commercial sex involving non-residents or under-18s or that takes place without a condom remains illegal. So are Instone and Margersion claiming that these sectors have expanded to make up 80% of the New Zealand industry?

No. In fact, they’re not even referring to New Zealand. What they actually say is: “In other jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized there has been considerable expansion of the legal industry, but the illegal industry has expanded most and regularly comprises 80% of the industry, as Mary Sullivan’s book on the effects in Australia, Making Sex Work (2007) reveals”.[2]

So Sullivan claims this happened in Australia (I’ll deal with that stat another day), Instone and Margersion get from this that it “regularly” happens when prostitution is made legal, and EPN then states as a matter of fact that it has happened in New Zealand.

Is it becoming obvious why I find abolitionists so frustrating?

Estimated numbers of people in prostitution consequently fell from around 25,000 to a current estimate of 2500.

No citation is given for either of those figures, but the estimate of 25,000 in Sweden would be quite extraordinary; I’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the piles of material I’ve read about the Swedish sex industry.

Googling “25,000 prostitution Sweden” returns a number of pages (themselves of dubious reliability) asserting 25,000 sex workers in the Netherlands; some of them compare this to an alleged 2,500 in Sweden around the time of the law’s enactment – not after it. This seems to be a case of picking up numbers from web trawls and inserting them into a propaganda sheet without even bothering to ensure they were copied correctly – much less than that they ever had any validity to begin with.

Of course, anyone can make up numbers about anything, and plenty of people do. But this is a campaign led by a government body. Just a local authority, granted, with limited law-making powers – but some of those powers can have a direct impact on sex workers’ lives and livelihoods, and it’s a matter of deep concern if they are being exercised by councillors with such little regard to important details like, you know, facts. Moreover, the imprimatur of a major city’s government can sometimes add more weight to a document than it would otherwise have. I couldn’t say for certain whether any other policy-makers have looked at this or factored its contents into their consideration of the issue, but the possibility is always there.

Any Glaswegians who stumble across this post while searching for information on the sex industry in your wonderful city, you might consider contacting your councillors and asking them what the hell they are doing attaching the council’s name to such a poorly-researched and poorly-referenced propaganda piece.



1. The link to the de Wet affidavit on the South African Constitutional Court website isn’t working. Email us at feministire(at)gmail(dot)com if you want a scanned copy.
2. Emphasis added and internal citation omitted.

Outreach to sex workers and their clients, not abolitionism, saves lives

I can’t really believe this isn’t so obvious as to go without saying, but yet another peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet this week shows that outreach to sex workers and their clients – including condom distribution, one-on-one safe sex counselling and efforts to reduce stigma – can make a dramatic contribution to HIV prevention. The study was conducted in a number of Indian states over a five-year period.

Sex work in India has a similar status to Ireland: it’s not illegal in and of itself, although many of the surrounding activities (solicitation, brothel-keeping etc) are. A campaign to criminalise clients was opposed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and by the National AIDS Control Organisation, which operates under the Ministry’s aegis, for the precise reason that this would impede the fight against HIV/AIDS. In taking this position, the Indian authorities echo the views of bodies from the World Health Organisation to UNAIDS to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, as Stephanie and I noted in this post.

The logic behind this view isn’t difficult. When commercial sex is criminalised – whether for the buyer, seller or both – it hides. The persons involved shy away from social and medical services, due to fear of arrest, of blackmail, of loss of custody of their children, of being treated like deviants. The stigmatisation created by these laws is a powerful force, often overriding even the assurance that sex workers themselves won’t be prosecuted for their activities. This is reflected in a report published earlier this year by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (only in Swedish, unfortunately), which describes on pages 62-63 an interview with a small-town sex worker who admits she does not go for regular HIV testing because of this fear of being identified as a “prostitute” and therefore stigmatised. This can happen even where commercial sex is entirely legal, of course, but there is little dispute among those who work with or study sex workers that the stigma is much greater where it is criminalised.

But that’s not the only problem. Abolitionism is, by its nature, incompatible with harm reduction, and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS often conflict with moral opposition to the behaviours that put people into high-risk categories. This is the case whether we’re talking about sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users or men who have sex with men. But while most western countries, at least, have begun to come to grips with reality in relation to the last two categories, there is still often a stubborn refusal to accept the need to do the same for the first. In Ireland, the main NGO doing outreach to sex workers, Ruhama, offers sex workers cups of tea but not condoms; in Sweden, the Federation for LGBT Rights noted in a report last year (also only in Swedish), on pages 2 and 8, that HIV prevention programmes directed at sex workers and their clients have been blocked because of the state’s zero-tolerance approach to commercial sex. Whatever your personal views of the sex trade, this is fucking crazy.

The evidence that these programmes save lives is so clear that one conclusion is inevitable: to some people, lives are less of a priority than making a “statement” about the morality of the sex trade. They wouldn’t be unique in that view, of course. It’s the same attitude that leads conservative groups to oppose young people having access to condoms, or teenage girls getting the HPV vaccine. But it may go even further than that. Describing the reluctance to adopt measures that could reduce sex workers’ risk of violence, Hilary Kinnell in Violence and Sex Work in Britain theorises at 29-30 that sex work opponents see this violence as a “necessary deterrent”, a warning to people not to enter the sex trade because they might end up dead. If they stop ending up dead, there’s less of a disincentive to doing sex work. And so there’s less of an incentive for sex work opponents to try to prevent sex workers ending up dead.

Some would be outraged by this accusation, but Kinnell didn’t make it up out of nowhere. She cites from a 1977 Observer article in which Polly Toynbee alleges that this was precisely the justification given to her by a Home Office official as to why prostitution should remain “dangerous”. Kinnell writes that “no one would admit that policy is driven by such thinking today” – but this was before Sweden published its 2010 “evaluation” of its sex trade law, which stated that the increased stigma and other negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”.  This was before Stockholm Police Superintendent Jonas Trolle told the BBC that “It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society – so even though we don’t put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them.” These comments don’t state in so many words that they want sex workers to face risks to their health and their lives – but since the increased stigma is itself a risk to their life, as indeed are some of the other ways by which life is “made difficult” for them, that really is what it amounts to.

If abolitionists are genuinely motivated by regard for the well-being of sex workers, they need to explain how this can be reconciled with opposition to programmes that demonstrably improve their health and safety. It’s not enough to simply argue that they are trying to take them out of the high-risk category. People within this category have as much right to health promotion as people in any other. That’s not just my personal view; that’s international law.

And if – like their religious colleagues – they do believe that the threat of serious illness or death is an appropriate tool of social control, then at the very least they should be honest about it and stop dressing up their arguments in the language of concern.

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 2

The independent Senators have a motion for debate next week to criminalise the purchase of sex, and it’s a Dodgy Stat-lover’s dream. Let’s take it one (loaded) bullet point at a time:

That Seanad Éireann:
• Recognises that the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery and a form of human rights abuse.

Hard to argue with that – though it’s not really that modern, nor are only women and girls affected.

• Notes that the Irish sex industry – which is worth €250 million a year (CAB, January 2011) – is very damaging for the girls and women involved in prostitution.

I can’t trace the source of this statistic. The most recent CAB document available seems to be its 2009 annual report, which says nothing about the value of the Irish sex industry. I note, however, that €250 million seems to be a popular estimate:  Googling “Criminal Assets Bureau” “€250 million” I find that precise figure linked to the the private security industry, the Moriarty Tribunal, the IRA and even to CAB itself. Amazing, isn’t it, that such a wide diversity of matters can give rise to the exact same nine-figure estimate?

Just sayin’.

• Notes that internet audits consistently show that more than 1000 women are made available for paid sex on a daily basis all over Ireland and up to 97% of them are migrant women. (Kelleher 2009)

The cite here is to a report I have in front of me titled Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution which was published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Ruhama, the two organisations leading the Turn Off the Red Light campaign (aimed at criminalising sex-purchase in Ireland). It’s a confusing mishmash of the actual statistics in that report, though those statistics are questionable enough anyway. The report alleges a “minimum of 800 women advertised on the internet in indoor prostitution in Ireland at any one time” (page 109), revealed by “internet searches of websites” (page 84) – but on the only website discussed in the report, Escort Ireland, they found between 387-468 women advertising at any one time (page 85). What other websites did they use? How do they know it wasn’t the same women advertising (for that matter, how do they know the same women weren’t placing multiple ads on Escort Ireland?). There is simply no explanation given for how “387-468” becomes “800” – and there is certainly no justification for the Seanad motion’s reference to consistent internet audits.

The 1,000 figure cited in the motion does appear in the report, on page 33, although it relates to “women in indoor prostitution” (not all women in the sex industry, and not only those who advertise online). Nothing in the report explains how they arrived at this figure. Page 15 cites its sources of information on indoor prostitution as the internet audit, “interviews with specialist frontline service providers” and “interviews with 12 women in prostitution”, so perhaps the extra 200 came out of these discussions, but without proper citing of that figure it’s impossible for the reader to know.

Finally, the claim that “up to 97% of them are migrant women” also comes from the chapter on indoor prostitution. It is not, as the Seanad motion claims, the figure for the sex industry generally. (Street-based sex workers are believed by both sides of this debate to be primarily Irish, as reflected on page 13 of the report.) And where did the 97% figure come from? According to page 86, that’s the percentage of women who advertised on Escort Ireland as non-Irish. On page 23 they allow that the percentage of Irish women over all forms of indoor prostitution could be up to 13%; presumably this is also derived from those non-EI internet searches and conversations with sex workers and service providers, but I can’t find any other explanation for that figure in the report.

Incidentally, I’m not disputing that there are at least 1,000 women selling sex in Ireland at any one time. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was higher. But that’s just my own guesswork – I’m not trying to pass it off as research data. If I was going to do proper research into the numbers involved in the sex industry (all grant offers considered!), you can bet I would be a bit more careful about my evidence than the drafters of this motion were.

I also don’t take issue with the claim that most sex workers in Ireland are migrants. Turn Off the Blue Light accepts this to be the case, and they’re better placed to know than I am. But it is nonsense to cite specific figures, even within a ten-point range. The sex trade is simply far too complex and hidden to throw out numbers based on data from one internet site and conversations with a few people associated with the industry.

On a final point about this report, I note that page 86 urges caution with the fact that 41.9% of Escort Ireland advertisers are listed as “EU 15 states” (and therefore, presumably, very unlikely to have been trafficked). It notes the possibility that they may actually be from further afield but think “women from Europe have more appeal to men who buy sex”. Meanwhile, on page 23, it refers to the “growing demand for migrant women” in the industry. Nowhere does it put two and two together and consider the possibility that some of those advertising as foreign nationals on Escort Ireland may really be Irish women hoping to profit from a desire for the exotic.

• There is clear evidence of children who have been trafficked in Ireland specifically for the purpose of prostitution. (Kelleher 2009; AHTU annual report 2010)

The cites here are from police and NGO projects in which children have been specifically identified as victims of trafficking for prostitution. The criteria for identification may sometimes be questionable, but this statement is expressed in general enough terms that I don’t think there’s really any reason to dispute it. But buying sex from children is already illegal; I don’t know why it’s deemed relevant in a motion calling for criminalisation of those who buy sex from adults.

• Notes evidence from Sweden and Norway which shows that criminal sanctions for the purchase of sex are a proven a deterrent to prostitution and consequently to trafficking and also to organised crime. (Mc Leod et al. 2008) (Claude 2010).

The only thing I can find that looks like it might be “Mc Leod 2008” is this piece which is titled “Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland”. Great referencing, there. That report cites from such reliable data as a police officer asserting that Sweden has less prostitution than its neighbouring countries (something that was claimed to be the case long before the sex-purchase ban was brought in), and another report which cites data from the first two years after the law was brought in. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, however, more recent data make those claims impossible to substantiate.

“Claude 2010” is this document, and the sole statistic it cites (page 11) in support of the claims made in the motion is a decrease in the number of Swedish men who admit to buying sex, in polls taken in 1996 and 2008 – that is, before and after it was criminalised. Does anybody really believe this is a reliable way to measure it?

Interestingly, the same report also admits (page 14) that “the problems related to prostitution and human trafficking still remain significant” in Sweden, and quotes a policeman to the effect that street sex workers are regularly raped and do not report it (page 15). On the latter page another Swedish policeman states that “Sometimes the work seems hopeless, as there is a constant stream of new women ending up as prostitutes in deplorable situations…I also believe that, sooner or later, what we do for the girls on the street will produce results.” (emphasis added). Isn’t that a tacit admission that what they’re doing isn’t producing results now? I’m actually rather stunned that this report is cited as if it supports the motion.

Finally, contrary to the motion’s implication, neither the MacLeod nor the Clarke report say anything about how the law has worked – or not – in Norway.

• Further notes that International Conventions repeatedly call for efficient measures to deter demand for prostitution, which is recognised as an efficient approach to reduce sex trafficking (Article 6, Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005; Article 9(5), UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children 2000)

The actual terminology used in these treaties is that states shall “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”. On the face of it, that may indeed look like it’s requiring states to deter demand for prostitution.

But this is why it’s important to read laws in their full context. Neither the CoE convention nor the Palermo Protocol is about sex trafficking specifically – both refer to the full range of human trafficking, including labour trafficking and organ removal. Articles 6 and 9.5 respectively do not single out sex trafficking from the other types, and thus must also be interpreted as referring to the full range of human trafficking. To read them as requiring states to “deter demand for prostitution” is as logical as reading them to require states to “deter demand for domestic work” or “deter demand for transplantable kidneys”. Exploitation and abuse are the targets of international law, not the exchange of sex for money between two freely consenting adults.

• Proposes that the Government develops effective and appropriate responses to deal with prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Therefore we call on the Government to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation.


Senators Katherine Zappone, Fiach MacConghail, Jillian van Turnhout, Martin McAleese, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Eamonn Coghlan

In case anyone is curious what bright sparks came up with this text. On your dime.