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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Questioning quotas

The question of gender quotas in politics raised its head in Ireland again last week, as Labour TD Joanna Tuffy – who seems to fancy herself something of a maverick, at least when it doesn’t require her to actually defy the party whip – went all over the media arguing against the consensus that seemingly all parties have signed up to. We have a low rate of female representation in our legislature, despite all the main parties having some sort of internal strategy to promote women’s candidacy, so it’s not surprising that many believe it’s time to move beyond voluntary codes. The Programme for Government of the current coalition states that for future elections, funding for political parties will be tied to the percentage of female candidates they run.

Tuffy has made no secret of her opposition to this policy, and apparently it isn’t only quotas she objects to. Earlier this month an email went around to the female parliamentarians, proposing a meeting to discuss what steps they could take to promote women’s participation in politics. Tuffy replied, cc’ing not only the recipients of the original email but every male parliamentarian as well (as if she was exposing some naughty secret being hidden from them), saying that she would not take part in any meeting from which men were excluded. Predictably, she compared it to men holding a meeting and excluding women, and suggested that gender was irrelevant to their roles as public representatives. That the presence of men might hinder a full and frank discussion as to why women sometimes don’t feel comfortable in politics – possibly including, for example, the boorish and lecherous behaviour of certain male politicians (something I’ve experienced myself) – didn’t seem to occur to her or, if it did, she obviously didn’t think it was important.

Last week she addressed the quota issue directly in an opinion piece titled Gender quotas do women no favours – and undermine democracy. Her arguments are mostly pretty weak, but I’m sure they’ve been forensically picked apart elsewhere so I’ll just briefly highlight the glaring flaws:

Gender quotas bypass the voter’s right to decide, and impose a conclusion on him or her…The proposed quotas will mean that candidates will be ruled out on grounds of gender, and legislation will make such discrimination mandatory. This appears to conflict with Article 16.1.3 of the Constitution, which states that no law shall be enacted placing any citizen under disability or incapacity for membership of the Dáil on grounds of gender.

I would accept the validity of these arguments if there was a quota on the number of women that had to be elected. But that’s not what the government is proposing. Political parties will have to select more female candidates but the voter is under no obligation to elect them. Equally, a candidate is under no obligation to run for any particular party (or indeed, for any party at all): if a man can’t get selected for one party because of the gender quota he can still run for another party, or as an independent. If this was the US, where it’s the voters who select the party’s candidates and independents almost never have a hope, Tuffy would have a point here. But not under the Irish electoral system.

Which isn’t to say the Supreme Court might not ultimately agree with her – since their ruling that it’s ok for Portmarnock Golf Club to discriminate against women as long as it defines itself as not a golf club but rather a men’s club that happens to play golf, I’ve given up expecting logic from them in equality decisions – but it’s certainly not self-evident that they will, as Tuffy seems to think.

She next asserts that

gender quotas will give party leaders more control over candidate selection.

It’s a weak argument, made weaker by the lack of any explanation as to how or why they will do so. First of all, anyone who thinks Irish party leaders don’t already have all the control they need over candidate selection has, IMHO, a very naive view of how electoral politics actually works in this country. Secondly, this argument could work both ways: quotas could actually lessen party leaders’ control where too many of the favoured candidates were of a single gender. I suppose what she’s getting at is that under a quota system it isn’t simply a case of running the candidate who gets the most votes at the selection convention, but it isn’t as simple as that under our present system either. I doubt Tuffy is really unaware of all the manipulation that goes on behind the scenes at those “conventions”.

She continues with:

even if no woman had ever lost out because of gender quotas, that would not make them right. Positive discrimination is discrimination all the same.

Broken down, this argument goes like this: Discrimination is wrong; quotas are a type of discrimination; therefore quotas are wrong. It’s similar to one of the most annoyingly simplistic anti-choice arguments (the taking of human life is wrong; the foetus is a human life; therefore abortion is wrong). It reaches its conclusion by assuming that everyone agrees with its premises, unconditionally and without any need to justify them.

The problem of course is that there are plenty of circumstances in which discrimination is not necessarily wrong – or, at least, it isn’t seen as being necessarily wrong. These can range from the micro level (a woman who will only date men discriminates against other women in her choice of romantic/sexual partners) to the macro (a state that only allows its own nationals to enter without visas discriminates against foreign nationals). They already include the electoral level (the Labour Party is entitled to refuse to select Fine Gael members as candidates). If any of these examples are accepted as not being “wrong”, then the blanket assumption that discrimination is wrong is unsustainable – and therefore a statement like “positive discrimination is still discrimination” tells us absolutely nothing about why that is a problem.

She writes,

Those that argue for quotas claim that women don’t win selection conventions. Where is the evidence for this? Where the problem really lies is in the fact that not enough women choose to run for election.

I don’t have the facts and figures about women winning selection conventions, but I accept that the refusal to run at all is probably a bigger problem. It’s odd, though, that she doesn’t see the value in having spaces where women can openly discuss the reasons for that refusal. Does she think it will just sort itself out?

I nearly split a gut reading this part:

Quotas treat women as if they can’t hack it a party’s selection convention, like a man can. They decree that women must be selected on the basis of their gender, and this does them a disservice. Women, just like men, should be chosen on the basis of their qualities as individuals and their ability to persuade voters.

I honestly have to wonder what planet she is on to think that candidates are presently chosen for those reasons. Is that why Maurice “I’m sorry we legalised divorce” Ahern (Bertie’s brother) was selected to run in the Dublin Central by-election over the far more capable Mary Fitzpatrick? Is it just a coincidence that when a sitting politician gets a running mate, the candidate selected for that role is often the one who poses the least threat to the incumbent? The pretence that there is a meritocracy at work in the current system is possibly the weakest of all arguments.

The worst thing about Tuffy’s column is that it is so poorly argued it suggests that there aren’t any valid reasons to oppose quotas, or at least, to question their value. And there are some reasons. Tuffy hints at one when she says

A target is imposed from the top – but the reality on the ground stays the same because the issue is not tackled from the bottom up.

Unfortunately, since she fails to really think this argument through, the reader is left with the suggestion that this alone is a reason to oppose quotas. And it’s not. It’s an argument not to make quotas the sole “solution” to the issue, but not to exclude them as part of the solution. What she could have pointed out is the danger that quotas could mask the “reality on the ground”, could make it look as though there is no longer a problem and hence no need to also tackle the issue from the bottom up. This has in fact been my own experience of quotas: they are essentially a cosmetic solution, and too often they wind up being not a companion to, but instead a substitute for, more substantial measures.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that quota supporters often have different notions of what the main problem is. Feminists want more women in politics so as to get more pro-woman policies. But in seeking quotas they are allying themselves with people who aren’t feminists, don’t necessarily support such policies and think that once you’ve sorted out the male-female imbalance in public life, that is the problem dealt with.

The case for quotas as a means of advancing women’s issues is often made by pointing to the Nordic countries, which have high proportions of women in their parliaments and also have very progressive policies around things like parental leave. But that country chart I linked to above shows that things aren’t quite as cut and dried as that. There are many countries whose ranking does not appear to coincide with any particular level of commitment to women’s rights. Andorra, at number two, still outlaws abortion under any circumstance except risk to life; only this month in Rwanda, the highest-ranked country, three teenage girls received one-year prison sentences for the same “crime”. It could well be that things would be even worse for women in those countries if they had less gender-balanced parliaments, but a female majority that won’t even remove laws that criminalise reproductive autonomy is hardly a thing worth aspiring to.

The problem with expecting more women in politics to lead to more feminist policies is, of course, that not all women are feminists. Some in fact are the exact opposite – but a quota policy won’t discriminate between the two (you see Joanna, that’s an example of “positive” discrimination!). Who is to say that the consequences of this policy wouldn’t be more Lucinda Creightons? What if men who have actively supported feminist causes were forced out in favour of more conservative female colleagues?

This is one place where my suspicion of quotas differs from Joanna Tuffy’s. She writes that

Gender quotas subvert democracy by making the ends more important than the means.

To my mind, equal representation of women in political life is a means and not an end. The “end” will be achieved when equality between men and women (and those outside the binary) is no more of an issue than equality between the blue-eyed and the green-eyed. Gender quotas could be a step towards getting us there, but they’re far from an end in themselves. And depending on how they operate in practice, in terms of the candidates who actually benefit from them, there is always the possibility that they could make things worse.

And though I don’t like the way quota opponents always resort to whataboutery in these debates, I also don’t think we can ignore the shockingly poor representation of ethnic minorities in Irish politics. As far as I can make out, our parliament has two members who are half-Irish and half-something else, one American of apparently Italian descent and everyone else is of an ethnic Irish and/or British background. There are no Travellers, either. The Houses of the Oireachtas must be one of the least diverse employers of its size in the entire country. And local government – where there isn’t even a citizenship requirement – is little better. Why isn’t this seen as at least as big a scandal as the under-representation of women? If gender quotas are introduced, is there really a good argument as to why ethnic minority quotas shouldn’t be next?

Let me be clear – I’m not against quotas, per se. I’m certainly not opposed to them on principle, as Tuffy is. What I question is the enthusiasm that so many Irish feminists have for them. It is especially galling seeing the energy being spent on this campaign by Labour Women, who could be doing much more for gender equality by stopping their party imposing budgetary measures which will have a particularly devastating impact on women. It is hard to take seriously their claims of supporting women’s interests by trying to get more women into the exclusive club at Leinster House (starting salary: €100K plus expenses) at a time when their (female) Social Welfare Minister is poised to slash the incomes of the women on the very lowest rungs of society.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is this. Women are oppressed because we live in a capitalist and patriarchal society. It will still be a capitalist and patriarchal society after the quota system is introduced (as appears inevitable). The main difference is that there will be more women administering capitalism and patriarchy. Is that better than fewer women? Sure, if they administer it in a way that does women less harm. But there’s no guarantee that they will, and anyway, my feminism is a lot more ambitious than that.

Of course, I don’t expect Joanna Tuffy to understand.

More on the effects of the Norwegian sex purchase ban

In this post on the effect of the sex purchase ban in Norway, I promised to return to the 2010 Annual Report of the Pro Centre. The Pro Centre is an Oslo-based agency which acts as both a national resource centre on prostitution and a health and social services provider to sex workers. You can read a full description of the Pro Centre’s remit here.

The Report is here. Unfortunately, it’s all in Norwegian, so I need to start off with a couple disclaimers. First, what follows in this post is a Google Translate job, and I can’t be sure Google got everything right. Second, my attempts to clean up Google’s translations may not be strictly accurate; this should not be seen as an absolutely authoritative translation. Finally, on many pages there were whole lines that turned into gibberish when C&P’d. If the context suggested that a gibberish line might relate to the sex purchase ban I retyped it myself for translation, but if it didn’t, I skipped it. Thus it’s possible that I have inadvertently omitted some relevant elements of the report.

All that said, there was enough repetition of the key points that I think it’s extremely unlikely that what follows actually misrepresents the report in any significant way. I will post any needed corrections, if an actual Norwegian speaker can bring them to my attention.

Now then. The report is broken down into different sections that cover the different areas the Centre works in. Each section has a different author, and not all of them have anything to say about the law. Among those who do, however, there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement about the law’s effects. The issues that they raise are grouped together below.

Have sex workers left the industry because of the law?

I’ll start off with this one, so yous don’t think I’m cherry-picking only the comments that criticise the law. This is, in fact, an area in which the law might be said to have had some positive effect. The Centre does believe that at least some sex workers have chosen to leave the trade; this is stated on page 15.

But there’s a pretty big caveat: these are indoor, Norwegian workers, and what it says about them is:

These women often have more options than prostitution and grab them now.

This seems to vindicate one of the points that I made in this post: the sex workers who can leave when their industry is criminalised are precisely the ones who always could leave – that is, not the trapped and desperate ones that abolitionists are concerned with.

As for the outdoor Norwegian workers, who have considerably fewer options? Many have disappeared from the street – but the report challenges assumptions that this means they’ve quit sex work:

Many have found other ways to get in touch with customers…Many have gained regular customers as they make agreements by mobile phone instead of meeting them in a prostitution district. (page 78)

Similarly, on page 88 it says that many sex workers are simply no longer operating

in the centre of town. Pro Centre are told that much of the drug trade and prostitution is happening in neighbourhoods, in people’s homes and close to the council flats

And on page 72 it says:

We have information that activity has continued to grow out in the more public spaces, such as in bars, clubs and other meeting points. There are fewer and fewer people working together in an apartment, to be less visible to neighbors and the outside world.

In other words, the market is reorganising to avoid detection. This makes it pretty much impossible to assume that a decline in detected cases actually means people have left the industry.

Some, however, are no longer earning enough through sex work – and it’s primarily the most vulnerable:

These are women with extensive and complex problems…When criminalisation was adopted in 2008, they became further marginalised…it was difficult for the most vulnerable drug users to obtain income by prostitution (page 33)

So what became of this group?

Some have found it necessary to finance their drug consumption in a criminal manner. (page 78)

That’s pretty much what I argued in this post would happen, isn’t it?

For non-Norwegians the report finds that the law has had some impact, but clearly not what was expected. On page 80, in relation to Nigerian street workers, it is acknowledged that:

the number of Nigerian prostitutes in Oslo has gone down considerably

However, also speaking of Nigerians it says on page 76:

We had an expectation that they would leave the country after criminalization, because they basically have few rights in Norway. This assumption is only partially suggested.

Since the law was brought in primarily as a xenophobic response to the appearance of Nigerian sex workers, Norwegians might see it as a success to the limited extent that it did persuade them to leave the country. But of course, “leaving the country” is not the same as leaving prostitution – so at best we can say that the law seems to have had some displacement effect on this group (and, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, at least some were merely displaced across the border to Sweden). In fact, the report acknowledges this on page 41 when it says:

We thought last year that may of the foreign women would disappear… for example, to travel for prostitution markets in other countries.


Far from most of them have gone

Going on to consider Thai sex workers, the report does say (page 77) that the law “probably” contributed to many of them seeking routes out of prostitution – but the way in which it did this is pretty rotten. I’ll discuss that further in the section on violence against sex workers.

On page 75 it notes more generally that

In recent years we have also had many foreign visitors who have few or no rights in Norwegian society. Alternatives to prostitution are therefore limited.

Again, this shows that laws that aim to eradicate prostitution by eliminating demand simply will not work for certain particularly vulnerable sectors of the population, because there is nothing else for them to do.

And apparently, even some of those who might be otherwise-employable are remaining in prostitution for lack of opportunities. Page 55 contains a letter written to the Department of Justice by a woman who decided to try to leave the industry after the law came in. She writes:

I got in touch with Pro, to take advantage of these “opportunities” to get another job. This was the promised support, and I was so stupid that I believed…Now it’s demanded that I should take a course in what I would say has no meaning to me in my situation. For a course of 18 months I will have nothing but to get a job in a supermarket. So I prefer to work as a prostitute…I had begun to believe in this and that it would give me the opening I need to change my lifestyle, but now I feel that this is in no way within reach.

This is just one person’s experience, of course, and it can’t be verified (then again, anti-prostitution material is full of such individual anecdotes). But it does point up another way in which abolitionist ideology often fails to recognise the reality of sex workers’ experience. If you assume that sex work is so awful that nobody would possibly do it if they had another option, it follows that any alternative would be preferable, and therefore it isn’t necessary to provide decent alternatives. But in fact, even a lot of sex workers who’d like to get out would rather stay in than take some of the crappy options available to them. Offering them useless courses that lead only to shit jobs is as insulting to them as it would be to anyone else.

So onto a related issue…

Has the law reduced the overall amount of prostitution?

As always, this is a question that really can’t be answered with certainty, because there never was a way to accurately measure the number of sex workers and there certainly won’t be now that the industry has been driven underground. The best that the Centre can do is estimate, based on the numbers it encounters.

On page 76 it says:

The foreign contingent has not declined to the extent that we had expected, and we observe that there are constantly new people….This group [Eastern Europeans] has had a rise since 2009 and is up on the same level as 2008 [before the law was introduced].

In relation to the indoor market, page 15 states:

we saw a drastic decline in the number of ads in 2009, while the figure rose again in 2010 and is now at the same level as in 2008…

On the same page, speaking of the foreign workers who “tour” the country for a short period of time and then leave, it says that this sector:

increased sharply in 2010.

In terms of the street sector, the findings vary by city. Page 14 states:

In Oslo, we estimate that street prostitution is made up of 670 different people (an increase of 34% from 2009, but 46% fewer than in the peak year of 2008). In Bergen, [an outreach agency] mentions that they have had contact with 101 different people in 2010 (a 15% decrease from 2009)…In Stavanger, [another outreach agency] reports that they have been in contact with 36 different women in 2010 (an increase of 16% from 2009).

So of Norway’s three largest cities, one noted a large drop in street prostitution immediately after the law was enacted but the numbers have since begun to increase significantly; one is seeing a decrease since last year, and the other seeing an increase. With no real pattern, these figures must cast doubt on claims that the law is “working” to reduce prostitution.

And speaking of the sex workers who come to use the Pro Centre’s services, on page 79 the report says:

We observe that despite the statutory prohibition there are more and more new users here, especially foreign women.

On page 56 it says:

A total of 632 people used the Pro Centre’s health services in 2010. This is an increase of 13% from 2009…We have seen the largest increase in Romanian women.

Again, this doesn’t prove that the number of sex workers in Oslo, or even the number of Romanian sex workers, is actually increasing. But it certainly doesn’t support claims that the numbers are decreasing because of the law. Those tempted to make such claims need to explain exactly how they arrive at them.

Has the law led to a decrease in trafficking to Norway?

Again, it’s impossible to accurately measure this, but the report suggests the law might have had some effect. On page 80 it says:

In 2010, we worked with fewer people vulnerable to trafficking than in 2009.

This is partially attributed to the decline in Nigerian sex workers in Oslo (noted above), about whom it says

Nigerian women are the vast majority of people trafficked at the Pro Centre.

But of course, we don’t know if they were simply trafficked to a different country, in which case it couldn’t be said that the law had any beneficial impact from their perspective. Furthermore, the report goes on to suggest that trafficked persons may now be declining to come forward, because of the consequences they face for doing so:

…it is known in the community that the help you get will pretty much be temporary. Some are actually more afraid of their situation after having taken the temporary help than they were before. They experience an even more unsafe situation when the aid ceases. They get a reputation in the community as being informants. In addition, there is a perception that the police use them, and [Immigration] then throws them out of the country…Several feel that they gave up all control over their own lives from the moment they began to receive assistance as victims of trafficking and were granted reflection. Some have said that they regret the choice they did, and that they never would have done the same again. More tell us that they felt they had more opportunities for the future and more control over their own lives when they were still under the control of traffickers, than they have as identified victims of trafficking.

You have to admit, that’s a pretty horrific situation for trafficked persons to be in. It’s not the fault of the sex purchase ban, of course. However, as I’ve said before, it can be easy to lose sight of all the other aspects of trafficking that need to be dealt with when outlawing prostitution is treated as the solution to the problem.

And Nigerians aren’t the only people who the Pro Centre thinks are being trafficked into Norway. Back on page 15, where the report (as already noted) refers to a sharp increase in “touring” sex workers, it says:

We are in no doubt that some of the traffic on the market, particularly from Eastern Europe, is well organised.

So, as all of the above shows, there’s not a lot of evidence in this report to justify claims that the law has had the positive effects it was intended to have. But what about the negative, unintended effects?

Violence against sex workers

As with everything else, getting precise statistics is impossible. But the Pro Centre certainly seems to feel the law has made things more dangerous. On page 72 it says:

With the changes and restructuring that have continued to develop on the market, women and men in prostitution have also been considerably more vulnerable and exposed in multiple contexts. We know that they now to a much smaller extent have the opportunity to work jointly with others. Many also go alone to unfamiliar places to meet the customer, unless the conditions can be checked out in advance, which means greater risk for such exposure to violence…We still hear that more customers are increasingly requiring more specific services performed, lower payment and the aggression level has increased.

During the last months of 2010, there were several robberies…They used the same procedure every time, and threatened with both crowbar and knives…This led naturally to life becoming even more uncomfortable and difficult for many.

As for those Thai workers I mentioned before, who have been motivated by the law to leave the industry? The reason why is given on page 77:

Statutory prohibition has affected this group particularly hard both in terms of police actions and the people/groups that have exercised violence and robbery against them.

So the law’s consequences have actually terrorised them out of prostitution. Is that really the approach that feminist abolitionists think we should take?

And what about those who can’t be terrorised out, because they’ve nowhere to go?

Unsafe sex

The report is unequivocal about this: it has increased. This is attributed mainly to having too few customers for too many sex workers:

We get a lot of feedback from prostitutes that condom use is declining. The high number of pregnancies and the increase in sexually transmitted infections also point in that direction. Many people tell us that using condoms when they perform oral sex has become almost impossible. There are many women who perform oral sex on men without a condom, making it difficult for those who want to use condoms to negotiate this with the customer. There is also a known fact that one gets more money to have sex without a condom, so that in a market that has a greater supply than demand, an increasing number of our patients reported that they take “trips” [not sure exactly how to translate that] without a condom. (page 57)

It’s pretty basic economic stuff: reduce demand below supply and you create a buyer’s market, where the seller is the one who has to make the concessions. The consequences?

We have unfortunately seen a rise in sexually transmitted infections. In 2010 there were 24 positive for chlamydia, compared with 8 last year. (page 59)

And it’s not only STIs that they’re seeing more of:

We have seen a continued increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies…This may be a consequence of the new sex purchase law which came into force in 2009, because we found that women were more hesitant to accept condoms. (page 61)

Of course, a dangerous consequence of unwanted pregnancies is:

Some women tell us that they provoke an abortion themselves using drugs or other methods. Such drugs are unfortunately easily accessible and can cause major health problems for women. (page 62)

And a further possible reason is suggested for the apparent increase in unsafe sex:

Several [sex workers] no longer wished to accept condoms when we arrived at visits. Condoms were the evidence police needed to prove prostitution. (page 11)

As “bad sex work policy” goes, does it get much worse than using condoms as evidence? Could they disincentivise condoms any more?

Worsened relations with police

The Nordic model was supposed to ensure that sex workers could still report crimes against them to police, since they wouldn’t run the risk of being arrested. What this assumption fails to take into account is that if your industry is criminalised, the police are not your ally. Their job is to stop you from doing your job. So why on earth would you want to alert them to the fact that you’re doing that job? This is a prime example of why policy-makers need to actually listen to sex workers, and not simply make laws on the basis of what seems intuitive to them.

In fact, the report confirms that the police are still targeting the most vulnerable. On page 78, describing drug-using Norwegian sex workers:

We still get feedback from the Norwegian users that the police chase them away from the prostitution district and threaten to punish them for invitation to criminal acts.

On page 89:

There have been a lot of police in the district in 2010, and some of [the sex workers] we have talked to have felt harassed by some officers. The women say they feel it is they who have been criminalised and not the customers. Several reported that they were expelled from the district for a day because they “encouraged criminal activity”.

And it appears to be sex workers in general (not just street workers) who the report describes on page 72:

There are sellers of sexual services, mainly women, who have been focused on by both the police and the community at large. We have received many inquiries from women who are both frustrated and angry over this. Many have expressed that they feel constantly monitored and pursued, which leads to a constant sense of anxiety and turbulence…They believe they are unlawfully criminalized and chased and find that the actions and attitudes they are faced with, is very offensive.

Which brings us to a related issue…

Has the law increased the stigma against sex workers?

I think that most people outside the sex industry have really no idea exactly how big an issue stigma is. I’ve seen a number of research pieces in which it is identified by sex workers as the single biggest problem they face – bigger than violent customers, bigger than pimps, bigger than STDs and all the other things that non-sex workers think of.

Stigma is a problem for sex workers on a number of levels. It’s a mental health issue in and of itself. And it also contributes to all the other “negative effects” I’ve outlined above. It puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, by suggesting they are appropriate targets for abuse. It puts their health at risk by discouraging them from seeking needed health services, or from disclosing their occupation to their health service provider. It makes it harder for them to negotiate safer sex, or for better working conditions with their brothel or agency, by portraying them as the weaker negotiating party. And it damages their relationships with police by making police think they don’t merit protection from harm, because after all, they should be used to it. (I could write a whole blog post about how the radical feminist view of sex work contributes to this stigma and therefore to the harms that sex workers face. And maybe someday I will.)

While the Nordic model is ostensibly supposed to stigmatise the buyer and not the seller, Swedish sex workers have long claimed that they feel targeted under the law. It is quite clear from reading the Pro Centre report that the same has occurred in Norway. On page 11 it describes how immediately after the law came into force:

…the evening news showed a female hotel owner in Halden with a big grin, saying she and her male employees who pretended to be whore customers now managed to get all the women they thought were prostitutes thrown out of the hotel…it was like a kind of invitation to the common man, the police and the media, actually all of us, a joint volunteer effort to combat prostitution. You can guess how this went over. Women in prostitution were scared.

On page 73, it says:

Stigmatisation of people with experience of prostitution has, if possible, become even stronger in the past year. Many feel, as mentioned, that they have become a sort of fair game

Page 64 also mentions increased stigma as a consequence of the law, in the context of explaining why many sex workers are alienated from the public health system. Alienating people from the public health system is bad. Seriously, folks, it’s not rocket science.

Nationality discrimination and loss of home

Page 11 notes that

Many women had their tenancy terminated because the police threatened the landlords with pimping charges if they let to prostitutes.

This seems to be hitting foreign sex workers (and perhaps not only sex workers) particularly hard:

On suspicion of prostitution activity, the potential landlord is contacted and warned of the danger of pimp charges if the lease does not immediately cease. It has thus been difficult for women of foreign origin to hire a private residence when Landlords have been skeptical. The fear is that there will be prostitution there, and that the landlord is thereby risking pimp charges against him. (page 71)

It seems that women travelling alone are also stigmatised in this manner:

Women’s identity documents have been checked against police records when they are booked into a hotel. (page 72)

The report concludes with a review of other recent literature from Sweden and Norway, including what looks like a very interesting report titled Local Consequences of the Sex Purchase Law in Bergen. Here’s a bit from its summary (page 104):

The report’s finding is that the sex purchase law has had serious consequences for women who sell sex in Bergen…The market to make money by organising others’ prostitution has increased. The report also reveals that women feel more unsafe than earlier, and that drug use on the market has increased. In relation to the number selling sex both on the street and indoors, there was a sharp decline in the number of women who offered their services immediately after the Act’s implementation. A short time later, an increase in the number of women could again be registered.

I’ll close this with a quote from the report (page 33) that sums up exactly what is wrong with the sex purchase ban. We can’t really say that it has had the effect of reducing the overall amount of prostitution or trafficking; it may have resulted in some women leaving the sex industry (although not necessarily for better alternatives, or in a very nice way) – but it will always leave some of the most vulnerable behind, and

it is they who do not leave prostitution that are left holding the bag.

When will the Nordic model be seen for the health and human rights debacle it evidently is?

What is a “representative” sex worker?

This is a cliché that anyone who advocates for sex workers’ rights will be familiar with. Faced with a sex worker who defies the abolitionist stereotype of a person physically or economically coerced into prostitution, who thinks their job is ok and isn’t desperate to leave it (but could if s/he wanted to), and who argues that the solution to the negative aspects of sex work is decriminalisation and enforceable rights, the inevitable response is:

You’re not representative. Why should the law be made for you?

This argument is problematic on a number of levels, and deserves a fuller response than I’ve been able to give it when it’s appeared in my comments. So here are my thoughts about it.

First of all, we need to question the basis of the assumption of non-representativeness. Abolitionists making this argument frequently cite this Melissa Farley study which interviewed sex workers in nine countries, and found an overall rate of 89% who answered the question “What do you need?” with (among other responses) “leave prostitution”. This statistic is often cited to make the claim that almost nine out of ten sex workers want out, and the ones who don’t are, you guessed it, not representative.

So what’s wrong with this claim? Well, the first thing you have to do with any survey is look at who the subjects are and how they were chosen. According to the study itself, the respondents were:

Canada: street workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, “one of the most economically destitute regions in North America”.
Mexico: Street, brothel, stripclub and massage workers in Mexico City and Puebla. No breakdown is given as to how many were chosen from each sector.
Germany: Subjects selected “from a drop-in shelter for drug addicted women”, from a “rehabilitation” programme, by reference from “peers” (presumably those found at the shelter and rehab programme) and through a newspaper advertisement, the text of which is not reported. Again, there is no breakdown of how many were found by which method.
San Francisco: Street workers from “four different areas”, not identified.
Thailand: A minority were interviewed “at a beauty parlor that provided a supportive atmosphere”, most at an agency providing job training.
South Africa: Subjects interviewed “in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center for prostitutes”. No breakdown, again.
Zambia: Current and former sex workers were interviewed at an NGO offering sex workers “food, vocational training and community”.
Turkey: The subjects were women brought by police to hospital for STI “control”.
Colombia: Subjects were interviewed at “agencies that offered services to them”.

What is clear from this detail is that there is a heavy selection bias in the sample. It is not clear that any of the sex workers interviewed came from the less vulnerable sectors (ie independent indoor workers, or brothel workers in countries where they have labour, health and safety rights). The large majority clearly did not. Some of them were selected from agencies that cater to people wishing to leave prostitution, which is a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work. Moreover, some of them were children, although the study only reports that this was the case in six of the nine countries and does not break down the adult/child division any further.

In short, this study does not tell us how sex workers feel about their work. At most, it may tell us how sex workers in particularly vulnerable sectors feel about their work. That 89% figure simply cannot be generalised to sex workers as a whole.

So here comes the next argument:

But the ones you call “particularly vulnerable” are the majority. The “less vulnerable ones” are (drum roll) not representative.

My answer: How do you know?

This is one of those assumptions that many people seem to consider self-evident. Not even worth questioning. Well, I’m going to question it. Where is the evidence? Where is the comprehensive research that has actually looked across all sectors of the industry – outdoor and indoor prostitution in all its myriad forms – and has actually come up with a reasonably credible estimate of what percentage of sex workers fall into this category or that one?

It simply doesn’t exist – and we’re certainly not going to get one as long as sex work remains criminalised in some parts of the world, stigmatised in nearly all. There isn’t even a universally-agreed definition; many of those who trade sex for some sort of cash-or-kind benefit don’t consider what they do to be prostitution or sex work. So even if you tried to reach all “eligible” populations for research, you probably wouldn’t be able to.

The most we can say without veering off into pure guesstimation is that street prostitution is a minority of all prostitution. How small a minority, nobody knows. In Ireland I’ve heard estimates from people on both sides of the issue that range from 3% to 20%; I’ve never seen an estimate from any other country that placed street prostitution in the majority. This isn’t proof, of course, but it means it’s not really a matter for debate – so we can work from the position that most sex workers are indoor workers. This right away means that the “unrepresentative” studies are those that focus solely or mainly on street workers. Unfortunately, that accounts for a significant amount of sex work research, for the simple reason that street workers are often the easiest population to get to. The far more hidden nature of indoor prostitution makes it unsafe to draw conclusions about the people involved in it. Most of those who work independently, in particular, will never come to researchers’ attention (an aside to certain Irish NGOs and Swedish government officials: they don’t all advertise on the internet) and we will never know how many of them there are.

Note that I am not asserting that a majority of sex workers fall into what I call the less vulnerable categories. It is quite possible that they don’t. But it cannot be proven that they don’t – and to cite Melissa Farley’s 89% statistic as evidence of anything other than the sample interviewed for Farley’s study, is junk science.

But even if we assume the accuracy of the 89% claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything that abolitionists think it means. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same thing in mind when they answer the question “do you want to leave prostitution”. First, we don’t know how the question was translated into all the different languages of the respondents, so we don’t know if there was any ambiguity in the question they were asked. Second, there is some ambiguity in English too, because it could be taken to mean “right now”, “at some point in the next __ period of time” or “ever”. (Irish readers who think I’m splitting hairs with this should consider the polls that show a large majority who “want” a united Ireland.)

A fascinating insight into this question can be found in Nick Mai’s hugely important recent study on migrant sex workers in Britain (that link is to an abbreviated version of the report; I have the full document but can’t find a link to it). Dr Mai’s team spoke to 100 migrant sex workers, many of them undocumented (and hence really really really vulnerable), some of them having suffered exploitation. He asked them if they wanted to leave the sex industry, and sure enough, around 75% said yes. But what were the reasons they gave? It’s boring. It’s repetitive. It isn’t a viable long-term career option. These are not exactly factors unique to sex work. Furthermore, the research makes clear that “wanting to leave the sex industry” does not necessarily translate to being unhappy with one’s experiences in the sex industry.

Nor does it inevitably lead to the conclusion that abolitionists think it does, namely:

Those who want prostitution to be legal are only speaking for the elite minority (sic).

The assumption here is that those sex workers who would rather be doing something else, but don’t have those options, don’t think that what they are doing should be legal. Again, there’s a Farley statistic which seems to back this up: only 34% in her nine-country study gave “legalize prostitution” as a response to “What do you need?”.

But this statistic seems to be an outlier, because other research on vulnerable populations finds the exact opposite:

  • the Nick Mai study referred to above, in which all participants said that decriminalisation would improve conditions for sex workers
  • this study of San Francisco sex workers, in which street-based and drug-addicted sex workers clearly overwhelmingly supported removal of criminal laws and the introduction of laws protecting sex workers’ rights
  • The Christchurch School of Medicine study of the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand, in which upwards of 90% of street workers felt they had rights under the law, and 61.9% said the law made it easier for them to refuse clients

And here comes the next objection, that

Those studies aren’t (sigh) representative of all prostitution, only First World prostitution.

The claim that the sex workers’ rights movement is a purely white, western phenomenon is one of abolitionism’s biggest falsehoods. In fact, Global South sex workers could teach their Northern counterparts a thing or two when it comes to organising for sex workers’ rights. Here is a videoclip of sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta, marching against criminalisation of their industry. Here is a photo of members of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers holding a banner with their slogan, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights” (a reference to their annoyance at “rescuers” whose only interest in them is trying to take them out of the sex trade). Here is a link to Empower, the Thai sex workers’ rights organisation, and here is the African Sex Worker Alliance. You still want to argue that only privileged white westerners think sex work is work? Take it up with them, not me.

None of this should be really surprising, because as I’ve pointed out before, it is precisely the most vulnerable workers who are most adversely affected by criminalisation. For every Heidi Fleiss who goes to prison, how many “Tabithas” do you think there are? The same is true in Sweden, where native, non-drug using indoor sex workers like Pye Jakobsson are relatively shielded from the negative consequences of the law, while those who don’t have the luxury of working indoors have to fend with the clients that don’t care about being arrested, and those who are migrants are simply deported.

I hesitate to draw conclusions about it since it’s such a small sample, but on the rare occasions that I’ve heard a (current) sex worker speak in favour of criminalisation, it’s been because they like the idea that they’re doing something illegal. To prefer working in a criminalised environment because it’s “edgy”, and to be able to afford being so blasé about the risks you’re taking? Now that is fucking privilege speaking.

I’ll wind this up now because it’s already gone on long enough, but there’s one final point I want to make. This entire argument about “representativeness” rests on an odious position – that the (assumed) majority view is the only one worth listening to. That people who don’t fall into that (assumed) majority don’t deserve to have their needs taken into account. This is a position that feminists in particular should be wary about taking: feminism has already alienated so many “minority” women precisely because of its focus on the needs of dominant categories, its failure to understand that it doesn’t always get it when it comes to what women in more marginalised categories need. I would like to think that nowadays, most half-clued-in hetero white able-bodied feminists at least realise that it is not our place to decide who is The Authentic VoiceTM of Black women, or of LBTQ women, or of women with disabilities, so why would we outside the industry assume the right to decide who can speak for other sex workers?

If the aim is actually to improve the lives of people in the sex trade, that has to start with giving them the space to put forward their own views on how it can be achieved. And it means listening to them all. We don’t have to, and indeed logically couldn’t, agree with them all but we need to listen. After all, even the most privileged white western indoor high-class Happy Hooker type knows more about what sex workers need than non-sex workers do.

More on the short-term thinking behind sex work abolitionism

In this post last week I questioned the assumption of anti-prostitution laws as a solution to the trafficking problem. The failure to consider the consequences of these laws for trafficked persons – even if it could be shown (which it hasn’t been) that they have their desired effect – is a really good example of the logical gaps and short-term thinking employed by sex work abolitionists.

But that short-term thinking is evident even without bringing trafficking into the equation. The very notion of ending sex work through anti-prostitution laws is inherently flawed, and I don’t even need to point to statistics to make this argument (but what the hell, I will anyway).

The flawed reasoning goes like this (apologies for the gendered language here but I’m talking like an abolitionist and let’s face it, men who sell sex and women who buy it simply aren’t on their radar): criminalise the purchase of sex, and men will stop buying it. With no more market for paid sex, women will stop selling it.

Yeah, ok and… then what?

Before I continue, there are a couple things I should mention in passing. First, there is absolutely no evidence that criminal laws make men stop buying sex (as opposed to telling pollsters that they’ve stopped buying it, while really just buying more discreetly). Secondly, even the “buying more discreetly” effect can have really negative consequences for the sex workers deemed by those clients to pose too big an arrest risk. Emi Koyama has a good concise summary of the reasons for this here and I’ll just point out that the Swedish and Norwegian experiences corroborate her arguments, and leave it at that.

Because what I really want to focus on is not whether criminalisation makes a change in buyers’ behaviour, but rather in sellers’. So let’s assume that these laws actually did dry up the market and force sex workers to find another source of income. Well, here we see a big ol’ gaping hole in abolitionist logic, because their entire notion of sex workers-as-victims (I’m sorry, “prostituted women”) is premised on the assumption that they are in the industry because they don’t have any alternate source of income. To imagine that you could take away their customers and they would then just leave the sex trade is to admit that they could have left the sex trade all along, if they had wanted to.

In saying this, I’m not denying that there are some sex workers who really don’t have any alternatives, such as those who are literally held in the industry, by another person(s), against their will. But I don’t think even the staunchest abolitionist believes that’s the case for most adult sex workers (with the possible exception of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, whose speech during the recent Seanad debate on the Swedish model was a genuine masterpiece of half-baked mythology and propaganda). I also wouldn’t count shoplifting and drug dealing as “alternatives”, which some drug-using sex workers said in this study was what they were doing before settling on sex work as the preferable option. Take away that option, and what happens to these sex workers? Watch your purse, Rescue Lady.

To be fair, organisations like Ruhama do provide assistance to those who (want and) need it to find mainstream work, and the Swedish government has provided funding toward this end. But all this assistance isn’t going to help people find jobs that don’t exist in the first place. As I write this, the Irish unemployment rate is 14.4% – which means that sex workers who want to leave the industry will face a hell of a lot of competition for what jobs are still out there. If they have a criminal record (as many in this sector of the industry do), beating the competition will be that much harder. For ethnic minority and trans women, harder still. And if they have an immigration status that doesn’t allow them to work in the first place, well, “skills training” is about as useful as an elephant with a skip-rope. Sweden’s unemployment rate is lower but it isn’t immune to these problems either. And that’s not even getting into the Global South, where the phrase “survival sex” can take on meanings unimaginable here. To take away these sex workers’ livelihoods before you’ve made absolutely certain they have something to replace it with not only does them no favours, it is cruel, unethical and evinces a lack of perspective that can only come from people who either don’t care about sex workers’ lives or are too cocooned in their own privilege to recognise the harm their “good intentions” cause.

There’s a deep irony here, in that abolitionists claim that it’s precisely this category of sex worker that their campaign seeks to protect. Decriminalisation, they argue, is for the “elite” prostitutes, the ones who are lucky enough to really have a choice. This of course ignores that all the evidence shows it is the “elites” who suffer least from the harmful effects of criminalisation – which nearly always targets the more visible and vulnerable sectors. Indeed, the very way that we conceptualise “prostitution” has a distinct class bias: it covers only the types of immediate, short-term gains that are easily associated with low-income people – things like cash, drugs and alcohol – while excluding those transfers more likely to be made amongst the upper strata, such as real estate, diamond rings and credit card accounts at Dolce & Gabbana. Sweden’s WAGs can rest easy knowing that only “casual” sexual relations, at least according the official translation of the penal code, will trigger the law.

Even college fees, it seems, might be too high-class to matter. This recent Examiner article, about Irish students seeking “sugar daddies”, does not even contemplate the possible illegality of such arrangements under the prostitution laws that the Examiner has been the Irish media’s biggest cheerleader for. That piece appeared only a week after the Seanad debate linked above, so the possibility really should have been fresh in the editors’ minds.

I’ve digressed a bit but the point is this: the category of sex worker who would be able to just walk off and start a new life if criminalisation really did eradicate their client base is not the category of sex worker that abolitionists are concerned with. The centrepiece of their “solution” to survival sex work is a policy that would only drive their “prostituted women” even further into destitution and perhaps homelessness, crime and substance abuse.

I am all for “exit strategies” for those sex workers who wish to leave the industry (although I agree with Thierry Schaffauser about the problematic nature of the “exiting” concept and the desirability of a less stigmatising term). But a strategy is only that. It is a roadmap out, but without guaranteed jobs, work permits and the ability to overcome discrimination and stigma, for many of these sex workers it is likely to be a road to nowhere. Like criminalising abortion without making adequate provision for births, criminalising sex buyers without real, concrete, guaranteed alternative incomes for sex sellers is a myopic policy rooted in ideology rather than reason. And if it is not already having a devastating impact on the survival sex workers operating under it, that is only because “end demand” strategies don’t end as much as demand as abolitionists think they do.

Why I will not be standing in “solidarity” with Julian Assange

This morning, an email arrived in my inbox concerning a demonstration of “solidarity” with Julian Assange. The email indicated support for Assange’s cause of a number of left-wing and anti-war organisations.

Let me start this by saying that I have serious issues with the European Arrest Warrant. When it was transposed into Irish law the Human Rights Commission warned of the dangers of imposing by fiat mutual recognition of EU member states’ legal systems, when not all member states have equivalent human rights protections. This remains a legitimate concern and an argument against Assange’s extradition under that procedure, although it was also an argument against the extradition of a Holocaust denier a few years ago and I don’t remember the anti-war left lining up to stand in solidarity with him.

Assange’s defenders have presented the case against him as if the allegations were either completely concocted or an example of “political correctness gone mad” (christ, I hate that phrase). So let’s look at what his own lawyer has conceded [ETA – see comments]:

He described Assange as penetrating one woman while she slept without a condom, in defiance of her previously expressed wishes…

In the other incident, in which Assange is alleged to have held a woman down against her will during a sexual encounter, Emmerson offered this summary: “[The complainant] was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her … [she] felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … [she] tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom…”

What Assange’s defenders argue makes these clear (if accurate) cases of rape and attempted rape into not-rape is that the women subsequently decided they were ok with his actions. That this sort of retrospective consent does not exonerate him from the charges is presented as an example of Swedish law being bonkers.

Now I’m the first to acknowledge that Swedish law is bonkers in a lot of respects. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, it is quite possible that a charge of rape for what Assange allegedly did – at least in the first case – could be sustained under the common law, the basis of the legal systems in England and most of its former colonies, including Ireland.

Legally there are two elements required for an offence to be committed – the actus reus (physical manifestation of an act) and mens rea (the mental element). The mens rea for rape is either knowledge that the person was not consenting, or recklessness as to whether they were consenting. Rape is considered a “continuing act”, so the actus reus begins with penetration and ends with withdrawal.

As a general rule, there is a requirement that the actus reus and mens rea coincide in order for the offence to be committed. Crucially, it was held by the Privy Council in Kaitamaki v R that in a continuing act such as rape, the two only need to coincide for part of the act – it is not necessary that the mens rea be present the entire time that the act is being committed. So what Assange allegedly did to this woman was rape right up until the moment she decided to give consent. There is no retrospectivity in the law. (The facts of Kaitamaki are different, in that there the accused initially believed the woman was consenting but refused to withdraw after realising she was not, but the principle is the same – if at any time while having sex with her he realised she was not consenting, the offence is committed.)

Of course, people are free to believe that this is a bonkers law too if they wish. But even if the law was overturned, it would not change this simple fact: if what his own lawyer says is the allegations are true, then Julian Assange is a man who considers it perfectly ok to have condomless sex with a sleeping woman who had already refused to agree to this while awake. Perfectly ok to hold a woman’s arms down and try to force his penis inside her while she is clearly trying to prevent this from happening. That makes him a violent, misogynist sexual predator, irrespective of how these women later responded to him. It can reasonably be considered likely that he has done the same to other women. Who may not have later responded as these two did.

I don’t accept the argument that we should nonetheless defend Assange because of the alleged political undertones of this prosecution. That would be giving leftists, anarchists and other radicals a licence to rape. It may well be that if he was Joe Schmoe instead of Julian Assange these charges would not be pursued – but to even make that argument is to acknowledge the horrendous degree of underprosecution of sexual crimes. It is an argument for going after more sexual predators, not for excusing some of them because of another status they may have. I have seen it argued that if Assange is convicted it will serve as a precedent for targeting other enemies of the establishment. To this, I reply: if they are committing violent crimes against people more vulnerable than they are, they should be fucking targeted for those crimes. Why should they get a pass?

My concerns about the EAW notwithstanding, the bottom line here is that the police and the judicial system are doing exactly what they are supposed to do: prosecute a man who his own lawyer concedes is alleged to have committed violent acts against two women, attacks that can reasonably be suspected of meeting the legal definition of rape and/or attempted rape (of course this will ultimately have to be proven in a court of law). The left need not show solidarity with these particular women if they genuinely believe their decision to press charges was malicious, but that does not excuse them for failing to show solidarity with all the other women who have been victimised by men who believe themselves entitled to do the things that Assange allegedly did. And all the other women who potentially could be. Which is all of us.

Women are 50% of the 99%. It’s time for the left to remember this.