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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Radio-debating the Swedish sex purchase ban

Yesterday I took part in a radio discussion with a representative of the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish sex trade law in Ireland. We only had seven minutes between us, and unfortunately the time did not end up being divided evenly: we each got to make a brief introductory statement, but in the second round, I was left with only a very short time to respond to quite a lengthy (and obviously well-rehearsed) defence of the Swedish law. And I was asked by the hosts to spend that short time answering a different question entirely, so I didn’t get a chance to respond at all to the points raised in that defence.

On the chance that anyone who listened to the “debate” is reading this blog wondering how I would have responded, I will briefly summarise the points that were made and what I would have said to them if I had had the opportunity. I’m keeping my answers short as if I was actually saying them on the air, but I’m happy to expand on the points if anyone wants me to (though I won’t have the opportunity until after Christmas).

I know the Swedish law is working because I travelled to Sweden last year and saw it for myself.

The speaker is referring to a trip in which anti-sex work advocates were accompanied by Department of Justice officials. I did a Freedom of Information request on that trip and learned that they did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation, and only met with supporters of the law. How can you measure whether a law is working if you don’t talk to anyone affected by it?

The law has been very successful at reducing prostitution and trafficking…

Great claims have been made about the Swedish law but there is little evidence to back them up. The Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they have no idea how much prostitution there is in the country because it is such a hidden phenomenon. Swedish police reports indicate that the trafficking problem has grown significantly over the period since the law was brought in.

… compared to neighbouring countries where the amount is exploding.

Sweden was estimated to have less prostitution than neighbouring countries before the law was ever introduced. It is not surprising that commercial sex would be more visible now in those countries, where it has not been criminalised, than in Sweden where it has. However, the statistics that are being used for those countries are unreliable. In Denmark they derive from a figure that actually represents an estimate of female tourists. In Finland a figure that was specifically stated to be voluntary migrant sex workers has been misreported as “trafficking victims”.

The Swedish people support the law.

The same poll that showed Swedish people are largely in favour of the law also showed that only around 20% think it is actually working. Furthermore, about half of them think that sex workers should also be criminalised under the law.

Young people’s attitudes are changing.

A study carried out by the Swedish youth board only a couple years ago showed that young people have become more, not less, accepting of commercial sex.

We need this law in Ireland where migrants make up more than 90% of the sex industry.

That figure is derived from an audit of the women posting on one particular day on an escort ads website. It doesn’t take into account other sectors of the sex industry, sex workers not advertising on that day or on that site, the possibility of duplicate ads or the possibility of faked “foreign” nationalities. Many of those “migrants” are from Britain or other Global North countries where their nationality does not carry any implication of trafficking – and even those from less well-off countries cannot be assumed to have been trafficked.

[The final point was stated to be in response to my opening comment that there had been no consultation with the people who earn their living by selling sex:]

We have a coalition of one million people.

That is an extraordinary number for an island of only six million; I would be interested to see the evidence for it. But getting other people to support your cause is no substitute for consulting with those whose lives will be affected by the policies you advocate.


It’s fair to say that even if our time had actually been split evenly, I would have needed more time to respond to her points than she needed to make them. But that’s because the issue is more complicated than the simple soundbites that anti-sex work advocates put forward. The fact that they can boil things down to unsupportable claims and dodgy statistics probably goes some way toward explaining why their position is more widely reflected than mine, so in that respect it’s certainly an effective media strategy. It isn’t one I’d be proud of, though, as someone who prefers to deal in facts.

My thanks to DIT Radio for having me on, anyway.

The intersectionality of irregular migration and violence against sex workers

Note: I’m very pressed for time so I won’t be able to include a lot of links in this post. If there’s anything you’d like me to back up, leave a comment and I will do so when I get back to the blog after Christmas.

Tomorrow afternoon, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is holding a march in Dublin, in solidarity with the undocumented.

This is a march that I heartily endorse. Irish immigration policy promotes irregular migration/residency in a lot of ways: we have the lowest refugee recognition rate in the EU; we don’t grant a statutory right to family reunification to anyone except refugees and EU citizens; we have work permit rules that make it easy for people to become undocumented without even knowing it, or that can force them to remain in an unbearable situation (such as with an abusive spouse or employer) if they want to retain their status. It is, quite frankly, a shocking way for a country that has exported so many of its own people to treat those who come here.

It is also ironic that successive governments have refused to consider a regularisation scheme, even after they’ve made pests of themselves to the US authorities demanding the same for the thousands of undocumented Irish. Although I support that too, as a matter of kneejerk anti-border principle, I have to say I find it difficult to get more worked up about the people at risk of being deported back to Ireland than about the people in Ireland at risk of being deported to, say, the DRC. (It’s called “perspective”.) As a practical matter, too, I think it must be pretty hard for American politicians to take these demands seriously, knowing that the Irish government making them wouldn’t bring in the same laws itself.

So I hope a lot of people turn out for this march. And most of all, I hope it’s a step toward the adoption of a sensible and compassionate immigration policy (though in all honesty, I can’t say I’ll be holding my breath).

Tomorrow is also, of course, the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. Events will be held around the globe to commemorate this – but not, as far as I know, here in Ireland.

In the absence of such an event, the march in solidarity with the undocumented would be an ideal place to highlight the subject of violence against sex workers, because there is a clear intersection between the two issues. Undocumented migrants in the sex industry can be at particular risk of violence, for a number of reasons:

  • The inability to migrate legally leaves them reliant on smugglers and traffickers, who may carry out violent acts against them.
  • In addition to any ordinary criminal penalties around selling sex, they also face the threat of deportation. This may make them particularly likely to turn to pimps to hide them from police. While not all pimps are violent, it’s obviously a pretty big risk. The threat of deportation also means they may be less likely to report violent acts against them, whether at the hands of pimps, clients, people posing as clients, disgruntled neighbourhood residents or ordinary arseholes who feel entitled to abuse the sex workers unfortunate enough to encounter them.
  • Police officers may compel undocumented migrants to grant them sexual favours in exchange for not reporting their unlawful presence.
  • Undocumented migrants are generally prohibited from working in legal sex sectors; the health and safety protections that legal workers have in some countries generally do not apply to the undocumented.
  • Brothel raids tend to target those establishments where the presence of undocumented workers is suspected. These raids often result in physical and/or sexual abuse of the people “rescued”. Since the raids don’t address the reason for entry into sex work in the first place, often the “rescued” persons just return to the industry; if they are in debt bondage, they may sink further into debt as a result of the income lost from the raid, thereby heightening their vulnerability to whomever the debt is owed to. Retrafficking is also a risk in some of these cases.
  • Undocumented migrants do not have the option that many resident sex workers have to find another source of income if their income from sex work declines. This may make it more difficult for them to refuse clients who are known to be “bad dates”, or whom their instincts tell them they should avoid.
  • This is just a handful of examples. I could probably think of more if had more time, but hopefully the point has come across. It is worth highlighting again Nick Mai’s recent study of migrant sex workers in Britain, which found that overwhelmingly, they considered regularisation of their status to be the single thing they needed most to protect themselves from abuse and exploitation. In that, I’m sure they would find common ground with the non-sex-working migrants whom the organisers of tomorrow’s march probably had in mind.

    Regrettably, I won’t be at the march tomorrow. I’ll be taking a holiday from my own work, which is in an office where I’ve little risk of violence (barring a colleague going postal). I’ll be travelling between two different countries in which I have an absolute right to enter, remain and work. But my thoughts will be with those who aren’t so lucky – for either reason or, especially, for both.

Thoughts on “Muff March”

Hot on the heels of the Slutwalk phenomenon comes this really interesting protest yesterday by UK Feminista against the “designer vagina” trend. According to their press release, they were marching

against a ‘pornified’ culture driving increasing numbers of women to seek vaginal cosmetic surgery, and to protest against the cosmetic surgeons profiting from it.

UK Feminista were accompanied by feminist performance artists the Muffia, pictured below on a previous outing, and by the Solent Feminist Network who stated that they would be marching between cosmetic surgery clinics

wearing our ‘hairy muffs’ proudly and celebrating female genitalia with its natural variety

Now first of all, I have to say that I love the basic idea of this protest. It’s bold and clever and addresses a very real issue affecting women’s bodily image. While I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to do what she wants with every part of her body, I also think that those who don’t want to do anything to the appearance of their genitalia are being increasingly made to feel awkward or ashamed for that choice. I know that some women feel that removing all their pubic hair has benefits beyond the cosmetic, and that’s fine for them, but as a trend I think it has been mostly negative for women because it just gives us another part of our bodies to be insecure about. And we didn’t need that, thanks.

I think it would be great to get to the point where a decision on whether or not to remove your body hair (any of it) was no different from a decision on whether or not to get your ears pierced, which, in western culture anyway, truly is a simple matter of personal taste and not in any way something that women are pressured about. So I’m totally in favour, in principle, of anything that promotes the legitimacy of leaving your body hair intact. (The link to surgery, if it isn’t obvious, is that labiaplasty was nearly unheard of before the hair-removal craze. Nobody, well at least almost nobody, cared what their labia looked like back in the days when you couldn’t really see them anyway.)

But where UK Feminista lose me is where they turn this demonstration from what it should be, a celebration of women’s natural bodies, into a protest against porn. Porn is to blame for the rise in designer vaginas, they insist, stating that

Researchers at Kings College London carrying out a study into demand for labiaplasty have suggested this increase stems from the increasing ‘pornification’ of culture.

A citation is helpfully provided, and so I looked it up and while it is true that this is “suggested” by the Kings College researchers, what the researchers actually say is that

We haven’t completed the research, but there is suspicion that this is related to much greater access to porn, so it is easier for women to compare themselves to actresses who may have had it done.

Now that’s a pretty ambiguous statement, I think. Does “there is suspicion” mean “the evidence so far suggests”? Or does it mean “Our research hypothesis is”, and they haven’t actually yet found the evidence to prove it?

The “access to porn” part is problematic, too. Just because somebody has access to porn doesn’t mean they actually do access it. I’m sure UK Feminista would make the same point in regard to studies showing lower rape rates in places where there is more access to internet porn. And it might be “easier for women to compare themselves” to women in porn, but that doesn’t mean that they are comparing themselves to women in porn. Maybe they are, and this study actually is about finding a direct link between porn-watching, vagina-comparing and labiaplasty – but that’s not made clear in the article that UK Feminista cite as a source for their claims.

I have always felt that porn is too easy a target for a lot of the societal ills that it’s blamed for. And I’m particularly dubious about the idea that it can be blamed for women’s insecurity about our bodies. In part, this is based on my own experiences. I was a teenage girl and young woman in the pre-internet days and while it was possible to access porn if you went looking for it, most of us didn’t, plenty of us hardly if ever saw it, it was nowhere near as readily accessible as it is now and yet we were still beset by bodily insecurities. So clearly something else was at work there.

The “pornification of culture” idea is, I guess, based on the notion that porn infiltrates mainstream media, which then does the damage that porn itself couldn’t do directly. But even here I think this is far from clear, because the images projected in porn aren’t necessarily the ones promoted in the mainstream media. Look at the issue of super-skinny fashion models. This is totally a mainstream media (in particular, magazines aimed at women) thing – you almost never see stick-figured women in mainstream porn, because that’s not the body shape that is thought to appeal to the major consumers of porn, i.e., men. So why do so many women buy into the preference for a rail-thin body over curves? They’re not getting this from porn – not even indirectly. Why isn’t the fashion industry, which promotes this ideal (along with the beauty industry, which has a multitude of things to answer for) subject to the same feminist opprobrium as the porn industry? Is it because many feminists like fashion and beauty?

To be fair, I’m not claiming that those industries have escaped feminist criticism. But I have been at far too many feminist events where participants spent significant amount of time railing against the evils of porn while saying little or nothing about the evils of the fashion and beauty industries, which I am pretty sure you would find have a much greater impact on women’s self-image.

In a similar vein, I’m not convinced by the argument that porn itself is to blame for the trend toward female pubic hairlessness. Again, I return to the fact that the women in mainstream porn tend to look the way that the porn industry thinks will appeal to men. This is pretty logical; the main purpose of mainstream porn is to get men off, and it best achieves that purpose by featuring women that men are attracted to. But a lot of men old enough to remember when pubic hair was the norm say they were more freaked out than attracted the first time they encountered a woman without it. So it seems unlikely to me that this trend would have appeared in mainstream porn until there was already a market for it, and thus porn was probably reflecting rather than starting the trend. I’ve tried without success to find actual studies on this; if anyone knows of any, please let me know.

I do accept that porn could reinforce this trend, and that it may have shaped the expectations of a younger generation who had never encountered women’s natural bodies. But if boys are learning what they know about women’s bodies from porn, is that really the fault of the porn industry? Is it not the fault of a society that tries to hide even the most basic sexuality information from children for as long as possible, virtually ensuring that porn is the first place they do get it?

And finally, if porn really does have the influence that some feminists attribute to it, why not turn that to our advantage? Why not support those porn artists who do promote women’s bodies in their natural beauty? I’m thinking of people like Sasha Grey, who apparently confused the hell out of emotional 12-year-olds all over the internet when she appeared on HBO sporting a full bush, and Furry Girl who, for all her self-proclaimed anti-feminism (and occasionally dodgy politics) has done plenty to promote the idea that a sexually attractive woman doesn’t have to be a hairless one. There are also plenty of women out there making amateur porn who simply aren’t bothered to conform to current trends. Why not celebrate these efforts, instead of lumping them all into this great untouchable category of awfulness that is how many feminists indiscriminately see “porn”?

I know the answer to these questions already, of course. I’ve been involved in feminist activism for too long to think that my resolutely anti-porn comrades can be persuaded to drop that crusade and instead frame the battle as one for better, more inclusive porn. But as long as porn isn’t going away, and we all know it isn’t, I still think it’s an argument worth making.

In any case, to the extent that it did promote the idea that women shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to this trend, I hope the Muff March went well. Future marches might go even better if they drop the unnecessarily alienating anti-porn rhetoric and welcome all women who want to demonstrate in support of women’s natural bodies – including those who make a living by showing off theirs.

It’s different for girls?

Axiom 1 of sex work research: if it doesn’t fit into the male buyer/cisfemale seller paradigm, few people have studied it. There’s limited research into male and trans woman sex workers, but it amounts to only a small minority of overall sex work research. Anything else? Black hole.

Axiom 2: researchers are much more interested in the people who sell sex than the people who buy it.

Put these two together and one thing you get is we know fuck-all about women who buy sex.

There are women who buy sex, and I’m not talking just about sex tourists in the Caribbean or wherever. Women buy sex from men, as is shown by the existence of agencies like Escorts for Women in Sydney. They also buy sex from women, and the always-worth-reading Because I’m A Whore blog has an interesting piece about that (I’ve seen a few other female sex workers describe their experience of woman clients in similar terms). It can certainly be described as far less common than men buying sex from women or even men buying sex from men, but it’s not the non-existent event that the dearth of research might suggest.

And if this phenomenon rarely appears in empirical studies, it is even more notable by its absence from radical feminist theory. Anti-sex work feminists rarely mention it except when prompted to do so; when they must, they usually engage in all sorts of contortionism to show how this too, to the extent it is relevant at all, merely reinforces women’s victimisation. One of the few to give any amount of thought to the issue is Sheila Jeffreys, in her influential book The Idea of Prostitution:

The numbers of women using men in prostitution seem too tiny to be of note, and women using women are mostly doing so as part of a couple where the man wants a threesome, and is still serving his own sexual interests.

These assertions are uncited, and the latter runs contrary to what Jane of Because I’m A Whore has to say about it: that the female partner’s curiosity is the impetus for most of the “threesomes” she’s been professionally involved in (of course, Jeffreys would probably not believe that anyway). Jeffreys only reluctantly acknowledges the existence of lesbian sex-buyers, saying that

lesbians have not, historically, been johns

and explaining them away as either victims themselves who seek to “recycle” their abuse or, essentially, as gender traitors. These brief mentions aside, the bulk of the chapter focuses on male and trans woman sex workers, who are described as being very much like cis-female sex workers when they are coerced and abused in prostitution, and very much unlike cis-female sex workers when they are not.

This in itself is interesting, because in her analysis there is room for commercial sex to take place between two men on a non-exploitative basis. She cites studies to the effect that male (but not female) sex workers regularly experience orgasm, engage in sex work for the purpose of sexual pleasure, suffer little violence from their clients and see their activities as ego-boosting rather than stigmatising. Moreover, she asserts, in contrast to female sexual behaviour,

Male gay sexual practice, which values quick, impersonal contacts in public places, does not differ greatly in procedure from what will take place for money.

Jeffreys doesn’t deny that male sex workers can suffer abuse just like female sex workers, but what she appears to be saying is that abuse is not inherent in the male buyer/male seller relationship, the way it is when the seller is a woman (and irrespective of the gender of her client). In other words, women cannot sell sex without being exploited; men can and, often, do.

To my mind, this really calls into question the assertion by many radical feminists that the problem they have with sex work isn’t the sex, it’s the power imbalance. They often have to defend themselves against charges of prudishness and sexual morality, in part because of the fact that they’re lined up with religious conservatives on the issue (who really are mainly bothered about the sex). I have been generally willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this – but if Jeffreys’s views are typical, I have to wonder. I can see the power issue when it comes to paid sex between men and women, and between men and boys, men and very vulnerable men, men and trans women. What I cannot see is how it possible to decree that two men on the same “level” can have non-exploitative paid sex, while two women cannot. For Jeffreys, it really seems to come down to an assumption that women just don’t do that sort of thing in their natural womanly behaviour (as opposed to gay men, for whom such activity is perfectly normal, according to the quote above). And that really is about the sex.

Her position also contrasts sharply with the other issues on which feminists are often criticised for ignoring male “victims”. I’m thinking specifically of rape and domestic violence: although men can suffer from them too, few feminists – radical or otherwise – would deny their largely gendered nature. But I think it’s safe to assume that feminists (and pretty much everyone else with a conscience) would see rape and domestic violence as inherent wrongs; their gendered aspect explains both why they happen so frequently and why women are their usual victims, but does not make them “wrong” where they would otherwise be acceptable. No feminist would write a book called The Idea of Rape and include in it a chapter claiming that men can be raped non-abusively. There is no such thing as non-abusive rape or domestic violence; but implicitly Jeffreys accepts that there is such a thing as non-abusive prostitution – it just can’t involve any women (at least in the role of seller).

Why is this important? Because theories do not, as much as I would usually like them to do so, remain simply abstract expressions of some people’s opinions. Theories often become policies, and affect our laws. And while it’s all very well for theorists to ignore those examples that don’t support their conclusions, or to deem their numbers “too tiny to be of note”, those who make and interpret the law don’t have that luxury.

What this means is that we can have laws that prohibit commercial sex altogether, or that tolerate certain aspects of it – but we cannot make those laws depend on the gender of either party. It’s possible that gender-specific prostitution laws might be on the books in some countries, but it’s pretty hard to imagine them surviving constitutional challenge in a liberal democracy. In fact, I’m aware of a few cases where an equality-based challenge – i.e., an argument that the law breaches equality requirements because of its differential impact on men and women – has failed precisely because there is no discrimination in the law itself. An example is the South African case S v Jordan, where it was held that

a gender neutral provision…cannot be said to be discriminating on the basis of gender, simply because the majority of those who violate such a statute happen to be women.

So getting back to places like Escorts for Women: if the favoured model of anti-sex-work feminists was brought in, these places too would have to be outlawed – but it would be the woman buying sex, rather than the man selling it, who would face prison. The woman would be deemed the criminal, the predator, the sex offender; and the man who had sex with her and took her money would be the “victim”.

Would these feminists be terribly be bothered by this? Perhaps they would not. After all, they do not believe there are many women buying sex from men in the first place (although they cannot know this with absolute certainty, because there is so little research) – and since the whole notion is so foreign to them, perhaps they would find it impossible to sympathise with the woman in this position. Perhaps they would also argue that it is a reasonable price to pay for legislation to address the much larger phenomenon of men buying sex with women. It seems strange to me that any feminist would be content with a law which allowed police to raid a premises where a man was having consensual sex with a woman, remove the woman in handcuffs, and allow the man to lie back, smoke a cigarette and count the money he made from the encounter. But maybe it seems perfectly logical to them. It’s hard to know, since they simply never address the issue.

As for women who buy sex from women? When they do so alone, Jeffreys believes they are exploiting other women, so I guess that means she wouldn’t mind criminalising them. But I also presume that in a threesome situation she would want the female partner to be deemed a “victim” equally alongside the sex worker, since she believes it is inevitably the man who instigates such activities. Again, though, I doubt that this would wash from a legal perspective.

This may all seem very hypothetical, and probably it is. Few clients of sex workers are ever arrested, even in Sweden; women are only a very small proportion of clients, so the odds of them ever being arrested are probably infinitesimal. But it tends to be precisely these “hard” cases that test laws, so it’s wise to at least think about how we would deal with them.

And beyond that, women who buy sex really do challenge our thinking about commercial sex, its role in society and what (if anything) the law should do about it. Maybe that’s not true for radical feminists, but it is for the bulk of the rest of us who don’t have One Single Theory That Can Explain Everything. When Jeffreys only half-addresses the issue, and most other radfems ignore it completely, it just looks like they either don’t realise it exists, or they want to dodge it. And that undermines the credibility of their position on prostitution. If they want to convince people who don’t already share their certainty that it all goes back to the patriarchy, it’s in their own interest to develop their analysis on this. Perhaps they have and I just haven’t seen it yet, but if that’s the case I’m sure one of FeministIre’s readers will kindly point me in the right direction.