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Monthly Archives: January 2012

UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban

Last month saw the publication of the long-awaited Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. The Advisory Group was established in 2009 by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to provide clarification and advice around certain matters addressed in the most recent (2009) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

I finally had a chance to read the document this week, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it. One of its most significant aspects is that it pulls no punches on the question of criminalising clients – not merely subsuming this issue, as many previous UN-associated statements have done, under a general opposition to laws against consensual commercial sex, but addressing it head-on and in some detail. On pages 5-6, it includes the Swedish sex-purchase ban in a section called “Laws, enforcement and policies that impede effective HIV responses for sex workers: Criminal prohibitions against sex work or aspects of it” and says:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.

In its “Conclusion and recommendations” on legal regimes, on page 8, it says:

States can take many actions to establish legal and policy environments that are conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. Among these are the following: States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal penalties for purchase and sale of sex…

Also significant is its criticism of the “end demand” strategy in general. In the introduction, on page 4, it says:

Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability
for sex workers and their clients

On page 6, it points out:

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce demand for sex or the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.

On pages 10-11, it notes that

well-meaning but ill-informed service and healthcare providers and policy actors from community-based organisations, nongovernmental organisations, donors, international organisations and government agencies believe that they are helping sex workers by calling for criminalisation of clients. However, there is no evidence that these “end demand” initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life for sex workers…These laws do not reduce the scale of sex work, but they do make sex workers more vulnerable.

It calls instead for a shift of emphasis to ending demand for unprotected paid sex – and states on page 11:

Empowering sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions, rather than “end demand” approaches, should be the focus of HIV prevention efforts…When sex workers can successfully ensure that their customers use condoms, sex workers are less likely to become infected by HIV.

Of course, since it’s (usually) the clients who have to wear the condoms, convincing them that it’s in their interest to do so would go a long way toward reducing the demand for unprotected paid sex. The report describes working with clients in this way as the more effective strategy for HIV prevention, noting on page 14 that

demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers

On page 13 it gives a real-life example, from China, of how greater condom use has been achieved through a programme that treats clients not as irredeemable villains but rather as partners in the battle against HIV and other STIs:

Men working in industrial sectors that require them to work away from their families often engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected paid and casual sex…To address this, the International Labour Organization is working with large and medium-scale mining companies in southern China to promote responsible sexual behaviours among mine workers, including proper treatment of STIs, consistent condom use and elimination of violence against women, including sex workers. Preliminary results, assessed through qualitative and quantitative surveys, show significant increases in condom use and health-seeking behaviours, and increased reported condom use in paid and casual sex.

The report goes on to address the issue of trafficking. Here, I have a small difficulty with it, as it divides the sex industry into two distinct categories of voluntary/not trafficked and involuntary/trafficked:

A woman deciding to sell sexual services in order to support herself or her family is not a trafficked person. (page 17)

This is not strictly accurate as a matter of law, as the international definition of “trafficking” is broad enough to encompass some forms of “voluntary” sexual labour, such as debt bondage. It also ignores the fact that for most working people, not just sex workers, consent and coercion exist along a continuum, rather than being a binary.

Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true that sex work abolitionists tend to draw the line on that continuum in such a way as to strip the agency from most sex workers, especially migrants – and the Advisory Group is correct to highlight the problems this causes for HIV programmes. On page 18 it states:

Anti-trafficking measures often concentrate on getting people out of sex work, without considering whether they are trafficked, or whether the efforts will disrupt the access sex workers have to services that safeguard their health and well-being, and that create opportunities for them to share information and seek assistance for individuals they are concerned may have been trafficked. Many projects that focus on rescuing trafficked persons interrupt and undermine efforts to provide sex workers with access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The next page continues:

Forced rescue and rehabilitation practices lower sex workers’ control over where and under what conditions they sell sexual services and to whom, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

It goes on to say that when sex workers’ livelihoods are disrupted in this way,

this leads to social disintegration and a loss of solidarity and cohesion (social capital) among sex workers, including reducing their ability to access health care, legal and social services. Low social capital is known to increase vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and therefore has a detrimental impact on HIV prevention efforts.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it states on page 7 that

From the perspective of universal access to HIV services, undermining sex worker organisations is one of the most important negative effects of law enforcement practices.

Furthermore – and this is incredibly important for the migrant sex workers whom abolitionists are always fretting about:

The conflation of sex work and trafficking directly limits the ability of migrant sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, since they are often assumed to be trafficked. Migrant sex workers often live with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported which creates a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services.(page 19)

Of course, this is an immigration issue which would exist even if there was no question of trafficking. But the moral panic around trafficking has unquestionably created a greater impetus for raids on sex industry venues, which frequently lead to deportations of the people alleged to have been “trafficked”. (I think perhaps the report could have made this clearer.)

As with the battle against HIV, the battle against trafficking also needs sex workers’ participation if it is to have any real effect. On page 18, the report notes that

anti-trafficking efforts typically ignore the possibility of engaging sex workers as partners in identifying, preventing and resolving situations that do involve trafficked people. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices.

To this end, it promotes the establishment of sex worker organisations, saying on page 20:

Organised groups of sex workers are also best placed to establish safe working norms within the sex industry, and influence other actors in the industry to ensure that trafficked adults and children are not retained in sex work…self-regulatory mechanisms, which are established, implemented and overseen by sex workers’ organisations can limit trafficking into the sex industry as well as the sexual exploitation of children. They also form a platform for addressing labour exploitation of sex workers.

The last major issue addressed in the report is the need for sex workers to be economically empowered. The main point here is that such programmes shouldn’t seek only to remove people from sex work, or be made conditional on their willingness/ability to leave the industry, but should aim to also improve the economic circumstances of those who remain in it:

By increasing economic options, sex workers can achieve greater financial security, which makes it easier for them to make important decisions that affect their lives…Improving economic options also helps sex workers to reduce the likelihood of having to accept clients’ requests for unprotected sex or that they will be put in situations that inhibit their ability to negotiate with clients and reduce the risk of violence or abuse. (pages 22-23)

Some interesting examples are provided of successful programmes around the world, such as one in Andhra Pradesh, India, where

Among the 803 sex workers interviewed, involvement in economic independence programmes was positively associated with control over both the type and cost of sexual services provided and with consistent condom use. (page 24)

I can predict a couple criticisms of the report. The make-up of the Advisory Group will probably discredit it in some eyes, since it includes affiliates of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (along with “independent experts from academia and civil society organisations, representatives of UNAIDS Co-Sponsors and the [UNAIDS] Secretariat”). My response to that is to ask whether it would be reasonable for a UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Men Who Have Sex With Men to not include any organisations comprising or working with MSMs. Of course it would not. They would rightly be seen as experts on the subject, and any “advisory group” without them would be seen as lacking in credibility.

It may also be argued that this is merely a report of the Advisory Group and not a UNAIDS policy document as such. This is true. However, its conclusions are entirely consistent with things UNAIDS has been saying all along, even if takes them a bit further. It justifies its positions by reference to earlier UNAIDS publications, such as on page 5 where it says:

The UNAIDS Strategy 2011-2015: Getting to Zero identifies as one of its 10 goals that the number of “countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality will be reduced by half”

and on page 9 where it states that the 2006 International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights/UNAIDS note that

states have a responsibility to ensure that criminal law is reviewed with the aim of removing criminal sanctions on sex work and ensuring that any non-criminal regulations support safe sex in sex work and ready access of sex workers to comprehensive HIV services.

The fact of the matter is that UNAIDS, and many other global health and human rights organisations, have been saying for a long time that criminalisation of sex work is a barrier to effective HIV prevention and treatment. They have focused on criminalisation of the seller because that is how criminalisation manifests itself in most of the world; the Nordic model may look pretty significant from where I’m sitting in the north west corner of Europe but globally, it’s little more than a footnote. So the fact that it hasn’t specifically been addressed by UNAIDS (or the other international health and human rights groups who oppose criminalisation generally) should in no way be taken to indicate that they approve of it. Given all that we’re learning about how it actually works in practice, in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that they would.

Of course, abolitionists won’t care what UNAIDS thinks about it anyway, since their view is that sex work would be bad and wrong even if it cured HIV. But most people are not abolitionists, and I think they would appreciate the significance of UNAIDS publishing this document. It is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of material showing the health and human rights failures of criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, anti-trafficking policy and the fixation on ending demand.

On labour law, human trafficking and the strange silence of advocates

Last week, a couple Tweeters I follow linked to a blog post from 2010 titled The anti-trafficking industry is the biggest threat to migrants. The post made a lot of the same points I’ve made on this blog, such as here, and it’s unfortunate that it was accompanied by such a ludicrously hyperbolic title (which I suspect was likely to lead many people to simply dismiss its contents entirely). The anti-trafficking industry doesn’t make policy, states do, and the biggest threat to migrants is the state policy of increasingly tightening borders to keep them out – irrespective of the consequences for their human rights and even their lives. This policy predates the growth of the anti-trafficking movement, and would undoubtedly continue if the movement disappeared tomorrow.

Of course, I agree that the movement’s advocacy often serves as an effective justification of border policies. It does this harm both by commission (encouraging crackdowns on migration in order to “rescue” people whom it assumes, not always correctly, to be unwilling victims) and by omission (failing to challenge these noxious policies where they occur). We saw another example of this recently in Ireland, where the government decision to maintain labour market access restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals was met with a resounding thud of silence by the big guns in Irish anti-trafficking.

A little bit of background first. Free movement of workers is, as we all know, supposed to be one of the principles underpinning the European Union’s existence. But as the EU has grown larger and larger – and, let’s face it, as its population has become more ethnically and culturally diverse – member states have developed colder and colder feet about opening up their labour markets. It is now a feature of accession treaties that states can opt to deny the right to work to new member state nationals for a specified period of time; Ireland as well as many other EU countries took that option when Bulgaria and Romania joined. As that last link reports, the Irish government has now also taken up the option to extend this exclusion until the end of 2013.

It’s important to understand that denial of labour market access is not the same thing as denial of entry. All EU citizens (well, apart from those with individual exclusion orders but that’s not really relevant here) have freedom to travel within the EU, and to enter other EU countries even if they cannot remain and work in them. The Irish government justified its original decision to ban Romanians and Bulgarians from the labour market on the basis that it might upset our Common Travel Area with Britain (which had already decided not to open its labour market to them), but that was a load of hooey – any Romanians/Bulgarians who want to enter Britain are perfectly free to fly directly into Heathrow, flash their passports at UKBA staff and walk on out onto the streets of London, labour market ban or no labour market ban. Allowing them to work in Ireland would not have made an iota of difference in that respect – that was simply an excuse that the Irish government used to avoid admitting that it wasn’t about to take on a “burden” that the Brits had already declined to share. The point of all this is that while Romanians and Bulgarians are still generally excluded from working in Ireland, their EU citizenship nonetheless entitles them to enter the country freely and without being subject to the border controls faced by citizens of countries outside the EU/EEA.

And that is a double-edged sword where the issue of trafficking is concerned. Because, although fortified borders are for the most part A Very Bad Thing Indeed, in that they force many migrants to turn to smugglers and traffickers just to get into their destination country, they have the (very small) potential to (occasionally) also prevent the worst abuses that occur in human trafficking. I don’t want to overstate this, because it is almost certainly the case that the number of migrants whose lives are worsened by their inability to get into countries where they can make a living far exceeds the number whose lives would be improved by intervention at the border (and for whom that needed intervention actually occurs). But it is theoretically possible, and I’m sure it does happen the (very) odd time, that an alert border agent susses out someone in genuine need of rescue from the fate that would await them if they were allowed to enter with no questions asked.

So in some respects, what we have here is a worst-of-both-worlds situation – Romanians and Bulgarians can get in (or be brought in) but once they are here, they can’t legally work (and under EU law, they have no right of residence without a means to support themselves). I am not arguing that they would be better off not to be allowed in at all, but I don’t think it’s difficult to see how a policy that eliminates the need to forge someone’s entry documents while simultaneously ensuring their financial (and hence residential) dependence on you is a trafficker’s wet dream. It’s a virtual invitation to those who want to exploit migrants from the two poorest EU countries.

And it’s clear, at least in the case of Romanians, that many are being exploited in Ireland – badly. The largest trafficking ring yet uncovered in Ireland, for forced agricultural labour in Wexford, involved Romanian migrants. I won’t link to any Romanian sex trafficking stories because I don’t trust the Irish media on the subject, but even my sex worker sources agree that it’s a real issue here. (It’s usually women working in the sex industry voluntarily but under deeply exploitative conditions, but that qualifies as “trafficking” too.) And, in all these cases, one of the most important factors that facilitates their exploitation is that they have no alternative source of income in Ireland – because they are excluded from the labour market. Even if they are physically capable of escaping their abusive employer, and many of them are, they have nowhere to go but back to Romania because Ireland does not allow them to work.

I was out of the country when the continuation of this shameful policy was announced, but I’ve gone back and looked over both the websites and the Twitter accounts of all the main anti-trafficking organisations in Ireland and I don’t see a single reference to it anywhere. If I managed to read about it while I was on holiday across the ocean, I can’t imagine it escaped their notice – yet apparently not one of them considered it important enough to issue a statement or even Tweet about. (Around the same time, though, several of them commented favourably on the arrests of men trying to buy sex in Limerick.) Has it actually not occurred to any of these groups that this policy decision will have negative consequences for people vulnerable to human trafficking? Have any of them even made the connection between trafficking and restrictive migrant labour laws? I really wonder.

Note that I am not holding this policy single-handedly responsible for that Wexford trafficking ring, or for the exploitation of Romanian women in Irish brothels. I do not believe that the things encompassed within the term “human trafficking” can be boiled down to any one simple explanation. But the trafficker-friendly environment it creates is so blindingly obvious as to be pretty much a no-brainer, and there is no legitimate excuse for anyone genuinely concerned about trafficking to ignore it.

Norwegian Directorate of Health, HIV groups criticise sex purchase ban

I’ve been meaning to blog about this since I ran across it last month, but other things kept getting in the way.

What follows are excerpts from Norway’s 2010 Progress Report to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. This is an official Norwegian government report, published by the Norwegian Directorate of Health, which is described on its website as “an executive agency and competent authority subordinate to the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services”. The UNAIDS website states that “Each report is presented exactly as submitted by the country, without editing or other alteration.” It was presented in English, and therefore there can be no suggestion of any mistranslation on my part, as some readers of this post might have hoped for. I think the broad thrust of my Google Translations in that post can now be safely seen as confirmed, because the UNAIDS report backs up several of the key points I cited.

In the section on National response to the AIDS epidemic – Prevention (page 36), it states that since the sex purchase ban was introduced:

Experience shows that it has become more difficult to have a good overview of and gain admittance to prostitution circles. In addition, it is reported that individual sex workers no longer want to carry condoms and lubricants out of fear that they will be used by the police as indicators of sale of sexual services. The support and health services for sex workers in Norway, describe increased vulnerability for sex workers. They argue that due to increased competition and greater stress on the market, sex workers are forced to offer clients e.g. unprotected sex. In addition, sex workers in escort services are forced to sell sex at the customer’s arena, which makes them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

While much of this is simply quoting what others have “reported”, no attempt is made to challenge or counter these reports, which suggests that the Directorate considers them credible.

More detail appears in the appended National Composite Policy Index, a Q&A survey for UNAIDS with data compiled by the Norwegian Directorate of Health in conjunction with other government departments and NGOs. The NCPI submission was overseen by two Senior Advisors in the Directorate, and carries the Directorate’s imprimatur.

Part A of the survey, which was replied to solely by Norwegian government officials (i.e., not NGOs), contains the following very interesting Q&A:

Does the country have laws, regulations or policies that present obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for most-at-risk populations or other vulnerable subpopulations?


IF YES, for which subpopulations?

…Sex Workers – Yes…

The survey then asks for the description of any such laws, and the first law cited is the sex purchase ban. This is, however, qualified to some degree, as it is stated that

The potential negative consequences the new law against buying sex presents for the HIV preventive work, is unclear.

Later, in Question 79 about HIV prevention, one of the “remaining challenges in this area” is cited as

Possible weakening of preventive measures targeting sex workers as a result of the ban on purchase of sexual services

So the government officials who compiled this report are clearly hedging their bets about the actual negative impact of the law – which is entirely reasonable and appropriate given the lack of firm research data. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored that the Directorate of Health is sufficiently concerned about the implications of the sex purchase ban to identify it as one of the policies that “present obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support”.

Part B of the survey was answered by six NGOs, five of which appear to be exclusively HIV/AIDS-focused (the sixth is the sex worker organisation PION). As you might expect, their replies are a bit harder hitting than those from the government officials. On the issue of obstacles, the NGOs state:

The effects of police enforcement has affected the sex workers’ relation to other services, such as harm reduction services, as many refuse to associate with anything or anyone that may give the police a suspicion of sex work. Condoms are used as evidence, hence the sex workers position for negotiation with the client about safe sex as [sic] been weakened. (Question 128)

And asked about “remaining challenges” in the area of HIV prevention (Question 186), the NGOS say that the sex purchase ban

makes it increasingly difficult to reach sex workers with prevention work and information

But has the ban achieved its aim of reducing the amount of prostitution and trafficking? I’ll go back to the main body of the report for this one. Bearing in mind that the law only came into effect around 15 months earlier, the Directorate is equivocal on this subject too:

it is difficult to judge whether there has been a reduction in the number of women being trafficked into Norway, due to shortcomings in the methods for counting trafficking victims… The main social and health oriented services in Norway, report a reduction in the number of sex workers in street prostitution in Oslo by 58% from 2008 to 2009 (from 1200 to 500 persons), in Bergen by 7 % (from 125 to 116) and in Stavanger by 49% (from 61 to 31). In 2009, Pro-centre (low threshold harm reduction centre for men and women selling sex and national resource centre for prostitution) estimated that the number of sex workers on the indoor marked in Oslo is reduced by 16 % from 2008 (in total 900 persons in 2009). However, these estimates of persons in prostitution are based on those who have had contact with support services or placed advertisements, researchers maintain that these data are unreliable because not all prostitutes get counted and some might be counted twice. In addition, essential information about men selling sex is lacking. Knowledge on whether the ban has led to a reduction of the total sale of sex or if there are fewer clients, is not available. (pages 50-51)

It goes on to say, in relation to migrant sex workers,

Since the ban on purchase of sex was introduced there has been a significant reduction in registered sex workers from Nigeria and Central and Eastern Europe residing temporarily in Norway. It is not believed that these women have started in new professions in the Norwegian labour force. Reports from Denmark and Luxembourg indicated the e.g. many Nigerians have moved their business to this part of Europe. The number of registered Thai sex workers on the other hand, has increased. This can partly be explained by the fact that many Thai female, male and transpersons selling sex in Norway have permanent residence permit or Norwegian citizenship due to family reunification and are therefore less mobile.

I’m unclear as to why the number (as opposed to the proportion) of Thai sex workers should have increased since the ban, but this otherwise seems to validate a few points that I’ve made a couple times on this blog: first, that criminal laws are a poor method for getting people out of prostitution; second, that the effect of prostitution laws cannot be viewed in isolation from the effect of migration policies; and third, that what may seem to be a “reduction” in prostitution is all too often merely a diversion – which might look favourable to the jurisdiction that recorded the “decline” but does fuck all to actually protect anyone. If those Nigerians and CEE sex workers had been trafficked or otherwise exploited in Norway, and undoubtedly some of them were, they’re still being exploited in Denmark or Luxembourg or wherever. Norway’s law hasn’t done a thing to help them, it just made them someone else’s problem.

So, to summarise the report: Norwegian NGOs in the HIV/AIDS sector are very clear that the sex purchase ban poses an obstacle to effective HIV prevention. The Norwegian Directorate of Health is more circumspect on the issue – not surprising when its website states that “​The political frameworks to which the Directorate is subject are the political platform of the government in office at any time and resolutions of the government and of Parliament” – but it certainly seems to be a lot more skeptical about the claims for positive impacts of the law than it is about the claims for negative impacts.

All too often, the law’s supporters are portrayed as if their view was shared across Norwegian and Swedish society, with only irrelevant people like sex workers themselves dissenting. That isn’t true in Sweden, where criticism has come from such sources as the Discrimination Ombudsman, the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Federation for LGBT Rights (citations in this post), and clearly it isn’t true in Norway, either. It is essential that these opposing views be included in any honest and informed debate over the adoption of the law in other countries.

From the archives: 1992 men’s anti-patriarchy pamphlet

Here’s something I came across recently while going through a box of stuff I’ve collected over the years. It’s a pamphlet called “Patriarchy kills: Men speak out against sexism” and it was produced by a group of young men associated with Positive Force DC, in conjunction with the first Riot Grrrl Convention (which I attended) in DC in 1992.

Among its contents are: brief contributions from group members explaining why men need to oppose sexism; tips on how men can stop rape (“Tho this may sound strange, perhaps the most important thing you can as a man do is not rape”); a recommended reading list and a few other things.

I wouldn’t endorse it unequivocally. For one thing, it’s clearly very radfem-influenced, and the central role of capitalism in women’s oppression is entirely overlooked. It’s also totally ciscentric, though of course queer theory was still in its infancy back then. But I don’t want to be too critical of efforts like this, bearing in mind what you usually get when men write about feminism and sexism.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting. I wonder whatever became of that “group”.

Swedish government official sacked for running brothels

Interesting follow-up to the story I posted about here, in which it was shown that, contrary to the claims of advocates of the Swedish model, brothels continue to thrive under the sex purchase ban. Now, it seems that they’ve had a little bit of help from friends in high places:

A high-ranking civil servant in Sweden’s defence ministry has been sacked after it was revealed he was involved in running several Thai massage parlours on the side…

The raids revealed that the wife of the defence ministry official operated three massage parlours in the Stockholm area and that he served as an alternate board member of the company that ran the operation.

And according to the Swedish Tax Agency,

“We have clear indications both in the trafficking of girls and that many deal with unreported wages and pay unreasonably low payroll taxes”.

This isn’t the first time a high-ranking official has been found to be personally involved in undermining Sweden’s claims to have all but eliminated trafficking and sex work. Last year, the chief of police in Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth largest city, was convicted on numerous charges including rape, purchasing sex, and “procuring” (translation: he was running a prostitution ring, involving underage girls). And regular Swedish press reports prove that thay have as many examples as any other country of police and government officers being (literally) caught with their pants down.

Sweden’s defenders would probably argue that any country can have its bad apples and that Sweden is doing more than most to try to stop them. And that’s fair enough. What gets my goat is the deliberate deception of those Swedish officials who come to other countries and tell us that they don’t have these problems since they enacted the sex purchase ban. The claim that it’s “impossible to run a brothel in Sweden” when your own fucking government official is running several of them – and when their tax non-compliance seems to be the main source of your interest in them.

We should be able to have an honest debate about the actual effects of the sex purchase ban. But that requires Swedish officials to be honest about the sex trade that has continued in their country even after the ban was enacted, and to stop pretending that they have solved their trafficking problem with the stroke of a legislative pen.

On Sheila Farmer and the curious abolitionist approach to “decriminalisation”

Some good news from England last week as charges were dropped against Sheila Farmer, who had been accused the offence of “brothel-keeping” for sharing a flat with another sex worker. You can read about it in her own words here.

Earlier, when she was still facing charges, she had addressed the London Slutwalk and called for this law to be changed in the interests of sex workers’ safety. A video of her speech (as well as that of an English Collective of Prostitutes representative, Niki Adams) can be watched here.

I found that video intriguing, mainly because of the support that Farmer and Adams appear to be getting from the Slutwalk attendees. This makes perfect sense as a logical matter, of course; Slutwalk is all about trying to change the mindset that rape victims “ask for it”, and no one bears the brunt of that mindset more than sex workers. I am also aware that the march’s organisers specifically invited sex workers to take part, and that the “official” Slutwalk London group has continued to support Sheila Farmer and to call for a change in the brothel-keeping laws.

It’s quite a contrast with the way these issues have been dealt with here in Ireland. The only Slutwalk that has taken place here, in Galway, made no attempt to include sex workers and indeed they faced hostility and indifference when they asked if they were invited. More important is the fact that there have been a number of Sheila Farmers here over the past few years, and the silence about them from the feminist movement has been deafening. Mainstream Irish feminism is pretty much lined up behind the Swedish model and so you hear plenty from them when, for example, men are arrested for trying to buy sex. Cases like this one and this one, however, in which women are arrested for trying to sell it under safer conditions, don’t seem to attract their interest.

In fact, Irish sex work abolitionists appear to oppose any attempt to protect sex workers’ safety by allowing them to share premises. Several years ago the issue was raised in the context of a British reform proposal (which could have applied to the North of Ireland); the response by leading abolitionist group Ruhama was to oppose this as a form of “legalising prostitution”. And when the sex worker organisation Turn Off The Blue Light (TOBL) published a study showing that women like Sheila Farmer account for the vast majority of “brothel-keeping” convictions in Ireland, the response of these groups was to ignore the substantive issue entirely and instead try to discredit TOBL. Not once, to my knowledge, have any of these groups ever said that sex workers who share premises for safety should not face charges of brothel-keeping.

And this isn’t only an Irish thing. In the US, Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island has endorsed the Swedish model, yet she described as a “legislative victory” the 2009 state law which made selling sex illegal (previously only street solicitation was). In Canada, none other than Melissa Farley herself testified for the Crown in the Bedford case, which concerns two laws used mostly or entirely against sex workers: one essentially a soliciting clause, and one that prohibits indoor prostitution on all but an outcall basis.

The bizarre thing is that many of those who take these positions describe themselves as supporting “decriminalisation” of the women in sex work. They say that they want the men who buy sex to be criminalised instead. Yet here they are supporting laws that criminalise the seller. This is a glaring contradiction, and one they must be called to account for.

Of course, not all sex work abolitionists take the Hughes/Farley/Ruhama line on this; there are some who do not believe that sex workers should be prosecuted for working indoors or in pairs or whatever. I wish they would be as vocal about these matters as they are in calling for more penalties against sex purchasers. But I also take issue with those who use the terminology of “decriminalisation” when they only want one party to the transaction to escape penalties.

In the radfem theory that sex work abolitionism is based on, prostitution is conceptualised as a form of violence against women, analogous to (or perhaps even indistinguishable from) rape. And just as women who have been raped are the victims of a criminal act, so are sex workers (“prostituted women”). It makes little sense to talk about “decriminalising” people for an act committed against them rather than by them. As far as I’m aware, campaigners against Saudi Arabia’s rape laws don’t go around saying they want “decriminalisation” when they mean they don’t want women to be prosecuted for being raped.

Of course, I’m not the tsar of the English language (unfortunately), and so I can’t stop people from saying they support decriminalisation of selling sex when what they really mean is that they want commercial sex to remain illegal but its nature redefined (really, what they want is the actus reus of the crime of prostitution to be buying rather than selling sex). But if they don’t support the Sheila Farmers of this world, they have no basis for using the d-word at all. If, like Ruhama, you are so horrified by the idea of “legalising prostitution” in any way that you would rather see some sex workers continue to risk prosecution – or take unnecessary chances with their safety in order to avoid it – you do not support decriminalising them, full stop, and it is well past time for the journalists who give you reams of media space to call you out on it.