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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.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

6 responses »

  1. Hi,
    I have been following your blog for a while and I was really excited to see an irish feminist blog that supported sex workers right as they are hard to come by. I was reading through this post and clicked the link in which you talked about the slutwalk in Galway and what happened with the organiser and how TOBL and sex workers were made to feel unwelcomed. I know William personally and I can really understand the position he took. He definitely supports sex workers rights personally. He honestly does. Unfortunately the SU in NUIG is very conservative and they will try everything to get rid of people like William who are involved with lefty campaigns. I was surprised they even managed to pull off the Slutwalk. This was his first thing that he did as Gender Equality officer and so he was trying to tread carefully. I think also William does not really know about all the criticism that exists around Slutwalk and only knows about it in the mainstream sense where it has been applauded and well loved and so thought it would be a great thing to do as he would have access to funds and coverage if he used his position to organise this.
    I was not involved with the organisation of Galway’s slutwalk and only ever attended one slutwalk which was in Berlin and nearly all the talks were from sex worker groups or women of colour groups which was successful to a certain extent and it would probably be the way I would format a slutwalk if I organised one. Being a college student myself at UCD, I would avoid doing a slutwalk in connection with a SU as I know I would have to compromise such things.

    • Hello, William O’Brien here, organiser of the Galway Slutwalk. I am a little surprised to see myself mentioned in such a light in this blog and I think the accusation that I acted with “hostility and indifference” towards TOBL as quite outrageous to be honest. I was contacted by TOBL and explained very clearly why I could not endorse the campaign, for the reasons that Leness has accurately outlined in the above post. TOBL were invited to attend the event but could not be seen to be endorsed but he NUI Galway Student’s Union. If this needs to be explained to you then you have a serious problem comprehending how democracy works.
      I did not and do not have a mandate from the students of NUIG to campaign for legalisation of prostitution, if I were to do so without the backing of the student body this would be gross misconduct. If another Exec Officer acted in this way on an issue as politically loaded as this on behalf of the 17,000 students here without consulting them then I would be the first to call for his/her resignation.

      You cannot realistically compare this slutwalk to the one in London, the london one was organised by a large spectrum of activists that deal directly with the issue of rape, womens rights and sex workers, the galway one was organised by a students union that for the last decade has been very conservative.

      I would have thought that the very fact that a union representative of young people in ireland even organising a slutwalk would be considered a very positive thing in its self, as has been the sentiment expressed to me by countless self described feminists.

      * I just reread the link of the conversation I had on facebook with TOBL. I refer you to this post;

      Me back in October:
      “If I was organising this in a personal capacity my reply would certainly be favourable but I am not, I am pushing the boundries as it is, I hope you can appreciate how difficult a decision this is for me, I have compromised myself here. I’m not saying you can’t attend the event, only that I cannot endorse your campaign as a NUIG SU officer which is the capacity of my involvment… sadly.”

      And the next comment:
      “***In answer to your original question, sex workers are more than welcome to take part in the event and no one is to be excluded.***

      The event will finish at the Student Union building on campus where there will be a open ‘soap box’ that will be in place for the whole week where anyone with something to say can get up and say it to whoever wants to listen, similar to speakers corner in Hyde park.

      ***You or any of your campaign are more than welcome to make use of this soap box to put across whatever message you wish, I will certainly be interested in what TOBL have to say.***
      Is this an acceptable compromise?”

      I also made it very clear that I am personally fully in support of rights of sex workers and re-legalisation of prostitution.

      I think this quite clearly explains my position and I hardly think this can be seen in the slightest bit “indifferent” or “hostile” and I think you should apologise for publically lambasting me about the issue.

      I explained myself and the limitations of my SU positions fully, invited TOBL to attend the event (which they didn;t) and even invited them to speak at the end of the event. What more do you want?
      If you want a slut walk that campaigns for the rights of sex workers then why don;t you organise one yourself?

      • Hi William. I was not referring to you personally. There is ample evidence of hostility and indifference from the other posters in that thread. Your responses in that thread (and here as well) also indicate that there is hostility and indifference toward sex workers on the part of the Student Union, in whose name the march was organised. That is what I was talking about.

        Out of curiosity, did you raise the matter with the SU after TOBL mentioned it?

        • No I didn’t. If I was asked to by a student then I certainly would have. The slutwalk alone was difficult enough to pull off, there would have been absolutely no point in bringing up TOBL. When you take steps that big, you are far more likely to fall.

          Out of curiosity, did you even attended the slutwalk?

        • I appreciate you were in a difficult position, but unfortunately, this is pretty much the same old throwing the super-marginalised under a bus for the sake of those somewhere above them on the privilege ladder. It’s the same thing that often happens in revolutionary movements, where women are told their concerns must be subordinated to the national or (economic) class struggle; it’s the same thing being done to trans people by those who think too much emphasis on the “T” in LGBT might upset the gay rights apple cart.

          If an anti-rape march does not embrace the categories of people most likely to be raped, then it isn’t really an anti-rape march at all and frankly its cancellation would be no real loss. But even if you were not willing to run the risk of the whole thing being knocked on the head, you could still have raised the issue with the SU after the march and tried to promote a dialogue about it. It sounds to me as though you have just accepted that sex workers’ rights is off limits to you as gender equality officer, without making any effort to change that – which isn’t a great way to show solidarity with some of those most adversely affected by gender inequality.

          And no, I didn’t attend for a variety of reasons, including the above.

  2. Janelle Fawkes

    This reminds me that our inclusion all too often relies on our allies being brave enough to put their necks out and believe in the importance of our campaigns enough to push the line. I don’t believe a SLUTWALK
    that doesn’t profile sex workers is really a SLUTWALK campaign at all. Sex workers have carried the weight of slut shaming and policies/laws that criminalise people who dare to be sexual for far too long.


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