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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Exporting the problem – Irish abortion, Swedish prostitution

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During last week’s Irish parliamentary debate on a bill to allow life-saving abortions in Ireland (it failed), Clare Daly of the Socialist Party stated:

This debate is not about whether to allow abortion in Ireland. Irish abortion exists; it just does not take place in Ireland.

Daly was, of course, referring to the several thousands of Irish women each year who travel abroad to obtain a procedure that is illegal in their own country. As advocates of reform have regularly pointed out, the strict legal regime has not abolished the reality of abortion in Ireland; it has simply exported the problem. In the words of another supporter of the failed bill, Independent member John Halligan, it has simply led to “abortion tourism”.

I thought about this today as I was reading the Swedish government’s 2012 submission to UNAIDS, which among other things “addresses” what Sweden is doing in the way of HIV prevention and treatment for people who sell sex. I use the scare quotes because in truth, the report fails to address this issue in any but the most pathetically cursory fashion, as can be seen from the fact that the government didn’t even bother to collect data for it:

There is, however, a very interesting comment about the people who buy sex, on page 29:

Annual reports from Swedish social workers who meet buyers and sellers of sex indicate that the number of Swedish men who pay for or give other than a monetary form of compensation for sex is increasing. The increase seems to be due to purchase of sex when travelling to places where the sale of sexual services is common rather than purchase of sex within Sweden [21]. HIV and STIs are often endemic in these destinations.

A similar point is made on page 28, referring to “widespread sex tourism”, and on page 19, which says:

Among people born in Sweden, about 45 cases associated with heterosexual contact were reported per year in 2010-2011. A majority of these cases (65%) contracted the disease abroad, mainly in Thailand (60%).

I followed that footnote 21 from the first quote and found this report, a 2011 study by Niclas Olsson for Malmö City Social Resource Management, whose title Google-Translates as Mobility and commercial sex: A report on HIV/STI prevention by person and situation with a particular focus on Sweden, Denmark and Thailand. Here are a few of its more interesting findings:

There is a lot of Swedish sex tourism to Thailand, and it’s not just middle-aged men. A 2011 study is cited by Manieri and Svensson, Sex Tourist Risk Behaviour, An on-site survey among Swedish men buying sex in Thailand. I cannot find the original online. According to Olsson (page 19), the researchers collected questionnaires from 158 Swedish men who bought sex in Bangkok and Pattaya. They ranged in age from 20 to 70+ with a mean of 45; half of them had bought sex previously, and over a third planned to do so before their arrival in Thailand.

Olsson also interviewed a number of service providers, some of whom confirm that Swedish men of all ages are buying sex in Thailand. Jonny Harborg of the Triangle Youth Clinic in Malmö even describes it (page 31) as a father-son bonding experience for some:

Jonny also met with a small number of guys who travelled with their fathers, whose parents were divorced. They have bought various forms of sexual services together with their parent. Jonny says that the framing of sun, sand and holiday in Thailand, where father and son buy sex together is very special…

A significant minority fail to protect themselves and their sex partners.
In the Manieri and Svensson study, 70% said they always used a condom when buying sex, 6% never did – for a total of nearly one-third of Swedish punters whose condom use with Thai sex workers is inconsistent or nil (page 50). The Olsson report goes on to say that the 18-25 group in particular is increasingly travelling to Thailand and coming back with STIs. That’s, erm, not good.

There is a lot of Swedish sex tourism to Thailand, redux. Or at least a lot of wanna-be Swedish sex tourists. Page 46 refers to a Thai sex tourism web forum on which about 9600 people from Sweden are registered. Sweden’s population is just over double that of Ireland (south), so that would equate to around 4500-4600 people from the 26 Counties. I invite Irish readers to imagine the outraged NGO press releases, Seanad Independent Private Members’ Motions, and sensationalist TV3 “documentaries” if it was discovered there were 4500-4600 of us signed up to Thai sex tourism web forums.

Swedes are also buying sex in Denmark. On page 20, it is stated that men crossing the Öresund to punt account for “the largest mobility” within the regional sex trade. This is probably not surprising, however…

Swedes are also selling sex in Denmark, according to page 22. And there is repeated reference (pages 20, 38, 39 and 41) to Thai women resident in Sweden who “commute” to Denmark to work in brothels. There’s no indication that this movement is anything but voluntary, although one wonders why it hasn’t drawn the attention of those who equate any form of migrant sex work with trafficking. Finally,

The “traffic” isn’t all one way: clients come to Sweden, too. A sex worker interviewed for the report, identified as “Lovisa”, says on pages 45-46 that she has had clients “from, inter alia, Dubai, England, Germany, Italy and Denmark”. Page 23 cites the National Board of Health and Welfare as finding that in Sweden generally, and the Malmö region particularly, “there has been an increased internationalization and migration, as the sex trade traffic crosses national boundaries in several directions in a transnational market”. On page 36, Suzann Larsdotter and Jonas Johnsson of the RFSL say they have seen “an increase in international mobility for both buyers and sellers” in the LGBT community, and also refer to exchange students in Sweden who earn their income by selling sex. Clearly, not even the Swedish sex industry is immune to the forces of globalisation.

So what’s the point of all this, anyway? Well, first of all, it can’t be demonstrated that Swedish sex tourism has increased because of the sex purchase ban – if indeed it has increased at all, which we also don’t know (although Sweden’s UNAIDS submission appears to suggest that). Nor is that in itself a reason to reverse the ban. I certainly think there are troublesome aspects to a law that diverts sex buyers to the developing world, especially the objectionable distinction it makes between “our” women and “theirs”, but it’s futile to go down that road when we haven’t got the data to show the law does that in the first place.

The real significance of these reports, I think, is that they demonstrate the failure of the sex purchase ban in one of its primary aims – in fact, its most important aim, according to some of its supporters. It has not had the normative effect it was supposed to have, persuading Swedish men of the inherent wrongness of paying a woman for sex. Even the ones who grew up under the law don’t seem to have gotten that memo: the popularity of sex tourism among the younger age group seems to demonstrate this pretty conclusively.

I expect that the law’s supporters would react to this like supporters of Ireland’s abortion laws. “Just because we can’t stop people travelling to another country to do it doesn’t mean we should allow it in this country.” And perhaps it doesn’t. But it is time for supporters of the sex purchase ban to acknowledge that, as Clare Daly pointed out about Irish abortions, Swedish prostitution still exists. Even when it doesn’t take place in Sweden.

The porn/rape/consent debate, again

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Last week, an Irish Examiner journalist attended the launch of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s Factsheet on sexual violence and older women in Ireland – and came away with the impression that the most newsworthy aspect of the launch was what the RCNI’s Director had to say about porn. In his report, titled Overexposure of young people to porn is “like a car crash”, the journalist wrote:

Teenagers are being damaged by overexposure to pornography, with Ireland in the grip of a “catastrophe” of sexual violence, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has warned.

Executive director of the RCNI Fiona Neary said such was the prevalence of pornography in society that it could affect young people’s views of sexual consent which, matched with growing levels of alcohol use, was “like watching a car crash”.

She said young people were being exposed “to much more pornography than we realise”.

“I think if the Department of Education doesn’t clearly start looking at programmes which address the messages of pornography, we are really running into trouble,” she said.

I wasn’t at the launch, so I don’t know if that really was a significant theme on the day, or if the journalist just thought it made for better copy than a report on older people who survived sexual abuse. But I thought it was a strange issue to be raising at that launch anyway, given what the statistics in the Factsheet show. Of the 77 women who attended a Rape Crisis Centre in 2010 to discuss their own sexual abuse, 57.1% had only been abused in childhood, and an additional 16.9% had been abused in both childhood and adulthood. The Factsheet doesn’t break down the “adulthood” category any further, but it’s probably safe to assume that a significant proportion of this abuse happened in early adulthood; in this study 72% of Irish rape victims were found to be between the ages of 18-30 at the time of the event.

So what we can conclude from this is:

  • Most of the abuse discussed in the Factsheet took place prior to 1973 (when a person aged 55 in 2010 reached adulthood); and
  • A pretty big chunk of the rest of it took place prior to 1985.

All of which makes for a pretty tenuous link between pornography and the acts of sexual violence discussed at this launch. Sure, porn existed before 1973, and was accessible even in what was still a strongly Church-dominated Ireland in 1985, but it’s hardly likely that the rapists behind this Factsheet had the kind of “overexposure” to it that the Examiner piece describes. So I’m not really sure why this launch was used as an opportunity to blame sexual violence on the ready availability of porn.

The article goes on to say:

On the consistent levels of sexual violence across generations [the RCNI Director] said: “It is a catastrophe in Irish history that has not been officially recognised.”

And that just emphasises the point. I don’t know if the levels of sexual violence have truly been consistent across generations – that’s one of those things you’ll never get accurate measure of, anyway – but there’s an obvious logical difficulty with claiming that something in modern society is making a social problem worse while simultaneously accepting that that problem has actually always been as bad as it is now.

It’s certainly arguable, of course, that the increased availability of porn is preventing a reduction in sexual violence that would otherwise occur. That’s the only way I can think to reconcile those two contradictory premises. But that premise itself is so wildly speculative, unprovable and intuitively unlikely, it’s not surprising that nobody seems to be making that argument – at least openly.

This isn’t the only time recently I’ve seen porn blamed for something that clearly predates it. In a recent AlterNet article called The Absurd Myths Porn Teaches Us About Sex, authors Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz quote “college student Lynette” as saying:

I actually had a guy tell me I was wrong…If I was rubbing my clit, it wasn’t real masturbation. He didn’t even know about the G spot…

Um, I’m pretty sure men were largely ignorant about women’s bodies and how we reach orgasm long before there was porn, AlterNet. Anyway, back to the RCNI launch. Neary went on to helpfully spell out exactly why she thinks porn leads to sexual violence:

One of the problems with pornography is consent is never discussed. People in pornography, regardless of what they are doing, are always presented as being up for it, or else rape is presented as being enjoyable.

So, either there’s not enough consent shown in porn, or there’s consent shown where it wouldn’t actually be given. There’s an element here of trying to have it both ways, but consent isn’t always a black-and-white issue in real life and I think it’s a fair criticism that those nuances are typically ignored in porn. But is that really as problematic as Neary claims? It might be, if porn was the only exposure that men and boys had to (hetero)sexual negotiations – perhaps then they really would start to believe that women never do say “no”. But very few men and boys see nothing but porn, and female rejection of male advances is a common enough theme in mainstream media – particularly that which is aimed at adolescent males. What basis is there to assume that young men only internalise what they see in porn?

But I have another, more serious, concern about this line of thought: it has the potential to create a “porn defence” to rape. In Irish law (which was modelled on a similar British statute), rape is defined as having sexual intercourse with someone in the knowledge that they are not consenting or with recklessness as to whether they are consenting. Thus, if the accused genuinely believes that consent has been given, legally there is no rape. The jury doesn’t have to simply take his word that he believed that, of course, and when they’re deciding whether he really did think consent was present, one of the things they must take into consideration is whether there were reasonable grounds for him to think so. But – and this is really important – ultimately what matters is whether the jury thinks that he did believe it, not whether they think it was reasonable for him to believe it. In legal terms, it is subjectively rather than objectively assessed. So if the jury finds that it was a ludicrous belief but one genuinely held, they are obliged to acquit. They are only obliged to convict if they consider the belief so ludicrous that the accused couldn’t possibly have really held it.

And the problem is, it’s precisely the Rape Crisis Network here who are telling us that it isn’t a ludicrous belief; that in fact this is what porn does to its viewers. (As the similarly-minded Catharine MacKinnon put it in Only Words, “pornography makes rapists unaware that their victims are not consenting”.) Do the RCNI really want to be pushing this line? Do they want to see their own words free an accused rapist who claimed that he watched so much porn, he genuinely believed that his victim meant “yes” when she said “no”? What response will they give when defence counsel tells the jury that “even the Rape Crisis Network acknowledges that pornography can have this effect on men”?

Of course, societal factors influence our behaviour, and the line is sometimes fine between acknowledging this and absolving people of responsibility for their own actions. But in a culture already predisposed to rape apology, surely the last thing we should be doing is inventing more reasons for why the men just can’t help themselves.

One thing I do agree with Neary on, and it’s a point made even more strongly in that AlterNet piece, is the urgent need for proper sex education. In that regard, it’s worth pointing out that only around a quarter of Irish secondary students are getting any sex ed at all in the schools – and it’s likely that the quality ranges from mediocre to abysmal for most of that quarter. But this too is a longstanding failure in Irish society (AlterNet is US-based, but the situation is hardly much better there) and shouldn’t be framed in terms of its relevance to a porn-saturated world. Give the patriarchal state a choice between cracking down on sexual expression and actually teaching young people the things that they need (and have a right) to know about sex, and you can bet it will opt for the former.

Finally, even though I don’t agree that porn’s portrayal of consent is the catastrophe the RCNI makes it out to be, that doesn’t mean I think it’s not worth discussing. There are a lot of people these days making what they call “feminist” (or otherwise “transgressive”) porn; what those labels actually mean is debatable, but at the very least they imply a willingness to depart from the usual conventions of the genre and there’s no reason the conventions of consent can’t be one of them. Perhaps there is porn out there that does depict the issue in a realistic fashion – I’d be happy to hear about it if there is. And if there isn’t, it’s certainly a valid question why not.