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Quick note on last night’s Vincent Browne

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In the wake of a massive brothel raid police operation, the Vincent Browne show last night debated the issue of prostitution in Ireland. If you missed it a playback should be available soon here.

I don’t have too much to say about it but there are a couple points made by the anti-sex work speakers that I want to address. First, in response to a viewer’s claim that the rape rate in Sweden has skyrocketed since the sex purchase ban was introduced, Susan McKay of the National Women’s Council flatly denied that this was true and said that crime has generally gone down in Sweden.

The official statistics on reported offences in Sweden are here. I’ve taken a screenshot of the relevant time period (click on it to enlarge):

As you can see, the viewer was correct: the reported rape rate has gone up significantly since the sex purchase ban was introduced. Sarah Benson of Ruhama, another panelist, was correct to point out that Sweden broadened its definition during the period – in 2005, I believe, interestingly the same year that the Netherlands broadened their definition of trafficking– and in any event, these are only reported rapes so it’s impossible to know for sure whether the number of actual rapes has increased. And I’m sceptical of the claim of any link between legality of prostitution and rape in the first place, not least because there is no evidence that making it illegal to buy sex actually stops men from doing so. So I am not posting these statistics to make a claim that the rape rate has increased because of the law. My point is that Susan McKay responded to the allegation by not only flatly denying it but making a further claim about the general crime rate which, as you can see from those stats, is also wildly off the mark. With the exception of theft offences, it is absolutely, 100% untrue that crime rates have decreased since the law was introduced, and its advocates really need to be hauled over the coals for their willingness to make such breathtakingly false claims. (I’ll give McKay the benefit of the doubt that she may have been merely repeating something she was told since, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, the Swedish authorities routinely fudge the truth around the law’s effects.)

The other thing I wanted to highlight was Sarah Benson’s assertion, in response to the point that Teresa Whitaker of the Sex Workers Alliance made about the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work report, that HIV is not an issue for Irish sex workers. Yes, you read that correctly, HIV is not an issue – because the HIV rate is so low, except among injecting drug users, who apparently don’t count.

I frankly find it astonishing that anyone who works with sex workers should dismiss the relevance of HIV – and it’s worth pointing to this document on the Ruhama website in which Benson says the opposite:

Women and children will contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. This does not magically happen. Buyers are the source of infection and transmit it to women…

But the other point to be made here, and my tweet to this effect was read by Vincent Browne but ignored by the panel, is that the law they are advocating has the potential to make HIV much more of an issue. As I wrote about here and here, Norwegian health services are already seeing a rise in other STIs since the sex purchase ban was introduced, which they attribute to a greater reluctance to use condoms: where sex sellers are struggling to make a living because their clients have gone elsewhere, they are more vulnerable to demands for unprotected sex. It’s not rocket science. So even if Benson was correct that HIV isn’t an issue for Irish sex workers now, there’s a very good chance it will be if she gets her way on the law. Indeed, that’s pretty much the point the UNAIDS Advisory Group Report makes.

Finally, I look forward to a future Vincent Browne episode featuring the voices of actual sex workers. We need to remember that they are not, as Benson also (remarkably) put it, “burgers” but people with their own views on what they do and what the law should do about it. We need to create an environment where they can speak out and not only contribute to but actually shape the debate, which is, after all, about their lives and not ours. I’ll close here by linking to the Stories From Behind The Red Light blog, which is run by actual Irish-based sex workers. They are the people who should have been up on that panel last night.

About Wendy Lyon

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

13 responses »

  1. …and they only got worse since…Benson keeps retweeting this for some reason:

    “Possibly the most ridiculous argument for prostitution was flexible working hours so women can b there 4 their kids”

    Leaving aside the fact that the single most important obligation of any mother’s life is to be there for her children, it is hard fact that austerity measures are driving mothers to work before their children can be left to fend for themselves without access to adequate, affordable childcare.

    One of the biggest factors pushing people into sex work has always been that, in very hard practical terms, it can be impossible to find, let alone afford, suitable, adequate childcare for the 50+ hours needed to work full time. If your child has any kind of illness or special needs that difficulty increases exponentially.

    Sex work means that a woman can earn an adequate income in a few hours a week at whatever time of days suits her best. It is far easier, and cheaper to find adequate, affordable childcare for a couple of evenings a week, which is far better and safer for her children.

    For some reason, despite being one of the biggest factors pushing women into sex work, as well as being a factor that impacts equally o many, many other women, and could be addressed to their benefit too, this is something the NGOs have never wanted to acknowledge or talk about.

    If they had taken a more realistic attitude during the boom it is one factor that really could have been eradicated, not just for sex workers, but for many more women.

    But nobody bothered.

    • In Suzanne Jenkins’s PhD research on escorts, Beyond Gender, three-quarters of cis-female respondents, and about half of cis-male and transgender respondents, listed “flexibility of working hours” as a plus of the work.

      In the New Zealand Prostitution Law Review Committee’s 2008 evaluation of decriminalisation, more than 80% of sex workers across all sectors (street, managed indoor, private indoor) listed “flexible working hours” as a reason for not leaving the sex industry.

      People outside the industry might not think this is a significant pull factor, but it can’t just be ignored or dismissed when such huge numbers of sex workers themselves say it’s important.

      • Hopefully we will be able to remedy some of these ongoing misunderstandings as, at the request of some of their advertisers (who feel their indentifying information such as usernames, IPs and passwords are safe from abuse there, as they might not be elsewhere), Ruhama and friends have been invited to not just read (as they do), but also participate in discussions here:

        The moderators will insist they are treated with the same courtesy as any other poster at all times, subject to the same sanctions

        This is a golden opportunity for Ruhama to justify their outreach funding and engage with the real indoor sex workers they have been unable to access in the past and find out for themselves how they really feel and what they really want.

        It will be interesting to see if they have the integrity to take the offer up.

  2. Why aren’t actual sex workers on Vincent Browne’s show or any other mainstream TV or radio program for that matter? Is it because the Turn Off The Red Light campaign refuse to debate with sex workers? Or is it because sex workers don’t want to lose their precious anonymity?

    The greatest enemy that the Turn Off the Blue Light campaign faces is not the T.O.R.L. campaign but stigma. As Franklin Roosevelt put it, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

    United you stand, divided you fall. Each sex worker faces a choice. You can strike out on your own. You can feed, clothe and furnish a future for your children, a noble pursuit….in which case, the TORL campaign will pick you off one by one.

    Or you can unite, fight for your survival and strike for victory. Fight for your health, safety, human, civil and labour rights on a par with all other workers. Fight for the complete legalization of the adult sex work industry in the Republic of Ireland. Fight for the right of street sex workers and small owner operated brothels to operate anywhere in the country. Fight for the right of adult migrants to work as sex workers without the threat of deportation.

    This recession, with the EU/IMF imposed cut in Gardai numbers, had bought you time only. In the not too distant future, extra layers of criminality may be added to the sex work industry in the Republic of Ireland. The purchase of sex may become a criminal offense as is the case in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Beyond that, the sale of sex may also become a criminal offense as is the case in the USA. The sting operation in Limerick last December as a result of which 21 men pled guilty to importuning or soliciting female garda officers posing as prostitutes may well be rolled out nationwide in the not too distant future.

    If a banker can stand proud, can tell us who he is, tell us his entire history and tell us where he lives, I don’t why a sex worker can’t do the same. If sex workers can unite and campaign united in the most impoverished parts of India and fight for their human rights and dignity, I don’t see why sex workers in the Republic of Ireland, one of the wealthiest countries, on paper, on the planet, cannot do the same.

    Do you really think that 166 TDs are anxious to introduce more layers of zero tolerance to the sex work industry? I promise you that 120 of those 166 TDs have enough commonsense on their shoulders to realize that the zero tolerance approach, whether applied to sex work, abortion or drug addiction, is counterproductive. They quietly recognize the disaster that is our zero tolerance approach to abortion and don’t want a zero tolerance approach to be extended to other areas of social policy.

    The T.O.R.L. campaign is a rotten edifice. All the T.O.B.L. campaign needs to do is unite, kick in the door, and the whole rotten edifice will come collapsing to the ground. Its strength is more apparent than real.

    Justice is on your side. God is on your side. Right is on your side. Humanity is on your side. Sisters and brothers, now is not the time to divide and engage in petty quarrels. Instead, let us unite and hold hands around the fire of a just cause.

  3. So campaign, like ‘fluffy feminists’ do, for affordable childcare and against a culture of misogyny, instead of campaigning to validate the behaviour of men who get off on humiliating and abusing women. One of the most upsetting things I have seen recently is the reviews men write of prostitutes on escort websites. I tried to research it to write about it but it made me sick and I mean that literally. They seem like sociopaths. They were actually laughing at the women they had just humiliated and it was the humiliation that did it for them. What on earth is wrong with them? I believe men can be better than this. The politics of this blog seem to be entirely based on the belief that men’s nature means that women and our laws have to work around their uncontrollable sexual urges. Why can’t they just jerk off and have a heart? Why doesn’t this blog have anything critical to say about them? We are not here to fulfill their needs. If we were in a stronger position economically we would be able to tell them to go and do just that. Now that is worth campaigning for. This is a feminist blog that no misogynist would have any problems with. If they start thinking of women as human beings, they will start treating women the way they expect to be treated themselves. Prostitution is a product of their inflated sense of entitlement and our lack of it. Susan McKay and the Ruhama lady and others like them seem to be pleading with these men to have a heart and seem to be baffled as to how they can get off on such cruelty. That seems reasonable to me. Even if you think they’re wrong on the stats, at least they have the courage to stand up to the Myersites.

    • Do you realise that in your comment you’ve made twice as many references to men as to women? My feminism doesn’t centre men’s feelings, men’s actions or indeed men’s reactions. It’s about women’s lives and experiences, and if a particular policy is going to have negative consequences for women – as the one advocated by Sarah Benson and Susan McKay has been shown to do – then of course I’m going to unapologetically oppose it. How men (misogynist or otherwise) feel about that position is not my concern.

      And no, you don’t get brownie points for making up evidence or ignoring existing evidence just because you’re taking on a few high-profile men. There is nothing admirable about denying women’s actual, lived experiences in order to further an ideology, least of all an ideology that purports to have women’s best interests at heart.

      • Well I don’t think everyone who disagrees with you is simply lying. Stats are always massively contested, so I would have to assume as a non-expert that you’re all speaking in good faith. But men’s actions have an effect on women and we wouldn’t be having this discussion if the problem didn’t start with their actions, so proudly refusing to think about them is strange.

        If decriminalisation has to happen because attempts to protect women without legally and culturally validating misogyny have not worked, then yes, decriminalisation is the right road to take sadly but why must we always file into two equally unappealling camps? The swedish model people on one side who are willing to stand up to misogyny but are apparently wrong and the “sex positive” people on the other who always seem to be really dismissive about the idea that misogyny is even a problem? Women choose this life, they say, and what are men to do if their wives won’t put out? The poor dears. It’s a right wing libertarian line on exploitation. It’s technically true but it’s horrible. I can’t accept, for example, what she was saying/implying about men’s needs being met because their wives aren’t being sufficiently ‘kind’ to them. Good grief, it’s a good thing women don’t turn to sexual humiliation of others when their partners are being less than attentive or we’d have a real problem on our hands! Traumatised boys everywhere. Is there no way to go with the stats without just giving in to those horrible ideas?

        Also the burger meat comment was not just her linguistic flourish, it was a quote from a former prostitute. I can’t imagine what it must feel like after years of sexual abuse for the woman who said that to be told it was all her choice. Hooray for agency, eh?

        • Big difference between thinking about men’s actions and centring them. Even in your concession about decriminalisation you still manage to turn the focus back to men and misogyny. The evidence suggests that most women in prostitution are at least notionally capable of leaving it, and don’t because the available alternatives are at best less appealing and at worst intolerable, so clearly the misogyny they experience in sex work isn’t the overriding issue to them. It may be the overriding issue to some feminists, but if they make it the basis of their attempt to eradicate prostitution they aren’t going to get very far.

          If you think all those who argue for decriminalisation are doing it from a sex-positive libertarian perspective, you aren’t following the debate closely enough. And you certainly haven’t read this blog very closely.

          With regard to the “burgers” comment, the woman who initially made it may well have felt like a burger, and it’s entirely possible that she didn’t have any choice. In Sarah Benson’s telling of it, though, all sex workers are reduced to burgers, none of them have any choice or agency. It’s one of the most dehumanising things I’ve ever heard said about a whole category of women.

  4. Yes because it was precisely intended to try to get across to people how the men made her feel. She was presumably trying to say the men made her feel like a piece of meat, and was trying to get across the idea that it’s not just like working in a shop “you’re not selling the meat, you are the meat”. It was very clear I thought that she wasn’t saying anything about the inherent burgerishness of women!

    • She was saying something about the inherent burgerishness of women in the sex industry – all of them, and whether or not they feel that way themselves. That goes considerably beyond just saying “This is how I felt.” Do you really not see a problem with universalising one person’s experience in a way that stigmatises everyone in that particular category? Especially when, as on the Vincent Browne show, the person actually making the stigmatising comment isn’t the one who had that experience but is simply appropriating the opinion of someone who did.

    • Jessica as i survivor of prostitution abuse you are absolutely right and i thank you for your stance on this issue and the survivors in Ireland will be making their voice heard again very soon and all Miss Lyon proves is that intelligence alone does not equate to wisdom. Thank you again

  5. No, Ms de Faoite, Jessica is not right. What does she really know about sex workers or the men who visit them? One cannot generalize that ALL sex workers are unhappy doing this type of work in the same way that you can’t generalize that ALL male clients treat them with a lack of respect. I, unlike Jessica, actually know what I’m talking about.

    • The very fact that you think you have a right to buy a woman’s body in the first place shows a lack of respect “John”, oh this “Feminist Ireland” is borderline ridiculous at this stage, good luck & don’t annoy me with a reply, I actually have a life!


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