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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Your girlie bits offend some people.

A PR disaster for feminine hygiene company Femfresh developed on the internet this week after their refusal to use the word “vagina” on their facebook page. Femfresh make feminine hygiene wipes – that is, wipes for vaginas, among a range of other products from gels to washes that serve the same purpose. One would expect that a company in the business of selling vagina-related products wouldn’t have any problem with saying the word vagina.

It was not to be. Instead of saying the v-word they took to using a number of words instead of it such as “va jay jay, kitty, nooni, lala, froo froo!” to describe women’s vaginas. It would be interesting to see transcipts of the discussions of their marketing meetings where that decision was made.

If you cared about your Lala at all you dirty girl, you’d buy our stuff.

Their Facebook page, which has now been deleted as a result of the uproar, was aghast with comments from rightfully disgruntled women who took umbrage with the fact that the Femfresh felt the need to give their vagina a new, rather infantilised, and for many insulting, name. The Facebook page showed an image of a woman at a festival under which someone added the most wonderful comment;

“I can’t go to any festivals! I’ll be too busy sitting at home crying about the embarrassing smell of my shame-shame.”


It generated a very interesting discussion on various blogs about why women took offence to the Femfresh idea that there was something offensive about the word ‘vagina’ and why it really didn’t need another name because the word ‘vagina’ was sufficient in itself.

The thing is though; nobody should be really surprised that Femfresh would consider that the word ‘vagina’ is too offensive to use on their facebook page and that a more sanitised word should be employed instead. Their whole business is based on the premise that vaginas are inherently offensive and in need of sanitising  -coincidentally, women have the opportunity to make their genitals less offensive if they buy Femfresh products to wash themselves with. It wouldn’t do to let women believe that their genitals are pretty much fine in their natural state.

This is about sending women a message that female bodies, where they are not aided by products that alter their natural state, be it their skin colour, hair levels, or ph balance for that matter, are unfeminine and unnatural and it is imperative that women engage in the alteration and self-regulation of their own bodies. To just wash normally, according to Femfresh, would not be hygienic enough, despite being contrary to all known medical evidence, so one must buy their product and do something extra. Where is Foucault when you need him?

There are rules within patriarchal capitalism and women who do not conform to the self-regulation of the body must be painted as being abnormal lest it threaten the sales of body-altering products. Although she wrote on the issue of weight, it’s rather similar to philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s idea that women’s bodies in their natural state in Western societies are construed as being uncontained, uncontrolled and dangerous to a Western Patriarchal order. The woman’s body is positioned as being in need of control when in its natural state – almost as if it possesses a formlessness and disorder that threatens the order of patriarchy if left untamed. A body in no need of “untaming” would have no need for the purchase of commodities to tame it, and where would that leave capitalism?

Medical discourse decides what is healthy, and Femfresh (as well as other companies selling similar products) have attempted to appropriate the ability to control the “ph balance” of a vagina despite the fact that the vagina is self-regulating when it comes to its ph balance. But products sell much faster when you convince people that it’s for the good of their health.

There are many similarities to the marketing of these products and menstruation products.  Simone De Beauvoir wrote about the idea of shame attached to the female body as far back as 1949;

“It is not easy to play the idol, the fairy, the faraway princess when one feels a bloody cloth between one’s legs”.

And even today despite its normality (for the majority of cis-women at least) menstruation or even the natural and normal activity of what goes on between a woman’s legs is deemed to be a tainted aspect of femininity that she must keep hidden and secret at all times – because any other party’s knowledge of it would damage her femininity.

Advertisements for Femfresh style hygiene products as well as menstrual products depict the unattended woman’s genitals as a threat to the traditional image of femininity. Even the packaging for the products is specifically designed so as to be “discrete” and the secrecy of compliance with menstrual etiquette serves to reinforce to women their status as objects, and not as humans. This type of grooming is portrayed by these companies as a method for women to self-improve on the way to self-fulfilment; liberation will be found in the idealised body type – you must look a certain way, and you must smell a certain way. As they frame it, to not engage in this practice is to let yourself go and for a woman – according to the terms of patriarchal capitalism – to let yourself or your body go is to reject womanhood itself.

Thus self-improvement can be achieved, but it must be purchased by using more products and spending more money. For Femfresh the process is not an optional extra – it is about being healthy and maintaining a ph balance after all – it is about paying to bring the body to a state of normality as they have defined it and rescinding the body’s own control of itself.

Confidence problems? Femfresh will sort that. All you need to do it wipe your ladybits and make sure it smells like a meadow down there. Or else, no confidence for you!

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New edition of Look Left out now

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Just a short announcement that the new Look Left is out now, featuring a piece by yours truly on the Swedish sex trade law (along with an opposing view). For a list of places to buy it, click here.

ETA: You can now read a PDF of my article here.

It’s also got the following articles:

* Another Europe is Possible
* Interview with Mandate General Secretary John Douglas
* Michael Taft on the possibilities for building a progressive future
* Conor McCabe on the myth of NAMA’s ghost estates
* Gavin Titley on the media’s reporting of the economic crisis
* The Price of Corruption
* Belfast: Divided by Walls, United by Poverty
* The politics of the Pogues
* Brian Hanley on Frank Ryan’s Street Fighting Years
* Lauren Arrington on Delia Larkin and the Irish Women Workers’ Union
* What Now for the ULA?
* Egypt’s Permanent Revolution?
* Stormont’s Policies a Recipe for Poverty

Well worth the €2. Please check it out. And thanks to the editors for inviting me to contribute.

Is the legality of buying sex in Ireland a “loophole”?

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More and more lately, I’ve been hearing advocates of a sex purchase ban in Ireland claim that it is a “loophole” in Irish law that makes it legal to buy sex. This letter in today’s Sunday Independent is an example.

The law governing prostitution in Ireland is the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, which makes it an offence to solicit in public (whether as buyer or seller) for the purposes of prostitution. The Act does not, as that letter notes, make the purchase (or sale) of sex per se illegal.

But is that a loophole?

The word “loophole” implies that when the law was drafted, legislators unintentionally left an aspect of the subject matter uncovered, thereby leaving a particular action legal that was not meant to be left legal. Or as Wikipedia defines it:

A loophole is an ambiguity in a system, such as a law or security, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the intent, implied or explicitly stated, of the system.

Which means that the absence of a prohibition on buying sex can only be a loophole if the law was actually intended to outlaw the purchase of sex, but was drafted in such a way as to inadvertently fail to do so.

As it happens, Irish parliamentary debates are online and so it’s quite easy to see exactly what the intent of a law was. And here we see the then-Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who introduced the bill, explaining its purpose to the Seanad (Senate):

I have explained in both Houses that prostitution is not illegal. What transpires in private between consenting adults is no business of the criminal law. The law must be concerned with the nuisance and annoyance caused by the public face of prostitution which is, in effect, soliciting, importuning or loitering for the purposes of prostitution.

This really couldn’t be any clearer. There was absolutely no intention in the bill to make the exchange of sex for money illegal, for either party, so long as it takes place between consenting adults behind closed doors. There was neither explicit nor implicit intention; there is no ambiguity. There is no “loophole”.

I suspect that pro-criminalisation advocates know this, and that their use of the word “loophole” is simply a discursive strategy aimed at portraying their proposal as a modest one. It seems to be a reaction to the plan of the current Minister for Justice for a consultation process on whether and how to reform our prostitution laws. By portraying their proposal as the tightening of a loophole rather than an actual policy change, they imply that there really isn’t a need for a consultation process at all, and if it has to go ahead, it should be merely a formality to get over and done with quickly.

It’s a clever enough strategy, but one fundamentally grounded in untruth.

Human trafficking in Ireland, part 2 (and about those brothel raids)

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In the comments to this post a few weeks ago, where I looked at the Irish government’s latest human trafficking report, a reader pointed me to the text of a presentation given recently by Detective Superintendent Noel Clarke of the Garda Síochána (Irish police)’s Human Trafficking Unit. I promised to give it a post of its own, which I meant to do last weekend, but something else intervened. Which turned out to be just as well, because in the meantime we’ve had the island-wide brothel raids which I referred to in this post – and what we’ve learned from those raids ties in very neatly with the contents of the presentation.

Much of Clarke’s statement is bland operational stuff but a couple points drew my attention. The first is his reference to the administrative status available to trafficked persons:

In the cases where the potential victim was not legally in the State and there were reasonable grounds to suspect that crime had occurred they were granted a Recovery and Reflection period and a subsequent Temporary Residence Permission… In 2011 only one of the 57 potential victims did not have a permission to be in the State and that individual was granted a Recovery & Reflection period and a subsequent Temporary Residence Permission.

This underscores what I said in the earlier post about the status serving as an anti-deportation measure, hence not being applied to persons who already have some kind of protection against deportation. But as you can see from the stats in that post, that status is “asylum seeker” for the majority of persons reported. And around 95% of asylum seekers in Ireland will lose their protection against deportation once their claims have been determined (that’s the approximate rejection rate). The Department of Justice gives the impression (paragraph 10) that the administrative arrangements will kick in automatically for identified trafficking victims should their other permission expire, but that’s not what actually happens: instead, failed asylum seekers who have been trafficked must ask for recognition under the arrangements, as a last-ditch effort to avoid deportation, at precisely the time when their immigration status is most precarious. Which is an awfully cruel procedural hoop to put vulnerable people through. It’s one of only several reasons why the arrangements are woefully inadequate for the people they are meant to assist, but that’s a subject for another post.

Another interesting thing in the presentation is that Clarke says:

The one significant trend emerging from the data is that in approximately two-thirds of the cases and after a detailed investigation no evidence of human trafficking has been disclosed.

Or to read it the other way around, only about one-third of the cases that are reported to the Gardaí as involving human trafficking actually do involve human trafficking. This is not too far from my interpretation of the 2011 data as showing only 14 confirmed cases out of 57 reported (that’s actually around one quarter, but the difference between a third of 57 and a quarter of 57 is only five people).

And that brings us neatly to last week’s brothel raids, which for all the hoopla seem to have been something of a damp squib as an anti-trafficking operation. To the best of my knowledge, there are no reports that any trafficking victims were found in this jurisdiction, though apparently three were found in the North (bearing in mind, however, the much broader offence of trafficking there). And according to this piece in today’s Sunday Independent,

Senior sources said that all the young women who were detained or questioned said they were working in the sex trade here voluntarily…Gardai disagree with claims by Catholic and feminist groups that there are high levels of human trafficking involved in Ireland’s sex trade.

Now, there should always be a health warning attached to statements attributed to anonymous “senior sources”. But in this case we have a named source saying pretty much the same thing. To return to that Noel Clarke presentation about the data in the Department of Justice report:

we are of the view that is it an accurate portrayal of the extent and nature of the problem in Ireland.

And if it is an accurate portrayal, then there aren’t high levels of human trafficking involved in Ireland’s sex trade because at most there were 14-19 victims last year while according to the pro-criminalisation lobby themselves there are over 1000 women in the Irish sex industry. Less than 2% is not a high level by any measure.

These kinds of figures are unreliable, of course; I’m always the first to say that. Undoubtedly there are cases that have gone undetected. But when even a police operation of last week’s scale fails to turn up evidence of a large number of victims, the burden of proof can’t keep being put on the side of the sceptics. It’s all well and good pointing out that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence but as justification for a potential legal change with significant consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods, it’s nowhere near good enough.

One final thing I want to address about the raids is the claim that police were not targetting the women selling sex. That is patently not true for the North, where three Polish sex workers have been prosecuted despite acknowledgement from all sides that there was no trafficking or pimping involved. There don’t seem to have been any arrests of sex workers in the South (despite the admission by Gardaí, in this piece again, that it is usually sex workers rather than pimps who face brothel-keeping charges), but look at what this article says:

An unknown number of prostitutes were spoken to by gardaí and their immigration details were checked. They will not face prosecution but may become witnesses.

All those congratulating the Gardaí for “not going after the women” seem to have missed that little detail emphasised above. If they were truly “not going after” them, why would they need to check their immigration status? What exactly do supporters of these raids think the Gardaí are going to do with the knowledge gleaned from those checks? In a country where even trafficking victims from outside the EU aren’t safe from eventual deportation, you can be damn sure that migrant sex workers won’t be; at best, they may be kept around long enough to serve as witnesses (if they don’t make themselves disappear before then). An undocumented person has more to fear from the police than prosecution alone. That’s something criminalisation advocates who think the Swedish model would turn sex workers and police into BFFs really need to get their heads around.

On RTÉ’s Prime Time last Thursday, Paul Maguire, the reporter whose February “exposé” of the online industry arguably set the stage for these raids, queried whether they’ve had any effect. He pointed out that the number of escort ads the day after the raids was actually higher than it was the day before. But why would the number go down? After all, there were as many women struggling to pay their bills the day after as the day before. There were as many migrants without employment permission the day after as the day before. And for those can truly be said to be in the business by choice – the so-called happy hookers – well, they weren’t the raids’ target anyway, were they?

None of the above means I don’t think there is exploitation in the Irish sex industry, or that it shouldn’t be investigated. But it is legitimate to query whether the outcome of this particular operation justified its considerable cost, and to ask whether more could have been achieved with less heavy-handed tactics. And if the professed concern for the women is genuine, then we need also ask about the impact of the raids on them. It simply cannot be assumed that they’d welcome such interventions with the same enthusiasm their would-be rescuers do. Particularly if, as the evidence we have suggests, such a small percentage of them actually need rescuing in the first place.