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(Hoping that) Women Hurt: regret as a tool of advocacy

Two weeks ago, Irish parliamentarians were invited to a presentation on the subject of “abortion regret”. While the invitation didn’t explicitly advocate for the continued illegality of abortion, no one could fail to recognise its underlying agenda: firstly because it came from Senator Rónán Mullen, who’s barely known for anything else, and secondly because the featured speaker, Julia Holcomb, is a spokesperson for Silent No More, a self-described “project of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life”. Holcomb was there not only to share her own unhappy story, but to convince Irish politicians of the need to maintain our near-absolute ban on abortion, in an attempt to prevent others from experiencing the same regret.

This campaign is one example of what Yale Law Professor Reva Siegel calls “woman-protective anti-abortion argument” – a strategic shift away from the foetus fetishism that has traditionally defined the right-to-life movement, to centring the pregnant woman in its message by portraying abortion as contrary to her best interests. We’ve seen this in Ireland before, with billboard campaigns by Youth Defence (“abortion tears her life apart”) and Women Hurt, a sort of home-grown version of Silent No More.

At the same time, we’re seeing the emergence of a new anti-sex work campaign led by women who describe themselves as “survivors of prostitution”. Like Julia Holcomb, they have the patronage of people whose stance is an ideological one, unrelated to any regret a woman who had that experience might feel. Her trauma is incidental to these people, and instrumentalised by them, but it’s no doubt very real to her and she has every entitlement to share it.

Regret can be a useful element in a cautionary tale, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with suggesting that a woman think carefully about how she might feel about a decision later on. But as an argument for prohibitory legislation, it’s extremely problematic. And I’m not just talking about the logical inconsistency of banning some things that women might regret but not others (marriage, tattoos, Tequila shots); or banning things that some women might regret but not others; or banning things that women do when they’re illegal anyway (the women of Women Hurt all evaded the prohibition by going to England; many self-described survivors of prostitution worked in a criminalised setting). The idea that regret is, in and of itself, a reason to legally constrain women’s actions is conceptually flawed, paternalistic and degrading. It’s grounded in age-old sexist nonsense about women needing choices to be made for us, as unreasonable, feeble-minded creatures who need protection from the dangers we pose to ourselves. If “to err is human”, what does that say about people who can’t be allowed to err?

There’s another thing that bothers me about it, and that’s how the traumatised-woman-as-poster-girl creates a need for more traumatised women. The women who don’t regret their abortion or sex work threaten to undermine the effectiveness, as an advocacy tool, of those who do; thus, they must be silenced, discredited, or worse still, recruited. I say “worse still” because recruiting them often involves persuading them that they were traumatised all along and didn’t know it. Real-life examples are the woman who speaks unapologetically about her abortion and is invited to receive “counselling” from an anti-abortion agency, the sex worker who takes advantage of “exiting” services when she decides it’s time to move on and finds herself subjected to re-education programmes that recast her experience as abusive when she didn’t see it that way.

Advocates of these methods insist that the woman has merely been in denial, that they’re helping her come to terms with her hidden trauma in order to heal her. But there’s something deeply troubling about taking a person who’s at ease with her past and turning her into a victim. It would be bad enough if this were done in the genuine albeit misguided belief that it would ultimately help her, but it isn’t. It’s done to advance an agenda, and that’s unconscionable.

The bottom line is this. When someone says they don’t regret their abortion or their sex work, or anything else that some people find traumatising, then, absent real (and individualised) evidence to the contrary, there’s really only one acceptable response. It’s along the lines of “That’s great, I’m glad that you’re OK with your experience.” Anything else amounts to wishing trauma on someone – and it’s a short hop from there to thinking they deserve trauma for making a choice you disapprove of. It’s a hateful, nasty, punitive approach, and it’s incompatible with any genuine concern for the welfare of the women in question.




About Wendy Lyon

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

50 responses »

  1. “[Making women out to be victims when they aren’t] amounts to wishing trauma on someone – and it’s a short hop from there to thinking they deserve trauma for making a choice you disapprove of.”…well said! Thanks!

  2. It would be interesting to see (proper peer reviewed) research on the comparative effects of abortion and adoption on women. As someone (admittedly, a man) who has researched and written about adoption, I can say that I have yet to meet a natural mother who was not permanently scarred by the experience of having to give up a real, live child with whom she has bonded, On the other hand, none of the women I know who have experienced abortion seem to have suffered long term consequences from parting with a foetus. Admittedly, this has no scientific validity, but I believe a scientific investigation would come to broadly similar conclusions.

  3. A very well argued presentation – I agree totally with your conclusions with regard to abortion and also with what mike Milotte said about the different, long term effects of abortion and adoption.
    I am rather more cautious about applying the same conclusions to sex workers – given the coercion and substance abuse issues that are often involved.
    However, theoretically, under certain circumstances, e.g. if a woman or a man freely decided on prostitution and were free to select clients and keep 100% of their earnings and then decided to exit the “oldest profession” – i might agree they could close the door on that period of their lives without a backward glance.
    But I doubt it – it’s a question of the effects of repeated actions over a period of time vs what is usually a one-off (abortion)

    • Oh dude. Do you realise what you did there? You did exactly what this piece is criticising. Slow clap.

      • No I did not – as far as regards your central argument that “regrets” should not be used as a basis for legislation. I agree with that.

        I merely said that outside of a set of certain circumstances, men and women who enter prostitution and then decide to abandon the second oldest profession most probably have to deal with a series of issues, with regret/remorse most likely being one of them

        • Yes, you did, and in fact you’ve just done it again. The call for legislation was not the only thing I was criticising.

        • I agree with Ben. It’s ridiculous to compare a woman having an abortion with a woman working as a prostitute. I just see no valid comparison between these two things either as life experiences or as political questions. Given your pro-legalisation stance on both these issues, I simply don’t believe the only comparison you’re making is that they are both things women are sometimes said to regret, for political reasons. Obviously, what you’re implying is that these experiences are comparable in some more profound way – I imagine it would have something to do with you wrongly categorising prostitution as also being an issue of a woman’s bodily autonomy or ‘choice’, when in reality it’s about male power over women – and abortion is the polar opposite,

        • Um, your feels about sex work are really not the issue here. (Mine aren’t either, but just for the record, your characterisation of them is absurdly reductive.) The issue is how people who have sold sex feel about it. And they aren’t all traumatised by the experience, no matter how much you wish they were.

    • Well said Ben. I am dedicated to the pro choice movement, but I think it is pathetic that a woman who has *probably* never been a prostitute can think to speak for the women who have been and are in prostitution.
      If we as women are to claim that at the end of the day in pregnancy, it is our body our choice that is being hijacked by coercion, financial and moral pressure and now forced birth;
      If we ALSO claim that 95% of women in Prostitution would not choose another “job” rather than selling/ renting their bodies to often violent, dirty or perverted clients, if they instead had affordable childcare or a living wage and/or education, or were not trafficked or coerced, we do the prostitutes of today and tommorrow a great dishonour and are hypocrites to boot.
      (dismissive hypocrites it seems, going by the response you got from the author of this opinion piece)
      When the day comes that a child can say to their friends “my mummy takes money to have sex with your daddy ” and it is normal, that is the day when I will support prostitution. In the meantime I believe it is the right thing to criminalise the buyer, rather than the prostitute. I’m not supporting a small handful of ‘sex loving’ champagne lifestyle prostitutes over the majority who experience it as degradation, exploitation, abuse and social exclusion.
      Prostitution is an entirely separate issue to abortion.

      • Right, so saying that sex workers who say they’re not traumatised by it should be believed is “speaking for them”, but saying that 95% of them would do other work if they could and the rest are just champagne drinking nymphomaniacs is, apparently, not. Mmm-kay.

      • Lynda, I’ll ask you the same I ask other people who put forward such narratives about sex work. Would you please bother to provide sources to back up your claims? You could start with the 95% claim. Thanks.

        • Melissa Farley;
          9/10 prostitutes surveyed wanted to exit prostitution. 7/10 suffered physical abuse , 7/10 had been physically assaulted, 7/10 had PTSD, and 6/10 had been raped.
          How’s your PTSD? Mines not great.

        • Lynda, seriously, citing Farley and her Wikipedia page (which by the way includes information that her work has been called into question) isn’t evidence.

          To support her conclusions, Farley “draws very selectively from the literature, citing her own work and that of many anti – prostitution activists (including Barry, Dworkin, Giobbe, Hughes, Jeffreys, and MacKinnon). Moreover, most of the empirical studies she cites are deeply flawed methodologically. Sampling biases and other procedural problems, in greater or lesser degree, per – vade her literature, yet Farley never addresses this problem because that might undermine her sweeping claims.”

          In one of her own studies, “Farley, Baral, Kiremire, and Sizgin (1998) interviewed workers in several countries: In Turkey, they interviewed 50 women who were brought to a hospital by the police for the purpose of venereal disease control; in Zambia, they interviewed 117 women at an organization that offers support services to prostitutes; in Thailand, respondents were interviewed on the street, in a beauty parlor, and in an organization offering support services; in South Africa, people were interviewed on the street, in brothels, and at a drop-in center. No information is provided as to how these locations were selected, or whether alternative locations were rejected for some reason. We know that people accessed at agencies providing services are likely to be particularly distressed. Finally, though Farley lists the topics covered in the interviews, none of the actual questions is presented. It is especially important to know the exact wording of questions, especially on this topic, because question wording may skew the answers.”

          Weitzer, Ronald “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution”
          VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, Vol. 11 No. 7, July 2005 934-949

          And Justice Susan Himel at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice stated:

          “I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic…her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions. For example, Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion…that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence. Furthermore…she failed to qualify her opinion…that [post-traumatic stress disorder] could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution. Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. For example, comments such as, “prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” and “just as pedophiles justify sexual assault of children….men who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women” make her opinions less persuasive. Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research, including, “that prostitution is a terrible harm to women, that prostitution is abusive in its very nature, and that prostitution amounts to men paying a woman for the right to rape her.” Accordingly…I assign less weight to Dr. Farley’s evidence.”

          Bedford v. Canada, 2010 ONSC 4264 (CanLII)

        • Perhaps you would prefer Ekis Ekman who describes here : how in Australia, where they have long campaigned for liberalisation a child sex abuse victim is now referred to as ” a child sex worker”.
          Or better still, let’s talk about Douglas Fox? He seems like your kinda guy?

        • I’d love to know what Ekis Ekman’s source for that claim is. Strange that your link doesn’t provide it.

          As for Douglas Fox, I’m mystified by pro-criminalisation people’s fascination with him, as if he was some kind of big important figure in the sex worker rights movement. When in fact, the view of these sex workers seems to be pretty common.

        • Frankly, I had my fill of Kajsa Ekis Ekman at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. How about instead of dropping names of activists for one cause or another, you provide some peer-reviewed academic sources?

          Did you ever notice that sex workers and members of the imaginary “pimp lobby”, i.e. people who advocate for sensible sex work legislation rather than engage in utopian end demand campaigns, never deny that exploitative labour situations do exist in some parts of the sex industry and that none of them advocates for sexualised violence against children? The people you list, however, paint everything in black and black. That alone should give you something to think about, but I guess that’s inconvenient…

        • ..and I’ve had my fill of privilaged men, gay, straight and uber sexual, telling me that I should shut up and read their academic crap about how it’s just fine and dandy to sell a woman.
          It’s not, and never will be, no matter what way you dress it up. So don’t bother me. I came here thinking it was a feminist blog. I came here thinking it was pro woman. Instead I find that I have stumbled into a nest of vipers with their heads so far up each other’s holes, they want to tell me that not only is it ok to sell mine, or sell ‘hers’ but it’s also ok for some useless excuse for a man think that it’s no problemo for him to buy it. It is a problem, and I, we are not going to shut up or go away.

        • Wendy, you think that exposing Douglas Fox, pimp extraordinaire, ‘sex worker’ (LMFAO), a so called leader in the pro-prostitution lobby as a despicable anti woman fiend is laughable because why exactly?
          Is it because he does not fit in with your closely gaurded narrative that pimps and madams should not be prosecuted any more than johns?
          Yes let’s just have a free for all, like in De Wallen where the authorities are closing down areas after having to wrest them back from the traffickers, drug dealers, pimps and other criminals.

        • The point is, the only people who think he’s a “leader” are the pro-criminalisation people like yourself. I have never heard a sex worker activist portray him as such.

          But really, the fact you think De Wallen is the alternative really shows how poorly you understand what the sex worker rights movement is calling for. Go and have a read of Gillian Abel’s research on the New Zealand model, and maybe then we can have an informed debate.

        • Wendy, bullshit. If that were the case he would not be representing the International Union of Sex workers ( when he is, as an escort agency owner a boss in fact. Wtf is that all about?) AND was allowed to make submissions to Amnesty International on behalf of ‘sex workers’ .
          Good going for a nobody, that only I portray as a pro prostitution leader!
          We are having an informed debate, you are just too bigoted to recognise that fact.

        • The IUSW hardly represents anyone. They have an impressive sounding name, but that’s all. If this were really an informed debate, you would know that.

        • Btw. Where is this prostitutes Utopia ? Where do the children of sex workers mingle happily with the children of their clients and say ” people’s sexual needs are human requirements just like air, water, food, shelter” ? Where is this wonderful haven to be found where there are no pimps, no coercion, no profit earned off of another woman’s most intimate parts?
          This is not about inverting the poxy patriarchal marriage contract. This is about the further degradation of women to the pared down role of sexual commodity for the absolute convenience and privilage of men.
          Where is this Nirvana where a woman can tell her landlord, bank manager, friends husband’s, family members, that she is a prostitute, without them also targeting her as saleable goods?
          Rather she stays unseen, isolated with only her co workers in her inner circle; she lies, she hides, she stays socially excluded from that which she wants most. To be loved and accepted for who she IS ; A mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, an aunt, a lover, a woman.
          Only a gay man can sashaay in there, childless, and say FU. A woman seldom walks the gauntlet alone, nor wants to.

      • Wendy, as someone who has worked as a sex worker, thank you so much! This is such a great piece. It’s something I’ve often felt during arguments but never been able to articulate.

        There’s so many times when “feminists” have repeatedly told me I must have been abused as a child, given graphic descriptions of imagined rapes, or said other horrible things trying to trigger me during discussions so that my response can be used to “prove” that I really am traumatised by sex work.

        It’s really a catch 22 thing too. Either you’re priviliged and not representative of sex workers, or you’re too traumatised to even be able to make decisions for yourself. Either way *they* get to speak on behalf of sex workers even though they’ve never been one.

        I actually can’t keep reading the comments here because they’re really upsetting. These people *do* want me to be traumatised. They want all the other people I’ve known who’ve done sex work to be traumatised. That’s why they keep using the offensive word “prostitute”. They want us to feel stigmatised.

        • Thanks for your comment Ema! I was speaking to another sex worker about this yesterday, and she mentioned again how many others she knows who decided to go to an “exit” service and found they were mainly interested in reframing their views about sex work. It’s abhorrent.

  4. @Mike “none of the women I know who have experienced abortion seem to have suffered long term consequences from parting with a foetus”

    On the other hand, plenty of known long term consequences both for parents and children in case of unwanted pregnancy.

    It’s beyond me how people can feel so entitled to regulate other peoples’s life decisions, that are non of their business, nor are they affected in any way. Approve or disapprove as much as you want, but an individual’s life decision has to be respected.

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  7. Thanks for this excellent article Wendy!

    The fact that both sex work and abortion sometimes have some negative consequences or negative aspects associated with them is generally not related to abortion or sex work itself, but to the stigma and criminalization around those things. This is what benmadigan got confused on – coercion and substance abuse are issues with roots in other causes and can be present in any profession or human activity, but will be more prevalent in activities that are stigmatized, criminalized etc.

    • sorry Joyce – I was not/am not confused.

      There may well be effects of stigma and criminalization around abortion in ireland,

      There are none in the USA and most EU countries. Please do have a look at

      There are clear difference in the effects of an abortion ( a one-off event) and the effects of prostitution (a repeated action over a period of time which is usually linked to coercion and substance abuse).

      I hope I have now explained my point of view clearly.
      Perhaps you can explain where exactly confusion arises?

  8. Reblogged this on Ema Teapot and commented:
    “There’s another thing that bothers me about it, and that’s how the traumatised-woman-as-poster-girl creates a need for more traumatised women. The women who don’t regret their abortion or sex work threaten to undermine the effectiveness, as an advocacy tool, of those who do; thus, they must be silenced, discredited, or worse still, recruited. I say “worse still” because recruiting them often involves persuading them that they were traumatised all along and didn’t know it. Real-life examples are the woman who speaks unapologetically about her abortion and is invited to receive “counselling” from an anti-abortion agency, the sex worker who takes advantage of “exiting” services when she decides it’s time to move on and finds herself subjected to re-education programmes that recast her experience as abusive when she didn’t see it that way.”

  9. Isn’t it so nice to have someone like Lynda, who has never met me, or talked to me, or could never understand anything that I deal with on a daily basis, has never spoken to anyone I work with, talk *for* me, and seem to know all about me. What would I do without people like her who deny my reality to replace it with their own.

    Do you mind if I let people speak for themselves? Please see the video below.

    • Calum, I did not speak *for* you, I spoke *about* you, after Wendy spoke *about* you.
      If you knew the difference, you would not speak for me or for countless women who would prefer if you, as a man, would speak for yourself only.

      • After insulting me, you, and others like you, indeed speak *for* me. Assuming that sex workers are damaged, assuming that sex workers would prefer to be doing other things, in assuming all the assumptions that you make about sex workers, you speak *for* me, and you speak *for* all other sex workers rather than listen. Talk to us, not about us. I speak with sex workers every day. I listen to them, I listen to what they are saying.

        And your friend on that link – can they actually do maths? Can Farley do maths? When the police gave their total for street based sex workers for Auckland city (not the whole of Auckland, just central Auckland), they gave a figure of 360. Farley claimed, and continues to claim, that following decriminalisation, the number of street based sex workers in Auckland had “increased 200%-400%”. Being kind, and taking the lower of her guestimates, 200%, that means there should be 720 street based sex workers on the streets of Auckland. When the report Farley was criticising was published, on the same page she references as a 400% increase, it explains that the number of street based sex workers in all of Auckland was 230 (also explains why that claim of a 400% increase is wrong). That’s the whole of Auckland, including South Auckland. Here’s a simple question, one you may want to ask your friend who thinks Farley rocks. Is 230 bigger or smaller than 720, the minimum number of street based sex workers that Farley claims there are in Auckland? So maybe for someone who can’t do maths, and who doesn’t speak to sex workers, Farley “rocks”, but to everyone else, it is clear she is wrong, plain wrong.

        And as for your other question, you may as well ask “most people are heterosexual, why are mothers women who have babies?”

        You may want to look at social determinants, compulsory heterosexuality, and the charmed circle.

        And you should also realise it’s not their bodies sex workers sell, it’s their services. There is a big difference. That is why the police move to a protectionist stance in a decriminalised environment, rather than a prosecutorial stance in a criminalised or abolitionist one. Why police and sex workers worked together to arrest a person in Christchurch over the weekend who had been harassing sex workers. In a criminalised environment, and in an abolitionist environment, that could not, would not happen.

    • While you are here Calum, I would also ask you the same question that I asked Wendy, as she could/would not answer.
      Most people are heterosexual, so why are most prostitutes women?

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