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Monthly Archives: October 2017

Statements, sentences, and the stories that hold up in court

The author of this piece wrote this as a reflection on her own experience of the court system as a victim of violence several years ago. As is frequently the case, the perpetrator entered a guilty plea, which meant the only court appearance for the victim was a sentencing hearing at the Circuit Court for the offence of assault causing harm.

The judge sentenced her abuser to 2 1/2 years but suspended the entire sentence, in part because of his “character”. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I’ve felt sick about the Tom Humphries case all day.

Character references in court are common, and they’re bizarre, but the totality of courtroom storytelling is even weirder, and I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the victim to see the rush to humanize him so much you’d think he’d just won a prize.

You really start to grasp the narrative injustice of a sentencing hearing when you look at the character reference in relation to its counterpart: the Victim Impact Statement. The Victim Impact Statement is still a relatively new introduction and is the only time the victim has a voice in a sentencing process.

The convicted person gets a whole production team to write his character. They write him a hero’s journey, from childhood, with the help of experts who even cast supporting characters to help narrate his story along the way. In contrast, the Victim Impact Statement can only reference the individual event the conviction is for, and can cite the effect of only this particular incident on life afterward, and nothing more.

I got a call to turn up at the garda station at midnight on a Saturday a few days before the sentencing. I got no brief, I just dictated some shit to a couple of prompts, and the garda wrote it all down. She asked me to read it over for accuracy, but she’d paraphrased badly, and it read like a school essay. I told her that in court, when I read this out, it wouldn’t sound anything like me.

You just read it from the page, she said, it’s just about the facts.

I said, there’s no way this is a believable version of me. I don’t even give facts this way.

But I didn’t get to have character, I just got to be one.

I learned when I arrived at court that anything outside of a single night of my life was inadmissible. I had added too much detail because how can you reduce a long and consistently injurious experience to one decontextualized moment? They took my statement and edited again, until it was essentially reduced to: it was bad and now I’m sad all the time. And they weren’t even my words.

So then you sit and listen to the twisted and carefully written hagiography of the convicted person: the good family he comes from that loves him very much and are here in the courtroom with him (as opposed to mine, whose absence didn’t go unnoticed), that that he was ‘student of the year’ in 1998, that he is a loving friend to all around him, and a talented designer (but honestly, even in 2012 he still thought Flash had a future, and what fucking good designer still thought that).

You just read lines that even you don’t believe are yours.

While the accused gets eulogized, you’re reduced only to your statement, which presents you, by design, as a thinly written cipher, who existed, briefly, as a device in someone else’s redemption narrative. This is his life, and this is your life.

Not only that, because the perpetrator’s side has done their opposition research, and the prosecution is mainly focused on making the case for the State, they barely mention you, lest they provoke a right of reply. Even if they care about justice enough to include you in their concerns, mentioning you again would just give the main character a chance to offer a reason you deserved it.

In the end, the judge makes a decision based on his or her interpretation of the sentencing guidelines. Which means that the severity of the punishment is determined by who has told the best story.

So then you walk out with the inverted trauma narrative running in your head, the one that is your worst fear: what if it was me? what if I just made it all up? what if I exaggerated everything because I can’t accept what a loser I am? It is, in fact, the story you’ve just heard: He’s a good person (so you must be the bad guy), you’re without worth (because your character got written out) and your merit is worse than irrelevant (because how dare you overestimate your importance to the story).

He’s a protagonist, you’re the background player who got killed off too early to need a backstory. Everyone knows who you’re supposed to root for.

I imagine that sentencing procedures were even worse before the Victim Impact Statement was introduced. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, instead of giving the victim a voice, at best, it provides texture for the main character, but mostly it amounts to replacing a deleted scene.

That’s its own form of narrative injustice.


Letter to my (often feminist) friends who are concerned about those in “prostitution” and think that criminalizing those who pay for sex really can’t be such a bad idea.

Guest post by Susann Huschke

I write this with you in mind, those friends of mine who are generally open-minded, critical, progressive leftists. We agree on a lot of things – like, that capitalism is a problem, that Theresa May needs to go, and of course Trump, too, and that gender equality continues to be worth fighting for.

But when it comes to “prostitution” – that is, the selling and buying of sexual services – you are not so sure about my views. You have heard me argue that criminalizing those who pay for sex is a bad idea, but perhaps I have not done a good enough job explaining why that is. I believe it would be fair to sum up your position as follows: “We want to live in a society where women do not sell sex to men. And to get there, we think that it would help if we made it a crime to buy sex.”

I believe that you have good intentions, thinking this way, and that you are not driven by hatred of women as sexual beings, like for example, those fundamentalist Christians who lobby for the criminalization of sex work around the world.

Before I go into details, let’s check we’re on the same page. If you answer NO to any of these questions, we’re not starting from the same set of assumptions, and in that case, this article is not written for you.

1. Do you generally feel that the people who are affected by a given change in policy should have a say in the policy process?
2. Do you feel that women, or indeed all (adult) people, have the right to determine what to do with their bodies, for example when it comes to reproductive rights and LGBT+ rights?
3. Do you believe that sound empirical social research is a worthwhile endeavor and should be feeding into political decisions and public discourse? And by sound empirical research I mean research that is a) designed and conducted by people who have been trained to do research; b) reflects critically and transparently on research questions, research methodologies, funding sources and researcher bias; and c) does not do any harm to the communities that are targeted in the research?

If you answered those three questions with a YES, you cannot possibly agree with the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the buyer of sexual services. And here is why.

1. Sex worker movements do not support the criminalization of buyers, not in Sweden, not in Ireland, not anywhere (;;; Yes, individual former sex workers (or survivors of prostitution as they prefer to be called) are often very prominent supporters, for whatever their reasons may be. But if you actually look at groups, movements and organizations that represent the diverse people who work in the sex industry – they don’t want criminalization. Why not? For example, because they feel that the more their way of making a living is criminalized, the less safe it is for them. And because they feel that criminalization adds to the stigma that is one of the worst parts of their job. And because they feel that those who propose these laws have not actually bothered to meet them; listen to them; engage with them in any meaningful way.

Interesting fact on the side: the Swedish model is often hyped up as punishing the punter (by criminalizing the purchase) and helping the sex worker (by decriminalizing the sale of sex). Now, in Ireland, both North and South, we only got the first part of the bargain. Sex workers continue to be criminalized, for example when they work together in pairs for safety – that is deemed “brothel-keeping” with the two sex workers “pimping” each other, and they continue to get arrested for that. Now, you might say that policy-makers just forgot to decriminalize sex workers because they were busy with the really important social issues. Or you might say they actually don’t give a rat’s ass about the well-being and safety of “fallen women” – they just want to sound like they do.

2. Among the most prominent supporters of the Swedish model are right-wing Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Surely, that should make you suspicious about their motives, and perhaps about the policies they propose. If you are ever in doubt about this, just take a brief look at the kind of worldview the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is spreading, and ask yourself if they are really your political allies?

3. There are many things that are unsound about the kind of “research” or statistics that get cited to support the claim that the Swedish model “works” – that is, that it really reduces sex trafficking and shrinks the sex industry, and that sex workers are happy and grateful about the law. Let me just highlight a few issues. For example, the fact that the Swedish police do not have many victims of sex trafficking in their statistics does not necessarily mean there are none. A very basic rule of thumb in research: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It might mean that they can’t find them, or worse, didn’t actually look for them because they were too busy policing consensual sexual acts between sex workers and clients. As a Northern Irish police officer explained to me in 2014, commenting on a collaboration with the Swedish police on an international crime network that exploited women in the sex industry: “They had no idea this was going on in Sweden. They said ‘we normally just go after the punters.’”

It is also a good idea (in any field and for any contested political question) to question the source of information. I am going to give you a very concrete example, and you will have to trust me that this is not an exception but a typical example of how research is misrepresented in this debate (or you start following the information back to the source like I did, which I highly recommend).

Supporters of the Swedish model present the view that sex work always constitutes violence and abuse. They pretend that this is a view based purely on empirical evidence, rather than a view based mainly on ideology – based on picking and choosing and tweaking selected bits of evidence rather than actually engaging with all the existing empirical data. See, if they clearly stated that their policy proposals were driven by their moral and political standpoints, at least we could have an open debate about these. None of us are morally neutral, especially when it comes to sex and money. [And if you are wondering what my moral and political position is, please re-read the questions I posed above, particularly No. 1. First and foremost, I am a firm believer in people’s right to self-determination, self-expression and self-representation, none of which are compatible with the views expressed by proponents of the Swedish model].

Now, let me give you an example of the misrepresentation of empirical evidence in this debate. In Northern Ireland, supporters of the Swedish model liked to support their view of sex work by arguing that the majority of people started selling sex when they were children or teenagers. This argument is explicitly presented, for example, on the website of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (a very successful lobby group across Ireland) as one of the “10 facts about prostitution.” They state that 75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children, citing as a source a conference paper by Prof. Margaret Melrose from 2002. I read the original paper and learned that Prof. Melrose’s research specifically investigated the exploitation of children in the British sex industry. And logically, because she wanted to know about child sexual exploitation, she recruited participants who had experienced child sexual exploitation, that is, people who had entered the sex industry before the age of 18. In her presentation, she states that 75% of the people in her sample, 75% of the people she interviewed, had started selling sex when they were children, i.e., 14 or younger – not 75% of all people in the sex industry! Huge difference!! And pretty obvious, even to the untrained lay eye. I also emailed Prof. Melrose to ask her about this rather distorted use of her study, and she replied to me saying:

“The findings were never intended to suggest that 75% of ALL women involved in sex work become or became involved [as children] – only those included in the study – and as we were looking at adult women who became involved before they were 18 this is hardly surprising. I am aware that the work has been used by those who argue that all sex work is violence against women – it is not a position I adhere to myself.”

Now, my last point. After everything I just presented to you, you might still say: But what about the kind of society we want to live in, should we not envision a world without “prostitution”? And you know what, I might actually agree with you.

But I also envision a world without Amazon, where temporary workers run from one shelf to another all day long to meet the targets, and get punished for taking sick leave. And a world without large scale agricultural businesses that employ undocumented workers who get paid shitty wages and are exposed to poisonous chemicals on a regular basis. And yes, also a world without neoliberal universities trying to compete in a market by running their staff into the ground until we end up with “burn-out”.

How do we get there? I would say, first and foremost, through solidarity with the workers. And second, through a critique of the social structures that enable exploitation. Distributing books, growing vegetables, investigating the world, and having sex, mind you, are not inherently problematic activities that need to be eradicated. It is the ways in which they are integrated into the current economic system and tied up with multiple forms of oppression along the lines of gender, “race”, class, and nation, amongst others, that is problematic!

So, what sex workers could really do with is, for example: free access to higher education, equal pay for women, decent social welfare, erasure of their criminal record when they try to leave the sex industry, legalization of their immigration status, and gender norms that do not instill in young people that men need to fuck (lots of) women and women need to please men.

So how about we align ourselves with the workers – of whatever industry you fancy – and fight for a better, more just, less violent society, rather than spending our time applauding a bunch of narrow-minded, hard-hearted misogynists and their (perhaps) well-meaning, yet out-of-touch feminist allies, for a judgmental, regressive, and ineffective law.

If you want to read more, check out, for example, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Abortion on demand and without apology

Pro-choicers: does the above sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you need to learn your fucking history. This was a slogan of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a movement that succeeded in greatly broadening access to abortion for women in the US and UK.

Sadly, it seems that the legacy of these older feminists’ activism has indeed been forgotten in Ireland. These days, when you hear a pro-choice activist speak the words “abortion on demand”, most of the time it’s for the purpose of denying that this is our objective at all. Even worse, the slogan has been actively disparaged by the Irish pro-choice movement as if it was a slur dreamed up by the Iona press office, with people who really ought to know better describing it as an “awful” phrase, as “stupid”, as “nonsense”.

To which I have to ask: if we aren’t fighting for abortion on demand, what is our fight all about?

The meaning of “on demand” isn’t particularly complicated or controversial, at least in any other context. The Oxford definition is “as soon as or whenever required“. Cambridge Dictionary has it as “at any time that someone wants or needs something“. Collins states “as soon as requested“.  Other dictionaries may use slightly different wording, but they’re all expressing one or both of two simple concepts: unconditional access, and access without delay.

This is, of course, precisely what abortion rights campaigners are seeking – and contrary to what some have suggested, it’s also precisely what is meant by those who say they don’t support “abortion on demand”. They mean they want to preserve a system in which women must get permission before being allowed an abortion, if indeed we’re allowed at all. They don’t object to abortion on demand because they think it will mean abortion hen parties; they object because they think access should be controlled and limited to what they consider “deserving” cases.

Some pro-choice objections to the slogan seem to think it conjures images of women doing a Veruca Salt outside the abortion clinic. This is simply confusing different meanings of the word “demand”. Demand for abortion no more implies demanding abortions than “the demand for” anything else necessarily implies people pounding their fists until they get it. It’s a little icky to conceptualise abortion as an economic service, but technically it is – prior to the 14th Amendment, this was a key element of the fight for the right to distribute abortion information – and in that respect it’s subject to “demand” in the same way as any other good or service. NBD, again.

The other argument I hear against the phrase is that it would have negative connotations (the hen party abortions) with that fence-sitting public we’re trying to win over. Well, sorry, but who was it that allowed those connotations to develop, if not a pro-choice movement constantly responding to the phrase by insisting that oh heavens no we’re not calling for something called abortion on demand?

To be clear (let’s see how many people miss this point), I’m not suggesting that the Repeal campaign should adopt “abortion on demand” as a slogan. A slogan is a tactic, not a principle, and as long as we’re campaigning for what abortion on demand actually is I don’t really care what we call it. But there’s a difference between not adopting a slogan, and the kind of defensive disassociation from it that the Repeal movement has engaged in. Not alone is the latter grossly ahistorical, and disrespectful to the women who went before us; it also puts us on the back foot while diverting from a real discussion about abortion accessibility in a post-repeal Ireland.

Let’s try this. Instead of going all defensive every time we hear the slogan, what if we use it as an opportunity to make our argument for unconditional access? To challenge those who wield it as a weapon to declare which women they would exclude from the right to abortion, what measures they would put in place to filter out the “undeserving” cases, how they would enforce those measures and any violation of them? This would be a far more constructive response, and would also have the advantage of not handing them a microvictory by shifting into denial mode every time they say it.

But if you must continue to object to the phrase, for god’s sake do it in a way that doesn’t insult the legacy of past generations of activists. Their struggle for abortion on demand was not awful or stupid or nonsense. It paved the way for where we are today – on the cusp of liberalising one of the Global North’s last black spots for reproductive rights – and though we need not follow their exact footsteps, we owe them at least the courtesy of acknowledging the path they took.