RSS Feed

No council for (some) women: the NWCI and the silencing of sex workers

Posted on

Last week, at its AGM, the member groups of the National Women’s Council of Ireland voted down a motion (proposed by the Abortion Rights Campaign and seconded by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland) calling on the NWCI to “develop a process for a review of its position in relation to prostitution and sex work”. Instead the NWCI reaffirmed its existing position, supporting the Swedish model and defining all prostitution as violence against women.

The committee in charge of these things decided that you could only support one motion or the other, and the latter motion (proposed by Ruhama and seconded by the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation) won out by 43-24. Reports from attendees suggest that there would have been more support for the ARC motion if it hadn’t been deemed oppositional to Ruhama’s.

The outcome was disappointing but not surprising, particularly in light of the fact that sex workers themselves were unable to contribute to the debate. This is because the only Irish organisation led by current sex workers, the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, has been refused membership of the NWCI. The NWCI is therefore taking policy positions about a group of women without allowing those women any say in the position it takes.

The criteria for joining the NWCI are listed on its website. While I don’t have access to the written reasons for refusal, I understand its Board decided that SWAI didn’t agree with the NWCI’s “values”. It should be noted that the Board includes Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, and Sheila Dickson, a past president of the INMO.

Now obviously the NWCI is a private organisation (albeit one that receives a fuckton of public money) and has a right to decide who can join it. But it seems … curious that this issue is one that they’re prepared to exclude a group over. You would think, for example, that repealing the 8th amendment would be regarded as a key NWCI value (especially given the organisation’s effective takeover of the Repeal, sorry the “Yes” campaign) and yet it was fine for member groups to refuse to support it, like Ruhama and the YWCA. Equal rights for same-sex couples might also be thought of as a key NWCI value, yet it has no problem with the membership of an organisation that “continues to hold the view that ‘marriage’ is inherently between a man and a woman”. Not locking young women up in institutions for perceived moral failures, where they would be forced to work as slaves, should pretty definitely be a key NWCI value and yet a group whose founders did exactly that, and which still has board members who are refusing to pay redress to these women, are not only allowed to be members but are effectively allowed to direct the organisation’s policy towards the “fallen women” of today. Their attitude towards groups that don’t share their “values” seems a little bit selective.

But I think it’s important to point out that simply opposing the NWCI stance on sex work isn’t enough to make a group unwelcome in the NWCI. If it was, then ARC and the MRCI and all the others in the 24 would presumably be tearing up their membership cards. So, it’s fine for a women’s group to advocate for the rights of sex workers as long as they aren’t sex workers themselves. It isn’t about values at all, then; going on that vote, SWAI’s values are shared by more than a third of NWCI member groups already. What is it then? Are sex workers the NWCI equivalent of “Unwomen”? Do they have cooties? Or does the Board just not want to have to listen to them?

The most galling thing about the Ruhama motion is that it refers to “support for women and girls affected by prostitution and sex trafficking“. But what constitutes “support” is being decided in a context where the affected girls and women are denied a voice. Supporters of the policy would no doubt argue that the women they’re concerned with are a different class of sex worker to those in SWAI, but they have nothing to support the implicit suggestion that those women want their clients criminalised. It’s notable that GOSHH (Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV) and the Chrysalis Community Drug Project, the two other Irish organisations that do outreach to the more vulnerable sectors of the sex industry, are both strongly opposed to the Swedish model.

There are, of course, former sex workers (or survivors, to use their preferred terminology) who would share the NWCI’s position. But isn’t it remarkable that practically none of them seem to have actually worked in Sweden – or any other “Nordic model” country – under that law?  We’re nearly 20 years into it now; if it worked as well as its advocates say it does you’d expect there would be dozens if not hundreds of women coming forward to share their accounts of how the Swedish model saved them from the sex trade, but I legitimately cannot think of one. Certainly, all the survivor organisations are led by women who didn’t survive the law that they’re campaigning for. Nor, it seems, are they particularly interested in hearing from women who did: whenever I’ve mentioned them in response to “listen to survivors” comments, the response has been … crickets.

And there’s also research from nearly every country where the law has been introduced, showing that opposition to the law straddles all classes of sex worker. I’m not going to link to it all here because frankly it’s tiring always pointing to research that Swedish model advocates just ignore anyway. Though tellingly, they can’t provide any research that says the opposite.

At the very least, though, a member-based organisation like the NWCI ought to be listening to groups of women before taking policy positions about their lives. This is one of those things that I can’t believe I even have to say. The refusal to do so sends a clear message that it simply isn’t interested in what sex workers think. Its position on this issue is going to be determined by the organisation’s own take on “feminist values”, one of which is apparently not recognition of lived experience. I could dig up loads of NWCI quotes from the Repeal campaign which show the irony of this approach, but I understand Linda Kavanagh from ARC already made that point at the AGM and it clearly didn’t make a difference. The NWCI doesn’t “trust women” who are sex workers, doesn’t want to hear from them, will happily let others speak for them (or purport to), but ultimately will fall back on the conviction that it knows what’s best for them, anyway. Viewed in that light, maybe its embrace of an NGO with roots in the Magdalene laundries shouldn’t be so much of a surprise.

About Wendy Lyon

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

9 responses »

  1. Just my opinion here, but:

    1) If this Council is claiming to represent all women, but refuses to listen to some, then they are engaged in misrepresentation. It would then make more sense to not take a position, based on the divergent views of women, until there’s been a thorough discussion and review.

    2) Further, if they are misrepresenting themselves, then why should they “receive a fuckton of public money”?

  2. This is where I came in…

    Or at any rate half of it. The final straw that drove me back to sex work activism was the formation of a (now mercifully defunct) body called AREA (Autism Rights and Equality Alliance) . One of the goals of this alliance was to lobby for the sexual rights of adult autistics (like, for example, *me*). There was not a single autistic member and every trick in the book was played to keep it that way – Monty Python and the equality alliance.(The shamefully misleading weaseling of the motion’s wording came as no surprise to me at all. I am used to it.)

    This was (arguably) the most preposterous part of a much bigger, longstanding, issue whereby self advocates are routinely excluded from policy-making and represented instead by NGOs that rarely, if ever, have a mandate from, or even consult with, their user groups.

    I think, though it is not the whole reason for it, this has always made it much easier to progress the exclusion of sex workers. Space are excluded too (even though they now only have 2 people on their board with any historic claim to “Survivor” status).

    Experience has taught me that a representative body will have a greater chance of inclusion than self advocacy – simply because it will not threaten the exclusion of self advocacy overall.

    SWAI is not currently anything like a representative body. To change that you need to be able to show a membership, election of officers and concensus of discussion. (I have really known sex workers since 1972 – and I do know what a tall order this is, but there is no other way.)

    You also need to show a clean break of all ties to Escort Ireland and avoid any hint of preferential treatment or exclusionism (I know perfectly well how the other representative bodies carry on but being squeaky clean is essential to breaking through barriers).

    I think it should be possible to achieve this by initially only accepting members by personal referral (or some other form of confidential validation where that is not possible) and conducting all discussion online in a forum where only verified members can post. You need to be able to show that the ownership of that forum is verifiable and impartial.

    I know the work involved, and the risks, better than anyone, but it is probably the only way to achieve full inclusion, and/or challenge the non consensual stranglehold Ruhama have on civil society and the representation of sex work.

    Over and out.

  3. Pingback: TN2 Magazine | Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn // review

  4. SWAI claims to represent and fully support sex workers. They do neither.

    You asked the question ‘why are SWAI not included?’ The answer is that SWAI do not offer any exit strategies or exit support for sex workers/the prostituted. This is completely at odds with the number of women and girls who want to leave this commercial trade where their sex is the product. They do not include the opinions of current sex workers/ prostituted who want to EXIT prostitution (a majority according to the seminal research of Melissa Farley, nor do they include the opinions of ex sex workers/prostituted who like myself advocate for exit strategies and exit supports on top of condoms (useful), and safety tips (varying shades of usefulness when there is no safe space in prostitution).

    Neither do they accept the opinions of non-prostituted women and girls who do not want to be targeted by pimps, sex buyers or another generation of men who believe that all/ most females can hypothetically be purchased by them or other men for their sexual gratification, and that money can be substituted for enthusiastic consent (rape as theft).

    So, why on earth would SWAI be included in public consultation? They do not represent a cross section of sex workers/prostitutes past or present and should be de-funded on that basis in the same way as they have de-legitimatised themselves.

    • 1) How exactly are you privy to SWAI’s membership records or procedures?

      2) They can’t be “de-funded” because they aren’t funded in the first place.

      3) There is no obligation on any group to meet a particular standard of “representation” before they are included in public consultation, and certainly none to be admitted to membership of the NWCI.

      4) That said, Queens University Belfast research shows that SWAI have about five times the amount of contact with sex workers that Ruhama have. This is a more relevant statistic to Ireland than Melissa Farley studies which didn’t include either any sex workers in Ireland, nor any workers who operate in the way the majority of sex workers in Ireland operate (i.e. online).

      5) Also that said, the NWCI didn’t even claim to refuse SWAI’s membership because they are “unrepresentative”, so you are literally just making shit up.

      • Hi-you say “That said, Queens University Belfast research shows that SWAI have about five times the amount of contact with sex workers that Ruhama have. ” Can you source that?

        • It’s referred to on page 15 of this report, without any further detail. I contacted one of the researchers for more information and they sent me this graphic from the actual data:

          Ruhama SWAI

        • Thank you so much.
          I am a retired Science journal editor with an interest in quantification and facts (and their missuse). I am very familiar with the academic and NGO literature on prostitutionn and have commented in consultations on attempts to introduce the Nordic model in Scotland and in the rest of the UK.
          I had not paid to much attention to Ireland until I was struck by a recenet report from Ruth Breslin and Monica O’Connor (Shifting the Burden of Criminality) which said (p13)

          . “Online surveys were also avoided in this context, as they are prone to multiple and orchestrated responses”

          which struck me as a bit rich since having been through “Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice Defence and Equality, Report on hearings and submissions on the Review of Legislation” where there is clear evidence of orchestration-similar phrases from different responders, the same tryptich of references appearing in supposedly independent responses, the use by several of rather obscure references that TORL had orchestrated the responses

          So I dug deeper in the academic and NGO reports in Ireland and am horrified by the bias and silencing of sex worker voices.

          I rather suspect the reason why Breslin and O’Connor did not welcome online contributions wasthat there may have been a lot of responses from sex workers calling out Ruhama

          I am too late now to put my oar in to the supposedly independent assesmment of the SB law-I hope you have contributed


  5. Indeed, such was the orchestration that (in the Stormont consultation) one of the TORL-supporting organisations neglected to remove “[insert your organisation name here]” from its submission.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: