RSS Feed

Author Archives: Wendy Lyon

Sinn Féin and abortion: time to choose a side

Posted on

Note: most of this was written on an iPad Mini on an airplane, so please excuse lack of hyperlinks and fadas.

It is more than a decade ago, and Dublin Sinn Féin are holding a full members’ meeting to discuss party development. Gerry Adams has travelled from Belfast to address the meeting. After he speaks, the members are invited to share their views on what could be done to increase party membership in the capital. A young North Inner City activist puts up her hand, nervously, and somehow finds the courage to say that the party has got to get its head around the abortion issue, or at some point it will find itself alienating the very demographic it wants to attract: passionate young people seeking fundamental change in society.
Gerry Adams replies that he disagrees, and that he doesn’t think this is a problem Sinn Féin needs to concern itself with. After all, he says, we have the most progressive abortion policy of any party in Ireland. And the young activist doesn’t argue, because the fact is, he’s right – at this point in time, Sinn Féin’s “exceptional circumstances only” policy actually is as good as it gets in Irish politics. Labour’s, believe it or not, is even worse. Oh, sure, there are genuinely pro-choice parties amongst the far left, but the far left aren’t really a factor right now; only the Socialist Party have a seat in the Dáil and their lone TD, Joe Higgins, hasn’t even mentioned abortion as far as anyone can remember. (In the 2007 election, Higgins will lose his seat and Ireland will be left without a single pro-choice party in its parliament.) The Workers’ Party have no TDs anymore and anyway, with a North Inner City representative linked to Youth Defence, they have problems of their own on the issue. And the subject itself is still so taboo in Irish society, there isn’t even really much debate about it; realistically, no one hopes to see more than legislation for the X case any time soon. So while Sinn Féin may be rather transparently trying to play both sides, the truth is, their fence-sitting policy is probably costing them more votes from the “never, never, never” crowd.

 

 

It’s now 2017, and how things have changed! That young activist – me, if you hadn’t guessed – is now politically unaligned (and needless to say, not so young anymore). Labour are now officially pro-choice, as are the Workers Party (who still have no TDs, but are far more active in Dublin these days). The Socialist Party are now Solidarity, and hold two Dail seats; People Before Profit and the Independents for Change are also giving pro-choice voters a strong parliamentary voice. You can’t throw a rock in Dublin city centre without hitting someone in a Repeal jumper; and though no one thinks the Dail will accept the Citizens Assembly recommendation for no restrictions on abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, even the fact that 100 randomly selected Irish people could come up with that recommendation is a sign of how far Ireland has moved.
Sinn Fein, however, are still rooted to the same position they were over a decade ago, and in fact two or three decades ago: calling for abortion to remain generally illegal with exceptions. So anachronistic does this now sound that when their spokesperson Louise O’Reilly responded to the Citizens Assembly vote by reiterating party policy, her statement was met by disbelief and anger among pro-choice supporters all over social media – many of whom had misinterpreted Sinn Fein’s call for repeal as a call for meaningful change. (And no, any change won’t be meaningful if it still leaves more than 90% of abortions illegal, and forces those women entitled to a legal abortion to either prove it, or just keep going to England like they always have.)
Now in fairness the party can’t just change policies on a whim; the exceptional circumstances policy must remain until an Ard Fheis votes to overturn it. Critics and cynics are right that the party leadership can usually get such a vote when they want one but that formality is, nonetheless, constitutionally required. And party spokespersons are constitutionally bound to adhere to that policy whether or not they personally agree with it (and I’m inclined to suspect Louise O’Reilly doesn’t, though I’ve never met her). [ETA: Judging by her Twitter response to this article, it seems I was far too generous to her. Well, at least now we know.]
But it does mean the party has a serious decision to make. And it can’t just keep doing what it did all the years I was involved, and respond to every attempt to change party policy at an Ard Fheis by trotting out a female Ard Chomhairle member with impeccable feminist credentials to persuade delegates that party unity would be best preserved by retaining its middle-of-the-road position. Because frankly, it no longer is a middle-of-the-road position. The hardline, no-repeal, no-exceptions stance that formerly represented the conservative side of the debate has now been relegated to the outer fringes where it belongs (just like in the US where, you might recall, Republican candidates supporting Irish style abortion laws were condemned as extremists even by other anti-choice Republicans). It’s no longer a question of will there be a referendum but when, and the real issue that remains is how restrictive – or how liberal – the replacement regime will be. If Sinn Féin sticks to their current policy they will find themselves on the right of this debate along with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and you can bet that they will struggle to convince today’s young activists to join them.
Of course, there are many people in Ireland – and not just among the far left – who think that that’s exactly where Sinn Fein belong, exactly where they always intended to be. Fianna Fáil light, just waiting to go into coalition and shed all their remaining leftist pretences. I can’t speak for the leadership, but I can certainly say that is not where the activists who I called comrades wanted to see them. I have no doubt that those who remain in the party are saying the same things internally that I’m saying here – and hopefully this time, the leadership will listen. Because the excuse I was given all those years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore, and I don’t think there’s an excuse that will. Ireland has changed, abortion politics have changed and it’s simply no longer credible for a party to present itself as a radical or even merely progressive alternative to the establishment parties, while siding with the most conservative of those parties on an issue of such fundamental importance to young people today. My prediction at that meeting may have been a bit premature, but tiocfaidh an lá. Sinn Féin cannot sit on the fence anymore because there is no fence anymore. The fence is gone, and they will have to choose one side or the other.
Over to you, comrades.

Sex work in France, one year on

Posted on

The French law criminalising payment for sex was enacted a year ago Thursday, on 13th April 2016. Supporters marked its anniversary by (predictably) declaring it a success already, on pretty much the sole basis of purported arrest statistics. A typical example was this tweet from Feminist Current, which my friend Laura Lee alerted me to:

and it reminded me that I haven’t done a dodgy stats analysis in a while. So here we are.

The first step in any such analysis is to go to the source of the stat. So I read the Feminist Current blog post, which links to this news article and this press release from CAP International. (“CAP” stands for “Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution”, in case you were wondering. Its current president is Sarah Benson of Ruhama.) Unfortunately, the news article’s source was the press release, and the press release’s source seems to be press releases from two other anti-sex work organisations:

At this point I replied to Feminist Current’s tweet to ask if they knew the actual source of those stats, but perhaps also predictably, they didn’t answer. So I did a search for “937” on the Mouvement du Nid site and found this article by the Abolition 2012 coalition, the title of which translates as “What harms prostitutes is not law, it is prostitution”. And a few paragraphs down we see the statement that

The clients are now accountable, 937 of them have been verbalized (figures from the Ministry of the Interior)

The word “verbalized” (verbalisés) is intriguing there, not being cognate with any legal term in English. I wasn’t sure if it could actually be translated to “arrested”, especially given France’s very different criminal procedures, and indeed it appears to be more analogous to “ticketed” according to the Council of Europe French-English Legal Dictionary. I’m not sure if this results in a criminal record, and would welcome any input from someone in the know. [Edit: see comments from Rikki de la Vega and Richard below.]  As to the 937 figure, I can’t find it on the Ministry of the Interior website, though it could have been revealed in a Parliamentary Question or something. But it doesn’t ring untrue, and I have no reason to suspect it isn’t true; all I can say about this figure specifically is that in a country of 66 million people, the fact that 937 were ticketed for something last year doesn’t strike me as evidence of a real commitment to its eradication – far less as something actually likely to lead to its eradication.

What I was more interested in was the other statistic, that no sex workers had been arrested since the introduction of the law.  This is what set off my bullshit detector, and sure enough, that same Abolition 2012 statement qualifies it rather significantly:

Since April 13, 2016, no more prostitutes have been arrested for soliciting and previous convictions on this count have been removed from criminal records. However, prostitutes are still arrested in certain cities that have issued anti-prostitution decrees…

Those “anti-prostitution decrees” are discussed further in this open letter to French presidential candidates, also issued by Abolition 2012. It states:

In particular, we would like to know what you will be setting up, once elected, on the following priority issues:

  • Ending anti-prostitution laws targeting victims While France regards prostitution as violence and the law of 13 April 2016, in accordance with its abolitionist ambition, decriminalized prostitutes, certain municipalities in the national territory have rid themselves of these principles and of the law by adopting anti-prostitution decrees punishing the prostitutes themselves.

One might question whether a country can really be said to regard a thing as “violence” if the maximum penalty imposed for it is no more than what a large grocery store would get for destroying edible food, but rhetoric aside, it seems clear that the law has not actually had the impact on sex workers suggested by the Feminist Current tweet and its sources. It would be interesting to see the statistics from those municipalities, and to know what sort of penalties are being imposed – particularly for the undocumented migrants who sell sex in France.

And on that note, I’ll return to what I said earlier about arrest (or verbaliser) records forming the sole basis for such triumphalism in these statements. The CAP International statement acknowledges that the other elements of the French law have yet to be introduced:

French members of CAP international, Mouvement du Nid and Fondation Scelles, together with the 60 member organisation of the collective Abolition 2012, are now prioritising the effective implementation of newly recognised rights for victims of prostitution and trafficking:

  • Legal, psychological and medical support,
  • Access to exit programmes,
  • Emergency and social housing,
  • Financial assistance,
  • Temporary residency permits,
  • Access to training and to decent work

Similarly, the Abolition 2012 letter to presidential candidates goes on to call for:

  • The opening of shelters for victims of prostitution, procuring and trafficking in human beings in shelters and social reintegration. 

  • Access to the free tax debts. 

  • Access to a residence permit for foreign victims. 

  • The provision of financial assistance for social and vocational integration for prostituted persons who do not benefit from social minima or assistance granted to persons seeking asylum.These basic provisions must be put in place as soon as possible throughout the country.

It never ceases to amazes me that anti-sex work feminists don’t insist on these basic provisions being put in place before measures that deprive sex workers of their income. What do they really expect to happen to these people in the meantime?

Finally, one more thing in that open letter jumped out at me: the admission by Abolition 2012 that the law is doing absolutely fuck all against the online sex industry:

The law clearly and strictly defines what is involved in procuring, including “taking advantage of the prostitution of others, sharing products or receiving subsidies from a person habitually engaging in prostitution; Act as an intermediary between two persons, one of whom engages in prostitution and the other exploits or pays for the prostitution of others”. Yet, major actors in bringing prostituted persons and prostitution clients into contact continue to profit financially from prostitution, handsomely, without ever being disturbed. On the Internet, where ad serving is growing exponentially, which would fall under pandering in any other context, it seems commonly accepted. But this tolerance deprives of useful effect any new measure designed to discourage demand and create alternatives for prostitutes. Every week in the national and local press we learn that websites, whether general or specialized, have not only facilitated the prostitution of others but have also benefited greatly from it.

So let’s review. According to the law’s biggest cheerleaders in France, sex workers continue to be targeted and punished by municipal authorities; internet prostitution continues unabated, thereby depriving “end demand” measures of any useful effect; and nothing has yet been done for any sex workers who are struggling to make a living under this law, which I presume are likely to be those who are street-based and therefore particularly vulnerable. In that context, are those 937 fines really cause for celebration?

Let me be clear that I absolutely welcome the removal of solicitation from the criminal code. And I am glad to see Abolition 2012 and CAP International keeping positive assistance to sex workers on the agenda, even if it really should have been their priority to start with. But press statements suggesting that the law is already a success are not only highly disingenuous, but potentially damaging to that agenda. By continuing to centre a criminal justice approach to the sex industry, and in a way that invites the French government to declare itself as “doing something” for abolition, they mute their own calls for the social and immigration reforms that are absolutely vital to actually reduce the size of the industry in France. They make it oh so easy for the government to continue to drag its heels on creating those alternatives for sex workers, because hey look what a good job we’re doing arresting clients! Which is what you were campaigning hardest for anyway, right?

Of course, these statements lauding the success of the new law aren’t really aimed at the French government anyway. They’re aimed at people who opposed the law to begin with, and people in other countries where it’s currently under consideration. They’re a way of putting a shiny spin on the law, to defend it from its detractors at home and abroad. But the problem with shiny things is they can blind you. I think we’ve already seen that happen in Sweden and Norway, where the level of denial among those who want to maintain client criminalisation can sometimes reach ludicrous heights. Earlier this month, I attended a conference addressed by Per-Anders Sunesson, Sweden’s “Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons”, during which he made the remarkable claim that since the sex purchase ban was introduced there had not only been no murders of sex workers, but not even one single complaint of violence against a sex worker. When I pointed out that Sweden’s own police reports stated otherwise, his reply was “Maybe you’re reading them wrong.”

So what I’d say to supporters of the French law, if you really do want to see it implemented in full and not just the headline provisions of it, is this: forget about us. Stop trying to persuade us (or those who might hear us) that we were wrong about client criminalisation, and start really holding the French government to account for continuing to allow persecution of sex workers by local and immigration police, for failing to ensure that sex workers who want to exit have the resources to do so. Stop centring sex workers’ clients and putting so much of your energy into campaigning against them. From here on, the welfare of those you call “prostituted persons” should be the focus of at least as much energy – or the government will do no more than bare minimum to implement social and immigration reforms, which will end up reforming nothing and leaving vulnerable and exploited sex workers just as vulnerable and just as exploited. And still selling sex.

Don’t let France get away with this while you’re busy crowing about numbers of “arrested johns”.

Brothel laws criminalising sex workers: a feature, not a bug

It happens with depressing regularity, but reports of sex workers being prosecuted for “brothel-keeping” have actually got a fair bit of attention recently, both in mainstream and social media. None of it, of course, from the Turn Off the Red Light campaign or its leading member organisations, who are campaigning hard for new legislation which will double the penalties for this offence.

Supporters of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 have done their best to keep this aspect of the bill quiet, regularly insisting that the bill “decriminalises” women in prostitution even after The Journal’s Fact Check established that it does no such thing. On the rare occasions they’re pressed on it, they usually witter on about how this law is “intended to punish pimps”, sometimes even suggesting that it’s the only mechanism the law has to do so.

They’re wrong on both counts.

To take the second point first: the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, which currently governs sex work law, contains an offence of “organising prostitution” as well as one of “living on the earnings of prostitution”. Both of these offences will remain under the new law, so there’s no reason that any “pimps” found keeping brothels could not continue to be prosecuted if the brothel-keeping law was removed.

The first point – that the law is not aimed at pimps, but at sex workers themselves – can be proven clearly enough just by looking at how the law is actually used in real life. As Lucy Smyth’s media analysis shows, nearly all the reported prosecutions have in fact been of sex workers, not of anyone managing or controlling them. So maybe it’s a case of the Gardaí misusing the law and just in need of better guidance?

No, it’s not. Go back to the original debates over the 1993 Act and you see very clearly that sex worker prosecutions are a feature, not a bug, of the brothel-keeping law – which was intended to address the public nuisance factor of brothels. Introducing the bill to the Seanad, then-Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said:

I would now like to briefly explain the thinking behind the provisions in the Bill on prostitution. Prostitution is not, and never has been, an offence. The criminal law has no role in trying to regulate sexual arrangements made in private between adults, whether or not money is a factor in those arrangements. What the law has in the past sought to regulate are certain public manifestations of prostitution which can cause upset and distress to members of the public, such as soliciting in public or the operation of a brothel. I think it must be acknowledged that these activities can cause genuine problems for the public, and that is a reality of life that we as legislators must deal with.

Over in the Dáil, meanwhile, Michael McDowell (of all people) attempted to introduce an amendment which would exclude from the definition of brothel “the bona fide home of a prostitute unless the premises are used by any other prostitute for the purpose of prostitution”. Implicit in this amendment is the understanding that the offence would be used against sex workers. The Minister rejected the amendment, saying:

As the Deputy rightly states “brothel” is a common law term and means a place resorted to by persons of both sexes for the purpose of prostitution. There must be at least two women or men plying their trade as prostitutes in the place. If two persons are using the premises for prostitution, the place is a brothel and it is immaterial that one of them is the occupier. Therefore, the home of a prostitute is not a brothel unless another person is also using the premises for prostitution.

So again, it was clearly envisaged by the law, at the time it was introduced, that a sex worker would be prosecuted under it – even in her own home, if she allowed someone else to sell sex there. This is not a law about pimps.

Which is not to say that the brothel-keeping law could never be used against pimps. It’s a hybrid offence, meaning it can be prosecuted either summarily (before a District Court judge) or on indictment (in the Circuit Court, before a jury, and at the risk of a much higher penalty). In real life, sex workers who are prosecuted under this law are inevitably prosecuted summarily; it’s only in the rare “pimp” prosecutions that indictment occurs. And – I think this is pretty significant – the new bill only increases penalties for the summary offence of brothel-keeping, while leaving the penalties for the indictable offence unchanged. In this respect, the new law is clearly going directly after sex workers. Not pimps.

And if you need any further evidence, just look at Frances Fitzgerald’s recent contribution to the Committee Stage debate on the present bill. Rejecting amendments that would reframe the brothel-keeping law to only target third parties, the Minister stated:

Women would come under pressure to claim that they were working independently when that was not the case and the Garda would be limited in the actions it could take to close brothels and disrupt the activities of pimps and criminal gangs.

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: sex workers – not pimps – are intended to be prosecuted under this law, in order that Gardaí can shut down their workplaces. The fluff about women being pressured to lie about their working arrangements is a complete non-sequitur; if anything, such pressure is probably more likely in the present set-up. When managed sex workers take the fall for the “real” brothel keepers, after all, there’s less incentive for the guards to go after their bosses.

So make no mistake about the brothel-keeping law. It is not an anti-pimp measure with an incidental, unfortunate side effect of occasionally catching the wrong target. It is not being misapplied by overzealous Gardaí who just need a bit of training or direction. Gardaí who go after sex workers with this law are doing exactly what it’s designed to do, and they will keep doing it as long as the law allows them to, and regardless of the dangers it creates for sex workers. And the Gardaí are doing it with the explicit approval of the Minister for Justice, and with the effective acquiescence (if not silent approval) of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, and its constituent NGOs who continue to pretend they have these women’s interests at heart.

Sex workers are literally dying because of this law. We owe them at least our honesty about why we allow that to happen.

Masking a murderer: Alan Hawe and the myth of the “good man who snapped”

If there’s been one thing more infuriating this week than the media coverage of the Hawe murders, it’s the backlash against those of us who have objected to it. “We don’t know the whole story!” “Stop jumping to conclusions!” “What about the family?”

Well, true: we don’t know the whole story. But this is what we do know – or, at least, what has been published widely without contradiction:

  • Alan Hawe murdered his wife and three children with a knife and hatchet
  • Prior to this, he was not known to the mental health services
  • He left a note inside the house explaining why he did it
  • This note expressed his view that his family members couldn’t cope without him
  • He left another note on the door to warn the next visitor

So, in brief: we know he committed a brutal familicide with intent and deliberation, with no evidence that would support an insanity verdict had he survived to be prosecuted, and in the apparent belief that the lives of his wife and children were nothing without him.

What enables us to draw conclusions from this is its chilling similarity to a number of other murders we know of. There’s even a name for it: family annihilation. And there are studies of it, and those studies clearly indicate that family annihilators share certain characteristics (in addition to being overwhelmingly male): narcissism, a sense of personal ownership of his wife and children, and often a previous history of abusive behaviour. Toxic masculinity, you might call it. Given that Alan Hawe’s murders fit the pattern of family annihilators, it’s really not a great leap to expect that his personality will also turn out to have done so.

This is true even if Clodagh Hawe’s own family had no idea, as reports suggest. Let’s face it, you don’t get to hack four people to death and still be eulogised as a pillar of your community unless you’re pretty good at hiding things. And besides, that’s also part of the pattern. As the study linked above concludes:

the annihilation makes public what had often been a private reality – a reality masked to family, friends and neighbours who often thought that this man had been a ‘doting’ and ‘loving’ father and ‘dutiful’ husband.

It’s understandable why Clodagh’s close friends and family would want to cling to the belief that her husband was a good man who just snapped. If you’ve never seen a terrible side to someone you thought you knew well, it’s really hard to accept that that side exists. I get this. And learning about a side of him you never saw until it was too late? The guilt one must feel would be unimaginable. Could I have seen this coming? Could I have done something? At a time of unbearable trauma, perhaps the one thing that can give comfort to survivors is the thought that they, at least, had not failed their loved ones by failing to somehow prevent their deaths.

But for others, who had no such ties to the family, the reluctance to acknowledge the pattern is more puzzling. Why would they rather believe that this was just a one-off “tragedy” that could not have been foreseen? What comfort does it bring them to think that anyone – maybe even themselves or someone they love – could just “snap” one day and butcher their entire family?

No, we don’t have all the facts, and maybe we never will. But here’s one fact we can be absolutely certain of: Clodagh’s death was not unique. And for that reason, as much as we wish to be respectful to her family in their grief, we cannot simply accept the narrative of the “good man who snapped”. We must try to look behind the façade of the devoted family man, and map out the murderer beneath.  We must learn to recognise him, and more importantly, what made him. What makes all of them. If we persist in deluding ourselves that they just spring up spontaneously from nowhere, we will never learn how to ensure that they don’t. And the consequence will be a lot more Alan Hawes, and a lot more Clodaghs.

So you don’t want to take Amnesty’s word for it? Okay.

Posted on

CN: stuff you might find by googling for low-quality cishet male porn 

Last week, Amnesty International finally published its full policy position on sex work. The reaction from anti-sex work feminists has been predictable: lots of vitriol, penis-shaped candles, and pimp smears, but little to no engagement with Amnesty’s actual arguments. The 101-page report into Amnesty’s research in Norway (Melissa Gira Grant has summarised it well here) has been, unsurprisingly, almost totally ignored, apart from a couple suggestions that Amnesty is too compromised for its research to be trusted anyway.

Well, great news, “Nordic model” advocates: you don’t have to take Amnesty’s word. Because Swedish super cop Simon Haggstrom – you’ll know him from his frequent visits to other countries to proselytise for the sex purchase ban – has now published his memoirs. Only in Swedish, alas, but that’s why God made Google Translate. Here are some of his views on how the law actually functions in practice. Let’s take them thematically, shall we?

On whether the law is “working” to end demand



On the law’s “normative effect” on young Swedish men


On whether sex workers are still hassled by police


Note the subtle threat in the above, made explicit in the next one:

On whether sex workers are de facto criminalised


Pro tip: ask anyone with a precarious immigration status in your country whether that sounds like a request to voluntarily assist with a police investigation. Or not.

On whether sex workers are treated respectfully and with dignity during raids

Confiscating their used tampons and displaying them as “evidence”? You decide.


Yes, this is an actual picture in the book

On whether the law is more concerned with preventing or punishing “exploitation”


In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking the “main reason” is something totally different. If the cops intervened before any sex took place, Simon would miss all the good parts:








And if all that wasn’t enough to answer one final question…

On who exactly benefits from this law


Well, there you go: it provides the cops with “excitement” and plenty of wank material, in which they themselves play a starring role in the action. Ironic, when you consider that Amnesty are the ones being accused of privileging men’s sexual desires.

So let’s recap. According to one of the law’s chief enforcers, it hasn’t changed men’s attitudes. It isn’t deterring them from paying for sex. It isn’t stopping women from selling sex (indeed, they have to engage in a sexual act before enforcement will take place at all). It is subjecting them to unwanted interactions with the police, up to and including detention, and deportation for those who refuse to accept the cops’ “help”. That … sounds an awful lot like what Amnesty found next door in Norway, doesn’t it?

But even Amnesty might be surprised at the clumsy, cringeworthy porn that Haggstrom illustrates his accounts with – more surprised than Swedish sex workers seem to be, which is possibly telling in itself. Is it any wonder he’s such an advocate for the law?  Without it, he’d have to get off with only his imagination again.

Credit to Lucy Smyth for translations and screenshots. 

On trigger warnings and double standards

Posted on

Content note: PTSD, anaphylaxis

I have an old friend who I’ll call Sarah. Sarah has a rare, fatal allergy to chicken. If she eats chicken she can literally go into anaphylactic shock and die in a matter of minutes. Her allergy is so severe it can even be triggered by the smell of chicken being cooked.  She’s never had a full-on anaphylactic episode from inhalation alone, but she does have a powerful and deeply unpleasant reaction to it, and she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When Sarah was in graduate school she lived in a student apartment on campus. Because of her allergy, she was given the one apartment in the building that had its own kitchen. The other students shared a kitchen on the floor. Unfortunately, the shared kitchen was between her apartment and the way out of the building, so she couldn’t help but walk by past it.  And if she was coming or going when someone was cooking chicken, she couldn’t avoid the smell. And the reaction.

Sarah knows her allergy is inconvenient for the people around her.  She feels bad about this, although she really shouldn’t. When she moved into the apartment, she went and spoke to every other student on her floor, individually. She explained her chicken allergy to them and asked that if they planned to cook chicken, could they please just let her know in advance so that she could make sure she did not have to walk past the kitchen until they were finished. She didn’t ask them not to cook it at all, just to give her a bit of notice when they were planning to.

Most of the students did. One refused to. She didn’t refuse to Sarah’s face; she simply went ahead and cooked her chicken when she wanted without giving Sarah any warning. At least once that Sarah knows of, one of the other students reminded her of Sarah’s request; her response was something along the lines of that she couldn’t be bothered, and Sarah would just have to deal with it.

Just have to deal with an extreme allergic reaction that may not actually kill her, but could trigger symptoms that make her feel like she is going to die. Just deal with it. Because this neighbour couldn’t be bothered to give Sarah a heads-up so she could do what she needed to protect herself. Too much trouble.

You can see where I’m going with this. Sarah’s neighbour was behaving very much like the people who simply refuse to use trigger warnings before sharing material that might adversely affect others. In fact, they are worse because in many cases they are actively trying to dissuade anyone from using them. As obnoxious as her behaviour was, Sarah’s neighbour wasn’t, as far as she knows, going around telling the other students they shouldn’t be letting her know about the danger their chicken cooking might pose to her.

And that’s exactly what we are talking about – danger. Not offence. Not discomfort. Real, genuine harm. The word “trigger” is in there for a reason. It reflects the language used by clinicians and researchers when talking about conditions that make the people who have them susceptible to sudden, acute reactions, set off by things that would be more or less benign to others. Anaphylaxis is one such condition. PTSD is another. In fact, the two conditions often share symptoms – hyperventilation, dizziness, a feeling of being suffocated. The suffocation may more readily lead to actual death in an anaphylactic, but when you’re suffering repeated spells of really feeling like you are going to die, I’m pretty confident in saying that’s going to have a negative effect on your health. And psychiatric conditions do kill people, sometimes, at least indirectly. It’s not the same risk as eating something you have a fatal allergy to, but it’s not incidental or negligible, either.

Anaphylaxis and PTSD have something else in common, too, and that’s that they’re both unpredictable: the triggers aren’t necessarily only where you expect to find them. Sarah once nearly died after eating a “vegetarian” pizza, probably due to cross-contamination in the restaurant kitchen. Other allergic people’s triggers may be even harder to avoid, like peanuts. And not every allergic reaction is an anaphylactic reaction, either, just as not every read of potentially triggering material will actually set off the symptoms in someone with PTSD. But just because you don’t know whether or how someone is going to react to something isn’t a reason not to warn them when you know it’s something they might react quite severely to.  Letting them know allows them to decide for themselves whether the risk is one they feel able to take. Not letting them know gives them no real choice in the matter – even if it’s a day when they’re feeling exceptionally vulnerable, or left their epi-pen at home.

Ultimately, where you stand on trigger warnings says a lot about where you stand on mental health. If you think Sarah’s request for a heads-up was reasonable, if “may contain nuts” doesn’t provoke you into writing awful New Statesmen columns about the threat to culinary freedom, but you think PTSD sufferers should just grow a thicker skin and certainly should not expect other people to have any regard to their condition, then what you’re basically saying is that mental health doesn’t matter in the way that physical health does. Not an uncommon view, of course, but one I suspect many of those in the “anti-trigger warning” camp would be loath to admit they hold.  Either they do hold it, or they’ve entirely missed the point of what trigger warnings are about. There really is no third option.

 

 

Quick note on the Belfast abortion rats

Posted on

Just when you thought the story couldn’t get worse about the 21-year-old Belfast woman who was given a suspended jail sentence for inducing her abortion, along come the people who shopped her to the police – her own housemates – to show the world how truly abhorrent it’s possible for humans to be. Here are some choice quotes from them in today’s Belfast Telegraph:

“This isn’t anything to do with the rights and wrongs of abortion. I’m not anti-abortion. I believe there are circumstances, like rape, where it should be a woman’s choice.

“This is about her attitude. It was as if she was getting rid of a piece of clothing,” she stated.

“There was absolutely no remorse. Even the way she was up and away out and doing her own thing a day after the abortion, while me and our other house-mate just walked around in shock.”

“It is just insane the way we are being portrayed as being the bad ones in this.”

 

So they didn’t report her out of some sense of civic duty, because she’d committed an offence. Abortion is illegal throughout Ireland in the case of rape, too, but apparently this housemate would have had no problem with that (even though the embryo would presumably look exactly like it did in this case). They reported her because she wasn’t sorry about her abortion. Because she had the absolute temerity to be able to get on with her own life after it. Because she didn’t feel the regret they think a woman should be obliged to feel after terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Because she didn’t hurt. So, they were going to make sure she did.

The housemates are clearly taking note of the reaction on social media, so allow me to add this one: Yes, you are the bad ones in this. You are awful. You are the worst people I have read or heard anything about today. I am disgusted to breathe the same air as you. I hope you step on a Lego for every remaining day of your terrible life.

The social media response is the one positive thing to come out of your despicable deed. For once, the people being shamed because of an abortion actually deserve it.