RSS Feed

Author Archives: Wendy Lyon

Where ROSA and the Socialist Party get it wrong on sex work (part 1, maybe)

Posted on

A response to this

First of all, I have to acknowledge that ROSA and the SP have moved a good way on this issue since the last time we wrote about them here at Feminist Ire – back when they were still supporting the Turn Off The Red Light campaign and refusing to use the term “sex worker”. I don’t know whether it’s a case of minds being changed after looking at the evidence, or just of sounder party members winning the internal policy debate, but it’s still a significant step forward for them and this deserves to be recognised (and hopefully followed by certain other parties on the left).

But it’s still not good enough – for a few reasons. We hope to have a guest post soon from an actual sex worker explaining some of them, but for now I’ll highlight a ROSA/SP position that would continue to leave sex workers extremely vulnerable: their support for broad “anti-pimping” laws.

The problem with these laws is twofold. Firstly, as currently written in Ireland, they don’t only criminalise “pimps”. The offence of living on the earnings of (another person’s) prostitution is not only committed when a sex worker works for someone else – it’s also committed when someone else works for a sex worker. This means that a sex worker cannot hire someone to do security for her, screen her calls, drive her to and from outcalls, etc, otherwise that person will be as liable for this offence as if they were the one in the “employer” position. No less than the brothel-keeping laws, the over-application of these laws forces sex workers to work on their own, without anyone else who could help ensure their safety.

The second problem is they seek to force sex workers into a particular business model – the sole trader – whether they want it or not. In sex work no less than in every other industry, mine included, not everybody is ready or willing to be their own boss! A lot of women start out working for agencies or in parlours or saunas etc, and then go out on their own once they’re experienced and comfortable enough; others simply prefer not being the one that has to deal with things like advertising and security and so on. And others go back and forth as their circumstances dictate. This is a reality in the industry, and criminalising “pimping” doesn’t stop it. It just means that the sex workers who do have bosses can only – by definition – have bosses who operate outside the law. It’s fair to say that these guys aren’t losing sleep over the possibility of WRC complaints.

In this article ROSA/SP draw a comparison with coal, saying “we oppose the filthy profiteers of that industry“. And that’s fair enough. But they’re not calling for criminalisation of everyone who employs someone else in the coal industry, are they? They’re not insisting that everyone who goes to work in that industry should have to navigate it – and its dangers – all on their own.

With a predictable reference to Germany – which, for the zillionth time, has a legalisation model that literally nobody in the sex workers’ rights movement advocates – they make the point that a legal industry isn’t necessarily an industry that looks after its workers. This is not actually a point that needed to be made; in fact it’s one of the reasons sex worker groups favour decriminalisation over legalisation in the first place. But if only the worker herself is decriminalised, how can she possibly access the available remedies for breaches of labour and health and safety law? The answer is she can’t, because her employment is illegal anyway.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Socialist Party are a socialist party – or at least that’s what it says on the tin. They make a big deal about their policy being derived from their socialist principles. Yet ironically, it’s a policy that protects only petty bourgeois sex workers, while throwing the wage-earners under the bus.

And while this should go without saying, I’ve been having these debates long enough to know I need to spell these things out, so for the record: this is not about supporting “pimps”, or some non-existent concept like “pimps’ rights” or something. It’s about not putting sex workers who are already being exploited (I mean that in the Marxist sense, though quite often it’s also in other ways) in an even more precarious position by relegating them eternally to the shadow economy. Nor does it preclude the possibility of penalising those sex industry bosses who are particularly exploitative. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

Whenever I’ve seen ROSA/SP get all defensive about this subject, they’re very insistent that they support sex workers. But I’m not sure which sex workers they’re taking their cue from. Where is the sex workers’ movement that is advocating for decriminalisation of the worker and her client, but not for any third parties? To me this reads more like an internal compromise sort of position, aimed at placating the wing of the party that had them on board with the Swedish model just a few years ago.

Notably, their writing on the topic is absent any reference to the New Zealand model (except for this five-year-old piece which, um, seems not to know what the New Zealand model is). Given that this is the most widely-supported model within the sex workers’ rights movement – and also has a decent track record of actually protecting sex workers’ labour rights – you’d expect them to take an interest in it, if they really wanted to support sex workers. If they have examined and decided to reject that model then fair enough, but I’d like to know their reasoning (and especially how they think any problems they may have identified with it can be overcome in a system where there is no regulation of the managed sector).

Again, I do accept that their position has improved over the past year or two and it is no longer really fair to describe them as SWERFy – at least in terms of their overall party position (though I admit I still have my doubts about some of their leading activists). But they still don’t seem to be really listening to sex workers; they still seem to be overly concerned with adhering to a rigidly dogmatic ideological view of the sex industry. As long as that remains the case, they’ll continue to be criticised for holding an anti-sex worker position – and, at least when it comes to sex workers that don’t work the way ROSA/SP thinks they should, that criticism will continue to be justified.

Advertisements

Respect motherhood. Vote Yes.

Posted on

​Some of my best friends are mothers. I have to admit, I don’t envy them. I know they love their children, that they bring a lot of joy into their lives. I know if I had children I would feel that way too. But I also know that they had to give up a lot to become mothers, more than I would ever be happy to give up.

“Happy” is the wrong word, actually, because it seems that most of my friends are anything but happy about the price they’ve paid for motherhood. If anything, the ones who are co-parenting (at least with a man) are angrier about this than the single mams, because the fathers always promise more than they deliver. I listen as they share their frustration and resentment at how he still assumes the primary parenting and household duties to be hers; still feels entitled to aspects of his pre-parenthood life that she has long since resigned to the dustbin of her own past; expects praise and gratitude and a Dad of the Century award when he remembers to “help out”.

Added to this are the negative impacts that motherhood has had on her prospects for employment or promotion. The resentment she senses from female co-workers without children, who she suspects of seeing her reduced hours and frequent absences as a kind of special treatment. The barely concealed disdain from male co-workers, who she thinks see these things as evidence of lack of commitment to the job. Some of these male co-workers have children themselves, of course, but rarely have to prioritise their children over their work. That’s what their wives are for.

Then, too, there are the physical effects of childbirth [CN: obstetric trauma]. There’s a lot more of these than you probably know if you’ve never had children yourself, and as far as I can tell, none of them are good. Stretch marks, caesarean scars, vaginal laxity, hair loss, haemorrhagic periods, urinary incontinence – these are just the more common ones, the ones you can look forward to if you have a normal birth. If you’re one of the lucky ones. If you’re not, you could find yourself with a third or fourth degree perineal tear, pelvic organ prolapse, rectovaginal fistula, faecal incontinence, or Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction which, in particularly bad cases, leads to permanent reliance on mobility aids. Did you know spontaneous symphysiotomy is a thing? Neither did I, until I met a woman who had one.

If these injuries themselves are not lifelong (and many are), the psychological effects of them usually will be – and not just on the woman. They’ve destroyed marriages. They’ve also complicated mothers’ relationships with their children. One woman I know told me of her lifelong sense of guilt for not being able to bond with her baby properly – she was so injured by his birth that she couldn’t hold him. Other women speak of feeling some resentment towards the child themselves. They say this hesitantly, and often with enormous shame; aren’t they supposed to think “a healthy baby is all that matters”? Then they always feel the need to add the disclaimer that they love their child and don’t wish they hadn’t had it, they just wish things had gone differently. No doubt many of them mean this, but we’ll never know how many don’t. The mother who wishes she’d never had children is the one voice that is completely silent in the Repeal debate, just as she is everywhere else.

And then of course there are the women whom childbirth actually kills. Nowadays (though this wasn’t always the case) it’s usually medical negligence that’s to blame, but the outcome for the woman is the same. Ireland may be a relatively safe place to have a baby but that doesn’t change the fact that every year, a number of women die in our maternity hospitals – nor the fact that every woman who brings a pregnancy to term takes the risk of becoming one of those statistics.

This is what listening to women who are mothers has taught me: Motherhood is risky. Motherhood is difficult. Motherhood is sometimes life-threatening. It is always life-changing. Most of these changes are profound, though few are recognised as such, especially the bad ones.

When women have abortions for “social” reasons, when Yes campaigners call for legalisation without restriction as to reason, it is not, as the No campaign claims, because we take abortion “lightly”. It’s because we take motherhood seriously. We understand what it entails, and know that it should never be forced on someone who isn’t prepared to take it on. When No campaigners portray motherhood as no more than a minor inconvenience – or, worse yet, as a suitable penalty for “mis”behaviour – they belittle every woman who has ever sacrificed an important part of her life in order to have a child.

My own mother was already a mother when she had me. She knew it was no picnic. She held an MSc which wasn’t put to use again for many years after my siblings and I were born. She could have had a legal abortion in the place where we were living. Of course, I am grateful she didn’t. But I am also thankful for her that she had the choice. Done under duress, I can’t imagine how much harder her job would have been.

For all that Irish society purports to revere motherhood, the problem is we don’t really respect it.  The myriad of ways that that needs to change are, for the most part, a subject for another blog post (I’ll just leave “proper remuneration” here for now). But we can take a big step very quickly by taking compulsory motherhood out of our Constitution – recognising it as too important a role to impose on the unready or unwilling.

Respect motherhood. Vote Repeal.

On pregnant women and disabled children, in a society that cares for neither

For as long as I can remember, women have been warned to adjust our behaviour – before and during pregnancy (as if there was no third option) – to keep us from having disabled children. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t get pregnant after 40. Take folic acid. The need to prevent the birth of disabled children has become such a societal imperative that women have found themselves harassed for having a glass of wine while pregnant, refused service, criminalised, and even sterilised to achieve this goal. The message that underlies all this is clearly one of the undesirability of disability (as well, of course, of it being the woman’s fault).

Obviously there’s a difference between trying to prevent disability in an otherwise healthy pregnancy, and terminating the pregnancy you actually have because of a disability. But that difference isn’t captured by many of the arguments we’re hearing from the anti-repeal side, which talk about birth rates for children with Down Syndrome in Iceland and solemnly warn about a future with no disabled children, in language appropriating the Holocaust. Their stats about Iceland are wrong, as we know, but what if they were right – and what if the reason they were right was not because of high abortion rates where DS was detected, but because of health or lifestyle changes that helped diminish the incidence of DS pregnancies in the first place? Would they be out protesting folic acid suppliers for their role in the genocide of disabled children?

Of course they wouldn’t, and this most of all is what bothers me about the use of children with Down Syndrome in anti-abortion campaigns. It’s a sort of fetishisation of disability, something they would otherwise find deeply undesirable, something they would actually put women in prison to prevent. I’m aware of course that people with disabilities have their own – non-homogeneous – views about their disabilities (no doubt deeply influenced by the barriers society places in front of them, something anti-choicers show little concern about) but that’s not the place where the anti-repeal leaders are coming from. Especially when you know they’d be the first to criticise women for not doing pregnancy right.

Damned if we do have disabled children, damned if we don’t. Almost as if it’s not really about the children at all.

 

With thanks to Danielle and Beth

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.

 

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.