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Dear Brock…

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Dear Brock…

 

13405606_10154175610450320_907282261_oPhoto by Eamonn Brown Photography

 

Dear Brock,

I read your letter to Judge Persky and, as someone who works with survivors of male violence and a survivor myself, I found it rather distressing. I’m posting your letter below along with my response in purple:

“The night of January 17th changed my life and the lives of everyone involved forever. I can never go back to being the person I was before that day.”

As the person you were before that date was a man who was happy to rape women I think I can speak on behalf of society here and say that we are all glad that you can never go back to being that person.

“I am no longer a swimmer, a student, a resident of California, or the product of the work that I put in to accomplish the goals that I set out in the first nineteen years of my life.”

How is any of this relevant? Is it actually possible you are expecting people to feel sorry for you because the fact that you raped a woman and got caught means that your life has changed for the worse? 

“Not only have I altered my life, but I’ve also changed [redacted] and her family’s life. I am the sole proprietor of what happened on the night that these people’s lives were changed forever. I would give anything to change what happened that night. I can never forgive myself for imposing trauma and pain on [redacted]. It debilitates me to think that my actions have caused her emotional and physical stress that is completely unwarranted and unfair. The thought of this is in my head every second of every day since this event has occurred. These ideas never leave my mind. During the day, I shake uncontrollably from the amount I torment myself by thinking about what has happened.”

If you actually feel so remorseful why did you plead not guilty and drag her through the courts, making your victim recount every traumatic thing you did to her? I have a sneaking suspicion Brock,  that the thought of having to suffer the legal consequences of your actions has been the thing that has debilitated you. 

“I wish I had the ability to go back in time and never pick up a drink that night, let alone interact with [redacted].”

Alcohol is not to blame for what you did. You are. Alcohol does not turn people into rapists. 

I can barely hold a conversation with someone without having my mind drift into thinking these thoughts. They torture me. I go to sleep every night having been crippled by these thoughts to the point of exhaustion. I wake up having dreamt of these horrific events that I have caused. I am completely consumed by my poor judgement and ill thought actions. There isn’t a second that has gone by where I haven’t regretted the course of events I took on January 17th/18th.”

How self obsessed.  No word of the pain and trauma the victim has suffered, it is all about you.

“My shell and core of who I am as a person is forever broken from this. I am a changed person.”

The women of the world can only hope that the shell and core of you is broken and forever changed. We hope being held accountable for your despicable actions will teach you not to rape in the future.

“At this point in my life, I never want to have a drop of alcohol again. I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed.”

Stop trying to blame your rapey behaviour on drink culture. Many, many men (and women) drink and don’t rape. You do not get to use drink as a free pass to rape people.

“I never want to experience being in a position where it will have a negative impact on my life or someone else’s ever again.”

Then stop raping.

“I’ve lost two jobs solely based on the reporting of my case.”

You lost two jobs because you raped an unconscious woman. Not because newspapers reported it.

“I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.”

Being good at swimming has zero to do with this. What university you go to has nothing to do with this. If you felt entitled to rape an unconscious woman as a swimmer and a Stanford attendee then chances are you would have raped someone else at some point, regardless of what uni you’re at or what skills you have. It was not all just an unfortunate  unavoidable fate that you found yourself with the perfect storm for raping a woman. You chose to rape her. Being written about in papers is a side effect of being a criminal. If you didn’t want to be written about, you shouldn’t have committed a crime.

“All I can do from these events moving forward is by proving to everyone who I really am as a person.”

Yes? Who are you really as a person Brock? I’m not hearing a lot of remorse in your actions or words.

“I know that if I were to be placed on probation, I would be able to be a benefit to society for the rest of my life.”

Really? How?

“I want to earn a college degree in any capacity that I am capable to do so. And in accomplishing this task, I can make the people around me and society better through the example I will set.”

But I thought you said being at college was part of the problem that lead you to rape a woman? What example are you planing on setting? How do you plan on making society better Brock?

“I’ve been a goal oriented person since my start as a swimmer. I want to take what I can from who I was before this situation happened and use it to the best of my abilities moving forward.”

How about realising that who you were before this was a person who could justify raping an unconscious woman in an alleyway beside a dumpster? How about deciding that maybe being the guy with those values doesn’t serve you or society anymore? How about ditching that guy and starting afresh? 

“I know I can show people who were like me the dangers of assuming what college life can be like without thinking about the consequences one would potentially have to make if one were to make the same decisions that I made. I want to show that people’s lives can be destroyed by drinking and making poor decisions while doing so.”

Again Brock, this is NOT about drink. Stop trying to blame alcohol for your rapist mentality.

“One needs to recognize the influence that peer pressure and the attitude of having to fit in can have on someone.”

Are you suggesting that your peers pressured you to rape a woman?

“One decision has the potential to change your entire life.”

 It wasn’t one decision, it was hundreds of decisions. You decided to take advantage of her, you decided to lift her shirt, you decided to lift her skirt, You decided to pull down her pants, you decided to insert things into her vagina. Each of the actions you took were decisions and at any point you could have stopped. Your attempts to make this look like one poor decision made whilst under the influence of alcohol belies the actual lack of responsibility you feel about your actions.

“I know I can impact and change people’s attitudes towards the culture surrounded by binge drinking and sexual promiscuity that protrudes through what people think is at the core of being a college student.”

Again drink is NOT responsible for rape. Rapists are. Sexual promiscuity? Let’s look at that. Promiscuity implies someone who likes to have sex with lots of people. Rape is NOT about sex. Sex is consensual and enjoyable. Rape is a tool of violence and power and is completely unrelated to sex. Men who rape are not promiscuous – they are rapists. Putting the focus here on sex and alcohol is a red herring and is COMPLETELY MISSING THE POINT that rape is not at all linked to promiscuous behaviour or enjoying sex. The idea that you are going to change people’s attitudes to drink and sleeping around is completely unrelated to what you did. If you suggested doing talks on respecting women’s bodily autonomy or offered to spend your life raising money for rape crisis centres then you’d be somewhere in the area of genuine understanding and remorse. 

“I want to demolish the assumption that drinking and partying are what make up a college lifestyle”

This is completely irrelevant.

“I made a mistake, I drank too much, and my decisions hurt someone. But I never ever meant to intentionally hurt [redacted].”

But Brock the problem is that you DID intend on intentionally hurting her. You forcibly raped her. While she was unconscious. Do you expect us to believe that you actually thought that you weren’t hurting her when you did this?

“My poor decision making and excessive drinking hurt someone that night and I wish I could just take it all back.”

STOP. BLAMING. DRINK.

“If I were to be placed on probation, I can positively say, without a single shred of doubt in my mind, that I would never have any problem with law enforcement. Before this happened, I never had any trouble with law enforcement and I plan on maintaining that. I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.”

The only thing you have been shattered by Brock is your own ideas, actions and behaviour. Party culture has nothing to do with what you did so stop trying to abrogate responsibility onto random concepts.  You say you have been shattered by the ‘risk taking behaviour’ that you ‘briefly experienced’ in your four months at school. This wasn’t something that happened because you fell under a mad spell of risk taking during a 4 month period in your life Brock. This is something you were very likely fed from when you were a child. In order to do what you did you had to have a belief that it was ok to do that to a woman. That’s indicative of a pretty rotten core belief system Brock. It didn’t happen because you fell under the influence of some ‘risk takers’ during a few months of college. You are consistently trying to nullify your own responsibility for your actions. I find that kind of despicable Brock. 

“I’ve lost my chance to swim in the Olympics. I’ve lost my ability to obtain a Stanford degree. I’ve lost employment opportunity, my reputation and most of all, my life.”

So much about you, so little about your victim. What of all she has lost Brock? I am reminded of that statement ‘Me, me me!’ when you constantly talk about how tough things are for you now. What of the woman you raped Brock? What of her employment opportunity, reputation and life? 

“These things force me to never want to put myself in a position where I have to sacrifice everything. I would make it my life’s mission to show everyone that I can contribute and be a positive influence on society from these events that have transpired. I will never put myself through an event where it will give someone the ability to question whether I really can be a betterment to society.”

Frankly I find a lot of this to be nonsensical. Surely you have already put yourself in a position where you have to sacrifice everything? I am still very confused Brock by how you plan on being a positive influence on society – in fact I find myself feeling very distressed at how little you seem to understand what you did and why you did it. The thought of you speaking to masses of students about any subject other than your own ignorance on these matters alarms me greatly.

“I want no one, male or female, to have to experience the destructive consequences of making decisions while under the influence of alcohol. I want to be a voice of reason in a time where people’s attitudes and preconceived notions about partying and drinking have already been established. I want to let young people now, as I did not, that things can go from fun to ruined in just one night.”

I want no one, male or female to have to experience the destructive consequences of being sexually assaulted. That’s what I want Brock. Because I am one of those women who, like many women, has been sexually assaulted. I have been raped on two separate occasions (once while I was so drunk I was unconscious, much like your victim) and I have suffered the innumerable sexual aggressions some men think it is ok to do to women – slapping my bum, grabbing my breast and in one case sticking their tongue in my mouth. Sadly we live in a world where many men think it is ok to assault women. I’d love it Brock if you were as passionate about ending sexual violence towards women as you seem to be about the completely unrelated issues of binge drinking and promiscuity. 

Here’s an idea Brock, how about you read up on sexual predators, abusers and rapists and you find out why they do what they do? How about you start a parenting revolution to teach people to teach their sons about respecting women and what the hell consent means? How about you spend the rest of your life tirelessly working to end sexual assault? Or, at the very least how about you indicate that you fully understand what you did, that you are incredibly sorry and that you dearly want to repair the damage you have done to your victim? That would be a good start. 

 


Taryn De Vere is an eccentric dresser, a writer, mother of 5, a conscious relationship coach for http://www.lovewitheaseplease.com , performance artist https://www.facebook.com/A-Chaotic-Embrace-113263035681066 , and a sex positive parenting educator https://www.facebook.com/sexpositiveparenting 

 

How to Rid the World of Arseholes (in Two Simple Steps)

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I will consider my parenting to be a success if when my children grow up they are:

  1. Not arseholes.
  2. Happy.

In that order.

I can cope with an unhappy non-arsehole, because I know how to support people to find their joy.  Being an arsehole though is not an easily un-doable state of being.

The thing is that arseholes don’t just spring fully formed once a person turns 18. An arsehole needs to be trained up to become one. Usually this is through a process of drip feeding entitlement to them.

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I know a kid who is manipulative, disrespectful to pretty much all the people in his life, will never get up in the morning for his parents, throws tantrums even though he is 9 and who gets away with everything I’ve just mentioned – all with no consequences. When I look at this kid I see the lovely little boy I remember him being as a small child and I see the emerging adult arsehole. Having known this child for a long time I feel desperately sad that he is being conditioned by his parents to grow up to become an entitled teen.

Entitled teens can go on to become what in the adult world we call abusers – men (and sometimes women) who emotionally, sexually, financially or physically abuse their partners.

Some of you might be thinking ‘Steady on, he’s only 9!’ And yes he is, but 9 year olds absorb the messages of the family and culture around them. Most kids are sponges that will soak up whatever they see role modelled.  That is why a child who grows up in an abusive household is statistically far more likely to grow up to be an abuser (and to a lesser degree a victim of abuse).

“The single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether or not they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence. Studies from various countries support the findings that rates of abuse are higher among women whose husbands were abused as children or who saw their mothers being abused.”

Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children (UNICEF Report)

But the sad thing is that children can grow up to become abusers or rapists even if they haven’t grown up in an abusive household. All they need is to grow up being fed the perfect recipe of entitlement and inequality and like magic an abuser will (in the majority of cases) emerge.

An abusive mindset is the result of two factors:

  1. A core belief in inequality
  2. A sense of entitlement – in this case we mean entitlement to be “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment”.

That means that the person with the abusive mindset has to have a belief that they are a better, more worthy person than others. Usually they will believe that men are better than women, with themselves and other men they consider to be high status at the top and everyone else below.

The sense of entitlement can manifest in many ways. My abusive ex kept me (and everyone else in his life) waiting on him all the time. He was not apologetic about his consistent lateness as he felt entitled to arrive whenever it suited him (or sometimes to not arrive at all). The sense of entitlement could manifest as an expectation that things will always be done the way he wants them to be done and that he knows best at all times. There are innumerable ways in which a sense of entitlement can manifest and none of them are pleasant to be on the receiving end of.

The 9 year old I know gets away with being physically rough to his younger siblings. I once saw him hold his 5 year old sister in a painful grip as she cried and yelled at him to stop. He wouldn’t stop, even after I asked him to. I then got his parent and asked them to ask him to stop. He held onto her little body until he was ready to let go. It was a show of power over everyone present. Showing us all who was the boss. I had seen this behaviour before, in my abusive ex. Power and control are the two tools abusers use to control their victims.

The boy’s dad said ‘Don’t do that to your sister’ and that was that. He was not made to apologise, not made to repair the damage he had done, not talked to about respecting other people’s bodily autonomy and not given any consequences for his actions.

The parents of this child are teaching him that other people’s consent does not matter and that what he wants to do to other people is more important than what they want him to do (or not do).

What is that going to look like when he is 16? When he is 30? How do you think that boy is going to treat women when he gets older, bigger and stronger?

The parents of this boy are teaching him that force is acceptable to use on other people.

What will this boy do when he’s angry or annoyed with another student at school? What will he do when he is older and a girl says ‘stop’ or ‘I don’t want to do that’?

The parents of this boy are teaching him that he is entitled to live in a consequence-free world.

What will happen to this boy when he is an adult who can’t get his own way? What coping mechanisms will he have to fall back on having never had to feel the consequences of his actions?

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I hope you’re still with me here, and you can see the progression from child with no consequences to adult abuser. I don’t know about you but I sure as shit don’t want that for my kids.

So what can be done to make sure your kid doesn’t grow up to be an arsehole?

 

It’s simple, but not easy. There are two steps.

  1. Boundaries and Standards.

Kids actually flipping love this stuff. Boundary setting makes them feel safe. They like to know the rules, and to know someone has shit sorted and they don’t have to worry about it. Create boundaries and standards for your kids according to the values of your household.  For example in my house I have standards around language. I especially hate the term ‘Shut up.’ I find it offensive and de-humanising. So it is on the list with ‘Stupid’ and ‘Liar’ as the worst words that can be said in my house. It is part of the standards I expect from my kids that they will use respectful language with each other. The boundary setting I do is mostly around how I want to be treated and how I want them to treat others. The other golden rule of my household is when someone says ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ or shows in non-verbal ways  that they are uncomfortable – then that MUST be respected.  I’ve found a helpful exercise was to have all my kids write out a list of the 10 most important values they have around what kind of person they want to be. Then when they act inappropriately  I say, ‘Was your behaviour in line with the kind of person you want to be?’ (sometimes showing them their list). Then I ask them what the person on the list would do next to fix the situation.

  1. Enforcing them, aka Consequences.

This is the hard bit. You have to find the thing your kid loves more than anything and take it away from them (*insert evil laugh*) but seriously, this bit won’t work if it isn’t something they really love. For my teenage daughter it’s her phone, for my 10 year old it’s the internet, for my 7 year old it’s having friends over, for my 5 year old it’s Lego. Each kid has a soft spot – you need to find it and exploit it. That is the consequence hanging over their head if they embark on douchery. Now, only use this level of serious consequence when the behaviour warrants it. If that had of been my son in the story above this is how it would’ve gone down.

My friend comes to get me to ask me to intervene. I say to my child to immediately stop. If my child doesn’t stop I say, “If you do not stop right now you will be on an internet ban for 2 days”.  Then once he has let her go  I would say to my son that what he did was one of the worst things you can do to another person, that he has damaged the trust between himself and his little sister and that her needs to make it up to her. I would have him apologise to his sister, to my friend who he also disrespected by not listening to her and I would ask him what his plan is to repair the situation with his sister. Sometimes kids can need a bit of help in this area so I might say, “Her room is a bit messy, maybe you could offer to tidy it for her?” or you could suggest some other things that you know your daughter might like or enjoy. If he did something like that again I’d follow all the same steps and enact the internet ban.  The really, really hard bit though is – enforcing the consequences. If you are anything like me this is where you slip up. My main problem was that I have so many kids I have trouble remembering who is on what ban, so to combat my lack of follow through I wrote the ban start and end times on the calendar on the wall as well as putting reminders in my phone. Whatever works for you, but follow through on the consequence is vital to the creation of a non-arsehole.

I started writing this because I watched my 6 year old son playing with some other children and one of them belted my child across the head from behind. The mother of the violent kid did nothing. I went over and told her that her child had hit my son and she turned to her kid and said ‘Don’t hit people!’ and that was that. There was no apology to my child, no attempt to repair and no consequences.  And I thought, ‘Man, this sucks. That kid is learning some pretty toxic stuff from his parents.’ Now maybe she was having a tough day or whatever, I get it no one is a perfect parent and if there was such thing they wouldn’t be a perfect parent 100% of them time. But this is the kind of parenting I see everywhere. And it depresses the hell out of me.

1 in 3 women in this world will be a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault in her lifetime. To put it another way – that’s roughly speaking 1 in 3 men who are abusing women. I have 3 sons who will grow up to be 3 men. I don’t want one (or any of them) to be one of the men who abuse.  I personally have been on the receiving end of extensive abuse (sexual, emotional, financial and physical). In every case my attacker or abuser was a man. A man who was once a boy.

 

Taryn Gleeson  red web

Taryn De Vere is an eccentric dresser, a writer, mother of 5, a performance artist https://www.facebook.com/A-Chaotic-Embrace-113263035681066/?fref=ts&ref=br_tf and works as a conscious relationship coach and a parenting advisor for lovewitheaseplease.com

https://www.facebook.com/lovewitheaseplease/?fref=ts

 

This is why we can’t have nice things; Upping the price of drink in Ireland

The Oireachtas Health Committee is due to launch a report soon that will propose the government introduce a law to ensure that there is a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Much is being made of the fact that this will mean you won’t be able to buy a single bottle of wine for less than a tenner anywhere in the state. Compared to many other European states, the price of alcohol in bars is already ridiculous. The Vintner’s Association must love this. They’ve been banging on about how they’re losing business to people drinking at home for a long time, so an Oireachtas committee has decided to help their businesses by trying to prevent people from doing that by making it more expensive under the guise of a health initiative.

Despite the fact that Alcohol Action have been banging this drum as a health initiative for quite a while it’s painfully obvious to anyone who isn’t after necking a bottle of wine that using price to control behaviour unfairly penalises those on low incomes. There can be no equality of outcome in this situation.

Well-meaning but misinformed lobbyists have consistently put forward lines which are untrue such as “Minimum pricing, by definition, impacts on those that drink the most.” Clearly this is incorrect – the impact will be felt by those on lower incomes. The subtext of the statement from Alcohol Action is that those that drink the most are poor –  and they must be stopped from drinking. They must be saved from themselves. Increasing the price of pints wouldn’t have stopped TDs from drinking and then getting up to vote or speak on some of the most important Bills in the history of the current cabinet. Ensuring that a bottle of wine is more than €10 would not have stopped former TD Jim McDaid from getting behind the wheel of the car while absolutely hammered and tearing up the wrong side of the dual carriageway on his way home from the a race meeting at Punchestown. Nor would the cost of alcohol per unit have stopped other political figures such as Liam Lawlor, Labour’s Michael Bell, Senators David Norris, Joe O’Toole and Deputy Ruairí Quinn from being convicted of drink driving. That isn’t really how drink driving works. I hate cultural stereotypes that position all Irish people as pissed up, because they aren’t correct and are the product of anti-Irish racism of Victorian England. In saying that, Ireland is probably one of the only places where you can be convicted of being drunk behind the wheel and still have a reasonable run at a presidential election or subsequently hold the position of senior government Minister. Our attitudes to alcohol are simply different to other places, and making alcohol more expensive isn’t going to change the practice of well-paid middle class parents in south county Dublin who put Cabáiste and Quinoa to bed at night and then neck two or three bottles of wine. That leads to long term negative impacts on an individual’s health and the healthcare system – but that’s ok because it’s not poor people doing it. The cost of the drink isn’t the issue, it’s actually the mind of the people drinking it and the culture that surrounds them. Bags of coke don’t come cheap but that doesn’t stop people snorting Dickhead Dust to beat the band in certain circles. The price, or legality for that matter, is irrelevant.

Rightly or wrongly, drinking is a culturally accepted social past-time in Ireland. The Guinness toucan is an internationally recognised symbol of Irish cultural experience and we play up to it. We celebrate writers like John B. Keane and Brendan Behan whose grá for a jar is well known. Yes, alcohol contributes to a lot of terrible aspects of Irish society; Dublin is like a warzone after 3pm on St. Patrick’s Day; we’re a pretty depressed population and drink doesn’t particularly help that; and our A&Es are overrun with people getting charcoal stuffed down them at the weekends when staff and hospitals are already near breaking point. But increasing costs isn’t suddenly going to mean that there’ll be less vomit on O’Connell Street early on a Sunday morning. It just means that when someone rings in to complain on Joe Duffy, a government Minister can say “Well, it’s not our fault! We did something!” and some people will have a bit less in their pockets to pay for their breakfast rolls in Centra that afternoon.

Budget day always brings a collective whinge from the nation when there’s an increase in the price of alcohol, but adding a set rate per unit of alcohol simply stops those on lower incomes from engaging in what is a cultural norm without having the evidence to back up whether this is going to have a significant public health benefit for those you want to target. The definition of poverty is if people’s income is so inadequate they are precluded from engaging in activities and having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society. Why shouldn’t someone who goes out and is exploited by doing a week’s work on Jobbridge for €50 quid on top of their dole and the luxury of keeping the social welfare off their back have a drink of something cheap at home at the end of it? Those drinkers aren’t really the problem but they’re the ones who will pay for it.

The problem of alcohol consumption in Ireland, like drug abuse, isn’t going to be solved overnight, and this is just the latest proposal that’s well intended but isn’t going to change anything. Headshops were closed down and people are still doing yokes. The price of drink will go up, and government TDs will still be in the Dáil chamber three sheets to the wind. The more things change the more they stay the same and a policy that looks like it has emanated from the mind of someone with a superficial grasp of Leaving Cert economics won’t even scratch the surface of deeply embedded social problems.

Enduring (the) Myths: Sex Work, Decriminalisation and the Nordic Model

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“When prohibitionists do cite other researchers’ findings, they sometimes distort the results and assert the exact opposite of what the cited researchers found.”

– Ronald Weitzer, The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy (2010)

In early March 2013, the Huffington Post published an article with the title Debunking The Myths: Why Legalising Prostitution Is A Terrible Idea. I was not desperately keen to read it, but I proceeded to anyway because I am generally interested in what people are saying about sex work. And then I was angry. And then I went away and did something else, but I’ve had to come back to it again, a month later, because this one has specific features that make me particularly angry, and I need to share with you what they are.

It was written by Jacqui Hunt, London director of Equality Now. And despite its title, its scope is not limited to legalisation: she believes decriminalisation is an equally bad idea. At first glance, her article looks fairly reasonable and well researched, citing studies from various countries in which sex work has been legalised or decriminalised. It should be noted, however, that any legal model can be tweaked: whichever approach to sex work is selected by authorities, sex workers’ rights and well-being may or may not be prioritised in the accompanying legislation. Germany’s legalisation model is not identical to Austria’s (given the choice, I’d pick Germany). This means that negative outcomes might very well indicate the need for better legislation, rather than conclusive proof that legalisation or decriminalisation should never be entertained again. On the other hand, criminalising sex workers’ clients, as per the Nordic model, has specific, negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety, and there is no conceivable way to criminalise clients that won’t result in those negative repercussions.

I’m not going to address each and every claim Hunt makes about legalisation or decriminalisation: my intention in writing this post is, instead, to examine the ways in which some of her claims have been made, ways which I believe undermine her credibility. My main interest here is in references she makes to New Zealand, where I recently visited the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) to specifically discuss the effects of decriminalisation. And because the primary source for her observations on New Zealand reveals a markedly different picture from the one she has chosen to paint, I’m given to feel that all of her claims ought to be thoroughly investigated before anyone takes them as gospel.

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Taking Ideology to the Streets: Sex Work and How to Make Bad Things Worse

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“If you drive it underground so no one can find it, it wouldn’t survive.” – Rhoda Grant, 2012

In many ways, Dana fits the profile. She’s a twentysomething woman with a drug addiction. She was abused in childhood and her partner is occasionally violent towards her. They’re in and out of homeless accommodation, and she works on the street to fund both their habits. You could hold her up as an example of someone who does not want to do sex work, and you’d be right. You could score points with her story. You could insinuate that anybody who rejects total eradication of the sex industry simply doesn’t care about her. And that’s pretty much what the campaigners were doing when they lobbied for the criminalisation of her clients.

It’s late 2007, and the Scottish Parliament recently passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act, outlawing kerb-crawling. Dana’s clients are now breaking the law. If she worked indoors, this would not (yet) be the case, but she doesn’t; she wishes she could, she knows she’d be safer there, but most brothel managers don’t take too kindly to injecting drug users, plus it would be hard to hold down structured shifts given how each day and night is arranged around the search for heroin. The law change hasn’t caused her to pack up and go home (what home?); instead, it has complicated and compounded an already difficult situation.

As I make her a cup of hot chocolate and count out free condoms, Dana takes a seat, tells me about last night. She waited on the streets for hours, frequently changing location in order to avoid police attention. The boyracers were out as usual, yelling abuse and throwing eggs as they sped by. She was rattling – experiencing heroin withdrawal. Gradually, the few remaining clients wore her down, and she agreed to do business with them for less than the usual price. She was out so long that she missed her hostel’s curfew and had to stay out until five in the morning; tried to sleep in a bus shelter. It’s late 2007 in Scotland, and the streets are cold.

“I used to complain about having to come out here to work,” she says. “I had nothing to complain about compared to now.” And this is the statement that sticks with me, a statement so simple and yet so clear, a statement which demonstrates that, despite how Dana’s supposed advocates, her would-be protectors – anti-prostitution campaigners – characterise sex work and how she experiences it, Dana herself knows the difference between a bad situation and a worse one. She is now in the latter. The support organisation I work for is severely underfunded (just over a year from now, it will be forced to cease service provision altogether). Waiting lists for drug treatment are lengthy, and missing an appointment, no matter how valid the reason, can land someone back at the end of the queue. When women like Dana are stopped by the police, sometimes they receive sympathetic treatment, but really it’s a lottery. There’s a serial rapist going around, but even though the women know about it, some of them are taking their chances with him anyway because there are so few clients to choose from. Maybe he’ll just be a bit rough, they rationalise. His behaviour escalates.

Those whose primary goal is to ‘send a message’ are worlds away from these women on the street. Their prioritisation of ideology over safety speaks volumes about their own motivations. It’s one thing if they simply don’t understand the practical repercussions of passing laws such as this one, although it’s too important an issue to excuse a lack of research – these are people’s lives we’re talking about here. But it’s quite another thing if their ignorance is a conscious decision, if they reject concerns not because those concerns are found to be invalid but simply because those concerns are raised by people they don’t want to hear from, including sex workers themselves. Those concerns interfere with a simplistic agenda which, in allowing no room for the nuances of real life, is set to fail. Harmful legislation is steamrollered through by people who block out dissenting voices and allow their supporters to believe there are no dissenting voices, or that those voices are dissenting only because they would rather see women ‘bought and sold’. This sorry state of affairs does no favours for the people they talk about helping.

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UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban

Last month saw the publication of the long-awaited Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. The Advisory Group was established in 2009 by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to provide clarification and advice around certain matters addressed in the most recent (2009) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

I finally had a chance to read the document this week, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it. One of its most significant aspects is that it pulls no punches on the question of criminalising clients – not merely subsuming this issue, as many previous UN-associated statements have done, under a general opposition to laws against consensual commercial sex, but addressing it head-on and in some detail. On pages 5-6, it includes the Swedish sex-purchase ban in a section called “Laws, enforcement and policies that impede effective HIV responses for sex workers: Criminal prohibitions against sex work or aspects of it” and says:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.

In its “Conclusion and recommendations” on legal regimes, on page 8, it says:

States can take many actions to establish legal and policy environments that are conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. Among these are the following: States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal penalties for purchase and sale of sex…

Also significant is its criticism of the “end demand” strategy in general. In the introduction, on page 4, it says:

Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability
for sex workers and their clients

On page 6, it points out:

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce demand for sex or the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.

On pages 10-11, it notes that

well-meaning but ill-informed service and healthcare providers and policy actors from community-based organisations, nongovernmental organisations, donors, international organisations and government agencies believe that they are helping sex workers by calling for criminalisation of clients. However, there is no evidence that these “end demand” initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life for sex workers…These laws do not reduce the scale of sex work, but they do make sex workers more vulnerable.

It calls instead for a shift of emphasis to ending demand for unprotected paid sex – and states on page 11:

Empowering sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions, rather than “end demand” approaches, should be the focus of HIV prevention efforts…When sex workers can successfully ensure that their customers use condoms, sex workers are less likely to become infected by HIV.

Of course, since it’s (usually) the clients who have to wear the condoms, convincing them that it’s in their interest to do so would go a long way toward reducing the demand for unprotected paid sex. The report describes working with clients in this way as the more effective strategy for HIV prevention, noting on page 14 that

demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers

On page 13 it gives a real-life example, from China, of how greater condom use has been achieved through a programme that treats clients not as irredeemable villains but rather as partners in the battle against HIV and other STIs:

Men working in industrial sectors that require them to work away from their families often engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected paid and casual sex…To address this, the International Labour Organization is working with large and medium-scale mining companies in southern China to promote responsible sexual behaviours among mine workers, including proper treatment of STIs, consistent condom use and elimination of violence against women, including sex workers. Preliminary results, assessed through qualitative and quantitative surveys, show significant increases in condom use and health-seeking behaviours, and increased reported condom use in paid and casual sex.

The report goes on to address the issue of trafficking. Here, I have a small difficulty with it, as it divides the sex industry into two distinct categories of voluntary/not trafficked and involuntary/trafficked:

A woman deciding to sell sexual services in order to support herself or her family is not a trafficked person. (page 17)

This is not strictly accurate as a matter of law, as the international definition of “trafficking” is broad enough to encompass some forms of “voluntary” sexual labour, such as debt bondage. It also ignores the fact that for most working people, not just sex workers, consent and coercion exist along a continuum, rather than being a binary.

Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true that sex work abolitionists tend to draw the line on that continuum in such a way as to strip the agency from most sex workers, especially migrants – and the Advisory Group is correct to highlight the problems this causes for HIV programmes. On page 18 it states:

Anti-trafficking measures often concentrate on getting people out of sex work, without considering whether they are trafficked, or whether the efforts will disrupt the access sex workers have to services that safeguard their health and well-being, and that create opportunities for them to share information and seek assistance for individuals they are concerned may have been trafficked. Many projects that focus on rescuing trafficked persons interrupt and undermine efforts to provide sex workers with access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The next page continues:

Forced rescue and rehabilitation practices lower sex workers’ control over where and under what conditions they sell sexual services and to whom, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

It goes on to say that when sex workers’ livelihoods are disrupted in this way,

this leads to social disintegration and a loss of solidarity and cohesion (social capital) among sex workers, including reducing their ability to access health care, legal and social services. Low social capital is known to increase vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and therefore has a detrimental impact on HIV prevention efforts.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it states on page 7 that

From the perspective of universal access to HIV services, undermining sex worker organisations is one of the most important negative effects of law enforcement practices.

Furthermore – and this is incredibly important for the migrant sex workers whom abolitionists are always fretting about:

The conflation of sex work and trafficking directly limits the ability of migrant sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, since they are often assumed to be trafficked. Migrant sex workers often live with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported which creates a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services.(page 19)

Of course, this is an immigration issue which would exist even if there was no question of trafficking. But the moral panic around trafficking has unquestionably created a greater impetus for raids on sex industry venues, which frequently lead to deportations of the people alleged to have been “trafficked”. (I think perhaps the report could have made this clearer.)

As with the battle against HIV, the battle against trafficking also needs sex workers’ participation if it is to have any real effect. On page 18, the report notes that

anti-trafficking efforts typically ignore the possibility of engaging sex workers as partners in identifying, preventing and resolving situations that do involve trafficked people. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices.

To this end, it promotes the establishment of sex worker organisations, saying on page 20:

Organised groups of sex workers are also best placed to establish safe working norms within the sex industry, and influence other actors in the industry to ensure that trafficked adults and children are not retained in sex work…self-regulatory mechanisms, which are established, implemented and overseen by sex workers’ organisations can limit trafficking into the sex industry as well as the sexual exploitation of children. They also form a platform for addressing labour exploitation of sex workers.

The last major issue addressed in the report is the need for sex workers to be economically empowered. The main point here is that such programmes shouldn’t seek only to remove people from sex work, or be made conditional on their willingness/ability to leave the industry, but should aim to also improve the economic circumstances of those who remain in it:

By increasing economic options, sex workers can achieve greater financial security, which makes it easier for them to make important decisions that affect their lives…Improving economic options also helps sex workers to reduce the likelihood of having to accept clients’ requests for unprotected sex or that they will be put in situations that inhibit their ability to negotiate with clients and reduce the risk of violence or abuse. (pages 22-23)

Some interesting examples are provided of successful programmes around the world, such as one in Andhra Pradesh, India, where

Among the 803 sex workers interviewed, involvement in economic independence programmes was positively associated with control over both the type and cost of sexual services provided and with consistent condom use. (page 24)

I can predict a couple criticisms of the report. The make-up of the Advisory Group will probably discredit it in some eyes, since it includes affiliates of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (along with “independent experts from academia and civil society organisations, representatives of UNAIDS Co-Sponsors and the [UNAIDS] Secretariat”). My response to that is to ask whether it would be reasonable for a UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Men Who Have Sex With Men to not include any organisations comprising or working with MSMs. Of course it would not. They would rightly be seen as experts on the subject, and any “advisory group” without them would be seen as lacking in credibility.

It may also be argued that this is merely a report of the Advisory Group and not a UNAIDS policy document as such. This is true. However, its conclusions are entirely consistent with things UNAIDS has been saying all along, even if takes them a bit further. It justifies its positions by reference to earlier UNAIDS publications, such as on page 5 where it says:

The UNAIDS Strategy 2011-2015: Getting to Zero identifies as one of its 10 goals that the number of “countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality will be reduced by half”

and on page 9 where it states that the 2006 International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights/UNAIDS note that

states have a responsibility to ensure that criminal law is reviewed with the aim of removing criminal sanctions on sex work and ensuring that any non-criminal regulations support safe sex in sex work and ready access of sex workers to comprehensive HIV services.

The fact of the matter is that UNAIDS, and many other global health and human rights organisations, have been saying for a long time that criminalisation of sex work is a barrier to effective HIV prevention and treatment. They have focused on criminalisation of the seller because that is how criminalisation manifests itself in most of the world; the Nordic model may look pretty significant from where I’m sitting in the north west corner of Europe but globally, it’s little more than a footnote. So the fact that it hasn’t specifically been addressed by UNAIDS (or the other international health and human rights groups who oppose criminalisation generally) should in no way be taken to indicate that they approve of it. Given all that we’re learning about how it actually works in practice, in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that they would.

Of course, abolitionists won’t care what UNAIDS thinks about it anyway, since their view is that sex work would be bad and wrong even if it cured HIV. But most people are not abolitionists, and I think they would appreciate the significance of UNAIDS publishing this document. It is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of material showing the health and human rights failures of criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, anti-trafficking policy and the fixation on ending demand.

Outreach to sex workers and their clients, not abolitionism, saves lives

I can’t really believe this isn’t so obvious as to go without saying, but yet another peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet this week shows that outreach to sex workers and their clients – including condom distribution, one-on-one safe sex counselling and efforts to reduce stigma – can make a dramatic contribution to HIV prevention. The study was conducted in a number of Indian states over a five-year period.

Sex work in India has a similar status to Ireland: it’s not illegal in and of itself, although many of the surrounding activities (solicitation, brothel-keeping etc) are. A campaign to criminalise clients was opposed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and by the National AIDS Control Organisation, which operates under the Ministry’s aegis, for the precise reason that this would impede the fight against HIV/AIDS. In taking this position, the Indian authorities echo the views of bodies from the World Health Organisation to UNAIDS to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, as Stephanie and I noted in this post.

The logic behind this view isn’t difficult. When commercial sex is criminalised – whether for the buyer, seller or both – it hides. The persons involved shy away from social and medical services, due to fear of arrest, of blackmail, of loss of custody of their children, of being treated like deviants. The stigmatisation created by these laws is a powerful force, often overriding even the assurance that sex workers themselves won’t be prosecuted for their activities. This is reflected in a report published earlier this year by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (only in Swedish, unfortunately), which describes on pages 62-63 an interview with a small-town sex worker who admits she does not go for regular HIV testing because of this fear of being identified as a “prostitute” and therefore stigmatised. This can happen even where commercial sex is entirely legal, of course, but there is little dispute among those who work with or study sex workers that the stigma is much greater where it is criminalised.

But that’s not the only problem. Abolitionism is, by its nature, incompatible with harm reduction, and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS often conflict with moral opposition to the behaviours that put people into high-risk categories. This is the case whether we’re talking about sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users or men who have sex with men. But while most western countries, at least, have begun to come to grips with reality in relation to the last two categories, there is still often a stubborn refusal to accept the need to do the same for the first. In Ireland, the main NGO doing outreach to sex workers, Ruhama, offers sex workers cups of tea but not condoms; in Sweden, the Federation for LGBT Rights noted in a report last year (also only in Swedish), on pages 2 and 8, that HIV prevention programmes directed at sex workers and their clients have been blocked because of the state’s zero-tolerance approach to commercial sex. Whatever your personal views of the sex trade, this is fucking crazy.

The evidence that these programmes save lives is so clear that one conclusion is inevitable: to some people, lives are less of a priority than making a “statement” about the morality of the sex trade. They wouldn’t be unique in that view, of course. It’s the same attitude that leads conservative groups to oppose young people having access to condoms, or teenage girls getting the HPV vaccine. But it may go even further than that. Describing the reluctance to adopt measures that could reduce sex workers’ risk of violence, Hilary Kinnell in Violence and Sex Work in Britain theorises at 29-30 that sex work opponents see this violence as a “necessary deterrent”, a warning to people not to enter the sex trade because they might end up dead. If they stop ending up dead, there’s less of a disincentive to doing sex work. And so there’s less of an incentive for sex work opponents to try to prevent sex workers ending up dead.

Some would be outraged by this accusation, but Kinnell didn’t make it up out of nowhere. She cites from a 1977 Observer article in which Polly Toynbee alleges that this was precisely the justification given to her by a Home Office official as to why prostitution should remain “dangerous”. Kinnell writes that “no one would admit that policy is driven by such thinking today” – but this was before Sweden published its 2010 “evaluation” of its sex trade law, which stated that the increased stigma and other negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”.  This was before Stockholm Police Superintendent Jonas Trolle told the BBC that “It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society – so even though we don’t put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them.” These comments don’t state in so many words that they want sex workers to face risks to their health and their lives – but since the increased stigma is itself a risk to their life, as indeed are some of the other ways by which life is “made difficult” for them, that really is what it amounts to.

If abolitionists are genuinely motivated by regard for the well-being of sex workers, they need to explain how this can be reconciled with opposition to programmes that demonstrably improve their health and safety. It’s not enough to simply argue that they are trying to take them out of the high-risk category. People within this category have as much right to health promotion as people in any other. That’s not just my personal view; that’s international law.

And if – like their religious colleagues – they do believe that the threat of serious illness or death is an appropriate tool of social control, then at the very least they should be honest about it and stop dressing up their arguments in the language of concern.