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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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

Guest post by Susann Huschke

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Sex worker movements do not support the criminalization of buyers, not in Sweden, not in Ireland, not anywhere (http://prostitutescollective.net/2014/03/today-sex-workers-oppose-criminalisation-of-clients/; http://www.pivotlegal.org/sex_workers_rights; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/oct/17/northern-ireland-sex-workers-oppose-new-law; http://www.sweat.org.za/sexworkiswork/). Yes, individual former sex workers (or survivors of prostitution as they prefer to be called) are often very prominent supporters, for whatever their reasons may be. But if you actually look at groups, movements and organizations that represent the diverse people who work in the sex industry – they don’t want criminalization. Why not? For example, because they feel that the more their way of making a living is criminalized, the less safe it is for them. And because they feel that criminalization adds to the stigma that is one of the worst parts of their job. And because they feel that those who propose these laws have not actually bothered to meet them; listen to them; engage with them in any meaningful way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex work in France, one year on

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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.

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

Posted on

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

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

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

On whether the law is “working” to end demand



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


On whether sex workers are still hassled by police


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

On whether sex workers are de facto criminalised


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

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

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


Yes, this is an actual picture in the book

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


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








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

On who exactly benefits from this law


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

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

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

Credit to Lucy Smyth for translations and screenshots.