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The Dark, Lurking Horror of Parenting Girls

The Dark, Lurking Horror of Parenting Girls



Here’s some common rape – prevention tips  “Don’t drink too much”, “Don’t wear anything too revealing”, “Text a friend  to let them know your plans”, “Hold your keys in between your fingers” and of course “Never, ever walk down a darkened alleyway”.  These are the things young women are being told by parents, teachers and society. I understand that the reason people are saying these things to women and girls is because they don’t want anything bad to happen to them. But do they actually prevent women from being sexually assaulted?

In the majority of cases I don’t believe they do.

All these rape-prevention tips are attempts to keep away the monstrous stranger. But as statistics collected by R.A.I.N.N show 3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

So, with this in mind what are we teaching girls about that? Are we telling them to watch out for the man who lives next door/the older cousin/the guy you’ve been dating for 6 months/his best friend? Are we teaching them that 1 in 4 relationships are abusive and that you need to know the signs of abuse before embarking on one? Are we teaching them how to spot the signs of an entitled person? How to spot status seekers?  How to rid their lives of anyone who treats them with disrespect? Are these things fundamental to every parenting book/school class room?

I wonder also why most campaigns focus on women, putting the onus on them not to get raped or be assaulted. Violence against women seems to be the one area where the focus is on potential victims to take responsibility for decreasing their chances of being attacked. I’ve never seen a poster giving tips to stop me being potentially run over by a motorist , or a poster  warning me on the dangers of being in the presence of someone smoking. So why in this one area of violence against women, are poster and ad campaigns directed at potential victims? Another issue with these campaigns  is that most of the campaigns I’m aware of seem to promote the idea that sexual assault occurs between strangers. I’m yet to see a campaign that aims to impart the knowledge that 75% of assaults happen between people who know each other. Why are most campaigns ignoring the statistics on this? And where are all the campaigns reaching out to the perpetrators of these crimes?

According  to the UN It is estimated that “35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime”. So, if you’re a woman or a girl you’ve got a 35 – 70% chance of being sexually or physically abused by a man. And these statistics are not taking into account other forms of abuse – verbal, emotional/psychological, financial abuse and cyber abuse (unsolicited dick pic anyone?)

I don’t know ONE WOMAN who has not been subjected to something on this list of awful. Not one. That’s 100% of the women I know who have been abused in some form by a man. I can hear the ‘not all men’ brigade jumping in at this point, and I want to say – Sure, not ALL men, just  enough that 35 – 70% of ALL women will experience abuse or assault.  Plus these statistics are based on reported incidents of crimes against women. And many women do not report.  If I had of reported every assault against me I would have spent most of my 20’s and 30’s in copshops and courtrooms.

I have lost count of the amount of times I have been harassed online or physically/sexually/verbally/emotionally or financially abused by men. At a rough guess I’d say maybe 200 men have combined to abuse, denigrate, assault or intimidate me over the course of my life. 200 DIFFERENT men that is.

I did a rough survey of women’s experiences on a few women-only groups that I’m part of on Facebook, to find out if my experience was unusual. Women shared having experienced varying degrees of abuse and assault with a couple of women saying they also felt it would be up to 200 men who had been abusive to them in their lifetimes. Other women said they had had one bad experience only. It was by no means a scientific study but it gave me a slightly broader view on what was happening outside of my circle.

I can’t help but wonder what the statistics would be if there was an official system in place for reporting crimes against women – one where women could share their experience regardless of if they want to pursue anything legally (if they are fortunate enough to live in a country where the crimes against them are considered to BE crimes that is). Or even something like the Everyday Sexism site, which collects and collates women’s experiences from around the globe.

Every time I read official statistics on rape and sexual assault I feel angry that none of my experiences are counted in those statistics. And it is too late for me to report them now, the first time I was raped was 20 years ago and in another country. Plus being a witness at a rape trial when I was 17 significantly deterred me from reporting any of the crimes committed against me.  I know I am not alone in that most women do not report this kind of crime, especially when they know the person who has committed it, which as we know is in 75% of cases.

The dark, lurking horror for me as a parent of two girls is that I know there is little chance they will escape this. I know in my woman’s heart what most likely waits for them.  It is frighteningly likely that at some point a man is going to try and hurt my daughters.

Given all I know about abuse and assault I feel that it is my job to prepare my daughter’s for the likely possibility of being assaulted or abused. Of course I never tell them that I think they might be assaulted, instead I teach them about consent and boundaries, so they know what is and isn’t ok. I teach them about respecting their own and other’s bodies. I want the lines to be SO clear for my beautiful girls. I want no doubt in their minds when someone crosses a line. I want them to KNOW it is wrong.

I teach them what I was never taught, to be fierce. To be so fierce that they feel comfortable yelling and shouting at anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable or wrong. I want them to know how to scream and what to scream.

I practice scenarios with my teenage daughter, “A guy does this to you, what do you do?”  I say, “You need to scream as loud as you can for help.” I teach them that no matter how well they know the person that they should act like he is a stranger because people are more likely to help a woman who is being accosted by a stranger than get involved with a ‘domestic’.

I teach them emotional intelligence, so they can articulate what happens to them. I teach them resilience so, if they need it, they can heal. So if it happens my girls will be strong within, are less likely to fall to pieces, or to lose weight, friends and jobs because of what has happened to them.  Alongside of all of this I’m trying to teach my daughters that there are also lovely men out there, that they can trust, men who are allies, men who are respectful and that hopefully these will be the majority of the men they encounter. And while I’m doing this a little voice inside me is saying  “it just takes one.” One man to hurt my child.

And while I’m teaching my girls all the things no one ever taught me and I wish they did, I’m thinking “Fuck this awful world, that is making me teach my daughters to prepare for what feels like their inevitable assault. Fuck this.” And I’m getting angry about it, so fucking angry.

Because I know that this could all change in one generation. If we were all teaching our sons to be respectful to women (and each other) this would change. If there were actual consequences for being disrespectful towards women – this would change. If men were speaking out to other men, calling them on their sexist bullshit – this would change. If society actually gave a shit about women – this would change.

Because who wants to live in a world where parents have to prepare their daughters for abuse by men?

Not me.


Taryn Gleeson  red web


Taryn De Vere is an eccentric dresser, a writer, mother of 5, a conscious relationship coach for, performance artist , and a sex positive parenting educator 









On Sheila Farmer and the curious abolitionist approach to “decriminalisation”

Some good news from England last week as charges were dropped against Sheila Farmer, who had been accused the offence of “brothel-keeping” for sharing a flat with another sex worker. You can read about it in her own words here.

Earlier, when she was still facing charges, she had addressed the London Slutwalk and called for this law to be changed in the interests of sex workers’ safety. A video of her speech (as well as that of an English Collective of Prostitutes representative, Niki Adams) can be watched here.

I found that video intriguing, mainly because of the support that Farmer and Adams appear to be getting from the Slutwalk attendees. This makes perfect sense as a logical matter, of course; Slutwalk is all about trying to change the mindset that rape victims “ask for it”, and no one bears the brunt of that mindset more than sex workers. I am also aware that the march’s organisers specifically invited sex workers to take part, and that the “official” Slutwalk London group has continued to support Sheila Farmer and to call for a change in the brothel-keeping laws.

It’s quite a contrast with the way these issues have been dealt with here in Ireland. The only Slutwalk that has taken place here, in Galway, made no attempt to include sex workers and indeed they faced hostility and indifference when they asked if they were invited. More important is the fact that there have been a number of Sheila Farmers here over the past few years, and the silence about them from the feminist movement has been deafening. Mainstream Irish feminism is pretty much lined up behind the Swedish model and so you hear plenty from them when, for example, men are arrested for trying to buy sex. Cases like this one and this one, however, in which women are arrested for trying to sell it under safer conditions, don’t seem to attract their interest.

In fact, Irish sex work abolitionists appear to oppose any attempt to protect sex workers’ safety by allowing them to share premises. Several years ago the issue was raised in the context of a British reform proposal (which could have applied to the North of Ireland); the response by leading abolitionist group Ruhama was to oppose this as a form of “legalising prostitution”. And when the sex worker organisation Turn Off The Blue Light (TOBL) published a study showing that women like Sheila Farmer account for the vast majority of “brothel-keeping” convictions in Ireland, the response of these groups was to ignore the substantive issue entirely and instead try to discredit TOBL. Not once, to my knowledge, have any of these groups ever said that sex workers who share premises for safety should not face charges of brothel-keeping.

And this isn’t only an Irish thing. In the US, Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island has endorsed the Swedish model, yet she described as a “legislative victory” the 2009 state law which made selling sex illegal (previously only street solicitation was). In Canada, none other than Melissa Farley herself testified for the Crown in the Bedford case, which concerns two laws used mostly or entirely against sex workers: one essentially a soliciting clause, and one that prohibits indoor prostitution on all but an outcall basis.

The bizarre thing is that many of those who take these positions describe themselves as supporting “decriminalisation” of the women in sex work. They say that they want the men who buy sex to be criminalised instead. Yet here they are supporting laws that criminalise the seller. This is a glaring contradiction, and one they must be called to account for.

Of course, not all sex work abolitionists take the Hughes/Farley/Ruhama line on this; there are some who do not believe that sex workers should be prosecuted for working indoors or in pairs or whatever. I wish they would be as vocal about these matters as they are in calling for more penalties against sex purchasers. But I also take issue with those who use the terminology of “decriminalisation” when they only want one party to the transaction to escape penalties.

In the radfem theory that sex work abolitionism is based on, prostitution is conceptualised as a form of violence against women, analogous to (or perhaps even indistinguishable from) rape. And just as women who have been raped are the victims of a criminal act, so are sex workers (“prostituted women”). It makes little sense to talk about “decriminalising” people for an act committed against them rather than by them. As far as I’m aware, campaigners against Saudi Arabia’s rape laws don’t go around saying they want “decriminalisation” when they mean they don’t want women to be prosecuted for being raped.

Of course, I’m not the tsar of the English language (unfortunately), and so I can’t stop people from saying they support decriminalisation of selling sex when what they really mean is that they want commercial sex to remain illegal but its nature redefined (really, what they want is the actus reus of the crime of prostitution to be buying rather than selling sex). But if they don’t support the Sheila Farmers of this world, they have no basis for using the d-word at all. If, like Ruhama, you are so horrified by the idea of “legalising prostitution” in any way that you would rather see some sex workers continue to risk prosecution – or take unnecessary chances with their safety in order to avoid it – you do not support decriminalising them, full stop, and it is well past time for the journalists who give you reams of media space to call you out on it.

Radio-debating the Swedish sex purchase ban

Yesterday I took part in a radio discussion with a representative of the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish sex trade law in Ireland. We only had seven minutes between us, and unfortunately the time did not end up being divided evenly: we each got to make a brief introductory statement, but in the second round, I was left with only a very short time to respond to quite a lengthy (and obviously well-rehearsed) defence of the Swedish law. And I was asked by the hosts to spend that short time answering a different question entirely, so I didn’t get a chance to respond at all to the points raised in that defence.

On the chance that anyone who listened to the “debate” is reading this blog wondering how I would have responded, I will briefly summarise the points that were made and what I would have said to them if I had had the opportunity. I’m keeping my answers short as if I was actually saying them on the air, but I’m happy to expand on the points if anyone wants me to (though I won’t have the opportunity until after Christmas).

I know the Swedish law is working because I travelled to Sweden last year and saw it for myself.

The speaker is referring to a trip in which anti-sex work advocates were accompanied by Department of Justice officials. I did a Freedom of Information request on that trip and learned that they did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation, and only met with supporters of the law. How can you measure whether a law is working if you don’t talk to anyone affected by it?

The law has been very successful at reducing prostitution and trafficking…

Great claims have been made about the Swedish law but there is little evidence to back them up. The Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they have no idea how much prostitution there is in the country because it is such a hidden phenomenon. Swedish police reports indicate that the trafficking problem has grown significantly over the period since the law was brought in.

… compared to neighbouring countries where the amount is exploding.

Sweden was estimated to have less prostitution than neighbouring countries before the law was ever introduced. It is not surprising that commercial sex would be more visible now in those countries, where it has not been criminalised, than in Sweden where it has. However, the statistics that are being used for those countries are unreliable. In Denmark they derive from a figure that actually represents an estimate of female tourists. In Finland a figure that was specifically stated to be voluntary migrant sex workers has been misreported as “trafficking victims”.

The Swedish people support the law.

The same poll that showed Swedish people are largely in favour of the law also showed that only around 20% think it is actually working. Furthermore, about half of them think that sex workers should also be criminalised under the law.

Young people’s attitudes are changing.

A study carried out by the Swedish youth board only a couple years ago showed that young people have become more, not less, accepting of commercial sex.

We need this law in Ireland where migrants make up more than 90% of the sex industry.

That figure is derived from an audit of the women posting on one particular day on an escort ads website. It doesn’t take into account other sectors of the sex industry, sex workers not advertising on that day or on that site, the possibility of duplicate ads or the possibility of faked “foreign” nationalities. Many of those “migrants” are from Britain or other Global North countries where their nationality does not carry any implication of trafficking – and even those from less well-off countries cannot be assumed to have been trafficked.

[The final point was stated to be in response to my opening comment that there had been no consultation with the people who earn their living by selling sex:]

We have a coalition of one million people.

That is an extraordinary number for an island of only six million; I would be interested to see the evidence for it. But getting other people to support your cause is no substitute for consulting with those whose lives will be affected by the policies you advocate.


It’s fair to say that even if our time had actually been split evenly, I would have needed more time to respond to her points than she needed to make them. But that’s because the issue is more complicated than the simple soundbites that anti-sex work advocates put forward. The fact that they can boil things down to unsupportable claims and dodgy statistics probably goes some way toward explaining why their position is more widely reflected than mine, so in that respect it’s certainly an effective media strategy. It isn’t one I’d be proud of, though, as someone who prefers to deal in facts.

My thanks to DIT Radio for having me on, anyway.

What is a “representative” sex worker?

This is a cliché that anyone who advocates for sex workers’ rights will be familiar with. Faced with a sex worker who defies the abolitionist stereotype of a person physically or economically coerced into prostitution, who thinks their job is ok and isn’t desperate to leave it (but could if s/he wanted to), and who argues that the solution to the negative aspects of sex work is decriminalisation and enforceable rights, the inevitable response is:

You’re not representative. Why should the law be made for you?

This argument is problematic on a number of levels, and deserves a fuller response than I’ve been able to give it when it’s appeared in my comments. So here are my thoughts about it.

First of all, we need to question the basis of the assumption of non-representativeness. Abolitionists making this argument frequently cite this Melissa Farley study which interviewed sex workers in nine countries, and found an overall rate of 89% who answered the question “What do you need?” with (among other responses) “leave prostitution”. This statistic is often cited to make the claim that almost nine out of ten sex workers want out, and the ones who don’t are, you guessed it, not representative.

So what’s wrong with this claim? Well, the first thing you have to do with any survey is look at who the subjects are and how they were chosen. According to the study itself, the respondents were:

Canada: street workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, “one of the most economically destitute regions in North America”.
Mexico: Street, brothel, stripclub and massage workers in Mexico City and Puebla. No breakdown is given as to how many were chosen from each sector.
Germany: Subjects selected “from a drop-in shelter for drug addicted women”, from a “rehabilitation” programme, by reference from “peers” (presumably those found at the shelter and rehab programme) and through a newspaper advertisement, the text of which is not reported. Again, there is no breakdown of how many were found by which method.
San Francisco: Street workers from “four different areas”, not identified.
Thailand: A minority were interviewed “at a beauty parlor that provided a supportive atmosphere”, most at an agency providing job training.
South Africa: Subjects interviewed “in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center for prostitutes”. No breakdown, again.
Zambia: Current and former sex workers were interviewed at an NGO offering sex workers “food, vocational training and community”.
Turkey: The subjects were women brought by police to hospital for STI “control”.
Colombia: Subjects were interviewed at “agencies that offered services to them”.

What is clear from this detail is that there is a heavy selection bias in the sample. It is not clear that any of the sex workers interviewed came from the less vulnerable sectors (ie independent indoor workers, or brothel workers in countries where they have labour, health and safety rights). The large majority clearly did not. Some of them were selected from agencies that cater to people wishing to leave prostitution, which is a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work. Moreover, some of them were children, although the study only reports that this was the case in six of the nine countries and does not break down the adult/child division any further.

In short, this study does not tell us how sex workers feel about their work. At most, it may tell us how sex workers in particularly vulnerable sectors feel about their work. That 89% figure simply cannot be generalised to sex workers as a whole.

So here comes the next argument:

But the ones you call “particularly vulnerable” are the majority. The “less vulnerable ones” are (drum roll) not representative.

My answer: How do you know?

This is one of those assumptions that many people seem to consider self-evident. Not even worth questioning. Well, I’m going to question it. Where is the evidence? Where is the comprehensive research that has actually looked across all sectors of the industry – outdoor and indoor prostitution in all its myriad forms – and has actually come up with a reasonably credible estimate of what percentage of sex workers fall into this category or that one?

It simply doesn’t exist – and we’re certainly not going to get one as long as sex work remains criminalised in some parts of the world, stigmatised in nearly all. There isn’t even a universally-agreed definition; many of those who trade sex for some sort of cash-or-kind benefit don’t consider what they do to be prostitution or sex work. So even if you tried to reach all “eligible” populations for research, you probably wouldn’t be able to.

The most we can say without veering off into pure guesstimation is that street prostitution is a minority of all prostitution. How small a minority, nobody knows. In Ireland I’ve heard estimates from people on both sides of the issue that range from 3% to 20%; I’ve never seen an estimate from any other country that placed street prostitution in the majority. This isn’t proof, of course, but it means it’s not really a matter for debate – so we can work from the position that most sex workers are indoor workers. This right away means that the “unrepresentative” studies are those that focus solely or mainly on street workers. Unfortunately, that accounts for a significant amount of sex work research, for the simple reason that street workers are often the easiest population to get to. The far more hidden nature of indoor prostitution makes it unsafe to draw conclusions about the people involved in it. Most of those who work independently, in particular, will never come to researchers’ attention (an aside to certain Irish NGOs and Swedish government officials: they don’t all advertise on the internet) and we will never know how many of them there are.

Note that I am not asserting that a majority of sex workers fall into what I call the less vulnerable categories. It is quite possible that they don’t. But it cannot be proven that they don’t – and to cite Melissa Farley’s 89% statistic as evidence of anything other than the sample interviewed for Farley’s study, is junk science.

But even if we assume the accuracy of the 89% claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything that abolitionists think it means. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same thing in mind when they answer the question “do you want to leave prostitution”. First, we don’t know how the question was translated into all the different languages of the respondents, so we don’t know if there was any ambiguity in the question they were asked. Second, there is some ambiguity in English too, because it could be taken to mean “right now”, “at some point in the next __ period of time” or “ever”. (Irish readers who think I’m splitting hairs with this should consider the polls that show a large majority who “want” a united Ireland.)

A fascinating insight into this question can be found in Nick Mai’s hugely important recent study on migrant sex workers in Britain (that link is to an abbreviated version of the report; I have the full document but can’t find a link to it). Dr Mai’s team spoke to 100 migrant sex workers, many of them undocumented (and hence really really really vulnerable), some of them having suffered exploitation. He asked them if they wanted to leave the sex industry, and sure enough, around 75% said yes. But what were the reasons they gave? It’s boring. It’s repetitive. It isn’t a viable long-term career option. These are not exactly factors unique to sex work. Furthermore, the research makes clear that “wanting to leave the sex industry” does not necessarily translate to being unhappy with one’s experiences in the sex industry.

Nor does it inevitably lead to the conclusion that abolitionists think it does, namely:

Those who want prostitution to be legal are only speaking for the elite minority (sic).

The assumption here is that those sex workers who would rather be doing something else, but don’t have those options, don’t think that what they are doing should be legal. Again, there’s a Farley statistic which seems to back this up: only 34% in her nine-country study gave “legalize prostitution” as a response to “What do you need?”.

But this statistic seems to be an outlier, because other research on vulnerable populations finds the exact opposite:

  • the Nick Mai study referred to above, in which all participants said that decriminalisation would improve conditions for sex workers
  • this study of San Francisco sex workers, in which street-based and drug-addicted sex workers clearly overwhelmingly supported removal of criminal laws and the introduction of laws protecting sex workers’ rights
  • The Christchurch School of Medicine study of the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand, in which upwards of 90% of street workers felt they had rights under the law, and 61.9% said the law made it easier for them to refuse clients

And here comes the next objection, that

Those studies aren’t (sigh) representative of all prostitution, only First World prostitution.

The claim that the sex workers’ rights movement is a purely white, western phenomenon is one of abolitionism’s biggest falsehoods. In fact, Global South sex workers could teach their Northern counterparts a thing or two when it comes to organising for sex workers’ rights. Here is a videoclip of sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta, marching against criminalisation of their industry. Here is a photo of members of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers holding a banner with their slogan, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights” (a reference to their annoyance at “rescuers” whose only interest in them is trying to take them out of the sex trade). Here is a link to Empower, the Thai sex workers’ rights organisation, and here is the African Sex Worker Alliance. You still want to argue that only privileged white westerners think sex work is work? Take it up with them, not me.

None of this should be really surprising, because as I’ve pointed out before, it is precisely the most vulnerable workers who are most adversely affected by criminalisation. For every Heidi Fleiss who goes to prison, how many “Tabithas” do you think there are? The same is true in Sweden, where native, non-drug using indoor sex workers like Pye Jakobsson are relatively shielded from the negative consequences of the law, while those who don’t have the luxury of working indoors have to fend with the clients that don’t care about being arrested, and those who are migrants are simply deported.

I hesitate to draw conclusions about it since it’s such a small sample, but on the rare occasions that I’ve heard a (current) sex worker speak in favour of criminalisation, it’s been because they like the idea that they’re doing something illegal. To prefer working in a criminalised environment because it’s “edgy”, and to be able to afford being so blasé about the risks you’re taking? Now that is fucking privilege speaking.

I’ll wind this up now because it’s already gone on long enough, but there’s one final point I want to make. This entire argument about “representativeness” rests on an odious position – that the (assumed) majority view is the only one worth listening to. That people who don’t fall into that (assumed) majority don’t deserve to have their needs taken into account. This is a position that feminists in particular should be wary about taking: feminism has already alienated so many “minority” women precisely because of its focus on the needs of dominant categories, its failure to understand that it doesn’t always get it when it comes to what women in more marginalised categories need. I would like to think that nowadays, most half-clued-in hetero white able-bodied feminists at least realise that it is not our place to decide who is The Authentic VoiceTM of Black women, or of LBTQ women, or of women with disabilities, so why would we outside the industry assume the right to decide who can speak for other sex workers?

If the aim is actually to improve the lives of people in the sex trade, that has to start with giving them the space to put forward their own views on how it can be achieved. And it means listening to them all. We don’t have to, and indeed logically couldn’t, agree with them all but we need to listen. After all, even the most privileged white western indoor high-class Happy Hooker type knows more about what sex workers need than non-sex workers do.

Norwegian sex workers’ views of sex purchase ban

As supporters of the Swedish model never tire of pointing out, Norway and Iceland have also recently banned the purchase of sex. How’s that working out?

Well, in Iceland it seems to be a total flop, as Icelandic police have decided they have better things to do with their limited resources:

police authorities claimed they neither had the funds nor the manpower to fight prostitution which… is clearly thriving in Iceland in spite of it being illegal.

In Norway, a couple different media reports (both in Norwegian) claim a resurgence in that country’s sex trade; neither is particularly a credible source, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual research on the subject. The closest I could find, apart from the Pro Centre report mentioned below, was this police report (also in Norwegian) on human trafficking for sexual and other purposes, published in August of this year. Like the Swedish stats I discussed in this post, it shows higher numbers after the law’s introduction, though it’s equally impossible to be sure whether this reflects more victims or just better detection. It is silent on the amount of prostitution generally.

On this page, on the website of the Norwegian sex workers’ organisation PION, I found a statement about their own views of the law. Because of the importance of this information and the lack of an English translation on the site (at least that I can find) I have run it through Google Translate and copied the translation of the crucial bits below, with minor grammatical edits (only where obvious) and paragraph breaks added for ease of reading. Corrections from actual Norwegian readers are welcome.

It is difficult to estimate whether the law has helped to reduce the amount of sale of sexual services in Norway, but there is little doubt that the law has contributed to a significant weakening of prostitutes’ rights. The law has led to women in prostitution now experiencing a major invasion of privacy. This happens for example when the police reveal sensitive information to homeowners and hotels, or when the police deliberately carry out their operations with the press in tow so that the woman’s identity will be published in the media (pion Annual Report 2010).

Previous research and current surveying shows that women in prostitution are highly vulnerable to various forms of violence and abuse (Bjorn Dahl and Nordli 2008). The sex-purchase law has helped to raise the threshold to report violence and abuse, so abuse now increasingly remains unannounced and with impunity. There are also clear indications that the extent of violence has increased (PION Annual Report 2010).

Despite the fact that there is no prohibition against the sale of sexual services in Norway, women in street prostitution are chased away from the street by the police with the message that they encourage criminal activity. The health situation of many women in prostitution is exacerbated, in part because many are now reluctant to have contact with service providers. The buying-sex act seems to have contributed to the development of a service with significant health risks for women in prostitution, including sex without using condoms. There are reports of an increase in the number of pregnant women and STD, especially chlamydia and gonorrhea (Pro Centre Annual Report 2010).

A vulnerable group that has been further marginalized by the introduction of the sex-purchase law is female migrants, with and without legal residence status, who often lack basic knowledge of Norwegian, networks and relevant education. This is also the group that has experienced the biggest obstacles to getting out of prostitution and into regular employment.

The statement is titled Rejected and censored: PION’s contribution to women’s convention shadow report and it notes that opposition from certain other women’s groups (not identified) prevented sex workers’ views from being included in the said report. This silencing is something that sex workers around the world are all too familiar with.

I will return to the Pro Centre report at a future date.

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.