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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.