Under the Red Umbrella

It is Friday 19th July 2013. Imagine you are out in a capital city somewhere in Europe. You see two women walking purposefully towards you. They are dressed in black despite the heat, they carry red umbrellas even though it isn’t raining.  As they get closer you notice that one of them is wearing a mask so that she cannot be identified. The other is carrying a placard.

Who are they? What do these things mean? The red umbrella tells you that they are campaigning for sex workers rights. The black is for mourning. The lady in the mask is a sex worker who cannot be identified in public. Her family do not know what she does. She may be a part-time sex worker with an ordinary job which she would lose if her employer found out. Because she is a sex worker she is stigmatised.

Then you see what is written on the placard. It says ‘Stigma Kills.’  You stop them and ask what they are doing and they tell you that they are on the way to a demonstration outside the Swedish Embassy in memory of Jasmine and Dora, sex workers from Sweden and Turkey who were murdered the previous week. They explain how Jasmine had her children taken off her because she was a sex worker, how her violent partner  was deemed a better parent and how his continued involvement in the children’s life led to her murder. They tell you how ‘feminist’ Sweden has criminalised the purchase of sex but not its sale but how, in practice, sex workers are treated as outcasts. Stigma kills.

You perhaps knew little about sex workers and are surprised that the women are friendly, articulate and highly intelligent. You Google the names Jasmine and Dora when you get home and find that, in a matter of days, demonstrations of sex workers and allies were organised across the world, from Hobart to Toronto, from Chicago to Warsaw. They are organised, determined and articulate.

There is a type of feminist discourse about sex work that holds that all women involved in sex work are helpless victims of male violence who need rescuing, that these women cannot possibly know their own minds. Those who propagate these views frequently make common cause with religious groups with a moral agenda against sex work. One such group is Ruhama in Ireland which is actively supporting proposals in that country to criminalise the purchase of sex but which will provide for the confiscation of telephones and for sex workers to be thrown onto the street. There are those in Ireland who think it is a good thing that women will be made homeless as they can then be helped. This may strike you as cynical or callous, maybe both, but it is what they say.

Ruhama have form when it comes to ‘helping’ women. A number of their trustees were linked to the infamous Magadalene Laundries where for decades ‘immoral’ girls performed forced labour under the watch of often sadistic nuns. What sort of help do Ruhama propose for homeless sex workers? We can be sure I think that it will be conditional on them agreeing to change their lives, to accept Ruhama policing their sex lives. Is this something any feminist can support?

Having spoken to the two articulate intelligent women on the way to the demo you might think a different narrative better fits the facts, that most sex workers choose to do what they do, that they are strong and assertive, and that it is no business of the state’s who they sleep with and whether they get paid for it.

And here a links to a few blogs which illustrate the points made here.







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