Irrationalism and Politics

Mention sex work and politicians abandon reason. The latest example of this is Canada. Now I once thought of the land of the maple leaf as a “nice” country, a sort of USA lite with the Queen but without the guns, and less crass television and this is, I imagine, a not unusual view. Certainly the Canadians I met backpacking around Europe many years ago always had a maple leaf prominent on their rucksacks so that they would not be taken for Americans.

But Canada has some very restrictive laws on prostitution, at least until a dominatrix called Terri-Jean Bedford took them on and secured a Supreme Court judgement that the laws were unconstitutional in that they compromised sex workers’ health and safety.

The government was given 12 months to go away and come up with something better. It was no real surprise that they came up with a Nordic model inspired proposal to criminalise sex workers’ clients. The problems with this have been much discussed elsewhere so I won’t rehearse the arguments again here but just comment that opponents of criminalisation are not, as some allege, part of a pimping lobby but include the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, and closer to home, The Lancet and former Conservative minister Lord Fowler.

The issue is, of course, that the proposed new laws are open to the same objections as the ones struck down by the Supreme Court. Forcing sex workers into the shadows effectively cuts them off from protection by the police and denies them access to health services. In other words they compromise their health and safety at work.

If it seems strange that they would do this we need only look nearer to home where politicians like Mary Honeyball and Gavin Shuker show themselves the intellectual prisoners of the anti-sex work ideology that is a curious blend of radical feminism and religious fundamentalism and has little basis in the actual lived experience of sex workers, who they are oddly reluctant to talk to.

Expect sex work to be keeping the Canadian courts busy for a while to come.


A Nasty Smell from Auld Reekie

It is 1986. The AIDS crisis is in full swing and sexual health issues acquire a public profile they have rarely enjoyed. In that year Edinburgh City Council did something very enlightened and far sighted. It decided it pursue a policy of pragmatic tolerance of brothels (or saunas as they are called there) by licensing them as places of public entertainment. With Lothian and Borders police supporting the policy, sex workers were able to work in relative safety and access sexual health services. As a harm reduction strategy it was an undeniable success.

AIDS is  no longer a major issue, it seems, but the safety of sex workers ceratinly is and, just a few days ago another sex worker, Maria Dunque-Tujano, was murdered in London by a man who had previously attacked others. Sadly, as of this week, Edinburgh is no longer a safe haven or a place with an enlightened policy.

The story actually begins last April when Lothian and Borders Police was abolished as a national force was established in Scotland. Police Scotland immediately embarked on a radically different policy and, within days, suan raids had begun, allegedly looking for evidence of drug taking, crime and trafficking, as if the police had not been interested in these things before. Women were detained, held for several hours despite telling the police that, being normal women they had normal things to do like picking up their children from school. Money and possessions, particularly mobile phones, were taken and in many cases not returned. This was all in line with the way the political wind is blowing, where radical feminists and religious fundamentalists are driving policy changes that are based on ideology rather than facts. It was, in the circumstances, not a surprise that, this week, Edinburgh City Council voted to scrap the policy of licensing saunas.

This is bad news for anyone concerned about violence and sexual health. Under the licensing regime sexual health outreach workers visited establishments and ensured, for example, that there were plentiful supplies of condoms. Police Scotland now say that condoms in saunas will be considered evidence of unlawful activity. This a triumph for those who hold that all prostitution is violence against women, but for those who are concerned with actual violence against actual human beings it is a disaster, one that does not bode well for the development of pragmatic evidence based policy in an area that affects many thousands of often vulnerable women.

Why I’m Not Getting the Buzz

I didn’t really want to blog about sex work again but as the advocates of the so-called Swedish Model continue to propagate their inaccuracies and half truths and while the bien-pensant liberal press continues to publish their articles while refusing to publish letters pointing out the flaws in the reasoning I feel I have to say something particularly as some of these people seem unwilling to publish my comments on their blog posts.

Mary Honeyball is Labour MEP for London and a vocal advocate for the Swedish Model. She wrote a piece in favour of it on her blog here.  You will notice a number of comments below, two of which are mine. There is a further comment that Honeyball has so far been unwilling to publish.

By any normal standards of intellectual rigour this is a poor piece, full of inaccuracies and claims that are simply not supported by the sources she cites. I will mention a couple here. The claim that the Swedish Model has halved street prostitution and made men less likely to pay for sex is not supported even by the Swedish Government’s own figures. This is discussed brilliantly here by the Irish feminist Wendy Lyon. I referred to this in my censored comment.

Then there is the claim that 89% of “prostituted women” would leave their job if they could. As Honeyball was told after a similar piece appeared in The Independent on 25th November this is based on flawed reserach by the now discredited Melissa Farley, But, even if it is true it is, surely, a trivial truth. I would not be surprised to hear that 89% of workers in many, if not most, jobs would leave if they could.

The most alarming claim is the one that 49% of British men have been abroad to buy sex. Intuitively this seems improbable, after all that would amount to some 15 million people! Honeyball helpfully provides a link to the research, from which we glean that 49% of 103 London based men who regularly used the services of sex workers had bought sex abroad. This is, as most school students could tell you, not a sample that is representative of the whole population and is, in any case, too small to ;permit meaningful extrapolation. Does Honeyball not realise this or does she not care? Should we question her intellectual grasp or her integrity? I don’t know but am beginning to suspect the former, particularly after her appearance on Woman’s Hour in November when she discussed the issues with the academic expert on sex work Belinda Brooks-Gordon. When Brooks-Gordon suggested that criminalisation of clients would make sex workers less safe by making them unwilling to report attacks to the police, she artlessly replied that she thought that ladies would be only too happy to tell the police all that had been done to them when the police came to “rescue” them.

This is deeply worrying as Honeyball has influence in the European parliament. and there may be a concerted move to bring in the Swedish Model across Europe. As Honeyball has clearly demonstrated, this would be a triumph over ideology over facts, one pregnant with consequences for many vulnerable women. .


Women Beware Women Revisited

I wrote about proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex and why they are a bad thing nine months ago:

There is good news on this issue. Rhoda Grant failed to get the cross party support she needed to proceed with her Bill to criminalise the clients of sex workers which I discussed last September. She has, unfortunately, learnt nothing from the experience and continues to lash out at opponents of her proposals who are, apparently, members of ‘the sex industry lobby.’

The consultation in the proposals closed in December and the responses were published at the end of May together with a summary report. The consultation was marred by a series of highly questionable assumptions underlying the loaded questions, the main ones being a conflation of sexwork and trafficking and  a view that all sex workers were in some way coerced.  Nearly 1,000 responses were received.

In presenting her report Rhoda Grant claimed that 80% of respondents supported her proposals. This was true on one level but ignored the evidence that evangelical Christian groups had mounted a concerted campaign to back the Bill. The number of cut and paste responses from churches was evidence of this, all of them quoting the same methodologically flawed research that Grant relied on. I have difficulty in believing that, for example, the good people of Bearsden Baptist Church have read the work of Melissa Farley. I do not question their sincerity and  have no doubt that they genuinely believe prostitution to be a moral evil. But that is the difficulty. Their viewpoint is ideological, as is that of the radical feminists who see prostitution as violence against women, stretching the word violence to a point where it is emptied of meaning. Ideology is not a good basis for making public policy.

On a more practical level, the responses from sexworkers setting out their experiences and those from several outreach groups who work with sexworkers on matters like sexual health and physical safety, were largely ignored.

This was Rhoda’s problem. The more people who knew more than she did told her she  was wrong, the more stubbornly she clung to her beliefs. In the end she failed to get the support she needed because she could not convince enough MSPs to back her. It is her arguments that are at fault, not the machinations of a mythical sex industry lobby.

Most serious academic studies show that paid sex is, in most cases, consensual. Where it is not there are already laws to deal with it, laws that have been used in a number of recent cases to put traffickers behind bars for a very long time. Whether you approve of sex work or not, it is surely not the business of the state to police sexual activity between consenting adults. Fortunately most MSPs see it that way too. The battle now moves to Ireland, North and South. The recently published proposals in the Irish Republic are seriously nasty .as they include provision to confiscate sex workers’ mobile phones, a proposal which gives the lie to the claim that clients and not sex workers are being criminalised.

More Lazy Journalism

Many people in Liverpool have boycotted the Sun for the last 24 years, ever since the newspaper uncritically parroted the South Yorkshire Police version of events at Hillsborough. That police accounts of the disaster were self-serving lies is now well known. The point is that there was evidence at the time to suggest that. To accept uncritically police accounts of events, any events, is at best lazy journalism.

Lazy journalism is not what you expect from the Independent but that is what we saw yesterday. Joan Smith visited Stockholm to tour the city at night with the police as they enforced the country’s laws criminalising the purchase of sex.

She parroted all that she was told about the success of this law in reducing prostitution. Readers would not necessarily know that these laws are controversial, that they are opposed not only by sex workers, but also by academics who have conducted research in the area and argue that the claims made by the Swedish authorities for the law are not supported by evidence.

I do not intend to explore here the question of who is right. That is not the issue.  The point is that the readers of quality newspapers are entitled to expect objective and critical journalism, not PR puffs for the Swedish police. .