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.


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. .


When Scouse is Better than Swede

On BBC1 tonight you can see a report presented by Ruth Jacobs about the Merseyside Model. This is an initiative to protect sex workers from the violence that seems at times endemic to their trade. What happens is that assaults on sex workers are treated as hate crimes and prosecuted as such, which means that more severe penalties are available to the court following conviction.  Te Mersey model has been promoted for some years now by groups campaigning for sex workers’ rights. More recently it has been discovered by groups campaigning to criminalise the purchase of sex through the implementation of the so-called ‘Swedish Model.’ Last week this article appeared in the Huffington Post. It starts out from the essentially ideological position that ‘all prostitution is violence against women’ and proceeds to advocate both the Merseyside Model and the Swedish Model. This article is so full of misrepresentations and non-sequiturs that it should not go unanswered.

The author starts with the assertion that all sex workers known to her engage in sex work for money. This is, I think, unsurprising. Did anyone ever seriously think that they do it for any other reason? After all a claim of the sex workers’ rights movement is that ‘sex work is work’ a job like any other. The vast majority of people do their jobs for er money. Similarly she states that 92% of sex workers would leave the sex industry if they could. But doesn’t that apply to most people in most jobs?  I can well believe that 92% of sex workers would stop selling sex if their lottery numbers came up,  but so would 92% of office cleaners, binmen, invoice clerks etc etc. What I think Apicella  is trying to demonstrate is that sex workers have been coerced. A brief application of this logic to other occupations produces absurd conclusions and shows the flaws in the argument. Her conclusions simply do not follow from her premises. Poor logic, unfortunately, runs though the whole piece.

The claims made in the second paragraph are questionable. They are at variance with the findings of most impartial academic studies. The claim that 50% of women were coerced into prostitution is particularly interesting. Without a definition of coercion it is, of course, not particularly meaningful. The issue of trafficking is not specifically mentioned in this article but is worth looking at briefly. Clearly coercion and trafficking are not identical but it is reasonable to suppose that there is a significant overlap between the two, particularly in the context of British studies given that British law applies a much looser of definition of trafficking than that set out in international law. One particular type of coercion, debt bondage, is any way closely related to trafficking. In 2009 Operation Acumen concluded that there were probably 2,600 women in the UK who had been trafficked into prostitution, out of an estimated sex worker population of 80,000. This works out at a figure of 3.25%. Now, I am aware that the methodology of Operation Acumen has been much criticised by academic specialists but that was on the basis that the numbers may well be an OVER estimate. Is it really credible to claim that there are nearly 40,000 non-trafficked, therefore British women, forced to work as prostitutes?

Where Apicella is right is in saying that sex workers suffer both stigma and violence. Stigma and violence are closely related as shown by the tragic case of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine who was murdered by her violent former partner in July this year. Despite his violence towards her, he was awarded custody of their child as Swedish social services deemed Jasmine an unfit mother, precisely because she was a sex worker. This happened in Sweden, and is evidence that the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has, in fact, served to perpetuate the stigma suffered by sex workers and increase their risk of suffering violence assault. This important point has clearly escaped Apicella, and other advocates of the Swedish Model. If you’re a Swedish sex worker who rejects the official discourse on your life choices and refuses to be ‘rescued’ you can expect police harassment and difficulty in accessing, for example, social services. Stigma is a real problem, yes, but the Swedish Model only makes it worse.

Violence is a problem in the UK too. There is an organisation called the Ugly Mugs here which helps sex workers avoid potentially violent clients, the ‘ugly mugs’, through text alerts, through a facility for sex workers to file reports online, and by working with the police who support the scheme. This has been a widely acknowledged success. It is part of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects which includes a number of support and outreach services to sex workers including help and support for those wanting to quit. The UKNSWP has unrivalled experience in helping and supporting sex workers, and is strongly opposed to any form of criminalisation as can be seen from their long and detailed response to Rhoda Grant’s consultation in Scotland here.  You might have thought that people like Apicella and Banyard might listen to others who know more than they do but this is sadly not the case.

And what about the Merseyside Model? Apicella clearly fails to understand the essential contradiction between it and the Swedish Model. The Merseyside Model can only be effective where sex workers feel that they can trust the police. If they don’t trust the police they won’t report attacks. It seems obvious to me that, if the Swedish Model were implemented here, that would not be the case as the police would have a duty to arrest the clients and put them out of business.

The claims Apicella makes about the Swedish Model are , at best, dubious. It may be true that street prostitution has halved since 1999 but it has declined in other countries too, principally because of the internet and mobile phones. It is nothing to do with the change of the law. Apicella’s comment about respect for women being contagious is breathtakingly naive. Sweden is not, for example, a country where rape is taken seriously. In a case earlier this year a woman who had been injured in a very nasty assault at a party, where a group of men attempted to push a bottle up her vagina, was told by the judge who acquitted her attackers that she was to blame for her injuries a she had closed her legs to prevent the violation. Oh and trafficking hasn’t gone away either as you can read here.

Apicella is not the first British feminist to suspend her critical faculties in relation to Sweden and I doubt she will be the last. It is, however, a worry that some many voices are making themselves heard in support of a policy that is unsupported by evidence, a triumph of ideology over common sense.

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.



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. .