Sunday, 5 July 2015

When men get to be fully human, and women are just objects to use and abuse

Oh no! I hear you cry. Not you too. You're not weighing in on *that* video are you? 

Well, take your oh noes with you. Yes I am kind of weighing in on that video, and no I’m kind of not. So much has been written about it in the last 48 hours there’s nothing I can really add or want to add to commentary on the video in particular. But I do want to talk about one trope used in the video and what that *specific* trope tells us about sexual violence and women’s humanity. 

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then first, don’t you live on Twitter like I do? I’m talking about the new Rihanna music video that landed with a bang online on Thursday night and has been intensely debated ever since. The video tells the story of Rihanna’s row with her accountant who has ripped her off. She decides to get back at him by kidnapping his (white, rich) girlfriend, stripping her, stringing her upside-down, forcing drink and drugs on her and basically enacting a whole heap of violence on her. Rihanna then kills the accountant.

The video has caused a lot of controversy and a lot of debate. But as I say, what I specifically want to talk about is the suggestion in the video’s narrative that the best way to get at a man, is to symbolically attack him by physically or sexually attacking *his* woman. 

Because to me, that is so key to this video, it’s what is going on in many more narratives in our popular culture, and it is, horrifyingly, the reality of far too many girls living in the world today. 

Rihanna isn’t the first person to use this trope. As Helen Lewis pointed out in the New Statesman, this is the standard Liam Neeson movie plot of the last decade (along with being screen married to much younger women…). It is a staple of our cultural landscape - from the rape of Lucrece and Lavinia to countless movies where men are forced to watch as men rape their wives (also mentioned in Lewis’ article). 

What this portrayal of violence against women is telling us is that an effective way to bring a man down, to hurt another man, is to attack his “property” - AKA “his” woman. And this gives us an interesting insight into how we view men and women. 

In these narratives, men are allowed full humanity. They are allowed to feel rage and anger and despair and sadness. We watch those emotions drive men forward. The kidnappers intent on wreaking revenge on Liam Neeson’s character in every-film-ever taunt him with what they’ll do to his female relative because they know he will emotionally react. Rihanna strings up Ms Accountant because she knows that hurting her will be recognised as an attack on the man she loathes. 

Because men get to be human with human reactions and human emotions. 

And women? Well, we don’t get that. Instead, we get to be the objects that the violence is enacted on. 

That’s what makes me angry about this cultural trope - from Shakespeare to Rihanna. Women are not allowed to be fully human. We are just the objects. We’re the property of men and by violating that property, the men get emotionally hurt. Meanwhile, the physical and sexual violence done to women to emotionally hurt that man matters less. We’re just pawns in the fight between (usually) men. We’re an object; we don’t get to feel. Our physical suffering becomes his emotional suffering. The actual physical and sexual violence done to our bodies becomes secondary to the symbolic violence suffered by the men. 

As I say, this is nothing new. Even when you think of the etymology of the word ‘rape’ you see how women’s bodies are objects to be swapped between men - how the crime is against the man because his property has been violated, not against the woman who has been directly attacked. 

Of course, if this was just something that only happened in action films, Renaissance plays and music videos it would be one thing. But this isn't just a cultural trope. This is happening to women and girls in real life every single day. It is happening around the world, and it is happening in the UK. 

Perhaps this issue is a little close to my heart because I recognise it as something that happened to me - on a far, far less violent scale but still an act of male violence. I wrote about it here and here. I’m not going to rehash it all but suffice to say, I very strongly believe that what happened to me was an act of aggression against a male relative using my body (or, to be more exact, my hair) as the cipher. 

Please note I am not comparing this small act of violence against me with the horrific violence against women I’m about to discuss. But different scales aside, the motivations behind the violence share a commonality - the desire to symbolically attack or send a message to another man via physically or sexually attacking a woman who is somehow attached to him. And that is allowed to happen because we as a society allow men full humanity, and don’t afford the same respect to women. As we continue to treat women as objects, as the property of men, then the symbolic violence is done to the man whose property has been violated. The horrors enacted on the woman are secondary.

This is something that we know about from the use of rape as a weapon of war. Here, women’s bodies are weaponised. Raping women is seen as a way to emasculate and shame the community. 

Last year I did some research on violence against women in Guatemala where this kind of act is frighteningly common. I read page after page of women being beaten, raped, mutilated and killed - left in places where rival gangs would see the violence and “get the message”. These women were completely denied their humanity. They were treated as objects to be used and abused in order to symbolically attack other men. If you can find the Amnesty report from 2006 on the killings (my link is broken for some reason) then it makes grim reading. It’s a litany of horrific violence. It’s a demonstration of what happens when women are seen as objects and not fully human. 

But we don’t have to go so far away as Guatemala to witness women’s bodies being used to attack other men. Gangs in the UK are increasingly raping girls who are seen as ‘belonging’ to rival male gang members. As Carlene Firmin told the Guardian last year: 

young women connected to gangs were viewed as "currency" by rival outfits and attacked accordingly,”

The Guardian reported:

London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.”

That word, currency. That’s interesting. That shows just how little we value women. We’re not people. We’re objects to be exchanged. To be passed around. 

And look at that second quote. Where sexual violence is not seen as a horrific violent act done by men to women. Instead it’s seen as a weapon to symbolically attack other men. 

That’s what made me cross about the Rihanna video, what makes me cross about all those action movies, what makes me cross about any cultural event that treats women’s bodies as objects to use and abuse, and treats men as the ‘real victims’ as they get to be fully human people.

Because this is our lives. This is women’s real lives. And so long as we are happy to treat women as non-human, so long as we are happy to accept that women are objects and men are people, then men will continue to treat women’s bodies as weapons - whilst the actual harm done to women is seen as secondary to the ‘symbolic’ harm done to men. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Playboy Feminism TM isn't feminism, it's the same old misogyny

No one wants to be ugly. No one wants to be the unsexy one. No one wants to be rejected. 

And that, I think, is what makes this weird phenomena of ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ so attractive. 

Okay, if like me you read the phrase ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ and went WTAF, I thought Playboy was rather antithetic to feminism seeing as it involves Hefner’s insistence on being flanked by much younger women and the magazine’s 50+ years history of treating women as disposable objects for male consumption, then you have my sympathy. 

But no! It’s 2015 and let go off your anti-porn hang ups ladies, because apparently these days Playboy is totes feminist. In fact it always was, and the proof is that they got a bloke to write an article telling all us boring women feminists how we’ve done feminism wrong, and Playboy-reading men have done feminism right (sorry guys who read Playboy thinking they were sticking it to the feminist movement. Turns out you were feminists all along! Oops!).

Of course, Playboy has always tried to claim itself as feminist. Which is weird because I just can’t believe their reading demographic has ever cared that much about feminism? Hefner once claimed he was a “feminist before feminism was invented” (soz Mary Wollstonecraft. But he is a man you know…). He based this claim on the idea that feminism was (in part) about liberating women’s sexuality (true) and Playboy was a key player in the sexual revolution (which did very little to liberate women). Because, you know, Playboy’s aim was to free sex from the confines of strict Victorian morality. That he and others like him tried to free sex from the confines of Victorian morality only to trap it back into a big box marked CAPITALISM is better left unsaid… 

The problem was, Hef, that despite your protestations that you totally “get” feminism, you kept on insisting on saying really shitty things about women. You know, how the perfect woman was like a bunny rabbit with a clean mind, not like those ‘filthy’ women with their ‘lace and satin underwear” (yes, I know this doesn’t make any sense but he said it – check out Female Chauvinist Pigs for the full quote). 

To be fair to Playboy (the only time I will EVER say that), the magazine did donate money to pro choice and other feminist campaigns. But that doesn’t take away the fact that throughout its history, Playboy has made money by treating women as disposable objects displayed for the male gaze (sometimes without their consent – see Marilyn Monroe. Which kind of tells you all you need to know about how much they respect women’s “choices”…).

So anyway, back to the present and Noah Berlatsky – the man who wrote this latest article on why Playboy is feminist. As Meghan Murphy says in the New Statesman today: 

Indeed, Playboy’s foremost “feminist” writer is Noah Berlatsky, whose work exemplifies their longstanding approach to feminism: men know what’s best for feminism, regardless of what feminists say. His political philosophy appears to be “equal objectification for all”, which fits perfectly with the brand. It’s the idea that the more women we can view as “fuckable”, the more women will be liberated.

Today, Playboy and writers such as Berlatsky emphasise “choice” and “consent” in their writing on female sexuality – the objectified are meant to be eager about their objectification, not forced, not begrudging. 

It’s a type of “feminism” (not feminism) that embraces the male gaze and sells women the lie that being treated as always and only an object is an act of liberation. It's an argument that goes that women who oppose or challenge male defined ideals of beauty, and the idea that all women must spend time, money and energy on trying to match them, are being cruel to the women who “choose” to do this. He thinks that seeing as it’s a woman’s "choice" to conform to beauty standards she didn’t create, any criticism of those standards is a personal attack on each individual woman

But this is such bullshit. There’s no other word for it.

It’s a completely libertarian approach (which is not surprising coming from a magazine that treats sex and sexuality as a performance to sell for profit – hel-lo capitalism!) that tells women that their “choice” to be objectified by men is a free one. It’s not. We live in an unequal, patriarchal and capitalist society. The choices women make to survive in this society are informed by that inequality. 

That’s not a nice thing to think. Of course we want to believe that we make free choices – that our choices are not impacted by the gross inequality women live through. But in a society where women’s value as human beings is so often predicated on their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT), our choices aren’t free (both metaphorically and in monetary terms – conforming to the PFT ain’t cheap). This doesn’t mean each individual woman is bad or wrong for making these ‘choices’. We do what we can to survive in this society. But to say that all the choices we make are free and equal is simply untrue. Otherwise why is it only in the last 10 years that so many UK women have ‘freely chosen’ to spend a fortune waxing off their pubes? Or having bits of their labia needlessly lopped off?

Again, this is not about judging the women making these choices. It’s about looking at the pressures society puts on women to make these choices and changing that society to end patriarchal oppression.  
Unlike Playboy Feminism TM’s claim, women won't be liberated through being objectified – through making the “choice” to be treated as objects. Because that is not a choice women can freely make in this unequal society. We are treated like objects whether we consent to it or not. We may be objectified in a way that meets male approval. And we may be treated as an object that greets male derision. It all depends whether we pass or fail the PFT. Neither of those are choices women freely make. Neither of those things represents freedom. Neither of those things gives women any power. 

And Playboy is part of that problem – it props up a culture that judges women and predicates women’s value on their fuckability. It is not part of the solution. That’s why – for all its bigging up of its feminist creds – Playboy would never publish an article that discussed the impact of mass capitalist sexualisation of women on young girls’ self esteem. That dared to talk about how young girls grow up pressured to act out what their boyfriends saw in porn. That looked at how treating women like dehumanised objects on the page and on the screen might link to the treatment of women like dehumanised objects in “real life”. Because Playboy Feminism TM isn’t concerned with the rights of women to be treated as fully human. They just want to reassure men who worry that looking at the centrefold makes them look sexist. ‘We’re not sexist!’ Playboy cries. ‘And neither are you! Women love being objectified! They chose it! It’s feminist now!’

It’s bullshit, is what it is. 

Playboy Feminism TM wants us to agree to our dehumanisation and treat it as liberation. It tells us that the hatred we may feel towards our bodies is the result of second wave feminists telling us to reject a culture that treats us as objects, not the culture that treats us as objects itself. It tells us that our liberation, our freedom, our happiness, our health, our rights, all depend on men finding us attractive. On men liking us.

And that brings me back to the start of this post. Because we all want to be liked. We all want to be found attractive. We don’t want to be called the names that men use to mock, deride and silence women. 

But, to paraphrase Levy, you can be the woman the Playboy Feminism TM men like. But so long as they see women as lesser – which they do – and so long as they see women as objects and not fully human – which they do – then you will still be lesser to them.

And that’s too high a price for me to pay, I don’t know about you. 

Women’s liberation does not rest on men finding us attractive. Women’s liberation won’t be achieved by us meekly accepting our status as objects of the male gaze. Women’s liberation is about fighting back against the oppressive structures that uphold gender inequality – that mean woman as a class are oppressed by men as a class. Women’s liberation recognises that we are subjects, not objects. Women’s liberation is about giving women real choices and real power. 

Playboy Feminism TM wants us to accept this particular manifestation of women’s inequality as our liberation. It reduces everything down to individual choice, slags off the gains of our feminist sisters, and ignores structural power and inequality. It demands everything of women and nothing of men.

That’s not feminism. It’s just the same old misogyny.

Such feminism! This account of life in the Playboy mansion makes grim reading. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Emergency contraception and the shaming of women

Ella One, a type of ‘morning after pill’ has been licensed for under-16s to use in the UK – a positive move in my book that gives girls access to emergency contraception should they need it. 

Of course, the move has not been without its critics – criticism that, as ever with these issues, refuses to acknowledge the reality of girls’ lives and instead chooses to focus on shaming young women for their sexuality and their reproductive rights. 

I would hate to be a teenage girl today. We live in a society that fetishizes youth to often frightening extremes (the existence of ‘barely legal’ p0rn categories tells us all we need to know) whilst at the same time shaming women who choose to engage in consensual sexual activity (he’s a stud, she’s slut – some things haven’t moved on). At the same time, teenage girls are under huge pressure to perform sexual availability, and coercion and sexual violence in teen relationships has reached a shocking high. We know there is a huge problem with young women being sexualised and the pressures put on them to perform a male-defined version of ‘sexy’ at all times. Yet in our reluctance to provide young people with proper sex education, we deny young women a voice and criticise efforts to give teenagers access to information about their sexuality and sexual health. 

It’s remarkably hypocritical. We despair about sexualisation. The Mail prints mock-outraged articles about sexualisation (illustrated with plenty of lascivious images of teen girls for good measure). And yet when there’s a chance to equip young people with the information and resources they need to negotiate their sexuality and reproductive health, we condemn it. 

No one is arguing that teenage girls should be having sex. But we know that some teenagers are going to have sex whatever adults say. And knowing this as a fact, isn’t it better that we ensure they have access to contraception, including emergency contraception, should they need it? Shouldn’t we do everything we can to ensure that if teenagers do choose to have sex, the sex they have is safe? Isn’t providing teenagers with clear, informative education about their sexual health options and giving them a voice to talk about their sexuality our best hope at raising a generation of young people who are mature, informed, and respectful around sex? 

When I was at school my sex and relationships education was…interesting. But hey, at least I had it – I realise now what a privilege that was. Around the time I was enduring SRE (15 years ago fact fans!) there was a debate going on in the news about underage access to contraception. It was either the pill or the morning after pill – I can’t remember exactly (the only thing I really remember about SRE was our lesson on STDs because it was given with an illustrated book of Mr and Mrs Hedgehog who had caught everything from syphilis to genital warts. NO I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY EITHER.) Anyway, so there we were talking about access to contraception and my SRE teacher said that the pill and the morning after pill:

make it too easy.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement which is why I remember it today, along with my hedgehog friends. 

Firstly, it should be easy to access contraception. And that should be the case today, but all too often it isn’t. Chemists can still refuse to provide the morning after pill on ‘moral’ grounds (because apparently their religion trumps my reproductive rights!). It can be difficult to get to your surgery, pharmacy or walk-in centre (especially as the latter have been cut so desperately) on weekends or if you live in rural areas – as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article today explains.  And then of course, there’s the interview – a procedure which really should focus on health and whether there’s been any coercion, but all too often asks embarrassing and personal questions that can leave a woman feeling awkward and ashamed. 


And women should be supported to have full access to our reproductive rights, which is why we need to abolish the ‘moral objection’ rule. You’re a chemist. Do your job. 

Another thing wrong with the ‘it makes it too easy’ statement is how it sits a little too close to the idea that women are the gatekeepers of sex. 

What I find particularly galling about this is how it refuses to allow for the fact that women might, you know, want to have sex, and that wanting to – in a mutually consensual and respectful relationship – (and that can be long or short term – it’s the mutual, consensual, respectful bit that counts) is okay. We don’t talk about this. Instead, we persist in talking about sex as something that men do, and that is done to women. 

This rhetoric has damaging repercussions on all women – particularly in regards to male violence and coercion. As mentioned before, sexual violence in teen relationships is frighteningly high. If we continue to talk about sex as something that is done to women, and don’t acknowledge that women have a right to their bodily autonomy and their right to say no to the sex they don’t want, and yes to the sexual contact they do want, then this is only going to get worse. It means girls grow up with 'silent bodies'. Further, if we continue to shame young women, then teenage girls who are experiencing violence or coercion are not given the space to speak out and seek support. Our messed up attitude to young people and sexuality, sex education and sexual health, is seriously letting down our young women. This has got to change. 

When my SRE teacher told us that giving young people access to contraception made having sex “too easy”, she was talking about teen boys trying to persuade teen girls into having sex. She argued that if girls had access to the pill or the MAP, then that was another weapon in the boy’s ‘armoury’, one less defence a girl had. 

What this conversation didn’t do was talk about how no one has any right whatsoever to verbally coerce another person into having sex. What it didn’t do was tell the young men and women in our class that if a man puts pressure on a woman to have sex she doesn’t want to have, then he is unequivocally in the wrong. Instead, we were told that not being on the pill gave girls a ‘good reason’ to refuse sex, and being on the pill made it ‘too easy’ to ‘give in’. What we surely should have been told is that girls shouldn't need to come up with excuses if they don't want to have sex. We should be teaching young men and women that 'NO' is enough. That 'NO' should be respected. That coercion is never okay, is in fact a crime. 

It was all very ‘boys will be boys and girls need to gate keep’ – that it was up to women to put up barriers to sex. Men didn’t have to take the same kind of responsibility. 

What this conversation also didn’t do was talk about how a woman might want to have sex as much as her partner, and therefore has a right to information about her reproductive health and access to contraception (obviously the best advice is to use a condom and I am not advocating choosing the morning after pill over a condom. But women should have access to and information about all our contraceptive options. I’m also, again obviously, not suggesting young people have sex when they are underage. However, once again, everyone should have access to contraception should they need it, along with advice and support about sex and sexuality.).

Finally, anything that makes it easier for a girl or woman who has been raped to access emergency contraception and support is vital. All the hand-wringing about access to the morning after pill, and the moral posturing from (mostly) men who have never needed to access it, almost always ignores the needs of women and girls who have been attacked and who need medical and emotional care as quickly as possible. 

Giving teenage girls access to emergency contraception isn’t going to make them have sex. But denying them access to it isn’t going to stop them having sex either. Teenagers are always going to experiment with their sexuality. We need to make sure that when they choose to, it is both of their choices and that they respect one another’s choices. And we need to make sure that they have access to the information and healthcare they need to be safe. Having to take the morning after pill is never ideal. But it is better if it is available to everyone who may one day need it, and that everyone who needs it can access it free from judgement or shaming. 

Are you a young person? Brook is a great resource for sexual health information. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

For Everyday Victim Blaming: When is a murder not a murder?

I wrote something for Everyday Victim Blaming about the use of 'domestic incident' to describe fatal male violence.

When is a murder not a murder? 

My writing has been published in Everyday Victim Blaming's eBook, available here.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Standing up for All Women: Statement in response to London Young Labour Summer Conference Motion 8

I'm publishing this as a guest post. It has been written as a collaborative response by a number of feminist activists, academics and service providers. I am not one of authors but I support the response hence publishing it today in solidarity with the women who have contributed.

The London Young Labour summer conference takes place this Sunday. Among the motions to be voted on, motion 8 deserves particular scrutiny from feminists: it is titled “Standing up for sex workers’ rights, supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.” 

Here is the response, published below in full: 


1. This statement has been written by a group of feminist women – including academics, activists and practitioners working directly with women who experience male sexual violence. We share an understanding that inequality between men and women is more than a matter of women needing “choices” – a profoundly conservative approach – but is instead about power; specifically the deep and structural power imbalance women face in a society still dominated by regressive notions of gender. In other words, we believe feminism should be as radical as socialism in seeking to end this imbalance, instead of treating women’s inequality, and some men’s exploitation of it, as inevitable. 

2. We support the decriminalisation of those who sell sex; we recognise the variety of reasons why people, overwhelmingly women, would do this. By contrast, however, we do not support the decriminalisation of those, overwhelmingly men, who buy. Their entirely different motivations and attitudes, and crucially the risk that they pose to the women, manifestly mean that their role in the sex industry must be treated separately. We consider moves to conflate the two and decriminalise both to be an effort to legitimise the sex industry, instead of acknowledging that it is both a cause and a symptom of deeply-rooted, systemic normalisation of men’s sexual entitlement.

3. For this reason, although we support the decriminalisation of women who sell sex, we do not support this motion. Despite the title’s claim to be about the decriminalisation of selling sex, in reality the focus is much more on opposing the criminalisation of buying (also known as the Nordic model). We believe that committing London Young Labour to oppose the Nordic model, and thus to support the legitimacy of men buying sex, is the true intent of the motion, and that it is misleading and disingenuous.

4. We further believe there are significant flaws in the logic and evidence used to support this end, and we draw attention to these below.

5. Clause 1: “Sex work refers to escorting, lap dancing, stripping, pole dancing, pornography, webcaming, adult modelling, phone sex, and selling sex (on and off the street).”

6. It should be noted that despite this opening, the rest of the resolution refers, and brings evidence that pertains only to, prostitution – i.e. the so called “full service”, or full access to women’s bodies for the purposes of men’s sexual gratification. Women who sell sex in person are also the group most at risk of men’s violence, and the documented physical and mental health risks that ensue. It is disingenuous to have such a wide definition yet in fact only discuss one aspect of it.

7. Clause 2: In Clause 2, the motion concedes that “Selling sex is not illegal in the UK”. However, it continues: “but it is criminalised. Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal.”

8. Firstly, this is a hyperbolic and generalised statement. As in all other prostitution regimes, it is local implementation that matters, and this varies depending on the prostitution politics in cities and regions. Furthermore, there is no country where there is no regulation, nor where there are no local variations in practices of police and other agencies.

9. The footnote to this statement reads: “Similar laws operate in Scotland, Wales & England. Prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is not illegal, but associated activities (soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, operating a brothel) are. The main laws around sex work in the UK are: the Vagrancy Act of 1824; the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 and the Street Offences Act of 1959 (England and Wales); the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act of 1892 and the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act of 1976, Sexual Offences Act 2003, Policing and Crime Act 2009, Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Anti Social Behaviour Act 2002, Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.”

10. It is unclear from the text of the motion which specific provisions of this long list of legislation are to be repealed in order to achieve decriminalisation. A brief review of some of these laws reveals that:

• The Vagrancy Act 1824 is almost entirely repealed and it is not clear which remaining clauses are meant.
• The Sexual Offences Act 1956 criminalises abduction, incest, “unnatural acts” (repealed), living off the proceeds of prostitution and causing or encouraging prostitution of mentally disabled persons (in the language of the Act, “defectives”). One assumes that these are not things women do to “stay safe” in prostitution and therefore cannot be targeted by the motion. 
• The Act also criminalises the keeping of brothels and permitting premises to be used as brothels, which we infer is what the motion intends to criticise. It is however a debatable claim that indoor prostitution, or women working in parlours and brothels, is necessarily safer than outdoor or single-woman prostitution. Research conducted by Ulla Bjørndahl in Norway in 2012 has shown that women working indoors are seriously sexually assaulted and robbed by their clients more frequently than street workers (Bjørndahl, 2012, table 11). Indoor workers also reported higher incidence of abuse from a pimp (ibid, p. 15).
• The Policing and Crime Act 2009 mostly deals with police procedure or co-operation, but among other things criminalises purchase of sex from persons subjected to force; again, this provision is surely not the target of repeal under decriminalisation, and more specific information is needed to support the assertion that “Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal”.
• The Sexual Offences Act 2003 mostly deals with sexual offences such as rape, incest and child abuse. There is a section criminalising trafficking and a section criminalising the solicitation by a person seeking to purchase sex from another in a public place. This provision does not criminalise women engaged in prostitution. The Act also elaborates in a minor way on the criminalisation of brothel keeping in the 1956 Act.

11. It is outside the scope of this document to conduct a thorough review of the law pertaining to prostitution; however even the partial examination above casts serious doubt on the idea that the effect of the legislation cited is to prevent activities designed to keep women “safe”. The only potential example that does emerge is brothel-keeping, but, as Bjørndahl’s research reveals, and as has been reported by exited campaigners such as Rachel Moran and Fiona Broadfoot from personal experience, brothels are not a reliable means of increasing women’s safety. 

12. Clause 3: In Clause 3 the motion states that “Financial reasons, and any criminal record gain due to the criminalisation of sex work, are usually cited as the main reason for staying in sex work.”

13. This assertion is supported by a reference to research undertaken by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland in 2014. However, careful review of the findings does not support the claim implicit in this clause: that acute financial necessity is what leads women to sell sex, and that they are devoid of other options. From the DOJ report: “The need to earn money to survive (22%), the need to support the family financially (18%), to finance their own education (14%), to pay off debt  (10%) and having no other way to earn a living (7%) were stated reasons for respondents to engage in prostitution.” Only the last of these implies that selling sex is the only available option.

14. Financial reasons to engage in any form of paid work should be considered as normal; abolitionists fully support the self determination of all women and there is no reason to expect them to make their decisions in any other way than rationally. But from the evidence above, there is no reason to suppose that more undue hardship would come to them as a result of a reduction in trade than would from being made redundant from any other job in the course of normal capitalist dynamics.

15. Furthermore, the New Zealand based research additionally cited as support for this claim states only that: “around 93% of sex workers surveyed… cited money as a reason for both entering and staying in the sex industry.” No further detail was available and, despite what is implied by this clause, it is not possible to come to the conclusion that women in prostitution are experiencing unique financial hardship, from which selling sex is their only way out.

16. In addition to this inaccurate use of evidence, we suggest this clause lacks both logic and an alignment with Labour values. The mission of the Labour Party cannot and should not be only to keep people in jobs under any circumstance: zero hour contracts, and unsafe or degrading jobs, are rightly considered a focus for a labour movement with a conscience. Therefore it is surely not a sufficient or satisfying argument for the mainstreaming of the sex industry to say that some people might otherwise lose their jobs. 

17. Clauses 4 and 5: The implicit appeal to the vulnerability of women is made more explicit in clause 4, which reads: “There are a disproportionate number of disabled people, migrants, especially undocumented or semi-documented migrants, LGBT people and single parents (the vast majority of whom are women) involved in sex work.”

18. Clause 5 elaborates: “The financial cost of being disabled, the cost of childcare, the cost of medical transition and hormones, racism in the workplace, the vulnerability of undocumented migrants to exploitation in other forms of work and the prejudice faced by LGBT and disabled people undoubtedly contribute to this overrepresentation.”

19. The footnote citation for Clause 4 is “Safety First Coalition” only, without any link or reference to any relevant research that would verify this claim. Clause 5 is not referenced and cannot be verified. However, the Northern Ireland (NI) research done by the DOJ, which the motion cites (and which it can therefore be assumed that those moving it consider reliable), found that only 4% of non-EU nationals had an illegal immigration status: the majority of those selling sex in NI were UK and Irish nationals, followed by Romanian and Hungarian nationals who are EU citizens, and of the remaining minority most were on legal visas.

20. Analysis of family status showed that 52% in the NI sample were in relationships and/or married; and 42% had children. No detail is provided as to the number in the sample who both have children and are not in a relationship (single mothers). Irish and UK nationals were more likely than foreign women to be in relationships and to have children.

21. Regarding the gender identity, disability and sexuality (except in respect to a very small minority of men who have sex with men), the research provides no information. The claims here cannot therefore be substantiated based on the sources provided. While there is a widespread belief among both the general public and advocates of decriminalisation that women engaged in prostitution substantially belong to marginalised groups, the DOJ report in fact reflects high levels of secondary and tertiary education among its respondents.

22. Clause 6: This gets to what we think is the real impetus behind the motion: protecting the rights of men who buy sex. It states: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients... was recently passed in the Northern Irish Assembly, despite government-commissioned research showing that 98% of sex workers working in Northern Ireland did not want this introduced.”

23. This is a misrepresentation. The research does state that only 2% of those currently selling sex who were surveyed thought the criminalisation of clients was a good idea. However, it does not give the number of undecided respondents or those who did not respond to the question, making this a poor and tendentious use of research. Additionally the wording of the question is misrepresented: whether or not criminalisation is a good idea is not the same as whether the respondents wanted it or not.

24. What’s more, when the scope of questioning is expanded to those who have sold sex in the past, the landscape of responses changes considerably. As was found in the consultation by Rhoda Grant MSP exploring the introduction of a “Nordic Model” style law in Scotland: “[it] was clear that the majority of those who have already exited prostitution were in favour of legislation, while those currently involved were fearful of the impact on them” (Grant, p. 51). In addition, only a small proportion of respondents to this consultation objected to the law, and the majority of those were organisations explicitly dedicated to legalisation. Supporters of the proposal included social and health services, women’s organisations, local councils, the White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence against women and so on. The full list is available here.

25. This aspect of the motion, the silencing of exited women, is particularly disingenuous and disturbing. In considering the regulation and/or normalisation of any other industry, we would not dream of demanding that only those currently employed in it have a valid view on its management or social impact. It would have been unthinkable, for example to set the terms of the Leveson inquiry in such a way that only current tabloid journalists were seen to have a valid opinion on widespread culture and conduct. The focus on testimonies and perspectives of those currently involved in the sex industry only is unique to advocacy for the decriminalisation of the sex trade, and is ethically baffling.

26. Clause 7: “Organisations that support the decriminalisation of sex work include the World Health Organisation, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the National Union of Students and NUS Women’s Campaign, and the Royal College of Nurses.”

27. This is in fact a list of organisations which support the full decriminalisation of both selling and buying sex, since they all oppose the Nordic model. Organisations which support the Nordic model by definition also support the decriminalisation of women, but oppose the decriminalisation of sex buying, as well as pimping and those who exploit the prostitution of others. As well as those listed above (paragraph 24) supporting the proposed criminalisation of demand in Scotland, these include:

TUC Women’s Committee, Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Unison, Ashiana, the Centre for Gender & Violence Research at the University of Bristol, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, Eaves, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Equality Now, European Women’s Lobby, the Fawcett Society, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, nia, Northern Refugee Centre, SafeLives, St Mungo’s Broadway, Welsh Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation of England, and Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland. 

28. Clause 8: In Clause 8, the Motion attacks the efficacy of the Nordic model: “The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women opposes introducing criminal penalties against the clients of sex workers. Their research found that criminalising clients does not reduce sex work or trafficking, but infringes on sex workers’ rights & obstructs anti-trafficking efforts.”

29. This is a claim which is contested by many others, and is not supported by actual data on the introduction and implementation of the law in Sweden and Norway. It has certainly decreased street prostitution – which few prostitution regimes do not regulate or even make illegal – in both countries, and the law is considered by police and prosecutors in Sweden as the most effective measure they have in their anti-trafficking efforts. This has been recognised by the Council of Europe (COE, 2014, p. 10).

30. Clause 10: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has been proven to lead to further distrust of the police amongst sex workers, a willingness of sex workers to engage in more risky behaviour/safety procedures out of desperation, and does not reduce overall levels of prostitution.”

31. This is a contentious and contested claim, and none of the references provided are links to the three evaluations of the law in Sweden (see SOU, 2010 for the most recent). Those studies suggest that precisely because the law decriminalises those who sell sex different, more open relationships have been possible with police and social workers. There is also very little evidence supporting the claim that it has made selling sex more dangerous: the last woman to be killed in prostitution in Sweden was in 1986. Support for this claim also often cites a Norwegian study after their law reform in 2009, which did show those reporting having experienced violence in prostitution increased from 52% to 59% (Bjørndahl, 2012). However, closer examination of the data shows that the definition of violence in the post-2009 study was wider, including name calling, hair pulling and being spat at. It is these behaviours which account for the increase, whilst rape, physical assaults by regular customers/pimps and in a car with an unfamiliar customer actually decreased by half or more in the same period (Berg, 2013).

32. Those moving the motion now set out a number of beliefs to support the call for decriminalising sex work, or to put it more honestly, against the introduction of the Nordic model which decriminalises women and criminalises men who buy.

33. Belief 1: “Sex work is work. Sex work is the exchange of money for labour, like any other job. It is different because it is currently criminalised and stigmatised.”

34. We fundamentally disagree. Sex work is not identical to other forms of labour. Firstly, unlike other labour, sex is an activity which the majority of people engage in freely without remuneration. In this context, it is not labour, but an activity motivated by mutual desire. So, in the buying and selling of sex, what is effectively paid for is the waiving of this requirement of mutual desire. It is emphatically not the exchange of money for labour; it is the exchange of money for consent. 

35. Framing the debate as an issue of labour rights thus rests on obscuring the fact that the sex industry involves financial coercion of consent, not an exchange of labour for money. And that, moreover, this takes place in the context of a society in which women have less social and economic power than men, and are hence particularly vulnerable to financial coercion. And as the legal strictures around paid organ donation indicate, there is significant potential harm to coercing an individual’s consent to transgressions of their bodily integrity. Since the sex industry relies on this coercion, it should therefore be seen in the same way.

36. Furthermore, there are practical barriers to treating the selling of sex (again, this motion seems to refer only to “full service” sex – i.e. intercourse, oral sex, anal sex and associated activities) as other jobs are treated under the law. One key difficulty is around health and safety (H&S) legislation. While abolitionists and supporters of decriminalisation both agree that the safety of the women engaging in sex work should be a paramount concern of any proposed policy, the latter have not been able to give an account of how, for example, bodily liquids would be treated under H&S law with regard to prostitution. In other professions when contact with potential body fluids such as saliva, blood, semen or urine is likely, protective equipment such as face masks, latex gloves (double latex gloves in the case of nurses working in the presence of blood or semen), plastic aprons etc. are recommended or in some cases mandated, for the protection of the workers. It is difficult to imagine how the provision of full intercourse could function while complying with such regulation, and we are left to imagine that supporters of this motion would in fact exclude women from being fully bound by such regulation, treating them very much as not professionals doing “any other job”, but as a special case, worthy of reduced protection. 

37. Similar difficulties arise when looking at legislation touching on sexual harassment at work and other hard-won legislation which functions to protect workers and structures what is legally considered an appropriate work environment. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for people belonging to the Labour movement to hide behind a glib assertion of “sex work is work” while abandoning the workers in question to be excluded from the protections available to others.

38. Belief 3: “The right of consenting adults to engage in sexual relations is of no business to anyone but the people involved.”

39. Consent to sex and equality in sex are not the same, as students will know from the fact that sexual relationships between students and teaching staff are prohibited, even where they are consensual. This is a highly contestable statement of opinion which does not reflect society’s growing awareness of socialised male privilege and sexual entitlement.

40. As set out above, in selling sex, one person is in reality paid by the other to waive the usual expectation of mutual desire and equal power that applies in non-paid consensual sexual encounters. “Consent” in this context refers to the kind of temporary relinquishment of rights that happens when patients sign consent forms for medical procedures: “I grant you my consent to temporarily have the right to do something to me (for example cut me in a surgery, or have intercourse with me) which I would normally consider harmful and which it would be an offence for you to do to me without this form.” However the patient signing away bodily integrity is doing so out of a medical necessity, whereas the woman is doing so purely out of financial interest and not because of any reciprocity of benefit.

41. Belief 4: “The moral panic around sex work and prostitution echoes the moral panic that was present when homosexuality was in the process of being decriminalised. It is no coincidence that many who argue for harsh anti-prostitution laws under the guise of feminism also voted against equal marriage and similar civil rights measures.”

42. While some voices may oppose both the sex industry and equal marriage for religious reasons, it is profoundly misleading to ignore feminist organisations and individuals such as those listed above, who oppose the former and support the latter.

43. Belief 6: “Regardless of their reasons for entering into sex work, all sex workers deserve to have their rights protected and to be able to do their jobs safely. This includes sex workers who do not find their job ‘empowering’. Whether or not you enjoy a job should have no bearing on the rights you deserve while you do it.”

44. By definition, the Nordic model would not deny women this protection, since it too would decriminalise them. This being the case, it is not clear how this motion would better ensure that women can “do their jobs safely”, when its very distinguishing feature is that it protects the “rights” of those responsible for the threat to women’s safety in the first place: men who buy.

45. Belief 9: “Tim Barnett was correct in asserting that “prostitution is inevitable, and no country has succeeded in legislating it out of existence”. Sweden cannot show a reduction in the number of sex workers.”

46. In the DOJ research cited in the motion, it is estimated that only 3% of men currently regularly pay for sex. If the numbers did decrease in the wake of criminalising demand, then the proportion of men paying for sex would shrink to the point of being insignificant. 

47. No undesirable social behaviour has yet been eradicated completely – which is why we have laws and courts punishing those who commit murder or theft, despite the fact that they are illegal. To argue that, because it is impossible to prevent 100% of offences, we should not have laws making them offences in the first place is a bizarre for a political organisation, and not particularly coherent in terms of the wellbeing of the women involved in the sex trade. Our concern, as a society, for their welfare should not be predicated on the willingness or otherwise of men to change their behaviour.

48. Conclusion: This motion is based on selective and tendentious readings of the research and on assumptions and myths about the nature of prostitution and those who engage in it. It also seems to set out actively to misrepresent the Nordic model and those who support it. It engages in the strange sophistry of defending women as fully self-determined agents operating from purely rational and free motives on the one hand – whilst simultaneously claiming that it is driven primarily by the needs of vulnerable people who have no alternativeAnd in both these arguments, the interests of the men who fuel the demand are completely absent, suggesting that the industry somehow operates solely to the benefit of the labour force- an odd position for a Labour movement to find itself inWhere it does make any fleeting reference to the role of buyers, it relies on the deeply ingrained belief that male sexual exploitation of women is immutable and can never be eradicated as an argument for normalising it.

49. By contrast, as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.


WAPOW (Women Assessing Policy on Women)

June 2015




Berg, S. (2013) New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence? Feminist Current, January 22, available at:

Bjørndahl, U. 2012 “Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to” Accessed at on June 2nd 2015

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2014, “Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe“. Accessed at on June 2nd 2015

Department of Justice, 2014, “Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland”. Accessed at on June 2nd 2015

Grant, R., “Proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex: Summary of Consultation Responses”. Accessed at on June 2nd 2015

SOU (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish Government report SOU 2010:49: Prohibition of the purchase of sexual services. An evaluation 1999-2008.




Thursday, 28 May 2015

Join the Set Her Free demo at Yarls Wood on 6 June

Next weekend I’m going on my first demo for nearly three years. It’s taking place at Yarls Wood – the detention centre where women refugees are indefinitely incarcerated after arriving in the UK seeking asylum. 

Our demo’s demand? SET HER FREE! 

If you live in Bristol, join the coach to Yarls Wood by signing up here

If you live anywhere else, here’s the link to the demo.  

I first became aware of Yarls Wood when I attended a talk by Women for Refugee Women and their sister organisation Women Asylum Seekers Together

I listened to women talk about the abuses they had faced in their country. They described fleeing and arriving at the UKBA. Women talked about being faced by male officials who asked them to talk about the violence committed against them. They explained how they felt uncomfortable talking about rape to male officers, and how no one told them they could speak to a woman. They said how the officials didn’t believe them. They told us how they were put on the ‘fast track’ system and how most fast-tracked applications fail and then need to be appealed. They told us how they were locked up. 

As I listened in horror, one woman said:

The physical scars from the violence I suffered in my country will heal. The emotional scars from what happened here will stay with me forever.”

Another woman spoke:

I didn’t come here for a better life. I had a good life. I came here not to die.”

(I’m paraphrasing from memory)

Hearing those words, I felt real shame at the way our country treats some of the world’s most vulnerable women. I felt ashamed that these women came to our country to survive, and we responded by locking them up in a de facto prison. 

A report published last year by Women for Refugee Women laid out bare the reality of incarceration in Yarls Wood. It exposed how rape survivors were guarded by men – forced to go to the toilet or get undressed in front of male guards, and how 70% of the women surveyed said how having male guards made them feel uncomfortable. 

It revealed the high rates of depression and mental ill health, and how 22% of the women interviewed had attempted suicide in detention, with a higher number (61%) saying they felt suicidal. It gave a voice to women making allegations of ill treatment and sexual assault – 50% of the women surveyed talked about verbal abuse from staff, 22% disclosed racist abuse, 3 women reported physical assault and 1 women alleged sexual assault. And the report explained the mental toll taken on women who are locked up for no crime, and given no indication of when they will be freed, of if they will be deported. 

Since the publication of the report, the Government announced that it would investigate the allegations of sexual assault made against SERCO staff. And yet, the centre remains open. 

Last week I attended a talk by writer and activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who discusses the treatment of women in Yarls Wood in her book, Do it Like A Woman and Change the World.  She talked about how the well-meaning documents on refugee rights written in the wake of the Second World War were ‘male default’ guidelines that excluded the reasons why women might need to seek asylum. The failure to update these documents to recognise that women face persecution because they are women means that women refugees face different challenges to men. According to international policies on refugee rights, people can claim asylum based on, for example, political, ethnic and religious persecution. But gender-based persecution – such as domestic abuse, forced marriage, FGM and rape – is not covered. 

In short, refugee policy is written for men. 

This needs to be changed. We know that women face gender-based persecution across the world. We know that across the world women are enduring rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage and FGM. We need to have a policy that recognises these violations as happening to women and girls because they are women and girls. And we need to have a policy that means women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution can be given asylum. 

Until then our asylum system is failing women and girls. And so long as we persist in indefinitely detaining refugees in centres like Yarls Wood, we are failing as a country to protect and support some of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

Yarls Wood is a blot on our national conscious. 

It is time to shut it down and for the women held in detention to be set free. These women are not criminals. They have committed no crime. They have travelled to the UK fleeing rape, domestic abuse, FGM, political imprisonment, forced marriage, domestic violence, homophobic hate crime, rape as a weapon of war – almost unimaginable horrors. They have travelled here because to stay in their own countries is to endure more violence, more imprisonment, more war. They travel here seeking asylum. A safe place. Maybe even some kindness. 

And rather than offer them that kindness, we lock them up and don’t even bother to tell them how long for. 

This has to end now.