Now that the trickle of sexual abuse and exploitation revelations against British aid organisations has turned into a flood, much can be discerned by the language used: the way some of the alleged victims of Oxfam staff in countries such as Haiti are being described as “child prostitutes”, when people who have sex with children below the legal age of consent are, in fact, rapists.
We hear so many of the local women whom aid workers paid for sex described as “sex workers” without understanding the context. In countries where aid agencies have a large and permanent presence, people who live in their shadow have been conditioned to believe these organisations are there to offer them help. For example, everyone in Accra, Ghana, knows where the Save the Children offices are; in Liberia, almost anyone can direct you to the headquarters of Médecins Sans Frontières. These organisations are visible, and flashy – with expensive, branded four-wheel drives, and offer locals the possibility of rare and lucrative permanent employment.
In my experience, particularly in the aftermath of disaster, when foreigners are sometimes the only source of resources, women seek from them any help they can get. What’s emerging now is that handouts have been offered, allegedly, in exchange for sexual favours. It’s a transaction that is obviously unequal and exploitative.
We have all been conditioned to believe that aid agencies and charities operate in an uncivilised vacuum. It’s hard to overstate how much influence large NGOs have over the information we receive. These days few newsrooms can afford the cost of sending correspondents into crisis zones without their help. As a result, the news we consume is filtered through the prism of humanitarian relief work, where the civilised help the uncivilised – and if the helpers become deviant, what can you expect in such a climate?
The revelations about sexual abuse and misconduct – long overdue – have prompted a depressing combination of tropical neurasthenia and faux moral outrage. I say faux because this is really all about money. Our interest in these organisations is based on the fact they have received millions from British taxpayers. It is this that has been the centre of our concern rather than the wellbeing of the victims themselves.
Meanwhile, we have remained utterly uninterested in the thousands of incidents of UN peacekeeper sexual abuse that have emerged over the past decade, including a rape-for-food initiative in Central African Republic, a child-sexual-abuse ring in Haiti, regular sexual assaults of girls as young as 12 in Liberia, and other incidents whose depravity is hard to grasp, such as the time blue helmets are alleged to have tied up four young girls and made them have sex with a dog.
What is yet to emerge is the scale with which British and other foreign business travellers prop up local developing economies through prostitution. There are few, if any, official figures on the scale of this, but time and time again I have seen white men with clearly underage girls in hotels and bars throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. I have never been able to understand how this became normalised.
Is what happened in Haiti a scandal because prostitution is illegal in Haiti, or because it is always wrong to use massive economic and social inequality to coerce someone into sex?
The details of the Oxfam ‘sex scandal’ have been reported in great detail already, so I won’t reiterate any of that here. There is a debate to be had about global development in its current form (is this the best way to do it? does it work long term at all?), but that is beyond the remit of this blog post; in the short-term, in the face of disasters like the Haiti earthquake, organisations like Oxfam and their activities (minus the sexual coercion) seem to be better than no action at all from the global north.
I hope this scandal, as I hope for the ‘me too’/’time’s up’ movement in the entertainment industry, results in genuine change; I hope Oxfam, and other big charities like it, use this as an opportunity to get their houses in order and regain the public trust. I hope it is not used as an excuse for the UK government to scrap foreign aid altogether.
I am genuinely, personally, upset by this, Oxfam is a brand I trusted (they partnered with the Moomins for goodness sake), and I want to be able to trust them again.
Oxfam has never promoted entry into the sex industry as a ‘solution’ to the poverty of women and girls. Every campaign to end poverty for women and girls emphasises getting women into sustainable employment and their daughters into education, which, tacitly, is about keeping them out of prostitution.
The reactions to the Oxfam scandal are very different to the reactions to Amnesty International’s decision to support the decriminalisation of the sex industry back in 2015 (see all blog posts here).
The AI decision certainly did make headlines in the mainstream press, but not like this; there was no universal rush to condemn AI for its support of abusive institutions, there were no think-pieces questioning whether human rights organisations could survive such a scandal, because it was never reported in the mainstream press as a scandal at all.
The question here is simple: is what happened in Haiti a scandal because prostitution is illegal in Haiti, and the Oxfam aid workers were breaking local laws, or is it a scandal because using massive economic and social inequality to coerce someone into sex is always, objectively, wrong?
If it is always, objectively, wrong, how can it be acceptable for a ‘human rights’ charity to campaign and lobby for the decriminalisation of the people who perpetrate, facilitate, and profit from, such exploitation and abuse?
AI had as a member Douglas Fox, a known pimp at the time, who claims credit for AI’s ‘sex work’ policy. Mexico’s Maria Alejandra Gil Cuervo was vice president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which received money from the Open Society Foundation, and advised UNAIDS; when, in 2015, she was found guilty of sex trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in jail, the story was ‘broken’ in the English speaking world by Kat Banyard, on the Faber and Faber website (a publisher not a newspaper), and again there was no ‘scandal’.
There are some obvious differences, AI is not an aid agency, and it receives no government funding, but there is still the issue of public trust – I, personally, do not trust AI at all, if they could behave so dishonestly over this, what else are they not doing correctly?
Janice Turner in the Times (a publication I now trust more than the Guardian to report on trans and prostitution issues, misogyny transcends notions of left and right wing), reported on AI’s disgustingly cynical and hypocritical response to the Oxfam scandal:
Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International, was “shocked” by the Oxfam scandal, she told Woman’s Hour. She demanded an inquiry; for “lessons to be learnt”. I’d hoped Jenni Murray would follow through with a question: so what is Amnesty’s view on aid workers in poor countries paying women for sex? But she didn’t ask it, so I did.
Why is the question important? Because in 2015 Amnesty, a global organisation with seven million members, changed its policy on prostitution to support decriminalisation. Feminists were aghast: 3,000, including Gloria Steinem, signed a petition in horror that Amnesty was not only legitimising trade in women’s bodies, but the pimps and brothel keepers who exploit them.
No matter. Amnesty had been taken over by supporters of libertarian identity politics who regard prostitution not as a system of sexual abuse driven by economic need and inequality but a personal choice or a sexual identity, like being gay. Even, it seems, in disaster zones like Haiti.
“Decisions to sell sex,” states its policy document, “can be influenced by situations of poverty . . . Such situations do not necessarily . . . negate a person’s consent.” The only exceptions are “particular circumstances that amount to coercion where an individual faces threats of violence or abuse of authority”. But Amnesty’s overall stance is that it “neither supports nor condemns commercial sex”.
So how then would it view Roland van Hauwermeiren and his Oxfam compadres rolling into Port-au-Prince in safari jackets and mirrored shades, their 4x4s full of antibiotics and baby milk? Does it constitute an “abuse of authority” to round up a few hookers in town, take them to your villa and have a little fun in exchange for a few dollars and an Oxfam T-shirt? Or must we respect that these young women in a devastated land, with sick parents or hungry babies, have, in Amnesty’s words, “the agency and capacity of adults engaged in consensual sex work”?
Where does exploitation end and consent begin? I rang Amnesty for clarification. Kate Allen’s statement is a masterpiece of obfuscation. “The appalling situation of aid workers paying for sex in a context where they’re working with and providing services to extremely vulnerable people in crisis situations is separate from the issue of the legal status of sex work.”
But is it? In Haiti, 316,000 were dead, millions homeless, the entire infrastructure destroyed. Oxfam was “providing services to” a whole nation. Does Amnesty think it was wrong for van Hauwermeiren to prostitute a woman he met at, say, an aid distribution centre but it was fine for him to select equally impoverished women from the local brothel?
Given its neutral stance on commercial sex, is it cool with its staff using prostitutes? “Amnesty’s employment contracts clearly stipulate that employees must not behave in a way that brings the organisation into disrepute,” it said, “and in light of the Oxfam case, we’ve instigated a full review of all relevant policies.” Which reads less like a principled stand than a scrambled PR operation: ie we’ve smelt the public mood and don’t want lost donations. Only when I pressed further did it say: “Any staff members found to be using sex workers in the course of their work would face an immediate investigation and potential disciplinary action.” Which directly contradicts its own policy! What about neutrality, women having “agency” and punters not being penalised?
Turner also describes how the Labour Party has failed in its response to the Oxfam scandal:
Amnesty is not alone in being tied up in liberal knots. The Labour Party has been notably silent on the Oxfam prostitution scandal. The shadow international development secretary Kate Osamor defined it as a “safeguarding” breakdown, which reduces it to a failure to protect underage girls or prevent coercion, swerving the tougher question. But then in 2016 Jeremy Corbyn declared “I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry”. Does he then approve of Roland’s poolside fun?
In Corbyn’s view, decriminalisation is a “more civilised” approach. Indeed, no feminist who signed the petition against Amnesty wants to punish desperate women. Rather, most favour the Nordic model, now law in France, Sweden, Ireland and other countries, which legalises selling sex but criminalises its purchase. Total decriminalisation always causes the sex trade to expand. And while Amnesty distinguishes between trafficking (coerced: bad) and sex work (consensual: fine), when male demand soars, more “product” is required and locked vans of Albanian girls arrive at the mega-brothels of Amsterdam or Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.
Finally, something on which we can agree: charity officials ought not to buy sex. No one, so far, seems prominently to have argued, of the Oxfam employees’ misconduct in Haiti and Liberia, that, providing their female purchases were adult, and not coerced, then their prostitution should rightly be called sex work, that is: a perfectly dignified transaction, from which both sides – say, impoverished survivors of a disaster and benevolent male humanitarians – stood to benefit.
We have yet, admittedly, to hear from Amnesty International, the human rights NGO, which now doubles as the world’s leading advocate of legalised prostitution. In 2015, a year that will forever be celebrated by its allies in the pimping and trafficking community, Amnesty committed to the decriminalisation of all aspects of “sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse”.
So, hint for Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who is currently to be found in Ostend, explaining how incredibly easy it is for a vivacious Oxfam official to be mistaken for a sex-buyer: Amnesty is there for you. Equally, critics of Oxfam’s conduct, including Theresa May and Penny Mordaunt, can expect a reminder from Amnesty that it’s people “who live on the outskirts of society that are forced into sex work. It may be their only way to earn a living.” Once you see it that way, Oxfam workers who live, courtesy of charitable donations, in villas suited to large pool parties, can be seen as doing prostitute attendees a tremendous kindness. Inalienable human rights, meet trickle-down effect.
The Oxfam-related outrage must be baffling, also, to many British parliamentarians, for whom the option of reducing prostitution via the Nordic Model (also adopted in Northern Ireland, Canada and France; now backed by the SNP) is so much less appealing than the formal commodification of – overwhelmingly – women’s bodies.
Jeremy Corbyn, for example, supports decriminalisation because he wants to “do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way”. Around a pool, perhaps? At any rate, all that was missing from this progressive analysis, given the exploitation reported in the decriminalised German and Dutch industries, was an alternative scheme whereby sex trade “things” could be separated from violence, poverty, murder, pimping, drug abuse, stigma, illness, trafficking, misogyny and coercion – and the inevitable implication that all women, prostituted or not, have their price.
In a rare show of political harmony, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for a free market in women’s bodies, or, as it would be defined in Sweden, unfettered violence against women and girls, is shared by the Lib Dems, the Greens and by the Commons home affairs select committee. The latter, reconstituted under new leadership, has yet to withdraw a 2016 report on prostitution that urged immediate decriminalisation (without any measures to protect women from exploitation). Only after publication did it emerge that its chair, Keith Vaz, one of eight men on an 11-person committee, was himself a sex buyer. Mercifully for Vaz’s future in public service, the relevant purchases had occurred in Edgware, not Port-au-Prince.
In fairness to Bennett, her piece only came out a day after Turner’s, so she couldn’t have seen the replies from AI. But, it seems, she is not a thorough Guardian reader, otherwise she would have seen the report last week calling the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Haiti ‘underage sex work’. (And in fairness to The Observer, it and the Guardian are editorially independent, the Observer has, in the past, been better at not calling raped children ‘sex workers’.)
BUST magazine reported recently (I am linking to an archived page so they don’t get more links/clicks) on a picture book (from the ‘Feminist Press'(!)) called How Mamas Love Their Babies. Within, the sex industry is sold to children as ‘wearing a uniform with special shoes’ and ‘mamas dancing all night in special shoes’. Start them young, right?
The idea for the book [Against Our Will] grew out of Brownmiller’s activism, specifically, the consciousness-raising group to which she belonged in the early 70s, the New York Radical Feminists. One evening, one of its newer members, Diane Crothers, arrived bearing a copy of the Berkeley feminist magazine It Ain’t Me Babe, which earlier that year had printed a long account by a young female artist of being raped by two Vietnam veterans while hitchhiking home from her first women’s meeting. The issue Crothers had in her hand brought news of a stunning retaliatory action against the assault of a dancer by some men at a bachelor party, carried out by group called the Contra Costa Anti-Rape Squad #14. On the day of the wedding, this group had stuck flyers on the windscreens of guests’ cars, detailing what had gone on. “Sounds ugly?” asked the writer of these flyers. “Well, it is. It goes on all the time, one way or another. These pigs know the law won’t touch them, they can always insist the woman is a liar or a slut or crazy. [But] we women are learning to see through that nonsense. We hope you learn to, too.”
After everyone had read this story, Crothers announced that rape was an important feminist issue and that it should be explored by the group. Brownmiller, a journalist, wasn’t convinced. Like many people then, she thought rape was a “deviant” crime, one that any alert woman could surely avoid if she tried. But others disagreed. They wanted to talk. One woman, Sarah Pines, quietly began to describe how she had also been raped while hitchhiking. The worst part of her ordeal, she said, had been at the police station. “Aww, who’d want to rape you?” teased one police officer. Another insisted – does this sound familiar? – that she was too calm to be credible. The men involved were eventually given suspended sentences.
It was while listening to Pines, and to those who followed her, that Brownmiller began to see rape in another light, and when the talking was over she proposed that the group hold a conference on the subject, with research papers and panel discussions. “But I was a laggard,” she says, with a laugh. “The others told me: no, we will have a speak-out first, and then a conference.” The speak-out was held in a church, 30 women took part, and their experiences ran the gamut from street harassment to rape. One woman described how she had been raped by her therapist; another how she had been assaulted in her apartment after opening her door to a man who said he was delivering a package; yet another how she was molested by a junior doctor on a date arranged by his aunt and her mother.
The conference took place in a high school auditorium four months later – Brownmiller attended it on crutches, having sprained her ankle when she kicked a man who had goosed her in the street while she was handing out flyers for it – and by the time it was over she found she was able to look her own vulnerability “squarely in the eye”, something she had hitherto always refused to acknowledge. She realised that something important had been left out of her education: a way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength and at power. She had, in other words, changed her mind about rape, for which reason she was now determined to write a book about it, one that would deploy examples from history, psychoanalysis, criminology, mythology and popular culture in the service of illustrating her conviction that “rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. Was she surprised, as she embarked on this project, that no one had attempted such a thing before? “No, not really. We were uncovering so many new truths then. The early 70s was a great time for us. Women were so brilliant in their analysis.”
Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).
Some of the sisters, however, were not happy. “People in the movement were starting to say: ‘We don’t need stars’,” Brownmiller remembers. “When I announced to my consciousness-raising group that I’d finished writing it, someone said: ‘Why don’t you be the first feminist without ego who doesn’t put your name on the book?’” She clicks her teeth. “She was jealous, of course. Another time, when I was giving a talk on a college campus, a woman raised her hand and asked: ‘Why did you put your name on Against Our Will? All your ideas came from our movement, after all.’” How did she respond? “I said: what page did you write, sister?”
Did she think its publication would change things? (It is widely agreed now that not only did the book shift attitudes to rape, it may have influenced some changes in the law, including making the victim’s sexual history inadmissible.) “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I thought it would change minds all over America. But I also feel that I was part of a movement. Even as I was writing it, rape crisis centres had begun opening, legislators had begun looking at the law around a woman’s past.” In the long term, however, things did not change nearly enough. “I remember being startled when it came out that DNA samples were not being processed properly in some states, and it was pretty horrifying when it became apparent that some colleges were not going to take accusations against, say, their football players seriously on account of what their alumni might think.”
What has struck her most forcefully about the wave of allegations in recent weeks? (As I write, no fewer than 122 high-profile men stand publicly accused of assault or harassment in the US.) “Well, I’ve been astonished that these perpetrators seem to have such weird sex lives, that is very important. They’re perverts, and I think that comes from pornography.” She sighs. “Unfortunately, the pornographers were in the end a lot more successful than Women Against Pornography.” In 1978, she attended the first national feminist anti-pornography conference in the US, held in San Francisco, which was also where she first saw the dungaree-clad Andrea Dworkin in action, addressing a Take Back the Night march in an edgy part of the city (“I immediately dubbed her Rolling Thunder,” she recalls in her 1999 memoir In Our Time). Back in New York, she and other members of WAP ran educational tours of Times Square – then still horribly sleazy – at five dollars a throw, transgressive invasions that would regularly see them thrown out of strip shows, and which, in their first year, attracted some 2,500 “tourists”, among them a pair of Benedictine nuns from Erie, Pennsylvania.
Transgender schools guidance produced by transgender and LGBT organisations promotes a new ‘affirmation’ and social transition model which has been shown to increase persistence of gender dysphoria in children. The model fails to take into account the various reasons for childhood cross-sex identity, which can range from perfectly normal developmental exploration, through difficult family dynamics all the way to previous trauma or sexual abuse. It may also be a result of homophobic bullying, emotional and psychological issues, ASD or simple social contagion, particularly in cases of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria seen predominantly in teenage girls.
We feel that to simply take a child’s words at face value and respond with a one-size-fits-all approach is a dereliction of duty of care for children and adolescents, and this approach should not be forced upon schools.
Published transgender schools guidance also fails to take into account sex-based rights and protections already in place to protect the privacy of all students and in particular the welfare of girls. This guidance misrepresents Equality law in placing the rights of transgender students above those of other students, with no requirement for equality impact assessments. The prioritisation of ‘gender identity’ above biological sex as the distinction between boys and girls gives weight to a belief over material reality and obviously raises issues of safeguarding as well as the right to name reality.
We felt there was an urgent need for clear factual information for schools seeking advice on a very recent and unprecedented phenomenon, guidance which is based on protecting the welfare and rights of all children.
We have developed a comprehensive schools resource pack, in consultation with teachers, child protection and welfare professionals and lawyers. Our aim is to arm schools with all the relevant facts so that teachers feel more informed and confident in creating a safe school for all pupils, including non-conforming children and those who identify as ‘transgender.’
Our resource pack covers advice for school leaders, tips on how to create a school culture of acceptance of gender non-conformity without denying biological sex, communication, primary schools and secondary schools, existing safeguarding policies and guidance, the legal situation for schools, and a glossary of terms.
We also include factual information about the social and medical transition of children, testimonies from young people who have desisted or detransitioned, and a statement from a teacher who has witnessed the increase in the number of young people identifying as ‘trans’ in their school. We have included a statement from the Lesbian Rights Alliance in recognition of the fact that the number of teenage lesbians who are choosing to identify as ‘trans men’ has recently grown so significantly.
We have designed the document to be fully comprehensive and cover all areas because this is such a new phenomenon that teachers are facing and existing guidance is so one-sided, but each individual section may be printed out and used separately if needed.
Download the pdf here:
“At 15 years old I met a pimp. Two weeks later, I was thrown into the violent and abusive world of prostitution,” feminist gender rights campaigner and organiser Fiona Broadfoot tells me. “I was in a very vulnerable place and he quickly had a hold on me. “I was trafficked down to London where he stood me outside the Hilton Hotel dressed like a doll for people to buy me,” she plainly catalogues. “From then on it was downhill. Rape became an occupational hazard, and because I was working on the street, I was arrested and criminalised for loitering under the purposes of being a common prostitute. I’m 49 and I still have an eight-page criminal record from those offences that I’ve had to carry around with me my whole life.”
22 years after exiting prostitution, Broadfoot is seeking justice and is fighting to have her criminal record eradicated by launching the first ever legal challenge of prostitution-specific criminal records. Broadfoot is arguing that the government policy on the disclosure of prostitution-specific convictions are uniquely discriminatory to women: “a lot of these criminal records are from charges women got when they were underage… What’s more, women with difficult backgrounds are likely to go into prostitution and be charged for it more than men.” Four other women, who choose not to be identified, are also bringing their cases. All the claimants were pimped into prostitution when they were children and between them they have 100 criminal records. The case went to court on 26 July, where the defence’s request for a stay was refused but their request for a six week delay was agreed, which means the Home Office has to come back to them with a response.
“We’re optimistic about what will happen next,” says Heather Harvey, project manager at nia, the feminist domestic violence women and children’s charity which is supporting Broadfoot’s case and has just launched a major new research project, I’m No Criminal, to coincide with it, looking into the impact of prostitution-specific criminal records on women. One of the report’s major findings is that a lifelong criminal record is one of the key reasons women don’t exist prostitution. These discoveries add to writer and co-founder of Justice for Women Julie Bindel’s 2009 research report Breaking Down The Barriers, where she found that 49% of the 104 female sex workers she spoke to cited a criminal record as their reason for not attempting to exit.
“It’s unthinkable that you should have to disclose what is essentially a history of underage abuse,” Harvey says of the claimants. One of the women nia spoke to for their report was 62 and still working as a prostitute because “she couldn’t exit due to the multiple criminal records she had,” Harvey says. “She had given up hope of anyone ever taking her seriously”.
For former [prostitute] Charlotte* this was also the case. “I want to work in a caring profession and help other women like myself, but I know they always check your [criminal] record, so I don’t bother, I’m not going to stand a chance.”
Broadfoot was once fired from a role when her criminal record was discovered. “Once, not long after I left prostitution, still at the stage of scrubbing myself with Dettol to make myself clean, I was living in a refuge in Halifax where I hadn’t told anyone that I used to be a prostitute as I didn’t want to be judged.
“I thought: I’ll work with children because I don’t want to be near adults, I don’t trust them. I started the course and was the happiest I’d been in a long time. It made my life worth living,” she explains.
“Then a Disclosure and Barring Service check was carried out as I had to do a placement in a school, and when they found out about my record of prostitution, I had to leave the course.
“I was basically frog-marched off the premises.”
Like many women who are trying to exit, Broadfoot’s record only forced her back into prostitution. “I went back and conned myself with that classic lie that I’d rather be working as a prostitute earning more money than I would be working in a shop.”
Along with nia, a number of charities want the removal of these criminal records, including Manchester-based women’s charity MASH and Beyond The Streets, a charity campaigning to end sexual exploitation.
The article has been changed since I saw it early this afternoon, but I screen grabbed it. You can clearly see from the address that it is the same article, and that in the earlier version, the journalists use the term ‘underage sex workers’.
It is as ridiculous as it is unethical, how can a raped child be a worker, how can rape be work, how can a rapist be an employer? Do words mean anything?
The people being quoted in the article talk about a paedophile ring, how is it appropriate to label any of that ‘sex work’?
I have contacted the Guardian on this subject before, several times, and received no reply, but I am going to keep on trying:
I am writing to you, again, to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in relation to commercially raped children.
In today’s article ‘Oxfam warned it could lose European funding over scandal’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/12/haiti-demands-oxfam-identify-workers-who-used-prostitutes), in its 12:21 iteration ‘Haiti demands Oxfam identify staff who paid sex workers’, the term ‘underage sex workers’ was used.
I have written to you before, on several occasions over the past four years, about this subject, and have yet to receive any reply. What I would like, is for a Guardian editor to justify to me this dishonest and unethical use of language, in a publication that portrays itself as a quality newspaper.
How can a raped child be a worker, how can rape be work, how can a rapist be an employer?
As I said the last time, I will not give a penny to the Guardian while it continues to report on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in this way.
QotD: “Why won’t the so-called ‘sex workers’ rights movement’ help ex-teenage prostitutes have their convictions wiped?”
The Government’s policy in relation to the retention, recording and disclosure of criminal convictions arising from street prostitution (soliciting) offences is inhumane and impractical, and the claim, brought by a group of formerly prostituted women, will argue for the first time that retaining the criminal records of women abused into prostitution as children is effectively a record of their own abuse.
It is also a gross violation of their private lives. All women were internally trafficked while under the age of 18, and none had chosen to sell sex.
The Judicial Review, which, if successful, would result in the criminal records of the applicants – all of whom were abused into prostitution as teenagers – being expunged, would be a crucial step towards recognising prostitution as a human rights violation perpetrated by the pimps and punters.
The campaign was born in 1997 out of a conversation between myself and Fiona Broadfoot, a sex trade survivor and one of the claimants in the case. When Fiona and I met, during the run-up to a conference on violence against women and girls in 1996, she had recently left prostitution, having been pimped onto the streets aged 15. Fiona told me that she had recently exited the sex trade and was trying to help other women do the same.
Fiona had set up a support group called the Street Exit programme, which consisted of supporting women wishing to escape prostitution. Fiona did this work in her own time, with neither funding nor expenses to pay her sizeable phone bill.
She told me that finding a job she wanted to do was a nightmare because she had a bad criminal record. Every single one of Fiona’s convictions were for street prostitution-related offences, and when she applied for jobs, particularly if the job would involve her coming into contact with children or vulnerable adults, she was required to disclose her previous convictions.
This also applied to volunteering posts, and would, in a grotesque twist of irony, exclude her from running Street Exit, had it not been a one-woman show without charitable status.
We decided to work together, alongside other campaigners and sex trade survivors, to achieve two distinct but connected aims – to fight to decriminalise the women, men and children selling sex, and to penalise and deter the men (because it is always men) who pay for sex, and therefore drive the demand for prostitution.
The polarised debate on the sex trade has been vicious and angry. The dominant view has long been that “prostitution has always been here and always will”, and “decriminalising the entire sex trade will make it safer for the women”. Those that espouse these views refer to prostitution as “sex work” and argue that criminalising sex buyers (referred to as “clients”) puts the women in danger.
I have never met anyone during my decades of campaigning against the sex trade who supports the criminalisation of prostituted people, and yet it has proved impossible to put aside our differences and form a united front.
When Fiona and I contacted members of the pro-prostitution lobby to ask if we could form a united front to argue for the decriminalisation of the women, we were told, in somewhat hostile terms, that they would not work with abolitionists. We were further told that if we dropped our efforts to criminalise sex buyers then they may consider joining forces with us. We refused.
In 1998, when Fiona and I (with others) set up a re-education scheme in an attempt to deter men from paying for sex in West Yorkshire, over 40 pro-prostitution lobbyists in the region met to discuss ways in which they could scupper the initiative. It would have been a better use of their time to be fighting to decriminalise the women, one would have thought.
The abolitionist campaigners continued to try and build bridges. In the mid-2000s, at the annual Police Vice Conference, I approached the then chair of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP), which takes a firm view against abolitionism, and asked if we could work together to lobby police to support the decriminalisation of the women. She agreed, and we jointly presented our list of demands to the delegates. Our alliance was short-lived, however. I was told shortly after the conference that many members of the UKNSWP objected to working alongside those of us that refuse to see prostitution as a job like any other.
In my view, the key reason why abolitionists, and not the pro-prostitution lobby, are leading the way in the campaign to change the law in regards to the criminalisation of those selling sex is because we believe that the women (and men) involved in the sex trade are victimised. We consider prostitution per se to be harmful, and an abuse of human rights. The other side is so keen on sanitising this vile trade that they spend more time arguing in favour of decriminalising pimps and punters than they do exploring the abuse the women face at the hands of the buyers.
In order to build a coherent argument as to why prostituted people should never be viewed as criminals, it is necessary to be clear and honest about the violence and abuse inherent to prostitution. If we win this case, our next step will be to introduce a law in England and Wales that will criminalise the men paying or attempting to pay for sex. They are the criminals, not the women they use and abuse.
This article explores the activities of George Soros and his charitable organization, Open Society Foundations (OSF), in advocating for the full decriminalization of the sex trade industry. Research finds that OSF spends only a small amount of money on grass roots “sex worker” groups around the world advocating for full decriminalization, but the foundation awards larger amounts of funds to large human rights groups whose reports and policies have a wider reach. OSF’s rationale for full decriminalization fails to consider violence and coercion in the sex trade industry, misreads research, and does not include research from venues where full decriminalization of prostitution has occurred. Thus OSF and its grantees have created a partial view on prostitution that they advocate to the public. Those concerned with trafficking for sexual exploitation, violence, coercion, and abuse in prostitution should be cognizant of these strategies used by decriminalization advocates funded by OSF and be prepared to point out the unsupported assumptions and meet OSF’s allegations with proven facts.
This paper is definitely worth reading in full, it covers the funding given by the Open Society Foundation to Amnesty International, as well as other charities like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. It also shows how research has been misrepresented and misinterpreted, with those misrepresentations being repeated across the OSF funded organisations.
It also shows the huge sums of money involved – there is nothing democratic or accountable about any individual, of any political orientation, having such a huge, global, influence.
I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.