Very apropos my last post, there is a new biography of Caroline Norton out, The Case of the Married Woman Caroline Norton: A 19th-Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 she insisted on keeping the traditional form of the service where the wife promises to love, honour and obey her husband, even though the Archbishop of Canterbury wondered if such a pledge was really appropriate in her case. Victoria, however, insisted; it was her way of demonstrating that she was getting married not as a queen but as an ordinary woman.
Of course, there was no comparison between Victoria’s situation and that of “ordinary” wives of the period, who at the time of marrying lost all rights, becoming in law their husband’s property. Full divorce was available only through an act of parliament, and a wife who left her husband had no rights over their children, as they too were considered to be the husband’s property.
As the distinguished biographer Antonia Fraser makes clear in this, the third of her books on great reforms of the 19th century (she has already tackled the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act) the fact that the law was changed to give women a limited degree of independence 20 years later owes much to the life and work of her subject, the indefatigable Caroline Norton.
Norton was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and was one of three beautiful sisters, dubbed the “Three Graces”. The young Disraeli called her the “starry night”, and she was famous for her dark eyes and hair, her wit, her charm and her literary talent (she published her first poems at 17). She was also described as “mannish” — the ultimate put-down — and one aristocratic diarist, Harriet Granville, wrote: “Caroline Norton is so nice, it is a pity that she is not quite nice, for if she were quite nice, she would be so very nice.”
Caroline did not marry well. Her first love died young, and in 1827, aged just 19, she hastily wed an older admirer, a Tory MP called George Norton. They swiftly had three sons, and while Caroline soon became disenchanted with her husband’s petulance, and suffered physical abuse (he once kicked her so hard that he caused a miscarriage), she loved her children and enjoyed the power and influence she wielded running a political salon at her home in Storey’s Gate, within spitting distance of Downing Street.
Caroline’s sympathies were progressive — she went on a march supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs — but she liked power and became very close to the less than radical Whig home secretary Lord Melbourne, a frequent visitor to Storey’s Gate.
George Norton at first tried to profit from this connection, asking his wife to lobby Melbourne for a JP’s appointment (this was a paid position, unlike being an MP, and the Nortons were broke apart from Caroline’s income from her writing). However, a year later, in 1832, the marriage broke down irretrievably, and Norton took his sons away and refused to let Caroline see them — as was his legal right. In 1836, probably with the encouragement of senior Tory politicians, he then brought a case of criminal conversation (adultery, essentially: “conversation” was a euphemism for sex) against Lord Melbourne, who was then prime minister.
Norton aimed to use “crim con”, as it was known, as a way of extracting financial redress (£1 million in today’s money) for the damage Melbourne had done to Norton’s property — Caroline — by having an affair with her. Melbourne denied the charges and was acquitted. Caroline always maintained that Melbourne “was my friend though not my lover”, but while Melbourne remained as prime minister, she was left penniless and unable to see her sons. Worse was to follow when her youngest child, Willie, died aged nine in 1842 from a riding accident after being left unsupervised. His last word was reportedly: “Mother.”
Some women would have been broken by all this, but the “mannish” Caroline was extraordinarily determined. In 1839, using her extensive political contacts, she had already campaigned vigorously in support of the Infant Custody Bill, which gave “innocent” married women the same rights over their young children as unmarried mothers. It was only a small step, and there was much debate about whether the law would encourage women to commit adultery, so it was made clear that only “blameless” women would be allowed to have custody of their children. Yet as Fraser points out, it was the first time in British history that “a married woman had some rights over her own children”.
Twenty-odd years later Caroline was campaigning again, for another piece of legislation, this time giving married women some rights over their own property. After her separation she supported herself and her sons with her writing, noting that “I made more in a month by writing, than [Norton] did in a year as a barrister”. But her income was still legally her husband’s property — and in 1853 they met in court over an unpaid debt, with Norton once again losing. In her 1854 pamphlet English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Caroline wrote that “in no country in Europe, is there in fact so little protection of women as in England, despite the fact there is a female sovereign, unlike other countries where the Salic law forbids it”. Three years later an act giving married women some legal rights for the first time over their own property was passed.
Caroline’s ceaseless campaigning, her taste for publicity and her ambition (she once wrote to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel suggesting she be appointed the next poet laureate) did not generally endear her to people — even her sisters wished that she would stop making such a fuss. She was also not what we could call a feminist: she believed that women should be “protected” by men. Yet she made a difference, a big difference. There have been other books about Caroline Norton, but Fraser’s is the first to emphasise what a modern figure she is, portraying her not as a hapless victim but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to what can only be called the patriarchy — a “difficult” woman whose bloodymindedness improved the lot of other women. Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th-century heroine.
In the days since the death of Sarah Everard, the sadness many felt has turned to anger, with women railing against the general atmosphere of danger and threat they encounter in their day-to-day lives.
But others are also looking for solutions – asking what leads to attacks, as well as how to stop them.
These are big questions, taking in everything from the psychology of perpetrators to the patriarchal system we live in that allows violence against women to continue often unremarked on and unpunished.
To begin with, psychologists say there is no simple checklist to identify the man – because it is almost always men – who might abuse a woman. But there are some warning signs.
Dr Ruth Scully, a consultant forensic psychologist from Nottingham working with sex offenders, uses the term “hyper masculinity” to describe the attitudes of men she works with. They often have very strong views on how men should act and feel, she says.
“They also have these views about women. For example, men must have the dominant and powerful role in relationships, with women taking guidance on what to do and how to behave,” she says.
Sexual offenders often display feelings of entitlement – either sexual entitlement or entitlement in general, believing they can have what they want regardless of the consequences.
“An extreme example would be ‘I bought her a drink, she owes me’,” she says.
“They may also have an adversarial attitude towards women: women are the enemy, they are mistrustful of them and feel that women are trying to get one over on them,” Dr Scully adds.
And sexual attacks are often not about sex.
“It can be about anger, emotional expression or mistrust of women. Or again it could be about sexual entitlement,” says Dr Scully.
And these attitudes are also likely to exist in men who harass women on the street.
“People behave in ways that are in line with their attitudes so it’s likely that sexist attitudes and attitudes of entitlement will underpin those beliefs. That doesn’t mean that people who engage in the harassing behaviours will go on to commit a sexual offence, but we tend to behave in ways that are in alignment with our views,” she says.
One of the problems with unpicking the roots of male violence is that research – like Dr Scully’s – is usually centred on men who have been found guilty of an offence. But these offences rarely come out of the blue.
“Nobody starts their journey of perpetration, of abuse, with murder or kidnap. They have had a long history of getting there,” says Dr Purna Sen, a leading expert on violence against women. “How have they got through that journey without being stopped?”
Dr Sen, an academic at London Metropolitan University and former director of policy at UN Women, isn’t saying that every cat caller is a potential murderer. But the problem for women is: they could be.
“The thing is, we just don’t know. And so we have to assume, for our own safety and well-being, that he is going to be worse,” adds Dr Sen, who is organising a conference on violence against women this summer in Reyjkavik.
Professor Aisha K Gill, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton, describes the abuse of women as a “continuum of violence” arising from structural inequalities.
“At the heart of all of this is gender discrimination and unequal power relations between men and women,” she says, stressing that these are compounded by other issues like race and class.
There are ways to identify women who may be at risk, for example through questioning during routine health appointments.
But identifying a potential attacker is harder. Several groups have worked towards developing models that look for what makes someone become an abuser.
A recent US Department of Justice review of evidence suggests that a combination of factors – from adverse conditions in early childhood to impulse control problems or repeated exposure to violent pornography – “likely contribute” to sexual violence.
The trait of anger is also associated with a higher risk of intimate partners violence, a major review of the literature showed in 2015.
Researchers have mainly focused on the likelihood of people re-offending, rather than finding them in the first place – the key tool used in the British prison service has just been updated and predicts this with reasonable accuracy.
And sexual offenders can also be treated. The UK’s Horizon programme is targeted at prisoners deemed at risk of re-offending and it looks at problem solving, self-regulation, relationships, sexual attitudes and behaviours.
Those in prison are at one end of the scale, whereas violence against women is much more pervasive although often less extreme, making it hard to predict where it might come from.
One in three women globally experience sexual or physical violence in their lives and harassment is even more common: recent figures from UN Women showed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed.
“One of the things we have to jettison very fast is this notion that it’s unusual for men to behave in ways that are abusive or enable abuse,” says Dr Sen, who says the idea there is a “type” is also reductive.
“It’s more about what maleness looks like across society and how we think about each other and how we behave,” she adds.
While there are no “types” of man there are defined patterns of behaviour for the worst offenders.
Professor Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer and forensic criminologist, is a specialist in domestic homicide. The narrative of “he just snapped” when discussing the murder of a – usually female – partner is wrong, she says in her book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder. These attacks can be predicted and stopped, she argues.
She has plotted an eight-stage timeline in these relationships, with the risk increasing. Stage one is the man’s previous abusive relationship history and stage eight is murder.
“They are the most predictable homicides, which is why we can and should be preventing them,” Prof Monckton-Smith writes.
Prevention has a role to play across the board, the experts agree, and at a more fundamental societal level. That also applies to the work that needs to be done for victims, ensuring that they can get justice.
Dr Sen says that the Nordic countries, regularly voted as the safest places to be a woman, have at least in part achieved their success by tackling inequality at its root, from addressing the sex industry to childcare.
“There is an expectation inculcated in all men, whether they use it or not, that they have control over, or an entitlement to, women. So this has really changed things,” she says.
Dr Scully says that a complex interplay between a man’s environment and his upbringing influences his attitude towards women. She believes education is important but adds: “It’s much bigger than education – even if you think about what’s on TV, never mind what’s going on in someone’s home, there are so many things that influence our attitudes and behaviour. But we have to start somewhere,” she says.
Deniz Ugur, deputy director at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, is more blunt.
“Violence against women and girls is inextricably tied to inequality and until we talk about it in those terms, women will never be free,” she said.
On 24 October 1975, 75,000 women in Iceland left their jobs, children and homes and took to the streets for a general strike that was billed “Women’s Day Off”. In Reykjavik, 30,000 women marched up the Laugavegur (wash road), as a women’s brass band played the marching tune from Shoulder to Shoulder, a British TV series about the suffragettes which had recently aired in this small Nordic nation. Flyers fluttered against clear autumn skies: “We march because it is commonly said about a housewife: ‘She is not working, she is just keeping house’,” they read. “We march because the work experience of a housewife is not considered of any value in the labour market.”
For Icelandic men, this day became known as the “Long Friday”. With no women to staff desks and tills, banks, factories and many shops were forced to close, as were schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring crayons to entertain the swarms of children in their workplaces, or bribing older children to look after their siblings. Sausages (easy to cook, of course, and a hit with children the world over) were in such demand that shops sold out; children could be heard giggling in the background while male newsreaders reported the day’s events on the radio.
Many of the greatest successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground; and our bodies elsewhere to the posts ascribed to women by patriarchal capitalism. In the UK, public reaction to the sexual violence meted out against the 300 women who marched to parliament demanding women’s suffrage on 18 November 1910, Black Friday, was instrumental in gaining the vote for women. The 1968 strike by Ford’s women sewing machinists at Dagenham, which was followed by 1970 strikes by women clothing workers in Leeds, were landmark labour-relations dispute that triggered the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970.
Yet domestic labour has always been a tricky injustice to protest against. It takes place in the privacy of the home, making it difficult for women to see each other doing this work and to collectively acknowledge that men do not share equally in its burden (and they don’t: the average British woman still contributes 60% more washing, wiping and childcare a week than the average British man, even as the pandemic has increased this work to around nine hours per day). And there can also be dire consequences if we withdraw this labour: children uncared for and vulnerable relatives unfed.
“A women’s strike is impossible; that is why it is necessary,” claims Women’s Strike Assembly (WSA), an activist alliance that, to mark last week’s International Women’s Day, called for a series of banner memorials to be erected around the UK to declare why #westrike as women (or, just as importantly, why we can’t). In a manifesto published in November, WSA wrote: “We strike because we are tired of our labour being taken for granted. We strike because we now have to do a triple shift: our paid work, our unpaid domestic labour and educating our children during the pandemic.”
In Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh women gathered, last Monday, in socially distanced clusters toting their banner memorials. “#westrike because we are tired. Very, very tired,” a banner in Liverpool read and a memorial painted by Bristol Sisterhood stated, simply: “Fuck macho bullshit, women on fire.” Many of the social media protests, however, indicated why last Monday saw no wholesale abandonment of women’s posts. “I am a freelancer and I would not get paid (or lose my client!). But I’m striking with my compañeras in mind and spirit,” one IWD banner read, and another: “I cannot strike but I lit a candle in solidarity.”
Recent years have seen a flowering of strikes against gendered labour in Spain and South America. In 2018, six million women joined Spain’s 2018 “Dia Sin Mujeres’ (day without women), including Madrid’s Manuela Carmena and actress Penelope Cruz, as “feminist men in solidarity” staffed a network of collective nurseries. Old-fashioned mother’s aprons, the symbol of the strikes, were stitched in solidarity workshops and strung from balconies. But, in Britain, women’s general labour strikes have been conspicuously absent.
Selma James, the cofounder of 70s marxist activist project Wages for Housework, has a theory to account for this lack. She points out that as the power of unions dwindles, the climate in Anglo-Saxon countries is less hospitable to gestures of withdrawn labour, even as feminist identity marches gain broader support. Without union protection, British and north American women who strike from paid work risk losing their jobs; to the single mum on the breadline in a pandemic, strikes, in this context, seem the preserve of privileged white feminists.
For all this, calling political attention to the pandemic’s third shift is an urgent project. Only 36% of British women have been able to continue working full time alongside their caring responsibilities during the pandemic, compared to 66% of men, and mothers are more likely to have quit or lost their job. As the pandemic recedes over a nation of shattered women, there will be opportunities for direct action. Women’s March, Pregnant Then Screwed and Women’s Strike Assembly, among others, are calling for protests and marches to highlight the structural sexism that’s left women bearing the brunt of reproductive labour during this year of crisis.
James, in the meantime, advocates a daily constellation of “small resistances”: banging pots and pans at your window; stringing up a banner and apron; radically lowering domestic standards.
Forty-five years after the Women’s Day Off, Iceland has ranked top in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report – an index that examines educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and the average time spent on housework – in 13 of the past 16 years. Yes, it’s impossible for many women to strike; but can we afford not to?
The first loyalty of sex industry advocates is to the sex industry itself. This loyalty is showing itself again in how the ECP is exploiting COVID19 lock-down to push for the total decriminalisation of the sex industry.
The BBC has published an article today that reads very much like a regurgitated press release from the ECP, with no alternative points of view offered, and, in the name of ‘balance’ only a brief statement from the government at the end, which only addressed the legal status of the sex industry, and not poverty under lock-down.
Poverty pushes women into prostitution. The recent switch to Universal Credit in the UK has pushed more women into poverty. If the ECP’s real concern was for the welfare of women in poverty, they would be lobbying for a better social safety net, so that no woman was forced into prostitution just to make ends meet.
Instead, the ECP is calling for the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry, because recognising ‘sex work as work’ is, somehow, the only way women trapped in prostitution can get benefits under lock-down when they can’t ‘work’.
In the UK, the act of selling sex itself is legal, but the acts around it like soliciting, kerb-crawling, pimping, and brothel keeping are illegal, so really what the ECP is calling for is the decriminalisation of pimps and brothel-keepers, all so that prostituted women can be recognised as ‘workers’ in order to get extra benefits under lock-down!
The implication is that if the sex industry were decriminalised, it wouldn’t matter how many women were pushed into it through poverty, because ‘sex work is work’. What about all the women in poverty who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t turn to ‘sex work’? What about the women who are not lifted out of poverty by ‘sex work’? It is obvious that the ECP only cares about women in poverty as a means to an end, the end being the decriminalisation, expansion, and normalisation of the sex industry.
I have sent a complaint to the BBC, please feel free to copy or adapt the below:
Why is the BBC unquestioningly reporting the claim, from sex industry lobbyists, that the best thing for women forced into prostitution through poverty, is the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry?
Why was the false claim from the ECP that ‘sex work’ is criminalised (since the act of selling sex itself is legal in the UK) allowed to stand unquestioned?
Why was there no alternative point of view given by campaigners for a better benefits system? Why was no one from Nordic Model Now asked for a comment? Why was there no interview with a woman who has exited the sex industry, and, because of her experiences, supports the abolitionist legal approach?
The BBC must realise by now that the political debate over the legal status of the sex industry is highly polarised and partisan; the article read like a regurgitated press release from the ECP, it is lazy, biased journalism.
Curiously, the article also, briefly, quotes someone from an organisation in Bristol called One25, which is dedicated to helping women exit prostitution. I have sent them a short email asking them if they are happy with the way they have been portrayed in the article, as completely aligned with the ECP.
Pornography is not created by the powerless people of the world; it is the capitalist empires, the Hugh Heffners and Larry Flints who turn the powerless and vulnerable into pornography.
Anne Mayne, Big Porn Inc.
Tumblr can be an awful platform, for a multitude of reasons, but sometimes it produces wonderful collective efforts like this:
QotD: “The past six months in my job working to help people targeted by loan sharks have been busier because of the pandemic”
One of my team has a case involving a vulnerable young woman who has been forced to pay off debts with sexual favours. Danielle is terrified of the loan shark who lives on the same estate. He has made threats to her partner and children, which has made her get help. Danielle is also living with crippling anxiety and depression – we make a referral to her GP for counselling and mental health support. We have also referred her to Citizens Advice for debt advice. The loan shark is under investigation.
The way loan sharks operate is to entice people by pretending to be their best friend and doing them a favour – it can be really easy to fall into that trap. These criminals initially offer money to mothers, who in some cases are seeking to feed their children, without fully informing them of the extortionate interest rates and despicable repayment methods. They will use violence, intimidation and even force women into performing sexual services and prostitution to pay off their debts.
It is extremely upsetting to hear stories of women who have experienced unimaginable suffering as a result of borrowing money. The sad reality is that this is not just a shocking one-off story and it is happening more frequently since the pandemic hit.
QotD: “Inequality isn’t something that exists in the outside world. It lives indoors, part of the everyday”
Before lockdown, we were already being sold various Mrs Hinch-type versions of housework as somehow competitive and fun. If women want to polish the bars of their own cage, let them. But to save you watching any of these cleaning “influencers”, let me simply tell you that the answer to any cleaning problem in their world is one word: vinegar.
In mine, it’s also one word: men. Some may wipe down the worktops and do a bit more, for which we must applaud them. Get the pom-poms out. The fact is, though, Covid-19 has taken women’s roles back to the 50s. Women are home schooling, working and doing huge amounts of domestic work. The answer to 50s-style problems may be some 70s-style consciousness raising about gender roles. “Women’s domesticity is a circle of learnt deprivation and induced subjugation: a circle decisively centred on family life,” said Ann Oakley in 1974. If that’s a little too hardcore for you, have some Betty Friedan: “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” Damn right, Betty.
But, instead of discussing how gender roles are regressing; how the virus has derailed women’s careers; how childcare is falling apart; how female workers will be hit hardest by the recession; how female academics have turned in far fewer papers than their male counterparts; how, at the end of furlough, redundancy will affect more women; how the gender pay gap is rising – in other words, all the pre-existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 – what do we talk about?
Two things. We continue to have a conversation around gender, which emphasises it as a set of feelings rather than being about often mundane lived experience; and we have, on social media, a ridiculous row over cleaners. Various bright young things declare their sainthood. Either they don’t have cleaners or they pay them the GDP of Venezuela. Only bad women, Karens, boomers, like me, have cleaners, whom we probably abuse. Some of us have been cleaners, but no matter. Working women pay others to look after our children and to do some of the domestic work or we could not do it. Just as men do. And always have done. But men are not attacked for this. Ever.
Ineptitude in the domestic sphere is something that men actually boast about, as if it proves their competence in every other sphere. Isn’t it hilarious? Those men who don’t even know if there is a washing machine in the house. I have interviewed rock gods like this. I much prefer the Joan Collins approach. Apparently, when asked at airport check-in if she had packed her own bags, she answered: “The very idea!”
But the serious part of domestic labour being invisible and somehow personal has huge implications. The absolute tragedy of this crisis is that underpaid care workers in homes have died because care in our own homes is not valued. We are run by people who don’t respect those who do such care in our society, because this is the lowest-status job. Women do it. Immigrants do it. Childcare and the opening of schools has not been a priority because, well, like the laundry, other people do that.
Inequality isn’t something that exists in the outside world. It lives indoors, part of the everyday. A glowing showerhead is not the route to happiness. Yes, lockdown has meant pleasure in the domestic sphere for some, and well done to those who have gussied up their homes and gardens. Yet, with months until all children are back to school, many women are exhausted and will be unemployed by the winter. It is terribly old-fashioned to talk about the domestic labour debate I know, the part about how unpaid work keeps capitalism functioning. Well, it keeps us all functioning. This is why a former prime minister can joke about never having to do it. It’s a sign of power.
How we laugh as we lie back and think of descaling the kettle. How many prime ministers does it take to change a lightbulb? Don’t ask me. How many prime ministers does it take to change the reality of women’s lives? We were on the double shift: work and housework. Now many are on the triple shift: work, housework and schooling. The lightbulbs went out some time ago, and, if we are not to go back to the dark ages, then someone better get some bright ideas and replace the duds quickly.
QotD: “COVID-19 puts women in New Zealand’s sex trade in more danger than ever; why isn’t the decrim lobby helping?”
On March 21, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would go on lockdown in response to COVID-19. She explained:
“We are fortunate to still be some way behind the majority of overseas countries in terms of cases, but the trajectory is clear. Act now, or risk the virus taking hold as it has elsewhere.
We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day.
The situation here is moving at pace, and so must we.
We have always said we would act early, decisively, and go hard. And we will.”
Ardern introduced the four-tiered alert system the government would be using, to first Prepare to tackle the virus, then Reduce risk of community transmission, then further Restrict person-to-person contact, and finally Eliminate risk by imposing full quarantine.
By Monday, March 23rd, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3 and prepared to move to Level 4 after 48 hours. Our borders are closed and people are being asked to stay home and remain two metres away from each other, for instance when “undertaking essential shops.” Essential services are still operating, and schools are closed except to the children of people who keep them running. Ardern has clarified that “there will be no tolerance” for breach of orders, adding:
“The police and the military will be working together, and there is assistance at the ready if required. If people do not follow the messages here today, then the police will remind people of their obligations, they have the ability to escalate if required, they can arrest if needed, they can detain if needed.”
Many New Zealanders take pride in Ardern’s leadership. The government has prepared financial packages for employees, businesses, and sole traders to reduce the financial burden as people are asked to self-isolate to stop the virus from spreading, and laid out the details on a Unite Against COVID-19 website.
Women’s Refuge, an organization that oversees a network of domestic violence safehouses throughout New Zealand, has acknowledged that one of the biggest concerns of the lockdown is that many women and children are not safe at home. Chief executive Dr. Ang Jury explained that, “although it’s clearly very necessary, self-isolating will likely mean an escalation of violence for many women.”
The alternative for many women would be to join the 34,000+ New Zealanders who suffer severe housing deprivation. Homeless women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, also because of the high risk of sexual violence. For women, the threats of domestic violence, homelessness, and prostitution are connected, and many women in prostitution have suffered domestic violence as well as homelessness and transience.
This begs the question: what advice is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) issuing in response to COVID-19? This is a question that needs to be asked for another important reason: prostitution also lends itself to the spread of disease. The Ministry of Health funds NZPC to the tune of $1.1 million per year ostensibly for this reason: to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The NZPC’s approach is to distribute condoms, pamphlets, and a 125-page manual titled, Stepping Forward, to “assist” prostituted women in dealing with the problem themselves. About half of Stepping Forward is dedicated to describing common STDs, using small, badly photocopied images of genital warts, gonorrhea, and chlamydia as they appear on men’s genitals.
A handbook produced by the Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Service advises women in the sex industry that, in the event of condom breakage, they should remove semen by “squatting and squeezing it out using vaginal muscle exertion. Fingers can be used to scoop.”
In 2005, a 24-year-old woman was strangled, bound, raped, run over, and killed after an argument with a john resulting from his refusal to use a condom.
Those who defend decriminalized prostitution often argue that completely eliminating the risk of the violence and disease involved with prostitution is not possible, because prostitution is inevitable and cannot be stopped, and because it is essential — some men simply cannot live without sexual access to women. So, offering women pamphlets and condoms, and normalizing prostitution by legitimizing it legally, is the best that can be done.
Yet after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, NZPC updated the front page of its website to announce that prostitution must be halted by midnight on Wednesday. The page reads:
“COVID-19 INFORMATION: INSTRUCTIONS TO STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH 2020
NZPC recognises that sex work is work and is the main form of income for a number of people.
However, with New Zealand going to a Level 4 alert, sex workers are asked to comply with the requirement to stay at home during the four-week period of isolation indicated by the Government. Only those in essential services will be permitted to work. Sex work is not classed among the essential services (doctors, pharmacists, police, ambulance, fire, vets, food production, and supermarkets).
Therefore NZPC wants all sex workers to comply with the four-week closure.
Failure to comply could result in officials arriving at your place of work to enforce compliance.”
The message concludes with a link to the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) website, and to the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 site.
There are a few concessions involved in this notification on NZPC’s website. One is that prostitution can be stopped — and immediately — if the political will is there and the need is considered urgent. The fact that the rate of sexual violence against women in prostitution is higher than that committed in any other context has simply never constituted an urgent enough threat. The second concession here is that men do not actually need prostitution — it is not essential, a human need, or a right. It is something men can live without.
There are also some assumptions underlying NZPC’s decision to target prostituted women with its instructions to “STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY.” According to studies that NZPC helped to carry out, 72 per cent of these women are stuck in the sex industry due to circumstance. A 2007 survey conducted by NZPC to review the current laws showed that 10 per cent of women in prostitution say they “don’t know how to leave,” 8.5 per cent say they “can’t get help to leave,” 24 per cent “don’t know what else to do,” and 29.5 per cent “have no other income.”
Yet NZPC assumes that it is these very women who have the power and responsibility to shut down the industry. They assume it is the “supply,” not the “demand” — or more accurately, the victims, not the perpetrators — who should be threatened with state intervention in case of “failure to comply.” Will prostituted women be arrested? Are we going to see a return of the brothel raids that police used to carry out before the Prostitution Reform Act? Will this be endorsed by NZPC?
That the NZPC is putting full responsibility in the hands of these women, who have little if any alternative, and threatening them with police intervention if they fail to comply, demonstrates that the organization is not a feminist one, nor anything resembling a union standing for workers’ rights.
This response to COVID-19 highlights the fact that full decriminalization of prostitution does not actually protect women.
On Tuesday, the survivor-led organization Wahine Toa Rising (WTR) sent a letter to ministers in parliament asking, “What financial and other support is available for women and young people who are currently in prostitution,” and, “What measures are in place to ensure women and young people in prostitution are protected from catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus?”
The least that a Ministry of Health-funded organization could do for women in prostitution in response to COVID-19 is to demand an allocation of funds from the government to help women exit the industry safely, and to insist on the banning of buying and pimping women, rather than threaten abused women into staying home, when they are part of a demographic that makes them especially likely not to have a safe home to go to.
NZPC tends to minimize the true hardships involved with prostitution. In a 2017 article announcing the launch of a safehouse to help women exit the sex trade, NZPC programmes coordinator Dame Catherine Healy claimed that only 10 per cent of women need assistance leaving prostitution. This does not agree with global research, survivor testimony, or NZPC’s own surveys.
This leads to another point: prostitution is an industry that profits from crisis, and this crisis may be no exception.
The workforce is gendered — this is the problem that pay gap campaigning points to. Care work tends to be feminized — 92 per cent of New Zealand’s nursing staff and 72 per cent of teaching staff are women. In industries and sectors that are not “feminized,” women tend to be paid less, considered more dispensable, and are more at risk of losing work and a living wage. In cases where companies are shedding staff, women will likely carry the burden disproportionately. Airlines, for instance, are likely to be sending stewardesses home as they reduce business.
This is how crisis tends to unfold and one reason why it typically leads to an expansion of the sex trade — because women still need to shelter and feed themselves and their children during economic crises. Men will exploit their increased dependence regardless of the circumstances. Hell, they are apparently already making corona virus-themed pornography.
If New Zealand’s sex trade expands because of women’s vulnerability and the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, it goes without saying that this will lead to a spread of disease, and not only this respiratory illness. Syphilis is on the rise in New Zealand. In the year ending March 2019, 548 cases were reported, up from 82 in 2013.
Yet NZPC continues to simply hand out condoms and pamphlets and promote the legitimization of the sex trade. It offers no exit services, and, as stated, even undermines the need for them when other people take on the task. It does not protect women from danger. The advice NZPC offers women in Stepping Forward, in terms of “dealing with violent clients,” is:
“Make as much noise as possible to attract attention. Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention. If you wear a whistle around your neck, blow it in his ear.”
NZPC later says that “getting loud” can “backfire because some clients are just wanting you to do this so that they have an excuse.”
Before the lockdown was announced, on March 19, liberal news site The Spinoff released an article titled, “Covid-19: What happens when touching people is part of your job?” which included reference to prostitution. In it, Healy casually advised women in prostitution:
“There’s also cam work, but that’s not a big money earner generally. When you think we have several thousand sex workers at the moment, the best suggestion is for them to find alternative income.”
That week, Healy responded to an inquiry she received from a woman asking her for help by sending her a screenshot of the WINZ Job Seeker form, totally ignoring the fact that the nature of her job is to help women whose circumstances are desperate.
Prostitution is also correlated with family violence through pornography, of which camming is a form. The filming of prostitution to make pornography has been called a “public health crisis,” and in New Zealand, approximately 54 per cent of child abusers are known to use pornography. Many of these porn-consuming men will now be spending more time at home, with their children.
As Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally Marie Diamond says:
“Full decriminalization only protects the pimps, buyers, brothel owners, and those who profit from the sex trade. As COVID-19 has proven, women in the sex trade in New Zealand are not protected. They are not safer, they are ultimately in more danger now than they would have been prior to 2003. When are we going to start opening our eyes and waking up to what is happening around us? It really is time to look at it another way.”
Another thing COVID-19 has proven is that when a threat is considered urgent enough and the political will is there, the government and the New Zealand public are willing to commit to a course of action that will not just reduce but eliminate that threat.
While we are in isolation, many people will be reflecting more deeply on their lives and relationships. Prostitution and porn affect us all. They perpetuate rape and objectification and there is no end to how much and how deeply they affect sexual relations and the culture we live in. Right now, these industries and their normalization are contributing directly to a situation in which many women and children are unsafe, including at home, under quarantine.
Perhaps a few questions for us all to consider while we are on lockdown are these: isn’t men’s violence against women and children an urgent threat, worthy of eliminating? Can it end as long as rape is accepted as inevitable, and normalized and made profitable through prostitution and porn? What would it really look like for us, individually and collectively, if we took the steps necessary to eliminate the threat of men’s violence against women and children from our lives, and from our culture?
Estimating how much money the online porn industry makes is difficult, not least because of definitional problems. What counts as “adult content”, for example? And most of the dominant companies are privately held. Current revenue estimates for the US range from $9bn to $97bn a year. The latter figure looks excessive, but a conservative estimate is $15bn. That makes it bigger than not only Netflix ($11.7bn) but also Hollywood as a whole ($11.1bn) and Viacom ($13.3bn). In other words, online porn is huge.
This has been an open secret in the technology industry for aeons. Many years ago, I was asked by a film producer to provide an outline for a television series that would explain the internet to the average viewer. I suggested that the first episode should be filmed in the server farm of a major online porn provider, to make the point that smut entrepreneurs have always been early adopters of the latest communications technology. When I said this to the producer and his colleagues, ice formed on their upper slopes and I never heard from them again. But the point still stands: the porn industry remains a masterful exploiter of digital technology.
The biggest sites have names such as YouPorn or Pornhub and are unabashed about what they provide. But in fact most of them seem to be owned by a holding company called MindGeek, whose website is a masterpiece of assured blandness. It tells us that it has more than 1,000 employees and six offices worldwide, providing services that include search-engine marketing, web hosting, advertising and “media content delivery”. All of which is doubtless true, but nowhere on the site is there any reference to what “content” is “delivered” or hosted on any of its properties.
In reality, MindGeek companies are brilliant exponents of the user-surveillance technology invented by Google and now also practised by Facebook – but with a critical difference. Google and Facebook employ the technology to build user profiles that their real customers – advertisers – pay for. In contrast, the porn companies see their viewers as potential customers: they closely monitor their consumption of “free” porn to infer what kinds of content they will be prepared to pay for. And then they specify and commission “premium” videos based on what they have learned from this surveillance.
So, in a way, the porn industry has transformed itself into a centre of excellence in data analytics. In that sense, it’s a less dishonest industry – or at any rate one that is much more transparent than Google or Facebook in terms of revealing what kinds of data it collects.