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.
How did slavery, which we thought was abolished, reach into our everyday consumption? While it is quite right that companies should have their reputational feet held to the fire for abuse that arises out of their economic model, there are also uncomfortable truths here for affluent consumers of personal services.
Things that were until recently luxuries – manicures, clothes that change fashion every few weeks, regular holiday breaks to hotels, eating out frequently, having your car hand-valeted, using manual labour to dig out a basement under your house – are now presented to us as affordable, everyday even. Where they have become so, it is in large part thanks to other people being badly paid at best, or victims of modern slavery at worst. The squeezed middle has been bought off by the illusion that it can share the consuming habits of those with runaway incomes at the top; but it can’t – not without squeezing those further down the chain.
In a world where the state has often absented itself from the enforcement of employment law, and where so many human interactions are reduced to financial exchanges at whatever rate the market will take, people have become commodities to use or sell. When competition and austerity are king, it is every man and woman for themselves and their family. Too often, we close our eyes and try to protect our own.
People-traffickers target the vulnerable – including those with learning disabilities or raised in care, homeless people, those with alcohol and drug problems or previous convictions. They are the people easiest to control and least likely to attract sympathy. Anti-immigration sentiment has encouraged people to see these victims as foreign, as “other”. How else to explain why neighbours, work colleagues and customers so often fail to notice modern slavery?
Take the group of trafficked Lithuanians working brutal hours on egg farms around the country who were kept under control in their Kent ganghouses by threats and fighting dogs. What did farm managers and local residents on the same quiet streets see and hear? Alarming antisocial behaviour, and fights in a foreign language that made them want to turn away and keep their heads down, or fellow human beings suffering intolerable abuse and anaesthetising themselves from the trauma with drink?
Both the National Audit Office and the parliamentary select committee for work and pensions have highlighted serious shortcomings in the support for victims of modern slavery once they have been identified. The anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, also pointed out to the committee that every time a suspected victim of slavery is referred to the national referral mechanism, a crime is being alleged. Yet there is only a one-in-four chance of these cases being recorded as a potential crime, let alone investigated. If there were 4,000 rapes in the UK and only one in four was recorded by the police, there would be an outcry, he said. These failings need state remedies.
Meanwhile, we all need to recognise the signs. Where workers are putting in excessive hours, where they have no language to communicate with customers or where employers seem quick to speak for them, where they live in houses of multiple occupancy, we should be alert to the possibility of modern slavery.
If you are being offered a service for much less than you would expect to pay for it, someone is almost certainly being exploited. A car wash that takes six men 15 minutes and costs £10 does not pay the legal minimum wage. If something seems too cheap to be true, it probably is.
The growth of online “sex for rent” ads is a dreadful indictment of the UK’s housing affordability crisis. Around a quarter of a million women have been offered “sex for rent” deals by landlords in the last five years, according to housing charity Shelter. Labour MP Peter Kyle says that there are more “sex for rent” ads in Britain than the rest of Europe and American combined.
To offer free or discounted rent in exchange for sex is a gross abuse of power. There are landlords getting away with it because of the desperate situation women, and sometimes men, find themselves in, as a result of increasing housing costs and the sharp cuts to working age benefits introduced by this government.
The Ministry of Justice has said that exchanging accommodation for sex is illegal, as it counts as inciting prostitution, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in jail. But this has never been tested in court; vulnerable women who can ill afford to lose their accommodation often fear reporting their landlords to the police in the first place. Moreover, advertising sex for rent is not, in itself, illegal and the site Craigslist, where many of these adverts are to be found, has refused to systematically remove them or meet Kyle, a longstanding campaigner on this issue, to discuss his concerns.
Kyle is right to argue that the government should test the robustness of existing law in relation to “sex for rent” and strengthen it if required. But the government must also do more to tackle the fundamental power imbalances that create the space in which these terrible abuses can happen. Homelessness is rising and rough sleeping has increased for the seventh year running. Abusive sex for rent arrangements thrive as a result of a lack of affordable housing.
In 1918 Millicent Fawcett wrote, ‘I can see no reason why the principle of
equal pay for equal work should not in the course of a few years find an almost universal acceptance’. Many of the early feminist campaigners, like Fawcett, believed that from women’s suffrage would follow equal rights for women, including equal pay, yet one hundred years on, despite having full voting rights, women still struggle with the gender pay gap. Most people agree with the concept of equal pay, so why has it been so difficult to accomplish in practice?
Professor Emma Griffin argues that we can only make sense of the gender pay gap by taking a historical perspective. Beginning in the 15th century, Emma explores how work has always been divided along gender lines. Then during the industrial revolution, when women started to enter the workplace in record numbers, women’s work was typically defined by lower wages, in comparison to men’s. At the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire, Emma learns how the new industrial employers maintained the gender pay gap in the burgeoning cotton mills.
Despite women entering the work force in record numbers during the First and Second World Wars, post-war they encountered a backlash of the idealisation of traditional family values, with a male breadwinner at the head of each household, whose wife prioritised her domestic responsibilities over paid employment. This notion was enshrined in the Beveridge Report of 1942, which formed the basis of significant post-war legislation. Yet women have consistently fought against this inequality, and Emma revisits the Ford machinists’ strike of 1968, which helped to usher in the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Emma argues that these very deep-rooted assumptions around paid and unpaid work powerfully influence the experiences of women in the workplace today. By uncovering this history, she sheds fresh light on one of the most contested issues of our own times: the politics of pay.
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’.)
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy
To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
For instance, if instead of paying for sex a landlord would rather receive sexual favours from a tenant living rent-free, would that really be so bad? Well, yes, actually it would, at least according to recent reports of landlords making this very offer. Apparently, this is an appalling example of the current housing market allowing predatory men to exploit the vulnerable.
Only if this is the case, why is paying for sex not viewed with the same horror? It’s the same marketplace, the same bodies, the same needs. All sex for rent does is cut out the symbolic means of exchange in the middle. Yet far from decrying the exchange of sex for money, supposedly progressive organisations such as Amnesty International and the NUS, in addition to mainstream political parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, are pushing to liberalise attitudes towards the purchase of sex. Why are these two things seen so differently?
True, live-in work carries with it particular risks and uncertainties, but do any of us feel the same qualms about housekeepers or nannies getting to live rent-free? And aren’t many of us doing jobs we’d rather not do, only a pay check or two away from eviction? So why should sex for rent be seen as especially problematic?
If it’s to do with the fact that it’s sex and not, say, cleaning or childcare, shouldn’t we be able to pinpoint why this is? And yet few are willing to do so, silenced by the thought-terminating clichés – “sex work is work”, “my body, my choice” – that have come to dominate the left’s approach to sex and gender.
I’d go so far as to suggest the mainstream left has no real right to be shocked about sex for rent. After all, it’s only the logical conclusion of a pseudo-feminist politics which refuses to engage fully with power and labour redistribution, choosing instead to talk in circles about the right of individuals to do whatever they like with their own bodies while bypassing any analysis of why one group seeks to control the sexual and reproductive lives of another. It’s politics for the unthinking and the privileged, yet it appears we can all afford to be unthinking and privileged when it’s only the bodies of women at stake.
“My body, my choice”, a perfectly appropriate slogan when used to mean only a pregnant woman should be able to make decisions about her pregnancy, has been expanded ad absurdum. Yet the point about abortion is that the only alternative to it is the work of pregnancy; there’s no possible third option, whereby the already-pregnant individual gets to go through neither. The same is not true of sex work or poverty. It is possible for there to be alternatives to exploitation or destitution. That for many women there are currently none is not least down to a politics that values unlimited sexual freedom for all – an impossibility – over a fairer redistribution of limited choices for everyone.
If we regard women as full, equal human beings, then we cannot have a world in which there are no limits placed on men’s access to female sexual and/or reproductive labour. “Sex work is work” and “my body, my choice” simply don’t cut it when it comes to deciding where to draw the line. We should all face restrictions on what we can do with our own bodies, just as we should all have duties of care towards the bodies of others. The problem with patriarchy is not that it prevents women from having the same physical freedoms as men due to some inexplicable, knee-jerk “woman-phobia” –it’s that it shifts most of the necessary physical restrictions and duties attached to reproduction and care onto women, leaving men with the belief that liberation means no one ever saying “no” to you.
Such a belief – at heart pro-capitalist and anti-feminist – has seeped into supposedly pro-woman, left-wing thought and activism, yet anyone who points out the absurdity of it is treated to a Victorian asylum-style diagnosis of prudery and whorephobia. To claim, on the one hand, that one is anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal, while insisting, on the other, that no woman is without means as long as she has orifices to penetrate, is not progressive. On the contrary, it’s ultra-conservative. It shifts the baseline of our understanding of need and it does so dishonestly, masking coercion by repackaging it as free choice.
If anything is for sale – any body part, any experience, any relationship – then the poorest will be stripped bare. If you accept the principle that there is nothing wrong with buying sex – or ova or breastmilk or babies – how do you ensure supply can meet demand? Only by making sure there are always enough women with no other options. There is no other way. There are not enough female bodies to meet male sexual and reproductive demands without any form of coercion; that’s why patriarchy, with all its complex systems of reward and punishment, exists in the first place.
If sex work is work, poverty is necessary. The alternative to patriarchy isn’t a world in which everyone gets to be a de-facto patriarch, free to make whatever sexual and reproductive choices they want, safe in the knowledge that there will always be willing bodies to meet their demands. The postmodern fantasy that an underclass of coerced, poverty-stricken females can be replaced by an underclass of willing, always-up-for-it, cisgendered females, while charming in its naivety, remains just that: a fantasy.