Who was Francisca Marquinez? What we can garner from the evidence is that she was choked to death in October 2015. Beyond that, we know little about who she was.
The overwhelming theme of the messages I found through the online condolences book her family set up for her tell the story of a kind and caring woman. Marquinez was “a fun, outgoing and genuine person with positive energy.” She had an “infectious laugh and a beautiful spirit.” She worked for many years in the Human Resources sector and liked to dance merengue and salsa. Her niece Carla says her aunt was “a woman whose happiness shone through.” Yet no news outlet discussed the 60-year-old woman’s personality or life. The media was far more interested in talking about her murderer’s penis.
Marquinez was murdered by her boyfriend, 65-year-old Richard Henry Patterson, in Margate, Florida. Patterson was charged with second-degree murder in October 2015, but was found not guilty in May 2017. The ruling happened almost a year ago and yet there is still far more information available online about Patterson’s genitals than about the woman whose life he took.
The attorney for the accused argued that Marquinez had “accidentally” choked on Patterson’s penis during consensual oral sex. But in all likelihood, this murder was far more gruesome and far less titillating than it was portrayed. The case was referred to in the media as the “penis defense murder trial.” Instead of referring to an “asphyxiation defense” or the “suffocation defense,” the Sun Sentinel called it an “oral-sex defense,” thereby providing legitimacy to an implausible claim.
For Patterson’s defense to be plausible, Marquinez would have had to not realize her death was imminent. Associate Broward Medical Examiner Iouri Boiko, who conducted Marquinez’ autopsy, said that although it was not possible to confirm a cause of death due to the decomposition of the body when it was found by police, it is impossible for it to have been an accidental oral sex scenario. Marquinez would have had to remain absolutely passive while her airways were blocked for more than 30 seconds, until she lost consciousness. In reality, Boiko says, she would have kicked, bitten, or done something else to prevent the blocking of her airway, he explained in court. “It’s the normal reaction.” Even after those fatal 30 seconds, Patterson would have had to keep his erect penis blocking the throat of the unconscious woman for two to three minutes. Only then, after this ongoing blockage of her airway, would Marquinez have finally died.
Patterson waited several days before informing anyone of Marquinez’ death, allowing time for her body to decompose beyond the point where an autopsy could reveal causes of death. Eventually, he called his ex-girlfriend (not the police or an ambulance). During the trial, the jury was presented with a recording in which his ex-girlfriend asked, “Were you arguing?” Patterson replied, “Holly, it doesn’t matter what happened. I’m not telling you what happened because you don’t need to know. Period.” He texted his daughter, saying, “Your dad did something really bad last night,” and that he was “so, so sorry.” He also told his ex and daughter, “I choked Francisca (not, “she choked”). Because Patterson didn’t contact the police, it was his ex-girlfriend who decided to contact a lawyer to defend him in the inevitable trial that would ensue. All reasonable evidence incriminating Patterson was considered less relevant than the star of the trial: his penis.
Due to Patterson’s claim that the size of his penis was a factor in Marquinez’ death, he asked the court to view it as evidence. Assistant state attorney Peter Sapak considered this, asking: “Do we do it in the back? Do we do it in open court? How is the defendant going to be erect when the jury views it? Because a flaccid penis, whether it be a picture or the jury actually seeing it, is completely irrelevant. It needs to be erect.” Patterson’s defense said they were willing to provide a picture of his clients penis next to a tape measure and a frontal picture of Patterson’s naked body.
Patterson’s penis — not the fact that he killed a woman — was the big news story. The media framed the case in a way that would ensure the public read it as funny and titillating. “Massive penis man who claimed his girlfriend choked to death during oral sex is dramatically found NOT GUILTY of murder,” read one headline. Another read, “Murder suspect tries big-penis defense — and it might work.” This narrative — that a woman had consented to her own death — was believed by the media because it confirmed what we’re constantly told: that women enjoy and seek out the violence perpetrated against us, that sex and violence are interchangeable, and that no femicide is so cruel or harrowing that it is above being considered “consensual sex.”
To imagine that Francisca Marquinez likely fought for her life, as a man — someone she once loved — used his penis as a murder weapon is heartbreaking. Those 30 seconds when she was aware that she was going to die must have been terrifying. Why would a jury acquit a man of such a gruesome femicide? The answer to this question lies in porn culture.
“The last thing these two adults did together was oral sex. He thought that’s how she died,” Patterson’s lawyer said during the trial. “The humiliation of having to tell people was just too much for him.” In other words, a man who, during his trial, focused on trying to show his genitals to a jury, and used his alleged “big penis” as a defense against a murder charge, wanted this jury to believe he was too shy to call an ambulance or the police while Marquinez lay dying. And they believed him.
Tragically, this is not the first time that a jury has found it plausible for women to “consent” to being murdered in the name of sex.
In 2015, a 49-year-old man said that his 91-year-old neighbour had suffocated during a “sex game” in Porto, Portugal. His semen was found on her body and it was revealed in the autopsy that the woman had died from asphyxia. The woman’s body had “extensive genital injuries,” but the local newspaper called the woman’s death “a tragic accident.”
In 2011, Cindy Gladue, an Indigenous mother of three daughters, was murdered by a john who stabbed her in her vaginal canal, leaving a perforation that was more than 11 centimeters long. She did not die immediately. Gladue was placed in a bathtub where she bled to death after hours of agony. Her murderer, Bradley Barton, was found not guilty of first-degree murder in a trial wherein Gladue’s disjointed pelvis was physically shown to the jury. The jury preferred to believe that the fact she was a prostituted woman somehow justified her death and that being stabbed in the vagina could be “an accident” following “consensual sex.”
During the trial, it was revealed that Barton’s search history included pornography that sexualized violence against women. The judge described finding pornography depicting “gaping vaginas and extreme penetration and torture,” but this evidence was not permitted in court because it was obtained unlawfully by the police. During trial, Barton’s defense argued that even though Gladue must have gone through “an awful final hour of her life,” the jury should not let that gruesome factor “poison” them against Barton. The jury agreed.
I can’t remember the exact words, who said it or when, but the general message was: courage isn’t the lack of fear, but doing something even when you’re afraid. I am writing this with lots of fear about a backlash that will almost certainly happen. However, I’ve reached the point where I can’t stay silent any longer and need to muster whatever courage I can and do what I think is right, regardless of the cost.
This past week, a woman I’m proud to call a sister ally, Yuly Chan, was no-platformed by a small group of individuals who appointed themselves judge and jury of acceptable ideas and speech. They claimed Chan was a violent, hateful woman whose political opinions were too dangerous to be shared in a public venue and demanded she be removed from a panel scheduled as part of this weekend’s Vancouver Crossroads conference. Chan had been invited by conference organizers, the Vancouver District and Labour Council (VLDC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and Organize BC, to speak on behalf of her group, the Chinatown Action Group. The Chinatown Action Group organizes to improve the lives of low-income residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, many of whom are seniors. She was to speak to the incredibly important work of this group at the conference.
A recently-formed group called the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) wrote a letter to the organizers, then an open letter that included a link to a website CATA had built, documenting supposed evidence of Chan as a threat to public safety. Although Chan was not speaking on the panel about debates around gender or prostitution, Organize BC members interrogated Chan about her politics regarding these issues and eventually refused to move ahead with the panel unless she was removed. Instead of condemning the unethical tactics and behaviour of CATA, intended to silence Chan and smear her as a hate-filled oppressor, the organizers cancelled the entire panel, sending a message that the organizers and their supporters were not willing to take a stand to ensure the needs of low-income Chinese residents were heard. As a result, the Chinatown Action Group was no-platformed right along with their representative.
CATA also demanded that the conference organizers issue a public apology for daring to invite Chan to speak about the activism of low-income Chinese residents of Vancouver. They also demanded that a policy be instituted with the guidance and approval of only “trans women and sex workers,” banning anyone “who promote[s] any form of oppressive, supremacist, and fascist ideology from being offered and/or provided a platform at any of VDLC, CUPE, and Organize BC’s future events.” But who decides which ideologies are “oppressive, supremacist, and fascist”? And why, in activist and academic circles, has it become common and acceptable to engage in witch hunts to rid “the community” (that is made up of whom?) of particular political positions that are grounded not in hate or violence, but in a radical feminist analysis (radical meaning “the root”)? Chan, and so many others who question and critique systems of power are being persecuted for having these feminist or critical politics. It is not violent oppressors, supremacists, or fascists that are being silenced and no-platformed in this case and others like it, it is feminists. There are limits, of course, to the idea of “free speech,” but what I am addressing is specifically discourse among activists and academics on the left.
Organize BC privately and publicly apologized to CATA for inviting Yuly Chan to speak on the panel. But I will not apologize for standing next to Chan and the Chinatown Action Group, and next to all people who have been no-platformed, threatened, intimidated, bullied, and even beaten for their political opinions.
What was Chan’s crime? Having a political analysis and sharing it. She is accused of promoting “SWERF/TERF” ideology. “SWERF” stands for “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist,” and “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” These terms are used as insults against women with a radical feminist or class analysis of prostitution and gender. “SWERFs” and “TERFs” are accused of hating, oppressing, harming, and sometimes even killing trans women and sex workers, despite the fact no feminist engages in these practices.
I am of the political opinion that prostitution is a form of male violence that should be abolished. I am also of the political opinion that gender is a social construct and hierarchy that traps and harms women and should also be abolished. Today, these two sentences are enough to mark me as a violent, hate-filled, supremacist/fascist, and have the ability to destroy my reputation, livelihood, and potential academic or employment opportunities now and in the future. I have already been passed over for some opportunities due to my political analysis of prostitution, asked to leave conferences, told I’m not allowed to speak about prostitution when invited to speak about Indigenous research, and threatened with police involvement. I have been intimidated and harassed due only to my politics, not my behaviour. These are only some examples of some of the backlash that I, and other women, have experienced for speaking our opinions. This backlash, however, doesn’t just include no-platforming, but also threats and acts of violence. To many, this may sound unbelievable, as though I am exaggerating. I wish this were the case. I wish I were exaggerating. Unfortunately, this is the reality of activist and academic circles in Canada and elsewhere.
Speaking of academia, in 2016 I was publicly accused online of being an oppressive “SWERF” and “TERF” by a former employee of the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia University, where I am a student. This is the first time I am speaking publicly about this incident, as I have been too afraid to do so since it happened. Although this individual is no longer employed by the Centre for Gender Advocacy, going on instead to become the president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), this issue has not been resolved. In the public post, I was accused of oppressing sex workers and being “transphobic,” funders and the university were tagged, a quote was attributed to me that I never said, and individuals went on a hunt to dig up evidence of my supposed bigotry. One person attempted to publicly engage in discussion about these allegations against me, which I’m grateful for, but they were not heard. Some faculty members were concerned that a staff person at a student support organization was making these types of public allegations about a student and alerted some in positions of power at the University, but got little, if any, response. The manager of the Centre for Gender Advocacy was made aware of the situation, and I am not aware of anything that was or is being done to resolve and rectify the situation. No one has reached out to me to apologize for the online bullying I had experienced, or to speak about concerns or questions they had about my politics, leading me to believe this type of hostility is directed at me not only by one staff member, but the Centre for Gender Advocacy as an organization. I explored different options myself, but was unable to find a way to formally hold the individual and Centre to account. I attempted to find support at the University, but those I approached refused to speak out against the behaviour of the individual and the Centre.
Regardless of your politics, this behaviour is unacceptable. It is not ok to tell lies about people or subject them to political persecution over disagreements. It’s important to note that the Centre houses Missing Justice, an Indigenous solidarity group that hosts the march for murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls every year in Montreal. As an Indigenous woman who works on these issues, I was already alienated from Missing Justice when, a number of years ago, non-Indigenous organizers told me to stop speaking and attempted to literally grab a megaphone out of my hand when I was invited to make a statement at their gathering by another Indigenous speaker. My crime was a decolonizing and feminist critical analysis of prostitution and speaking out against men buying sexual access to Indigenous women and girls. In other words, my crime was having a political opinion that differed from the organizers. Rather than attempting to silence an Indigenous woman at an event supposedly held for Indigenous women, a better way forward would have been to publicly acknowledge at the event that my statement does not reflect the organizer’s politics and to encourage those in attendance to learn more about the issue.
Although this incident happened many years ago and the online bullying at Concordia happened two years ago, it continues to severely impact my life as a student in different ways. The message I received from the inaction by the University and the Centre for Gender Advocacy is that it is entirely acceptable to attempt to silence those who are critical of prostitution. I still hear this message today. I feel fear about publicizing these experiences. The very fact that I feel intensely afraid to speak about my own experiences speaks volumes about the climate of activism and academia today.
I grew up working class, and proud. My father was a Marxist who was active in the labour movement, campaigned for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and educated me about the harms of capitalism. Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I never questioned which side I was on. To this day, I remain steadfast in my belief that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, free health care, and advanced education. I believe that poverty is unacceptable and that wealth is unethical. I believe racism and sexism are embedded within our society. I’m pink, through and through.
But politics aren’t just about words and ideas. They’re also about ethics and action—both personal and political. And though I remain a leftist in my principles, I can no longer stand in solidarity with former fellow travellers whose ethics are dictated by social convenience, who prioritize retweets over free inquiry, democracy, and debate, and who respond to disagreement with calls for censorship (or worse). These feelings aren’t new for me. But they’ve recently come into sharper focus.
In my experience, it isn’t the threats, insults, smears and verbal abuse you get from random trolls online that is most upsetting. Rather, it’s the betrayal from those who you thought were on your side: colleagues, friends, community members, political allies. If Men’s-Rights Activists tell me I’m a “man-hating,” “anti-sex,” “cunt”—that’s just another day at the office. But what may surprise some readers is that the bulk of the abuse I receive online—lurid demands that I should be variously guillotined, curb stomped, drowned, or bludgeoned—comes from those who claim to be leftists.
By way of background: I am sometimes smeared as a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (or “TERF”) because, as a feminist, I believe that gender is imposed on people through socialization, rather than innate factors; that trans-identified males have different life experiences than those of females; and that people who were born male, and have spent most of their lives as men, should not automatically be admitted to every space that is otherwise reserved for women. And unlike the many young gender studies apostates one often finds at the vanguard of trans activism, I regard the sex trade as an inherently misogynistic and exploitative industry (which is why I support the so-called Nordic model, under which pimps, johns, sex traffickers, and brothel-owners are criminalized).
In May 2015, Maggie’s Toronto—a lobby group that supports the legalization of prostitution—launched a petition against me, with the intended audience being my bosses at rabble.ca. The petition claimed (falsely) that I had published “material that dehumanizes and disrespects women with different experiences and perspectives…in particular Black women, women in the sex industry, and trans women.” I also was accused of “racism, whorephobia and transmisogyny.”
A review performed by rabble editors and board members concluded that the claims of racism and transphobia were false, and that the allegations were rooted principally in the petitioners’ disagreement with my views about the sex industry. In other words, this was a political argument that my detractors had transformed into a personal campaign against my livelihood as an editor and writer.
Those who don’t inhabit the subculture of online Canadian leftism will regard all of this as obscure. But it wasn’t obscure to me: My career and reputation hung in the balance—all because of ideological disputes that had nothing to do with challenging the violent men and oppressive systems we were all supposed to be fighting.
While the initial petition against me received more than a thousand signatures, a counter-petition garnered almost twice as many. Various women and feminist organizations published articles and letters in support of my work. Yet, for the most part, mainstream Canadian leftists and media either remained silent, or threw their hat in with the smear campaign. Notwithstanding the formal conclusions of the rabble.ca report, I was shunned by my rabble colleagues, and it became clear that most of the staff wanted me gone. These ex-friends and ex-allies made it apparent that they saw me as politically inconvenient—a liability to both the rabble.ca brand, and to their own personal brands. My presence was hurting their personal friendships, and they didn’t want to risk being ostracized or smeared themselves just so they could defend my right to free speech.
The stress of dealing with this betrayal was substantial, and continues to impact me today. As I write all this, three years later, I still feel the old anxiety reflexes. It is, as the so-called social-justice warriors like to say, “triggering.”
Though I was not technically fired from rabble.ca, I was subjected to a silent bullying campaign and ostracized. For obvious reasons, it was difficult to work with people who wouldn’t speak to me. Meanwhile, rabble.ca continued to work with, and commission writing from, many of the same writers and activists who’d slandered me by means of a petition that the outlet itself had concluded was baseless.
In a 2000 book, Imagine Democracy, veteran grass-roots Canadian leftist organizer Judy Rebick argued for participatory democracy and processes, wherein “all voices are heard and a diversity of experience is brought to bear on a problem.” According to Rebick, many socialist and communist systems around the world failed in large part because they were insufficiently democratic: “Patriarchal political parties have produced top-down versions of socialism that exclude the very people who should have been shaping the policies of a socialist regime.”
When I re-read those words, I’m struck by the irony that rabble.ca was Rebick’s own creation: She co-founded it with Vancouver writer, and former political science professor, Duncan Cameron, in 2001.
My experience at rabble.ca, and with the Canadian Left more generally, does not stand in isolation. In the UK, working-class women have been forced out of the Labour Party for questioning new gender-identity legislation and its potential impact on women’s rights. In Vancouver, the Vice President of the provincial New Democratic Party, Morgane Oger, participated in the targeting of a woman holding a sign challenging transgender ideology at the 2018 Women’s March. At its 2016 convention, the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted to blacklist Canada’s longest-standing rape-crisis centre, founded on the very principles Rebick advocates—collective decision-making and a rejection of “the hierarchical command model of the public service”—on account of a peer-counselling policy based on the belief that women share a common experience as a result of being born female under patriarchy. Heather Brunskell-Evans, an academic and author, was removed from her position as Spokeswoman for the UK Women’s Equality Party after appearing on Moral Maze—a BBC Radio 4 series—to discuss the issue of transgender children. She also was deplatformed by a student group at her own university, where she had been scheduled to do a talk about pornography and the sexualization of girls.
These are all cases of self-identified leftists excommunicating other leftists—silencing those who fail to heed the maximalist demands of trans activists.
As my own experience shows, it has become common to simply smear and misrepresent a fellow leftist’s position, even to accuse her of “hate speech,” based on differences arising from matters of policy or ideology. All of this is defended under the guise of creating a ‘safe space’ to protect the marginalized from hurtful perspectives. But who decides who is and who is not ‘marginalized,’ or which perspectives are worth listening to, and which must be dismissed out of hand as hateful? As in all movements, those with the most power tend to identify contrary opinions as dangerous heresies that must be silenced. This pattern has played out countless times, in countless places, throughout history. In its most general form, it’s called ‘political persecution.’
To be fair, dishonesty and hypocrisy exist at all points on the political spectrum. But because of my own principles and politics, I expected more from the left. We can no longer claim the Left to be a radical social movement so long as its adherents abet the silencing and censorship of those who offer their own radical analyses of oppressive social systems. Certainly, we cannot claim the Left as a friend of labour given how easily its dissenters are dispatched.
Having endured my share of slings and arrows, I’ve become a more jaded leftist. But in the important respects, my politics haven’t changed. I still oppose capitalism and wealth inequality. I still support universal access to the necessities of life. And I still fight for social justice—a project that includes fighting sexism, classism, and racism.
What has changed is that I now find myself more willing to question the orthodoxies I see spouted by other leftists. Unlike a younger version of myself, I no longer believe that the positions taken by leftist parties and groups should be taken as automatically correct—nor that positions argued by centrists (or even conservatives) should be immediately rejected, without due consideration. Experience has taught me to value independent thought more than blind allegiance.
To put it bluntly, the Left has become cowardly—though you wouldn’t know it from the heroic postures and hashtags that activists adopt on social media.
The fear of dissent has made many progressives utterly incapable of self-critique or critical thought. Clannish and gutless, too many betray so-called brothers and sisters in order to preserve their own reputations and political connections. They bleat the same empty mantras back and forth to one another; a game of call-and-response in which everyone is afraid to admit they might not believe—or even understand—the words they’re saying or tweeting. It all helps explain why America’s Left has disintegrated, and Canada’s is moving in the same direction.
The Judy Rebick of 18 years ago was correct, even if the project she created now has become part of the problem: People seek to join political movements in which they are respected and heard, and in which discussions take place in a humane and intellectually honest manner. But that’s not today’s Left. The glaring hypocrisy of a movement that defends only the fashionably doctrinaire is not what I signed up for. When those around you are afraid to stand up for principled discussion and debate, knowing that they themselves are always just one misstep away from becoming a pariah, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re running with the right crowd.
How low should we set the bar for discussions about gender and trans issues? Maybe it’s enough that they happen at all, since there’s so much resistance to them taking place. When Channel 4 planned a debate as part of its Genderquake season of programmes on identity, it was under the strictest conditions of secrecy: the location wasn’t published and panellists (I was one, along with Germaine Greer, Caitlyn Jenner, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf and others) were asked to keep the list of contributors under wraps until the producers released it the day before the show.
That’s because whenever discussions about gender identity are attempted, they tend to get sabotaged before they can even begin. Venues are pressured into cancelling events. Women who take part in discussions that take a critical view on prospective changes to the Gender Recognition Act risk physical attack. And trans people willing to debate these issues are often ostracised by their own communities, deemed to be collaborating with their oppressors.
In these conditions, for Channel 4 to get the debate on air at all counts as an achievement. It took careful negotiation, a lot of cloak and dagger and multiple stand-in panellists to insure against dropouts. But what actually went out on air was a woeful missed opportunity. Conversation never took hold. Despite an impressively broad spread of participants (two trans women, three feminists of various stripes, a trans man and a genderqueer drag king), talk time was dominated by the two trans women. The trans man and drag king – two perspectives rarely given attention in gender discussions – hardly got to talk at all.
By the end of the hour, a fractious studio audience had resorted to heckling, with comments such as “you’re a man” shouted at Munroe from the floor. For those who thought the debate should never have happened – the trans activists who considered it to be denying their right to exist – this was a vindication. For feminists, it proved our voices always come last on this issue. All parties have plentiful reason for frustration, but the most significant one isn’t any specific shortcoming of this particular event. It’s that Britain urgently needs to have this discussion. At the moment, we can’t.
changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”
In 2016, the women and equalities committee published its trans inquiry report. It recommended changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”. More than two years later, there’s been no legislative progress, meaning both women and trans people have been left in limbo about how their conflicting rights will be resolved. Yet at the same time, there’s been a rapid informal adoption of gender identity as the defining marker for accessing women-only services and spaces.
From Labour’s all-women shortlists to the Guides to workplace mentoring schemes, things designed for women (or girls) are now open to self-identified women. A small shift in semantics, but a significant one. For women, it means their sex is increasingly cast as a matter of feeling, not fact – no minor thing when your sex is the one that takes the brunt of pregnancy, maternity discrimination, unpaid domestic labour, sexual harassment and rape. Areas established as female-only have become in effect “gender-neutral”, while gender at large stubbornly refuses to be neutralised.
For some trans women, particularly those who transitioned before the current consensus on gender identity, this new environment isn’t a triumph – it’s a threat. Having gone through sex reassignment and empathised with the experiences of being female in a sexist society, they understand that removing all limits and safeguards on the legal definition of sex creates a loophole for violent men. And that leaves trans women as vulnerable as it does all women: if the problem is male violence, then trans people have every bit as much interest as all women do in keeping bad-faith claims from gaining legal force.
Then there are the questions that can’t be answered as long as debate is considered to be violence. Why was there a 20-fold increase in children referred to NHS gender identity services between 2010 and 2017 and why has that rise been driven by female adolescents identifying as boys or non-binary? As many lesbians observed, there seems no place for butches: young women who don’t identify with the faff and submission of femininity now often tend not to identify as women at all.
Underneath the celebration of the “genderquake” are hard problems and grievous losses. Is it a triumph for liberalism to suggest to boyish girls they might be male and girlish boys that their true self is female? How can we counter sexism if institutions no longer “see sex”? Only through debates such as the one Channel 4 attempted can such questions begin to be answered; the next attempt needs to be better.
Which UK political party cares more about women: Labour or the Conservatives? If I’d been told five years ago that I would even be thinking of asking that question, I’d have thought it was a joke.
As a lifelong Labour voter and supporter, who has found herself disillusioned and dismayed with the party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, I have been hopeful that socialist men will finally recognise the dire need to tackle sexual and domestic violence towards women and girls as a major priority. I have been bitterly disappointed.
I will never vote Conservative, because as a feminist campaigner I believe that for all women to be liberated it is necessary to understand and work to dismantle the endemic inequality that exists within every facet of society. The Tories have a terrible track record in terms of funding services for women escaping violent relationships and giving a damn about women at the bottom of the pile, preferring to focus on the “glass ceiling”, which affects about 5 per cent of the most privileged women.
Despite having failed to elect a female leader in 118 years, probably most would still say Labour is the party that cares most about women, and understandably. It is not for nothing that Labour feels like a more comfortable place if you are female.
Under Tony Blair, some female-friendly (as opposed to hard-hitting feminist) policies were introduced, such as national minimum wage, tax credits, childcare strategy, increased child benefit, increased public sector spending, same sex adoption rights, and Sure Start children’s centres.
The criminal justice system also was given a shakedown during this period: for example, the provocation defence for domestic homicide was scrapped, which had previously allowed some men who killed female partners to claim they had been “provoked” into killing as a result of her alleged infidelity, or “nagging”.
These are hard-won changes. So it is with a heavy heart that I have watched Labour concede whole swathes of feminist ground to the Tories over the last few years. If anyone at Labour HQ has noticed, no one seems to care. Some of it undoubtedly has more than a hint of virtue signalling. But something much more profound is going on.
Under Blair, women-only shortlists were introduced in order to address some of the massive imbalances in the House of Commons, but Corbyn has decided that the only criteria for being included on such shortlists is self-identification. In my view, this renders the initiative null and void.
Labour is supposed to be the party of socialism, and to recognise structural inequality. What better example of desperation, poverty, and indignity is there than the sex trade? And yet in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn said, during a talk at Goldsmiths University, that he is in favour of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade. “Let’s do things a bit differently and in a more civilised way,” he said.
While I would hope that anyone with any sense would support the decriminalisation of the women (and men) selling sex, socialists, both male and female, should recognise that the global sex trade is a dumping ground for care leavers, childhood sexual abuse victims, girls and women of colour and from indigenous communities, and women subjected to domestic violence.
The last thing we should be doing is removing all criminal penalties from brothel owners, pimps and punters, as Corbyn and many other men on the left are in favour of doing.
In 2015, John McDonnell sponsored a laughably ideological report from a group that would like to see prostitution completely decriminalised. Decriminalisation is another way of saying: open season on women’s bodies. Like the Netherlands, where women suffer the indignity of standing in window brothels so men can select which ones they consider worthy to buy. Only a small number of courageous Labour Party women speak out against this crazy position, such as Thangam Debbonaire and Naz Shah.
On the other hand, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission is currently carrying out an inquiry into prostitution and the law. This is a fairly mainstream Tory group with MPs from all wings of the party. As part of this inquiry, I today spoke in a debate in parliament on the motion: “Should men have the right to buy sex?”, moderated by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.
This inquiry is streets ahead of anything else that has happened in parliament for ages.
The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry last year effectively collapsed after its chair was found to be paying for sex himself. Other previous efforts have all got stuck trying to sift the contradictory evidence from other jurisdictions.
My opponent, Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon, argued that “disabled men, and returning war heroes, should be allowed to buy sex”, the implication being that these men, “can’t get a real date”. I argued that there is no such thing as a “right” to sex, and that it is a classic neoliberal argument.
This inquiry is asking crucial questions. In a previous hearing, sex trade survivors were asked: “What does it mean to freely enter prostitution?”, and “When does prostitution become exploitative?” Yes, yes, yes.
When women’s bodies are being rented for orgasm, when women are routinely abused, even killed. When women in poor countries are being told to sell themselves out of poverty, we need to ask ourselves if the decision to advertise their flesh as consumable is a just one.
Sex Trade Survivors, Women’s Rights Advocates, Anti-Trafficking Organizations Globally Urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Uphold and Implement Canada’s Prostitution Law
New York, April 20, 2018 – Within 24 hours 2,280 sex trade survivors, women’s rights advocates, anti-trafficking organizations and concerned individuals, including Canadian citizens, from all over the world signed an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on him to uphold and ensure full implementation of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). Feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem was among the signatories. The call to action came in response to the Young Liberals of Canada’s proposed resolution, “Decriminalization of Consensual Sex Work and Sex Trade,” scheduled to be tabled at the National Liberal Convention this week.
PCEPA, which passed in Canada in 2014, decriminalizes prostituted individuals, who are mostly women, offering them services, and targets sex buyers, who are overwhelmingly men, for the harm they cause in prostitution. This legal framework, which was originally known as the Swedish Model, has been adopted by Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Northern Ireland, Ireland and France. While PCEPA still criminalizes prostituted women in certain circumstances, something Canadian activists are working to amend, the law’s goal is to end the commercial sexual exploitation of individuals and protect human rights, especially those of women and girls, while recognizing that sex buyers fuel the global multi-billion dollar sex trade. Despite these laudable aims and evidence from other countries of the efficacy of this legal model, Canada has not comprehensively implemented PCEPA throughout its provinces but those that are using it are finding the law an excellent tool.
“Every day I witness the unspeakable violence and devastation that prostitution inflicts on women and children,” said Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre in Ontario, who advocated for the enactment of PCEPA. “If we have to re-debate whether the best Canada can do for our vulnerable is facilitating their commodification and sexual exploitation by decriminalizing prostitution, then we have failed in our promises for equality and protection of human rights for all.”
The open letter also calls on Prime Minister Trudeau, as the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party to reject the Young Liberals’ proposal to overturn PCEPA and to decriminalize all aspects of the sex trade in Canada, including pimping and sex buying.
“When Canada and its leaders speak about ending gender-based violence and violence against women, but support a pro “sex work” motion, which would decriminalize pimping and sex buying, Canada is being hypocritical,” said Alaya McIvor, an Indigenous sex trade survivor working with Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Manitoba. “We should be embarrassed about these efforts trying to reverse the great work that’s been done and a law for which we fought so hard to protect victims of sexual exploitation.”
While Indigenous Peoples in Canada only comprise 4.8 percent of its population, evidence shows that Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately represented in the sex trade. In one report, a network of front-line service organizations across Canada estimated that of the women and girls they serve who have been sexually exploited in prostitution, 50 percent of girls and 51 percent of women were Indigenous. Evidence has also shown that full decriminalization or legalization of the sex trade would spark an increase in sex trafficking, including of minors, to meet the consequent demand for prostitution.
Limoncelli suggests that forming prostitute collectives would make it possible to oversee conditions in sex industries and help to identify trafficked women. While this theory sounds reasonable, that is not the way prostitutes’ unions operate in the real world. Many such unions function as advertising agencies for sex industry pimps rather than as watchdogs.
Even though they represent only a tiny minority of all women in prostitution, the unions strongly influence public opinion, projecting what men who buy sex want to hear. When journalists, feminist theorists, or politicians want to learn about prostitution, women in prostitutes’ unions are approached because they are easier to locate than women who have exited prostitution. Yet there is extremely low membership in prostitutes’ unions in the Netherlands, Germany, and in New Zealand. Most women in prostitution avoid prostitutes’ unions because the social stigma of prostitution remains the same regardless of legal status. Furthermore, the unions don’t offer what most women want: alternatives to prostitution.
COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in USA, the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee) in India and the NZPC (New Zealand Prostitutes Collective) provide examples of the damaging effects of prostitutes’ unions. All three of these unions have promoted prostitution as work, disappearing the harmful consequences of prostitution and failing to hold men who buy sex accountable for the damages they cause.
Task Force on Prostitution included pro-decriminalization advocates and members of COYOTE. Written with the purpose of decriminalizing prostitution, the Task Force’s Report (1996) flatly denied the overwhelming violence in prostitution, refusing to include the testimony of those who had escaped prostitution because of its harms. In 1994, Norma Hotaling attempted to provide testimony to the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, reporting brutal violence that she experienced while in prostitution. She was removed from the Task Force and went on to found SAGE, an organization run by survivors of prostitution. Six other San Francisco organizations who were Task Force members later resigned in protest against the findings of the Report. In response to the Task Force’s denial of violence, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women authored a 1998 report,“Violence against Women in Prostitution in San Francisco.” (San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, 1998).
The DMSC in Kolkata, a prostitutes’ and pimps’ union that controls tens of thousands of women and children in prostitution, is similar in purpose to the San Francisco prostitutes’ union. Former DMSC Director Dr. Samarjit Jana stated that since sex workers fulfill men’s needs, prostitution must be seen as a profession (Dhar, 1999). Behind the prostituting women of Kolkata’s brothel zone and out of public view are organized criminals who traffic women in prostitution, dominate the DMSC and control the money. Despite its description as a cooperative, the DMSC’s women pimps and their male handlers extort 50% of the earnings of the women and children who are trafficked for prostitution in Sonagachi (Farley, 2006). At the time of this writing, the DMSC is lobbying in favor of laws in India that recognize prostitution as work.
Like the San Francisco and Kolkata unions, the influence of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) came about as a result of public health concerns about HIV in the 1980s when researchers learned about the devastatingly high rates of HIV among prostituted women. Seizing the opportunity to promote a political agenda whilethey also did HIV prevention, the NZPC and other prostitutes’ unions have used public health monies (that became available because of the HIV epidemic) to fund the promotion of decriminalized prostitution.
The common but erroneous theory that prostitution is simply work prevails […]. This view that prostitution is labor skirts recognition of the fact that the
institution of prostitution promotes and cements sex and race inequality. Trafficking expands and markets women’s sexual exploitation and their subordination to men. When these facts are ignored, theory about prostitution gets derailed into strange territory. For example the important issue of immigration abuse, as discussed by Segrave in this issue, is elevated to a central position in the debate. Trafficking for prostitution is then addressed primarily as an issue of transportation or migration, rather than as an issue of women’s sexual exploitation, violence, and inequality. The notion that trafficking for prostitution is banal whereas immigration abuse is the essential harm – reaches its postmodern nadir in a comment by sociologist Laura Agustin about Proposition K (a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco):
My guess is that if K passes there will be no great impact either way for migrants who sell sex in San Francisco. Some of them might benefit from not being criminalized per se, but being undocumented workers would remain their principle problem (Yeung, 2008).
The people described by Agustin simply as “undocumented workers” are in fact desperately poor Asian women (Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean) transported by organized criminals to North America for men’s sexual use under slave-like conditions of captivity, violent control, and debt bondage.
There is evidence that very few people freely choose prostitution. O’Connell Davidson (1998:5) notes that only a “tiny minority of individuals” choose prostitution because of the “intrinsic qualities of sex work.” Research in 9 countries found that 89% of all those in prostitution said that they were in prostitution because they had no alternatives for economic survival and that they saw no means of escape (Farley et al., 2003:33-74). Even the International Labor Organization (which defines prostitution as work) found that in Indonesia 96% of those interviewed wanted to escape prostitution (Jones, Sulistyaningsih, & Hull, 1998:43).
Prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003. Despite its firmly optimistic assessment that decriminalized prostitution was a success in New Zealand, buried inside the 177 pages of a 2008 Review of the NZ law are a number of disturbing facts about the consequences of both the theory and the practice of a law that defines prostitution as work (Prostitution Law Review Committee (PLRC), 2008:121). The Report noted that after prostitution was decriminalized, violence and sexual abuse in prostitution continued as before. “The majority of sex workers felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred” and that it was an inevitable aspect of the sex industry, according to the Report (PLRC, 2008:14 and 57). During one year post-decriminalization, 35% of women in prostitution reported that they had been coerced in prostitution (PLRC, 2008:46). The highest rate of coercion by johns was reported by women in massage parlor prostitution who were pimp-controlled (described as “managed” by the Report). Furthermore, the social stigma of prostitution persisted after decriminalization.
In the five years since legally defining prostitution as work, the NZ law was unable to alter the exploitive quasi contractual arrangements that existed before prostitution was decriminalized (PLRC,2008:157). Most women in prostitution (either outdoors or indoors) continued to mistrust police and did not report violence or crimes against them to the police (PLRC, 2008:122).
As Roces points out in her article in this issue, trafficking for prostitution is not a
“binary;” women have both agency and victimization in prostitution. Women who are in harm’s way do what is necessary to survive and to obtain food, shelter and if they can, education for themselves and their children. While women are harmed and manipulated in prostitution most nonetheless survive, manage to deconstruct their experiences in prostitution, and in the Philippines as elsewhere, survivors fight back via theater, victim testimony, and by helping other women escape or avoid prostitution. Development Action for Women Network’s (DAWN) analysis of the psychologically destructive process of internal commodification in prostitution is deeply accurate. The fact that women are earning money and supporting families offers the women a way to value themselves but it does not erase the human rights violations of prostitution that also cause profound harm.
As long as prostitution is considered work then it will inevitably function as a social and economic cage especially for poor and ethnically marginalized women. Almost always, when a woman has the resources to avoid prostitution, she does that. If we ignore the material evidence for the structural inequalities of sex, race, and class in trafficking for prostitution and if we ignore the clear statements of women in prostitution who tell us that they want to escape it, then we end up in a postmodern neverland where theory unanchored to reality frames prostitution as a problem of workers’ rights or trafficking as an immigration problem (as Musto suggests in this issue).