The first dom who abused me (the first dom I had, who groomed me at 16) was a well respected member of the BDSM community. Locally, and across the state. Other members of the community – most who knew I was a minor – told me he was a good guy, a good dom, an exemplar of BDSM ‘values’. He was renowned across the state of New York.
When he was tired of abusing me, he gifted me to other upstanding members of the BDSM community.
When I moved, I was given to a dom of the BDSM community in my new state.
Don’t let them hide behind the idea of community; the idea that the community polices itself and protects subs. Just like the real cops, they only protect the abusive assholes.
They knew. They all knew. They knew when a dom violated safe words. They knew when he hurt a sub. They knew when he pushed past a sub’s limits. They knew about the grooming. They knew about the abuse. They knew about the rape. The community fucking knew. They just didn’t care.
Suddenly everyone is talking about a “rape culture” in schools. Not for the first time, it has to be said, but influential MPs, headteachers and senior police officers are urging anyone who has been attacked to report their experiences. “Every victim who comes forward will be believed, will be listened to and dealt with sensitively,” according to Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection. Really?
I don’t doubt that “rape culture” exists within schools, or that some headteachers have been reluctant to confront it. At meetings of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, we have heard anecdotal evidence about schools where girls wear shorts under uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault. But there is nothing unique about what happens in educational settings. It reflects what is happening in the wider world, where the stark fact is that very few sexual predators face any form of justice.
Official figures tell the story: on average, about 1,060 women report a rape to the police in England and Wales each week. Only 40 of those rapes will lead to a prosecution, and about 27 will end in a conviction. More than 1,000 men a week are getting away with rape, in other words, and that’s only the cases known to the police. Many more go unreported, never featuring in the statistics.
When public figures urge girls to report rape, they should be honest about the fact that they are directing victims into a completely broken system; rape has all but been decriminalised, encouraging a culture of impunity among perpetrators. Hardly any rapists end up in prison, so what do they have to fear?
The government is poised to publish the latest in a long line of reviews of what’s gone wrong with rape investigations, but I could have saved it the trouble. Rape and serious sexual assault are the only crimes where it is victims, not the likely perpetrators, who are treated with suspicion. When a rape inquiry opens, police focus on complainants, making incredibly intrusive inquiries into their previous history. Girls who may now be thinking of going to the police need to know they will probably be asked to hand over their mobile phones, even if they contain intimate photos and messages, and to provide access to school and medical records.
Cases often collapse as a result: say a girl accuses boy X of rape, and detectives find a jokey text message from three months ago telling a friend she fancies X. Understanding of consent is so poor that it will be treated as undermining the credibility of her complaint, even though we are all entitled to change our minds about whether to have sex with someone, especially if the other party is rough or threatening.
There are now more than 8,000 posts on the Everyone’s Invited website, but it does not seem likely that they will change this atmosphere of corrosive distrust towards victims. Bailey’s statement that girls who come forward will be believed is hard to square with pronouncements from the country’s most senior police officer, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, who in 2018 reversed her force’s policy of believing individuals who report rape.
It was national policy at the time, adopted in 2011 after an outcry over the impunity Jimmy Savile enjoyed in his lifetime. But then the Metropolitan police were severely criticised over the way they handled Operation Midland, the disastrous inquiry into a nonexistent paedophile ring at Westminster. The complainant was a male fantasist, quite unlike most rape victims, and he subsequently went to prison for perverting the course of justice.
Dick’s kneejerk response was to tell her officers to have an “open mind” when they hear a rape allegation. She also made remarks that don’t bode well for girls weighing up whether to report attacks at school: “Speaking as a cop, opposed to a citizen, I’m interested in crime. If it’s a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it.”
Some may be the type of case that the police and prosecutors find most challenging, where the accuser and alleged perpetrator are known to each other, and may have consumed alcohol before the attack. I don’t doubt that the assurances now being offered are sincere, but the risk of creating unrealistic expectations is very high.
We live in a society where half the population faces an ever-present threat of sexual harassment and assault at school, at work and in our own homes. But the criminal justice system is so intent on protecting the interests of men and boys accused of rape, it no longer does its basic job of providing justice for victims.
On 24 October 1975, 75,000 women in Iceland left their jobs, children and homes and took to the streets for a general strike that was billed “Women’s Day Off”. In Reykjavik, 30,000 women marched up the Laugavegur (wash road), as a women’s brass band played the marching tune from Shoulder to Shoulder, a British TV series about the suffragettes which had recently aired in this small Nordic nation. Flyers fluttered against clear autumn skies: “We march because it is commonly said about a housewife: ‘She is not working, she is just keeping house’,” they read. “We march because the work experience of a housewife is not considered of any value in the labour market.”
For Icelandic men, this day became known as the “Long Friday”. With no women to staff desks and tills, banks, factories and many shops were forced to close, as were schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring crayons to entertain the swarms of children in their workplaces, or bribing older children to look after their siblings. Sausages (easy to cook, of course, and a hit with children the world over) were in such demand that shops sold out; children could be heard giggling in the background while male newsreaders reported the day’s events on the radio.
Many of the greatest successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground; and our bodies elsewhere to the posts ascribed to women by patriarchal capitalism. In the UK, public reaction to the sexual violence meted out against the 300 women who marched to parliament demanding women’s suffrage on 18 November 1910, Black Friday, was instrumental in gaining the vote for women. The 1968 strike by Ford’s women sewing machinists at Dagenham, which was followed by 1970 strikes by women clothing workers in Leeds, were landmark labour-relations dispute that triggered the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970.
Yet domestic labour has always been a tricky injustice to protest against. It takes place in the privacy of the home, making it difficult for women to see each other doing this work and to collectively acknowledge that men do not share equally in its burden (and they don’t: the average British woman still contributes 60% more washing, wiping and childcare a week than the average British man, even as the pandemic has increased this work to around nine hours per day). And there can also be dire consequences if we withdraw this labour: children uncared for and vulnerable relatives unfed.
“A women’s strike is impossible; that is why it is necessary,” claims Women’s Strike Assembly (WSA), an activist alliance that, to mark last week’s International Women’s Day, called for a series of banner memorials to be erected around the UK to declare why #westrike as women (or, just as importantly, why we can’t). In a manifesto published in November, WSA wrote: “We strike because we are tired of our labour being taken for granted. We strike because we now have to do a triple shift: our paid work, our unpaid domestic labour and educating our children during the pandemic.”
In Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh women gathered, last Monday, in socially distanced clusters toting their banner memorials. “#westrike because we are tired. Very, very tired,” a banner in Liverpool read and a memorial painted by Bristol Sisterhood stated, simply: “Fuck macho bullshit, women on fire.” Many of the social media protests, however, indicated why last Monday saw no wholesale abandonment of women’s posts. “I am a freelancer and I would not get paid (or lose my client!). But I’m striking with my compañeras in mind and spirit,” one IWD banner read, and another: “I cannot strike but I lit a candle in solidarity.”
Recent years have seen a flowering of strikes against gendered labour in Spain and South America. In 2018, six million women joined Spain’s 2018 “Dia Sin Mujeres’ (day without women), including Madrid’s Manuela Carmena and actress Penelope Cruz, as “feminist men in solidarity” staffed a network of collective nurseries. Old-fashioned mother’s aprons, the symbol of the strikes, were stitched in solidarity workshops and strung from balconies. But, in Britain, women’s general labour strikes have been conspicuously absent.
Selma James, the cofounder of 70s marxist activist project Wages for Housework, has a theory to account for this lack. She points out that as the power of unions dwindles, the climate in Anglo-Saxon countries is less hospitable to gestures of withdrawn labour, even as feminist identity marches gain broader support. Without union protection, British and north American women who strike from paid work risk losing their jobs; to the single mum on the breadline in a pandemic, strikes, in this context, seem the preserve of privileged white feminists.
For all this, calling political attention to the pandemic’s third shift is an urgent project. Only 36% of British women have been able to continue working full time alongside their caring responsibilities during the pandemic, compared to 66% of men, and mothers are more likely to have quit or lost their job. As the pandemic recedes over a nation of shattered women, there will be opportunities for direct action. Women’s March, Pregnant Then Screwed and Women’s Strike Assembly, among others, are calling for protests and marches to highlight the structural sexism that’s left women bearing the brunt of reproductive labour during this year of crisis.
James, in the meantime, advocates a daily constellation of “small resistances”: banging pots and pans at your window; stringing up a banner and apron; radically lowering domestic standards.
Forty-five years after the Women’s Day Off, Iceland has ranked top in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report – an index that examines educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and the average time spent on housework – in 13 of the past 16 years. Yes, it’s impossible for many women to strike; but can we afford not to?
Home can be a dangerous place. Every week, two women are killed by current or former partners, and the number of domestic homicides in London tripled last year to 29.
But there’s another connection between domestic violence and murder that doesn’t appear in official figures. Most terrorists – and indeed most of the men responsible for mass shootings in the US – have a history of abusing women and children.
I’ve spent a year researching the backgrounds of the perpetrators of fatal attacks on strangers in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. Some claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamist organisations such as Isil or al-Qaeda, while others were followers of right-wing ideologies.
How much they actually know about these organisations is another matter; two British men who were preparing to travel to Syria to join Isil knew so little about the ‘caliphate’ that they ordered books on Islam, including Islam for Dummies, from Amazon. The Nice truck attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had shown little interest in Islam until a few weeks before he murdered 86 peopleand injured more than 450.
What these men are interested in is violence. Robert Dear Jr, an evangelical Christian who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, had previously been investigated in relation to a rape, accused of domestic abuse by two of his former wives, and was reported to the police by a neighbour who spotted him peering into her bedroom. The rape charge was dropped and the only convictions Dear had were for driving offences, allowing him to buy four semi-automatic weapons.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Terrorism is a form of male violence, just like rape and domestic abuse, and we know that it doesn’t stay in neat categories.
Men with repeat convictions for beating up family members often have convictions for other forms of assault, including attacks on police and prison officers. They don’t ‘keep it in the family’ – and a small but significant number burst onto a public stage with catastrophic consequences, as we saw two years ago this week in Manchester, and shortly thereafter in London Bridge.
What is surprising is the fact that this connection has been overlooked by police and counter-terrorism agencies.
At the end of 2017, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson QC, published an interim report on three of that year’s fatal attacks in the UK. It offered revealing insights into MI5’s thinking, drawing on a mass of previously unpublished research into the backgrounds of known terrorists. Domestic violence wasn’t mentioned, yet I’ve found dozens of cases in which wives, girlfriends, children, mothers and evenmothers-in-law suffered years of abuse before the perpetrators went on to kill total strangers.
The Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks were all carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. No doubt Darren Osborne, a right-wing extremist who ranted in a pub about killing Muslims before he drove a hired van into worshippers in north London, would have regarded the Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood as his sworn enemy.
Yet they had strikingly similar backgrounds: Osborne was a career criminal who was known to neighbours in Cardiff as a ‘shouty’ man who verbally abused his family in the street. He had dozens of convictions, including one in 2003 for actual bodily harm against his female partner, with whom he had four children. He had shown no interest at all in right-wing ideology until she threw him out of the family home in Cardiff shortly before the attack.
Masood, likewise, had a long criminal record. The mother of his two eldest children left him following ‘ongoing domestic abuse’ around the time he was sent to prison for slashing a man’s face with a knife. He then converted to Islam and married a young Muslim woman, who endured such abuse at his hands that she ran away from the marriage after only three months. At the time of the Westminster Bridge attack, Masood is believed to have been separated from his second wife, who described him as ‘controlling and angry’ at the inquest into his victims. She also said he was a habitual user of steroids, another common factor among the perpetrators of recent terrorist outrages.
‘The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home,’ confirmed Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west of England, when I interviewed him. Afzal is the lawyer who prosecuted members of the Rochdale gang who ‘groomed’ and raped under-age girls, sending the ringleader to prison for 19 years.
‘They would rather believe it was driven by politics than what it was really driven by,’ Afzal said when we discussed the Manchester Arena bombing.
Five years before the bomber set out to murder teenage girls at an Ariane Grande concert, he punched a teenage girl in the head for wearing a short skirt – an assault for which he was never charged. Salman Abedi wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme that exists to deal with individuals showing signs of radicalisation. MI5 didn’t know about Abedi’s history of misogyny and violence against women when they began to investigate him as a potential terrorist two years later.
The web of male violence extends much further than we realise. And when it comes to terrorism, we’ve been blind to the obvious – that the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved men who pose a risk to their own families long before they pick up a knife or strap on a suicide belt.
Living in an atmosphere where angry scenes and blows are a daily occurrence desensitises them to the effects of abuse; they’re practising at home, lowering the threshold that deters most people from committing acts of violence. Some of them start off as victims, growing up with violent fathers or step-fathers before they begin abusing women themselves. But domestic abuse is creating a pool of volatile, hyper-vigilant men who are far more susceptible than the rest of us to propaganda that appears to ‘legitimise’ violence.
And there are thousands of them: at the end of 2017, MI5 revealed that well over 500 counter-terrorism investigations were under way, involving more than 3,000 individuals who might be planning an attack, plus another 20,000 who had been investigated but were no longer believed to pose an active threat. There’s every reason to think the figure is higher now, as more right-wing plots are uncovered and ‘foreign fighters’ attempt to return home following the collapse of Isil.
It’s impossible to monitor every single one of these individuals day and night. ‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ Afzal told me. ‘You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.’
Terrorism isn’t an enigma. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it has the same origins as other forms of male violence; misogyny and histories of abuse almost always lurk beneath the rationalisations of religion or politics. If only we recognised this fact, and started looking closely at suspects with a history of abusing their families, we might be able to stop the next terrorist attack before it happens – and save lives.
QotD: “Teen Vogue’s recent article discussing ‘non-consensual’ porn demonstrates the disastrous reality of porn culture”
Earlier this week, Teen Vogue published an article asking “is it bad to watch porn”. While the question itself is one regularly posed and batted away by pro-porn industry advocates, the article used some notably horrendous euphemisms to sanitise sexual violence in an attempt to make it more palatable to its teen readers.
The article deals with various “typical” questions that might be raised by a teenager, one of which being: “Was the porn made ethically and legally?”. While this is a complex question in itself – what is “ethical” about an industry that fuels sex trafficking, normalises violence against women and girls, and profits from illegal activity – the response was particularly striking in its casual disregard for how the attitudes it was promoting may be taken on board by readers, going on to state:
Porn that portrays fantasies about nonconsensual sex, for instance, isn’t necessarily misogynist if it centers all characters’ pleasure and agency.
There is already a word for non-consensual sex: rape. If the sentence was rephrased to “Porn that portrays fantasies about rape, for instance, isn’t necessarily misogynist…” – it would perhaps be too much of a stretch for a magazine marketed at 11-16 year old girls.
The piece fails to acknowledge the real impact that porn can and does have on the psyche of those who view it, including links to increased sympathy for sexual violence, which can manifest in ways such as having a higher propensity to commit rape.
The piece goes on to say:
The next time you come across seemingly racist or sexist porn, give some thought as to whether the porn you’re watching is self-aware and feminist, rather than simply reproducing bigotry.
The article rightly acknowledges the existence of racist porn, but it is difficult to see how titles playing on grotesque stereotypes such as: “Filipina hooker wants to get knocked up by American soldier” and “Black slave girl waits for master” could ever be construed as “self-aware”, let alone feminist.
The prevalence of this increasingly violent and offensive material is a natural result of an industry that encourages users to seek out increasingly hardcore subject matter in order to achieve the same satisfaction, which in turn drives producers to make content that they know will receive clicks and views.
The fact that a magazine aimed at young teenagers is contributing to the normalisation of the porn industry is a disaster. With an increase in the number of women and girls subjected to acts such as unwanted choking, slapping, and abuse during otherwise consensual sex, it is the responsibility of the media to deal with the issue even-handedly, which means highlighting the research that demonstrates porn has undeniable links to this increase in violence.
The UK Government must get to grips with this hidden but growing crisis. As it drafts the Online Harms Bill it is imperative that the Government puts porn sites in the highest Category One, which places greater requirements on platforms hosting material that is legal but harmful (as well as the mandate to proactively tackle illegal material), and affords the most robust protection against accidental access by young people.
Porn use should no longer be seen as an inappropriate but ultimately harmless activity; it is an industry built on exploitation and abuse, that preys on the most vulnerable, and it must finally be recognised as such.
QotD: “Including parental alienation in legal definition of domestic abuse ‘places victims at great risk’”
Including the “highly troubling” notion of parental alienation in the legal definition of domestic abuse would place victims subjected to violence by their partners at great risk, campaigners have warned.
Peers in the House of Lords – where the domestic abuse bill is being debated this week – have suggested an amendment to the landmark legislation which would include parental alienation in the definition of domestic abuse.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service identify parental alienation as “when a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent”.
But the concept of parental alienation has been discredited by many experts – with the World Health Organisation having recently dropped the notion from its index and classification.
Claire Waxman, London’s Independent Victims’ Commissioner, told The Independent she was “deeply concerned” by proposals to incorporate parental alienation into the statutory definition of domestic abuse.
Ms Waxman added: “The Ministry of Justice’s own report found that fears of parental alienation allegations are directly suppressing survivors and children from talking about their abuse. Parental alienation does not have an agreed definition or sound scientific basis and by enshrining this vague term, we risk handing perpetrators yet another tool for continuing coercion and abuse.
“The bill could make a greater impact by committing judges and other professionals working in the Family Courts to mandatory annual training on the complexities of domestic abuse so they are better equipped to make safe decisions around contact.
“The domestic abuse bill in its current form fails to protect children from the impact of domestic abuse and must be amended to remove the presumption of contact and to allow children’s voices and preferences to be safely heard.”
Peers spent four hours on Monday discussing the amendment to the domestic abuse bill which has been proposed by Baroness Meyer, Baroness Altmann and Earl Lytton as the legislation begins its Committee stage in the Lords this week.
Recent research found abusive men are winning time with their children by accusing mothers who have won custody of turning their child against them.
The study by Brunel University London found claims of so-called “parental alienation” are growing in the family courts, and this sometimes results in a child being transferred from their mother’s home to live with an abusive father. Allegations of domestic abuse are often not properly investigated and can even be seen by courts and professionals as “evidence” of parental alienation, the report found.
Dr Adrienne Barnett, who carried out the research, told The Independent she was concerned by the fresh proposals to include parental alienation in the domestic abuse bill.
Dr Barnett, who specialised in family law while practising as a barrister for more than 30 years, said its inclusion “could have far-reaching and unintended consequences which have not been assessed or tested by large-scale, generalisable national research or impact assessments.”
She added: “A range of studies conducted in a number of jurisdictions including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Italy, as well as my own small-scale peer-reviewed research into reported and published court judgments, have raised concerns about the impact of parental alienation claims on survivors of domestic abuse and children involved in family court proceedings.
“It would be concerning if parental alienation, a concept with a questionable scientific base, were included in the bill without taking into account or even dismissing systematic, peer-reviewed research.”
The academic noted only two jurisdictions have criminalised parental alienation – Mexico and Brazil – as she explained concerns about the impact of this legislation on victims of domestic abuse have been raised in both places.
Dr Barnett added: “It would be helpful to draw on all this international experience before launching into legislation that may be detrimental to those the bill seeks to protect.”
Last week, the Court of Appeal examined how the family court protects victims of domestic abuse as leading women’s rights organisations warned outdated views of judges endanger survivors and their children.
The government launched a review last November looking at how the family court’s approach to parental access affects the safety of children, with the findings set to be released this year.
Lucy Hadley, of Women’s Aid, one of the largest domestic abuse charities, told The Independent they would be “extremely concerned” if the definition of domestic abuse incorporates concepts which do not have a “robust evidential basis”.
She added: “Parental alienation is increasingly used in the family courts, but there is a dearth of robust evidence to back up the concept or reliable data on its prevalence.
“The ‘pro-contact’ culture in the family courts means that parents are expected to facilitate contact, even if they have concerns about safety. It also means that allegations of parental alienation – where one parent is accused of encouraging their child to resist contact with the other parent –can be taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse and other forms of harm.”
Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.
Anne Neale, of Legal Action for Women, told The Independent absorbing the concept of parental alienation into the statutory definition of domestic abuse would “open the way for victims who this bill is supposed to protect to be criminalised and for domestic abuse to be decriminalised”.
She added: “Women who report violence – especially sexual abuse of children – not only could have their children removed, because their ex-partners accuse them of parental alienation, but could be prosecuted as perpetrators of domestic abuse.
“This is a patriarchal attempt to turn the clock back to a time when domestic violence and rape in marriage where a man’s right. Parental alienation is fast becoming the default argument of domestic abuse deniers against any woman who raises safety concerns and any child who refuses to have contact with a violent father.
“Parental alienation is not a form of domestic abuse, but is a misogynist tactic used by domestic abusers to continue perpetrating abuse their victim and children.”
This article explores the emergence and development of parental alienation (PA) in England and Wales. It considers the background into which PA first appeared in private law proceedings concerning children in England and Wales, and examines how it progressed in the case law through the changing political and discursive context of private family law from 2000 to the end of March 2019. A clear pattern emerged of, initially, parental alienation syndrome and subsequently PA being raised in family proceedings and in political and popular arenas in response to concerns about and measures to address domestic abuse. The case law revealed a high incidence of domestic abuse perpetrated by parents (principally fathers) who were claiming that the resident parents (principally mothers) had alienated the children against them, which raises questions about the purpose of PA. More recently, a PA ‘industry’ appears to have amassed comprising experts, therapists and lawyers, advocating transfers of children’s care from ‘alienating’ mothers to non-resident fathers, as well as PA therapy for children and parents. While PA has had a chequered history and is not without its critics, it has become part of the discursive repertoire of current family law, with increasingly harsh consequences for women and children.
Family court and abuse professionals have long been polarized over the use of parental alienation claims to discredit a mother alleging that the father has been abusive or is unsafe for the children. This paper reports the findings from an empirical study of ten years of U.S. cases involving abuse and alienation claims. The findings confirm that mothers’ claims of abuse, especially child physical or sexual abuse, increase their risk of losing custody, and that fathers’ cross-claims of alienation virtually double that risk. Alienation’s impact is gender-specific; fathers alleging mothers are abusive are not similarly undermined when mothers cross-claim alienation.
Today [19th January 2021] the High Court in London hears a landmark legal challenge. It relates to the policy for criminal records for prostitution to be held on file until those convicted are 100 years old. Currently, women who have escaped the sex trade and have convictions for street soliciting will have to live with this record for ever. And it’s not only the police that can access these records – so too can bodies including the Royal Mail, trading standards and credit checking organisations. This is not just a gross violation of human rights, but also deeply unjust.
As I have discovered during the vast amount of in-depth research on the global sex trade I have conducted over the past three decades, women find it difficult if not impossible to exit prostitution. Those that do escape are judged, stigmatised and disenfranchised. So how did this legal challenge come about?
In 1996, I met Fiona Broadfoot who was not that long out of prostitution. We were at a conference on violence against women, and Fiona was giving her first public address on the grim realities of the sex trade. Pimped into prostitution aged 15, she had endured indescribable violence at the hands of her pimp and numerous punters. But as I would come to learn, Fiona’s story was more typical than extraordinary.
Fiona had a criminal record several pages long. Women in street prostitution would be routinely picked up by the police and sent through what we called the ‘revolving door’. The magistrates would issue them a fine for soliciting or loitering. Needing to earn the money to pay the fine, the women would go back out onto the streets, get re-arrested, and the whole charade would begin again. The kerb crawlers were rarely arrested and therefore acted with impunity.
Fiona and I came up with an idea: to launch a legal challenge to decriminalise the women selling sex on the streets, and to prevent the law from requiring those women that have previous convictions to disclose them. Handily, my partner, the indomitable Harriet Wistrich qualified as a lawyer in 1997 and began challenging state agencies for failure to tackle violence against women. It took 20 more years before we were able to formulate a constructive case against the Home Office, which involved involving additional claimants alongside Fiona.
In 2018, after three years of jumping through legal loopholes and case preparation the team won a legal challenge against the Disclosure and Barring Scheme, which means that women no longer have to show these records of their abuse and exploitation from many years back. This is a big deal. Prior to the legal challenge, when women with criminal records for soliciting applied to volunteer in any position involving children or vulnerable adults, including at their own children’s school, they would be required to disclose their previous involvement in prostitution.
On hearing about the challenge, and of the fact that a further case would be brought to challenge such criminal records being held on file, a number of women with similar experiences came forward. As Sam, one of the claimants in today’s case tells me, it is interesting that those organisations seeking to normalise and decriminalise the entire sex trade (as opposed to decriminalising the women and criminalising the pimps and punters) have not taken this case to court despite their considerable resources and networks of lawyers that take the ‘sex work is work’ line.
A number of years ago, distressed by yet another knock-back following a job interview, Sam approached one of the ‘sex work is work’ groups in the hope they would help her. Despite the fact that our very high profile legal case was already in progress, of which this group was well aware, Sam was merely advised to write a letter of disclosure ‘explaining’ her convictions and outlining how she got involved in prostitution which she could add to her job applications in the future. ‘It took me another four years before I found Harriet and Fiona, by looking online for women that are against prostitution rather than celebrating it as a profession,’ she says.
The powerful lobby which views prostitution as ‘sex work’ has neither been involved nor helpful in this case. As I wrote about the 2018 case at the time:
‘When Fiona [Broadfoot] and I contacted members of the pro-prostitution lobby to ask if we could form a united front to argue for the decriminalisation of the women, we were told, in somewhat hostile terms, that they would not work with abolitionists. We were further told that if we dropped our efforts to criminalise sex buyers then they may consider joining forces with us. We refused.’
Had that same offer been made regarding today’s legal challenge we would have refused again. Protecting the men that create the demand for prostitution is a disgrace. These men are the very reason why women are sexually exploited, and yet groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes argue that criminalising them is wrong. Until we end demand for prostitution, more women like Fiona and Sam will be drawn into this nightmarish life.
If today’s case succeeds, the victory will be down to the sex trade survivors that dare to expose the truth about the horrors of the sex trade, and not those that seek to sanitise it.