Friday the 13th: Why I disagree with Julie Bindel about prostitution and the Nordic Model.

Friday the 13ths (Fridays the 13th?) are days on which I speak out in favour of decriminalising prostitution and abolishing laws that harm sex workers. For details of why, please read this post and the links, which will give you more detail than I’ll be able to manage on this particular Friday 13th. Today, what I want to do is write some comments about Julie Bindel’s article Why prostitution should never be legalised in Wednesday’s Guardian.

As you can probably gather from the article’s title and URL, Bindel takes a very different stance from me on prostitution; she believes all sex work to be inherently exploitative and non-consensual, and believes that buying of sex should be criminalised, a position known as the Nordic (or Swedish) Model on which I’ve previously expressed concerns. Here, rather briefly, are my concerns about Bindel’s beliefs, and why I, although also a feminist, do not feel able to agree with her:

  • I do not believe that it is possible to say of any form of sexual experience amongst adults that this is something to which no-one could or would give consent under any circumstance. I simply don’t believe it’s possible to be that reductionist. Any form of sexual activity can be done forcibly, or coercively – or consensually. I don’t see any reason why selling sex should be the one exception.
  • I believe that the best person to assess an individual’s own experience and how s/he feels about it is that individual. When I read the accounts of women who were forced into sex work or experienced coercion, I believe them. Likewise, when I read the accounts of women who chose sex work (whether as the least of the available evils or as something they actually enjoyed and wanted to do), I believe them. When a woman says that she hated sex work and that it was horribly wrong for her, I believe her. When a woman says that she enjoyed sex work and was happy in her profession, I believe her. It makes my hackles rise when people’s own experiences and emotions are denied because they don’t fit with dogma. Bindel wants to erase the experiences and voices of women whose experience of prostitution doesn’t match her own beliefs on the subject. I do not – I cannot – accept or agree with this.
  • Bindel, in this article, is completely ignoring all of the evidence that the legal solution she proposes will be harmful to sex workers themselves. Quite simply, criminalising the buying of sex does nothing whatsoever to address the many reasons why women sell sex or to change the various situations that lead to women doing this, while doing quite a lot to make it harder for them to make the money they need or to do so safely. This means that it does not help sex workers, but does harm them. I would urge anyone considering supporting the Nordic model to please read the articles at the links in the first sentence of this paragraph. Several were written by sex workers or former sex workers who have seen, first-hand, the harm this law can do; others are about the research showing problems with these laws.

And all of that is why – as a feminist – I cannot support Bindel’s position on prostitution.

Friday the 13th and advocacy for sex workers

So, there’s this thing I’ve been taking part in for the past few years where I and some other bloggers/Internet users make Friday the 13th a day for speaking up for sex workers’ rights and the abolition of restrictive laws that harm sex workers rather than helping them. I don’t want to miss doing so this year, but I’m afraid that time constraints and general exhaustion mean that this is going to have to be my shortest post so far on the subject.

Firstly, the above link is to the post I wrote for the last Friday the 13th, which in turn links back to a couple of others. If you read that, it’ll fill you in pretty well on my views.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d like to take this opportunity to direct you to what our national prostitutes’ organisation, the English Collective of Prostitutes, have to say on the importance of decriminalisation of prostitution. This statement of theirs summarises the reasons for decriminalisation of sex work and provides two links with summaries of useful information on the harm done by current British sex work laws (the US ones, by the way, are even worse, as prostitution itself is illegal in nearly all of the US, which is an appallingly unjust and harmful law) and debunking of several myths about sex work.

So, once again; let’s put an end to laws that harm sex workers, listen to what sex workers want from the law, and look at how best to reform the law with the actual needs and opinions of sex workers in mind.

An article by my sister: the problem with the term ’empowerment’

Back when I was pregnant with each of my children and reading antenatal literature and forums, one thing that cropped up now and again and annoyed the hell out of me was the habit of some health care providers of claiming that they wanted to ’empower’ women to have better births. While I’m sure it was very well meant, I also recognised that anyone who talked about ’empowering’ me was implicitly assuming that a) I wasn’t really all that powerful already and b) I wasn’t capable of becoming so without their kind help.

I was reminded of this when I read my sister’s latest article (nothing to do with childbirth, by the way) on the way that the word ’empowerment’ is essentially a meaningless distraction: Empowerment’ is Warping Women’s View of Real Power.

You can safely assume that if an activity is described as “empowering,” no one in any actual position of authority will be going anywhere near it… Empowerment has become the sparkly pink consolation prize for the gender that continues to be excluded from actual power.

And good points about the sexism in how Clinton is viewed/portrayed by the media.

The FTB Ethics Committee Statement

So, I interrupt that thrilling if admittedly glacially slow trawl through the errors in one conservative Christian’s attempt to write about transgender therapy, to bring you this post on an entirely different topic.

In response to events of recent days, of which many of you will already have heard a great deal, there has been a very great deal of discussion on the FreeThoughtBlogs backchannel about the issue of how we should handle allegations of gross misconduct in one of our members. This is ongoing, and you will hear more about it with time (and can read more about it now on other blogs). For the moment, however, we have drawn up a statement which we are posting on our various blogs to make our feelings known about this topic. Herewith:

Freethought Blogs unequivocally condemns any behavior that threatens the safety of atheist community members, including particularly marginalized groups. Freethought Blogs also recognizes the role of sexual harassment as one of numerous barriers for women that limits access to and participation within atheist conferences and spaces.

When the recent allegations against Richard Carrier were made public, Freethought Blogs initiated a process to investigate these claims and formalize its policy concerning the conduct of its members. The FtB Ethics Committee received several reports of Carrier’s behavior and was in the process of reviewing them when Carrier chose to leave the network. A thorough review of the allegations against Carrier cannot be completed by Freethought Blogs without his cooperation.

As part of our commitment to equitable access to freethinking spaces for all, Freethought Blogs members who violate our commitment to social justice by creating or maintaining barriers to participation will be removed from the network as a matter of policy. All reports submitted to us in furtherance of this policy will be kept in the strictest of confidence, unless the accusation was made publicly or in the event we have express permission to reproduce the complaint.

-The FtB Ethics Committee

That is (for the moment) all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled mishmash of, well, all the stuff we blog about.

What I’ve been reading – the ‘My Friend Flicka’ series

In a complete and utter change of pace from my last ‘What I’m reading’ post, I’ve recently been revisiting Mary O’Hara’s classic series (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming) about life on a Wyoming ranch. I got onto this because I happened to find My Friend Flicka in a charity shop browse; I actually, as it happens, have had Thunderhead on my shelves for a while now having found a second-hand copy somewhere or other, probably in another charity shop browse, so I decided to go ahead and complete the set and ordered a used copy of Green Grass cheaply on Amazon and read the lot. I did read the books as a child, but in a skip-and-skim kind of way; parts of them interested childhood-me a lot, parts not at all. This re-read, therefore, was the first time I’d actually read them properly all the way through, and was an interesting combination of rediscovering sections that came back to me vividly as I read them, and being struck by aspects of them that had zoomed over my head the first time.

One thing I realised for the first time was just how long ago these were written; as a child, I don’t think I’d really taken in that they actually date back to the 1940s. (I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to the timelessly good writing or an indictment of my powers of observation.) Reading it as an adult (and a doctor), I was struck by the fact that the reason Ken and Flicka both come so close to dying in the first book was because this was the pre-antibiotic era and there simply wasn’t much that could be done for severe infections. And by the fact that the McLaughlins don’t even get a phone until the third book and that this is so taken for granted it barely rates a mention.

More insidiously, there’s also the way the female characters are presented. When I read the first book as a child, the character I identified with was the eponymous Flicka, for the simple reason that the only human female character who gets more than a very brief walk-on part in the whole of the first two books is Ken’s mother Nell. Who spends half her time planning meals for the menfolk and half of it fretting over the way her husband is taking his frustrations and fears over their money worries out on her. Rereading the books, I found new appreciation for Nell’s character; she is beautifully portrayed, a complex, intelligent, sensitive woman caught in the hell of an insoluble situation. But, other than the occasional scene where her sons go to her for advice or homilies, she doesn’t really do anything that my childhood self could either identify with or aspire to.

In the third book we get two more female characters – Carey, beautiful and sweet but passive and immature (at one point in the book, her response to Ken’s attempt to discuss her plans for her future is to go into rhapsodies over how adorable the eight children she wants are going to be and won’t Ken join her in her game of planning names for them?), and her monstrously manipulative grandmother, whose determination to keep Carey under her thumb is largely responsible for Carey’s failure to grow up. O’Hara does an excellent job of portraying a deeply manipulative relationship and the difficulties of breaking free after years of being groomed to find this manipulation normal, and I can recommend this as a great piece of writing; but, again, it’s not something in which, as a child, I could find a role model or a character I really felt good about identifying with.

Even the way O’Hara writes about the horses drifts off into a male-dominated picture. This, of course, is partly because horses by their nature live in a male-dominated world – as unintentionally exemplified by this snippet from Green Grass of Wyoming, in which Ken tries to explain to the naive Carey why her filly Jewel has been stolen by his stallion Thunderhead:

‘…It’s kind of like falling in love. He knew she was a winner and he just kicked the crate to pieces until she was free and ran away with her – kind of eloping.’

‘But what if she didn’t want to go?’

Ken grinned. ‘Well, he’d make her. That’s what a stallion does. But he’ll take good care of her – Oh, the very best care! You don’t need to worry about her coming to any harm!’

Carey’s tears were drying and she looked at Ken, intrigued by this strange tale of wild-animal romance.

Ah, yes, that well-known sign of a great romance – one of the pair is quite happy to force the other one against zir wishes without, in fact, caring in the slightest what zie wants. Exactly the example we want to be giving to young people.

That, of course, is simply a case of horses not really being the best role models for human relationships; but it also occurred to me, as I read, that O’Hara even let her female equine characters fade into the background once a stallion was in the picture. In the first book, Flicka’s supposed to be Ken’s one chosen horse and true love forever (which ends up being quite a raw deal for Flicka, as the attempts to capture her for Ken unintentionally lead to her receiving a near-fatal injury which leaves her forever robbed of the incredible speed that caught Ken’s attention in the first place). But the second and third books focus on her son, Thunderhead. Flicka does go on to have a daughter, Touch And Go, who in fact becomes the one to save the ranch at the end of the second book by winning a crucial race and thus paying off the family’s crippling debts, but this scene is mentioned almost in passing as the book gets back to the far more important issue of Thunderhead’s fate. By the third book, Flicka barely figures and Touch And Go, gets one single brief passing mention; even though the racehorse owner who bought her figures largely in the story, there isn’t so much as a passing question or mention as to how Touch and Go is doing, and Thunderhead is talked about as though he’s the only racehorse in the bunch.

There were, conversely, many aspects of the book I appreciated far more on a reread; Ken’s development and growth through the novel and the beautiful and vivid depictions of Wyoming ranch life. I remembered why I did like these books as a child, but I also had more conscious awareness of what it was about them that left me not feeling as comfortable.

Who here has read the books? What did you think of them and what do you think of them on looking back?

Friday the 13th and sex work advocacy

A few years back, I used to read a blog by a retired escort worker who now blogs, under the name of Maggie McNeill, for the rights of sex workers. I drifted away due to time constraints, and, since then, have gradually realised that I actually disagree with her on some very fundamental issues around feminism and consent, so if you check out her blog (The Honest Courtesan) do be aware that there is a lot of stuff on those topics that I would not endorse and that I think most people here wouldn’t either. (Also, of course, there’s a lot of very NSFW stuff on there.) However, I do agree with her on the main point her blog seeks to make; sex work should be decriminalised. What’s more, laws intended to provide legal protection for sex workers need to be worked out with the guidance of actual sex workers, using a model that puts their agency first rather than framing them as helpless victims who need protection.

Anyway, I’m posting about this now due to a rather nice idea that Maggie had- namely, to make every Friday 13th a day for sex workers and non-sex workers alike to speak out in favour of decriminalisation of sex work. As Maggie wrote:

Let’s start getting the word out that whores are no different from other women, and that “a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body” is more than just a euphemism for abortion.

I quite agree, and so, ever since running across this custom of hers (a year or two after she’d instituted it) I’ve tried to stick to it, every Friday 13th. (Successfully, in fact, if we gloss over the one time I missed the precise date and sent a text to a friend about it on Saturday 14th instead.) You can read two posts about this on my old blog (on other Friday 13ths between then and now, I’ve posted or commented in other places):

  • Their Bodies, Their Choice is a general explanation of my view on the matter (sorry about the paragraph breaks, by the way – I moved that blog from Typepad to WordPress and some of the formatting on the archives got messed up in the process)
  • Anti-Prostitution Laws: The Trouble With The Swedish Model is a post in which I discuss the problems with the commonly-advocated idea of making prostitution itself legal but making it illegal to be a client of a prostitute.

This, of course, will be the first Friday the 13th post on Geeky Humanist. Yay! A chance to spread the word to a wider audience.

As I’m in the UK and I know the readership here is heavily, though not exclusively, from the US, I think it’s worth explaining a bit about the different laws. Unless I’ve missed any recent updates, the law in nearly all of the US is that prostitution itself is illegal; a draconian waste-of-resources law that benefits nobody (other than, I suppose, politicians looking to score points with the Religious Right) and is simply not morally defensible under anything other than a religious or quasi-religious form of sexual morality. Anyone here really want the police spending their time and resources on prosecuting consensual sex (which most prostitution is) when they could be putting that effort into better prosecuting crimes like rape or domestic violence?

In the UK, we’re at least somewhat more enlightened, in that it’s not against the law either to sell or to buy sex. (The latter is unfortunately in danger of changing – see below – but I think at least we’re safe on the former; I’ve never heard of anyone here wanting to make prostitution itself illegal.) But we do, alas, still have several laws on the books that make life far more difficult than it needs to be for sex workers.

Looking for up-to-date information on British law for this post, I found this useful leaflet from the English Collective of Prostitutes’ site informing sex workers of their rights, which lists the laws in straightforward layperson’s language. Some of this I already knew; I was aware, for example, that it is illegal in the UK to earn money from organising prostitution, and that, while this law was probably set up with the good intention of wanting to prosecute genuinely abusive pimps who are forcing women into prostitution in order to make money off them, it has backfired badly by preventing many, many sex workers from seeking the extra protection that could come from working together/organising brothels with proper security services.

didn’t, however, know about the law on prostitute’s cautions, and this one really shocked me. Apparently, it is still quite legal in the UK for two police officers to record a ‘caution’ about anyone whom they believe to be loitering publicly for purposes of soliciting, without having to present any evidence – and the person cautioned has no right of appeal against it. Good grief – I’m sure that law never gets abused, then. Two such cautions in a period of three months can lead to a conviction for soliciting, which then shows up on any further enhanced criminal records check done during the person’s lifetime. This article describes the problems this archaic law can cause.

On top of this, there’s a vocal lobby in favour of outlawing the buying of sex (the legal system known as the Swedish or Nordic Model, which I discussed in the second of my two linked posts above). Despite the fact that the English Collective of Prostitutes vehemently oppose this idea, the Home Affairs Committee are currently looking into the possibility of recommending this change in law to the government. That one is still a ‘watch this space’, and the latest development seems to be positive; three days ago, the Committee heard evidence from retired sex workers Brooke Magnanti and Paris Lees, who are also both firmly opposed to bringing in such a law, and they seem to have been willing to at least take that viewpoint on board and consider the possibility of recommending more constructive changes such as abolishing the law against brothel working. The transcript (which also has a link to the video, if that’s what you prefer) can be found here and makes excellent reading.

So we can hope that that one will be a non-starter. But it’s nevertheless clear that, when it comes to protecting sex workers or to taking them seriously as people who should have input into the laws that are supposed to protect them, UK law and UK society still have a long way to go. I guess I’ll be blogging about this on a good many Friday the 13ths to come.

The Apologist

I’ve been reading an interesting opinion piece by my sister over on The Pool: Sorry, but people need to stop telling women they shouldn’t apologise. The background to this is the increasing recognition that apologising is a gendered phenomenon, with women doing far more of it than men, which has led to many declarations that women should cut back on the apologising habit. Ruth’s argument here is that the problem is not with women tending to apologise too much but with men tending to apologise too little. What we should actually be doing about the apology discrepancy, she argues, is expecting men to bring their apologising up to appropriate levels.

The various anti-apologising op-eds and think pieces often quote a 2010 study, which showed that the reason women say they are sorry more often than men is because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour”. This finding tends to be framed by journalists as an example of female deficiency. But, really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behaviour” actually just another name for a dickhead?

Even for trivial matters, there are few things more grating than a social interaction containing a gaping apology-shaped hole… Saying sorry is a recognition that the time and feelings and convenience of another person are important.

Excellent points (say I without a trace of nepotism, natch), and I agree with this as far as it goes. Still… the implication seems to be that this is the only cause of the apology gap and that women in general typically have their apologising threshold pitched just right. I’m not so sure; I’ve certainly come across the phenomenon of overapologising, and my impression is that it is indeed a fairly gendered thing. (It’s also age-related, which is a whole other issue.)

Example from this same article; Ruth describes apologising to her agent every time she has to ‘bother’ him. I’m not an expert on how the whole agent/writer thing works, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in guessing that the agent is making money out of this and that the things Ruth is ‘bothering’ him over are actual work-related things which he is getting paid to deal with. Routinely apologising for asking someone to do the job they’re being paid to do? That’s an apology too far, surely? When we apologise for asking for things that we actually are entitled to, we reinforce ideas that we should make ourselves lesser, use fewer resources, less space.

Of course, Ruth’s article also raises an interesting question; why, when we find that men and women are doing something differently, do we assume that the answer is to tell women to take responsibility for closing the discrepancy?

Any further thoughts?