I’m Alive!!! But really, really busy with activism, and work, and PhD applications. It’s quite possible no one is actually going to read this, due to my extended absence. Also, I wish I could write something about the G20 protests, but I’m not there as I couldn’t get the time off work.
Rahila Gupta has an mostly very good article in today’s Comment Is Free arguing in favour of the European Convention on Human Trafficking, which would allow women up to 90 days of accommodation in which to gather evidence that they have been trafficked and apply for asylum.
Unfortunately, in the article, Gupta says that 80% of prostitutes in the UK are foreigners, and that most of them were trafficked, and condemns those who would rubbish those statistics.
Here’s the thing – it’s fully possible to “rubbish” that particular claim and still agree with every other word in Gupta’s article.
There were serious methodological issues with the survey that claimed to find that most foreign prostitutes were trafficked – among other things, the authors interpreted a willingness to have anal sex as proof that the woman in question was trafficked. Good methodology is important – as sociologists, are we interested in the truth, or in what “proof” would best serve our particular view of the world?
That being said, of course women who are trafficked should be allowed to stay in the UK. And of course, as Ms Gupta says, a lot of women in sex work are not there by a full and free choice but because the situations in which they find themselves provide them with no better option. And of course we have to provide exit strategies for anyone who wants out of the sex industry.
I feel, however, that the government approach to trafficking, which includes the acceptance of the statistics quoted above, actually makes migrant women, trafficked or not, more vulnerable to being exploited and forced into the sex industry. The government defines trafficking very narrowly – and any organisation, like the Poppy Project that requires government funding must adopt this definition. This definition would continue even if women are given 90 days to decide if they want to contact the police. Women who knowingly came to the UK illegally and were coerced into sex work, or became prostitutes willingly but were deceived about the hours, or became sex workers later because no other jobs were forthcoming given their lack of papers – none of these women would necessarily qualify for government assistance.
Furthermore, the government uses the spectre of supposedly widespread trafficking to justify crackdown in immigration and more authoritarian border controls – the new concentration camp for migrants being built in Calais, for example, has been portrayed by the government as necessary to prevent human trafficking.
Finally, let us not forget our sisters (and brothers) in other industries, where they are viciously exploited and subject to sexual violence. While the government pretends to care about trafficked sex workers, Transport For London is having many of the tube cleaner union activists deported, in retaliation for their union activism. Many of these women have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape on the job – but somehow, this sexual violence is of no concern to the government.
One of the many reasons I have undying respect for Rahila Gupta, even where I disagree with her, is that she knows this and incorporates it into her analysis of the situation of migrant sex workers. In her book Enslaved, Ms Gupta profiles not only a sex worker, but also a domestic worker, a women in an arranged marriage, a (male) construction worker and an asylum-seeker. She makes it clear that non-status women in any industry are very vulnerable to sexual violence. She also argues that the only way to eradicate this exploitation and violence is by eliminating all immigration controls.
In the short-term, advocating for the Convention may be the best way forward, though it is crucial that feminists engage very warily with the government, and recognise the shortcomings of this law.
However, in the long-term, only the abolition of immigration controls, and the establishment of a society where no one is forced to become a sex worker / prostitute to fend off starvation, will end human trafficking.
While I may disagree with Ms Gupta’s acceptance of the quoted statistic, I fully support her goal of abolishing immigration controls. And I think this is very important to emphasize – that a lot of people who “rubbish” those stats still agree with most of what Ms Gupta says are still vehemently opposed to trafficking and to the exploitation and abuse of any migrant workers, regardless of whether they were trafficked or not, and believe strongly in providing all sex workers / prostitutes with exit strategies. Hopefully, we can build a movement from these common goals and agree to disagree on peripheral issues.
January 20, 2009
From Women Against Rape:
Rape survivor detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre
and facing removal today Tuesday 20 January, at 7pm
Please phone or write to:
1. Phil Woolas MP, Immigration Minister, Home Office Minister of State for borders and immigration, UKBApublicenquiries@UKBA.gsi.gov.uk
2. Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office Fax 020 8760 3132 Privateoffice.firstname.lastname@example.org
3. European Court of Human Rights, Fax: +33 (0) 3 88 41 27 30, Tel: +33 (0) 3 88 41 20 18
4. Kenya Airways Flight KQ101 Telephone 01784 888 222
Ms Flavia Nambi has been in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre since Wednesday 14 January. She has been given Removal Directions for this evening. She is at risk of taking her own life and is on suicide watch.
Evidence of rape submitted to the Home Office. A fresh claim lodged in December included compelling expert evidence from WAR and psychiatrists corroborating her account of brutal gang rape by Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers. As a result, the Home Office have for the first time accepted Ms Nambi is a rape survivor but are still insisting she should be sent back.
Ms Nambi could not survive if sent back. Ms Nambi lives in the UK with her Aunt who is her sole surviving relative from the terrible conflict in Uganda. She has no-one to whom she could turn for help and expert testimony confirms that women in Ms Nambi’s vulnerable state could not survive if sent back.
Other women returned face rape and other torture. WAR has first hand accounts from women who have been returned to Uganda of the deprivation, rape and other torture that they suffer. The Home Office has refused to monitor or investigate what happens to women in these circumstances.
This is the THIRD time Ms Nambi has been detained. Last time she was so traumatised, she lost her memory, became profoundly depressed and was close to taking her own life. After her release, despite her own ill health, Ms Nambi has been dedicated to helping other women in detention who share her experiences.
Refusal to acknowledge rape breaches international obligations. The Home Office by refusing to reconsider it’s responsibilities to Ms Nambi, now it has accepted she is a rape survivor, is flouting its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and European Convention of Human Rights. What use are its own “gender guidelines” if in reality officials decide that it makes no difference whether or not someone has suffered the devastating trauma of rape?
The treatment of rape survivors. Like many survivors, Ms Nambi could not give an account of the rape she suffered to Home Office officials when she was first interviewed about it. Court precedents have long established that, considering the stigma and discrimination faced by rape survivors, delay in reporting rape shouldn’t be used to throw doubt on a woman’s credibility. Immigration Judge D P Herbert, who presided over Ms Nambi’s case at appeal agreed:
“I accept as wholly plausible the explanation given by the appellant that she was too embarrassed and humiliated to disclose this to the Immigration Officer upon arrival.”
He ruled that she should not be returned.
“I find that given the fact that this is a young woman who has been raped and treated in the most appalling manner by the Lord’s Resistance Army simply to return her to the capital city Kampala where she has never lived and has no family connections or means of support would be unduly harsh.”
The Home Office appealed this decision and at the hearing Judge Handley went beyond his remit and accepted the Home Office argument that delay in reporting cast doubt on Ms Nambi’s account of rape. Further appeals failed because higher courts ruled that whether Ms Nambi had been raped was irrelevant as she could safely be returned to another part of Uganda.
Removal scheduled for today. Today Ms Nambi’s lawyers will take her case to the Appeal Court to try to prevent her flight. We are determined to do everything we can to prevent her suffering any further, and are asking for your help by writing or phoning the above.
Please send copies of emails/faxes of any letters you write to: email@example.com Fax: 020 7209 4761
 See campaign Black Women’s Rape Action Group’s Asylum from Rape petition for the re-instatement of the Guidelines, for more information about this and how you can help by signing and circulating Black Women’s Rape Action Group’s Asylum from Rape petition.
 In 1998 WAR helped establish the High Court precedent that women may be unable, not unwilling, to report rape and therefore are entitled to further consideration of this “fresh evidence”. RvSSHD ex parte Ejon,(QBD)  INLR 195
January 13, 2009
Make a date with Feminists!!
GENDER/ RACE/ CLASS: AN ANTI-CAPITALIST FEMINIST EVENT
Sat 14th Feb, 10.30am -6.30 pm, Tindle Manor, 52-4 Featherstone St EC1 (nearest tube Old St.) Fully accessible venue. This event is free!
for more info see www.anticapitalistfeminists.co.uk
to register email firstname.lastname@example.org
Discussing and organising our fight for women’s liberation – open to all those who want to learn, think and plan for grassroots feminist activism… Join us for workshops which identify the interconnections between oppressions and our struggles against them. Work together with other feminists to find ways to actually change the material conditions of women’s lives.
Workshops include: learning from feminist history/ sex workers’ rights/ challenging domestic violence/ international solidarity/ a woman’s place is in her union?/ reproductive freedoms/ rape and asylum/ community organising/ queer and trans politics/ prison abolition/ self-defence workshop/ feminists and the capitalist crisis/ films, stalls and campaign planning
Free creche – please register by email by Friday 6th February
Stalls available – email email@example.com to book
Organised by a coalition of groups and individuals. Groups involved so far include: Anarcha-Fem Kollective, All African Women’s Group, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, English Collective of Prostitutes, Education Not for Sale Women, Feminist Activist Forum, Feminist Fightback, Left Women’s Network, London Coalition Against Poverty, Permanent Revolution, RMT Women’s Committee, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Women Against Rape, Workers’ Liberty.
PLEASE FORWARD FAR AND WIDE AND ADVERTISE ON YOUR BLOG.
December 8, 2008
According to The Independent, High Court Judges have ruled that asylum-seekers from the DRC whose claim has failed should be deported. This means that approximately 5 000 people face imminent deportation.
The DRC is currently in a state of civil war, with an estimated 5 million people having been killed since 2002. Women are at particular risk, as there as been a lot of documentation of the way in which rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war. The Amnesty International 2008 report states:
“Political and military tensions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) resulted in major outbreaks of violence in the capital, Kinshasa, and Bas-Congo province. Unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the security forces and by armed groups were common across the country, in many cases directed at perceived political opponents. Rape by security force members and armed group fighters continued at high levels.”
I’m appalled that the UK government is deporting anyone to the DRC right now – this amounts to a sentence of death. I suggest writing to Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, and asking for an immediate moratorium on deportations to the DRC. I’m not sure how effective this will be – she’s never appeared particularly concerned about the plight of asylum seekers in the past. I will do research into other ways of resisting this appalling decision and post when I have more information.
In the meantime, Anxious Black Woman has written a lot about this, so head over to her blog.
November 26, 2008
I will admit to a feeling slightly piqued generally that Feminist Fightback could probably single-handedly engineer total gender equality in the UK and we still wouldn’t get a mention in The Guardian. However, it my more sober (and less attention-seeking) moments, I recognise that this is probably a good thing. On the one hand, some of the campaigns we’ve been running would really benefit from media attention, particularly the Tube Cleaners Solidarity campaign, in order to shame Transport for London into paying them a living wage, and also, frankly, in order to shame coerce convince other feminist groups into participating in the actions. On the other hand, if we ever did get into The Guardian, the article would probably ignore all members over the age of 30, and focus on our snazzy dress sense rather than our actual politics (though we are pretty snazzy dressers).
The issue with The Guardian’s coverage of feminism (other than, as already discussed a lot by Zenobia, their tendency to lump “feminism” with “lifestyle issues”) is that they basically define it as activism of mainly young white women against “male violence against women” where the latter is conceived as something that happens solely between individual men and individual women. Which means that a lot of what Feminist Fightback (and Feminist Activist Forum, and The Crossroad’s Women’s Centre, and Southall Black Sisters, etc.) do is not even conceived as feminism.
Take the Tube Cleaners Strike. Some women Tube Cleaners have been sexually harassed and assaulted at work; but even here, the issue is not just about individual male responsibility for commiting these actions (though the men involved should be held responsible), but also about the women’s inability to complain because of their working conditions. The men are their superiors, and if they complain, they will be fired. The other issues around which the Tube Cleaners are striking are gendered, racialised, class issues – the disproportionate representation of women of colour in “heavy care” jobs; the racialised and gendered stereotypes that make this seem normal and justify underpaying them; the way in which the uncertain immigration status of the workers is being used to blackmail them into compliance; and the whole issue of how no one is responsible because of the way TfL has outsourced cleaning to a company, which has itself further outsourced the cleaning. So when we wrote to TfL, the letter we got back essentially said “hey, we don’t pay them directly, so it’s not our problem.”
These are systemic issues – while these women are experiencing violence (especially if, like me, you very much believe in the Jesuit idea that purposefully keeping people poor is a form of violence), their experience can’t just be reduced to the actions of an individual man against an individual woman. Plus, there are women on the TfL board, and I bet there are women in the upper echelons of the various outsourcing companies. And of course, women take the Tube everyday, and benefit from it being clean. So more privileged women are participating and benefiting from the oppression of the Tube Cleaners.
All of which is to say, I guess, that Zenobia, if you are planning a socialist feminist magasine of some kind? Sign me up.
November 21, 2008
Zenobia has the fantastic post up, asking who is feminism reaching, and pointing out that the way a lot of contemporary feminism works (ie meeting weeknights in city centre bars) means that a lot of women are inadvertently excluded because they can’t come to meetings and the issues discussed don’t seem immediately relevant to their lives. Zenobia recommends that feminists get involved in more community-based groups instead, and I couldn’t possibly agree more. First of all, you’ll probably have a much more positive impact on people’s lives in the short-term, especially with the current severe democratic deficit. Building a community garden, for example, might improve people’s lives directly and immediately in a way that marching at this year’s RTN may not (especially as I’m not convinced RTN accomplishes what it sets out to do, but that’s a whole other issue).
Furthermore, the revolution is not going to be engineered by a small group of elite activists while everyone else just goes along with it. It’s going to come about when some sort of critical mass of people who refuse to do what authority tells them to is reached. Or basically – what if the soldiers sent to Iraq refused to fight? The army couldn’t court martial ALL of them, so they’d have to give up on the war. Similarly, wouldn’t it be better if men were educated to believe that they were not entitled to women’s bodies, and so no rapes occurred, rather than locking up rapists after the fact (and let’s not even start on the oppressive nature of the prison system). Additionally, community-based work will hopefully expose privileged activists to less privileged people (thereby, for example, convincing middle-class white women that racism is a feminist issue!) and recruit a wider variety of people to activism. On the latter point, I remember an interview an American anarchist was giving about building the anarchist movement. And he said that all anarchists should get involved in a community project – and don’t mention anarchism once. Work really hard, and develop a reputation as a really dedicated activist who really knows his/her stuff – and don’t mention anarchism. And finally, if someone asks you about your politics, then talk about anarchism a bit. If they’re still interested, invite them to a meeting, but don’t push it. Basically, if people respect you, and you’re an anarchist, they’ll be interested in anarchism; but if you’re a jackass, they’ll just write you and anarchism off.
However, a lot of the “activism” done by “activist groups”, ie protesting, circulating petitions, etc. is also really necessary. Everyone is going to be negatively affected, for example, if rape crisis centres lose their funding; but the free time and money necessary to pitch up in front of parliament protesting once a week is not a universal attribute. Some kinds of activism, particularly the time-consuming kinds and the kind that risks arrest, often require the people who do them to have a certain amount of privilege (this is not always true, and people braver than I often risk arrest despite being far less privileged). White people with British citizenship are risking less by getting arrested then migrants, or British people of colour. Yet, as Zenobia discusses, these campaigns are significantly weakened by their membership consisting mainly of privileged people. Plus, the important community-based work, discussed above, is not getting done.
The solution, I think, is to conceptualise progressive/radical movements as having multiple fronts, with need for excellent communication and collaboration between fronts. For example, No Borders is an anti-capitalist activist group the members of which are mainly middle class and mainly white (there are both people of colour and working-class people in No Border, but they’re in the minority). A lot of this comes from how people get involved with No Borders (often through university) and the fact that No Borders is a direct action group, which means being willing, in theory at least, to risk arrest. No Borders is very clear that they don’t think less of people who can’t take this risk, and I’ve never felt looked down upon because I can’t be arrested (whereas I’ve totally felt that in a feminist space before). Similarly, the preponderance of students means a lot of protests are held during office hours; this is good insofar as it means you can protest in front of government buildings while employees are actually there, but it also means that a lot of people (myself included) can’t go to the protests. There are serious problems with such a homogenous membership; on the other hand, it’s important to have people that can protest during office hours and can risk arrest.
Activists in individual anti-deportation campaigns are often working-class and much more likely to be people of colour. That’s because an individual anti-deportation campaign involves a person’s friends and neighbours rallying around him/her, and asylum-seekers are usually placed in council estates. Some inspiring stories of solidarity have come out of anti-deportation campaigns. The government, for example, won’t send asylum-seekers to certain areas of Glasgow anymore because whenever they tried to deport someone, their neighbours would run and stand in front of the person’s door, so immigration officials couldn’t get through. And these were always really grim, impoverished areas, where the government has blamed asylum-seekers for their own failure to do anything to alleviate that poverty. Yet, the residents were able to see through this propaganda, and came to the defence of their neighbours.
Individual anti-deportation campaigns are crucially important – they save people’s lives. They also expose British citizens to the racism and injustice of the asylum system, and cause people to question the basic justice of borders. But they won’t necessarily lead to an open borders policy, nor do they help people who aren’t asylum-seekers (migrant workers, for example), nor anyone who cannot rally community support.
Both types of activism, clearly, are important and necessary. Ideally, there should be close communication and collaboration between No Borders and the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns (and there often is). Those of us who have the time should get involved in both and act as a personal link between groups.
Multiple fronts are also necessary because of the inadvertent negative impact that activism can have, particularly on less privileged people. If detention centres are shut down, their staff will all be thrown out of work. Not only are working-class people more likely to find themselves in situations where they are hurt most by otherwise positive changes caused by activism (if an airline stops deporting people, they will lose money and may have to lay off staff), but they are less likely to have the resources required to recover quickly from this impact. If detention centres are shut down, the governor of the detention centre will also lose his/her job, but he’ll probably find another one pretty quickly and/or has savings and bonds and whatnot that s/he can live off of until then.
Consequently, it’s important that activists campaigning for the close of detention centres are ALSO supportive of retraining schemes and job creation programs, etc. I think this will also make us better activists, because when you scratch the surface a bit, you often see that apparently unrelated issues are in fact linked. The government’s failure to act on poverty issues, and it’s subsequent scape-goating of migrants, contributes a lot to the xenophobic atmosphere that No Borders is trying to combat.
The first step in building a movement that functions on multiple fronts is to follow Zenobia’s advice and join a local community centre. You’ll probably learn a lot more from the people there than they will learn from you. And remember: don’t mention anarchism (or feminism) until someone specifically asks.
November 14, 2008
So at the last Feminist Fightback meeting, we were having a debate about where capitalism and racism fit in our analysis of women’s oppression. One woman, B, was arguing that women’s oppression had it’s origins in class exploitation. As is obvious if you’ve read this blog, I strongly disagree with that. What really disturbed me about some of what she’d said, however, is that she outright denied the existence of white privilege – all working-class people, in her opinion, are equally oppressed.
I was arguing for the intersection of all oppressions, but because of what she’d said about race, I spent a fair amount of time on white privilege. I figured someone in a feminist group might say that sexism is less important than class exploitation, but she’s here, right? However, white privilege is clearly a huge issue in the British feminist movement, and one which I struggle with alot myself.
Somewhere, however, things went horribly, horribly wrong, insofar as I managed to alienate B’s friend C, who is one of the few Afro-Caribbean women to ever come to a Feminist Fightback meeting, who said she felt as if I was being condescending and that she generally felt alienated and erased.
Now, I think there are things on which C & I would disagree no matter what. But clearly, I must have made several serious errors of communication if I ended up alienating C to that extent.
My comments are below. Where do you think I went wrong? I’d really, really appreciate feedback. There are very few people that I can talk to about trying to develop as an anti-racist feminist. Feminism here is really segregated, and rarely goes beyond trying to get a woman of colour to speak at your event. There’s no real commitment to fighting racism as a key structure of UK society. So I really need your help & input. And yeah, if you think I was completely out of line, please say so – there’s no need to try to soften the blow or anything. Thanks!!!
NB for non-UK readers – BME means Black & Minority Ethnic and is the preferred term (I think) for people of colour in the UK, at least in non-academic circles. I tend to use both terms.
What I said
When I went to get my visa in Liverpool, my partner and I were the only couple in the room where both parties were white. Most of the other people in the room were people of colour. At the time, we were worried because we technically did not have enough money to support ourselves – luckily, the immigration officer barely checked. She literally flipped through my paycheck and said “what’s important is you have a steady job. Come back in an hour.” Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice that the immigration officers treated my partner & I way better than everybody else in the room. When I came back to pick up my visa, the same woman was speaking rudely to an African couple.
This is what I mean by white privilege. It’s not my fault that the immigration officers were polite to me and rude to the BME people. I was unhappy that they were like this. But I benefited from it nonetheless, regardless of whether I agreed with the immigration officers’ behaviour.
Class exploitation does not directly cause women’s oppression. Yes, women’s oppression began in a class based society, but that does not mean it was caused by a class-based society – after all, women’s oppression also came about in a world where the atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, and women’s oppression is not caused by nitrogen.
Even if you do think that class exploitation causes women’s oppression, it should be clear that today sexism as an ideology exists independently of capitalism as does racism, as do numerous other oppressions, like transphobia, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. In the interests of simplicity, I am going to focus on Capitalism, Sexism and Racism.
Basically, I would argue that Sexism, Racism and Capitalism are interconnected systems of oppression. What that means is that they all feed into each other, and shape each other, and you can’t really consider them separately. I tend to think of this as a tangled ball of yarn. Sometimes, you can tug a small piece of yarn free – and women get the vote; a Black man is elected President; a minimum wage is achieved. But you will never untangle the yarn completely unless you are working at all the oppressions at once.
So, women’s oppression won’t be ended while capitalism exists, but ending capitalism won’t automatically end women’s oppression. And as a white woman, I think it’s important for me to fight against racism, not out of a sense of charity, but because I will never be liberated while racism still exists.
I think we realised this when we were campaigning in solidarity with the tube cleaners. We didn’t say that they were working-class people who happened to be immigrant women from Africa & Asia. Rather, we recognised that their gender and their race and their immigration status were also key to their oppression. That they were underpaid because their work was viewed as “women’s work”, but that the type of work they were doing is often assigned to BME women. For example, the Windrush generation of women often found themselves employed in the heavy care industry, because it fulfilled the gender stereotype of women doing care work, and the racial stereotype of black people doing the heavy lifting.
And in the tubecleaners campaign, we were able to use the privilege that some of us have of being white and holding British passports (not me, obviously) in a subversive way in service of the tubecleaners campaign, by risking arrest.
So, white privilege exists and that has to be recognised. You can’t change the world unless you recognise how the world works. And once you recognise your white privilege, you can then try to figure out who to use it subversively.
We’ve been quite properly critical of the Fawcett Society’s sexism in the city campaign because they treat the sexism experienced by the CEO and the sexism experienced by the cleaner the same. Of course, the sexism experienced by the cleaner is very different from the sexism experienced by the CEO. If we don’t recognise white privilege, I think we risk becoming the class-based version of the Fawcett Society. Women experience sexism differently because of their race and class, and our campaigns have to recognise this. We have to fight all oppressions simultaneously, not out of a sense of charity, but because while racism exists none of us will be free.
November 13, 2008
There’s actually a fairly interesting piece in The Guardian today by Zoe Williams on the subject of prostitution. I say fairly interesting, because I think she’s right about how prostitution is viewed by the general public.
Basically, Williams argues that the current discussion around sex work tends to divide sex workers into three areas – “high class” prostitutes like Belle De Jour; street workers feeding drug habits, and “proper low life sex industry hookers” with no “personal agency” and who are so disadvantaged they can be considered as “kidnapped.” Therefore, the issue becomes less that people go to prostitutes full-stop but that they exploit vulnerable people (and Williams gets serious bonus points from me for including European women who travel overseas for sex from local men as exploiters; shockingly, I find exploitation based on racial and class privilege as appalling as exploitation based on gender privilege). This is especially true if you take the stigma out of sex – then it does seem like for “high class” prostitutes, sex work is just a job like any other.
Williams argues, though, that ultimately no feminist can align herself as “pro-prostitution” because so much of it involves violence against women.
First of all, I think it’s very perceptive of Williams to recognise that “ordinary” sex workers, the ones working in brothels, flats, etc. are often constructed as having no personal agency, and I think that the feminist movement actually has a lot to answer for here. I remember having a surreal conversation once with some radical feminists where they argued that it was OK to chant outside a strip-club because the strippers were colluding with the patriarchy. About 5 minutes later, the same women were arguing that all sex workers are effectively slaves since no one can be said to “choose” sex work. Obviously, both of these statements can’t be true.
Any discussion of sex work has to involve a discussion of what we mean by personal agency and “choice.” No one makes completely free choices; are options are limited not only by material factors (ie I’d like to do a full-time PhD but I can’t afford it) and also by ideological, discursive factors (I don’t like showing my bare legs when they are hairy, which is clearly internalised sexism). I do believe that within these confines, however, free will is possible. I can’t afford to do a full-time PhD, so I’ll do a part-time one; but I’ve still made a decision regarding whether I want to do a PhD. I don’t feel comfortable in bare legs if my legs are hairy, but I can choose whether to shave my legs or whether to wear trousers. This is the arena of personal agency.
Most of the writing I’ve read by sex workers, and many of the sex workers I’ve met, are people trying to make the best of some fairly appalling situations. There was a well-known case in Thailand a few years ago where some American missionaries attempted to “rescue” a whole bunch of sex workers, who then ran away from the American mission at the earliest available opportunity. The missionaries weren’t going to feed their families.
This doesn’t mean that sex work is a “good job” – and I’d really appreciate it if certain radical feminists could stop caricaturing everyone else’s beliefs in this way. I agree wholeheartedly with Williams that it usually involves appalling violence and exploitation. What it means is that we should be focusing on the structures that put people into situations where sex work seems like the best of a lot of bad options – not only sexism, but capitalism, racism (First Nations women are disproportionately represented among sex workers in Canada), imperialism, homophobia, migration controls, transphobia (trans*people are disproportionately represented among sex workers), the lack of routes out of sex work, a justice system that treats an illness (drug addiction) as a crime, etc. And clearly, neither side of the criminalise/decriminalise debate addresses these issues. I believe in the decriminalisation of sex work myself, but only because I think it would make addressing a lot of the above issues a lot easier.
I also do think it’s fair to say that not only are some people properly forced into sex work (kidnapped and held against their will), but that for some people the constraining factors are such it’s hard to see whether they are actually exercising agency. I’m thinking particularly of people who get into sex work to feed a drug habit, and also people who were subjected to such appalling sexual abuse as children, and have so many mental health issues because of it, that it’s hard to see what they are doing as a choice. I know at least one person who falls into the latter category, and she does not see herself as having “chosen” sex work, but does see herself as having been “forced”.
But what of “high class” sex workers? Victims? Or are they colluding with violence against women by suggesting that sex work is a job like any other? I certainly feel Williams’ discomfort on this issue. As a friend of mine once said “I don’t judge sex workers, but I feel perfectly comfortable judging their clientele.” No matter how “high class” the sex worker in question is, no matter how able to choose his/her clients, I still have this gut feeling that buying sex from someone is somehow inherently exploitative. And I can’t tell you exactly why – as sex workers have pointed out, there are a lot of people whose jobs are just as intimate and are “affective”, ie. designed to make other people feel something. Is the care worker being paid minimum wage to give people sponge baths really less exploited than the “high class” sex worker?
I think part of it is that we live in a society where sexuality is considered key to our identity in a way that washing other people is not. And I do think it’s significant that most sex workers are women in a society where women are often reduced to sex; in that light buying sex from a woman seems almost equivalent to buying the woman (though I know many sex workers find this idea objectionable).
I do think the existence of people like Belle de Jour serves as a sop to the patriarchal conscience. She’s not a victim, so it’s perfectly OK to buy sex, even from women in more dire straits!! However, that seems to hold the sex workers accountable for the actions of their clients, which is clearly unfair. Sex work as an industry exists because people are willing to buy sex; is it fair to blame the people who take advantage of this to make ends meet? If all the Belle de Jours of the world gave up the sex industry, that might put a dent in the idea that buying sex is OK, but it wouldn’t end the industry in and of itself. So while “high class” sex workers might be reinforcing the sex industry, that reinforcement is dependent upon a complete abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the clients. Guess who I think is really responsible in this case?
Additionally, I’ve met a couple of “high class” sex workers and they’ve always said that they felt less exploited as a stripper/dominatrix/porn star, etc. than they did in their regular jobs. That’s pretty significant and suggests, once again, that the overarching issue of capitalism has to be addressed when discussing the sex industry.
With regard to the aforementioned care giver – I think we have to stop seeing it as a competition. Certainly, this is also something the feminist movement is responsible for; the notion that no other job is as exploitative as sex work and consequently that no other workers are as exploited. It’s not a competition. The care giver is alsoexploited, and you know what – that’s a feminist issue. Please see BFP’s fantastic post on migrant farm workers in the US and then ask yourself if you still believe that sex workers are automatically the most victimised people in the world.
As in so many other areas, I think often feminists are looking for a “magic bullet” or a quick fix – and I definitely think that’s what Harriet Harman is looking for. There is no quick fix; prostitution is the consequence of multiple systems of oppression, not the cause, and it will not be solved by a simple legal change. The best statement I’ve ever read on the issue of sex work was from UBUNTU! a sex worker’s collective from North Carolina (h/t BFP). They argue that activism around sex work should move away from criminalisation v decriminalisation and reconceptualised as being responsible to the communities involved? What would this look like?
November 10, 2008
Dear Julie Bindel,
Some people are trans*lesbians.
P.S I’ve never read the 2004 article you reference. Rather, I’ve read a later article you wrote arguing that transpeople are really cisgendered gay people who have been brainwashed by systemic homophobia into undergoing a sex-change operation so they can be “straight.” And your evidence for this was your contention that such a thing was happening in Iran. Not only does this whole line of argument rest on the assumption that all trans*people are heterosexual (which they aren’t), but it also rests on the assumption that homophobia has the exact same effect in a country where being gay carries the death penalty as it does in a country where civil unions are legal. And also that you know what you’re talking about vis a vis trans*people in Iran, which I have my doubts about.
So rest assured, I’m not judging you to be transphobic based on your 2004 article. I’m judging you to be so based on everything I’ve ever read or heard by you on the subject of trans*people.
November 4, 2008
In today’s Comment is Free, Khaled Diab writes that the Dutch government wants to bring in a law that would sentence women deemed to be unfit mothers to take contraception for two years. If they become pregnant during this time, their newborn infant will be taken away from them.
I’m not even sure where to start with this. Such a law is clearly a serious violation of women’s rights. First of all, it forces women to take contraception, thus denying them their right to bodily autonomy and to choose whether or not they want to have children. Secondly, it places the onus of good parenting entirely on women – notice there’s no mention of what happens to “bad” fathers. Thirdly, it denies the presumption of innocence – a person might be a bad parent for some reason, possibly beyond their control (ie postpartum depression) but then be a very good parent to their next child.
Finally, as Diab points out, this law might end up being used to target “undesirable” groups like Roma and immigrants. Realistically, I think there’s no “maybe” about it, and that impoverished mothers should be included in Diab’s list of “the undesirables” targetted by this law. The Netherlands, like the rest of Europe, is getting more and more xenophobic. I read an article in Le Monde Diplomatique about 6 months ago describing campaigns by far-right groups throughout Europe “encouraging” white women to have more children and trying to prevent people of colour and immigrants from having more children, in order to “preserve white Europe” (of course, in reality, Europe has neverbeen a completely white continent). Across Europe, including the UK, family-friendly workplace policies have been promoted, which is good, but they have been promoted on the grounds they will enable European families (and really, if you examine the policies, middle-class European families) to have more children – thus meaning that immigrant workers will no longer be required. Meanwhile, the demonisation of impoverished people and people on benefits continues, and there is less and less support for parents and children on social assistance.
Diab seems to think that the bill will fail in Parliament because it violate the Dutch Constitution. We can only hope.