Ideals and realities in arguing about safety and sex work

Here’s an imaginary conversation:

AYESHA – I’m a factory farm worker. What I do can sometimes be quite dangerous, but if the law could be changed by doing X, Y, Z, then I and other factory farm workers would be safer.
BEN – I know someone who was a factory farm worker, and he hated it. We shouldn’t change X, Y, Z in the law to make it safer to be a factory farm worker, we should help people to get out of having to do factory farm work.
CHLOE – Also, lots of factory farm workers are trafficked, so if we make their work safer by changing laws X, Y, Z, lots more people will be trafficked.
AYESHA – But actually, I just want to be safer when I go to my work, and doing X, Y, Z would do that…
DONALD – Well, factory farm work is morally wrong. If we change laws X, Y, Z we would be encouraging something that is morally wrong!  We can’t possibly do it!
ESTHER – And I know someone who was injured doing factory farm work.  It’s such dangerous work, and we should focus on closing factory farming down as soon as possible – changing laws X, Y, Z isn’t going to help closing it down, is it?  It might even do the opposite!
AYESHA – But changing the laws X, Y, Z will make my work safer. It’s not just me saying that – lots of factory farm workers say the same thing.
FUAD – I don’t know about that, but I’ve worked with people who were injured in other contexts, and changing laws X, Y, Z wouldn’t have helped them, I’m sure of it.
GEMMA – Just because factory farm workers say changing X, Y, Z will make them safer doesn’t make it so. I know several ex-factory farm workers and none of them were happy doing that work.
AYESHA – But for all sorts of reasons I don’t want to change my work just now. Why can’t I just be safer when I go back to my work tomorrow by changing laws X, Y, Z?
EVERYONE ELSE – Hey, Ayesha, for lots of reasons we don’t want to make the changes you say would your work safer, but come with us and we’ll help you get out of that work, ok?
AYESHA – Why is it that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and other important rights groups will listen to me, but none of you will?

That’s a silly conversation, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t we support Ayesha’s calls for safer working practices?

Now try reading it again, replacing ‘factory farm’ with the word ‘sex’ (see below if you want to just read it straight through).

After I posted my longer text on Amnesty International and sex work on Sunday, an article on a similar topic by Carolyn Leckie appeared in Monday’s National. However, she misrepresents what Amnesty is saying, leading me to wonder how thoroughly she read their documents.  For example, she says: ‘the charity is also calling for the decriminalisation of pimps, brothel keepers and the vast global industry whose profits are built from the exploitation of girls, women, and young men mainly drawn from the depths of the extreme poor.’  Amnesty has said nothing of the kind, even though it is what popular misrepresentations (from Hollywood celebrities etc.) have said that is what it’s calling for (all the relevant AI documents are linked to in the opening section of my Sunday blog posting if you want to go and check these for yourself).  Why, then, is Leckie saying that – didn’t she read the AI documents (properly) before writing her article?  I don’t know her personally, but in general she strikes me as someone with immense personal integrity, so I’m confused by this.

Since my and Leckie’s pieces appeared, I’ve had very appreciative conversations about my position, but I’ve also had comments reflecting all the points in the conversation above.  When I pointed out in one setting that Leckie was misrepresenting AI, I was told it was patronising to assume she hadn’t read AI’s documents, and asked whether I thought this ‘because she comes to a different conclusion from you?’  The most astonishing comment was ‘Whether or not this lady got Amnesty’s stance correct, everything she said is spot on!’  Well, duh!  Let’s not pay attention to any evidence or misrepresentations, I know what I know!

<sigh>

Beyond my positionality (see point 1 in Sunday’s blog) I have no personal axe to grind here.  I have never paid money to someone so they would have sex with me (see point 12), though that doesn’t mean sex was not at some point perhaps ‘paid for’ (see points 10-14).  I don’t know that any of my friends or colleagues are or have been sex workers, though there is no reason why I should expect to know that; if any of them are, my primary concern would be their safety (see e.g. point 19).  Bizarrely, arguing for safer working conditions for those engaged in sex work – many of them women – seems for some not to be a priority.  Rather, it seems many think that Leckie’s simplistic and unhelpful closing polemic applies to me and so many others: ‘For all the liberals out there who argue prostitution is just another contractual freedom, how do you feel being the defender of the man on top?’

I can barely believe I need to say this, but I’m not ‘a defender of the man on top’.  I’m actually arguing, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International (amongst others), that people who engage in sex work should be as safe as possible and if they say doing X, Y and Z would make them safer, I want to take that seriously.  Whilst I decry the commodification of the body in capitalist patriarchal contexts (including, therefore, sex work: see points 20-21), until such time as the commodification of bodies has ended (if it ever does), I want the actual practice of sex work to be as safe as possible for the workers.  Rape, abuse and assault is not an acceptable price to pay just so that I can maintain an idealised principled opposition to patriarchal capitalist exploitation of commodified bodies.  Why would anyone think it was?  We need to strive to make reality more like our – not yet achieved – ideals (see points 2-4), but I don’t see how enabling sex workers be safer in the here and now calls ideals we should strive towards into question.

I recognise that what I have experienced in the last couple of days in this kind of discourse is just a fraction of what sex workers have to put up with if they engage publicly with these issues.  That increases my respect for them enormously.  All I would urge – again – is that we listen to as many voices as possible, including those who were and are sex workers.  As Robert J.C. Young says (see point 18), it behooves us to listen to what the subaltern, the marginalised have to say.  That means not just the subaltern and marginalised that we want to hear, but also voices that we might not like to hear because they demand more nuance from us than our ideals allow.  I’m trying hard to listen.

If factory farm workers argued for certain changes to make them safer, we’d listen to them.  Why don’t we do the same when sex workers tell us what would make them safer?  What is our agenda there?  I simply cannot see how ignoring their calls for safer practice is defending the woman underneath (to use Leckie’s terms!).

—————

Here’s the opening conversation again, with the words replaced:

AYESHA – I’m a sex worker. What I do can sometimes be quite dangerous, but if the law could be changed by doing X, Y, Z, then I and other sex workers would be safer.
BEN – I know someone who was a sex worker, and he hated it. We shouldn’t change X, Y, Z in the law to make it safer to be a sex worker, we should help people to get out of having to do sex work.
CHLOE – Also, lots of sex workers are trafficked, so if we make their work safer by changing laws X, Y, Z, lots more people will be trafficked.
AYESHA – But actually, I just want to be safer when I go to my work, and doing X, Y, Z would do that…
DONALD – Well, sex work is morally wrong. If we change laws X, Y, Z we would be encouraging something that is morally wrong!  We can’t possibly do it!
ESTHER – And I know someone who was injured doing sex work.  It’s such dangerous work, and we should focus on closing sex work down as soon as possible – changing laws X, Y, Z isn’t going to help closing it down, is it?  It might even do the opposite!
AYESHA – But changing the laws X, Y, Z will make my work safer. It’s not just me saying that – lots of sex workers say the same thing.
FUAD – I don’t know about that, but I’ve worked with people who were injured in other contexts, and changing laws X, Y, Z wouldn’t have helped them, I’m sure of it.
GEMMA – Just because sex workers say changing X, Y, Z will make them safer doesn’t make it so. I know several ex-sex workers and none of them were happy doing that work.
AYESHA – But for all sorts of reasons I don’t want to change my work just now. Why can’t I just be safer when I go back to my work tomorrow by changing laws X, Y, Z?
EVERYONE ELSE – Hey, Ayesha, for lots of reasons we don’t want to make the changes you say would your work safer, but come with us and we’ll help you get out of that work, ok?
AYESHA – Why is it that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and other important rights groups will listen to me, but none of you will?

21 points: Amnesty International, sex work, human rights, patriarchy – and me

An anti-image image...

An anti-image image…

There has been a lot of comment in recent days on Amnesty’s report about the rights of sex workers, supported by the 32nd International Council Meeting; this follows many other global rights organisations adopting similar positions, though Amnesty’s decision has been very high profile. Although the draft policy was an internal document, it has been doing the rounds online. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here (and because I’m not sure if that’s a permanent link, I’ve also copied it to my blog here). There is a useful Q&A here. At the risk of sounding very patronising, because this blog posting is broadly about the Amnesty report rather than the hyperbole around it in much of the mainstream media, please don’t comment on here if you haven’t taken the time to read it (it’s not that long) – I do, however, welcome informed opinions.

A few days ago I read an excellent short article by Alison Phipps (@alisonphipps) on this topic, and I am not going to repeat her arguments here, which make a lot of sense to me. But I wanted to offer some reflections on the question of sex work, in part prompted by Phipps’ comments. So this blog is an articulation of a position away from a fairly unreflected acceptance of what I now see as a rather regressive position that supported, for example, the ‘Nordic model’ and a condemnation of sex work from what I thought was a clear feminist perspective. Influences here include colleagues and friends, as well as my reading and helpful interactions with people online; not all espouse positions I agree with, but all have given me food for thought, and I particularly want to mention folk like James MacKenzie (@mrjamesmack), Molly Smith (pseudonym for @pastachips), Lesley Orr (@LesleyOrr14), Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan (@nadadurkannan) and my wife, Rev. Sigrid Marten (the latter two were kind enough to read and comment on drafts; all responsibility for the content is mine, of course).  Do follow all these wonderful people if you’re on Twitter!

Some general starting principles

  1. My positionality – where I write from – is very important here. There are multiple ways to identify and self-identify, but in different contexts different identities matter more than others. In writing about sex work I think it is unlikely to matter much that I like cats, but it is important that I am white, middle-class, have European passports, identify as cis-male, and am married. I generally try to avoid describing myself as heterosexual or bisexual or homosexual (etc.) because for myself I think understanding practice and performativity are more interesting and useful than such identifying markers (e.g. same-sex sex is not necessarily the same as homosexuality, cf. Joseph Massad Desiring Arabs (2007) and more broadly Judith Butler Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993)).
  2. At the core of my very being, I believe that all people are created equal (and in contexts in which I would describe myself as Christian, I would say, ‘all people are created equal in the sight of God’).
  3. Of course, not all people are equal. Very obviously, my own positionality (see 1.) points to that. Globally and locally, we all live in profoundly unequal societies – that barely needs stating! Inequality occurs in multiple forms, based on economic, social, gender, environmental and a host of other factors. Core to many of these – and arguably at the root of them – is an entrenched, constructed, and continually reinforced heteronormative patriarchy that manifests itself in all kinds of ways: social, economic, racial, and so on. In my view, capitalism plays a key role in this, and that necessitates the subversion of capital whenever and wherever possible – I think we need to ‘throw sand in the works’ (as Dipesh Chakrabarty effectively argues in Provincializing Europe (2000) chapter 2). In the meantime, patriarchy and capitalism rely upon and mutually reinforce one another.
  4. I do not want to live in a society that allows one segment to dominate another, destroying the meaningful relationships we should have witheach another. Because society is riven with inequality, we need to counteract that. Whether equality is something that will ever be achieved is irrelevant – we need to seek to do it, because it is in the doing that we subvert the dominant paradigms and structures that harm relations between people (in broadly Christian terms this can be seen as: ‘we are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful’). Subverting the dominant paradigms often requires structures and organisations, and in a work place context, for example, one of the ways of doing that is through trades unions and similar bodies: these help ensure the rights of workers are respected and that people in working contexts are treated justly.

Sex, love, gift exchange, and commodity exchange

  1. My usage of the term ‘sex’ in this context is very basic: intimate physical interaction between two or more people; i.e. I am generally using the term to here to describe the act of sex, rather than highlighting the (often very useful) differentiation between gender and sex.
  2. Sex happens in all kinds of contexts. There is an ideal within many parts of Christian and more generally Western thought that sex should only happen in the context of a loving, long-term exclusive relationship between two people, and in that context it should be something that happens by mutual consent (this latter point especially, is relatively new: for example, I think it was only in 1989 that my own country, Scotland, outlawed marital rape). Whilst, unsurprisingly perhaps, I subscribe to much of this (and always the consent part), it is clearly an ideal that can also result in an unhelpful mystification of and about sex. Sex is far more complex than that, and there are many other contexts in which people can and do have consensual sex with one another. In any discussion about sex and sex work the question of consent is one that I think requires careful consideration, and I want to comment on that briefly before returning to other elements of this debate.
  3. Consent I: much of Western philosophical tradition (especially from Kant onwards) – in which my own positionality very broadly places me – posits each person as having absolute free will and agency to choose and act as they see fit in all contexts. This after all, is the basis of much of our society’s systems of organisations: if I commit a crime, the courts hold that I could also have chosen not to commit that crime – that’s free will. However, it is patently not the case that all people have absolute free will and agency. Rather, we are constricted by all kinds of circumstances and contexts. Poverty, for example, can be a serious impediment to choices about healthy eating or good accommodation etc. All the free will in the world is not much good if your free will is to buy healthier food, but you don’t have enough money for it (in my view this is, of course, a necessary function of capitalism: it nourishes and fosters inequality, and needs some things to be available only to a few – if everyone could afford to buy luxuries, they would no longer be luxuries). Aside from financial restrictions, there are numerous other restrictions on a person’s ability to exercise free will (this is worth reading for an introduction to the topic).
  4. Consent II: Nonetheless, unless someone is captured/imprisoned/trafficked, I would hold that most people have some level of agency and free will, even if that is circumscribed by external circumstances. Amnesty is writing explicitly about such contexts and not about trafficking or child sexual abuse victims, which are clearly criminal practices to be wholly condemned.
  5. Presuming some level of agency, people can engage in sex with one another with varying degrees of freedom and choice. Sex between people who want to have sex with one another following the ideals outlined in 6. above, does, of course happen (a lot! and can be glorious!), but equally, there are other times when sex happens and it is perhaps not something that participants feel equally strongly about: even on a very banal level, someone might be tired and prefer to sleep rather than have sex! And yet, sometimes a sleepy person might be willing to engage in sex, even if they are not the initiator of it. That can still be consensual sex (needless to say, ‘no’ absolutely still means ‘no’).
  6. Sex can also happen in the context of gift exchange, and I would argue that it often occurs in such a context, to the extent that it can be difficult for some to identify it as such. Gift exchange is a concept that involves exchange without the explicit expectation of an immediate return (the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski first articulated this idea, then developed by others; I also find Arjun Appadurai The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986) very helpful in this regard: the question of commodification is one I’ll come to below). It is often said that gift exchange helps to build relationships and communities, and Malinowski argued that whilst it was not a form of exchange like a market (I give something, on condition that at the same time I get something else of an agreed equivalent value – a version of commodity exchange), gift exchange did involve an expectation of reciprocity; to put it rather simplistically, he argued against there being truly free gifts that involved no expectation of return (at some point). Of course, he was studying a particular (non-market economy) context, but in a market-economy context, we can see a mixture of gift and commodity exchange, with the boundaries between the two often becoming rather blurred. In my view, there are few occasions when we completely freely give to others with absolutely no expectation of return: to think of an example beyond the question of sex, I would argue that even an ostensibly altruistic act such as the anonymous giving of blood is perhaps accompanied (or even motivated) by the thought that ‘it could be me (or a loved one) that has an accident and the doctors then need to have blood reserves they could use’.
  7. If we accept, as I broadly do, that much of human interaction involves some level of gift exchange (when not involving commodity exchange), this means that the free choice and agency to ‘give’ sex (i.e. to offer oneself for sex with others) becomes more complex. We might, for example, agree to have sex with others because we feel some kind of obligation to them as a result of receiving intangible gifts (arguably this is then a form of gift exchange) or material gifts (arguably this is a form of commodity exchange). It may be that this is still consensual sex, but I think the boundaries around this are undoubtedly fuzzier – potentially very much so. This is especially the case because in a patriarchal societal structure such as ours, it will very often be women who are exploited by men to feel that they should ‘give’ sex. In such contexts a woman’s free will and agency is clearly severely circumscribed.
  8. I have never given anyone money in order to be ‘given’ sex (i.e. in order for them to offer themselves for sex with me), but I find it hard to categorically rule out that none of the people with whom I have had sex might not have felt some element of what I have described in 9.-11. above. I have certainly had sex with someone when I would probably not have initiated sex with them (yes, I might just have preferred sleep!), and the reverse has undoubtedly happened too. I have also felt that the pleasure of sex was something that when someone else initiated it, I could ‘give in exchange’ for something they had done for me. As we live in a patriarchal society and because my positionality means that I am an integral part of the dominant element of that patriarchal structure (however much I might want to rail against it), I think it is almost inevitable (and indeed, far more likely) that I will have had sex with a woman who perhaps felt that this was something she ‘gave in exchange’ for something I had done for her, however much I might perhaps have told myself at the time that this was not the case and that she was giving herself sexually of her own free will. (Note that the fact that I cannot immediately think of an instance in which that might have happened does not necessarily mean it did or did not happen. More than anything it is, perhaps, an acknowledgement that my deep complicity with patriarchal power structures is something I struggle to escape from; furthermore, it is likely that a woman with whom I had sex ‘given in exchange’ will recall that, since in contexts of inequality the dominant is often blind to such understandings, however well-intentioned they may be).
  9. Hesitant though I generally am to extrapolate from my own experiences to more general principles, I see no reason not to expect that what I have described in 11. and 12. is common to a great many people, men and women, of all sexual orientations.
  10. Therefore, the idea of ‘paying’ for sex is one that I think requires more questioning and honesty than most people – especially men! – are willing to give it. If we accept that Malinowski, Appadurai and similar theorists of gift and commodity exchange are broadly right, as I do, then many of us have ‘paid’ for sex in some form at some point, andnot handing over bank notes to a sexual partner can then be understood as simply a question of degree. I think very few of us are immune to the blurring of the boundaries between gift and commodity exchange that a patriarchal capitalist market system encourages.

Sex work and rights of sex workers

  1. Recognising that not all sex occurs within the ideal outlined in 6. above, but rather can and does occur in a wider patriarchal context of gift and commodity exchange, we can perhaps understand what Amnesty has been addressing more closely. Sex work, using Amnesty’s definition (p6-7, also of the term sex worker) is about sex as commodified exchange between individuals (note that this is variously described as prostitution, whoring and so on, but in general I prefer to use the term ‘sex work’ as it emphasises the labour without making a moral judgement).
  2. Amnesty accepts the existence of sex work but is certainly not arguing that men have any kind of ‘right’ to buy sexual services from women in a commodified exchange relationship (men buying women’s services is the dominant though not exclusive form of sex work, though there is also evidence in many global contexts that a disproportionate number of trans people engage in sex work, e.g. Turkey). Nor is Amnesty arguing for unregulated sex work – that’s not what decriminalisation means (‘Decriminalisation of sex work does not mean the total absence of any regulation of sex work. Rather, it means that any regulation must be focussed on respecting and protecting sex workers’ human rights, for example through requirements such as occupational health and safety standards.’ (p7) Apart from anything else, I would also argue that in a market economy a lack of regulation brings no benefits to those most affected).
  3. What Amnesty does do is recognise the role that wider social contexts play in the commodification of sex, including factors that can, but don’t necessarily, lead some people to engage in sex work because of the limited choices available to them for other employment, for example: ‘Evidence that sex workers often engage in sex work due to marginalisation and limited choices, and that therefore Amnesty International will urge states to take appropriate measures to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will or is compelled to rely on it as their only means of survival, and to ensure that people are able to stop sex work if and when they choose.’ (p5)
    This, then, is about wider societal contexts – sex work is not something abstracted from wider society, but an integral part of it, even if that is often unacknowledged (see 19. below)
  4. What Amnesty has also done is base their position on research amongst sex workers from many parts of the globe. In other words, the voices of sex workers themselves have helped to form this policy. That does not mean that every sex worker around the world will agree with every element of it, but it does mean that in broad terms those most affected by policy decisions on sex work have been listened to. In a patriarchal and heteronormative society that is tremendously important: the marginalised (in postcolonial studies we’d say ‘the subaltern’) have been heard. Robert J.C. Young (White Mythologies (2004)), picking up on a famous essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak called ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ about a marginalised group in Indian history, noted that the problem is not that the subaltern cannot speak, but that the dominant will not listen. Amnesty is to be commended for helping to articulate the voices of subaltern/marginalised sex workers – will the dominant now listen?
  5. Sex workers are often marginalised and ostracised from society, and that puts them at great risk of violence and unsafe practices. And yet to see sex workers as somehow separate from society does nothing to help them escape possible violence. A few years ago one of my students in a moment of carelessness let slip that she was a sex worker when meeting me to ask about an essay extension, and was immediately (and understandably, given societal prejudices) worried about my reaction (her work commitments had interfered with her studies, as is the case for many of my students, whether they work in a supermarket or a brothel). I responded by saying that whatever kind of work she was engaged in I was primarily concerned that she should be as safe as possible and that she had access to student services if she needed them; she assured me she was both safe and in touch with student services. I certainly did not see it as my role to make any judgement about her personal situation (of which I knew very little) or make any judgements about her involvement in sex work, and it never arose in conversation again. As the work of The Student Sex Work Project shows, simply on a statistical level there will be quite a number of university students (men and women) who engage in sex work, often because they need the money to study (see 6. and 17. above). Universities generally try to ignore this (Ron Roberts: ‘Anything that actually draws attention to the reality of the conditions in which people have to study for their degree, i.e. extreme and definite financial hardship… they’ve got absolutely no interest…’), but if universities and politicians took student sex work seriously as a significant potential marker of student poverty, issues around all kinds of student welfare might receive more attention, including student safety. This is where Amnesty’s report is very important: it does not take a position on the appropriateness or otherwise of sex work, but it does argue that anyone engaging in sex work has the right to expect to be able to carry out that work without discrimination, violence or abuse.

So, what about all this equality stuff in 2.-4. above?

  1. Now, in my own understanding, the commodification of sex is in and of itself a form of violence. This is not only because I think all commodification of the human body is a form of violence (so many other kinds of work fit this category too, and indirectly Marx’s idea of ‘estranged labour’ can be used to offer such a critique, though given his context and time he doesn’t, of course, engage specifically with the idea of women’s bodies as commodities in patriarchal societies – but this blog posting offers some helpful insights). Rather it is because even if we don’t accept the ideal of sex that many of us grew up with in Western contexts (see 6. above), the reduction and objectification of a human body to a focus primarily upon its sexual organs or functions is very obviously not treating that person as equal to oneself, and such reductionism and objectification has no prospect of ever doing so. Seeing the other person as less than oneself tends to increase the likelihood of actual violence, assault, and abuse (it is easier to be violent to someone who is seen as less worthy, or is not even seen as someone, but something). Therefore, working to counter such violence and abuse is vital.
  2. That, as I understand it, is Amnesty’s aim with this policy, and reducing the possibility of violence and danger to sex workers – many of them women – is urgent and essential, and so I am delighted that Amnesty have taken this step forward in terms of protection of sex work. Of course, ultimately I want to work towards a society in which sex (and the body generally) is not commodified, and that, in my view, is what we should ultimately aim for (see 2.-4. above) – and I can argue for that from a feminist, Christian, human, Marxist etc. perspective. But in the meantime, let us not allow our moral assumptions about what sex should be (e.g. 6. above), or our little lies to ourselves about how we engage in sex (yes, especially men! see 9.-13. above), or our mystified distaste at the reality faced by many sex workers (see 19. above), cloud our concern for the well-being of those in the here and now.
    The subaltern has spoken, Amnesty has listened. Now it’s our turn to listen – and act appropriately.

CommonWeal and Tommy Sheridan (again) – and the Scottish Greens

I wrote recently about Robin McAlpine of CommonWeal trying to rehabilitate the liar and misogynist Tommy Sheridan.  Rather bizarrely, as you’ll see from reading my earlier blog posting, Bella Caledonia appeared to be supporting this attempt, though they claimed simply to be opening up debate (I understand a woman submitted an article arguing against rehabilitating Sheridan to Bella but for some reason it was rejected, which on the face of it hardly sounds like opening up debate).

I gather the CommonWeal board met and discussed this issue and came to a decision, which, rather strangely, is available if you ask for it by email, but does not appear on their website, and has not, as far as I am aware, been widely publicised.  I was sent the statement yesterday:

At a Board meeting on Monday 11 May it was agreed that Common Weal practice would be to decline invitations to speak on behalf of the organisation at any event which includes Tommy Sheridan on the platform. No public statement will be issued.

What is very strange about this is that apart from deciding to make no public statement, it’s unclear if  CommonWeal’s branches know about this policy.  The statement above came to me after tweets I sent to them that picked up on an event by Lochaber CommonWeal planned for tomorrow, with Sheridan one of the speakers:

Lochaber CommonWeal invites Tommy Sheridan (screen grab, click to see the original tweet)

Lochaber CommonWeal invites Tommy Sheridan (screen grab, click to see the original tweet)

What’s the point in having a decision not to share a platform with someone like Sheridan if branches of the organisation either don’t know about it, or don’t feel bound by it?  There is – with good reason, it seems to me – considerable scepticism about CommonWeal’s commitment to avoiding work with Sheridan, as the tweet at the bottom of this conversation shows:

CommonWeal normalising Sheridan? (screen grab, click to see the bottom tweet)

CommonWeal normalising Sheridan? (screen grab, click to see the bottom tweet)

Of course, there is another issue that concerns my own party, the Scottish Greens, in that John Finnie MSP, who joined the Greens in autumn 2014, seems to have been happy to be on a platform with Sheridan, as the tweets above show, as well as others, eg:

Sheridan and the Scottish Green Party (screen grab, click to go to the original tweet)

Sheridan and the Scottish Green Party (screen grab, click to go to the original tweet)

I am not aware of any response to this from the Scottish Green Party, but it is something I want to follow up.  I also don’t know if tomorrow’s event is still going ahead as originally planned.

It is worth noting that CommonSpace (the news service part of CommonWeal) have recently published some proper discussion pieces on Sheridan’s place in Scottish politics.  For example:

(I know that these are all men, but it’s hard to find whether there’s anything written by women because CommonSpace doesn’t appear to have a search function – at least not on my browsers; I’ve scrolled through a few pages of links and I don’t think they’ve had any women comment recently – but I may have missed that.)

I really welcome this kind of clear discussion, and Tommy Ball’s piece is particularly worth reading.  Despite all the misgivings about CommonWeal that exist (and there are quite a few, from staff pay to wider programmatic and cultural issues in society, some of which are expertly discussed by Mairi McFadyen in this rather brilliant piece), in general terms I support the work of CommonWeal: the aims are mostly ones I can agree with, and I know some of the rather wonderful people involved, which gives me hope that they really can sort out their position on working with people like Tommy Sheridan. Not least because I don’t want to write about the unrepentant hypocrite again if I can help it.

Now, I’m off to tweet John Finnie…

——-

Postscript, 8.8.2015

Yesterday Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens wrote to me and confirmed that John Finnie was not, in fact, sharing a platform with Sheridan:

Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens confirms that John Finnie will not be sharing a platform with Sheridan (screen grab, click to see original tweet)

Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens confirms that John Finnie will not be sharing a platform with Sheridan (screen grab, click to see original tweet)

I’m very glad to hear that!  Thank you, Ross for getting in touch.

Why the urge to rehabilitate Tommy Sheridan?

Something odd is going on.

In recent days, Bella Caledonia has published two pieces that effectively seek to rehabilitate Tommy Sheridan:

  1. Robin McAlpine: Hope Over Fear?
  2. Jordan Daly & Liam Stevenson: Hope Over History: How the Past is Affecting the Future

Why are they defending Sheridan?

I don’t know who the authors of the second piece are, but I know that McAlpine is a key force behind CommonWeal – a very good organisation, with excellent people involved.

I commented on McAlpine’s posting to affirm a critical comment someone else made, but with the second posting, I thought it worth adding a more substantive comment.  Aware that comments often get lost on a site as popular as Bella (there are already 184 comments on McAlpine’s text as I write this, and 20 on Daly and Stevenson’s text!), I thought I’d also add it here:

Involving Tommy Sheridan [in an event] automatically excludes those of us who have any concern about the welfare of the people – and in particular women – who have been so very badly treated by him, including folk I know. His behaviour is sexist, misogynistic and completely unacceptable. He shows no remorse for anything he has said or done in this regard.

May I ask: had his behaviour been characterised as racist rather than sexist, would you still be so happy to have him involved? Would that kind of abusive behaviour be acceptable to you? If not, why not? And if it would be, where DO you draw the line? Or don’t you think a line needs to be drawn?

To speak of “an age where things were pretty different” is a nonsense: what was sexism, misogyny and lies then is still sexism, misogyny and lies today. A refusal by Sheridan to show any remorse is at the root of many people’s avoidance of him. Your defence (or the patronising nonsense from McAlpine a few days ago saying it was all about class) is simply a way to excuse a misogynist who has single-handedly, through his lies and manipulation, done more damage to the Scottish left than any of us who refuse to now engage with him.

Nobody is asking for angels who never make a mistake. But to excuse behaviour that he has never even pretended to acknowledge was harmful is to communicate that it’s ok to be abusive and tell lies.

Something odd is going on.

Or maybe it’s not so odd.  Maybe it’s just a reflection of how patriarchy and sexism pollutes every part of our society, even amongst progressives on the left?

It certainly looks like that to me.  We know that much of our society simply accepts men’s violence towards women, so maybe these articles are just a depressing recognition that a sexist, misogynist, lying man can readily be welcomed back into the ‘progressive fold’ by other men, provided he says some of the right things on ‘more important issues’ than sexism and gender-based violence?

POSTSCRIPT – 3.5.15

A day after posting this, I shared it again on Twitter:

A tetchy response from Bella Caledonia followed, but they did agree to post a link to this blog, and I’m grateful to them for doing so:

It’s interesting that Bella see what they have done as ‘hosting a discussion’ when they have only provided two articles exonerating Sheridan.  The explanation (see the replies to my tweet) was that they had only published what they had been sent – but surely on such a contentious issue they should also be seeking out opposing views?  This kind of defence is one that people on the left, including Bella, criticise the BBC and others for all the time.  How often do we hear ‘we could only find a banker and a hedge fund manager to discuss the financial crisis’ – and no trade unionist or socialist commentator is used?  Equally, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have lots of discussion – almost all between people on the right (or the far right!).  Bella has grown to become a prominent actor in Scottish media, and that brings with it certain responsibilities.

All that being said, I do have a high regard for Bella, and read and share their articles regularly – and I would encourage readers to do so too.

Male violence against women is at epidemic levels – what to do?

Trigger warning – this post discusses statistics and incidents of men’s violence against women.

This morning I read the tragic news that the body of Karen Buckley, a Glasgow student, has been found (as it happens, not far from where I live – I’ll be going past the spot on my way to Glasgow this evening).

Karen Buckley - click the image to read the STV story

Karen Buckley – click the image to read the STV story

I cannot even begin to imagine how awful this must be for her parents (who I gather came here from Ireland once they heard their daughter was missing), and her wider family and friends.  Ms Buckley is another young woman who was simply enjoying herself at a nightclub before she went missing, who will now never again have the chance to smile at someone taking her photo by a loch, as she does in the photo here.

Her murder is not a solitary episode.  Men’s violence against women is of a magnitude that if the newspapers actually reported it, it would, I am sure, elicit such outrage that action would be taken.  Some statistics for Scotland, which only has a population of 5.3 million (UK and global figures also available, all referenced):

  • A domestic violence incident is recorded every 10 minutes in Scotland with 53,681 incidents reported in 2008-9.
  • In 2011-12 Crimes of rape increased by 13% to 1,274.
  • There were over 7000 reports of sexual offences in 2011-12.
  • 26% of Scots surveyed in 2007 thought that a woman bore some responsibility for being raped if she wore revealing clothing.
  • The number of reported domestic violence incidents steadily increase each year.
  • In 2011-12, 81% of recorded domestic abuse incidents were violence against a woman committed by a man.
  • 1 in 3 teenage girls in a relationship, suffer an unwanted sexual act.
  • At least 1 in 5 women in Scotland will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
  • In a 2005 study of young people’s attitudes, 1 in 5 young men believe that women often ’provoke violence’.

Did you read those bullet points in detail and let them sink in?  Or did you gloss over them because you already know that violence against women and girls ‘happens a lot’?  I wouldn’t blame you if you did that – I know that I do it at times.  But try reading those bullet points again, this time as if men were on the receiving end of women’s violence, as my italics show.  Ask yourself if our male-dominated press would not be outraged at this and demand change:

  • Every 10 minutes a man is attacked in a domestic violence incident in Scotland with 53,681 incidents reported in 2008-9.
  • In 2011-12 Crimes of men being raped increased by 13% to 1,274.
  • There were over 7000 reports of sexual offences against men in 2011-12.
  • 26% of Scots surveyed in 2007 thought that a man bore some responsibility for being raped if he wore revealing clothing.
  • The number of reported domestic violence incidents against men steadily increase each year.
  • In 2011-12, 81% of recorded domestic abuse incidents were violence against a man committed by a woman.
  • 1 in 3 teenage boys in a relationship, suffer an unwanted sexual act.
  • At least 1 in 5 men in Scotland will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
  • In a 2005 study of young people’s attitudes, 1 in 5 young women believe that men often ’provoke violence’.

These figures alone show men’s violence against women to be an epidemic, out of control.  Violence against women (or indeed anyone) is never justified: I don’t care how short her skirt is or even if she walks naked down the street, a woman is never responsible if a man chooses to attack her.  Let’s be absolutely clear about this: men make active choices in perpetrating violence against women.  Every man who acts violently against a woman could also choose to leave her alone.

One of the hardest parts of my job as a university lecturer is when a woman emails or comes to see me to explain she cannot submit her essay on time or take her exam etc., because her bastard boyfriend has attacked her, or she has been sexually assaulted in a pub, or raped on her way home etc. – understandably there’s no way she can focus on her academic work at that time.  It seems to me that this happens at least once or twice every year to someone in our programme.  I can’t do much to help these women beyond directing them to support services and offering essay extensions and so on, but for days afterwards I am consumed by rage at myself and my fellow men, too many of whom seem to view half the population as appropriate targets.

Of course, university environments are part of wider society, and are not necessarily safe for women, as the infamous Stirling University hockey team incident from 2013 shows.  A racist Stirling University football team incident earlier this year elicited a comment from one of the women involved in exposing the hockey team episode.  She notes that she and others were nearly expelled by the Principal, Gerry McCormac, which is in itself an indictment of male-dominant institutional culture:

To be absolutely clear about this: I am certainly not picking on Stirling University in particular – these things happen at other institutions all the time too (e.g. see here and here).  The point is that these attitudes from (too many) men towards women permeate society at all levels: this morning, a friend retweeted this:

Today also marks Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project’s third anniversary, an occasion I view with mixed feelings:

Sexism is everywhere in our society, and there is a connection between sexist banter and some men engaging in unspeakable acts of violence against women, including rape and murder.

So what to do?  We as men can self-loathe and rage against those of our half of the species who perpetrate acts of violence against women and girls, but that is not enough.  But: don’t not be angry – use that anger more positively.  For example, you can start by calling out incidents of sexism each and every time, such as:

  • someone talking about ‘mankind’ when they mean ‘humanity’;
  • telling jokes that rely on sexism (yes, even ‘women can’t park a car’ isn’t funny – if humour relies on sexism to be funny it actually isn’t that funny);
  • commenting on women’s appearance when they wouldn’t comment on a man’s appearance (it happens all the time with politicians: compare comments about Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Ruth Davidson (Conservative), with those about Jim Murphy (Labour) and Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrat));
  • excusing sexual violence for famous people like Ched Evans; or excusing rape allegations against Julian Assange (David Allen Green notes ‘there is nothing which… means the due process of a current rape and sexual assault investigation should be delayed any further or abandoned’);
  • and so on…

This is all part of the wider problem of men’s violence against women and girls.  If your friends get sick of you calling them out on it, they’ll either change their behaviour, or you might find they are not friends you really want anyway.  If you want help with this kind of thing (don’t underestimate it – it’s not easy swimming against the tide!), have a look at the White Ribbon Scotland campaign, committed to working with men to stop violence against women:

White Ribbon Scotland - click the image to go to their site

White Ribbon Scotland – click the image to go to their site

There are White Ribbon Campaigns elsewhere too (eg for rest of UK, but avoid the mischief-makers at whiteribbon.org, who try to pretend they are arguing for the same thing when they’re not!).  I signed the White Ribbon Scotland pledge ‘never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women’ early on in their campaign, and would encourage all men to do so.  Also, they do excellent workshops and other activities to help prevent violence against women; as they put it: ‘Most men do not commit violence against women. But all men have a role in ending it.’ (And yes, they also comment on women’s violence against men.)

More generally, I’d encourage financial support to your White Ribbon Campaign, as well as to organisations like Women’s Aid (who help women who have been attacked) – either on a national level, or look for your local group, e.g. mine is Stirling and District Women’s Aid.

Rest in peace, Karen Buckley. Even in that simple photograph, your smile touched me.

India’s Women

Today, on International Women’s Day, my colleague Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan has written an excellent wee blog on gender violence in India and elsewhere, reflecting on the BBC programme about the brutal rape of Jyoti Singh and related issues.

Arts and Academics

I had put off writing a blog post about the horrific Delhi rape and death of Jyoti Singh, the protests in India aftermath, the trial of the accused, now convicted and on the death row, and the media coverage of all these developments. We were all shocked and emotional right after the incident. I remember having a mixed feeling of fear, uneasiness, sorrow and anger. This is not about me, it is about every woman in India. The fear and uneasiness came from the realisation that how each of us could’ve been Jyoti Singh; how each of us, when taking the public transport, have been sexually assaulted, harassed by men and yet how each of us had to make that journey again the next day putting the previous day’s incidents in the back of the mind. The sorrow and anger came from the realisation that all we could do was to…

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