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?

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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.

David Hamilton MP and the Scottish Labour Party’s impending wipeout

I must admit I had never heard of David Hamilton (MP for Midlothian) until today, when at the “Scottish Labour” one day conference, to laughter from the audience, he mocked SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as “a wee lassie with a tin helmet on” – this, presumably, given his smirks, is what he thinks of as funny:

I don’t think there has been any public apology, though the party’s deputy leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, said “he was pulled up about it at the women’s reception” – which is hardly an apology.  She also “answered for this” to Shona Robinson (SNP Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport), as she said in a response to Roseanna Cunningham.  There has been nothing from Hamilton, however, and no announcement or apology tweeted from Jim Murphy or Kezia Dugdale.

Apart from this being confirmation (as if it were needed) that “Scottish Labour” has some male chauvinist dinosaurs as MPs, and that the commitment I’m fairly sure Dugdale signed up to on behalf of her party to oppose sexist behaviour during the election campaign doesn’t appear to have been noticed by David Hamilton, I wonder if this incident tells us something else?

Hamilton is standing down at the general election on 7. May, after 14 years as an MP.  A great many Scottish Labour MPs must assume that they are likely to be out of a job on 8. May, given the way the polls are going, and I wonder – maybe this wasn’t a mistake from Hamilton?  Maybe he just really doesn’t care any more?  Maybe he thinks that if Labour is going to be wiped out at the polls in May, it doesn’t matter how he now behaves, since most of the MPs he has known in his years at Westminster won’t be MPs for long anyway?  But if this is what we should expect from a party facing electoral wipeout in a few weeks’ time, it’s going to be a grim few weeks…