Taking Ideology to the Streets: Sex Work and How to Make Bad Things Worse

by Nine

“If you drive it underground so no one can find it, it wouldn’t survive.”  Rhoda Grant, 2012

In many ways, Dana fits the profile. She’s a twentysomething woman with a drug addiction. She was abused in childhood and her partner is occasionally violent towards her. They’re in and out of homeless accommodation, and she works on the street to fund both their habits. You could hold her up as an example of someone who does not want to do sex work, and you’d be right. You could score points with her story. You could insinuate that anybody who rejects total eradication of the sex industry simply doesn’t care about her. And that’s pretty much what the campaigners were doing when they lobbied for the criminalisation of her clients.

It’s late 2007, and the Scottish Parliament recently passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act, outlawing kerb-crawling. Dana’s clients are now breaking the law. If she worked indoors, this would not (yet) be the case, but she doesn’t; she wishes she could, she knows she’d be safer indoors, but most brothel managers don’t take too kindly to injecting drug users, plus it would be hard to hold down structured shifts given how each day and night is defined by the search for heroin. The law change hasn’t caused her to pack up and go home (what home?); instead, it has complicated and compounded an already difficult situation.

As I make her a cup of hot chocolate and count out free condoms, Dana takes a seat, tells me about last night. She waited on the streets for hours, frequently changing location in order to avoid police attention. The boyracers were out as usual, yelling abuse and throwing eggs as they sped by. She was rattling – experiencing heroin withdrawal. Gradually, the few remaining clients wore her down, and she agreed to do business with them for less than the usual price. She was out so long that she missed her hostel’s curfew and had to stay out until five in the morning; tried to sleep in a bus shelter. It’s late 2007 in Scotland, and the streets are cold.

“I used to complain about having to come out here to work,” she says. “I had nothing to complain about compared to now.” And this is the statement that sticks with me, a statement so simple and yet so clear, a statement which demonstrates that, despite how Dana’s supposed advocates, her would-be protectors – anti-prostitution campaigners – characterise sex work and how she experiences it, Dana herself knows the difference between a bad situation and a worse one. She is now in the latter. The support organisation I work for is severely underfunded (just over a year from now, it will be forced to cease service provision altogether). Waiting lists for drug treatment are lengthy, and missing an appointment, no matter how valid the reason, can land someone back at the end of the queue. When women like Dana are stopped by the police, sympathetic treatment is not something they can expect: it’s just a lottery. There’s a serial rapist going around, but even though the women know about it, some of them are taking their chances with him anyway because there are so few clients to choose from. Maybe he’ll just be a bit rough, they rationalise. His behaviour escalates.

Those whose primary goal is to ‘send a message’ are worlds away from these women on the street. Their prioritisation of ideology over safety speaks volumes about their own motivations. It’s one thing if they simply don’t understand the practical repercussions of passing laws such as this one, although it’s too important an issue to excuse a lack of research – these are people’s lives we’re talking about here. But it’s quite another thing if their ignorance is a conscious decision, if they reject concerns not because those concerns are found to be invalid but simply because those concerns are raised by people they don’t want to hear from, including sex workers themselves. Those concerns interfere with a simplistic agenda which, in allowing no room for the nuances of real life, is set to fail. Harmful legislation is steamrollered through by people who block out dissenting voices and allow their supporters to believe there are no dissenting voices, or that those voices are dissenting only because they would rather see women ‘bought and sold’. This sorry state of affairs does no favours for the people they talk about helping.

***

It’s a cold grey morning on the Grassmarket, a few years before the introduction of the kerb-crawling legislation. The Swedish delegation is in town and I’m attending their presentation in a hotel function room. The usual stuff: prostitution is violence against women, it needs to be abolished, etc. A woman gets up, explains that she made an informed choice to do sex work, and then leaves the room. After she’s gone, Gunilla Ekberg, ambassador for the Swedish model of criminalising clients, says that she doesn’t believe any woman would really choose prostitution, but that if it’s true, it doesn’t matter anyway because they’re only a minority.

I’m still kind of new to these formal settings and these important bigshots who speak with an air of authority. I’m probably the youngest person in the room and I feel too intimidated to say anything. I wonder whether anybody else notices what’s wrong with this picture.

Afterwards, I walk up the street with a middle-aged feminist who I know from a previous project. We see eye to eye on most things, I guess, but now my focus is sex work and that changes things somewhat. I outline some basics of harm reduction to her. She finds it interesting, but I’m not sure if she files it anywhere practical. Instead, she says, “But at the end of the day,  you wouldn’t want your daughter doing it, would you?”

Quiz: Your daughter is doing sex work. Please pick the best option from this limited range.

a) Criminalise her clients, increasing her risk of experiencing abuse, violence and exploitation, and likely incurring her to do business with more clients in order to make up for a fall in prices, while disrupting support networks and making it harder for her to leave the sex industry.

b) Ensure she works in an environment in which she is empowered to make her own decisions, to turn down clients and sexual acts as she sees fit, to access help from services, and to be taken seriously as someone who knows what her own essential needs are.

c) It’s too horrible to contemplate. Just don’t think about it.

***

In my angrier moments, I think: You want an emotive argument? Well-intentioned people are backing laws that lead desperate women to get into cars with known rapists. Anti-prostitution activists say that prostitution is violence in and of itself, as if the levels of violence experienced by sex workers cannot rise or fall, as if the scene has always been as violent as it has been post-2007. But it hasn’t, and the women on the streets know this.

***

“Who are these fucking interfering bitches? Are they going to feed my kids?” demands Sandra. In conjunction with the Swedish visit, the criminalisation of clients was promoted on a Scottish radio programme today, discussed as a worthwhile goal. Sandra is outraged at the notion that what she needs most is to have her business taken away. She’s seen it all and doesn’t take shit from anybody. She’s kicked drug addiction but remains working on the streets, preferring to keep all the money she makes rather than handing a portion of her earnings over to a receptionist. With her wealth of experience, she’d have a lot of insights to share if anybody in power was willing to listen. As a non-drug user, she’s in a minority on the streets, but she’s still real.

***

To introduce a law without any risk assessment, and then walk away, is no victory for women’s rights.

This attitude is what I struggle to get my head around in 2008 when I take part in a Q&A following a screening of Lilya 4-Ever. I describe the effects of the kerb-crawling legislation and the Swedish model, and their very real and negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety. “There are fewer clients and the ones who stick around are more likely to be violent and to demand services that the sex workers previously refused to provide. The clients want to avoid police attention, and the sex workers need to adapt to the clients’ wishes, so they go into more isolated environments. If they’re on the street, they no longer have time to spare to negotiate with clients, which would provide an opportunity to assess them before making a decision; they need to get straight into the cars and they need to go. They have less opportunity to share safety information with their colleagues, and it’s harder for outreach agencies to make contact with them.” I pause for breath; this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“So you’re saying it is possible to reduce demand?” asks a middle-aged woman in front of me, leaning forward.

For a moment, I’m speechless. And then, having grown up with the idea that when you’re asked a question, you should answer it, I stumble through a “yes”. I probably say more, but when I try to remember it afterwards, it’s a little hazy. “Yes, but” something. All the same, I kick myself for a long time. I should not have engaged on her terms. I should not have allowed her to reduce something as fundamental as women’s safety to the black and white issue of a goal based on ideology.

Yes, but it is not okay to condemn sex workers to increased levels of abuse.

Yes, but if you think reducing demand is more important than reducing harm, you need to keep the fuck out of this.

Yes, but I can’t believe you displayed such a lack of empathy in front of all these people, and I can’t believe that they are not reacting with horror.

***

The concerns of Dana, Sandra and their colleagues are not considered particularly important when the Scottish Parliament decides what’s best for them. (The concerns of their indoor-based counterparts, representing around 90% of Scotland’s sex industry, are likewise set to be ignored if MSP Rhoda Grant’s proposal to criminalise all purchasing of sex gets the green light.) Routinely, the voices of sex workers and allies are shut out by campaigners, policy makers and feminist groups. Words like choice, empowerment and representative are used to score points and to discredit. Labels like sex worker versus prostituted woman are fought over alongside differing perceptions of objectification, agency, victimhood. But regardless of which words are given centre stage, women continue to work on the streets and indoors. Some of them make an informed decision. Some of them want out. Some of them have short-term goals that they want to meet before they’ll be ready to consider leaving the sex industry. And none of them have their needs met by legislation like this. All of them are endangered by it, and those with the fewest available options – women like Dana – are endangered the most. There is lack of exposure to the full story, and then there is rejection of that story: there is wilful ignorance. Caring and criminalisation cannot coexist, and this is made all the more apparent when those who push for the latter in the name of the former refuse to consider what happens next.

Bio: From Northern Ireland via Scotland, Nine has been living in transit since 2010. More of her writing can be found here



Categories: Autonomism, New Scotland, Poverty, Women

Tags: , ,

17 replies

  1. Absolutely excellent piece. Should be read out in parliament.

  2. I find the “prostitution is violence against women” rhetoric to be utterly shameful. It’s the sort of language you expect to hear from religious people or conservatives, and yet it’s exactly the line espoused by the SSP, which I find absolutely stunning from a party that sees the failures of the “ban it and it’ll disappear” attitude taken to drug laws.

    Here’s what’s wrong with the “prostitution is violence against women” mantra:
    1. It’s sexist – it implies ALL sex workers are female, which simply isn’t the case
    2. It’s homophobic – it implies ALL prostitution is men buying sex from women, completely ignoring the gay men buying from men or gay women buying from women
    3. It’s patronising – it assumes that women who choose to “sell themselves” (don’t we all?) cannot possibly be doing so unless under duress. I know from experience that there are women who does this simply because they enjoy sex. And what better job than one that pays you to do something you enjoy? There is far too big a whiff of puritanism in this mantra
    4. It paints all clients as rapists – this is clearly ridiculous. Most people find themselves paying for sex because they simply can’t get it any other way. I’m in this category, because I suffer from chronic shyness. I was 26 years old before I lost my virginity, and that was with an escort. No, it wasn’t a quick fumble down a dark alley with a woman with track lines down her arms, it was in a flat with a beautiful woman who was a nurse, but who did sex work on the side because she “really likes shoes”.

    Was it violent? No – she practically had to coax my clothes off me, such was my crippling shyness, and we then spent a couple of hours having a great laugh, particularly when we found out we had a shared love of a particularly quotable comedy character. At this time, I had been on a dating website trying to find a girlfriend, but I was so rubbish with women and feared what would happen if we ever ended up in a sexual situation. After a couple more meetings with escorts, I suddenly found myself getting second dates, then an actual girlfriend, and the chronic fear of the bedroom had completely disappeared.

    I’ve since been with several other escorts, including ones that I now count as friends. The idea that I’ve committed violence against these women is simply ludicrous. If anything, I’m the one with the problem.

    It’s not just shy people; there’s disabled people, many of whom have simply no other way of experiencing something able-bodied people take for granted (which is why many escorts specifically state on their online profiles that they see disabled people); there’s also men stuck in sexless marriages, where the wife no longer wants to have sex, but the man has no appetite to have an actual affair because he still loves everything else about his wife. Without prostitution, such marriages require either the man to forego sex the rest of his life (which anti-prostitution campaigners would say “tough luck”, displaying their lack of human empathy), or for the woman to feel compelled to perform sex (which seems far closer to violence against women” than paying a willing person to do it). Finally – and the fact anti-prostitution campaigners don’t think of this highlights the puritanism prevalent in their worldviews – there are couples who want to spice up their sex life a bit (hence why many escorts advertise that they see couples).

    I care about the girls I see, partcularly the ones I speak to on a regular basis. It actually frightens me that their lives are being used as political toys by people with puritan ideals. The girls I see are part of the 90% who do it indoors, where it’s at least relatviely safe, but there are still laws preventing them from working together (which isolates them and makes them more vulnerable – although thankfully many ignore this stupid law and work in pairs), and still a stigma attached that makes them unwilling to be too vocal. Groups such as SCOT-PEP and the bloggers linked to in this piece are to be applauded for being the TRUE campaigners of women’s rights (and those of male sex workers), because anti-prostitution campaigners are effectively saying “hey women, you can choose to do whatever you want to do, as long as it isn’t this thing.”

    Rhoda Grant does not like the idea that women have sex for money. Well, I don’t like the fact that people use drugs, but I recognise their right to do what they want with their bodies. Those who want to ban prostitution should perhaps look at how well anti-drug laws have worked at ridding the world of drug abuse…

  3. A few years ago there was a pub called the Castle Vaults in Edinburgh under the shadow of the Castle, and a few steps from the General Assembly building. In the close next door to the pub a prostitute worked, there was no sign there but she had worked there for years and had a regular clientel. The gaffer of the pub was a friend of hers and he assured me that her busiest week was the week when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was on in the General Assembly building. I never had any reason to not believe him. On another note I was working on the roof of the GA building with a view down on to the High Street where the delegates were queuing to get in to the building after lunch. Pastor Glass was on the other side of the road ranting and raving at them. One of their number a well dressed middle aged man, began to act strangely and eventually slid down a pole he had been hanging on to in a state of collapse, he looked as if he was drunk. The so called Christians in the queue, turned away in embarrassment. We quickly realised the man was probably not drunk as he had previously been acting perfectly normally so we ran down to assist. It turned out he was a diabetic who had not medicated properly.

    My point is this, until we can escape this pious hypocrisy that we here in Scotland are far to good to have prostitution amongst us, the problems will remain. The great and the good of this land are amongst the most regular users of prostitutes as they escape from their urbane hum drum boredom, inhibitions and perhaps failed marriages. Many of them, like me are in sexless marriages. I would be lost without prostitution. I and thousands of other men find it a welcome comfort from our unfortunate failed lives. We cannot all be life coaches who make sparkling trendy changes at the drop of a hat, sometimes life’s circumstances are a more powerful influence on us. We are not all strong out going personalities, who can pop in to the local drama group and make exciting new friends, willing to offer us physical comforts.

    The idea that you can depress demand for prostitution, is quite frankly bonkers. It is the oldest profession for a very good reason, men in partuicular need it’s comfort and yes excitement, at times in their lives. Hypocrisy covers nothing.

  4. Best article here all year

  5. ‘Nine’, I just want to echo what the previous posters have said – I’m about to check-out your other work and will be recommending this piece to colleagues.
    More power to ye…

  6. There is undoubtedly severe abuse and exploitation associated with prostitution , mostly – but not all – directed at women , which needs to be addressed here and now.
    However , in a wider , longer term , perspective I think discussions need to be held about sexuality in general.

    Most of the valuable work that has been done on examining gender and sexuality has , understandably , been done by women from women’s perspectives.
    Does more need to be done by men from mens’ perspectives ?
    Here’s some links which might contribute to that -
    Eros Undressed

    http://www.robertmasters.com/ESSAY-pages/eros.htm

    Delusions of Desire

    http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/09/14/delusions-of-desire-more-questions-than-answers/

    … and from a couple of women
    Let’s Talk About Sex….

    http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-104970472.html

  7. Excellent article, Nine. Thank you.

  8. Excellent and important comment. I have submitted a fuller commentary along the same lines. This is available at http://www.eyeonsociety.co.uk/resources/criminalisation_purchase_sex.pdf
    It is vitally important that as many people as possible respond as fully as possible to the Scottish Gogernment’s (vis Rhoda Grant’s) proposal to crimialise the purchase of sex. The proposal fails to recognise the diversity of the valuable services provided by sex workers and the huge range of clients who benefit in different ways. It is stereotyped, simplistic, puritanical, and indifferent to the suffering which criminaliation which would be imposed on those who get prosecuted for engaging in harmless activity and sex workers themselves. It is sexist in that it largely ignores male sex workers and female clients. It is defamatory in that it treats both sex workers and their client with contempt. It is discriminatory in that it fails to recognise the need to take urgent action re the trafficking and exploitation of those employed in other ccupations.
    Best wishes and many thanks,

    John

  9. Well wrtiten and appropriate piece however what always puzzles me is that we live in a society that seems to want to have prostitutes but doesn’t want to make their lives safer or better. In the case of Dana, an improved homelessness policy and drugs policy would mke a marked improvement in Dana’s life. I have more concern that heroin is illegal and that she needs to sell her body to buy drugs for herself and her partner. A more considered drug policy that saw heroin on prescription might rebalance some of the issues here. Building more council and social housing with affordable indeed cheap rents may deal with their housing issues. Being settled and supported is better than ensuring there is hot chocolate and condoms even a police presence.

    Why is Dana’s partner not selling himself in the streets of Leith, why is he not taking turns with her – sharing out the work load so to speak? Because there is no demand for Dana’s partner to picked up by a male passer by, haggled with over the price of a sex act. There is a demand by men to buy sex from women. Its clear what the issue is, there is demand to buy sex from vulnerable women and is it not fair enough that this is challenged in society?

    Whether Dana consents/chooses/has agency whatever it is to sell sex to strangers lets be clear about it, in her case it doesn’t seem like a career choice, its done out of necessity. The necessity to buy illegal drugs for her and her partner.

    Perhaps the harm reduction policies that complicate services to drug users aren’t working, perhaps the “non-engaging” or “under engagement” so you can’t work with us is about funding and controlling a limited resource? What are the resources for dual recovery from abuse and substance misuse? Where are the safe and secure, even supported homes for vulnerable people?

    I am an abolitionist for prostitution and the sex industry, I believe men should be held to account why they want to buy women for sex but in no way do I blame the prostitutes for this. On the way to abolition there needs to be safe places for prostitutes to go to for support, health services to support them, a complete decriminalisation of women selling sex, housing policies to build more homes for every one, services that deal with dual recovery from trauma and substance abuse and police should protect prostitutes rather than target them.

    But we need to challenge the business and profit made from saunas, lap dancing clubs, brothels etc and why does Edinburgh want to promote and support the sex industry the way it does? We also need to ask more widely of men why do you want to buy sex from women? I support Rhoda Grant and the Swedish Model. It is not an act of solidarity to buy sex of a woman.

  10. The problem is that we live in a society where it is considered acceptable for men to abuse women through prostitution.

    Kieslowski – its not for you to determine what is or is not violence. You were paying these women, they are paid to pretend. THats the whole point about the sex industry. They pretend that they like you, so that you pay them, dont hurt them and come back and pay them again.

    The women can do what they want but it concerns me that readers here think that the sexual abuse of women is acceptable and admit to participating in it.

    The way to stop women being abused through prostitution is to end the demand.

    And that means you.

  11. Hi Mhairi
    I think your first sentence could read -
    “The problem is that we live in a society where it is considered acceptable for men to abuse women.”
    ie. the abuse of women in all kinds of ways , not just sexually , is acceptable or at least tolerated in many societies – or some might say even enforced.
    People are sexual with others for all sorts of reasons – most ( all ? ) involve some sort “investment” (or “payment”?) – whether that is love , affection , pleasure , lust …. etc , and ideally it should be mutual and reciprocal…. but we don’t live in an ideal world.

    Eros Undressed posted above discusses some of this -
    “The abuse of sex, particularly through the expectations with which we commonly burden it, is so pervasive and deeply ingrained as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more lurid, obviously dysfunctional, or perverse extremes. Even more removed from any telling awareness is our aversion to truly exploring and illuminating the whole matter of human sexuality, not clinically, nor in any other kind of isolation (or in vitro corralling), but in the context of our entire being, our totality, our inherent wholeness.”

    http://www.robertmasters.com/ESSAY-pages/eros.htm

    Could a distinction be made between “regular”(?) prostitution , however that is defined , and paying in some form to be sexual ?
    Some examples….
    * Paying to enter a sauna with the purpose of having sex -
    many men do that to have consensual sex with each other.
    * Masssage – acceptable to pay somebody for a “regular” massage – but does it have to become problematic if genitals become consensually involved ?
    * Somebody , who is relatively financially well off , giving money to a regular sexual partner who is hard up.

    I’m not convinced criminalisation is the answer. Until fairly recently men were criminalised for having consensual sex – and still are in many places including death sentences – but it did not stop men having sex. Neither did the threat of a terminal illness or loss of family , reputation , career etc.

    As regards SSP policy on prostituition , I believe part of that policy was to develop an educational program on sexuality – I have not seen any sign of that – and I think that general reluctance to discuss sexuality in depth is a significant problem when discussing prostitution.

  12. Some of the trend here is to mix up prostitution with abuse. They are entirely different things. Some prostitution may indeed involve abuse, some may not. We are still mixing sexuality, morality and legality up

  13. Another contribution to discussion -
    Sex and Sex Work from an Anarcha-Feminist perspective

    http://www.wsm.ie/c/sex-work-anarcha-feminist-perspective

    • I am a newcomer to these discussions and am not sure I am doing the right thing here. I want to thank whoever put up the link to Workers Solidarity Anarcho- feminist perspective. I make much the same argument on my webpage at http://www.eyeonsociety.co.uk/resources/criminalisation_purchase_sex.pdf . It remains to ask the question whether the purchase of sex from Johnny in “Dirty Dancing” constitutes violence against men. I know sex workers of both sexes who have seriously exploited their customers just as do some workers in many other professions. It is essential to separate out prostitution (not just in relation to sex) from trafficing, violence, and exploitation. The division within the anarchist movement is very interesting.

  14. Reblogged this on Lucy Blake's Weblog and commented:
    During the course of updating the NAUWU website, I come across media, research, reports, sex worker blogs and other social media from all over the world. This entry gives an incredible insite not only into what’s happening in Scotland, but what happens when any system besides decriminalisation is in place for the sex industry.
    Terrible terrible things are happening all over this world to sex workers :(
    Have a read… live and learn from a very gifted and empathetic writer.

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