A links round-up of links I really, really, really like a lot.

Sex Work, Criminalization, and HIV: Lessons from Advocacy History, by Anna Forbes. (Link takes you to a ‘download PDF here’ button’.) On tackling (or failing to tackle) HIV risk among drug-injecting populations, and analogies to sex workers.

Greek Brothel Arrests, by Matthew Weait. “It is appalling, but it is entirely to be expected. There is a long and ignoble tradition of locating the source of STIs in women in general, and female sex workers in particular. In the context of HIV criminalization this tradition has reached a new peak (or, perhaps better, a new trough). Put simply, HIV criminalization has compounded, and added a new and frightening dimension to, the longstanding idea that female sex workers are a source of pollution threatening the cleanliness of men.”

Just Don’t Call It Slut-Shaming: A Feminist Guide To Silencing Sex Workers, by Nine. I can’t extract a quote from this that does justice to it’s utter aceness; if you read just one thing from this link-farm … (Also: man, I totally wish SCASE could see this. That would be trolling though, right? right?)

Belle de Jour is The New Pretty Woman, by Nine. “Pick any political debate or news article about prostitution, and there’s a high probability there’ll be a quote along the lines of “It’s a far cry from Pretty Woman.” As if that’s going to come as a surprise. As if everyone doesn’t already bloody know that.”

The Irish Trade Union Movement Throws Sex Workers Under The Bus, by Wendy Lyon. “I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a parallel to this extraordinary situation, and I’m honestly stymied. Even considering the obvious context – disapproval of prostitution as a matter of principle – I can’t think of another sector in which the “solution” would involve the wholesale rejection of labour rights for those involved. I cut my political teeth in anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigning, and I don’t recall anything remotely comparable to this. We may have wanted to decommission the bases and power plants but we never said labour law shouldn’t apply to people working at them.”

The Moral Significance of Sex Workers and People with Disabilities, by Tauriq Moosa. “I’ve never understood the inherent problem with sex work. As the wonderful Martha Nussbaum has famously argued, all kinds of careers – from plumbers to pop-stars – use their bodies to fulfil some demand made by another. Whether this is dancing in small clothes or fixing a leak, we use our bodies to bring comfort, fulfilment, etc. to others, in exchange for money.”


Close reading Rhoda.

The consultation! I just thought I’d quickly have a look at Rhoda’s first really substantial reference. (The actual-first reference is the ‘Safer Lives: Changed Lives‘ Scottish government document, which basically amounts to Rhoda arguing, “people who agree with me, agree with me. Therefore we must all be right”. More on this another time, but suffice to say that Safer Lives is neither the apex of feminist scholarship, nor is it written in stone.) The first meaningful reference (i.e, to an academic study) appears in the following paragraph.

“The majority of those who are involved in prostitution are unwilling participants. A number of UK studies provide useful background information in this area. Many of the findings are disturbing. For example 75% of women in prostitution in the UK became involved when they were children … ” (p.6)

That 75% figure comes from a study done called ‘Ties That Bind‘, by Margaret Melrose, and it makes for interesting reading. And no, I’m not going to critique the methodology! To my untrained eye, it looks reasonably howler-free. Ties That Bind “was generated by in-depth interviews with forty-six women, all of whom had become involved in prostitution before they were 18. At the time of the interviews, 32 were still involved in prostitution. Approximately three-quarters of those interviewed were street-working prostitutes.” (I can’t give you page numbers, because the copy of the study that I found online doesn’t have them. But this is from under the subheading ‘Survival Acts’.)

Ties That Bind is a study that focuses on how and why children and young people become involved in the sex industry. To that end, it interviews women (and some children) who became involved in the sex industry as children. It is not a study of the sex industry as a whole. It is a study of a sub-section (those who entered the industry as children) of a sub-section (women who work on the street). Belinda Brooks-Gorden estimates that people who work on the street constitute between eight and ten percent of the UK sex industry.

To cite this study as evidence that 75% of all sex workers entered the industry as children is akin to taking a study on how tigers feel about their identity as cats – by interviewing forty-seven tigers, talking about their relationship to the ‘cat’ label, and then citing that study as evidence that 100% of cats are, in fact, tigers. (But maybe some of them have complicated feelings about being cats.) A different way of highlighting the absurdity of this stat as cited in the consultation is to wonder why it is cited as “75%” and not 100%. After all, all the women interviewed started in the sex industry as children – that’s the point of the study! Rhoda’s got 75% because … not all the women interviewed are still selling sex: 25% of them aren’t. So Rhoda thinks that 100% of women in the sex industry started as children, but, y’know, some of them quit. That’s the premise her 75% stat is based on, having fabulously distorted the findings of the paper she’s “citing”. All cats are tigers, or former tigers.

Interesting how Rhoda cites a study that notes that people who work on the street “are thought to be the most vulnerable and exploited of all sex industry workers” (‘Survival Acts’), and then states in her consultation document that she wants to “bring indoor prostitution in line with legislation covering street prostitution” (p.9). Yes, because the main thing I think when I look at the indoor sex industry is, “man, this would totally be improved if it was more like street work”. The de facto criminalisation of clients (and workers) on the street has obviously worked out so well for vulnerable women.

(You’ll note that Rhoda’s proposals will have no effect on the number of people entering the sex industry as children, because – listen carefully; this is complex – sex with children, whether commercial or not, is already criminalised. It carries a potential life sentence. Furthermore, Margaret Melrose, Rhoda’s expert on juveniles in the sex industry, doesn’t recommend criminalising the clients of adult sex workers. Under ‘Conclusions’, she writes, “in order to tackle the causes of child prostitution, this author would argue that there is a need to tackle the poverty of the communities from which these young people so often come”. Not much I’d disagree with there.)

That Rhoda’s using a study that (perfectly legitimately) interviews only women who started selling sex as children, to ‘prove’ that all sex workers entered the industry as children; and that she’s extrapolating the entire UK sex industry from a small study of street-working women (remember when she told me I’m not representative?), seems to me to be a flat-out unethical misuse of the academic work in question. I’d be interested to find out if there are any consequences for that. Anyone know?

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

I don’t come particularly well out of this anecdote. But I’m going to tell it anyway, not because it is in itself so important, but because it is a wee data point in building up a picture of the way the ‘debate’ around sex work is conducted by our elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament.

To be brief, an MSP shouted at me – and made me cry. That third clause is obviously the bit where I come off not-so-well; while I would never judge anyone else for crying in a conversation about politics, I judge myself more harshly, and I am worried that people might think I was “turning on the waterworks” in order to gain sympathy. As anyone who has ever cried in an argument can tell you, no one would actually use this tactic (even if it were possible, which its not, for me. I’m not a very good actor!) – crying has a tendency to make people take you less seriously, make you you go pink and blotchy, and not-able to speak, and render you vulnerable to accusations of waterworks-turn-on. If I was making a checklist of “things I’d want to be the case while talking to MSPs”, ‘not looking serious’, ‘unable to speak’ and ‘being blotchy’ would be really, really low on the list.

A couple of days ago, four of us from ScotPEP went into Holyrood to meet some Scottish Labour MSPs. I’ll get quickly to the crying incident (to get it over with), and then unpack some of the other stuff going on in the room, so. We were in the process of disagreeing over the meaning of the figure “nine out of ten ‘prostitutes’ want to quit the industry” – my ScotPEP colleague George had just asked Drew Smith, who’d offered this factoid, whether he thought people who work in call centres, or Primark, might also want to quit their jobs. Someone said, “that’s not a fair comparison”, and I piped up (having hitherto been silent) with the observation that, y’know, I’m a current sex worker, and actually I do think that’s a fair comparison. The implication being that I might know, at least a bit, what with being an actual sex worker (and having worked in the service industries prior to selling sex). I was certainly the person in the room with the most recent experience of both selling sex, and of crappy service-industry sector work.

At that point, Siobhan McMahon yelled at me. Okay, okay, semantics. She might dispute “yelled”. All I can say is, I literally can’t remember the last time someone spoke to me with such aggression. Maybe that’s how they roll in the Scottish Parliament, but in normal adult life, grown-ups don’t speak to each other in such unmoderated tones. I can’t recall exactly what she yelled, because I was so shocked at being shouted at I kind of neglected to pay attention to the details, but it concluded with the observation that “the way that democracy works” is that we can have differing opinions. Um, thanks? For explaining to me how democracy works? I wonder if she so kindly explains the basics of “democracy” to everyone, or only to stupid whores. So then I cried, through a mixture of shock, fury, and, well, sadness I guess. I kind of hoped the conversation would be slightly more elevated. Silly me.

Frustrating! Imagine my surprise, upon getting home and checking Wikipedia, to discover that Ms McMahon became an MSP at the age of twenty-seven after “controversially” being employed by her father, MSP Michael McMahon as his parliamentary researcher. I’m absolutely sure she got the fast-track-to-MSP-job with Mr McMahon as a result of being objectively the best candidate who applied, and it’s merely an unfortunate coincidence that he’s her dad, but just for the sake of appearances, I wonder if she could take a slightly more circumspect tone when telling other people what’s-what with regards to the nuances of their employment options. Just a thought.

The other thing to note is that, unlike Rhoda, who at least had what in retrospect seems like the courtesy to let me finish my sentence before using the “you’re not representative” line to discredit me, Ms McMahon knew literally nothing about me when she felt totally comfortable with shouting at me. All she knew was that a) I was a sex worker and b) I disagreed with her. Cue aggression on her part, and (cringe) tears on mine. This is from the side of argument that want to “help” sex workers, remember. Unless they politely disagree with you! At which point, the definition of ‘help’ becomes ‘shout at until cries’.

Final point! Mr. Smith’s ‘9/10 prostitutes’ (sigh) fact was only offered to us verbally, and I do think it’s more understandable to be a bit sloppy with referencing when in conversation.  However, just in case you were wondering, the most probable location for this claim is Melissa Farley’s “89%” study, which has been widely and substantively discredited. Having started my silent-ish weeping out of shock, though, I kind of continued through frustration and despair as the MSPs pick-picked at our fully referenced briefing paper of evidence (well, hmm. The best they really offered was “Helena Kennedy?! Always best to take her pronouncements with a pinch of salt”, which, well – why did the fucking Scottish government appoint her to lead the report on Human Trafficking, then? We didn’t appoint her. You did), while declining to offer any evidence for their own opinions.

It will be very interesting to see what evidence Rhoda Grant produces for her consultation. If are able to discuss this on the evidence, sex workers will win, regardless of how much they shout at us to shut us up.