Our Bodies, Our Selves.

Pop quiz! You are a sex worker living in a country that has adopted the Nordic model. Which of these forms of evidence-gathering would you prefer? You may pick one.

a. Condom-possession. Prepare to have your safer-sex precautions produced in court as evidence that a commercial sex act was on the cards. 

b. The police non-consensually video your sex life. Y’know, clandestinely. 

c. The police conduct an intimate physical examination. (Does this feel a bit like sexual assault? Shush there, you with your false consciousness. Your consensual sex life is rape; whereas this is for your own good.)

This is of course a trick question, because generally in jurisdictions that have adopted the Nordic model, all of these forms of evidence-gathering are used. (There’s a fun add-on to option (a) which is that, in Sweden, even distributing condoms can be seen as “encouraging prostitution”. Dodillet and Ostergren observe that this “makes it difficult for the authorities to utilise harm reduction strategies” [p4], which, well, yeah.)

If I raise these issues with someone who supports the Nordic model, I mostly get ignored, or accused of ‘scaremongering’. (Let word go forth: the new feminist response to a woman who is telling you about her fears of sexual assault, is to accuse her of ‘scaremongering’. #ibelieveher, unless she’s a sex worker or our politics differ, apparently.) So where’ve I got these preposterous ideas from?

Well, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland responded to Trish Godman’s 2010 Bill by expressing “concerns” over whether or not “intimate forensic medical examinations” (p1) would be justifiable. (I think it’s safe to say that the official ACPOS response to a parliamentary consultation is going to be the nicer, more moderate face of law enforcement – so much more friendly than the police officer who recently responded to a sex worker trying to report a rape by saying, “what you did was prostitution”, and logging “no crime”. Those are the people who’ll be translating ACPOS’ “concerns” about “justifiableness” into day-to-day conviction-hunting. I’d have concerns.)

Let’s see what happens where these laws are already in place.

Women who sell sex in Sweden are routinely filmed without their consent while engaging in sex acts (p4) – as if that’s somehow not massively fucked up a huge violation; more on this in a bit – while sex workers in Norway report that the new law makes them feel criminalised (subsection 3.3.2). In Chicago, the ‘end demand’ approach that claims to target clients sees the arrest of a disproportionately large number of transgender women of colourwho are then mis-gendered and accused of buying sex. (A particularly vile irony, given how frequently trans* women of colour are harassed in the street by law enforcement. “A report on Latin trans women in Los Angeles … found that two thirds of participants received verbal harassment from police officers. Twenty-one percent reported physical assault and twenty-three percent sexual assault“, and often this harassment is premised on the assumption that they must be selling sex. Racist trans*misogyny: where you really can’t fucking win.)

In this study, women and girls in the sex trade tell researchers that the police are the number one source of violence and abuse, which isn’t that surprising given that this comes from the same state (Illinois) where ‘end demand’ campaigners succeeded in increasing the penalties for the buyers … oh, and sellers – of sex. Victim-centred! Back in Europe, police forces in Sweden and Norway have reported that the laws against clients have made gathering evidence against abusers more difficult – possibly because the Swedish and Norwegian states are so keen to ‘rescue’ (migrant) sex workers, that when these victims of patriarchy are discovered, they’re deported so quickly that their clients haven’t even come to trial (p4). Meagan Morris, a researcher specialising in law enforcement and the sex industry, notes that even supposedly “victim-centred” approaches tend to disproportionately hurt women.

Yes, the police and feminist (ha) campaigners are two different entities, and women’s groups can’t control what the police will do. But since that’s the case, it might behove those who support the Nordic model to pause and think before arguing for legislation that bestows further police power over demographics that experience multiple forms of marginalisation – much of the sharp end of which is already at the hands of the police. Actually, though, I don’t think that arguing for these laws comes from a place of privileged ignorance – I think its worse than that, and here’s two examples of why coming up next.

Let Meagan Morris’ findings about the disproportionate hurt to women even in supposedly “victim-centred” contexts steep in your mind a little, as we refresh the content of the Skarhead report (Sweden’s assessment of the success of the law). Particularly the bit where sex workers reporting that the law has increased stigma against them is registered as a good thing (“for people who are still being exploited in prostitution, the above negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive” [p23]) … because stigma might discourage people from entering the sex industry. (‘Stig-ma, noun. That thing which hurts us, by legitimising and perpetuating the view that we are less than human, degraded, or dirty. Strongly linked to violence’.) ‘Victim-centred’ approaches seem to really love stigma, actually, as this report from a ‘John School’ illustrates: “presenters cautioned participants that ‘drug addicted prostitutes… have stabbed their clients with AIDS infected needles‘”. Thanks, ‘end demand’ campaigners! That’s not problematic at all!

To return briefly to the issue of Scandinavian police forces clandestinely filming sex acts, I think what really fucking grinds my gears about this one is that proponents of the Nordic model often think that all pornography is violence. But apparently filming sex workers – without their consent – is fine. It seems like a microcosm of their whole analysis: in their rush to label everything as abuse, they end up causing real abuse to be perpetrated in the pursuit of prosecuting consenting sex. And also sex workers don’t matter.

I think I’ve shown fairly clearly that there are lots of good reasons why sex workers don’t trust the police, even in jurisdictions that are ostensibly “victim-centred” or allegedly focused on “targeting the client”, and therefore why the onus needs to be on those who want to eradicate to the sex industry through the intervention of the state to show they’ve thought about these issues. Y’know. At all. (I’m not the only sex worker in the UK to not trust the police, either – the numbers from National Ugly Mugs show that while 99% of reportees are happy to have their report shared anonymously with other sex workers, only 27% allow their information to be passed on to the police. Prohibitionist campaigners in Scotland wouldn’t know this, of course, because none of them could be bothered to come to the UK NSWP meeting in Aberdeen for the Ugly Mugs training session. As I said on twitter, giving a fuck so much more is the slogan of the revolution.) And that being concerned that the police will abuse their power isn’t exactly ‘scaremongering’, since it happens everywhere, all. the. time.

In a sense, this is a slightly ancillary issue: most of the terrible things that the Nordic model does to sex workers are achieved by increasing our desperation and thus our vulnerability to those who pose as clients. I’m just very struck by how little meaningful response I get when I bring this stuff up. I almost kind of want someone to tell me to my face that they think this kind of police power, and these methods of evidence-gathering, are okay. Because at least that would entail acknowledging that this stuff happens, and I actually think that pretending it doesn’t – that it isn’t even a possibility – is more horrible to hear than that you sort-of deserve it (in a ‘collateral-damage-in-the-wider-battle against patriarchy’, kind-of way).

Like, be proud of your politics, and their effects, then. Go on. Defend them. I’m listening. I’ve been listening for a while, but apparently no one’s got anything to say on this.

Guest Post: ‘Who Loves The Sun?’

[This is a guest post by Nicola Carty on the “no more page three” campaign. You can follow Nicola on twitter via @NicolaParty. The author is smart and thoughtful and brilliant, as you’ll immediately be able to see from this piece; ‘Who Loves The Sun?’ was originally published under a different, less Lou Reedy title, here. Thank you, Nicola, for permission to guest-post!]

Like a UK-based Carrie Bradshaw, Lucy Anne Holmes knows good sex.  Or rather, she knows bad sex.  The kind of sex that is “ugly”, and that debases the good name of sex in general.  Holmes is on a mission, “valiantly trying to change the face of sex as we know it”.  And her sexual revolution will not end until “the men and women of this land are in smiling, bit twitching bliss.”  (One gets the impression, however, that unless the phrase “tender love making” is enough to get your bits quivering away, you’re just going to have change your idea of bliss.)

And so, from the bosom of this mission to change sexual activities and preferences, Holmes has moved on to establishing the “Take the Bare Boobs Out of The Sun” campaign (See what I did there?  Bosom?  Boobs?  Bahahahahah).  In an article in The Independent on 20th September 2012, Holmes explains that although she has “nothing against these beautiful glamour models”, she believes that they are “sex objects”, and that these images contribute to a culture of objectification of women which itself is related to a culture of sexual assault.  Page 3 is also to blame for Holmes’s negative body image as an adolescent, according to her blog, and I would very much doubt that she is the only woman who has experienced negative body image as a result of seeing page 3 images.  She concludes that all she wants is for women to be represented and treated with respect, just like men.

The campaign has so far been extremely successful. At the time of writing, almost 47,000 people have signed the petition and over 9,000 followers on Twitter. The @NoMorePage3 Twitter account frequently publishes comments left by supporters on the campaign’s change.org page, as evidence of the public support and shared viewpoints behind the campaign.  An example of one such comment is that page 3 is “not a fair or just representation of women”, a statement echoing Holmes’s own take on the issue.

But, as it happens, page 3 is not the only instance of unfair representations of women.   I carried out an analysis of The Sun on Sunday published on September 30th 2012. Although this is not representative of the content of The Sun on other days of the week, I chose the Sunday edition as this is the only one that does not feature a glamour model on page 3.  I felt that if this campaign was on the right track, the absence of a glamour photo would mean that men and women were treated more or less as equals in the paper.  I also looked at the edition of The Sun published on Wednesday October 3rd.  Overall, more articles were written by men, and more articles were about men. Those articles mostly dealt with men as actors in the public sphere, and women as victims. Articles about women were also heavily skewed to those commenting on their physical appearance. For example, an entire article was written about the fact that Cameron Diaz was appearing on the cover of Esquire.  Seriously.  It contained the following sentence: “Single Cameron – starring with Oscar winner Colin Firth…- also reveals what she looks for in a fella.”  Firth wins prizes.  Diaz fails to have relationships.

Alright, you say, that’s fine and all, but that’s TWO issues of The Sun, it’s hardly representative of anything.  So I looked elsewhere.  Even in the 1990s social scientists were arguing that the performances of female athletes were “presented as being of less interest than men’s”.  Robinson (1993, in Working Papers in Sport and Society ) argued that “the media are instrumental in the cultural process which trivializes and exploits women through the coverage of female athletes”.  Two studies published last year have found that most newspaper articles are written by men, and most articles are about men (the first was by The Guardian, the second by the organisation Women in Journalism). The Women in Journalism study found that The Independent, the paper in which Holmes published an article, had the lowest proportion of female reporters, at 22% (that’s right, even lower than The Sun!  But Holmes is happy to publish with them nonetheless!). Similar findings were reported in an article appearing online in The Guardian on October 14th: Women in Journalism again found that sexism was prevalent in 9 national newspapers over a four-week period  (Amelia Hill, article available here).  That study also found that when women were photographed, the images were predominantly unflattering, where women were portrayed as emotional or comical (Anita Sarkeesian has a great piece on image-based misogyny, which can be found here).

Sexism is ever-present in print and broadcast media. We’re seeing that the media present men as actors who deserve to be written about to a much greater extent than women.  We’re seeing that it’s not just readers of The Sun who are presented with sexist representations of women, it’s readers of most newspapers in this country.  And the most dangerous part of all of this is that we’re only really aware of it in this much detail because somebody has taken the time to do the research and point it out to us.  This is not obvious sexism.  This is latent, under the surface stuff.  And it’s going on in many more forums than one page of one newspaper.

So, if we’re going to be attempting to remove from the media images or ideas which lead to sexism, perhaps we should be demanding that newspapers and broadcasters employ more women, and ask for contributions from more women, as another change.org petition does (“Major news organisations BBC,ITN and Sky: Ensure 30 percent of ‘experts’ used on tv & radio are women.”  Incidentally, this petition has only 1,542 supporters at the time of writing, despite the fact that it would probably go much further to address gender inequality in the media than removing a sexual image from page 3 of The Sun). In my own analysis of The Sun, I found only  one explicit mention of a non-Caucasian woman (Oprah, if you’re interested).  Surely the absence of women of colour from national newspapers is more of a cause for concern for women’s representation that the presence of women with tops off?

So let’s look at the big fact behind Holmes’s campaign, that page 3 is “the biggest single factor in encouraging casual sexism”: when this was presented to NoMorePage3’s Twitter followers almost 3 weeks ago, I replied asking the basis of this, but have, as yet, not had any response.  Returning to other comments that have been endorsed by the campaign, we find more and more problems. When I challenged a statement that page 3 encouraged the objectivity of women, on the basis that objectivity is surely a good thing, the account representative replied that they believed the supporter meant objectification.  To be honest, I believe so too.  But surely we should be concerned when a campaign’s supporters are not even correctly able to use the feminist terminology?

In the academic studies I cited above, such careless use of language and unsupported, wild claims would be entirely unacceptable.  While I appreciate that this campaign is not intended as an academic study, given its desired impact  and its drive for support from 1,000,000 people, including politicians, it is baffling that there appears to be no means of fact checking, or of defining key terms in the campaign.  This is not one of those times when “Ah, but you know what I meant” will suffice as justification for using polemical, undefined terms.  This is a massive, national campaign with far-reaching consequences.  And those it has the potential to effect deserve better than sensationalism and carelessness.

The campaign endorses ideas “girls cannot expect to get anywhere in life just by showing their bodies off”, and Holmes herself refers to glamour models as sex objects.  Another supporter of the campaign argues “Thinking about it honestly, Page 3 is nothing more than the objectification of women”, once again, overlooking and effectively denying the agency of the women involved.  But you know what?  Telling models that they are sex objects doesn’t really suggest a lot of respect. Why does Holmes think it is acceptable to promote some women’s rights, but not others?  Working for the only the rights of women who choose not to be especially revealing about their bodies  doesn’t sound like feminism to me.  It sounds like the same old misogynistic bullshit that’s been going around for years.  It sounds like women, once again, are being told that they need to behave in a certain way if they want to be treated with respect.

Even outwith this campaign, plenty of people do have something against glamour models, claiming that women who choose to work in the sex industry only do so because they have been brought up to believe that their only value lies in being sexually attractive, or that they are just sluts. Plenty of people do have something against any woman who is vocal about sexual desire.    Plenty of people consistently use a woman’s desire to express herself sexually, or to wear short skirts as justification for verbal, physical, or emotional abuse.

Is this about just boobs not being news?  Or is it in part about disapproving of the choices of certain women?  It certainly seems like the latter to me, and it calls in to question the objectivity (or is that objectification?  I can’t really remember, but I guess it doesn’t matter, coz you guys know what I mean) of the campaign.

Look: I’m unlikely to do a page 3 photoshoot.  (Actually, the idea of me being a page 3 model is so hilarious that I might actually try to do it, just for lolz.  Did you see that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is doing the boudoir photo shoot?  It’d be like that, except that while the photographer smears vaseline on the camera lens, I’d be arguing with the set designer about the day-to-day impracticality of satin sheets: “But they’re so slippery!  And you can’t put them on a boil wash!”).  But this campaign affects me too.  It affects me because it’s not tackling underlying sexism in the media.  It’s not tackling the culture that still exists that tells women what is and isn’t ok to do with their bodies.  It’s contributing to slut-shaming.  It’s marginalising sex workers, and although I’m not one, plenty of women are, and what hurts other women hurts me because we are all in this together.

How is a quick fix of telling people “Looking at women’s bodies is not ok” going to solve any problems?  There are much, much more effective ways of tackling the underlying sexism in our society.  But actually, it’s much, much harder to tackle latent sexism than it is to find an obvious example of something in popular culture that you don’t agree with.  To tackle latent sexism, we need things like Ladyfest; we need campaigns like Women for Independence in Scotland, a movement designed to make sure that women’s opinions are not yet again overlooked in a national debate; we need feminist organisations to have, and actively implement, policies on intersectionality, that have been developed in collaboration with marginalised groups within women; we need campaigns like Oxfam’s Female Food Hero, which not only celebrates the hugely important role women play in food production all over the world (the project has been run in Tanzania, and is soon to be run in Ireland – see here for more), but also provides women with training and further resources to enhance their skills in food production.  Issues around women and negative body image would be more adequately addressed by working with girls and women who suffer from body image problems, rather than censoring those women whose insecurities are not so great that they are uncomfortable with revealing their bodies.  A better way to dissociate pornographic images and sexual assault (if indeed such a link does exist), would be to educate people that there is a difference between women who consent to sexual activity (including participation in pornography and engaging in sex) and women who do not.  All of these activities require a lot more effort and commitment than simply signing a petition, but furthermore, they do not have the knock-on negative affect of stigmatising and criticising women who work in the sex industry.

Not only do I believe that this campaign is ill thought-out, and utterly careless with regards to its social context and potential consequences, but, given the attitudes and beliefs of its founder in relation to sex and sexual expression, I find it difficult to believe that the campaign is even well-meaning.  This campaign is taking place in a context where female nudity and sexuality is heavily criticised.  It is taking place in a context where the media does not represent women adequately.   It is the brainchild of a woman who makes value judgements about other people’s sexual preferences.  And crucially, it ignores all of these contexts.  Take the bare boobs out of The Sun is an ostentatious, lazy attempt at feminist activism, which will not have a large direct impact on women’s rights, and fits very neatly into a misogynistic culture of slut-shaming and dictating to women what we can and should do with our bodies.  And as a feminist who believes in improving rights for all women, not just those who share my particular attitudes, I cannot put my name to it.