How did you become involved in supporting the abolition of prostitution?
As a feminist activist, you have to be wilfully blind to ignore the sex trade. I was planning a one-off activist stunt around sex trafficking at a UK activist training event, and was fortunate that those I met were passionate and dedicated enough to want to form an organisation with me to tackle the foundation that holds trafficking up – prostitution. If we lived in a world where women’s bodies were not for sale, then sex traffickers would not be able to operate. So, the best place to start alleviating the problem of trafficking is with prostitution.
What draws you to support and advocate for people in prostitution?
Largely, the lack of people doing so, and my outrage at that. Put simply, we live under a capitalist, patriarchal system, which means profit comes before people. For those at the receiving end of the profit, this is, of course, brilliant. For those who aren’t, they can become the capital. These are likely to be the most disenfranchised members of society – and under gender inequality, which manifests itself in all sorts of sexual exploitation, those are likely to be women, or actually, girls. The average age of entry in prostitution varies ever so slightly from country to country or from study to study, but from what I have read, it is consistently between eleven and thirteen. Worldwide figures about the human rights abuse of violence against women should be shocking us into action. Instead, it is under-funded. Prostitution is doubly neglected because it is ‘too controversial’. I went to a recent human rights conference about the Istanbul Convention (an international convention to commit member states of the Council of Europe to act against violence against women) where they flatly admitted this. They immediately discounted prostitution, although it fits legal definitions of violence against women – purely because they knew it was divisive and they needed to be productive within a limited time. So, women in prostitution, who are eighteen times more likely to be murdered than the average population and who face all kinds of verbal, physical and sexual violence are swept under the carpet. We are bowing to the profit-makers, to the pimps and the capitalists who see women as commodities. This needs to be discussed, or those interested in profit will win, as they are winning now, because neo-liberal capitalism lets them.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish prostitution?
I advocate the Nordic model. This puts the attention on those driving the demand for sex (mostly men known as johns/tricks/buyers) and aims to deter them from perpetuating prostitution’s existence. Prostitution exists because johns buy sex – largely from those that are coerced or flat-out forced into selling it, and mostly from girls or women who started as girls and know no other way (although less commonly they do also buy trans* people and other men). It exists because of gender inequality and a power imbalance between the sexes. The Nordic model criminalises the men who buy sex. It does not criminalise those who sell sex – too often they are arrested and stigmatised when they are the ones being exploited.
Exit strategies are an important component of the Nordic Model – offering those in prostitution another life of alternative employment, housing, counselling, drug services. There are many obstacles which prevent those in prostitution from doing this without support, including a lack of housing, childhood experiences of violence, managing debt, a lack of qualifications, a downtrodden sense of self worth and coercion by pimps/others. (See new report: Breaking down the Barriers for more.) Supported exit strategies are therefore a vital part of the Nordic model.
Briefly, for those who don’t know – the alternatives are legalisation, such as in Amsterdam (be careful here – buying and selling sex is already legal in the UK, so what this means is legalising the activities of pimps) or decriminalisation such as in New Zealand. I consider these both failed experiments, as trafficking has increased in these countries, and conditions for women in prostitution have not improved, while focus on helping women to exit if they wish to has gone. No one system is perfect, but as far as legal frameworks go, the Nordic model is the best of any that currently operates in the world. Recent research (www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/895 and www.feministcurrent.com/7038/new-research-shows-violence-decreases-under-nordic-model-why-the-radio-silence) shows that since the Nordic model was introduced in Norway (in 2008) and Sweden (in 1999), both the extent of prostitution – and violence against women in prostitution – have decreased.
What does your work in this area involve?
I co-founded an organisation called Nordic Model Advocates (NorMAs). Organisationally, we’re still very new – we’ve only been active for a few months, but we have big plans. Initially, our main focus will be on awareness-raising on social media (Twitter, Facebook) and through activist stunts. However, we are building a network of supporters from politics, journalism, women’s groups, NGOs and most importantly, women who have exited prostitution. With these supporters behind us, and by building public support, we can collectively put pressure on the government to adopt the Nordic model. Both Scotland and Ireland are currently talking about this, so we’re hoping our government won’t be far behind. We also think it is important to address the misinformation that circulates in the press and add another voice to the often one-sided, under-researched picture presented. We will be officially responding to any newspaper or magazine articles we see that do not offer a balanced perspective and obscure the harms of prostitution – this only escalates the dangers faced by women and girls in prostitution.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
In the future, we will need more volunteers to help us educate the general public about prostitution (in one-off ways or in the long term). For now, I would urge people to read far and wide about prostitution, always with a questioning mind. Do not accept arguments without finding out the counter argument. Do not only read from one source. Then you can make up your own mind.
But remember that pimps and sex business owners have a lot of money – this is a global industry thriving off people’s complicity and silence (which is itself complicity). They will make sure information that suits them circulates, and it will likely circulate more widely than the message of activists and women’s groups because we are nowhere near as rich and have our resources stretched by tackling all sorts of issues that affect women. They can pay internet shills to comment under posts with fake profiles on social media to give their arguments credibility. We can’t. They also spend large amounts of time and energy harassing and intimidating survivors of prostitution who speak up. We know some of these women have pulled back out of concern for their well-being, some have even received death threats. It is unacceptably cruel that women are being denied a voice to say what happened to them because it doesn’t fit with pimps’ agendas or with the story of the ‘happy hooker’. Where that ‘happy hooker’ exists, her freedom does not trump another’s abuse. We must listen to the other side of the story.
You can challenge the attitudes that support the sex ‘industry’ in your everyday life by influencing your friends and family to educate themselves, by calling people out who accept women’s ubiquitous sexual availability being sold to us in a huge majority of advertising, film, print media and so forth. Challenge the culture that creates those who buy women’s bodies. Support women to be confident within this culture. Don’t use the term ‘sex work’, which suggests sex is work and nothing more. These things count.
You can also help us by telling the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (www.appgprostitution.org) before February 4th, 2013 that you support the uptake of the Nordic model in the UK.
What are your plans for the future?
We are launching a website full of information – you can also look on there for what you can do to help in a more targeted way, or on an ad hoc basis. We will be expanding and carrying out more direct action, circulating a petition, speaking at and attending relevant events and putting pressure on Parliament. On an individual level, I am also writing a thesis about helping women exit prostitution and how government needs to be proactive in making service providers offer this as an option to women. Shockingly, when women in prostitution seek help, the organisations they are likely to find are unlikely to give them their full range of options. They may give them condoms, clean towels, advice – but they will not mention exit. I find that abysmal. A woman that is under psychological pressure from a pimp, boyfriend or other coercer to continue selling sex needs to hear that there is another way and have someone believe in her that she can make it happen – with support. I hope to add some academic research to that field and perhaps help in some small way.
Recommended websites/further reading:
Survivors Connect – a space for survivors to meet
Eaves (useful NGO reports)