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Blinded by Ideology

18/10/2013 11:09 | Updated 23 January 2014

Gabriella Apicella's assertion that "Buying Sex Is an Act of Violence" is grossly offensive to the sex workers who experience genuine violence and abuse, many of whom feel that they are unable to report to the police due the stigma attached what they do. As well as being offensive, this narrow ideological view has little basis in the lived experience of most sex workers and fails to (or refuses to) acknowledge the diversity of the industry or the varied experiences of the people working in it. As Hilary Kinnell argues in Violence and Sex Work in Britain, to describe all sex work as violence is: "a meaningless shibboleth which diverts attention from violence as sex workers themselves define it and from the structural conditions that allow it".

I attended the launch of Gabriella's film 'Honest Lies' at Amnesty International Headquarters in London earlier this week and was concerned at the dehumanising attitudes towards sex workers being expressed by some of the panellists. I was vigorously writing notes throughout the event and was determined to raise my frustrations and concerns at the end but was not given the opportunity to speak. To read an unbiased and revealing account of the event written by a sex worker who was present but, like me, was not called to make comments or ask questions at the end go to the following link

Fiona McTaggart MP attempted to rewrite history by claiming that the Labour Government which she was part of did huge amounts to improve sex worker safety and the current Government have done nothing. She shouldn't forget that it was this Government who funded the National Ugly Mugs Pilot Scheme which I have no doubt has reduced stigma, empowered many sex workers to report violent crimes and rapes to the police and ultimately made sex workers safer by bringing dangerous perpetrators to justice.

Statistics and research were quoted selectively throughout the evening which perpetuates myths and stereotypes around sex work. Regarding the Eaves studies referenced in Gabriella's article, it is no surprise that small studies by a purely exit focused organisation working with a narrow section of sex workers who are expected to commit to exiting from the offset are going to find higher levels of coercion and a desire to exit. There is a tendency amongst those advocating criminalisation to use research focusing purely on street sex workers and suggest misleadingly that the findings are a reflection of the industry as a whole. In fact, street sex workers form a minority of the overall sex worker population in the UK - estimated as low as 10-12% in some studies.

I'll give two examples using the figures referenced in the article. Studies with female street sex working populations tend to find higher percentage report involvement before the age of 18 than in indoor samples but even within those studies the percentage varies considerably depending on sector and area. As for the issue of childhood sexual abuse, there are a range of studies that show that a majority of sex workers in their samples did not experience it and so the 72% figure must be considered in the context of the wider literature.

It was a relief to hear Ruth Jacobs, the panellist who bravely talked about her personal experience of sex work and injected some reality into proceedings, insisting that we should "take the ideology out of it" and focus on the safety of sex workers and removing the stigma. She told me she hoped that by "sharing [her] own story, the people present could open their minds to the fact we are talking about real people with real lives. There is a difference - such a massive difference that it's incomparable - between clients who respected my boundaries, and the clients who raped [her]."

Support for the Swedish Model (or the Nordic Model as it was repeatedly called - to give it a more of a global feel I assume) was frequently expressed but there seemed to be a worrying lack of understanding about the consequences its introduction has had for sex workers in Sweden. Speak to the authorities and the police and they might tell you that there are less sex workers but speak to sex workers themselves and support services and they will tell you that they have been displaced or driven underground and are far more likely to work in less visible and more dangerous forms. A colleague who manages a support service informed me that he had a delegation of sexual health specialists from Sweden and when the Swedish Model was mentioned they all shook their heads in frustration and informed him that it had made their jobs much harder and put people at risk.

This was echoed in 2012 by UNAIDS UN Advisory Group on HIV & Sex Work which made it very clear that the criminalisation not only of sex workers themselves but their clients has a detrimental effect on the health, safety, welfare and rights of sex workers as well as wider public health. It stated:

"Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability for sex workers and their clients, diverting attention from protecting sex workers rights."

Contrary to the claims by panellists at Monday's event, despite an initial dip in the numbers of visible sex workers a 2007 report from the National Board of Health and Welfare noted that "about two thirds of street prostitution is back, compared to the situation before the law against purchasing sexual services went into effect". This would reflect a general trend in Western Europe as a result of the increased use of the internet and mobile phones.

There are also reports from Sweden of sex workers using their own cars to collect clients, doing business in taxis, advertising on more websites, working from Norway or Denmark, lower prices being charged, less choice in clients and clients pressing for quicker and therefore more risky transactions due to the concerns over criminalisation. On the whole, the legislation has had a paradoxical effect and has endangered sex workers and entrenched stigma.

The Merseyside Model was referred to a number of times by panellists and I was surprised to hear support for it from Fiona McTaggart and Gabriella Apicella which she also reiterated in her article. However, the Merseyside Model isn't just about treating crimes against sex workers as hate crimes and crucially it simply isn't compatible with the Swedish Model. The Merseyside Model is founded on sensible policing focused on hard reduction over enforcement, reducing the stigma around sex work and building confidence amongst sex workers to report incidents to the police.

I decided to discuss this at length with the two key pioneers and architects of the Merseyside Model who have been involved with it since the start, both at strategic level with senior police officers and on the ground.

Rosie Campbell OBE, a key academic in this field who has led the calls for the Merseyside approach to be adopted elsewhere, said: "The hate crime policy adopted by Merseyside police was one practical measure alongside others to improve the policing response to violence against sex workers. As with other hate crime groups this meant a recognition that; the policing response had not been adequate, there was a need to build trust, sex workers had not had the protection and justice that was their right and that sex workers faced stigma prejudice and targeted violent hate crimes. It has enabled police to prosecute violent individuals who target sex workers. It is hard to see how laws which criminalise all people who pay for sexual services, such as in Sweden, would reduce stigma for sex workers & improve their safety. Indeed quite the opposite could occur. We need limited policing resources to be used to target those violent offenders who attack sex workers & other individuals who coerce or exploit sex workers."

Shelly Stoops, former specialist sex worker Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) and Manager of the Safe Place Merseyside, said: "The Merseyside Model is the diametrical opposite of the Swedish Model. At its heart is sex worker safety and this is prioritised above enforcement. The Swedish Model has at its core the criminalisation of men who pay for sex which forces sex workers into dangerous places, it gives them less time to use their safety strategies, think things through, negotiate safe sex at a price and location they find acceptable and let someone know where they are going. This drives people underground to places where rape and sexual assault can easily occur. The women are unlikely to come forward for help as unless they are willing to agree to adopt the 'victim' persona and agree to be 'fixed' they will find no help available to them. The Merseyside Model encourages women to work safely and in places where we can easily find them - spaces that are well lit, covered by CCTV and ANPR and policed regularly. If they become victims of crime, we encourage all clients to report all crimes to the police. This is possible because there is a culture of mutual respect and trust. Women do not need to be anything but themselves to receive help or assistance and we operate a harm reductionist model based on the human right of that individual to be safe and free from harm."

I spoke to Ruth Jacobs after the event and raised my concerns as I felt that despite the fact she had been given a platform to speak the atmosphere was hostile to her views and she was a lone voice whose opinion wasn't based purely on a narrow ideology.

She said: "It was hurtful to hear the other women on the panel talk about all women in the sex trade as victims - that's not empowering; it's disrespectful. I might not have found prostitution empowering myself... I wasn't in poverty or a mother at the time, like a great many women in the sex trade are. But if I was in poverty right now, it would be more empowering for me to sell sex and be able to feed and clothe my children and pay the rent, than have my children go hungry, wear shoes that are too small and with holes in, and for us to be homeless.

"My friend who is a current sex worker was there and both she and I felt some of the statements made about women who sell sex were extremely offensive and dehumanising. I really don't think these women mean to be, not most of them, but they need to see us as human beings."

She did specifically ask me to point out that she "felt supported by many people in the room who knew [she] didn't share their belief in the Nordic model anymore and that gave [her] a lot of hope that minds could be changed."

I admire Ruth's optimism that those blinded by ideology who use the language of feminism or religion to advocate for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex are open-minded enough to put aside their moral objections to sex work and accept the overwhelming evidence that such measures will only serve to further marginalise and stigmatise an already marginalised group and, in turn, silence their voices.

The story of Petite Jasmine, who had devoted so much of her life to raising awareness about the damage done by the Swedish Model since its introduction is a damning indictment of the consequences of legally enforced stigma and the dehumanising effect of criminalisation. Her children were taken from her and she was told by the authorities that she didn't know what was good for her and that she was "romanticising" prostitution. They told her that she didn't realise sex work was a form of self-harm. Her children were placed with their father regardless of the fact that he was abusive towards Jasmine. He threatened and stalked her but she was never offered any protection by the Swedish authorities who didn't recognise the rights of sex workers. She fought the system and had finally started seeing her children again. On July 11th 2013 their father brutally murdered her.