Like any human being, I watched the documentary Hunted with an open mouth and an increasing horror. I also watched it whilst trying to quieten the several fireworks going off in my head at once. The similarities between homosexuals' rights in Russia and sex workers' rights in the UK/Ireland are breath taking.
It's ironic that in my recent evidence session to the Justice Committee in Northern Ireland, I pointed out that gay rights and sex workers' rights have a lot in common, and I also pointed out that when I was growing up, gay men and paedophiles were thought of as one in the same. Happily, we have moved on from that mindset. It is never acceptable to conflate gay men with paedophiles, because in very simple terms, gay men indulge in consensual sex between adults, and paedophiles commit a crime - to have sex with a minor is rape, end of. So where does the confusion arise ?
I see the objectors to gay people in Russia as a two pronged group. Firstly, you have those who believe the propaganda and teachings of the church and have been indoctrinated from a very young age to hate and despise gay people, honestly believing that where there is gay activity, paedophilia is never far behind. Wilful ignorance at it's finest. The second group are far more worrying. Here you have a group of people who know very well the difference between gay people and paedophiles, but they choose to ignore it, because that would spoil their "activist fun" and adoration from their peers. So in Hunted, we saw a group who claimed that 28 out of 30 men they "caught" were paedophiles, who also just so happened to be gay. Yet, in the footage filmed, it's made clear that the man they have snared is gay and not a paedophile. Nevertheless, they continue to film their "interview", sneering at their captor and belittling him for fun.
Now, let's think about sex workers' rights in the UK and Ireland. Again, here we have two groups, but the conflation now is consensual sex work versus trafficking/coercion. The first group believe the propaganda they read from abolitionists, you only have to look at my coverage of Abolition Scotland and their Nefarious road show to see just how inflated that information can be. This group really believe that those of us who have not been trafficked nevertheless require rescue because we are undoubtedly the product of a broken home, abuse, addiction, low self esteem - the list is endless.
The second group are far more heinous. They know very well that there is a vast majority of independent and content sex workers who just do our work and pay our bills. This group have met us, debated with us and tried every trick in the book to undermine us.
"You're not representative, you're in an ivory tower."
"You consort with pimps, therefore your 20 years of experience is invalid."
"You are psychologically damaged, PTSD, therefore we cannot trust what you say."
Somewhere deep down, they know that what they're saying is wrong, but unlike the hunter groups of Russia, there is far more at stake for this group if they finally admit that sex work and trafficking are not the same thing, and it is funding. If you think the sex trade is big, allow me to introduce you to the Rescue Industry. Here's where the big money is. Turn off the Red Light are an Irish organisation who falsely claimed that 19 children were trafficked into Ireland for the sex trade, only to be rebutted by the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in his report in Dec 2013. Nevertheless, it's grandiose sweeping statements like the above that have earned TORL the grand sum of $40,710,493.00 from Atlantic Philanthropies. It's big business, to conflate sex work and abuse.
Turning to the actions of the government, I was horrified to learn that the Russian government have passed a law outlawing any "propaganda" which is in favour of or even neutral on, gay rights. Further, there are moves afoot which would result in the children of same sex families, being taken into the care system. There is so much wrong with that model of "protecting children" that I could go on for years, having known a great many people who experienced the "care system" and all that entails.
What struck me was this, that the governments both here and in Ireland are failing sex workers in exactly the same fashion. Think about it, moves are afoot to implement the Swedish model, which effectively targets those who indulge in paid consensual sex, diverting police resources away from the real crimes of those who force, coerce and traffic. In the Swedish model too, we have also seen the removal of children from a sex worker with dreadful consequences.
The governments are failing sex workers on two levels. Firstly, there is a need to decriminalise the industry so that two people can work together for safety. Witness the recent murder of Maria Duque-Tunjano, a lady who lay slain in her flat for three days because she was alone. Secondly, there is a need to fund National Ugly Mugs, which is in danger of closing down if there is no further funding received by March. My message to the government on that is clear - if you will insist under archaic and ill informed laws that we work alone and without another for safety, at least fund a scheme which warns us of potential dangers. In no other occupation I can think of is a worker compelled to work alone. None.
Thirty years later, in Ireland, there is a large group of people deeply embarrassed of their treatment of gay people, because they now understand the vast difference between a gay person and a paedophile. They may still not like the idea of gay sex, but they get the idea of consent. And that's what's key.
Is it going to take another thirty years before the shift happens for sex workers ? I sincerely hope not, because this time, when lives are at stake, "embarrassment" will simply not be enough.