Life, thinking, communication, creativity/logistics, reality, integrity, unconscious wisdom, queer politics, activism, bisexuality, polyamory, love, relationships, parenting… and books.
Jennifer's Uncharted Worlds blog.

NWC2013: write-up & some opinions

NWC2013 stands for “Nottingham Women’s Conference”, which took place on 21 September 2013. (Twitter hashtag: #NWC2013.) This is partly a chronological narrative of my own first-hand experience of the conference, and partly my analysis of what happened politically.

=== Update: Had a comments bug earlier which was causing comments to not arrive. I think I’ve fixed it now, but if you do write a comment, please keep a copy of what you wrote, just in case it gets lost! thanks. ===

When I’ve been at home and other people have been to events, I really appreciate the kind of account by which “you feel like you could’ve been there”. So I’m going to tell the eyewitness bit of this story mostly as I’d tell a friend who was that kind of interested. It’s not only about the contentious bits.

It’s long! so you might want to get a cup of tea first :-)

The space of this post

I want to start by saying that I cherish the women who organised the conference and I cherish the women who stood outside it being a voice of dissent.

So, before I get onto the story-telling, a couple of things, because I have been on the internet a while now and I know where these things can end up :-)

  1. Where I point out things I might have done differently, or conclusions I’ve drawn, I’m not “attacking” the conference organisers, or any such fighty metaphor. I’m trusting them. I’m trusting my reading of them as thoughtful people, who will ponder what I’ve said and decide in their own time whether they agree or not. I’m trusting that they’ll perceive my constructive intent, and that our appreciation of each other won’t be injured if we disagree.

    Nor am I being ungrateful – on the contrary, I think the conference was a huge accomplishment, I appreciate what I got to learn as an onlooker to their difficulties, and it seems to me possible that even the bits I’m going to criticise could be built on to catalyse better &/or different things in future.

    So I would appreciate not seeing combat-metaphor interpretations of this post.

  2. Conversely, a request of people who might agree with a criticism of mine: please no assuming that you know what individual people think just because they were on the organising team. I know four of them to various degrees offline, and I can assure you that they don’t all think the same.

More detailed thoughts on commenting-ground-rules below.

Despite having social links both with some of the NWC organisers and (since the day) with the people who turned up to dissent, I intuitively leaned towards not showing a draft to either group before posting. I can’t exactly spell out why, it just felt right; perhaps mainly to do with my sense of “this is my own take on the day”. But if you think I didn’t do your bit justice, feel free to comment.

Now the story! Rewind a few months…

The first inklings

Back in June, there I was standing near the bus stops in town, about to part company with one of the NWC organisers after a good chat, when she mentioned they were inviting Nordic Model Advocates. I said something like: ooh, I’m a bit iffy about that.

From then on, I had a strand of worry about the conference, though I hadn’t even decided at that point whether I’d go myself.

Don’t get me wrong – I totally didn’t foresee how things actually played out.

But I did already know from prior reading that some people had described problems with how the Nordic Model affects women in reality. I also have a generally-applicable pragmatic scepticism about the way that well-meaning laws and interventions function “on the ground” :-/

On the other hand, I also heard in that same conversation that Southall Black Sisters were going to present at the conference, and that was a big attraction for me – I’d heard lots of good things about them.

I didn’t decide straight away – Pride organisation was full-on all July, and it felt a bit “can’t think about anything else till that’s done” – but by early August, I was thinking “yeah”, and that’s when I bought my ticket.

Nordic Model very-basics

Without going way way into the Nordic Model at this point… its most famous aspect is changing the law to make it illegal to buy sex under any circumstances. It’s also known as “the Swedish Model”, because Sweden was the first country to do it, in 1999. The rationale behind it is a belief that all paid sex should be considered abusive (including transactions actively sought by the seller, as well as forcibly-coerced ones), and therefore the payers – or abusers – should be punished. There’s a theory that this will eventually end the sex trade entirely, although no evidence as yet that it’s actually diminished.

Much of the debate … has centred on the Swedish Sex Purchase Act and its effects. At best there is conflicting evidence regarding how effective this model has been.

- Amnesty International UK, November 2013

In Sweden, selling sex remains technically legal (as it is in the UK), but people who do are disadvantaged under the law in various ways including tax status and housing: e.g. “a landlord or tenant is required to terminate the tenancy if premises are used for prostitution and tenant-owners are required to move out of an apartment used for prostitution.1

The shape of my concern

Some time in August, a friend came round one day to visit, and we ended up having a long conversation about the upcoming Nordic Model presentation and my concerns about it. I said something like:

I worry that I’ll be in the audience for this presentation, and someone’s going to come out with some statistic. And there won’t be time right there and then to get online and find out whether it’s true or not, and it’ll go by, and I’ll find out later it was wrong.

And despite all the reading I’ve done already, I don’t feel like “An Expert” on all this stuff, I don’t have all the info about the Nordic Model at my fingertips. But I probably know more of the background than most of the people who’ll be there, so what’s my political responsibility? what’s my avenues? how can it not turn out like “me sitting there alone worrying about whether I should stand up & make an unpopular challenge”? which would not be fun :-)

(I don’t mind being disagreed with, and I’m reasonably OK with taking unfashionable positions, but I like having time to think… on the fly in the middle of an event isn’t my strong point :-) )

At that time, I was seriously thinking of writing an open letter to the conference organisers on my blog, or else maybe just privately to them, and it would have said: please can you ask the presenters to list all the statistics which they’re intending to cite, on the net in good time beforehand. Because then I (or others) could have fact-checked the stats before the day, and at least we’d be going into the conference with that aspect settled.

And I was also thinking of getting in touch with the organisations led by self-identified current sex workers,2 and saying: what about this? are you going? or if not, is there maybe a way you can brief me or something?

The main reason I didn’t do either of those things in the end was sheer lack of time and headspace. I was away for a bit visiting family, and I’d already agreed to help @MaryamBibiDin with an Intersectionality 101 workshop as part of the conference fringe, and I’ve got a whole other activism thing going on to do with Nottingham City Council and non-school education, and… you know, life :-) It didn’t stop being on my mind whenever I thought of the conference coming up.

The Open Letter from SWOU

So then, imagine my relief! when one day I saw the open letter initiated by Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), a UK-based group.

I don’t mean even specifically what was in the letter, but just the fact it existed. It seemed like: here are people who know more about this than I do, who are on the case, and the organisers are responding to them. Phew.

said online:

For what it’s worth… I’m going to @NWC2013 (got my ticket!) & I would welcome the addition of speakers from @SexWorkerOU or similar orgs.

The next day, I saw this question:

Hey sex work twitter. Do we know any sex workers in/near Nottingham?

and replied:

There’s this, they’re inner-city Nottingham: http://www.pow-advice.co.uk/

(I hadn’t then met anyone from POW – I’d read their web site a while back when I was researching interesting Nottingham organisations in general.)

I saw online a bit later that Ruth Jacobs was hoping to find a current sex worker with whom to co-run her Merseyside Model (MM) workshop at the conference. There was a conversation about this in comments on a post at the Everyday Whorephobia blog (where they’d reposted the SWOU Open Letter). Ruth affirmed:

I completely agree that these spaces should be safe for current sex workers, not only those exited, and in addition, that the voices of current sex workers should be heard.

That comments thread was mainly active on 10 and 11 September, and on 11 September, Ruth posted to say she had withdrawn from presenting the Merseyside Model workshop at NWC. She said:

A workshop affecting women in prostitution has to be a safe space for women in prostitution and I will not contribute to it being not a safe space.

(There was some dispute online after the event about which sex worker people or groups had been invited by whom at what point. My understanding at present, though I’m not gonna guarantee it’s correct, is that (a) Ruth invited, and was looking for, one or more current sex workers to co-lead her Merseyside Model session, as documented in the aforementioned thread; and (b) no-one at any time invited SWOU as an organisation, or any another self-organisation of current sex workers. Corrections, additions or confirmations are welcome in comments here.)

Me in the run-up

After reading about all this, I was thinking: how welcoming would our conference-fringe Intersectionality 101 workshop be for someone who (currently or in the past) had traded sex? how could we make it safe(r) for them to come out if they wanted to, without assuming that anyone would want to? I formulated a fairly open question about “stigmatised identities & histories”, including an alternative “no-tricky-disclosures” option.

In other slightly-relevant news from around the same time, I saw a link to the new helpline project from SWOU, Confide, and thought it looked really good.

Oh yes and – I’d forgotten about this till mid-write-up – in that last week before the conference, I swopped a few tweets with @FinnMackay about the source of a statistic she’d quoted on a blog post about sex trade. This was a nod in the direction of my original concern about wrong stats creeping in. If I’d had more time, I would’ve probably done a bit more on that, because I didn’t actually manage to source then the research paper she’d cited.

And then it was the big day…

Arriving

On the morning of the conference, I was still thinking a lot about sex trade arguments and how things might play out. I actually spent some time that morning reading related stuff online, and printing some of it out in case I felt the need of it.

But my main feeling as I arrived was: how exciting and lovely to go to this kind of conference in my home town!

As soon as I arrived, I began to see people I knew. There were people I’d known since 1995 when I recognised myself as bi & began going to the bi women’s group, and some going back even further to around 1987 when I first visited the Women’s Centre… as well as friends I’ve got to know more recently. One of my favourite things throughout the day was seeing so many people from my past, some I hadn’t seen for literally ten years or more, and swopping smiles and hellos and hugs. It was a lovely vibe.

Beginning

Some time fairly early on, I was amused to see someone’s creative decoration of the space: a flipchart page with big letters “Feminism: Back By Popular Demand” :-)

Photo of the aforementioned decoration, "Feminism: Back By Popular Demand". The letters are hand-drawn in black and red marker pen.

(Thanks to the photographer, whoever it was! Original larger version is here.)

Quotes from Finn Mackay’s opening speech, as written down by me – this might not be word for word, but pretty close:

[Feminism is about] “change, not a changing of the guard”

“Feminism demonstrates a faith in men … All of us can be better, all of us can change”

I liked those, and I especially liked the bit about how it’s not a shameful Dark Secret Of Feminism that some of us are lesbians and some of us don’t shave our legs! ::hahaha::

Finn also talked about women being estranged from feminism. I really thought the word “racism” was going to appear in the next sentence, but no. And no mention of how some Black women have claimed the term “womanism” as an alternative. So to me, it came over a bit like “But if women realised how great feminism really was, of course they’d all be joining in, and it’s up to us to improve the public perception and show how relevant it still is”. I’d like to have heard an acknowledgement that some people have reasons for feeling alienated.

(Of course, I could name issues other than racism which have left formerly-self-identified-feminists hurt and disillusioned. But some of them are famous cans of worms which Finn might not have wanted to open at this point, whereas anti-racism is publicly espoused as obvious, so it was only racism which I’d somewhat expected to hear namechecked then.)

The first panel

For me, Pragna Patel‘s speech was one of the highlights of the day: loaded with wisdom and insight. Really glad I was there for that.

The Southall Black Sisters history she shared was fascinating. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when SBS broke silence about domestic violence, they were accused of “washing our dirty linen in public” – accused not only by the patriarchal communities they were criticising, but by the anti-racist Left, worried about anti-racism’s public image. They were portrayed as “home-wreckers” and “destroyers of culture”. They replied that they could not prioritise anti-racism over gender; by subscribing to the idea of a hierarchy of struggle, they would be colluding in their own oppression.

Fast-forward to now: Pragna says things are going backward in terms of women’s position. Public spending cuts are taking away the safety net, including legal aid. In state-funded gender-neutral provision, the analysis of women’s position is being lost.

Another key problem is people wanting the State to solve violence against women by implementing restrictive immigration controls. She said that issues of, for example, “honour based” violence are being removed from a human rights context and interpreted in the context of immigration. The “go home” vans are the state making racism acceptable/respectable.

I was struck by Pragna’s use of the word “multiculturalism” in a list of bad things; I usually only hear “multicultural” in a positive context, describing things such as the BBC’s “Let’s Celebrate”. As she spoke on, I got more of a sense of how she meant it.3 One example is the state trusting religious organisations to deliver services, “which entrenches the power of local religious leaders, even if they don’t represent the people they claim to”. Those leaders are often men with a patriarchal interpretation of their religion. One of my notes says (possibly a paraphrase) “Religious forums for family conflict resolution usually encourage the family to stay together regardless of risk factors”.

In questions, someone asked: how do we challenge “self-appointed leaderships”? Part of the solution is to maintain autonomous women’s projects which can be voices of dissent. Pragna, alluding to SBS: “The fact that we exist is a challenge to self-appointed leaderships”.

Another question was about her views on laws prohibiting face veils, a.k.a. niqab, for Muslim women (a topic which had been in the news recently). Her response brought in some interesting context. She spoke of a previous UK-based court case on the subject, where a teenage girl wanted her school to be told to let her wear niqab, and was turned down by the courts. Grounds included the fact that her brother and not she was leading/driving the challenge, and the implications for other girls at her school who said they would then be under pressure to wear it. Pragna: “We can only talk about this debate in relation to who’s demanding it and what their agenda is.” All rich food for thought.

Julia Long‘s theme was objectification. The theoretical framework was ideas from Martha Nussbaum, Rae Langton and Andrea Dworkin, and her talk was illustrated with a series of photos, such as glossy magazine covers.

This was a heavy topic and Julia was visibly moved as she spoke of the death of a teenager who’d been abused. (I think it must have been this girl, but don’t read if you’re feeling fragile.) I found myself thinking a lot about the wellbeing of people in the audience, and the emotional impact of hearing and seeing this stuff. But there were moments of humour too – e.g. the suggestion that when it came to managing our appearance, “benign neglect” had a lot going for it :-)

At the end of this talk, I nipped out to the loo, so I missed some of the questions to Julia.

Next up was Chris Herries, first female chair of Cooperatives UK. To be honest, I didn’t find this presentation as compelling as the previous two, though Chris came across as a person of determination and common sense. I think I’d have liked a bit less “history of the co-operative movement” and a bit more about how to acquire and manage a position of (relative) power, coming from her first-hand experience of that.

I don’t mean at all that co-op history isn’t interesting, or has no connection with feminism. But Chris’s talk had been billed as Women in Power, with a blurb about the “historical first” of her being the Chair, so I’d expected a bit more about that aspect.

I liked where she told about her own background. I also appreciated her candid response to the challenge of whether “lads’ mags” were pornography: she said yes.

One woman’s voice

In questions at this point was the only time I heard someone speak within the conference space of being currently involved in trading sexual services: on a chat line. I thought this outness was courageous (and said so to her later).

I won’t repeat personal details because, you know, confidentiality. What I will say is that in her first sentence, she described herself as “colluding” with the industry and as wishing to exit but currently trapped by debts. This was why she’d brought it up at this point: the Co-op bank was a significant creditor.

After a short break, it was time for the first workshop session. I’d signed up for the Merseyside Model one.

Merseyside Model workshop

Knowing (as mentioned above) that Ruth Jacobs had withdrawn, I went in unsure who’d be leading this. It was a fairly popular session, with maybe 20 women in the room.

As we came in, there were two women up front. One of them turned out to be Daniela Scotece, the Development Manager from POW, the same local organisation I’d mentioned online a few weeks before.

I don’t know if the other co-presenter would want to be named here – I got the impression she’d been roped in as a friend of the conference organisers maybe? and wasn’t there in a professional or representational capacity? so I’ll call her P-for-presenter for now. But happy to give credit if she wants it.

First, we had a Powerpoint presentation about the Merseyside Model from P. She said up front that she wasn’t an expert on it, and invited other people to chip in if they knew more.

Then Daniela took the lead, and there was some discussion of what POW does: e.g. their support of women through the prosecution of rapists, & their relationship with the local police. She said 95% of the women they see have drug habits.

From Daniela’s account, the project’s relationship with the police sounded relatively amicable and constructive, though she cited ASBOs as an unhelpful intervention: an ASBO only makes the woman move from one place to another, without solving any underlying problems.

Other people contributed from around the room on related topics: Someone spoke briefly about LIFT, in Tower Hamlets, where residents spoke up to challenge how the police treated women in street-based prostitution. Someone raised the question of why violence against women isn’t classified as a hate crime. Various people said bits about projects they’d been involved with. There wasn’t actually all that much about the Merseyside Model itself.

One bit that stuck in my mind as useful was someone asking: how do the police manage to get that kind of rape conviction rate in Merseyside,4 and how could that be possible elsewhere? And someone answering from the audience along the lines of: the police can always raise conviction rates in a particular subset of crime, it just depends where they’re putting their attention. Something to ponder.

I was interested to note that nobody explained to the workshop participants why Ruth Jacobs wasn’t there. P had candidly mentioned as we went along that she had hastily researched the Merseyside Model within the last few days – so it wasn’t a secret that she was a late deputy. But she never went into how the situation had arisen which made that necessary.

At the end, I had a brief chat with Daniela, and we said maybe we’d talk another time – not for any special reason other than me being a Nottingham resident & curious about the project.

Lunchtime

Over lunch, I had a lovely catch-up natter with a friend, about things mostly unrelated to the day. Lunch was very yummy indeed, except for some elements of it being a bit too hot-and-spicy for me. If we have the same sort of menu another time, let’s ask the caterers to put hotness indicators on the different dishes!

Nordic Model presentation: Rachel Moran & Justine Reilly

First up after lunch, in the main hall with everyone, was the session on the Nordic Model, featuring Rachel Moran and Justine Reilly from SPACE, of which they’re co-founders, and Julia Hilliard, co-founder of NorMAs (Nordic Model Advocates). I took some notes from this.

CONTENT NOTE for Justine Reilly’s bit, slightly further down the page: story of rape, plus objectifying comment about women who sell sex. If you’re skipping that, you’ll probably also want to avoid the equivalent bit in my analysis section later on. After Rachel’s bit just below, look for “skip now” link to jump over that & take you to the following section.

Rachel Moran introduced herself as someone who had been in prostitution from the ages of 15 to 22, having come to it as a “homeless 15-year-old girl”.

A couple of other quotes I noted from Rachel:

“the only model based on feminist principles”

(that is, the Nordic Model)

“… paid sexual abuse, which is what prostitution is”

She recommended Janice Raymond’s new book Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. She said Raymond likens prostitution to slavery.

(SKIP NOW to miss possibly-distressing content.)

Justine Reilly introduced herself in similar terms: she’d been in prostitution for 15 years. She told a harrowing story of coming to the city as “a young country girl”. Someone she met invited her to a brothel, giving her a misleading story about what it was – from memory, I think the gist of the deceit was that you’d be paid just to spend time with the men, with no mention of sex. Then the woman at the brothel got on the phone to a man, handed the phone to Justine, and he threatened her verbally until she gave in and let the first man have sex with her. The closing line of this anecdote stayed in my mind until I was writing this up a couple of days later: this or something very like it: “I did ten men that day. And I was a virgin.”

Obviously, this was impactful stuff emotionally.

Other quotes, which I wrote down at the time:

“When you’re in prostitution, the money is so fuckin’ dirty, you get rid of it as fast as you make it.”

“I’ve never met an educated prostitute, ever.”

“We need to get out there and teach women that it is not OK to sell your body.”

One of the things I couldn’t help noticing about Justine’s talk was how often the word “God” came into it – not in discussion, but for emphasis, in expressions like “Honest to God” (I can’t remember if that actually was one of them). It was so often, it did get me thinking a little bit about what role religion might play in her views.

Then there was a bit about how it’s no use “getting women out of prostitution” unless you give them “another destination”. (I think those were actual quotes although I didn’t mark them as such in my notes at the time.) Justine spoke about getting people back into education, teaching them to budget, showing them they can live “a normal life”.

Then came a bit which I’ve thought a lot about since. I didn’t take notes here, I was just listening, but Justine began to develop the idea that when she was in prostitution, men would come and “empty themselves” into her and then leave, and this is the same as what they do when they go to the toilet, so that she, as a woman in prostitution, was being treated as a toilet. Except I’m not sure she actually said “treated”: I don’t remember the exact words, but the overall message seemed to me to come over more like “it makes you a toilet”.

Her closing line, which I did write down right then, was “Prostitution is abuse of women, and if you’re proud to be called a public toilet then [fair be it*], that’s your choice.” This was said in quite a vehement way.

(*”Fair be it” strikes me as an odd phrase; I’m not 100% sure that I didn’t mishear those few words, and of course it could just be an idiom I’m not familiar with, but my guess is it’s one of those hybrid expressions that comes from mixing up two similar ones mid-speaking: “fair enough” and “so be it”. At any rate, I’m sure of the rest of the quote.)

Although I didn’t have time on the day to stop and think about it, those words really struck me (hence why I wrote them down), and a few days later I found myself thinking about them a lot. But I’ll come to that.

NorMAs

Third to speak in this session was Julia Hilliard, co-founder of NorMAs, Nordic Model Advocates.

In an earlier draft, I put my notes from that talk in here, and I was going to discuss the quoted statistics. But I decided that would tip this article over the edge from “really long” to “unfeasibly offputtingly long” :-) So I’m saving those for another time.

I saw later online that the talk was based on this Prezi. So you can get an idea of it from there, though there’s far more text in the Prezi than Julia had time to read out to us on the day.

Writing it up, I’m noticing that if I hadn’t taken notes or got the Prezi, almost every detail of this talk would be gone from me now! It was way, way less vivid than Justine Reilly’s delivery. Looking back now, I think I was still kind of reeling both from the vehemence and intensity of Justine’s talk, and from the implications of its content (which I’ll come to), and maybe that interfered with my short-term-to-long-term memory processing of this next bit.

One thing I do remember, oddly enough, is the way that Julia segue’d seamlessly into how we can make sure the Nordic Model is implemented in the UK. One minute, explaining it; next minute, “so, write to your MP…” kind of thing.

I remember that moment because I was surprised: OK, I expected some bias from a group called “advocates”, but are we really not going to pause at all to discuss pros and cons before we’re on to making it happen? Coo-er.

A moment of conflict

All day, Finn had been taking questions from the floor after each speaker finished – typically two or three.

At the end of the Nordic Model presentation, Finn called on a woman who had her hand up. She stood to speak, and her first comment was something similar to: “You can’t call this a debate, because look, there’s three people on the platform and they all agree.”

My first thought was “You are right, and also very courageous to stand up and say so in these circumstances – rather you than me…”

She continued to speak, and explained to us that there were sex workers outside the venue, who hadn’t been allowed in. That was the first I’d heard of it!

(I found out later that if I’d been following the conference hashtag on Twitter, I’d have known earlier that the women were outside – but I hadn’t been.)

I don’t remember exactly what else she said – I think it was mostly about the presence of the sex workers outside and why they’d come. I also gathered that she herself was one of Feminist Fightback. I’d vaguely heard of them already; they were on the conference programme as running a workshop about cuts to public services, not one of the two sessions I’d booked onto. I suppose she talked for what would be, if I wrote it down here, one or two paragraphs of similar length to this one.

Then Finn interrupted with a slightly impatient/teacherly tone, and put the classic challenge for this kind of speech-from-the-floor situation: “Do you have a question?” or words to that effect.

The speaker did then put a question. I can’t remember the details now, but it must have been something like: why have none of the organisations led by current sex workers been invited? Rachel Moran replied, not unreasonably, that it didn’t make sense to put that question to her, because it was one for the conference organisers to answer, and all she had done was get an invitation and decide to come. Or words to that effect.

Another woman in the audience, a few yards away from the first, stood up un-called-on and started saying something else, about tickets, and offering to give tickets. I wasn’t sure at that point if the two women were connected or not.

(From what I saw online after the conference was over, I twigged that the second woman had also been from Feminist Fightback. What she’d been trying to say was: they had offered to swop out so that the women outside could come in without exceeding the total-ticket-numbers constraint, and the organisers had said they wouldn’t permit it. But I didn’t know that at the time.)

Finn raised her voice a bit and simply talked over her – easily, because Finn had a microphone and the other woman didn’t. The content of her words was along the lines of praising Rachel & Justine (though I don’t think she named them here, instead using some phrase similar to “these courageous women”) for coming to speak, and affirming how lucky the conference was to have them.

Finn’s tone here seemed to me like “I righteously take a stand and draw a line”. It came over to me like a kind of telling-off to the Feminist Fightback women: subtext, “You have been disrespectful by raising this kind of point at this time and disrupting the conference’s vibes instead of listening gratefully, and I am protecting our valuable people from your unwarranted disrespect, now shut up”. I suspect, though don’t know for sure, that this sentiment was shared by a significant proportion of people in the room.

I think it may have been after this that one of the conference organisers came up on stage and made a brief announcement. This explained that the organisers were working together on a statement and that was why they’d all been out of the room for a little while. I didn’t see the statement itself till later on, when I got home and got onto the computer.

(Going by the timetable and the #NWC2013 hashtag timeline, this must all have happened around about 2.30pm. I don’t know exactly how long the SWOU women had been there by then, but it must have been well over two hours, because by 12.30 – as visible via Twitter timestamps – there had been time for a discussion about whether they’d be allowed in.

I’ve wondered: is it possible that I missed some announcement from the conference organisers prior to that? But I don’t think that’s possible, because the only bits I missed until I went outside were quick loo breaks, and there was never a point where I came back in to something significantly different to what I left.)

I remember a bit of conversation from just then. One of the women on my table commented to me that the FF woman’s statement was – I’m not sure now of the exact word she used – I think “insensitive”.

Even though I’d felt differently about it, I definitely knew what she meant. I said something like: hmmm, but I think that’s partly a function of how the session was set up. You’ve got these two women who have just shared quite personal stuff about their lives. Normally, when someone does that, the thing to do is to respect that and not get in their faces. And then straight away after, you’ve got this practical thing about changing the law. It kind of sets it up so that no-one can criticise or question the practical bit, because if they do, it comes over like they’re disrespecting the women who shared about their lives.

Short-form activism-announcements panel

For the next session, the idea was that each of 6 or 7 people had a few minutes to speak briefly about an activism project and explain how other people could get involved.

I thought this was a great idea & really well put together. It was interesting just to hear about the variety of projects, and also offered people practical, tangible opportunities to jump in to something new.

My favourite of these little presentations was Val Lunn’s talk about Million Women Rise. Val attributed some of MWR’s success to the fact that it was led by working-class Black women. She said that the (London-based) organising group had had to have some difficult conversations about racism: “painful” but worthwhile.

These few words of anecdote meant a lot to me; I’ve become increasingly aware in recent years of the cost we pay for racism within feminism (and everywhere). I don’t want to assume that MWR is all perfect now, but it felt like a little beacon of optimism to hear of a real life group which had managed to struggle with communicating about racism, and had come out stronger from it. I feel like: “we need these stories”.

Val also told a lovely story of being on the coach from Nottingham down to MWR and singing on the coach “Power to the women”, and then all the children picking it up and singing “Power to the children”. Yay :-)

Outside

Then it was break time, and as soon as I’d nipped to the loo, I was like: I’m going outside and talking to the people!

Before I got to the door, I saw a friend and I said something like: there’s sex workers out the front, did you know?! I’m going to talk to them. And she said something like: I know, I’ve already been out and got their zine, look here it is. She showed me two satirical cartoons5 and asked me to notice how we, the conference-goers, were characterised in them. What she was implying was: this isn’t a fair characterisation.

I sort of didn’t care, though, because I knew that I didn’t fit that characterisation and, as I pointed out, nor did she! Like “if the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it”.

But I didn’t want to use up my break time on that when I could be talking to the actual people, so I said something like “Anyway I’m getting it first-hand!” and went out.

It was 2 women I hadn’t met before, who I found out a bit later were @pastachips and @fornicatrix. They were sitting on the ground when I came out – I got the impression no-one had been to talk to them for a little while before me, though that might not be true.

I asked for (and got) all their literature, and I asked them about the cartoons in the zine and relayed how my friend had interpreted them. The reason I brought that up was that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about binary polarisation in feminist arguments, and I felt the cartoons didn’t help to un-polarise this field. I think it was about then that @cupofcrow appeared and joined us.6

If I recall correctly, their answer was along the lines of: well, those cartoons aren’t necessarily meant to be about this conference specifically, but they are the kind of things which genuinely get said to us – not an exaggeration for satirical effect.

However, primarily I was interested in the history of this situation (the bits I didn’t already know), and also in the possibility that a future similar event might include them.

So in terms of the questions I was asking, what I was mostly interested in was the prior communications, plus the constraints which had influenced their ability to be there, and would in future (like did they have to pay their own travel, how far had they come, etc).

It turned out that they were from SWOU, the Sex Worker Open University, whom I’d already heard of via the “open letter” and seeing the site for their new support line. (But I didn’t know till then that they refer to it as “swoo”! which took a slight amount of getting used to!)

As part of the conversation, I asked about invitations.

The following is paraphrased, just the gist of it:

Me: So, hypothetically, if you’d been invited early enough, would you have come and presented here?

Them: It’s not only about being invited, or being invited early enough, it’s “invited to do what“. Even supposing we’d been invited at the start: being invited to co-present with someone else, who’s already chosen what the workshop’s going to be about, isn’t at all the same thing as being invited to present on a theme of our choosing.

Me: so if for example you’d been invited to come and do a workshop by yourselves, where you chose the theme, would you have done it?

Them: yes.

(This of course was referring in part to a real situation, as mentioned above: Ruth Jacobs having been invited to present on the Merseyside Model, and hoping to find a current/self-identified sex worker who would co-present.)

Then I was thinking, partly out loud, about what might be possible in the future – for instance, at a future NWC, supposing there were such a thing.

At this point, I was thinking a lot about the levels of my own “social capital”. Obviously it would be higher in this context than theirs, because (a) no whorephobia at play, and (b) long track record of doing stuff in the local community and people knowing me. But how much higher?

I remember saying out loud something like: “The question is, if I were to say the same things you’re saying, would I just get ignored as well?”

This of course remains to be seen :-)

(By “the same things you’re saying”, I don’t mean I would necessarily agree with them about every nuance of political analysis. I meant, primarily, the principle of current sex workers being included & heard on equal terms in conversations about relevant politics – or, indeed, given priority to. For me, ye olde “Nothing about us without us” isn’t just a principle of justice, it’s also a pragmatic necessity: if you’re not listening to a wide selection of the people most directly affected, you’re going to be missing information about how things really work “on the ground”.)

We had some more chat, about communities and exclusion and suchlike, and swopped Twitter names. Then I beetled off back inside, where the next workshops were already under way.

End Victim Blaming workshop

I’d selected the workshop about End Victim Blaming, based on the blurb, which was about the language we use – always interesting to me. I came in late and missed the beginning, but it was good. We talked about the messages we’re given from different sources, and the consequences of that for our lives. If I recall correctly, the format was “source / message / consequence”.

In my small group, we talked quite a bit about abusive close relationships. I also said something about capitalism as the source of damaging messages about what it means to be human (e.g. treating humans’ value as conditional on productivity – I might write about this another time).

Rounding off

Then it was the end. Because the schedule had crept a little bit late during the day, the rounding-off end section of the conference was quite short. Finn got all the organisers up on stage for a huge round of applause!

There was a little bit of announcing stuff as well; there were still some conference fringe events to come, and a related art exhibition running at the Women’s Centre.

Winding down

At the end, Maryam & I & a couple of friendly interesting women from our table (whom we’d just met that day) carried on chatting. We stayed so long, all the organisers had gone when the community centre blokes asked us if the four shiny laptops up on stage were ours!

A comical and slightly vexing palaver ensued, wherein Maryam failed to reach the organisers via phone or Twitter and we tried to decide what best to do. Maryam had suggested we go on afterwards to the Sumac Centre for the “People’s Kitchen“, and originally we’d meant to walk round straight from the conference. But we came to the conclusion it’d be safer to take the laptops back to mine, so parked ourselves at the bus stop for a twenty-minute wait.

We were on the bus into town when we did hear back from someone offering to take them off our hands. Luckily the bus had just got near the Peacock, in town, where we knew a lot of people had gone on after, so we were able to dump the laptops off there, and heard a bit later that they’d been safely collected. Phew!

So then we had a nice walk up to the Sumac, sun low in the sky, chatting along the way about our thoughts.

At the People’s Kitchen

At the People’s Kitchen, there were several women who’d been at the conference, as well as others who were interested.

At one point, the conversation at our table turned to the sex worker contingent. I was slightly taken aback to hear a rant about how ludicrous it was to liken sex work to other kinds of interpersonal/3-dimensional work (I think “hairdressing” was the example). It’s not that I don’t get why people might disagree with that analogy, but the subtext here seemed to me more like “There is no need for me to even try to understand why someone might say this”.

From the tone of this outburst – ridiculing, dismissive and a touch outraged – I got some inkling of what @pastachips, @cupofcrow and @fornicatrix had been experiencing during the day.

There were also some dismissive comments about their middle-class background – or, I suspect, their assumed middle-class background, based on being articulate & white, though I don’t know for sure that P, C & F hadn’t discussed their families-of-origin with passers-by. The tone here was kind of “what do they know”. I thought a lot about this later.

Other topics at the People’s Kitchen included women war journalists in Syria, the rather yummy vegan pizza, Gayatri Spivak’s essay Can the subaltern speak?, Derrida, Deleuze, giving up smoking, and I don’t even know what else :-) Would visit again!

After I got home, it still took me a while to unwind. I went online and wrote a few tweets and read some of what other people were saying about the day. (It was only now that I had access to this – I don’t have a smartphone & hadn’t brought a laptop to the event.)

Believing women, or not

Part of what I was reading when I got in was the Twitter timelines of the three women who’d been outside, where they were reporting conversations they’d had during the day. One item that caught my attention was this, from @cupofcrow:

Me: “Because of my health, and the debts that I have, I can’t currently do anything else than sex work.”

3 other women: “We think you can.”

That gave me pause. Are we Atos now?7 Surely some disability-awareness fail in there along with the anti-sex-work injunctions?

Those words reminded me of an article I’d read previously, where Lori Adorable describes the constellation of events which led her to sex work. In comments to the article, someone (else) had shared:

There are days I can’t go to work because my anxiety is out of control–as an escort, I can just reschedule with a client, but in any other career, my ass gets fired.

- lola

That had stuck in my mind when I first read it.

NWC2013 organisers’ statement, accessible version

Online that night, I also got to see the organisers’ created-in-the-midst-of-things statement.

Having presumably had technical limitations at the time, they’d ingeniously published it by writing on paper and photographing the paper. Photo 1. Photo 2. I haven’t yet seen a screen-reader-accessible transcript, so I thought I’d oblige. (Capitalisation mine, as original was all in capitals.)

Re: Nottingham Women’s Conference

As some of you will be aware, there are some women outside of the conference who have raised concerns about being excluded or “banned” from this event. These are the facts as we see it:

  • We do not have a “Banned” list. Everyone here has bought a ticket – there is limited capacity and we cannot allow entry to women who do not have a ticket.

    Any returned tickets have been resold – exceeding capacity would breach our terms and conditions of hire.

  • There are women attending this event and speaking who have or are currently working in the sex industry but they do not want to be identified. We are not excluding sex workers from this event and actually allocated some free tickets to local group P.O.W.

  • The models presented here are not the only models around but are a range of actions being delivered by women in their local community.

  • Throughout the organising of this event we have welcomed others to contribute to the programme and deliver workshops. Where criticism has been raised, we have responded and made changes where it has been appropriate and feasible to do so.

We clearly said to women on the waiting list not to turn up as tickets had already been released in order.

NFAN.

OK, I’ll end my chronological narrative there… me at my computer reading that and a load of other stuff on Saturday night :-)

Now, to analysis

Over the days and weeks since, I’ve been thinking about this A LOT, and also dipping into conversations online. Really loads of food for thought.

So… what do I think is important to shine a light on about the politics of this day?

My main topics are:

  • Aspects of the Nordic Model presentation.

  • Inclusion, exclusion & acceptable narratives.

  • Class, privilege, representation.

I realise that some people will have an acute interest in how I’ve interpreted the day simply because of their own presence there. But in writing this, I’ve also wanted to make it useful for the people who are still in the process of thinking through their own beliefs & feelings about sex trade politics.

CONTENT NOTE: if you skipped the objectifying comment before, now’s your moment to skip it again. Jump to next section.

Reproducing stigma

I’ll start with that passionate closing exposition by Justine Reilly, likening women to toilets.

(Note: It occurred to me later that possibly, not all of the organisers even heard that part of the presentation. I suspect it may have coincided with the time when they were out the front working on their statement. It might be news to some of them, reading this. So please don’t jump to the conclusion that any specific person’s endorsed it, if they haven’t said so.)

A day or two later, the memory of that moment came back to me and then I thought about it lots, over and over again, and its implications. Couldn’t get it out of my mind for a while.

If a woman interprets her own experience as “being a toilet”, does that mean it’s OK for her to tell (or at least imply to) other women they are toilets too?

In principle, I’d agree that a survivor has the right to name and describe their experience. And, in the context of processing trauma, I would have nothing but compassion for someone who was living with that metaphor for themself, and with the memories of where it came from.

Even in that context, I suspect that most counsellors would look for an opportunity to gently suggest to the survivor that she (or he) need not carry that objectification with her. That would be a compassionate approach, and a feminist approach since it affirms that who we are isn’t limited by what we’ve survived. And Justine if you’re reading this: no matter what you did or went through, and no matter the thoughts you might have had about what it meant, I wish you a knowing-in-your-bones that your humanity shines through it all.

But politically and in terms of caring for one another, I think we have to be cautious about how & when “trauma processing” and “helping others” are allowed to mix. Justine was invited onto that platform not only because she’s experienced traumatic, horrible things, but so that her experience can help other survivors. To my mind, that requires something more than whatever painful thoughts might happen to come into a person’s head.

Women equated to toilets in unguarded trauma-processing outburst in a healing context, OK. Women equated to toilets as intentional political analysis, no. Not in my name.

And it wasn’t even only self-applied. By that definition, other people who’ve had similar experiences, describable by “men empty themselves into you and leave”, can reasonably be described as toilets. That includes, for example, people raped in non-sex-trade contexts by men who then left.

That very same day, the Everyday Victim Blaming workshop showed us the damaging weight of stigmatising messages. Julia Long spelt out for us how objectification works. Yet in the middle of the day, we have someone up on a platform at the centre of attention, unchallenged, vehemently reproducing an objectifying view as if it were reality. Surely some mistake?

When I think that a hundred or more of us – presumably mostly self-identified feminists – let that go by, and nobody said anything in the room at the time to challenge it even gently… woah. What state were we in? How did that happen?

And let’s not forget that (according to the organisers’ statement) free tickets were allocated to be given to the women who use POW’s services, some of whom may well have been in that room hearing themselves likened to toilets. I don’t have the exact words for the feeling I have thinking about that, but I’m shaking my head in a kind of appalled sorrow and drawing in breath. Very very not happy.

(I also suspect that – because of the way that surviving abuse & healing from it sometimes brings people to feminism – that room probably contained more than a randomly-selected number of rape survivors.)

It seems to me that perhaps Justine intended her harsh words to shame only self-identified current sex workers, and I suppose within her current model of the world, that probably feels justifiable: they’re making the wrong choice according to her, and if shaming them out of it is what it takes, it might seem worth it.

But even within a (horrible uncompassionate) framework where people “making the wrong choice” are “guilty”, and “deserve it”, I’m kind of boggling at what that tactic risks inflicting on “innocent” women “for the cause”.

And within a view (which some people claim to hold) that “all sex for money is abuse”, it’s even more indefensibly appalling: it is shaming women for being raped.

That’s not to say that acknowledging the “toilet” interpretation as a painful thought couldn’t be helpful to some people at some times. But reproducing it in that scolding, scathing, potentially-retraumatising way… no no no. Just no.

Shape of the session

I doubt I’m the only one to have a delayed reaction to that comment. I wouldn’t be surprised if other people afterwards were thinking “wait, she said that? did we really let that go by?” Or just having uneasy feelings about it which they haven’t yet fully articulated.

This takes me back to the way that session was set up.

It seems to me that it was an intentional and considered part of Rachel’s & Justine’s testimony that it should be shocking and disturbing.

I’m absolutely not disputing that there’s a place in politics for disturbing material. But when people are reeling from the impact of an intentionally disturbing presentation, it’s not conducive to thoughtful responses at the time.

If, as a group, we weren’t even coherent & emotionally stable enough in those moments to muster an appropriate gentle counter to that shaming, objectifying comment, was that really the best frame of mind to consider the practical implications of changing the law?

(Not that we were encouraged to consider that, either. But supposing we’d wanted to.)

And then there’s also what I’d already noticed on the day: the way that personal stories of painful times invoke a kind of respectful space, in which criticism can only appear churlish, and it seems appropriate to (as Finn did) shut it down.

For me, on reflection, the configuration of that session was one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the conference.

“Here’s a situation that’s really bad! More on how harrowingly bad this situation is! Here’s the solution we’ve got lined up for you; if you don’t go along with it you’re out of order! Session over, The End!”

Not likin’ the format there.

No debate required

A few days later, I had a thought about this.

What I realised is that probably, for the people who designed that presentation, “end the sex trade via Nordic-Model-ish collaboration with the state” feels as obvious & unarguable-with as, say, “equal pay for equal work”. For them, there’s no cognitive dissonance in leaping to “how to implement it”, because they’re not in any doubt that “Nordic Model” is the correct answer. (Rachel said as much: “the only model based on feminist principles”.)

Leaping to “how to implement it” felt surprising for me precisely because I’m not already convinced on that course of action.

The presentation was put together in such a way as to lead directly from “Here are some bad things happening where sex is traded for money” to “therefore we must pass laws to abolish it”. A listener might be forgiven for thinking that the argument they were trying to counter was “Everything is fine with all kinds of sex work”.

In fact, you can be acutely aware of all the problems in the field without necessarily jumping to “The only valid solution is to try to stamp it out entirely via legislation and law enforcement”. (Note the word “try”.)

I’ve not heard anyone, ever, argue against the Nordic Model with “Everything is fine with all sex work at all times”. What I’ve heard is “Based on our observations and the available research, we don’t think this is the best way to address the problems”.

I certainly think it’s valid to analyse sex trade in terms of patriarchal expectations of women’s availability to men, and patriarchal expectations that men’s desires should be satisfied.

Within that framework, we can compare and contrast it with marriage, casual sex, relationships, “appearance policing”, emotional labour, intimacy, even domestic work. For instance, see Lisa Millbank‘s recent writing on coercion in mainstream concepts of sex, or Arlie Hochschild’s groundbreaking 1983 paper on the emotional labour of air hostesses, or any amount of feminist writing on marriage.

Capitalism itself is entwined with objectification; it thrives on treating people as “the work force”, interchangeable and replaceable.

… no matter how much we worked, no matter how much we sacrificed to the management to make this place more livable for the [elderly] residents, to the bosses we were just another lousy, expendable CNA [Certified Nursing Assistant], one they could flippantly fire for speaking up. We were the easily replaceable pillars of the nursing home industry.

- Jomo, Caring: A Labor of Stolen Time

I hate being reduced to a cash register.

- littlemew

There are also legitimate feminist strands to do with women’s agency, what a woman’s sexual history means about her ontologically (like the old concept of “a fallen woman”), the role of the state (including law, courts and police) and the role of the Church. Again, all of these are relevant beyond paid sex.

Sex work law is entwined with migration law and drugs law.8

Economic exploitation is linked with the history of colonial invasion.

The nature of choice and the nature of consent is crucial.

There’s a difference between “I’m a woman therefore all my choices are feminist choices”, and “I have the right to navigate the matrix of oppression as I see fit”. All of us make choices that aren’t feminist, or that support and aid the patriarchy in maintaining itself …

- Jadehawk, 2013, drawing on work by Patricia Hill Collins.

… I don’t have a choice as to whether to live in a racist and sexist society. I don’t have a choice to live in a society in which food, housing, and college education are luxury rather than a fundamental right. The appeal of sex work for some people is that it turns the master’s tools into a survival method, but it is still the master’s house that we are living in.

- Emi Koyama, Consent is overrated: why “yes means yes, no means no” is inadequate

Having access to shitty bargains isn’t a privilege. It does, however, give the opportunity to duck and weave, to choose which hits to take on the shoulder and which to the face. It can be a choice between hurting now and hurting later.

Not having access to shitty bargains means not having that option to duck and weave. To the extent that a person doesn’t have access to shitty bargains, if an oppression’s coming for their face, it’s going to hit them in the face.

- Lisa Millbank, access to shitty bargains vs. privilege; see also her marvellous parable of the shitty lemon.

It’s valid to think too about how long-term aims (such a world where all sex is freely chosen, some time in the theoretical future when all oppression is over) may support or compromise current aims (the safety and wellbeing of people alive right now).

Not all of these explorations point uncomplicatedly towards the Nordic Model.

For some people, who are committed to eradicating any form of trading sex, it might seem immoral, pointless or even inconceivable to consider less safe or more safe frameworks for it. But if your priority is women’s safety here and now, you probably want to look at New Zealand.

As this thesis demonstrates, sex workers in New Zealand have more control over their work environment, including their safety and their sexual health, since the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (2003). The Act has given them legal, employment and occupational health and safety rights which has made it easier to negotiate services and safer sex with clients, has made it easier for managed sex workers to refuse to see certain clients without penalties from management and has improved the relationship between sex workers and police.

- PhD abstract by Gillian Abel, University of Otago, Christchurch.

In New Zealand (NZ), it’s legal for up to four women to co-operate in a “Small Owner-Operated Brothel” (SOOB), as long as none of them’s bossing the others. In the UK, if two women collaborate in that way to “have each other’s backs”, they can be prosecuted under laws which make brothels illegal.

Current research suggests that while the overall size of the NZ sex industry hasn’t grown since decriminalisation,9There has been some change in the shape of the industry with more people working privately in the suburbs and fewer in the brothels and escort agencies”.10 One interpretation of this is that in NZ, self-organised workplaces are now gradually tending to put out of business the larger ones where a third party takes a percentage of the money.

(Strangely enough, even if you accept the “ending prostitution takes priority” framework, the Nordic Model doesn’t seem to me all that spectacularly promising. Sweden’s had it since 1999, and going by NorMAs’s figures, the size of the sex industry there hasn’t actually shrunk. The “success” is that – apparently, though I take all such statistics with a large truck of salt – it hasn’t expanded while other countries’ has. That isn’t actually “ending” prostitution, is it?)

Another interesting thing I’d seen online was @pastachips mentioning that someone on the day had said to her something like: “We weren’t really talking about politics, it was just the Nordic Model.”

That strikes me as a very odd thing to say, actually! (Not politics??) But entirely congruent with a perception that there’s no debate remaining to be had about it.

Was it meant as a debate?

For a while, as I was writing this, I was thinking: But perhaps the conference organisers didn’t conceive of this as “a debate”. And I was pondering what I thought of that. I mean, it could arguably be a legitimate position, even though I personally think there’s more discussion required…

But then when I was looking stuff up to stick links in for my sources, and re-reading what various people had written in the runup, I re-found this:

We are clear that we (as NFAN) are not taking a position on any issues. It is up to the audience themselves to decide how they feel about what is said and we hope that a healthy debate will follow.

(NFAN stands for Nottingham Feminist Action Network, where the conference sprang from. The comment’s actual “author” is given as “Nottingham Women’s Conference”.)

So maybe the debate was supposed to be, like, now? In which case here I am contributing to it, so yay :-)

The role of stigma in the Nordic Model

During my multiple days of mulling this all over, another thought occurred to me.

I was remembering a comment I’d seen quoted a while back, coming from the Swedish authorities’ official evaluation in 2010 of how their laws were working. (That’s also known as the Skarhed Report; Anna Skarhed was Chancellor of Justice at the time, maybe still is.)

To put it in context, I’ll quote again from the Dodillet & Östergren paper on the Swedish results (emphasis mine):

Seven women who answered a brief survey (conducted by e-mail) and who describe themselves as having chosen to sell sex, state that the criminalization has intensified the social stigma of selling sex, that they feel hunted by the police and that they resent being treated as incapacitated persons whose actions are tolerated, but whose wishes and choices are not respected. The evaluation comments on these findings in the following manner:

For people who are still being exploited in prostitution, the above negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.

The 2010 official evaluation

So according to the Swedish Government’s report, the increased stigma is, as techies would say, “a feature, not a bug”.

In that way, the stigmatising comment from Justine is an echo of the Nordic Model framework itself.11

Secondly: Inclusion and exclusion

Now to the aspect which so far has received most attention online: the presence of the 3 sex worker activists in the car park, Feminist Fightback’s offer to swop out and let them in, the open letter from SWOU in the run-up, the organisers’ statement, etc.

I’ve been unsatisfied with a lot of what I’ve seen online about this.

I say it’s not about tickets or car parks and, in a sense, it’s not about people. It’s about which ideas were given space inside.

Of course, it is about people in the sense that three specific people went to the trouble of personally turning up, and other specific people had to make a decision about how to respond to that, and many people at the conference and across the world felt involved in one way or another, and all of us had thoughts and feelings about what happened.

But what I mean is: I have not the slightest doubt that, if those exact same 3 women had bought a ticket at the same time I did, there would have been absolutely no issue about them coming in.

Some of the comments I’ve seen,12 it’s as if the writers think “sex workers were banned from NWC2013″ in the same way as “trans women were banned from RadFem2013″ (an earlier conference, in London in June 2013). No. This is a misapprehension.

At RadFem2013, it was in the design of the conference that trans women weren’t welcome, ticket or no ticket. You could go to the web site and read actual words about who the conference was for, indicating that they weren’t meant to be included.

At NWC2013, the line which you can draw through the organisers’ decisions simply is not that. At NWC2013, sex workers were welcome.

What the organisers were keeping out – as expressed by their decisions, if not consciously intended – was a constellation of ideas.

Which ideas, you may ask?

You may well ask :-)

Some ideas mostly not spoken in the conference

(bold type in quotes below is mine, for easier picking out of key bits)

  • Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist

    1. Start from the assumption that women’s (and other people’s) experiences in the sex trade are diverse and complicated, just like women’s experiences in the institution of marriage.

    5. … Selling and buying of sex as commodities can be exploitative and degrading, as are selling and buying of labor, health, and safety in the neoliberalistic capitalist marketplace.

    6. Legalization or decriminalization of prostitution will not end State violence against people in the sex trade. There are other laws, such as those concerning drugs, immigration, and “quality of life” crimes, that are being used against them. Arguments over how the law should classify prostitution (legalizing, decriminalizing, criminalizing, Swedish model, etc.) eludes realities of communities that are targeted by State as well as societal violence.

    10. We cannot fight sex trafficking effectively without partnering with sex workers, people in the sex trade, and their advocates. All over the world, it was workers organizing among themselves that have challenged and transformed exploitative and abusive working conditions, not police officers or politicians. In addition, people working in the sex industry have access to insider knowledge that need to be incorporated into any successful campaign to combat sex trafficking and other human rights violations within the industry.

    - from Emi Koyama, i.m.o. one of the best writers about this field, albeit from a mainly-USA perspective. I have a great appreciation for Emi’s steadfast refusal to erase complexity.

  • We understand language to be a politically and socially charged instrument of power …

    In addition to providing free English classes to migrant sex workers, we support critical interventions around issues of migration, race, gender, sexuality and labour, we participate in feminist and anti-racist campaigns and we are active in the struggle for the rights of sex workers in London, the UK and globally.

    - from x:talk, a London-based organisation, whom SWOU’s open letter suggested inviting to NWC.

  • Where sex workers are able to assert control over their working environments and insist on safer sex, evidence indicates that HIV risk and vulnerability can be sharply reduced. Excellent examples of community organized HIV-prevention programming for sex workers include AVAHAN (India), Clinque de Confiance (Cote d’Ivoire), CONASIDA (Mexico), DAVIDA (Brazil), Durjoy Nari Shango (Bangladesh), EMPOWER (Thailand), FIMIZORE (Madagascar), Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (India), SWING (Thailand) and TAMPEP (Europe).

    Community organizations working with sex workers have an important role to play in supporting sex workers who may be difficult for mainstream providers to reach, including undocumented migrants, street workers and those working in informal sex work settings.

    - from the United Nations, in UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

  • We know that some people in the sex industry do feel that every interaction they’re involved in is violence. We believe those people, and our services are open to people with those experiences. Our position is – uncomplicatedly – that what service-users say about their own lives is true.

    However, for us, if you see all ‘prostitution’ as always and intrinsically a form of ‘men’s violence against women’, then you cannot truly support sex workers who have experienced violence. If all sex work is violence, then how can we speak meaningfully to you of an experience of actual violence? …

    To see all sex work as violence, against the wishes of the specific sex worker you’re speaking to, treats our consent as meaningless – which is the position of an abuser, not the position of a support service.

    - from Confide, a peer-to-peer support line in the UK, run by Sex Worker Open University. (Italics in original.)

  • APNSW categorically rejects Equality Now’s push to have the Swedish Model criminalising clients enacted in this region. We reject the Swedish Model because it is de facto criminalisation of sex work. …

    Human trafficking as defined in the Palermo Protocol is a crime. Given its seriousness and complexity, it is imperative that anti-trafficking measures actually impact trafficking rather than simply promoting a particular ideology about sex work.

    - from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers.

  • Sex workers have always been treated with great disdain in Philippine society. … Credit this to the Catholic Church and Christian fundamentalists (the Catholics make up 88 % of the country’s population while the Christian groups account for 8%. The rest are Muslims.) They have ingrained in the minds of the people that sex outside of marriage is dirty and immoral. To most Filipinos therefore, prostitution is a moral issue and those involved in it must be condemned. This has led us, sex workers, to be treated with stigma and discrimination.

    We have learned to accept that speaking up and being listened to is a privilege that the poor and the powerless are not entitled to. It does not help that we are forced to hide who we are since the society in which we live has ostracized us. That should make it easy for anyone to understand why it was not difficult for the feminist (abolitionists) to appropriate our voices and to start speaking for us. Society has made us invisible so to have women of power speak for us was a blessing or so we thought. It was not a blessing. It was exploitation. They were not speaking for us, they were speaking for themselves in our name. They have assumed the role of the “amos” and again we whimpered in silence as they robbed us of our voices.

    It is time to tell the world that only sex workers could speak for sex workers. It is going to be an uphill battle against the well-oiled and well experienced machinery of the abolitionists (the feminists, the church and the government). But it is our lives, the sex workers, not theirs that they are legislating.

    - from the Philippine Sex Workers Collective.

  • Before taking any decision think twice whether the action/s will help sex-workers to feel more capable and in control of situation.

    Keep on questioning ‘Does our program in general and activities in particular influence the imbalance of the power equation within the sex trade and between the sex workers community and the main stream society’.

    Examine before taking decision to what extent your actions could hold society and state actions more responsible/accountable towards the marginal community and more specifically towards sex workers community.

    Enquire how does your work help increasing access of sex workers community to economic and other resources.

    - from the Core Values of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee.

I could have quoted many other writings/statements from people around the world who are organising together around sex trade experiences.13

Photo showing about 10 people on stage at a conference, plus the silhouetted backs of a few of the audience, all applauding/celebrating. (I'm guessing it was taken at the end of the conference.) Most of them are people of colour. The banner behind them reads "International AIDS conference hub / Sex Workers' Freedom Festival".

The sex trade narrative at NWC

At NWC2013, the perspectives and stories which were most foregrounded by the invited presenters were

  • Under-age teens coerced into prostitution. (The stories of Rachel Moran and Justine Reilly.)

  • Women who work on the street & have a drug habit, albeit not speaking for themselves. (Clients of POW: remember, Daniela said 95% are addicted to illegal drugs.)

  • One solution: Prostitution must end, and we should ask the state to help us to make that happen, via a change to the law. (Rachel, Justine and NorMAs.)

  • One interim improvement: Make the police across the country prosecute more consistently the crimes committed against people trading sex – but without necessarily removing the laws which criminalise women working together for safety. (Merseyside Model.)

Part of the rainbow

I want to make a point here of saying that I give the organisers credit for inviting POW. I feel intuitively sure that they did intend that as a good-faith response to the SWOU open letter. POW says it’s a peer-based organisation, and what’s more, it’s local. I very much appreciated hearing first-hand from Daniela about how she experiences her job, and getting a bit of an insight into the project’s relationships with the local police. The women who visit POW are part of our local community and I’d like to be more in solidarity with them, so on that level this felt like a good start.

At the same time, I think it’s important to distinguish between service provider organisations and self-organisations. I also think it’s relevant to point out that POW’s client base is very, very far from a representative sample of all people trading sex: on the contrary, POW attempts to serve one of the most vulnerable subsets of women. And if Daniela herself has ever been in the same position as the majority of POW’s clients, it wasn’t something she chose to share with us; in my hearing, she spoke only as a service provider.

So I wouldn’t say that inviting POW “balances” inviting NorMAs. In the whole spectrum of stories and approaches, if NorMAs and POW are the red and the orange, there’s still yellow, green, blue and purple to come.

(Incidentally, I don’t know whether my earlier tweet mentioning POW played any role in them being invited. Haven’t had the story of that.)

The less-dramatic middle ground

In pointing that out, I’m absolutely not doubting that the stories of addicted and directly-coerced women are important. But if we want viable pathways for everyone who’d prefer to stop trading sex, then it’s important to identify accurately what the obstacles are.

I’ve seen claims that 90% or so of people trading sex would rather not be. Supposing that were true,14 it still doesn’t distinguish between “I’d prefer to have different, better, less stigmatised options to meet my financial needs/aims” and “I’ve been threatened and abused or even kept prisoner by my boyfriend/pimp, please get me out of here and into a refuge”. These are very different situations, with different causes and different solutions.

Because of who is most visible, the stereotypes of trading sex are polarised: at one end, people directly/violently coerced by third parties and/or in urgent need of money for drugs, at the other end educated white women who have other options (including writing famous memoirs). One cohort is visible via their famous memoirs, the other is visible because their precarious situations bring them into contact with service providers or police.

The middle ground, of people who are quietly using sex (or other sexual services) to meet financial needs amidst an “ordinary-looking” life, is far less visible. Precisely because they’re likely to be trying to keep out of the public eye, it’s an under-researched, uncountable group of people. But since the internet, their voices are more and more hearable by people who seek them out. From the reading I’ve done so far, I feel convinced that this unglamorous middle cohort is a significant number of people, almost certainly bigger than that of the polarised stereotypes.

How much bigger is unknowable at present, but one thing is for sure: any policy for improving the position of women trading sex must take their needs into account.

Here’s a quote from Lori Adorable’s article which I mentioned above:

I searched for a job for five months. I sent out dozens of applications and got rejected repeatedly, including from being a hostess at restaurants. Given that my peers with BA’s were now desperately applying to the same low-wage jobs, the fact that I was unemployable without a degree shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I might have joined those peers in returning home for a while in debt and defeat, except that I don’t really have that option. I grew up with an abusive father, and I spent most of my teen years dealing with child protective services and the family court system.

Since then, my health has gotten even worse. I wouldn’t be able to work a full-time job now even if I could find one …

["Ending demand"] would leave me back where I was eighteen months ago: unable to pay rent. Any solution to my dilemma and to the dilemmas of so many sex workers who feel trapped in our work to varying degrees will be far more complex than eliminating our clients.

Not that long ago, after we’d been talking about my writing this, a friend emailed me the link to a similar-ish first-person story of sex work proving a doable job despite “pretty severe anxiety disorders”: “It’s certainly not always the best choice for my mental health, but neither is poverty.

Emi again, on “push factors” for young people:

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

3. Many “rescued” youth have experienced child welfare system before starting to trade sex. Many have ran away from foster family or group home, and do not feel that going back to the system that have failed them already is a solution to problems in their lives. When they are forcibly returned to these institutions, many run away again as soon as they can.

4. … “Push” factors are things that make young people vulnerable, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of child welfare system, and the breakdown of families due to incarceration and deportation; …

5. Without policies that truly address the “push” factors, any reduction in the “pull” side, such as lower demand for commercial sex due to more policing, or closure of online classified sites, only functions to impoverish youth further, making them more vulnerable overall rather than less. Street youth still need to survive, and thus still have to find different ways to do so, most likely doing things that are also criminalized.

(wish I had space here for more from Emi – but do read those articles in full, and indeed her entire web site :-) )

“My [student] loans are $1,300 a month,” he said. “My rent is $1,300 a month. My salary is $2,600 a month. You can see the problem. So I work as a prostitute for food and utilities.”

Though he works a day job in the tech sector, it’s not enough to get by. “But it could be worse,” he continued. “I could have to do sex work for all of it.”

- young man at Occupy Wall Street, United States, October 2013, quoted by Melissa Gira Grant in an article mainly about student loans and the escalating cost of higher education.

I don’t have an estimate of how many UK students are selling sex, but there has been a Leeds University study interviewing 197 lap dancers in the UK.15 In that study, about a quarter of the women were in some kind of education in parallel with their dancing.

Parents too bump up against the problem that the lower the pay, the more hours they need to work to break even.

When I started doing this [outreach] work at 19, I remember meeting a girl who was the same age as me. And I was like, “you know you don’t have to do this…” and she was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know nothing about me. Do you have children?” and I was like “Yes!” And she was like, “Have your children ever been hungry? Have your children ever gone without?” And guess what? My grandmother and my mother made sure that my children did not do that. They didn’t know what it was like to go without. They may not have had a whole lot, but they were never hungry and they always had a place to sleep and there was never a threat of us not having a place to stay. This woman, who was the same age as me, lived in a one-room apartment with her kids. She was like, “I have a job. But it’s not enough. So I do what I have to do.”

- Deon Haywood, Executive Director of Women With A Vision in New Orleans USA, in interview, 2013.

… surely even those wanting to criminalise all clients can see these ‘exiting routes’ need to be in place first. …

And as someone who has sold sex, who knows that for her and for most of the women she knows who are out of that life that it is traumatic, even with that knowledge and the repercussions of trauma that I live with daily, as a mother I would still choose to sell sex to keep my home warm, to feed my children, to pay my rent arrears, if those were my circumstances. … I am no different from those women just because I don’t sell sex any more, and I and them are no different from any other woman who has never sold sex.

- Ruth Jacobs, writing this week in honour of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Some years ago now, I remember reading a first-hand account from a UK mother who was regularly trading sex for money. (I don’t remember where I read this, so can’t give the source for this one, sorry.)

What I remember is that she could have got low-paid work such as cleaning. (She might have said that she’d done that at one stage already.) But she would have needed to do a lot of hours to make enough money – so much so that she was concerned about not having time with her children, and/or about the childcare they’d be in instead. She said that this way, she could make enough money in far fewer hours a week, and be available for her young children the rest of the time, and she thought that was better for the family overall.

Sex workers in Thailand are usually the main family provider, supporting families, including children, either in Thailand or in our home country. We work hard to give our family a better life, paying for education, housing, land, farming machinery, health treatment and basic daily living for an average of five other people.

- Hit & Run: Sex Worker’s Research on Anti trafficking in Thailand, Empower Foundation, 2012

Back in the UK, try a search on “bedroom tax homelessness”; I wonder how many people would rather do a bit of sex work on the side than lose their home?

See also the origins of x:talk:

The project grew out of the experiences of a prostitute called Alice who was working in a flat with many women from Thailand. They had paid £20,000 to come to the UK to work, they did not have their passports and they earned less money than Alice who was considered to be ‘European’. One reason they did not earn as much money as Alice was because they couldn’t negotiate with English speaking clients very easily. When Alice asked the women how she could help them – they expressed very clearly they did not want to be ‘helped’ but instead that they wanted to learn English.

(I wouldn’t call that “not helped”; I’d call it “helped on their terms”. But I understand the language here as expressing their rejection of patronising/matronising “quasi-help”. Those women were given credit for knowing what they wanted.)

Nick Mai and his team interviewed 100 people for their research on Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry, including some who felt they had been exploited.

All drew clear distinctions between exploitative and non-exploitative practices in the sex industry …

That whole study is worth reading – lots of background information on what leads people to come to the UK and sell sex.

The NWC organisers’ handling of dissent

So, OK, we didn’t get the full rainbow of perspectives on this particular day.

But how much of that filtering was intentional, how much was logistical limitations, and how much of it was just chance?

One of the things I read after the conference was by an anonymous conference-goer at My Elegant Gathering of White Snows. Discussing the organisers’ predicament, she says “Personally, I am not actually sure what else could have been done.

(I don’t know who the writer is, and I don’t fault her for choosing to be anonymous, because not everyone is girded up like I am for internet arguments :-) )

I do realise that when you’ve put together a programme, and the conference is only 11 days away, it’s a massive pain in the arse to be asked to rearrange it.

However, I think the anonymous writer is showing a lack of imagination. I can think of several possibilities.

(Not suggesting here that the organisers would have wanted to handle it in these ways, or that they should have been obliged to, or even that all of these ideas would have worked in practice; just that there were options.)

Logistical possibilities

  • First and most obviously: replace the Merseyside Model workshop (in its half-baked condition after Ruth J dropped out) with a session presented by a sex worker solidarity organisation.

    Yes, this would have meant that some people who’d selected a workshop entitled “Merseyside Model” (MM) would’ve got a related topic instead. But let’s face it, we could have found out about the MM almost equally well from reading a good write-up: the content we actually got wasn’t interactive in the way some workshops are (like e.g. the examples & discussion in End Victim Blaming), and wasn’t super rare. For example, here’s an interview with Rosie Campbell, who was part of the Merseyside work.

    And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that people who care about the police’s attitude to women selling sex would be interested in hearing directly from some of the women – perhaps especially from migrant people such as are centred by x:talk, though I’m not assuming they’d have felt safe enough to participate. (In the open letter, SWOU suggested inviting either themselves, or x:talk, or the English Collective of Prostitutes.)

    So I think people would’ve understood the change, and mostly not felt let down.16

  • Also an obvious idea on the face of it, though not what I’d probably have gone for in their position: for SPACE & NorMAs to co-present with SWOU (or similar orgs). I’m not assuming that this was ever possible in fact; not all parties would necessarily have wished to share a platform. And even if they did, it might not have been as illuminating for us as letting each group have free rein to present separately.

  • Invite SWOU and/or x:talk to have a stall, and allocate slightly fewer tickets to POW, or to women on the waiting list.

Obviously, the above three solutions would’ve had to be set up before the day.

As for the possibilities on the day, here are some which have occurred to me:

  • Indoors, from the stage, read a statement from the organisers: “These women are outside. We’ve decided not to let them in, because reasons, but we’d like to encourage you all to go and chat to them and make up your own minds.”

  • Indoors, from the stage, read a statement from the dissenting women, without letting them personally in.

  • Allow the women in personally, for just long enough to read a statement themselves from the stage. If total numbers were the obstacle to that, take up Feminist Fightback’s offer to swop out.

  • Take up Feminist Fightback’s offer to share their stall and swop out. (FF could swop back in for the time slots where their own workshop was scheduled to happen.)

  • Explain to the Merseyside workshop-goers why Ruth J dropped out.

As far as I can see, any of those could have been done, even at the last minute on the day, if the organisers had accepted that the SWOU women had a point with their “Nothing about us without us”.

(Conference organisers, please do correct me if there were logistical obstacles I’ve failed to notice, preventing one or more of those “on the day” suggestions.)

Representational choices

But because logistics can be a factor, what’s perhaps more revealing is the organisers’ representational choices: what was said, and when.

It seems to me that the organisers must not have thought it was essential to invite sex-worker-led organisations, and to centre the voices of current and diverse sex workers, when discussing laws which would affect them.17

There could have been logistical reasons for not actually making that happen, but there’s no logistical reason for not validating it in the organisers’ statement.

Instead, the NWC statement framed the issue as only about

  1. Sex workers (as people) being allowed in.

  2. Lack of tickets.

To me, there’s a big difference between

  • “Sex workers are here as individual conference-goers, and are free to speak from that position if they feel safe enough to be out in the space (which they may well not)”

    and

  • “We need the input of diverse people-in-the-field, or we’re going to miss aspects of the situation and our conclusions may be wrong, so we will listen to what would enable vulnerable people to feel more safe, and try to accommodate that”.

Likewise (and somewhat parallel), there’s a difference between

  • “Sex workers are here as individual conference-goers, free to speak as individuals inside conversations defined and begun by other people, if they feel safe enough to be out in the space (which they may well not)”

    and

  • “A current-sex-worker-led organisation was given space to present”.

Not acknowledging those differences is a political decision which frames the way the whole situation was handled.

Besides the framing of the statement, another signal of the organisers’ approach is the way that some conference-goers were kept in ignorance of the dissenting women’s presence until another conference-goer spoke out.

Another sign of where the borderlines run is in a Storify which the conference web site currently links to from its front page, as part of a writeup of the day. For some reason, they’ve presented it there as a PDF of screenshots; here’s the original Storify.

The title is “Nottingham Women’s Conference 2013 – a summary”; the blurb explains “This storify takes the words of some of the women who attended the conference to create a simple narrative of the events of the conference itself”. It doesn’t mention the SWOU women, which makes complete sense if you think they weren’t part of “the conference itself”.

These choices – which are representational, not logistical – seem to me to frame the dissenters as not part of the conference – “off-topic”.

In summary, it seems to me that the conference organisers consistently rejected the idea that the SWOU women had a legitimate reason for turning up & wanting in, and framed their presence as an unjustified inconvenience peripheral to The Conference Itself.

(If that’s not how the organisers see it, I’d be genuinely interested in seeing some kind of collective statement showing how they differ from that. I may well have a natter with some of them in the fullness of time & find out more about their individual perspectives, both “how it was in the heat of the day” and in retrospect. I’d certainly be up for those conversations too, to satisfy my curiosity and look ahead to future times.)

The organisers’ framing is reproduced unquestioningly by Anonymous at White Snows: it was about tickets, there was “no room”, “Why should they take precedence over other women?”, etc. My guess is that quite a few other conference-goers saw it that way too.

A thought experiment

I know that comparing any one axis of oppression to any other is fraught with peril :-)

But I confess I have been wondering how it would have been different if the three activists without tickets had been disabled women, from a disabled-people-run autonomous organisation, stating that their perspective wasn’t being represented in a discussion of disability law.

I realise that disabled people too are often silenced within mainstream culture: in fact, Elettaria has written a list of parallels between how sex workers are treated and how people with disabilities are treated.18

But some feminists take disabled access very seriously. And it seems to me that disability rights are consistently lip-serviced as part of feminism even though actual events are sometimes full of disability-fail.

So, would some way have been found to include three hypothetical disability-rights women? even at the last minute?

As a thought experiment, it’s not entirely convincing to me, because actually, if a disabled-people-run organisation had initiated an open letter, signed from a dozen other disabled-people-run organisations around the world, 11 days before a feminist conference… I find it hard to imagine that the organisers wouldn’t have found some way of including them before the conference started. And the outness dynamics are different too, so not that great an analogy.

But my point is to illuminate again: political decision. Not purely logistics.

Owning the politics

Let me repeat: I’m not saying the organisers were obliged to do any of those possible things. To some degree, I’m prepared to say “well it was their conference, their decision”.

But I call on them to own the politics underpinning their decisions, and not speak as though all their choices were constrained by logistics.

If (to use Anonymous‘s words) “There was literally no room”, it was because they chose not to make room.

A metaphor

A metaphor came to me about the Nordic Model and the campaigns around it:

You decide that there needs to be a road from A to B.

You get in your bulldozer and start clearing the woodland along the route.

As you get a little way into the woodland, you hear cries: “Stop! We live in this woodland! You’re running us over! You’re destroying our houses!”

Do you:

  1. Shout out of the window “Well you shouldn’t be living there! Live somewhere else!” and carry on bulldozing?

    or

  2. Stop the bulldozer, get out, get down, and have a conversation with the people who live there about whether there might be an alternative route from A to B?

Apart from the ethical implications, you might even find out that the people who live there already built part of the route.

Thirdly: Class and other privileges

Finally, I want to touch on the attitude which dismisses articulate white women as unrepresentative of sex workers (except when they’re talking about bad experiences). (Here, I’m not referring to the organisers, but to other conference-goers, plus an awareness that this happens more generally.)

Of course I’m not going to claim that the three dissenters at NWC2013 are “representative” in the statistical sense.19 Nor am I going to claim that sex work activism isn’t racist/classist etc. Of course it is – I suspect not worse than the rest of the world.

What I am going to say is: yes, it’s vital to hear the perspective of women from a variety of demographics, especially the least privileged. But if you genuinely want that to happen, the way to start probably isn’t by dismissing the ones who did already take the risk of outing themselves.

From the writing/speaking I quoted above from around the world, it should be obvious that “this is work” and “criminalising the clients won’t help us” aren’t statements limited to one demographic.20

A black and white photo depicts several people carrying a fabric banner in front of them, and others following behind. Several people are wearing masks to cover part of their faces. On the banner, the English text is "Sex work is work! No violence! No discrimination! No oppression!" There's also some writing not in English - presumably in whatever alphabet or system is common in Hong Kong.

It’s not uncommon and it’s not coincidence that the more visible spokespeople for any movement statistically skew towards the more privileged demographics. The level of stigma to a group tends to increase that skew, because privilege protects against some of the risks of outness.

Fear of media exposure was very high, higher than fear of crime, with 3 out of 4 participants worried or very worried about being exposed as an escort in the newspapers or other media.

- Anonymous survey, done by Ugly Mugs, of 195 sex workers in Ireland who have access to the internet.

What are the risks of coming out – or being outed – in this field?

We can be fired from other employment, have our kids taken away because we’re considered unfit, be threatened and attacked because society declares that working in this industry means we’re fair game for violence.

- Kitty Stryker, 2013

Grown adults began to bully my daughter, who was just seven at the time. Yes, apparently when her mother had been outed as a sex worker, it was okay to exclude her from birthday parties, social outings, leave her alone in the playground and let’s not forget the lovely man who told her – ‘Your mother is going to die of AIDS’.

- Laura Lee, 2013

You see, I was a sex worker when I was in college. I had sex with men for money. …

And now that information was out there, at one with the foreverness of the internet. And it was googleable. And that’s why I think I was fired.

- Eric Barry, 2013, in an article entitled “Dear God, I Need a Job: The Struggle to Find Employment After Sex Work”.21

My Father has never spoken to me since, he is dying and he will go to his grave hating me. He will never allow me into his home, I have been outcast from my family for bringing this shame on to them. I thought this was hell and I would never get through it, but the letter author hadn’t quite finished with me. Oh no, not by a long shot. The same week as my daughter got the letter, my neighbours got copies too. I can not walk to my car without one of the neighbours or even children shouting insults at me. My friends no longer call me or accept my calls.

- anonymous writer at storiesbehindtheredlight

Petite Jasmine’s ex-partner was dangerously violent. Yet he was able to use her sex work as leverage to be granted custody of their two children. Interview with a friend/colleague of Jasmine’s, about her death and the custody history.

If you migrated without papers to earn money in the UK, then being identified could get you deported.

Given the (realistic) fear of these kinds of consequences, I don’t find it surprising that the people who risk doing visible activism aren’t usually the most oppressed in every other way.

Saying “I needn’t listen to these women because they aren’t disadvantaged enough“, isn’t entirely different from saying “I won’t listen until some other woman takes even more of a risk“.

Stigma disqualifies

Laura Agustín has noted the social theory of how whore stigma disqualifies women’s voices on many grounds:

Of the many books on prostitution I read back then [the 1990s], most dismissed the possibility that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous. The excuses followed a pattern: The women didn’t understand what they were doing because they were uneducated. They suffered from false consciousness, the failure to recognize their own oppression. They were addicted to drugs that fogged their brains. They had been seduced by pimps. They were manipulated by families. They were psychologically damaged, so their judgements were faulty. If they were migrants they belonged to unenlightened cultures that gave them no choices. They were coerced and/or forced by bad people to travel, so they weren’t real migrants, and their experiences didn’t count. Because they were brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they said could be relied on. This series of disqualifications led to large lacunae in social-scientific literature and mainstream media, showing the power of a stigma that has its very own name – whore stigma. Given these women’s spoiled identities, others feel called to speak for them.

The “class” comments about the dissenters remind me of Elettaria’s words (from the article linked above), where she talks about the silencing of disabled people:

3. Assuming that anyone who isn’t this weird bottom-of-the-food-chain “representative” is too wealthy/middle-class/intelligent/educated etc., so that they shouldn’t be allowed to speak for others. The more empowered we are, the less they want us to speak. This, they think, gives them the right to speak up on our behalf instead. I’ve lost track of how often a social worker or similar has said to me, in disapproving tones, “You’re very articulate, aren’t you,” as a way of shutting me up.

And here’s @anywavewilldo in 2012 making a similar point about growing up working-class:

I cannot believe that somebody had the gall to dismiss me and call out my class credentials because I mentioned BOOKS. … – it is based on the idea of a stereotypical working class ‘deprived’ background which sets us up as lumpen proles without a voice – in this scenario anyone who is working class & educated; or articulate; or interested in current affairs etc. becomes *not working class enough* to speak for themselves. This means only the *voiceless* working class can speak – how convenient!

what hurts me the most is that many working class women have come to believe this ourselves.

In this article, I’ve made a point of mainly quoting directly from sex worker writers rather than quoting from the people who write about them, and this is why.

Selfishness, privilege, solidarity

Another dynamic of not-listening (in addition to Laura Agustín’s list cited above) is the way that more-privileged people from an oppressed/stigmatised group are sometimes assumed to be acting purely selfishly, with no empathy for the less-privileged people from that same group.

Of course there will always be insights you could only get first-hand from the people living in specific situations. But that doesn’t mean the more-privileged people in an oppressed group have no capacity for solidarity, or no similar experiences that well-intentioned people could usefully learn from.

Oddly enough, this is reminding me a lot of when the Labour government was trying to pass a badly-designed law to regulate non-school education, back in 2009/2010. I wrote a pair of posts then which seem uncannily reminiscent of this: “You would say that“, and its follow-up “Give me evidence” (“A theory that our ethics and scepticism are being misconstrued/misrepresented as selfish blinkered naïveté”).

A clue to the edges of acceptable narrative

The anonymous conference-goer whose account is published at My Elegant Gathering of White Snows says:

The sex workers who were present were perfectly able to speak for themselves (and did).

It’s possible that I missed some sex workers speaking in workshop sessions, perhaps in the repeat of the Merseyside Model one. But personally, I heard only one person speak indoors who identified herself as currently trading sexual services. That one person actively signalled her position within the conference’s “acceptable narrative” from her very first line: describing herself immediately as “colluding”.

I don’t mean I think anything she said was untrue; absolutely not. But my intuition is that her choice of words to start with came from an acute awareness of the kinds of reactions she’d be likely to face in that room otherwise. The subtext I heard was “please don’t have a go at me, I agree with you already, I’m a traitor but at least I know it!”

If, unlike @cupofcrow, the woman who outed herself indoors wasn’t met with explicit disbelief and the advice to get another job… well, I don’t know of course, but my intuitive guess is that this prior self-accusation would be why.

So, yes, a number of women were there who have some past or present involvement in trading sex; their bodies were allowed in. But that’s not the same as providing a listening space for the full scope of their lives and ideas.

Affiliations and disclaimer

Going back to “you would say that”, I think it’s probably worth saying something about where I stand on this personally.

I feel an element of recognition in terms of bi & bdsm politics: “your sexuality is unfeminist, the correct sex life is X Y Z”.22 OK, doing sex work isn’t an orientation (though finding it tolerable-to-pleasant probably correlates with enjoying casual sex in general), but I think there’s a kinship within the legacy of Victorian sexual regulation.

Having said that, I’ve got no personal reason for bias in this particular exploration: I’ve never done sex work, I have enough of a financial safety net that I’ll probably never feel a compelling need to, and I don’t have a career in the rescue-and-support field either.

But politically I am very committed to prioritising human beings and listening and truth. And I’m not seeing that being entirely fulfilled around me in this area. What I’m seeing is:

  • a polarised debate in which diversity of experience isn’t being acknowledged.

  • wrong stats being passed around as facts. (Some examples documented by Nick Davies.)

  • the aforementioned element (on the idealistic-feminist side rather than the sex worker side) of “we don’t need to listen, because we already know”.

I say we can do better than that.

Comment policy for the day

I might be erring on the safe side here, because this isn’t a famous blog & maybe hardly anyone will want to comment… but I wanted to set out up-front what I think is on-topic for this thread and what isn’t, because even what I think is on-topic is loads and loads.

  • Centrally on-topic: process & dynamics of organising events & choosing whom to invite, ways of expressing dissent, ways in which people are “disqualified” (in the sense discussed above) as speakers, stigma, risks of outness & being outed, how people trading sex are treated, how people who traded sex in the past are treated, how self-identified sex worker activists are treated, the idea of “Nothing about us without us”, etc.
  • Centrally on-topic: Your own stories of being at the conference, if you were there, and thoughts arising from comparing your experience & interpretation with mine. For the people who were inside, that could include sharing about what you got from the day, what you’ve been thinking about since, or what you most appreciated – whether or not that’s got anything to do with the areas I’ve explored here.
  • Marginally relevant (here today): Details of the Nordic Model itself. In terms of today’s post, the key points about the NM are that (a) its efficacy in keeping women safe is unproven and it has been said to do harm, (b) some people are keen on it despite that, and (c) people “on the ground” have valuable information about how those kinds of laws function. The details of how or why it might not work is (to my mind) a discussion well worth having, but it’s not the main subject right now. In a sense, talking about voices, spaces and listening is building a foundation for that discussion.
  • Off-topic: Links whose only purpose is to tell a story of a bad thing which happened in a situation involving paid sex. The difficult part of the argument isn’t whether harrowingly bad things happen – they do. The difficult part is what we can best do about that. So please think carefully before you use up people’s emotional resilience on reading harrowing stories: only include them if they illuminate as well as stir. If you think you have one which is worth its emotional cost, explain before the link why you think this particular story is useful to know about, and where it fits into your ideas. (Conversely, attempts to pretend that bad things never happen would be not only off-topic but ridiculous. But I’d be very surprised if anyone did come here to claim that.)
  • On-topic: Feedback to me about how I’ve written this etc. Happy with either public or private, whichever you prefer.
  • On-topic: Miscellaneous things that you think will help people to understand and think about all this, even if they’re not directly relevant. E.g. a link to a writeup of some other event-related disagreement which seems to you similar. Or something from your own life which this reminds you of.

Not quite the same thing, but with the same intention of being helpful, I’ve invented some ground rules, which will also be key to my modding decisions. It doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with me :-)

  • No name-calling.

  • Either share your own first-hand experience, own your opinion as opinion, or back up your assertions by linking to first-hand write-ups. (Not someone else’s summary of the research.23) If the link is to a long document, please give the page number or a phrase to search on as well.

  • If you’re quoting someone, quote their actual words and give some context or preferably a link. Don’t paraphrase.

  • Don’t mix up what a group said with what one person from the group said. Even when a group issues a formal statement (such as both NWC and SWOU did in this story), those words may have been a compromise negotiated among group members, rather than an articulation of the deepest beliefs of each individual person which miraculously were all identical. (I’m not saying this from any inside knowledge of the statements featured in this particular story, just from common sense.)

  • Be careful about attributing identities or categories to people which aren’t self-claimed. I mean that in a fairly wide sense, including identities such as “feminist” or “sex worker”.

  • Even having said all that, I will add: be extra careful in any comment which involves generalising about groups.

I reserve the right to invent more rules if the conversation reveals to me that they’re necessary :-)

I’d also invite people to consider taking those boundary-lines into the rest of the net – where, obviously, they aren’t rules, but they could still be useful guidelines for short-circuiting unproductive heartbreak.

Thanks for reading if you got this far! and thanks to everyone who helped!24

Footnotes on this & that…

1. Tax status and housing in Sweden: That quote is from a key English-language resource on the subject: The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects, by Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren (PDF).

The authors of this report have researched different aspects of the Swedish prostitution policy over several years. One of us has also conducted field work among people who sell sex in Sweden. This particular report is based on research we have conducted in the context of a larger project conducted through the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. It is written with an international audience in mind, the reason being that there appears to be a large demand for knowledge regarding the actual effects of the “Swedish model” – knowledge that is based on Swedish research but not filtered through the official discourse. To our understanding, the research presented here has not previously been compiled and translated into English.

While I’m on Nordic Model research, here are a few more things:

Ann Jordan is the Director of the Program on Trafficking and Forced Labor of the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking, and is on the faculty of Washington College of Law. She wrote the Rights Work Issue Paper about the Swedish law, which includes discussion of critiques from within Sweden.

Here’s a short paper from 2011 based on interviews done in Sweden: Jay Levy’s Impacts of the Swedish Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex on Sex Workers.

And Feminist Ire has a useful summary, drawing on various official reports.

2. A note on terminology: When people argue about exchanging sex for money, one of the things they argue about a lot is what words to use. Different words have different implications, and can be taken as saying something about where you stand politically.

There isn’t really a completely neutral term, but “sex trade” or “trading sex” is what I’m mostly using as the “umbrella term”, not meaning anything about degrees of consent or abuse. I’m also using other ones sometimes, either for their implied meaning or simply in line with what people say themselves.

Further reading if wanted: This slideshare from Emi Koyama starts with a useful primer on some common words and phrases.

3. Multiculturalism: I’ve since borrowed the book Multiculturalism, by Tariq Modood, which looks interesting, but haven’t read much of it yet.

4. Rape conviction rate in Merseyside: Obviously, the point was that it was strikingly higher than the usual rate. This is claimed in the text of a petition which I’d already seen, which I suspect has taken its figures from this Guardian article from 2010. These stats may be true; however, I’ve not yet managed to source the origins and check them for myself, and I’m wary of press sources. Happy to get comments from anyone who does know where the original sources are to be found.

5. Two satirical cartoons: On the cover of the zine, a cross-looking cartoony woman and a friendly-looking cartoony woman face each other. Words are joined to their heads.

Cross-looking woman: Sex Work isn’t work! It’s just paid rape! It’s inherently Violence Against Women!!!

Friendly-looking woman: I disagree. Can I come to your Violence Against Women conference and talk about it with you?

Cross-looking woman: NO!!!

On about page 6, after a reproduction of the Open Letter from SWOU to the conference organisers, a more realistic-looking cartoony woman is depicted with “I talk and explain” body language.

Explaining-woman’s speech bubble: As a sex worker who is also a survivor of sexual violence, I would really appreciate the chance to access a safe space to talk with other women about my exper-

Speech bubble from off the page: NO!!! ALL PROSTITUTION IS RAPE AND VIOLENCE, HOW CAN ANY ONE INSTANCE HAVE BEEN RAPE IN PARTICULAR? YOU’RE PROBABLY A PAID INTERNET SHILL ANYWAY! YOU’RE PROBABLY A PIMP!

The same zine also reproduces “Hey Baby, How Much?”: Stop Blaming Sex Workers For Street Sexual Harassment, by Juliet November, and a slightly rewritten version of (possibly not work-safe due to rude word in title) “So you think you will dance”: How Stop the Traffick’s Viral Video Campaign helped no-one, by Eithne Crow. (Web version has alternative title “Why this video needs to fuck off” and includes the video itself.)

6. @cupofcrow: That’s her current Twitter handle, but at the time of the conference, it was @eithne_crow. (And the @cupofcrow Twitter header still links to eithnecrow.wordpress.com.) So if you see old tweets with “@eithne_crow” in, it’s the same person.

7. Are we Atos now?: Tip of the hat to @kosmogrrrl who evidently had the same thought, possibly before me! (see thread following @cupofcrow’s tweet.)

Also, here’s an article giving a bit of background on Atos and their dubiousness, in case not everyone was aware of this.

(However, other commentators whose names I’m not remembering right now have pointed out that the current disability-assessment injustice is underpinned by the Government’s framework, so that replacing Atos with a similar organisation wouldn’t fix it.)

8. Migration law & drugs law book recommendations from me:

Carl Hart’s book is currently in the Notts County Library system. The other two aren’t, at present, but may be available by inter-library loan; also, I own copies of them which I might be up for lending.

9. Overall size of the New Zealand sex industry “hasn’t grown”: The Impact of Decriminalisation on the Number of Sex Workers in New Zealand, Journal of Social Policy, Cambridge University Press 2009.

10. More people working privately (New Zealand): from PhD abstract by Gillian Abel (also linked from text).

11. Material not discussed: Justine’s other comments deserve analysis, too. I’ve thought a lot since the day about the concept of “giving them another destination” and the comment “I’ve never met an educated prostitute”. But I’ve chosen not to focus on those now, for reasons of space.

12. As if the writers think sex workers were banned: For example, this article at hivadvocates.net: “an open letter… calling on the Nottingham Women’s Conference to stop excluding sex workers from the conference”.

While I’m on misleading statements from people who weren’t there, let’s deal with “Locked outside”, as in:

#NWC2013 has locked sex workers outside in the carpark

For clarity:

  • The windowsill where the SWOU zines and badges were on display was part of the conference building, along a little bit from the front door.

  • That area is indeed technically part of the car park, in the sense that the car park is in front of the building, and the three women did indeed have a dull view of cars, and no yummy lunch with the rest of us.

  • The front door where the three women weren’t allowed in was also the way in and out for the people with tickets.

  • As far as I’m aware, there was no “locking” anything. (See open gate behind security man in the “view of cars” photo. It’s the main way in & out to the street.)

Anonymous at White Snows said

“Sex workers locked in car park!” – well the car park was at the entrance to the venue so maybe we were all locked in?

If that’s a paraphrase, it falls into the same pattern of exaggeration as the comment I take it be satirising: I didn’t see anyone claim “locked in”, only “locked out”. (If anyone can ref a comment which actually said “locked in“, they’re welcome to update me.) But I agree with Anonymous in principle that “like a tabloid headline” isn’t a desirable quality in analysis :-)

13. Photo source: Banned from the international AIDS conference, sex workers throw their own freedom festival in Kalcutta, 2012.

(Interestingly, that title is another example of the word “banned” being ambiguous/misleading. At that conference, sex workers’ contributions were seen as vital, and if I’ve understood correctly, sex workers already living in the US were able to take part. The ”banning” refers to sex workers from outside the US not being able to get visas to come into the country at all.)

Further context: Another article about the 2012 AIDS conference in the USA, including a 10-minute video which foregrounds the issue of people being excluded by US visa restrictions.

Photo set from a march which took place in connection with the Kolkata satellite conference.

14. 90% would rather not be: Wendy Lyon has done a write-up explaining in more detail the background to this claim.

15. Lap-dancing study: The key findings are on the web, in documents available here (same link as I’ve given in main text). I was curious about the methodology, & Dr Teela Sanders kindly sent me a longer writeup: Devalued, deskilled and diversified: explaining the proliferation of the strip industry in the UK, as published in the British Journal of Sociology 2012, Volume 63 Issue 3. Here’s a little bit about the method:

The research took place during 2010–2011 across England. … An interviewer administered survey was conducted with 197 dancers, working mainly in two cities, one in the North and one in the South [of England]. However their experiences spanned across 45 towns and cities in the UK and 16 other locations worldwide. We asked dancers about the last four clubs in which they had worked in order to ensure a national picture of the industry was captured, as well as a range in the type of club, quality and dancers’ experiences. … Researchers visited 20 clubs and strip pubs, observing practices, reading workplace documents and looking at facilities.

For nationality, the figures for the 197 dancers were

61% British

29% EU nationals (mainly Romanian)

10% Non–EU nationals (mainly Brazilian)

This same study got a fair amount of press attention at the time, mostly focusing on the fact that about a quarter of the dancers already had undergraduate degrees.

16. People would’ve understood: Slightly tangentially: I was telling a (politically active) friend about this a couple of weeks later. When she grasped what had happened, her response was an outburst something like: “You mean these people took the trouble of writing and they still didn’t get invited? When people take the trouble to write to you that they’re not included, you include them, that’s just obvious! It’s ridiculous things like this that’s why I never go to feminist events!”

I don’t think we need to invite everyone who asks to come to anything, and I suspect she’d draw a line too before getting to all the logical consequences of that. But as an immediate-reaction interpretation of this particular example, I thought it was worth noting.

Back to the conference-goers, though, I just think that most people would have sympathised with the conference organisers if they’d decided to handle it that way, and thought it was reasonable.

17. Laws which would affect them: @fornicatrix [update 26 Dec: or @pastachips - see comments] subsequently summed up the argument as

Organisations led by current sex workers should have a say in any conversation pertaining to further criminalising sex work in the UK. This shouldn’t be controversial.

(Looking at this now, I actually think it’s more clearly put than what went in the Open Letter.)

18. Disability terminology: Some people identify as a “person with a disability”, others consciously reject that framing and choose the label “disabled person”. I’ve been swayed to use the latter in general, but in the link here I’m following Elettaria’s article title.

19. Not claiming that the dissenters were statistically representative: That would be impossible to demonstrate even if it turned out to be true, because of the lack of reliable figures.

20. Photo of people with “Sex work is work” banner: from Zi Teng newsletter, June 2008, Hong Kong. CONTENT NOTE FOR LINK DESTINATION: murders (not quoted here). Zi Teng is an organisation supporting sex workers.

About the event where the photo was taken:

Zi Teng and several sex workers, volunteers and supporters joined the Labor Day protest organized by HKCTU (Confederation of trade unions). … On the way, we cried out loudly the slogan of the host to support the legislation of minimum wage and collective bargaining of workers. We also cried out our slogans, like “Sex Work is Work”, “Concern sex workers’ occupational safety and health”.

21. Employment after sex work: Not sex-work-related, but an interesting comparison: Mark Shenton getting fired from the Sunday Express for gay pix from 20+ years before.

The paper had been tipped off by a malicious third party that there were some private, personal (but entirely legal) images of me available on a gay website. …

The Sunday Express’s Head of HR, however, believes that the existence of any such images could bring the company into disrepute.

Seeing this happening to educated white blokes doesn’t fill me with optimism about the effect on anyone else of having sex work on their CV.

22. Your sexuality is unfeminist: For example, in June 2012, Julie Bindel was published at the Huffington Post, telling us bluntly

I believed then, and I believe now, that if bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men.

(I wrote later about the way that article functions as clickbait at women’s expense. There’s a link in that post to JB’s one in case anyone really wants to read it. The quote above is her closing line.)

A lot of Lesbians wouldn’t say that now; to some degree, JB’s unusual in still holding the view. But in English-speaking white Lesbian/feminist circles back in the 1980s, it wouldn’t have been unusual.

23. Not someone else’s summary: As Wendy Lyons’ article (also linked in a previous footnote) explains, one of the most common ways of misinterpreting research in this area is to take a result from one population and apply it to another. An example would be to interview 100 women who trade sex on/from the street, and extrapolate their answers to everyone else trading sex in any context. So you always need to look at the original paper, where it says how they found the people they’re talking about.

Another common confusion is to assume that the term “trafficking” always refers to situations resembling kidnapping, or at least involving some coercion or trickery. Unfortunately, people use the same term both for that meaning and for a very different meaning of “paying for help to cross borders without papers”. If a research write-up uses the term, it’s important to look at which definition the authors was using (or whether they don’t even acknowledge that there is more than one meaning).

24. Thank you to the people who helped me write this.

Two friends of mine each did a “beta read-through”, and I made a few changes for clarity following their feedback. Thank you both!

Several people answered emails or messages from me where I wanted to check something. Thank you all!

Many people across the world have written useful stuff, either about this area or about oppression & activism in general. Some of them I’ve quoted or linked to here, some of them I haven’t. Thanks to all of you.

Thanks to my friends and family who’ve listened to me talk about this over the last three months and/or made me food etc :-)

Here, have an index…
NWC2013: write-up & some opinions
The space of this post
The first inklings
Nordic Model very-basics
The shape of my concern
The Open Letter from SWOU
Me in the run-up
Arriving
Beginning
The first panel
One woman’s voice
Merseyside Model workshop
Lunchtime
Nordic Model presentation: Rachel Moran & Justine Reilly
NorMAs
A moment of conflict
Short-form activism-announcements panel
Outside
End Victim Blaming workshop
Rounding off
Winding down
At the People’s Kitchen
Believing women, or not
NWC2013 organisers’ statement, accessible version
Now, to analysis
Reproducing stigma
Shape of the session
No debate required
Was it meant as a debate?
The role of stigma in the Nordic Model
Secondly: Inclusion and exclusion
Some ideas mostly not spoken in the conference
The sex trade narrative at NWC
Part of the rainbow
The less-dramatic middle ground
The NWC organisers’ handling of dissent
Logistical possibilities
Representational choices
A thought experiment
Owning the politics
A metaphor
Thirdly: Class and other privileges
Stigma disqualifies
Selfishness, privilege, solidarity
A clue to the edges of acceptable narrative
Affiliations and disclaimer
Comment policy for the day

Spoken word for Pride: “All of us”

Short spoken-word piece expressing what Pride is. Licensed as Creative Commons.

Read full article "Spoken word for Pride: “All of us”"

Not just white gay male Pride

Some thoughts on diversity at Pride festivals.

Read full article "Not just white gay male Pride"

The skewed demographics of LGBT volunteering

Considering some factors which influence who volunteers.

Read full article "The skewed demographics of LGBT volunteering"

Protecting campaigning organisations from a new limiting law

A short letter to Chloe Smith MP (sent as part of a 38 Degrees campaign), and some context.

Read full article "Protecting campaigning organisations from a new limiting law"

Queens of Pop at (not Nottingham) Prides

Some tweets I wrote to Manchester Pride, asking them to unbook Queens of Pop. Plus some context.

Read full article "Queens of Pop at (not Nottingham) Prides"