I am looking forward to being in Hamburg, Germany, in August, for this unusually interesting event. My own talk is called Disqualified: Why sex workers suffer social death and will focus on how representation of women who sell sex as damaged victims disqualifies them from rights and justifies a whole Rescue Industry devoted to pushing them around. Some of this was covered in Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores.
The whole event will take place in English, so if you are near Hamburg, consider a visit. Venue: Kampnagel, Jarrestraße 20, D-22303 Hamburg. Write to tickets [at] kampnagel.de to reserve a place. Or you may show up at the box office and hope tickets are available on the day(s).
Alice Schwarzers Aufruf zum Verbot von Prostitution hat in den deutschen Medien eine rege Diskussion entfacht. Jenseits der moralischen und politischen Frage, wie mit Sexarbeit umzugehen sei, ist dabei auch deutlich geworden, dass die Debatte von Projektionen, Fantasien und Mythen dominiert wird. Verlässliche Informationen zur Sexarbeit gibt es auch deshalb nicht, weil dieses Berufsfeld immer noch stark stigmatisiert ist und Sexarbeiterinnen und Sexarbeiter selbst kaum an der öffentlichen Repräsentation ihres Berufs teilhaben. Gemeinsam mit dem Missy Magazine veranstaltet das Internationale Sommerfestival eine Konferenz auf der Bildwissenschaftlerinnen, Sexarbeiterinnen, Künstlerinnen und Medienmacherinnen in Vorträgen, Diskussionen und Performances die Bilder von Sexarbeit untersuchen, die – nicht nur die aktuelle – Diskussion dominieren. Was erzählt das Bild, das sich die Gesellschaft von Sexarbeit macht, über ihr Verhältnis zu Frauenarbeit, Sexualität und Sexualmoral, Gender, Migration und Armut?
18:00 ERÖFFNUNG und BOSOM BALLET (Annie Sprinkle) /// p1
Nach einer kurzen Eröffnung der beiden Konferenz-Gastgeber Margarita Tsomou (Kulturwissenschaftlerin/Missy Magazine) und Eike Wittrock (Theaterwissenschaftler/Internationales Sommerfestival) zeigt Annie Sprinkle zur festlichen Eröffnung der Konferenz das BOSOM BALLET (Brüste-Ballett) – eine ihrer legendären Performances.
18:15 IMAGE_WHORE_IMAGE. THE POLITICS OF LOOKING AND LOOKING BACK Vortrag von Antke Engel (D) /// p1
Antke Engel, Leiterin des Instituts für Queer Theory (Hamburg/Berlin), eröffnet die Konferenz mit einem Vortrag zu künstlerischen Bildern von Sexarbeit und betrachtet die Politik der Repräsentation im Spannungsfeld von Fremd- und Selbstbild. Engel ist freie Wissenschaftlerin im Bereich feministischer und queerer Theorie und hat seit den 1990ern maßgeblich das Feld queerer Geschlechter- und Sexualitätenforschung im deutschsprachigen Kontext wie auch auf internationaler Ebene geprägt.
19:30 BAISE MOI Gespräch mit Filmausschnitten mit Coralie Trinh Thi, Drehbuchautorin, und Stefanie Lohaus, Missy Magazine Herausgeberin /// p1
BAISE MOI (Fick Mich!) schockte 2000 das Kinopublikum mit einer schonungslosen Darstellung von Sexualität und Gewalt, formuliert aus weiblicher Perspektive und vor dem Hintergrund »realer« Erfahrungen mit Sexarbeit. Coralie Trinh Thi, Drehbuchautorin des Films, wird gemeinsam mit Missy Magazin-Herausgeberin Stefanie Lohaus Ausschnitte aus dieser kontroversen filmischen Darstellung von Sexarbeiterinnen kommentieren und diskutieren.
22:00 MACHO DANCER Performance von Eisa Jocson (PHL/B) /// p1
Für ihr Solo MACHO DANCER hat sich die bildende Künstlerin und Choreografin Eisa Jocson eine Form des erotischen Tanzens, die vornehmlich in philippinischen Schwulenbars praktiziert wird, angeeignet. Zu Powerballaden und Soft Rock bewegen sich junge Männer in einer hyperstilisierten Form von Männlichkeit, lassen langsam ihre Hüften kreisen und präsentieren ihre Muskeln. In der Übertragung auf ihren (weiblichen) Körper verschwimmen dabei Geschlechterbilder, und die Mechanik dieser ökonomischen Körper-Performance wird sichtbar.
11:00 PROSTITUTION PRISM REFLECTIONS: FROM FACT TO FANTASY Vortrag von Gail Pheterson (F) /// p1
Gail Pheterson hat mit ihrem Buch »Huren-Stigma«, das im Original bereits 1986 erschien und das als internationales Standardwerk gilt, einen wesentlichen Beitrag zur feministischen Debatte um Sexarbeiterinnen geleistet. Die Autoren des Klassikers zum Stigma ist seitdem für ihre Publikationen zu Prostitution international bekannt – sie ist Dozentin und Forscherin am Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques, Paris CRESPPA-UMR 7217, CNRS und der Université Paris 8 und wird über die Thesen ihres letzten Buches Le prisme de la prostitution (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001) vortragen.
12:00 BREAD AND ROSES: RETHINKING SEXUAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE Vortrag von Nikita Dhawan und María do Mar Castro Varela (D), anschließend Gespräch mit Luzenir Caixeta (AUT) /// p1
Nikita Dhawan ist Juniorprofessorin für Politikwissenschaft mit Schwerpunkt Gender/Postkoloniale Studien an der Goethe Universität Hamburg, im Rahmen des Exzellenzclusters »Die Herausbildung normativer Ordnungen«. Maria do Mar Castro Varela ist Professorin an der Alice Salomon Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, Berlin. Sie beide gehören zu den innovativsten Denkerinnen der intersektionellen Verschränkung von Migration und Feminismus im deutschsprachigen Raum. Zusammen werden sie über die Frage der Repräsentation migrantischer Sexarbeit referieren. Anschließend findet ein Gespräch mit Dr. Luzenir Caixeta, Mitbegründerin und Koordinatorin des Forschungsbereichs von maiz (Autonomes Zentrum von und für Migrantinnen, Österreich) statt, das für seine Arbeit mit migrantischen Sexarbeiterinnen über Österreich hinaus relevant ist.
14:30 DISQUALIFIED: WHY SEX WORKERS SUFFER SOCIAL DEATH Vortrag von Laura María Agustín, anschließend Gespräch mit Camille Barbagallo (GB) /// p1
Laura María Agustín ist Soziologin, arbeitet zu undokumentierter Migration, Menschenhandel und der Sexindustrie und hat mit ihrem einflußreichen Buch »Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry« (Zed Books 2007) neue Thesen zur Rolle von NGOs und Hilfsorganisationen in der Sexarbeit in die internationale Debatte gebracht. Nach ihrem Vortrag wird sie mit Camille Barbagallo, Forscherin an der Goldsmiths Universität London, diskutieren warum die Stimme bzw. die Versuche von Selbstrepräsentation seitens der Sexarbeiter_innen in der Öffentlichkeit entweder nicht gehört oder disqualifiziert werden.
16:00 ZOOM IN: PROSTITUTION/POLITICS HAMBURG Gespräch mit Ulrike Lembke (HH), Undine de Rivière (HH) und Gerhard Schlagheck (HH) /// p1
Das Panel wird sich mit der konkreten Situation in Hamburg – der »Stadt der Huren« – beschäftigen sowie die Debatte um das deutsche Prostitutionsgesetz aufnehmen. Ulrike Lembke ist Juniorprofessorin für Öffentliches Recht und Legal Gender Studies an der Rechtswissenschaft der Universität Hamburg – sie soll unter anderem auch der Frage nachgehen wie geltendes Recht gesellschaftliche Verhältnisse widerspiegelt, d.h. warum etwas als rechtmäßig gilt oder nicht. Undine de Rivière ist Sexarbeiterin in Hamburg, Sprecherin des Berufsverbandes für erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen und wegweisendes Mitglied des »Ratschlags Prostitution Hamburg«. Gerhard Schlagheck leitet das »Basis-Projekt«, die einzige Anlaufstelle für männliche Stricher in Hamburg. Sie beide sollen konkret über ihre Auseinandersetzungen mit der rechtlichen Situation in Hamburg sprechen.
18:00 WATCH ME WORK Performance von Liad Hussein Kantorowicz /// k4
Liad Hussein Kantoworicz ist Performerin (UDK Masterstudiengang SODA), Sexarbeiterin, Autorin, Queer-Aktivistin und Gründerin der ersten Gewerkschaft für Sexarbeiterinnen im Mittleren Osten. Darüber hinaus arbeitet sie für eine israelische Erotik-Chat-Webseite, bei der die Kunden für intime Gespräche und persönliche Live-Performances pro Minute zahlen.
In der Performance WATCH ME WORK ermöglicht sie einen Echtzeit-Einblick in diese Cyber-Sexarbeit und lässt sich aus verschiedenen Perspektiven bei ihrer gleichsam intimen wie höchst theatralen Performance beobachten.
20:30 MY LIFE AS A METAMORPHOSEXUAL SEX WORKER. ALWAYS RECREATING MY SEX WORKER SELF Performance von Annie Sprinkle (USA), mit Beth Stephens und Gästen /// p1
Die legendäre Pornodarstellerin, Künstlerin und Sexarbeitsaktivistin der ersten Stunde, Annie Sprinkle, kehrt für eine ihrer Lecture Performances nach Hamburg zurück. Sprinkle ist eine der bekanntesten Vertreterinnen des sexpositivem Feminismus und eine Ikone der sexuellen Aufklärung in den USA und darüber hinaus. Sie hat Sexualität praktisch und theoretisch erforscht, vom Heiligen bis zum Profanen. Ihre Arbeit an der gemeinsamen Emanzipation von Frauen und Sexarbeiterinnen ist international wie historisch von großer Relevanz. Ihre Performance »Post Porn Modernist« tourte durch mehr als 19 Länder und wurde zu einer wichtigen Intervention im Sex-War innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung der 80er Jahre in den USA:
Auf dem Sommerfestival wird sie anhand von Videos, Fotografien, Mini-Performances und einem Ritual der heiligen Eco-Hure aus ihrem ereignisreichen Leben und von ihren politischen Aktivitäten berichten, die sich derzeit auf Liebe, Beziehung, Brustkrebs, Altern und den Schnittpunkt von Ökologie und Sexualität – Sexecology – konzentrieren.
12:00 COLLATERAL DAMAGE Mithu Sanyal im Gespräch mit Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot
Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot ist nicht nur, weil sie den Begriff Sexarbeit erfunden hat, eine der international wichtigsten Figuren der Sexarbeiter_innen Bewegung. Sie gilt als einer der »Muttern« der Sexarbeiter_innen-Bewegung, sie ist Autorin, Sexeducator, Produzentin, Filmemacherin, hat mehrere Veröffentlichungen, mehrere Festivals gegründet und leitet nun das San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival.
Während der Konferenz werden durchgehend Auszüge als Preview ihres neues Dokumentarfilms COLLATERAL DAMAGE: SEX WORKERS AND THE ANTI-TRAFFICKING CAMPAIGNS als Installation gezeigt.
Über die Arbeit an dem Film spricht sie mit Mithu Sanyal, der preisgekrönten Journalistin und Autorin des mehrfach übersetzten Buchs über die Kulturgeschichte des weiblichen Genitals »Vulva – Die Enthüllung des unsichtbaren Geschlechts« (Wagenbach Verlag, 2013).
12:30 SELFREPRESENTATION: SEX WORK AND ART WORK Abschlussdiskussion mit Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, Coralie Trinh Thi, Eisa Jocson, Annie Sprinkle und Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot /// p1
Das Abschlusspanel der Konferenz bringt die Medienmacherinnen und Künstlerinnen der Konferenz zusammen, um über die eigenen Strategien von Selbstrepräsentation im Spannungsfeld zwischen Selbst-und Fremdbild zu reflektieren.
PERFORMANCES IM RAHMEN DER KONFERENZ:
Eisa Jocson: MACHO DANCER (08.08. / 22:00)
Liad Hussein Kantorowicz: WATCH ME WORK (09.08. / 18:00)
Annie Sprinkle: MY LIFE AS A METAMORPHOSEXUAL SEX WORKER. ALWAYS RECREATING MY SEX WORKER SELF (09.08. / 20:30)
It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a veritable Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.
Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.
I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, named during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.
Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, BC, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.
My focus on the female is deliberate. All who propose prostitution policy are aware that men sell sex, but they are not concerned about men, who simply do not suffer the disgrace and shame that fall on women who do it.
Stigma and disqualification
Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.
Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.
In the late 1990s I wondered why a migrant group that often appeared in media reports and was well-known to me personally was absent from scholarly migration literature. I came to understand that migrant women who sell sex were disqualified as subjects of migration, in some perhaps unconscious process on the part of scholars and journal editors. Was the stigma attached to selling sex so serious that it was better not to mention these migrants at all? Or did people think that the selling of sex must transport anything written about it to another realm, such as feminism? When I submitted an article to a migration journal addressing this disqualification, The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Women Who Sell Sex, two and a half years passed before its publication, probably because the editor could locate no peer reviewers willing to deal with my ideas.
Of the many books on prostitution I read back then, 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.
Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma
The person in a helping profession or campaign is said to embody the good in humanity – benevolence, compassion, selflessness. But helpers assume positive identities far removed from those spoiled by stigma, and benefits accrue to them: prestige and influence for all and employment and security for many. Many believe that helpers always know how to help, even when they have no personal experience of the culture or political economy they intervene in. What I noted was how, despite the large number of people dedicated to saving prostitutes, the situation for women who sell sex never improves. The Construction of Benevolent Identities by Helping Women Who Sell Sex was the key that unlocked my understanding of the Rescue Industry.
Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation”. Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.
In classic abolitionism, whore stigma is considered a consequence of patriarchy, a system in which men subjugate women and divide them into the good, who are marriageable, and the bad, who are promiscuous or sell sex. If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, it is claimed. But contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied to women who do not sell sex at all, so the claim is feeble. Instead, abolitionism’s aversion to prostitution probably strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the transgressor she once was.
Under prohibitionism, those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw, which oddly at least grants her some agency.
For advocates of the decriminalization of all commercial-sex activities, the disappearance of whore stigma would occur through recognizing and normalizing the selling of sex as labor. We don’t yet know how long it may take for stigma to die out in places where some forms of sex work are decriminalized and regulated: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Holland. Given the stigma’s potency in all cultures one would expect it to diminish unevenly and slowly but steadily, as happened and continues to happen with the stigma of homosexuality around the world.
Prostitution law and national moralities
I explained my skepticism about prostitution law at length in an academic article, Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution. All prostitution laws are conceived as methods to control women who, before ideas of victimhood took hold, were understood to be powerful, dangerous figures associated with rebellion, revolt, carnival, the world upside down, spiritual power and calculated wrongdoing. Conversations about prostitution law, no matter where they take place, argue about how to manage the women: Is it better to permit them to work out of doors or limit them to closed spaces? How many lap-dancing venues should get licenses and where should they be located? In brothels, how often should women be examined for sexually transmitted infections? The rhetoric of helping and saving that surrounds laws accedes with state efforts to control and punish; the first stop for women picked up in raids on brothels or rescues of trafficking victims is a police station. Prostitution law generalizes from worst-case scenarios, which leads directly to police abuse against the majority of cases, which are not so dire.
In theory, under prohibitionism prostitutes are arrested, fined, jailed. Under abolitionism, which permits the selling of sex, a farrago of laws, by-laws and regulations give police a myriad of pretexts for harrying sex workers. Regulationism, which wants to assuage social conflict by legalizing some sex-work forms, constructs non-regulated forms as illegal (and rarely grants labor rights to workers). But eccentricities abound everywhere, making a mockery of these theoretical laws. Even Japan’s wide-open, permissive sex industry prohibits “prostitution” defined as coital sex. And in recent years a hybrid law has arisen that makes paying for sex illegal while selling is permitted. Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work
Discussion of prostitution law occurs in national contexts where rhetoric often harks back to essentialist notions of morality, as though in this highly-travelled, hybrid-culture world it were still possible to talk about authentic national character, or as though “founding father” values must define a country for all time. One intervenor at the recent Canadian Supreme Court hearing on prostitution law argued that decriminalization would defy founding values of “the Canadian community”: “that women required protection from immoral sexual activity generally and prostitution specifically” and “strong moral disapproval of prostitution itself, with a view to promoting gender equality”. The national focus clashes with anti-trafficking campaigns that not only claim to use international law but sponsor imperialist interventions by western NGOs into other countries, notably in Asia, with the United States assuming a familiar meddling role vis-à-vis Rest-of-World.
Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance
Gender Equality is now routinely accepted as a worthy principle, but the term is so broad and abstract that a host of varying, contradictory and even authoritarian ideas hide behind it. Gender Equality as a social goal derives from a bourgeois feminist tradition of values about what to strive for and how to behave, particularly regarding sex and family. In this tradition, loving committed couples living with their children in nuclear families are society’s ideal citizens, who should also go into debt to buy houses and get university educations, undertake lifetime “careers” and submit to elected governments. Although many of these values coincide with long-standing governmental measures to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, to question them is viewed with hostility. The assumption is that national governmental status quos would be acceptable if women only had equal power within them.
Gender Equality began to be measured by the UN in 1995 on the basis of indicators in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. Arguments are endless about all the concepts involved, many seeing them as favouring a western concept of “human development” that is tied to income. (How to define equality is also a vexed question.) Until a couple of years ago, the index was based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate (for health), share of parliamentary seats held by sex plus secondary/higher education attainment (for empowerment) and women’s participation in the work force (for labor). On these indicators, which focus on a narrow range of life experiences, northern European countries score highest, which leads the world to look there for progressive ideas about Gender Equality.
These countries manifest some degree of State Feminism: the existence of government posts with a remit to promote Gender Equality. I do not know if it is inevitable, but it is certainly universal that policy promoted from such posts ends up being intolerant of diverse feminisms. State Feminists simplify complex issues through pronouncements represented as the final and correct feminist way to understand whatever matter is at hand. Although those appointed to such posts must demonstrate experience and education, they must also be known to influential social networks. Unsurprisingly, many appointed to such posts come from generations for whom feminism meant the belief that all women everywhere share an essential identity and worldview. Sometimes this manifests as extremist, fundamentalist or authoritarian feminism. Sweden is an example.
Sweden and prostitution
Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson
The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.
After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.
Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.
These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights at all and did all he could to impede her. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.
In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:
The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.
The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”. To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.
Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.
The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.
Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.
When media are king
Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over, hammering in the clichés.
Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic – legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world”, “dark underbelly”, “stolen childhoods”, “seedy streets” and “forbidden fruit”, they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
Not long ago I was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on the topic of sex work as work. The announcement on Facebook provoked violent ranting: to have me was anti-feminist, against socialism and a betrayal of anarchism. I wrote Talking about sex work without isms to explain why I would not discuss feminist arguments in the short Dublin talk. I’m not personally interested in utopias and after 20 years in the field really only want to discuss how to improve things practically in the here and now. No prostitution law can comprehend the proliferation of businesses in today’s sex industry or account for the many degrees of volition and satisfaction among workers. Sexual relations cannot be “fixed” through Gender-Equality policy. If I were Alexander standing over the knot I would slice it thus: All conversations from this moment will begin from the premise that we will not all agree. We will look for a variety of solutions to suit the variety of beliefs, and we will not compete over which ideological position is best. Most important, we will assume that what all women say is what they mean.
Who cares about the law against buying sex? City, a free newspaper like Metro, ran a page recently on sex laws in Sweden.
17 steps to a softer vision of sex A lot has happened on the sex front in the past 100 years. Follow City’s timeline to see how the vision of sex has changed.
The choice of landmarks to put on this timeline is interesting; obviously not all legal events concerning sex in Sweden in the past 100 years were included. Those chosen reflect familiar forms of liberalisation most people are now comfortable with: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, discrimination, partnerships.
The law criminalising the purchase of sex, sexköpslagen, is absent, as are other laws that contradict the headline that says everything’s become ‘softer’ (more permissive/less strict; soft and softer aren’t Swedish words). One friend said editors would omit the sex-buying law as insignificant to 90% of the readers – just one of those odd laws ordinary people don’t understand and have no opinion about. City is an unpretentious, popular paper commuters pick up outside train stations.
If you only look at news sources that consider themselves to be Important, keeping the record of what national government figures say and do, you get a different impression – that laws like sexköpslagen are symbols of Swedish policy on equality. Some people think this hegemonic news is more important. Some think it’s significant that only one MP actively opposes the law, but my guess is the others just want to avoid trouble from aggressive state feminists. Then there’s the fact that most people just don’t know there are normal sex workers in their lives, because everyone keeps quiet about it. That’s what stigma accomplishes, and it’s the opposite of normalisation.
Anti-prostitutionists exaggerate effects of the law constantly, and claim that a single survey on ‘attitudes’ about it proves its popularity amongst Swedes (Kuosmanen 2010). But the author himself cautioned against believing his results, given that ‘of the 2500 questionnaires that were distributed, 1134 were returned, providing a response rate of 45.4% and a missing rate of 54.6% from the entire sample.’ It turns out a large proportion of males receiving the survey failed to respond, meaning, Kuosmanen warned, ‘the results should be interpreted with a degree of caution, particularly as regards questions that concern experiences of the purchase and sale of sex, where there is, in addition, a degree of internally missing data.’
I doubt most people who received the survey knew much or had ever thought about the law. What does it matter, then, how they answered the questions? I don’t understand the significance of an attitude survey, as though the population were a marketing focus group asked to indicate whether a new flavour of yogurt has a future amongst consumers.
It would be interesting to see a parallel timeline of ‘harder’ or less permissive visions of sex during the same period: laws widening the definition of rape and women’s sexual vulnerability (which sexköpslagen is grounded in). The presence of both tendencies at the same time shows how society tries to ‘progress’ vis-a-vis sex, deciding which forms of sexual liberation and control to promote, which kinds of sex are good and bad. Politicians make hay of this stuff, while everyone else gets on with doing what they want, mostly – as discussed the other day under the rubric Prohibition.
Do you still think audiobooks are a minor format only used by people that can’t read print? Think again, I certainly have. When books like Sex at the Margins become audiobooks, something is afoot. People are now learning to learn and absorb and enjoy non-fiction while lying in baths, stuck in traffic, glued to exercise machines, cooking meals and trying to shut out everyone else on public transport.
Actually some people don’t have to learn, they already used radio this way.
Audible Editor-at-Large Susie Bright entitled her announcement
Laura Agustín has almost singlehandedly changed the international debate about the definition and exploitation of the “sex trafficking” world as it is manipulated and exploited by NGOs, the Rescue Industry and major political players.
The corruption and dissembling that is going in the name of “saving victims” is truly shocking, and that’s why Sex at the Margins has been on every feminist, public policy, and migrant rights desk since its first appearance.
“This groundbreaking book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work; that migrants who sell sex are passive victims; and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.”
The fact that Agustín is an international multi-lingual genius, who can appear in Sweden or Italy or Nairobi at a moment’s notice to speak truth to power, has turned the world on its ear when the usual liars come out to press their sanctimonious case on “fallen women.” She will not suffer fools gladly and she WILL demand evidence. (Check out her debate with Mira Sorvino at the UN!)
Whatever Laura does next, Margins will remain as the classic that started the fireworks. As far as I’m concerned, this book is the vanguard of feminism and the bleeding edge of migration consciousness.
Narrated by Robert Blumenfeld, who we last heard reading Euclid’s Widow and Paul Bowles short stories!
Susie was one of the first to review Sex at the Margins, on Susie Bright’s Journal and she’s the editor responsible for its becoming an audiobook. I am very grateful for her loyal support.
Note: Amazon’s database is sprawling and incompletely integrated. So sometimes, according to how and when and where you happen to search, you may arrive at a page for Sex at the Margins which does not link to the Kindle or Audible edition (although both are subsidiaries of Amazon). In that case the easiest route is to go to the dedicated online shops for the non-paper versions.
Sex at the Margins at Audible.com, where you can listen to a sample. The whole book occupies 6 hours and 45 minutes.
A few weeks ago a flurry of Swedish media articles purported to ‘reveal’ that the national development agency, Sida, gives money (3,611,092 euros) to Mama Cash, a Dutch foundation that, among many women’s causes, supports sex workers’ rights and has funded Rose Alliance, a sex-worker group in Sweden. This wasn’t even new news, but some anti-prostitution folks tried to whip up indignation and manufacture a scandal.
The first story appeared on a news site hosted by Sida itself on 4 December. The same day, another article repeated the news, with a headline saying the money goes to lobbyists for commercial sex. Still on the same day one of Sweden’s delegates to the European Parliament, and a member of the abolitionist European Women’s Lobby, demanded excitedly that Sida stop giving the money (she’s holding up the Say No to Prostitution sign in her photo). The next day saw replies from RFSU (Sweden’s big sex-education organisation) and Louise Persson, defending the financing of groups supporting vulnerable women/prostitutes/sex workers. Then there was another piece from the parliamentarian, followed by another on the Sida site. Neither Mama Cash nor Sida made any reply.
At Rose Alliance we decided to write a short statement acknowledging the flurry and, instead of defending or counter-attacking, presenting the basic facts about the organisation on a news site called Newsmill. It got delayed in the pre-Christmas rush and was published 23 December as Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan. Here is the English version, just as dry and unexcited as the original Swedish.
Sex Workers Can Speak for Ourselves
Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson and Laura Agustín
Rose Alliance was recently in the news when it was reported at OmVärlden that Sida gives money to a foundation that has given us two grants. Rose Alliance (Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige) is an organisation for current and former sex workers in Sweden. We began in 2001 but started expanding about three years ago.
The most important things to know about Rose Alliance are:
We promote economic, labour and individual rights for people of any gender identity who sell sex.
We recognise that sex workers have a wide variety of experiences and value all of them.
We believe in the theory and practice of harm reduction.
We assist and advise each other on legal and self-employment issues and dealing with social and police authorities, on a voluntary basis.
Publish printed resources for both internal and external use
Some Rose Alliance members blog and publish articles as individuals: Greta Svammel, Petite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist are examples. Some members receive invitations to visit, speak and consult both inside and outside Sweden. Host organisations reimburse the usual expenses for this travel.
Political lobbying is not our main focus. But for the record, we advocate self-determination and rights for sex workers – the right to sell sex as well as the right to stop selling sex. The law criminalising the purchase of sex aims to deprive sex workers of the right to run their own lives, so we oppose it.
Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson och Laura Agustín för Rose Alliance
23 Dec 2012, Newsmill
Rose Alliance var nyligen uppmärksammade i media när det rapporterades på OmVärlden att Sida ger pengar till en stiftelse som har gett oss två verksamhetsbidrag. Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige (Rose Alliance) är en intresseorganisation för nuvarande och före detta sexarbetare i Sverige. Vi startade 2001 men började växa som organisation för ungefär tre år sedan.
De viktigaste att veta om Rose Alliance är:
Vi arbetar för att främja ekonomiska, arbetsrättsliga och individuella rättigheter för alla sexarbetare, oavsett könsidentitet.
Vi inser att sexarbetare har en stor variation av erfarenheter och värderar alla lika mycket.
Vi tror på skadereduktion, både i teori och praktik.
Vi stödjer och rådgör med varandra i juridiska frågor, frågor kring egenföretagande och hur man hanterar kontakt med sociala- och polisiära myndigheter. Allt på en volontär basis.
Förra veckan deltog vi i World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) i Stockholm, och vi har haft en egen lastbil i Stockholms prideparad under de senaste två åren.
Vi fick vårt första verksamhetsbidrag 2011, från Mama Cash, för att stärka vår interna organisation. Vi har sedan juli 2012 verksamhetsbidrag för ytterligare två år, som kommer att användas till att:
Göra vår hemsida till en bättre resurs för våra medlemmar
Organisera utbildande workshops för våra medlemmar
Publicera tryckt material för internt och externt bruk
Vissa Rose Alliance medlemmar bloggar och publicerar artiklar som individer:Greta Svammel, Petite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist är några exempel. Vissa medlemmar blir inbjudna att besöka, föreläsa och konsultera såväl inom som utanför Sverige. Värdorganisationerna ersätter då kostnader i samband med dessa resor.
Politisk lobbyverksamhet är inte vårt främsta fokus. Men för tydlighetens skull: vi förespråkar självbestämmande och rättigheter för sexarbetare – rätten att sälja sex såväl som rätten att sluta sälja sex. Sexköpslagen bidrar till beröva sexarbetare rätten att styra över sina egna liv, därför är vi emot den.