14 Oct 2009

Notes on Feminism In London, Oct 10th

This was a fantastic day and I only wish it could've lasted over a whole weekend or even a week, there were so many teeming issues to deal with. But I appreciate it took the organisers a whole whack of time and money to make the day happen, and all I can say is I can't wait for the next one. As someone who often feels largely alone in their concern about feminist issues, it was so fulfilling to be surrounded by equally concerned women and men, and be able to talk freely and without curtailment, about the stuff that really bothers me.

The one talk that was particularly affecting was 'What's Wrong With Prostitution?', which was so graphic in places about the reality of prostitution that it left several people, including the friend I was with, in tears. I'm going to try and transcribe my scribblings from it as I thought all the contributions were something people need to hear.

A Travers - ex-prostitute and organiser of Mothers Against Violence
D Marshall - Eaves/Poppy Project worker
R Mott - ex-prostitute/blogger

A Travers spoke of how she has three children, with her eldest son being in prison for violent crime, her middle daughter currently working as a stripper, and only her youngest daughter relatively untouched by violence or the sex trade. After watching a child of 5 play Grand Theft Auto where he can 'virtually' have sex with a prostitute, then stamp on her head and rob her, she began the campaign to make an equivalent game, Grand Truth Auto, which focuses on the victims rather than the player. The game would function so that, as the player was about to commit a violent act, the game would pause and a bubble would appear giving the victim's thoughts/feelings/perspective.

D Marshall, as someone who works with vulnerable women who have left or are trying to leave prostitution, spoke about the overwhelming statistics about the risks of violence, mortality rate and rate of drug abuse in prostitution. She argued passionately and articulately against liberal arguments for legislation and the lazy response that 'prostitution has always been around, you'll never get rid of it'. The room rumbled with laughter when she blew the notion that 'prostitution is the oldest profession' out of the water with the sardonic reply 'no it isn't. Agriculture is.' She also dismissed the notion that anything is so embedded in culture that 'you'll never get rid of it', pointing out that the same could have been said of slavery or child labour yet we've managed to leave those behind and never return to them.

In response to the argument that some men are so ugly/disabled/socially inept to get a woman without paying for her, she said that our priority should be making a social/romantic life accessible to the disabled, and ensuring that our boys don't grow up so socially retarded that they can't relate to women. I've always agreed with that, and I haven't heard many women arguing that just because they're old, ugly or shy, they have the right to pay for someone else's body. Marshall summed it up thus - "Sorry, but sex is not a human right", which I think is a harsh truth of life. You want to get some, you have to make the effort for it. The more men think they can just pay for it, the less they will bother to try to be sociable or get to know a woman.

Against the argument that the existence of 'happy hookers' legitimises the sex trade, Ms Marshall agreed that there are such women, and she has met them, but they are not representative. Instead, they are a privileged minority, often well-educated and middle class, and have options open to them that the vast majority of prostituted women do not. It's wrong to allow this tiny minority to make us think that prostitution is OK just because they have chosen it. She also snorted at the remarks on the vile Punternet site (where men who use prostitutes can rate their 'services') that most anti-prostitution feminists have never been near a prostitute; as a woman who works with them every day, she has probably been far closer than most people. Her concluding remarks were that women should step outside of their own privilege, abandon the myths (often peddled by well-meaning liberals) and support prostitutes to leave the industry.

R Mott, an ex prostitute, spoke about her experiences in a moving and disturbing manner. She described herself 'not as a happy hooker, but as a prostituted woman'. She described how she moved from being sexually abused as a child to starting as a prostitute at 14. She described her first night at 'work', where she was gang-raped repeatedly for hours on end while she passed in and out of consciousness. She described how she knew whatever was in fashion in porn because she found herself being forced to do it. Here are some of her quotes:
"Imagine being so dead inside you no longer care what happens to your body."
"You learn your body is there to be damaged. You have no right to say no."
"Punters love anal sex, because it's unnecessary and often causes the woman pain."
(on being choked and anally raped) "That's what men think it's their right to do."
"People think it's not rape if men pay for it."
"It's so much easier to speak of happy hookers rather than face the reality that most women don't want to do it."
R Mott spoke vividly of feeling let down by feminists and liberals who defend prostitution. She emphasised strongly that abolition, not regulation, is the only way to save other women from going through an ordeal such as her. Feminists need to listen to ex prostitutes, because these are the women who truly know 'the cold face of male violence'. She rejected the notion of women freely choosing to be prostitutes, pointing out that 'only if you know the whole life of a woman and you can say for sure she has never been abused, influenced or coerced, could you know that she was really choosing'. She also, chillingly, said that had she been asked while she had been working as a prostitute, she would have defended her profession to the hilt.

In the discussion that followed, the issue of decriminalisation was raised. D Marshall agreed that the bizarre asymmetry in our laws that mean the women are criminalised rather than the men who use them should be reversed, with the criminal burden for prostitution lying solely with men. She rejected the notion that this would drive prostitution further underground, pointing out "If the punters can find the girls, then the police can too." She also emphasised the need for exit strategies for women who find themselves trapped in prostitution. She pointed out that since Sweden adopted a policy which criminalised male use of prostitutes, trafficking to Sweden has dropped significantly - to 1,500 women a year, compared to 10,000 a year in surrounding countries.

D Marshall also questioned how much of a solution legalisation really is, pointing out that since Australia and New Zealand legalised prostitution, human trafficking to these destinations has increased, as has the illegal sex trade. Her question was a fair one - "Is this progress?". She also questioned the legitimising of prostitution through trade unions (which pimps can join, hmmm), saying that it's an insult to call it a job. R Mott agreed that this lends prostitution a respectable air which it does not deserve. She also railed against the notion that prostitution 'isn't as bad' as other soul destroying jobs such as cleaning or working in McDonalds. Only when a cleaner is raped on every shift, or the McDonalds worker gets their head shoved in the deep fat fryer, can you compare them to prostitution she said. Both speakers also said that the legalising of prostitution normalises it as a 'career option', which is a complete fiction. After all, no one wants their daughter to be one, do they?

There was also an interesting side-discussion on how the term 'punters' is not pejorative enough to describe the men who use prostitutes, having a sort of jolly connotation. Although an alternative wasn't really offered (someone proposed simply calling them 'rapists'), R Mott summarised the notion with a very affecting quote.
"Call punters what you like, but call them criminals. It's not normal to be treated like a piece of dirt. It's not normal to think that your only purpose is to be fucked."
Websites and resources from the day:


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