120 Questions for Amnesty

Download PDF of this article.

On 24 August 2015, I published What Amnesty Did Wrong in which I laid out many errors that Amnesty made in developing its proposal for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of “consensual sex work”. This proposal had been passed as a resolution at a meeting of the International Council in Dublin two weeks earlier (referred to as “the resolution” in this article).

In September, members of an internal Amnesty USA discussion forum requested that Amnesty USA respond to all of the points that I raised in that article. On 22 September 2015, Terry Rockefeller replied to the forum on “behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee” declining to respond to the article because it was “filled with errors and rumors”. She failed to explain who made the errors or what she consider to be rumours. I believe Amnesty needs to clarify this. In order to make it easier for Amnesty to answer the points I raised, I have reframed them as simple questions and include additional questions that arise from Terry Rockefeller’s reply. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list.

Continue reading “120 Questions for Amnesty”

Amnesty’s Response

Download PDF of this article.

On 24 August 2015, I published What Amnesty Did Wrong, in which I laid out many errors that Amnesty made in developing its proposal for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of “consensual sex work”. This proposal had been passed as a resolution at a meeting of the International Council in Dublin two weeks earlier (referred to as “the resolution” in this article).

In September, members of an internal Amnesty USA discussion forum requested that Amnesty USA respond to all of the points that I raised in that article. Below is a response from Terry Rockefeller to the forum on “behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee”, followed by a few observations of my own.

Continue reading “Amnesty’s Response”

What Amnesty Did Wrong

At a meeting in Dublin on 11 August 2015, Amnesty International’s International Council adopted a resolution to authorise their International Board to develop and adopt a policy on “sex work”. Here is a quote from their press release:

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.

The resolution recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

“We recognize that this critical human rights issue is hugely complex and that is why we have addressed this issue from the perspective of international human rights standards. We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world,” said Salil Shetty.” [emphasis mine]

The resolution calls not only for the decriminalisation all those involved in prostitution (which all feminist groups call for) but also for the decriminalisation of pimps, punters and brothel owners who are the main perpetrators of the violence and abuse against those in prostitution. This proposal is essentially for the legalisation of prostitution and the entire sex trade. (You can quibble about semantics but when something is not criminal it becomes legal.)

How Amnesty International went about developing this proposal and consulting on it was problematical. In this article I summarise some of the issues. Many others have written eloquently on why the policy itself is misguided (for example, Chris Hedges, Michelle Kelly and Catriona Grant). In this article I focus on the duplicitous nature of Amnesty’s actions. Please use the comments to add additional relevant information.

Continue reading “What Amnesty Did Wrong”

On Choice, Agency and the Nordic Model

Choice and Agency

One of the criticisms that regularly gets directed at feminists who critique prostitution is that we are denying the “choice” or “agency” of the women because they have “freely chosen” prostitution. This is disconcerting when it comes from our leftwing comrades, because (a) they don’t accuse us of denying the “choice” or “agency” of workers who are trapped on zero-hour contracts when we critique those, for example, and (b) it echoes the neoliberal argument that justifies zero-hour contracts and other exploitative practices by saying the workers choose them and so to criticise those practices is to deny the workers their “choice” and “agency”.

We don’t buy that neoliberal argument in any other arena. Because it is completely obvious to all of us, I am sure, that critiquing zero-hour contracts is not a criticism of the workers on them. We understand that many workers have few options and most people who accept zero hour contracts do so because they don’t actually have much choice or social or economic power.

So why is it that when we point out that most women in prostitution are there because of a lack of options rather than a real choice (between, say, prostitution and a nice job in banking, nursing or IT), are we accused of attacking those women’s “agency”?

Continue reading “On Choice, Agency and the Nordic Model”

Euphemisms are dangerous

Ruthless people love euphemisms because they obscure the truth. So the inevitable and predictable deaths of civilians and the destruction of civil amenities in war are hidden behind the innocuous term “collateral damage” and genocide is hidden behind the bland “ethnic cleansing” and so on. Euphemisms are dangerous because they make it harder for us to see and understand the abuses of the powerful. And if we can’t see and understand something, we have no hope of resisting it.

But not only this. Euphemisms also make it easier for us to go along with something that we would know was wrong if it were named honestly. For example, it’s much easier to get a soldier to kill a member of a different community if they are told they are cleaning up society than if it were named correctly as murder.

“Sex work” and “sex worker”

“Sex work” and “sex worker” are euphemisms. These terms were first coined in the late 1970s and were taken up as part of a deliberate attempt to normalise and sanitise prostitution. By shifting the language from the word “prostitution” which is ugly and conjures up something of its reality, to “sex work” which sounds wholesome and healthy, it has become harder for us all to see and understand and resist the reality. The reality that prostitution is not simply another job like being a waitress.

Continue reading “Euphemisms are dangerous”

The Creation of Feminist Consciousness by Gerda Lerner

I wrote these notes about The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to Eighteen Seventy by Gerda Lerner some years ago and thought I’d publish them here because her message is still relevant. This book is a follow up to her earlier book, The Creation of Patriarchy.

Through a meticulous and inspiring look at the writings of women from the middle ages, Gerda Lerner traces the emergence of feminist consciousness. She apologises for looking mainly at Western Europe but explains that is a reflection of her expertise and wish to make the project manageable more than anything else.

These are the main general themes that I noticed:

1. From the beginning of patriarchy, every philosophical system has defined women as inferior and marginal. For thousands of years women’s subhuman-ness was taken as a given without question or any need for explanation.

She illustrates this powerfully with her account of the development of the American Constitution, which included much debate about the issue of Indian men, male indentured servants, etc. but maintained utter and total silence on the issue of women (p8-9). Aristotle used the marriage relationship to justify slavery and she says “more remarkable than Aristotle’s misogynistic construction is the fact that his assumptions remained virtually unchallenged and endlessly repeated for nearly two thousand years.”

Continue reading “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness by Gerda Lerner”

Prostitution – Time for a New Paradigm

Why do women fear rape?

Sex is great, right?

Rape is sex and sex is great. So why do women almost universally fear rape and go to lengths to avoid it?

Is it because they are prudes?

Is it because they just need a good fuck to loosen up?

Is it? Is it?

No.

Rape is sex against a woman’s will[1]. And there is no easier way of showing her that she is powerless. That she is dirt. That she is a member of female – the subordinate sex caste – and she should remember it. And the rapist is a man – a member of the dominant sex caste. And she shouldn’t ever forget that either.

To force sex on someone is an assault on that person’s very humanity. Because our sexuality is intrinsic to who we are as human beings. Our sexual integrity is fundamental to our sense of self.

So when our sexual integrity is violated, our whole sense of self is violated. And recovery from that is easier said than done.

That is why women fear rape. And also of course because rapists sometimes kill.

Continue reading “Prostitution – Time for a New Paradigm”

What is a woman?

Again and again I hear people criticise women generally, and feminists in particular, for not accepting transwomen as “real” women and for “excluding” them. Trans people are oppressed, they say, and these so-called exclusionary behaviours and attitudes create the dogma behind this oppression just as racism is the dogma behind the oppression of Black people. It is misguided, they say, and dangerous and is called transphobia, which makes you, me, anyone who doesn’t agree with them, a bigot who deserves to go to hell with all fascists and racists.

But when feminists try to explain that of course they oppose all discrimination and violence against trans people, but there are issues that are complicated that we need to look at, discuss, understand, it seems that our accusers won’t listen. (Not that this is a surprise – not listening to women is, after all, a major characteristic of male supremacy.) In this essay I try to explain some of these issues by drawing on my own personal experiences in the feminist understanding that the personal is political – that patriarchy is a political system and it operates in the personal sphere. And without examining the personal sphere, we cannot fully understand the system. I have changed names and minor details because my points are political and I do not want to identify or mean to criticise any of the other individuals involved.

1. The sleepover

Some time ago a progressive organisation I belong to held a weekend event in London and asked members who live there to offer overnight accommodation to people from out of town. I offered my spare room and shortly afterwards I got an email saying that someone called Frankie would be staying and would contact me to make the arrangements. Sure enough, Frankie phoned and asked if it would be possible to stay on the Friday night as well as the Saturday. I agreed and gave him my address and directions. After I put the phone down, I wondered if it had been a mistake to not specify a woman. Never mind, I thought, my housemates will be there – three of us to one of him. What can go wrong?

Continue reading “What is a woman?”

Feminist Primer

Systems of oppression

“Karl Marx was one of the first theorists to explain that ideology is not a free-floating set of ideas, but rather a coherent system of beliefs that are purposely and carefully created by the elite class to promote their interests. Using their ownership of key cultural institutions, the elite then set about distributing these ideas until they become the dominant ways of thinking.” (Huffington Post 2014)

Feminism is not about demonising men – it is about understanding systems of oppression so that we can change them. So what do we mean by a “system of oppression”? A system of oppression is a set of interrelated forces that press down on people who belong to one group (such as women or people of colour) and effect their subordination to another group (such as men or white people).

One of the key characteristics of life as oppressed people experience it is the double bind. This limits the options that are available to a person in such a way that each option exposes the person to penalty, censure, or deprivation. For example, if a young woman is sexually active, she risks being called a “slut” and is considered unworthy of respect. But if she is not sexually active, she is likely to be called “frigid” or “uptight” and to be harassed by men to “loosen up”. If an older woman dyes her hair and wears makeup, she is ridiculed for “trying too hard”, but if she doesn’t, she “has let herself go”. If a woman goes back to work after giving birth, she is plagued by judgement that she is an inadequate, unnatural mother. If she gives up work, she is plagued by suggestions that she “sits around all day doing nothing”, is a gold-digger sponging off her husband (if she has one) or a scrounger on the state (if she doesn’t). And if anything goes wrong, it’s always her fault, no matter who was actually responsible. And so on. On and on.

Continue reading “Feminist Primer”

Trade Unions and Prostitution

In 1977 a Swedish project was launched to discover the everyday reality of prostituted women’s lives. Researchers interviewed hundreds of women, johns and pimps. What they found exploded the old Victorian myths that prostitution resulted from a biological urge in men and a mental defect in the women. Instead they found it was something that men do to women with tragic consequences. Around the same time feminists, such as Kathleen Barry and Andrea Dworkin, in the United States and elsewhere were making a powerful analysis of pornography and prostitution as key elements in the systematic subordination of women. As a result the sex industry had a serious image problem on its hands.

This article aims to provide an insight into the ways in which the sex industry fought back. One of these being the use of the idea of prostitutes unions to give itself legitimacy. I draw on research and arguments by Kajsa Ekman in her excellent book, Being and Being Bought. Ekman shows that in almost every case these so-called unions are facades put up by those with vested interests – some of them pimps and others who exploit the prostitution of others, some of them johns and some of them people who, for various reasons, have carved out a niche for themselves promoting the industry. Continue reading “Trade Unions and Prostitution”