Don’t victimize sex workers.

A SYTYCB entry.

or how to hide your prejudices behind an unnecessary law.

Currently legislators in Northern Ireland are trying to pass a law making it an offence to pay a prostitute for his or her services*. They are lauded for their activities by articles like this one in the Londonderry Sentinel. Lets ignore for a moment it’s reliance on the anecdotal and the throwing around of numbers** without any evidence to support them and look at a few of the more lurid claims.

YOUNG women are being locked in filthy cell-like rooms in Londonderry and forced to have sex with up to 40 men a day, DUP MLA Jim Wells has claimed.

Those women are forced to have sex with 20, 30 or 40 men a day. A representative of the Police Service of Northern Ireland showed a graphic picture of a disgusting, filthy room, which was almost a cell.

On the wall were the marks left by a young woman who had frantically tried to scratch her way out of the living hell that she was in. The police took DNA samples from those scratch marks and were able to identify the woman.

“They know that she was trafficked into Northern Ireland and that she was removed very quickly from that room, but they have no idea whether she is alive or dead.”

It is indeed terrible, almost as if there are no laws against rape, sexual assaultfalse imprisonment or slavery. As if there were not a whole body of legislation already in place to deal with human trafficking.

There are other questions that the well-informed Jim Wells considers. What kind of man (and apparently it is mostly men according to Wells) visits a woman for sex in a filthy cell where she is clearly being held against her will? It seems exceptionally unobservant and stupid men is the answer.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the clients of those sex slaves are men. If those men knew what they were paying for and supporting, they would be ashamed for the rest of their lives.

Which brings me to my first practical objection to the legislation.

These are not average punters.

The average independent  escort in the UK charges between £70 and £100***. Very few men are  going to be willing to pay that for sex with a woman who is neither clean, consenting, enjoying it (or good at faking that enjoyment). The men who visit sex workers are not some different sub species as some seem to believe, but representative of all strata of society, drawn from every age, ethnic group, class and educational back ground. They do not lose the ability to spot when something is wrong at the moment of paying for sex.

So we must assume, and I am afraid this is an assumption as I have been able to find no research on men who visit trafficked sex workers, that those who do pay to have sex with them are not only willing to overlook the obvious nature of their coercion, but pay much less for their services.

Now given this are we to somehow accept that they are willing to ignore the conditions of a trafficked sex worker, and frankly it would be obvious to anyone from Mr Wells’ account, but be deterred by a new law that made it a crime to pay a prostitute? Does that make any sense whatsoever? If they ignore the laws on rape, false imprisonment, and sexual assault how on earth is a new offence of paying a prostitute going to deter them?

The danger to sex workers.

Those campaigning for this law, and there are many, constantly bleat about how they care about women, how they want to protect them. Sex workers already face discrimination when it comes to the reporting and investigation of crimes against them.

All evidence available demonstrates that female sex workers1 are at a far higher risk of violence
than any other group of women. Active sex workers were almost 18 times more likely to be
murdered than women of similar age and race in one study on the mortality rates among sex
The reasons for female sex workers’ vulnerability are complex and manifold; but a belief by the
perpetrators that their attacks and even murders will be underreported to police by prostitutes
or their colleagues and families plays an important role.

from Silence on Violence. March 2012

Against this background work is being done, most notably by the excellent National Ugly Mugs campaign, which gives sex workers the ability to report assaults and spread information quickly. A campaign that is supported by the mainland police. Adding another layer of fear and prejudice, pushing sex workers underground will make them even more isolated. If sex workers do not feel able to approach the police it will mean crimes against them will go unreported and perpetrators will be left in the community to repeat their offences. We need to encourage reporting, not discourage it.

So if this legislation will neither stop sex with trafficked women nor protect sex workers why do the DUP want to bring it in? Why are there a number of groups in Northern Ireland campaigning for it?

Before I give my theory I would like you to read a quote from a Guardian article, on the myth of trafficking.

Research published recently by Dr Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University, concludes that, contrary to public perception, the majority of migrant sex workers have chosen prostitution as a source of “dignified living conditions and to increase their opportunities for a better future while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin”. After detailed interviews with 100 migrant sex workers in the UK, Mai found: “For the majority, working in the sex industry was a way to avoid the exploitative working conditions they had met in their previous non-sexual jobs.

Yes, migrant sex workers differ very little from British born sex workers. They see prostitution as a better way of feeding their kids, paying the bills and affording new school shoes than working on the checkout at Tesco. (Other mind numbing minimum wage jobs are available). How you react to this is based on your moral view of non monogamous sex, and sex work as a legitimate choice. It is not about human trafficking, or protecting women, but whether you believe people have the right to make a living selling sex.

The DUP clearly do not, there is a brilliant analysis here of the theocracy that is Northern Ireland. Now if the voters of NI want to be run by a fundamentalist Christian organisation that is their right. But let’s not dress up this legislation as anything but anti sex worker and anti sex.  The DUP and those who support the change need to be honest about their motives, then we can have an honest debate about what place their views have in the modern world.

* There are of course male and trans gender sex workers, but this seems to be ignored by those supporting this legislation, not a great surprise when NI only legalised homosexuality in 1982.

** Rather than repeat the excellent Dr Magnanti’s various investigations into the myths and lies around trafficking and the industry that has grown up around perpetuating them I suggest you pop over to Sexonomics.

*** OK that’s just from a quick check of the escorts available today on Adult Work. If you know better please leave a comment. Maths isn’t my strong point.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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