Taking Ideology to the Streets: Sex Work and How to Make Bad Things Worse
In many ways, Dana fits the profile. She’s a twentysomething woman with a drug addiction. She was abused in childhood and her partner is occasionally violent towards her. They’re in and out of homeless accommodation, and she works on the street to fund both their habits. You could hold her up as an example of someone who does not want to do sex work, and you’d be right. You could score points with her story. You could insinuate that anybody who rejects total eradication of the sex industry simply doesn’t care about her. And that’s pretty much what the campaigners were doing when they lobbied for the criminalisation of her clients.
It’s late 2007, and the Scottish Parliament recently passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act, outlawing kerb-crawling. Dana’s clients are now breaking the law. If she worked indoors, this would not (yet) be the case, but she doesn’t; she wishes she could, she knows she’d be safer indoors, but most brothel managers don’t take too kindly to injecting drug users, plus it would be hard to hold down structured shifts given how each day and night is defined by the search for heroin. The law change hasn’t caused her to pack up and go home (what home?); instead, it has complicated and compounded an already difficult situation.
As I make her a cup of hot chocolate and count out free condoms, Dana takes a seat, tells me about last night. She waited on the streets for hours, frequently changing location in order to avoid police attention. The boyracers were out as usual, yelling abuse and throwing eggs as they sped by. She was rattling – experiencing heroin withdrawal. Gradually, the few remaining clients wore her down, and she agreed to do business with them for less than the usual price. She was out so long that she missed her hostel’s curfew and had to stay out until five in the morning; tried to sleep in a bus shelter. It’s late 2007 in Scotland, and the streets are cold.
“I used to complain about having to come out here to work,” she says. “I had nothing to complain about compared to now.” And this is the statement that sticks with me, a statement so simple and yet so clear, a statement which demonstrates that, despite how Dana’s supposed advocates, her would-be protectors – anti-prostitution campaigners – characterise sex work and how she experiences it, Dana herself knows the difference between a bad situation and a worse one. She is now in the latter. The support organisation I work for is severely underfunded (just over a year from now, it will be forced to cease service provision altogether). Waiting lists for drug treatment are lengthy, and missing an appointment, no matter how valid the reason, can land someone back at the end of the queue. When women like Dana are stopped by the police, sympathetic treatment is not something they can expect: it’s just a lottery. There’s a serial rapist going around, but even though the women know about it, some of them are taking their chances with him anyway because there are so few clients to choose from. Maybe he’ll just be a bit rough, they rationalise. His behaviour escalates.
Those whose primary goal is to ‘send a message’ are worlds away from these women on the street. Their prioritisation of ideology over safety speaks volumes about their own motivations. It’s one thing if they simply don’t understand the practical repercussions of passing laws such as this one, although it’s too important an issue to excuse a lack of research – these are people’s lives we’re talking about here. But it’s quite another thing if their ignorance is a conscious decision, if they reject concerns not because those concerns are found to be invalid but simply because those concerns are raised by people they don’t want to hear from, including sex workers themselves. Those concerns interfere with a simplistic agenda which, in allowing no room for the nuances of real life, is set to fail. Harmful legislation is steamrollered through by people who block out dissenting voices and allow their supporters to believe there are no dissenting voices, or that those voices are dissenting only because they would rather see women ‘bought and sold’. This sorry state of affairs does no favours for the people they talk about helping.
It’s a cold grey morning on the Grassmarket, a few years before the introduction of the kerb-crawling legislation. The Swedish delegation is in town and I’m attending their presentation in a hotel function room. The usual stuff: prostitution is violence against women, it needs to be abolished, etc. A woman gets up, explains that she made an informed choice to do sex work, and then leaves the room. After she’s gone, Gunilla Ekberg, ambassador for the Swedish model of criminalising clients, says that she doesn’t believe any woman would really choose prostitution, but that if it’s true, it doesn’t matter anyway because they’re only a minority.
I’m still kind of new to these formal settings and these important bigshots who speak with an air of authority. I’m probably the youngest person in the room and I feel too intimidated to say anything. I wonder whether anybody else notices what’s wrong with this picture.
Afterwards, I walk up the street with a middle-aged feminist who I know from a previous project. We see eye to eye on most things, I guess, but now my focus is sex work and that changes things somewhat. I outline some basics of harm reduction to her. She finds it interesting, but I’m not sure if she files it anywhere practical. Instead, she says, “But at the end of the day, you wouldn’t want your daughter doing it, would you?”
Quiz: Your daughter is doing sex work. Please pick the best option from this limited range.
a) Criminalise her clients, increasing her risk of experiencing abuse, violence and exploitation, and likely incurring her to do business with more clients in order to make up for a fall in prices, while disrupting support networks and making it harder for her to leave the sex industry.
b) Ensure she works in an environment in which she is empowered to make her own decisions, to turn down clients and sexual acts as she sees fit, to access help from services, and to be taken seriously as someone who knows what her own essential needs are.
c) It’s too horrible to contemplate. Just don’t think about it.
In my angrier moments, I think: You want an emotive argument? Well-intentioned people are backing laws that lead desperate women to get into cars with known rapists. Anti-prostitution activists say that prostitution is violence in and of itself, as if the levels of violence experienced by sex workers cannot rise or fall, as if the scene has always been as violent as it has been post-2007. But it hasn’t, and the women on the streets know this.
“Who are these fucking interfering bitches? Are they going to feed my kids?” demands Sandra. In conjunction with the Swedish visit, the criminalisation of clients was promoted on a Scottish radio programme today, discussed as a worthwhile goal. Sandra is outraged at the notion that what she needs most is to have her business taken away. She’s seen it all and doesn’t take shit from anybody. She’s kicked drug addiction but remains working on the streets, preferring to keep all the money she makes rather than handing a portion of her earnings over to a receptionist. With her wealth of experience, she’d have a lot of insights to share if anybody in power was willing to listen. As a non-drug user, she’s in a minority on the streets, but she’s still real.
To introduce a law without any risk assessment, and then walk away, is no victory for women’s rights.
This attitude is what I struggle to get my head around in 2008 when I take part in a Q&A following a screening of Lilya 4-Ever. I describe the effects of the kerb-crawling legislation and the Swedish model, and their very real and negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety. “There are fewer clients and the ones who stick around are more likely to be violent and to demand services that the sex workers previously refused to provide. The clients want to avoid police attention, and the sex workers need to adapt to the clients’ wishes, so they go into more isolated environments. If they’re on the street, they no longer have time to spare to negotiate with clients, which would provide an opportunity to assess them before making a decision; they need to get straight into the cars and they need to go. They have less opportunity to share safety information with their colleagues, and it’s harder for outreach agencies to make contact with them.” I pause for breath; this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“So you’re saying it is possible to reduce demand?” asks a middle-aged woman in front of me, leaning forward.
For a moment, I’m speechless. And then, having grown up with the idea that when you’re asked a question, you should answer it, I stumble through a “yes”. I probably say more, but when I try to remember it afterwards, it’s a little hazy. “Yes, but” something. All the same, I kick myself for a long time. I should not have engaged on her terms. I should not have allowed her to reduce something as fundamental as women’s safety to the black and white issue of a goal based on ideology.
Yes, but it is not okay to condemn sex workers to increased levels of abuse.
Yes, but if you think reducing demand is more important than reducing harm, you need to keep the fuck out of this.
Yes, but I can’t believe you displayed such a lack of empathy in front of all these people, and I can’t believe that they are not reacting with horror.
The concerns of Dana, Sandra and their colleagues are not considered particularly important when the Scottish Parliament decides what’s best for them. (The concerns of their indoor-based counterparts, representing around 90% of Scotland’s sex industry, are likewise set to be ignored if MSP Rhoda Grant’s proposal to criminalise all purchasing of sex gets the green light.) Routinely, the voices of sex workers and allies are shut out by campaigners, policy makers and feminist groups. Words like choice, empowerment and representative are used to score points and to discredit. Labels like sex worker versus prostituted woman are fought over alongside differing perceptions of objectification, agency, victimhood. But regardless of which words are given centre stage, women continue to work on the streets and indoors. Some of them make an informed decision. Some of them want out. Some of them have short-term goals that they want to meet before they’ll be ready to consider leaving the sex industry. And none of them have their needs met by legislation like this. All of them are endangered by it, and those with the fewest available options – women like Dana – are endangered the most. There is lack of exposure to the full story, and then there is rejection of that story: there is wilful ignorance. Caring and criminalisation cannot coexist, and this is made all the more apparent when those who push for the latter in the name of the former refuse to consider what happens next.