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Feminist Current

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Feminist Current was founded by Meghan Murphy, a freelance writer and journalist who has been actively engaged in the feminist blogging community since 2010 and has been producing feminist radio since 2007. Meghan is from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, holds a Masters degree in Women's Studies from Simon Fraser University and is completing a graduate degree at the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism. You can find more of her writing in Ms. Magazine, Herizons Magazine, The Tyee, Megaphone Magazine, Good, and at rabble.ca.

Is this journalism? A response to DiManno and The Toronto Star’s falsification of the prostitution debates

| April 15, 2013

A piece published in the Toronto Star over the weekend may have led you to believe it would, as the headline: “Feminists take opposite stands on prostitution” alludes, explore different feminist positions on prostitution and prostitution law.

The author, Rosie DiManno (“one of the Star’s best and most prolific writers!“), immediately trips all over herself in an attempt to rile up some page views by framing feminist positions on prostitution as “completely oppositional,” following through with a 1300-word story she made up in her head about feminism. Cool story, Rosie! Oh wait, are we pretending this is journalism? Sweet.

As much as the prostitution debates in feminism are divisive, they aren’t “oppositional” (though, I don’t know how many more times I can point this out without feeling like no one really cares to cover these debates accurately). As DiManno may or may not know, the division among feminists (with regard to prostitution law, in any case), is centered around the criminalization of pimps and johns. It’s safe to say that the vast majority (if not all) of feminists advocate to decriminalize prostituted women. It’s also safe to say that all feminists want an end to violence against women, including women working in the sex industry. The value in pointing this out is both to find common ground, because there’s lots of it, but also to avoid falling back on tropes and nonexistant stereotypes. In terms of having this debate with some kind of integrity and with the goal of finding a real and viable path towards equality (which, one would like to presume is a goal of feminism), honesty is useful.

And with that point, the “honesty” one, let’s move back to DiManno. The headline suggests we can expect a fair shake of sorts — a piece that explores two sides of an argument. “Misleading” is a tepid word in this case, as it becomes immediately clear that DiManno’s goal is anything but exploratory, unbiased, or honest. Which isn’t to say I think we must be unbiased in our writing, but rather that it’s reasonable to expect, at very least, some level of truth. Particularly when we are trying to convince our readers we are, indeed, exploring two sides of a debate with integrity. DiManno’s goal, it’s clear, is not only to further divide, but to do so on deceptive ground.

Let’s start at the beginning (maybe take this opportunity to take some Gravol or grab a drink), with DiManno’s explanation of these “dual, completely oppositional feminist perspectives on prostitution”:

"The first operates from a premise that sex for money — the business of prostitutes — is inherently wrong and exploitive. These arguments cleave to a time immemorial moral disapproval, which is why its proponents, though often calling themselves feminists — and by many definitions they indeed are — have a great deal more in common with religious organizations and the family values mob."

OH ROSIE. Let’s try this again. The abolitionist position (is this what we’re talking about? You’ve yet to say exactly WHO it is you are pretending to characterize here) argues that women’s bodies are not things that exist for male use. We argue that women should not have to resort to selling sex in order to survive or to feed their kids. We argue that prostitution exists as a direct result of class, race, and gender inequality. “Moral disapproval” has no more to do with our approach and ideology than socialism is about “moralizing” against the exploitative nature of capitalism. It could be argued that advocating towards an equitable society is about morals, if you believe that equality is “right” and inequality is “wrong”; but I’m pretty sure that’s not where you were going with this. Case-in-point: This line, which claims feminists have “a great deal more in common with religious organizations and the family values mob.”

Well I don’t know, because as an atheist and as a person who rejects the nuclear family model, the institution of marriage, and traditional notions about women’s primary purpose in society as baby-maker, I’ve never felt I had much in common “with religious organizations and the family values mob.” The Christian right doesn’t think prostitution is “bad” because they want an end to male power and to elevate the status of women. They think it’s bad because they believe sex shouldn’t happen outside of marriage or without the purpose of baby-making/maintaining a traditional, heterosexual, patriarchal family. This position is actually “oppositional” (you know that word, right, Rosie?) to the feminist position on, well, everything.

Next paragraph!

At the most radical end of that spectrum, some might even subscribe to the infamous assertion by the late anarchist Andrea Dworkin that “all heterosexual sex is rape’’

It’s high time (and by “high time,” of course, I mean: Clearly none of you give any fucks about accuracy) people stopped misquoting Dworkin on this non-point. You could try actually reading her work, or you could do a quick Google search for: “Dworkin ‘all heterosexual sex is rape.’’’

Go on. I’ll wait.

Ok. Let’s compare notes. You likely came across a number of entries correcting this common (and intentionally, lazily manipulative) misrepresentation/myth. One of those places was likely a Wikipedia entry which clarifies that, while Dworkin was, yes, very critical of heterosexual sex as both the norm and as a potential space for female subordination within the context of a patriarchal society, there is actually no place in the history of ever where she is quoted as saying “all heterosexual sex is rape” (Quick tip for future reference: Quotations often imply that you are quoting someone). Dworkin herself corrected this misinterpretation a number of times over (for example, in this interview from 1995 — That’s over FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, folks! Think it might be time to put this one to rest?), saying things like: “I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality,” and “Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I do not think they need it.” (Again, this information is available via handy Wikipedia! You don’t even have to do any real reading or research to know what you’re talking about — That should please you immensely, Rosie).

So it’s not actually possible to subscribe to a notion that doesn’t exist, for starters and while, yes, there are some anti-PIV feminists, I nor any of the women I work with in the abolition movement believe that “all sex is rape”.

Now, you got the Nordic model mostly right, Rosie (nice one!) — It’s a feminist model that sees prostitution as a product of patriarchy (and capitalism) and, works towards a society where women have other options than to sell sex while simultaneously teaches men that it is not their right to use women’s bodies simply because they have an erection/cash. There is absolutely no argument that can be made to argue that prostitution is not a gendered industry when 80-90% of prostitutes are women. We are all, also, fully aware that the vast, vast majority of clients/johns are men (even when sex is being bought from other men and boys). The Nordic model targets male buyers rather than female prostitutes because of the gendered (and economic) power imbalance. That is also why we call this model a “feminist” one. Violence against sex workers happens at the hands of men, and therefore the focus should be on the perpetrators. You can call that “aggressive” if you like, provided that you admit that you think feminist ideology is somehow “aggressive” and then provide an argument that backs up the notion that working to end the oppression of, and subsequent violence against, women is, somehow “aggressive.”  Be sure to let us all know what you come up with.

Next up: the Bedford v. Canada case.

Bedford v. Canada was initiated by Alan Young. He brought on three women, two of which have aged out of prostitution and are looking to open and brothels, as part of his efforts to challenge Canada’s prostitution laws. Currently the laws in Canada criminalize living on the avails of prostitution (pimping), communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, and running a bawdy house (brothel). On September 28, 2010, Justice Susan Himel ruled for the Ontario Superior Court that these three provisions were unconstitutional and struck them down. That decision was appealed and went on to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

On March 26, 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the bawdy house law, upheld the law criminalizing communication (the law that, in essence, criminalizes women working the streets), and found the “living on the avails” law should apply only in “circumstances of exploitation” (so no real change there as that is, after all, the point of that law).

At this point, the impact of this decision is nil (and would have only had immediate impact on Ontario’s prostitution law, as the laws are decided on a province-to-province basis) and the judgment was appealed and is going on to the Supreme Court of Canada (scheduled for hearing on June 12th, 2013).

DiManno claims that “neither side was happy” with the Court of Appeal’s decision (because it left the communication law intact), but that’s actual bullshit. Both Young and his clients were elated by the decision, calling it a “emancipation day for sex workers” and a “victory.” This is because the primary purpose for the case was not to decriminalize street prostitution, but to legalize brothels. Bedford herself is quoted as saying: “I was mainly concerned with winning the bawdy house law because of what happened to me at Thornhill” (Bedford’s “Bondage Bungalow” in Thornhill, Ontario was raided in 1994 and she was charged with keeping a common bawdy house, which is what lead her to get involved in this case).

DiManno goes on to quote “Jane Doe” who seems to be under the impression that she’s debating someone (evil, imaginary feminists, one might presume?), who says she “rejects outright the moralizing quotient and maintains that keeping solicitation on the books, in fact, furthers violence against women, particularly the most marginalized prostitutes who will continue to work on the streets.”

This statement manipulatively implies that, somehow, there is a “moralistic” faction of feminists who want to criminalize prostitutes, placing the Bedford claimants on the other end of this imagined spectrum which, as noted above, is a lie.

DiManno continues to quote this anonymous person in order to confirm and reinforce all the sweeping and untrue stereotypes she set out to “prove” in the first place — comparing the religious right and radical feminists, and making the mysterious claim that abolitionists believe “prostitution is responsible for all violence against women, but especially sexual assault.”

I will say this again, though I doubt it will stick and imagine I’ll be repeating this for the rest of my life so long as folks like DiManno feel comfortable ignoring facts, research, and ideology; publishing bold-faced lies in order to put forth their arguments (to what end, I have no idea, really, as that which women like DiManno might see as a successful outcome of these misrepresentations — the decriminalization of pimps and johns  — has been proven disastrous): Feminists don’t hate sex, they don’t think prostituted women are “bad,” and they aren’t “anti-sex worker.” Abolitionists are far more “pro-sex” (if you want to call it that), than those who believe sex is something that should happen under duress or out of desperation. You want “enthusiastic consent”? That’s not going to happen under a model that treats prostitution as a social safety net. If a woman needs to give blow jobs to pay her rent or feed her kids, that doesn’t count as “enthusiastic consent” — that counts as having no other choice.

And finally, we come to exit programs. An integral part of any system that wishes to help women leave the sex industry if they desire. Jane Doe says:

What the state offers right now are exit programs. The police arrest you and the woman is given a choice — get charged and go to jail or take this exit program. They’ll teach you how to use a computer, how to put your resumé together, and the ill of your ways. I know what I’d choose between those two. They’re completely ineffective and insulting to adult women. They encourage you to get the job at McDonald’s. Women can do that all by themselves, without exit programs.

So actually no. There are no real exiting programs in Canada. Nothing comprehensive or functional, in any case, if what we’re looking at is actually helping and supporting women who want to leave the industry. And the thing is that, if we legalize or completely decriminalize prostitution, we lose any and all leverage we might have in terms of lobbying the government to allocate money for these kinds of programs because prostitution becomes just a job like any other. Do we provide exiting programs for people who work as massage therapists? Or as waitresses? Do you need an exiting program and years of therapy, drug treatment, retraining, safe housing, and treatment for PTSD when you quit your job at the coffee shop? Nope. Think there might be a reason for that?

In Sweden, one of the progressive countries that’s adopted the Nordic model, when the police come across a john and a prostitute they offer the man the choice of admitting the offense and paying a fine, based on income, or going to court (but then risking publicity). The prostituted woman, “who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.”

If we can all agree, which it seems we can, that “the violence is the problem,’’ then we should also be able to agree that it is the source of that violence that needs to be addressed. There’s some common ground for you.

And to DiManno: Lying and manipulating readers via misguided, misinformed, misrepresentative, anti-feminist diatribes is almost as bad as liberally quoting an anonymous source’s misguided and misinformed lies. I don’t know what the Toronto Star thinks it’s publishing, but it isn’t journalism. It isn’t even an informed opinion. Shame.

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Comments

Hi Julie,

Of course I understand that some women who identify as sex workers want to keep their source of income. But those women don't speak for all women and the choices of a few individual women don't trump the human rights and well-being of all women. That's not how we build equitable societies -- i.e. by prioritzing the individual experiences of a few over the rights of the many and over building an egalitarian society for all.

Regarding your accusations that abolitionist/feminist ideology is "clueless shit", well, I'm not quite sure how to respond to that, as the work we do in the abolitionist movement, advocating for the Nordic model, holds more weight in terms of research, evidence, and ideology, than, for example, DiManno's article, which is full of mistruths and contains zero evidence to back up her claims and yet is being propped up by pro-prostitution folks as valid.

 

Ever speak to current sex workers Megs?

 

Ever heard the protests from the actual sex workers of Sweden?

 

Ever read the data that destructs your preferred theories and the biased abolitionist research on this?

 

Yes Susan, I gave her some credit for having some common sense about the situation on the ground.  I was ignorant there.

 

Yes meghan will spout the same academic non-sexworker, abolitionist-feminist theory clueless shit she always does.  The end.

Susan. I will say the same thing I always do with regards to your comments on and about my pieces: Respond to the points I am actually making. ANY point at all. Simply making sweeping, unrelated comments is purposeless and sure to go nowhere.

-Meghan

it is happening julie, prostitutes are gone....they are missing murdered. placed at risk by actions taken without any consultation with the community affected, sex workers.

there seems to be some sentiment the meghan "knows about the situation on the ground" in canada...as far as i know meghan has done no research, has not engaged with active sex workers to define her opinions...

am i wrong meghan?

that is the very problem isn't it? not only prostitutes should be allowed to talk about prostitution? other woman should be allowed to make decisions which will affect our lives? we don't care how much we twist the data or that the research assertions are based on biased and unethical data....

its a mad, mad world...

Not once, has Meghan been misinformed in her article. Where as, the dispute about the Nordic model, and the Toronto Star saying that abolitioniests take the position of `religious people is SO FALSELY reported!

I think the way Meghan has illustrated what we agree on as Feminists, are so important to remember and anyone who tries to discount that is NOT FEMINIST!

1) We are all in support of decriminalization of women in prostitution and to end discrimination against them.

2) We all want to end violence against women.

3) We all want to end patriarchy (and live in equality - provided the state gives us equal opportunities)

Now as a poor woman and a woman of color, I completely refuse to only let women in sex work industry talk about the prostitution stance. 

Every day, prostitution effects my life, and has tempted me all my life. As a woman who really understands how marginalized I am, and some of the privilieges I may have - I want MORE for my life.

I demand to no longer be fetishized for my race! I demand the state to offer me more jobs! I demand to be paid higher. I demand more money for welfare, so that if I happened to lose a job, I have a safety net. I demand affordable housing. But mostly, I demand an affordable educatiion and more acceptance for women in trades. 

I think we need to pick our battles, and the hardest battles to fight are the ones that demand more from our state. 

Julie --

"Criminalizing men and WOMYN simply for being clients is archaic."

Some of the most progressive, equitable countries in the world have adopted the Nordic model.

"It criminalizes our job thereby keeping us in the exact position we are in NOW."

Well, no. Evidence shows that legalization only opens the market up to traffickers and organized crime. What is happening now, with regard to violence and exploitation, in Canada and the U.S. is unacceptable. Decriminalizing the women will most certainly have a positive impact, and criminalizing the perpetrators of violence is necessary if we want to effect change in that regard. Certainly the situation in places like Sweden and Norway has changed drastically since the implementation of the Nordic model.

"The end-demand bullshit only continues this pathetic and harmful legacy....as you already know."

But the evidence shows otherwise... Legalization and full decriminalization perpetuates inequity and exploitation. It seems as though you may have gotten your facts backwards...

Best,
Meghan

Criminalizing men and WOMYN simply for being clients is archaic.

It criminalizes our job thereby keeping us in the exact position we are in NOW.

We are INDIRECTLY CRIMINALIZED already.  We are fighting this.

The end-demand bullshit only continues this pathetic and harmful legacy....as you already know.

No one wants to reduce the harm and criminalization of sex work more than sex workers (you call us the "prostituted" another abolitionist spin)

Thanks for the harm.

Thanks for ignoring us.

We will take the lead in our own lives savior-queen.

Rights NOT Rescue!

Nothing about US without US - unless your abolitionist feminists.

I think that DiManno's piece is superfluous and simplistic. The points you made here are a valid response supported by your knowledge of facts and of what is really happening right now here in Canada. It is true that there are different approaches to this issue from the different interested parties, but I think that within feminist groups we can all agree that violence is indeed the problem. Differences start to appear on how to tackle it within the sex trade, if this is just a synonym for human trafficking and so on.

So where do the issues of equal rights and stopping violence against women divert when it comes to prostitution? I think this is a fundamental question here, because for some women, a very selective few I would say, the sex trade is a choice, they opt to use their bodies for profit. For other women, the vast majority unfortunately, it is the lack of choice that leads them to it. Absence of opportunities is one of the reasons, if not the most important one, why most women enter prostitution, and it is fuelled by their class, their race and how we are practising capitalism. This is why the Nordic Model makes sense, because it tackles both education and exit strategies, as well as focusing on punishing the “johns” and pimps instead of women.

Decriminalization as it is being proposed in the Bedford v. Canada case is not enough in order to protect prostitutes from violence. But I think it could be a very small step in the right direction as long as we force the government to create concrete exit strategies for the women that needs them.

 

Hi Julie,
What feminists advocate to criminalize prostituted women? Can you provide an example? It's difficult for me to understand how criminalizing male buyers equates to criminalizing women, as it has an entirely different impact. In Sweden, for example, it has given women more power in the situations as the johns know they could easily be charged if they don't conduct themselves respectfully....
- Meghan

More blustering abolitionist bullshit from meghan:

"the division among feminists (with regard to prostitution law, in any case), is centered around the criminalization of pimps and johns. It’s safe to say that the vast majority (if not all) of feminists advocate to decriminalize prostituted women".

LIES!

As a sex worker and a feminist I guarantee this is a lie.  They fight to keep our jobs criminalized by fighting to criminalize the clients. This keeps us underground.  They fight the words and will of actual sex workers in their war on prostitution.  We want our co-workers (drivers, phone people, security etc.) decriminalized.  When we choose to work at agencies they say we work for pimps.  We want clients!!!!  They don't want us to have any.  Their goal is to kill our jobs.  That's it. Why are there NO current sex workers EVER on their side???  Because we want these jobs.  

Indirect criminalization is what we are fighting in the first place.  Selling sex has never been illegal in Canada but the means to make it safe -bawdy houses (indoor spaces), avails (working with others) and communicating (screening) are illegal.  While we fight to decriminalize these things -the abolitionists fight us.  They should be listening to us.  They don't.

This is why sexworkers disagree with abolitionists.  They will risk our well-being in a heart-beat to adhere to thier ideology.  Many feminists are on our side and respect our autonomy and choices even if they don't agree with our decisions.  The abolitionists want prostitution gone and prostitutes along with it.  Not Happening!

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