I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic, because I know it is so sensitive and I am, quite frankly, afraid of putting a foot wrong just to speak my mind.
It is something I am undecided on, and that I find it so difficult to be decided on. I figure it’s partly a good thing, as it maybe means I’m more open to listening than on topics where I have vehement opinions.
Feminism in London (2015) took a stance on the issue by giving a platform to women who support the Nordic model, including ex-sex workers, and women who have been trafficked. When I saw this, although I didn’t agree with 100% of the methods, I was completely convinced.
At Women of the World this year, they showed both sides through performance, but didn’t try to have a panel on it (due to past occurrences I think). In turn, this meant it didn’t take a position on the issue. And I got the impression that Founder and Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, didn’t really know where she stood on this matter either.
I recently watched this video below and I couldn’t recommend it more.
It runs through the following options when thinking about sex work and legality:
-Full criminalisation: seller, buyer, third parties.
-Partial crimination: selling and buying legal, but other activities (e.g. selling on streets, in brothels) banned.
-Nordic model: criminalising buyer, not the seller.
-Legalisation: all legal!
And what do sex workers want? Decriminalisation.
One of the issues FiL picked on with this, was how it differs to legalisation, and they argued that it doesn’t (but have a read of this). Whilst I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for people trafficked into sex work – including one speaking at this event – Toni Mac makes a good point that people are trafficked into other industries and nobody calls for a ban on the entire industry itself. But then again, I read that 95% of victims of trafficking are forced into sex work. Needless to say that most of these people are women. So, it shows that this is to do with women’s position in society; the fact that it’s a gendered issue is obviously going to provoke ideas that all sex work is a form of violence against women. But some women do choose it, so where do they fit in? Often people point out the issue with capitalism and that sex work is simply another form of exploitation. It begs the question of whether it matters whether its sex work or not.
What I find difficult may be a process of unlearning. As much as I don’t want to add to the stigma against sex workers, I am uncomfortable with what I have heard about legalisation in Germany, where sex has been marketed within a deal where you also get a beer and a hot dog, dehumanising the women involved. That this advertising will be seen with young children, that on family tours these children will see themselves reflected differently. I really hope that decriminalisation won’t mean the same thing happening. As someone who works with young people, I can’t see myself promoting sex work as a viable career choice to those that I work with, especially when wanting to encourage young women not to limit themselves or see themselves as objects. Women are already objects in advertising for tech job recruitment and more, so how, in an unequal society, with women making up a majority of sex workers, can we make progress so that fewer women are exploited for their bodies?
For me, sex work is like no other work, which is what makes it so difficult to get my head around. However, if this is to do my relationship with sex as an act that is uniquely intimate, then perhaps what is needed is better understanding, more voices from sex workers, about the work they do and how they negotiate it with other aspects of their lives. At FiL I heard statistics about the mental processes of sex work, the disassociation, that it takes 3-7 years for sex workers to see themselves as being exploited, that many will tell themselves they enjoy their job etc. It is also where I heard the term “prostituted women” and thought I understood the phrase, only then to read something that argued that by saying that of all sex workers, you take away their agency.
Part of what I’m uneasy about is the idea that if we decriminalise sex work, that we are accepting that we can’t do anything about its existence. FiL argued “we don’t want a reform, we want a revolution.” But when that revolution appears to be impossible, it seems to make sense to do whatever it takes to protect those most in danger of suffering at the hands of these four failed models. After all, Toni Mac states that “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things, but it makes a huge difference as to whether they’re safe when they do them.”
She goes on to say that “you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence.” You simply can’t disagree with this statement because so much of this is cultural, and changing attitudes is massively challenging. I can see everyday with my work with children how ingrained sexism and misogyny (as well as so much more) is on this young people. Again, Toni Mac makes a very powerful point about the question “Would you want your daughter doing it?” which has been my thoughts, not necessarily in terms of my daughter, who doesn’t yet exist, but more about the young women with whom I work. But Toni Mac turns it around and gets you to imagine that she’s already doing it, asking “How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?”
New Zealand is the only place that has decriminalisation in place, written in collaboration with sex workers, and I guess all we can do is see what happens and hope we finally have a solution. So far, things seem to be working well. I admit, I have been guilty of seeing sex workers as either victim or privileged, and this post itself definitely isn’t perfect. But I’m trying to understand, and where I can, to learn about sex work from all voices who have the experience to speak; I will listen and try to be a better ally.
“If you care about gender equality, or poverty or migration or public health, then sex workers’ rights matter to you.”
The other week I wanted to show Bande de Filles aka Girlhood, to 6th Form students in order to get them to come along to the Feminist Club. They had been keen after having Feminista UK coming in to run a workshop with them. Sadly, my efforts at putting colour-posters up, guying popcorn and even buying the DVD specifically to show the film were wasted at this time. It was rather depressing to hear the music at the start repeat in an empty classroom. I guess they’re overworked. And as an English Mentor, I keep giving them extra reading to do as it is!
I’ve been writing for The Norwich Radical for a year now, where I look at the arts through a feminist lens. Girlhood was a film I highlighted for its Feminist credentials. So, I thought this would be an opportune time to highlight the articles I’ve written thus far. You can get a whole list by clicking here.
Last weekend it was WOW festival at the Southbank Centre. I got a weekend pass, despite being at work on the Friday and having lots of poetry things to do (events and workshops with the Burn After Reading Collective and the Roundhouse Collective). On Friday I also got the chance to go to ‘Poetry Live!’ I felt the same as I did when I was younger, and the teachers and pupils felt the same; Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke are great on page, but I’m not keen on their delivery style, and I felt it really didn’t cater to a young age group, where some things would need explaining further in order to know what they were talking about. It picked up with Simon Armitage, and I tried to enjoy Imtiaz Dharker amongst the other noisy school children in my row. Grace Nichols and John Agard were the favourites, and Benjamin Zephaniah wasn’t there as a surprise guest like when I was at school.
I went to a discussion between Jude Kelly and actress Maxine Peak, which centred around the world of acting but branched out. It was really interesting and I think it was there where we vowed to complain more actively about the things we don’t like, for example the lack of women on panel shows. I’m going to have to start adding letters of complaint and to my ever-growing to-do list as it is a simple way to be active, and if enough people did it, it could make a change. Meanwhile, the odd tweet will help things along.
I met up with Ruth, a fellow Burn After Reading poet, and we watched a bit of Lyrically Challenged before making our way to The Gallery Cafe. I felt each performer got better as it went along, and I preferred them when they had the musical backing as I thought it suited their style more and they were stronger together. The beats in the background added to the rhythm of their voices working together.
I was sad to miss the first session of the day, and the first talk I went to was ‘Cyber Bullying’. I was disturbed and upset seeing Caroline Criado-Perez’s slideshows of abusive tweets; the violent language, misogyny and clear threats (e.g. posting her address) and hearing about Ava Vidal’s having had lynch threats, and online abuse turning physically threatening and having to run for her life. I came to this talk because I work at a school, and what I thought is that I need to explore language more with my students and not just tell them things are wrong. The sad thing is, these conversations are increasingly being seen as ‘dead time’ and my role exists purely to help students get their C-grades. After finding out that it is mostly young girls that use words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ against each other casually, it has made me feel it is my duty to weave in some Feminism into my lesson plans somehow. In terms of how to deal with cyber abuse, the jury is out. It is about judgement, how much time you have and your mental and physical capacity to engage. Sometimes you need to respond directly, other times you should ignore and respond only on a platform such as a blog like this, and other times, for your own sanity, you need to ignore it. Useful campaigns may take place on Twitter (too large a force to boycott unless a viable alternative is presented, after all, women leaving Twitter will just mean that we are silenced in another area of our daily life), such as #twitterallowsabuse and #twitterissexist so that we can spread awareness and show Twitter negatively for not being active enough (for example, not providing evidence in court cases).
The next talk I went to was ‘In the Classroom’ where a panel of 11-17 year olds were in conversation with a teacher from Mulberry School (sounded so much better than my school). Although it was horrible to hear how prevalent sexual harassment is in schools, it was inspiring to hear such young women participate in Feminism. I asked a question about the dangers of some of the girls where I work wearing the hijab, less for religious reasons, and more for its confusion for being about modesty, with girls saying they see it as a uniform they put on so that boys don’t think they are ‘bad’, therefore as a way of disuading them from sexually harassing them. This idea reinforces the virgin/whore dichotomy and the misogynistic misconception that a woman is ever “asking for it” with what she wears. I was afraid of asking the question, in case Aneesa thought I was assuming anything about her own reasons for wearing the hijab, but she responded with an articulate plea to show girls that they can be whoever they want to be, and to explore issues within relationships between boys and girls.
Lastly, I went to the highlights, where poet Anthony Anaxagorou made a great point about the hierarchy of offensive comments in schools in terms of how they are dealt with. It made me reflect on my own actions and how even as a woman an a feminist, I haven’t treated the sexist comments as seriously as racist or homophobic comments. The ‘why’ is certainly something to think about here, and partly goes along with the idea that if you complain about sexism, it wouldn’t be taken as seriously by SLT etc. which is an unfair assumption. In the same way, some of us seem to accept comments like the ones made from Dappy on Celebrity Big Brother (I had heard about this stuff but I hadn’t actually seen any until now); we complain about it on various social media, but often the action that is needed is not taken because of this hierarchy that Anthony was talking about.
Although I think Anthony is great (check out his political night Out-Spoken), I wasn’t sure about his comment about ‘where do boys go?’ in relation to Feminism, because I believe that they need to learn through Feminism so they know that it is not something that is against them, but it is something that fights for their right to be who they are and who they want to be. I highly recommend this book after seeing Michael Kaufman a couple of times: The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. There are also more books that could be useful in terms of this discourse. That said, I agree it’s not so easy to find, because when you type in “men and feminism” into Amazon, you need to decipher the useful books from the misogynistic ones (and the ones that say they aren’t, but are). Maybe the lack of these books is because of social conditioning, some men only seem to care about these issues when they are about men, for instance, when texting my friend he said he would be interested in going to Being a Man at Southbank, but not Women of the World… whilst I was more interested in BAM than my boyfriend. #whataboutthemenz
Caroline Bird also gave us an insight into the Under-10 Feminists group, which sounded fabulously inspiring, and Shami told us of the importance of legal aid, from her talk ‘State Failure: Human Rights Principles’. There really is too much to include in one post, so I must highly recommend both BAM and WOW.
A quick note of what I was able to go to on Sunday before I went to my poetry workshop. I decided to attend the Funny Women comedy workshop. It was very popular and I didn’t get to share anything, but as much as it would have been good to get up in front of everyone in terms of totally getting out of my comfort zone, the women who did were great and I spoke to a few nice people, including Lynne Parker (the workshop leader) and the stall holders downstairs. Then I went to the workshop/discussion on body image – The Personal is Still Political #ownyourbody. Here I found that 35% of girls have dieted by the age of SEVEN. Not only is the age shocking for anyone, but from someone who has never dieted, it is even more so. But, perhaps most women will find that confession about myself shocking, considering that 9/10 women diet. That said, the biggest reason for me not dieting is not because I have amazing body confidence, but because I like chocolate too much and I have always known it’s stupid and ineffective (93% of dieters regain the weight). Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; girls and women are literally starving themselves to death. In this talk, I spoke to a lovely woman who I regretted not keeping in contact with as I went off. It was a weekend of honesty, and despite the statistics and evidence, sometimes you just need some human encounters.
Listen Softly London
My next gig is on Wednesday 19th March at Listen Softly London: Take Stock – A Celebration Of Pen Wielding Women, where I will be performing alongside Sara Hirsch, Ollie O’Neil, Fran Lock and Loren Kleinman. I will be bringing my best Feminist poetry to explore issues of body image, gender roles and rape culture. I haven’t blogged in ages and this has taken me over two hours to write, so I am going to post away and hope to see you next week!