Sex imperialism

Let me take that off you: Oprah's liberation strip show

Let me take that off for you: Oprah’s liberation strip show

In early 2001, Oprah Winfrey made a famous appearance at Madison Square Garden, for “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s enormous, $1000-a-ticket benefit for feminism. What happened is etched in many memories (there were cheaper seats, too), but I’ll let Ms. Magazine describeOprah performed “Under the Burqa,” a kind of inverted “Over the Rainbow” about a foreign land:

a heart-wrenching, spine-tingling story written by Ensler to personify the daily terror and misery of women’s lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh gender apartheid rule. Oprah Winfrey gave an “Oscar-winning” performance to the piece as she described women in Afghanistan crying out in pain with no one to hear or acknowledge their suffering, because in Afghanistan life for women under the brutal Taliban hardly exists. An Afghan woman wearing the all-inhibiting burqa appeared as vocal sounds of pain and agony filled Madison Square Garden.

The woman crept up behind Oprah over the stage. As the audience gasped over the misery-murmurs soundtrack, Oprah turned and lifted the burqa off her. Thundering cheers! The tableau of liberation was entrancing. It told us that freedom lay in the hands of Westerners to give; that we were the voices, the hands, the absent lives, of others; and that the gift would be easy, like Superwoman getting a phone-booth makeover – “the ‘hey presto’ transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem,” as Noy Thrupkaew wrote. This was imperialism lite, no boots on the ground; all you needed was a celebrity and a portable article of clothing. Just over six months later we all would be at war, and while these lessons may not have been too useful for the travails ahead, they were remembered. Eleven days after the September 11 attacks, CNN aired a film on the burqa in Afghanistan; it became its most-watched documentary ever. Six weeks later, Laura Bush would assure the nation that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” If the fight turned out longer and harder than expected, still the image and ideal remained, an emancipation embodied in omnipresent Oprah and hence impossible to escape, through all the ravages of Fallujah and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. One of the sponsoring organizations for victorious “V-Day” was a group called Equality Now.

Equality Now, founded in 1992, is a US organization fighting to diffuse worldwide the waning impulses of absolutist Western feminism from forty years ago. It campaigns for reproductive rights but, even more militantly, against pornography and prostitution. It’s also been exceptionally good at publicity, particularly by recruiting that kind of American celebrity who believes their fame is an anointing – that they can use it to liberate the tired, the poor, the war-torn, and also the wrongly dressed and inappropriately employed. Julia Stiles! Joss Wheedon! Glenn Close and Oprah!  Equality Now is at it again this week, with a campaign aimed at the drab and unexciting UN; no institution is intrinsically unsexy, and already the publicity machine is starting to roll. There’s a campaign page at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, headlined “Call to Arms”; there are the endorsements from the famous and the only-slightly-faded. The aim is to roll back more than a decade of progress at the UN, and around the world, in safeguarding sex workers’ health and safety.

Beauty and the Daily Beast: Equality Now campaign page

Beauty and the Daily Beast: Equality Now campaign page

The campaign stems from a year-old letter that Equality Now organized to Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark oversaw the law reform that decriminalized sex work in her country in 2003. FInding her unreceptive to their solicitations, Equality Now called for public protest. They want you to write to UNDP, UNAIDS,  the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Women, but the gist is simple: Damn the evidence. Get me rewrite!

[We] express great concern about two recent reports on efforts to prevent HIV within the commercial sex industry: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (“Global Commission Report”) released on 9 July 2012, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (“Asia Pacific Report”) released on 18 October 2012. …  [W]e are deeply concerned with both reports’ incomplete and misleading information regarding the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and surrounding activities.

The two reports linked above are ground-breaking work. The former, by 14 distinguished jurists and experts including former Presidents of Botswana and Brazil, examines the role of the law in promoting or impeding effective responses to HIV/AIDS. The latter surveys 48 countries in the Asia / Pacific region, investigating how their legal regimes around sex work affect both health and human rights. Two aspects strike Equality Now as especially noxious.

ONE. The reports called on governments to “Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work” (Global Commission Report, p. 9). The Asia Pacific Report found that criminalization of “sex work or certain activities associated with sex work …  increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to HIV and sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health” (p. 1).

TWO. The reports called for a clear distinction, in policy, law, and public understanding, between sex work and sex trafficking, “which are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive.”

Criminal sanctions against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors are essential—but the laws must clearly differentiate these activities from consensual adult sex work. (Global Commission Report, p. 29)

The Asia Pacific Report said laws that conflate “human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability, generate stigma and create barriers to HIV service delivery”.

The unwillingness or inability of people to recognise that people can freely decide to engage in sex work means that sex workers are often automatically labelled as victims of trafficking when they are not. Often sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex. (pp. 3, 15)

“We respectfully request that you re-examine the findings and recommendations included in these two reports,” Equality Now writes in civil UN-ese, meaning: Retract these conclusions, or else.

With a little help from the law: Anti-prostitution poster from World War II

With a little help from the law: Anti-prostitution poster from World War II

Equality Now is an eradicationist organization. They believe all sex work is exploitation, and hence “trafficking.” They want prostitution eliminated. To this end they’re trying to press the so-called “Swedish model” on the UN; they claim it “addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps.” This sits rather strangely with the headline they chose for their campaign, above: “Keeping Prostitution Illegal.” In fact, though, that is what the “Swedish model” is about. It decriminalizes the “person in prostitution” about as much as traffic laws decriminalize the person in speeding car. The brothel raids and the stings on johns trawl up sex workers, not just clients, in their nets; police pick out and pick up sex workers, photograph them, stamp stigma on their lives; and there’s always a battery of other policies and punishments — loitering and solicitation laws, civil forfeiture, seizing cars and homes, even taking children — that can be used to drive women out of sex work. Melissa Giri Grant notes,

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago … revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers [as opposed to clients and others], with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that [eradicationist activists] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The Global Commission report charges the Swedish model with “Victimising the ‘victim.'”

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has answered the claims Equality Now made in its letter; I won’t recap its arguments here, save to note that Equality Now repeatedly misrepresents and distorts the results of studies. (For example: Equality Now asserts a government report in New Zealand found “no great change” in sex workers’ access to health services, and use of safer sex, in the wake of of law reform. But the government report actually says something quite different — that effective, and sex-worker friendly, “HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s” had already generated across-the-board improvements, hence the room for positive change was small. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Otago in Christchurch found that decriminalization had made sex workers more willing to choose and refuse clients, a right the reform law specifically guaranteed them — the numbers who felt they couldn’t do so fell from 63% in 1999 to only 38% in 2006. They were also readier to report abuses to police, and in general more empowered about the conditions of their work.)

Gathering at the Wellington office of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 2011

Gathering at the Wellington office of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 2011

I will make two points, though. One is that Equality Now cultivates a rhetoric of care built round the idea of “Listening to Survivors.” Listening is admirable; but in this case, it becomes an accusation against any and all opponents: those other people, the ones you’re listening to, aren’t real. Thus, one eradicationist cites a “survivor” approvingly:

To support decriminalising the sale of sex would be to support prostitution itself. … I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.

This is a moral rephrasing of the old Marxist claim of false consciousness: your class position, or in this case your sin, invalidates your voice and deafens my ears to your inauthentic pleas. Moreover, the audible “survivors” aren’t so audible in the end. They fade into placeholders for institutions that can, and will, speak on their behalf. The letter to Helen Clark bemoans that “If the drafters of the reports – in particular the Asia Pacific Report – had consulted with a broader range of stakeholders, including anti-trafficking and women’s rights organizations as well as trafficking survivors” — well, everything would have been different. In essence this means: Do nothing till you hear from me.  In fact, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law held seven regional dialogues and reviewed 680 written submissions in its work. The Asia Pacific report draws on extensive consultations with advocacy groups, including sex worker groups, in the countries it analyzed. Integrating usually-unheard voices into the conversation is likely to rouse acute institutional anxieties; but you really can’t just claim those voices were never there.

 Listen to Carmen, fools. And now can we just pretend these “reports” you published never happened?

The second point is that, while Equality Now talks the talk of protecting the helpless against exploitation, its concerns flow from a different point where morality and politics, respectability and power, meet. Ninety-seven organizations signed the letter to Helen Clark; but while most of them seem dressed in the appealing-looking garments of sober feminism, quite a few are wearing a burqa underneath. For instance, Ruhama, a powerful Irish “anti-trafficking” group, sounds awfully progressive, opposing prostitution because it’s so “deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.” Ruhama, though, is a front. Behind it lurk several Catholic religious orders which, for decades, imposed forced labor and virtual slavery on “fallen women” in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moral rigor and a quest to recover political authority drive its campaigning, not indignation at the gendered injustice its parent groups enforced for years.

There’s a history behind this power quest. Anthropologist Laura Agustin argues that the earnest focus on “prostitution” as a social problem in Britain’s 19th century came with the emergence of middle-class women as a group who needed occupations, purpose, and identities. “Social critics and philanthropists constructed an identity for ‘the poor’ in general, and ‘prostitutes’ in particular, which necessitated intervention, at the same period when the same critics, in need of and desiring employment, designated themselves as peculiarly suited to intervene.”

Philanthropy came to be seen as an appropriate sphere of paid employment for middle-class women, who designated themselves as those authorised to care for a group of working-class women they designated prostitutes. Both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and a degree of independence during the development of industrial capitalism. In the new ‘prostitution’ discourse, both figures, the victim and the rescuer, belonged to a new vision of society in which good conduct was linked to bourgeois, domestic marriage and family.

Slumming with a purpose: Victorian philanthropists go in search of the deserving and undeserving poor

Slumming with a purpose: Victorian philanthropists go in search of the deserving and undeserving poor

What Agustin doesn’t say [in this article, I mean; see in the comments, below, for references to places where she’s drawn out the implications!] is that this vision of “intervention” paralleled other interventions in the larger, political sphere: imperialism, militarism, the projection of British might, the growth of a governing class of males whose identities were built on intruding in other countries and morally recuperating other peoples. Deviant within and barbarian abroad were matching objects of colonial improvement.

Behind every successful empire is a good woman: France brings the benefits of civilization to suitably impressed people in funny hats

Behind every successful empire is a good woman: France distributes the benefits of civilization to suitably impressed people in funny hats

Elizabeth Bernstein has pursued these ideas in a contemporary frame. She argues that “antitrafficking activism,” as practiced by both feminists and their faith-based allies, “has been fueled by a shared commitment to carceral paradigms of social, and in particular gender, justice … and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.”  You fight the enemies of your version of liberation, at home and abroad. You need the big guns on your side; feminism turns to the State. The battle requires the government to flex its muscles, through its police under the streetlights of Chicago as much as through the soldier boys in the alleys of Kabul. It’s no coincidence that Equality Now defines its demand for protests to the UN as a “call to arms.” It’s no coincidence that eradicationist Gloria Steinem, touring India and pressed to explain why she refused to dialogue with sex worker activists, fell back on a strange anti-Blitzkrieg rhetoric: “The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. … [P]rostitution is the only [job] that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.” Does she mean all prostitution is rape, or all penetrative sex is? Shouldn’t we defend against an invasion by any means necessary — police, armies, the full panoply of power? Indeed, isn’t the best defense maybe just invading something ourselves?

It’s no coincidence, either, that both the war-cry against uncivilized and misogynistic Muslim peoples and the clamor to crack down on sex trafficking met in the receptive embrace of the Bush administration. Bush is gone, of course. But the powerful impulses are both still there. And their common feature, the guilty secret of their involuntary incursions, is still there too. The objects of rescue, the victims of intervention, don’t get to lift the veil of their own volition, or speak for themselves.

The niqab is back in the news these days. Banned in France and Belgium, it now faces prohibition in part of Switzerland. It’s a hot topic in Britain, where a Liberal Democrat minister called for a “national debate” on whether the State needed to “protect” women from veilish wiles. One right-wing British blogger drew an analogy I found illuminating, like a white phosphorus flare. It’s all, in the end, about State power, whether embodied in laws or bombs:

While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.

Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power — in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends. … The wisdom of intervention in either case may be disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such.

In other words, you must concede the principle that the State has an absolute right to intervene (“protect”) in either case; the only permitted argument is about the pros and cons of particular interventions. The females who choose to cover their faces, and the peoples who slave away in oppression while unable or unwilling to resist, are equally incapacitated children, whose very muteness demands a decision-making power located somewhere else. Confronted with a woman, “a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time,” who says, “I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength,” the man sees nothing but mind-forged manacles:

Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question.

The blogger elects to remain veiled in anonymity, so all I know is he’s one of the pro-war, Islam-fearing fans of the neocon website Harry’s Place, a type that’s done so much to damage British public life. In an interview with Norm Geras — co-author of the invading-things-is-fun Euston Manifesto — he declares that “dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.” One senses further prohibitions down the pike. The sinister beauty of power is that it corrupts even before you have it; just the scent, the fantasy of it, intoxicates. And the same spirit that drives you to enthuse over stripping women of their veils, or herding them into Black Marias on a moonless evening, is the spirit that informs imperial dreams of imposing one-size Mao jackets on the unisex masses, toppling statues and towers, Rumsfelding it over subject peoples like a Roman titan. Your idealism? No vaccine against megalomanhood. Human rights activists are hardly immune to State-worship. The whiff of power deranges their brain cells no less than anybody’s.

Police arresting a niqabi woman in Paris, April 12, 2011, © EPA

Police arresting a niqabi woman in Paris, April 12, 2011, © EPA

And, as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. …  Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.” The students will:

Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)

– What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
– Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
– Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
– In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)

“Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication.” OK, don’t put it on the website where a Google search can turn it up, then. Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.

So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.

NB. A comment (below) states that the Milano School is not part of the New School for Social Research but a parallel institution to it within the overall New School structure. Sorry for the confusion.

Alleged sex workers arrested in a "rescue" raid on a lodging in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 15, 2013

Alleged sex workers arrested in a “rescue” raid on a lodging in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 15, 2013

Ireland and damaged belonging: From Magdalene Laundries to Cupcake Scrub

Still from The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film on Ireland's Magdalene laundries

Still from The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film on Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

“It is true,” he said, “that you cannot commit a crime and that the right arm of the law cannot lay its finger on you irrespective of the degree of your criminality. Anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true.”

I nodded my agreement comfortably.

“For that reason alone,’ said the Sergeant, “we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at the best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. If it is not a lie to say that you have been given the final hammer behind the barrack, equally it is true to say that nothing has happened to you.”

“You mean that because I have no name I cannot die and that you cannot be held answerable for death even if you kill me?”

“That is about the size of it,” said the Sergeant.

–Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

“A priest-ridden Godforsaken race,” James Joyce called his fellow Irish. Till about twenty years ago this was true. Ireland now is a society (Quebec in the 60s was another) that’s whirled through an extremely swift process of secularization. Damped down in part by the church-abuse scandals, weekly attendance at Mass has dropped precipitately (from close to 90% of professing Catholics twenty years ago to barely 20% now). That’s only the tip of the altar — even if many of the signs of this seismic shift might be taken for granted elsewhere in Europe. Divorce, long banned in the Constitution, became legal in 1995. You can now buy condoms without a prescription. Even the Archbishop of Dublin grudgingly acknowledges that the country’s secularization turned out to be “in great part” a benefit, like the earth revolving around the sun, which was a risky thing when first tried but seems not to have done too much damage.

In step: Anti-clerical cartoon by Gustave-Henri Jossot (1866-1951)

In step: Anti-clerical cartoon by Gustave-Henri Jossot (1866-1951)

As with Quebec, the status of homosexuality has served as bellwether of these changes. The State decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, outlawed discrimination in 1998, and, three years ago, permitted civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples. Dublin is now a gay tourist destination.

Militant secularists tend to see superstition’s recession and liberty’s advance as simultaneous and inseparable. Indeed, when the patriarchal conception of personhood that dominated Irish politics for decades gave way to a modern ideal of equal citizenship, it was (to paraphrase the Archbishop) in great part good. You couldn’t ask for a worse symbol of the old, medieval-minded Ireland than the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Perhaps the non-Irish don’t know much about these; they were an appalling survival of slavery into modern times. From the 1920s on, the Church imprisoned thousands of “fallen” women — women who had sex outside marriage, or even their young children — forcing them to labor unpaid, as penance, in profit-making laundries. Many were stripped even of their identities, given a new name when they arrived at their religious jails. Many spent their lives in confinement. The government was complicit in the horrors (police often dragged girls back if they managed to escape); it allowed them in subservience to a Church that claimed large elements of State-like power. The public remained largely unaware till 1993, when one convent sold land on which a disbanded laundry had stood. 155 unmarked graves of women were discovered on the grounds.

All that is over, surely — the last laundry closed in 1996. The secular State assures that no woman or man will go nameless, that equality brings freedom. True? The gays are doing great in Ireland, after all. And yet … other kinds of sex are less lucky.

What happens during secularization? The truth is: Parts of paternalism always survive. Power is polymorphously perverse and adaptable. The secular State can all too readily assume a pastoral mantle, in the presumption that some people are unready for citizenship and need surveillance and protection.

As long as you don't pay for it with your filthy prostitution earnings

As long as you don’t pay for it with your filthy prostitution earnings

I sometimes call this the ideology of damaged citizenship — or better, perhaps, since not all the victims are citizens, “damaged belonging.” Elements of it underlie citizenship discourses almost everywhere, since equality is always partly fictive. But I believe they’re particularly insidious where rapid changes in belief give politics a new foundation that’s insecure, untrusted, wobbly. Identifying some members of the community as damaged serves a dual purpose. It justifies the State’s power to control and intervene. And it defines certain people who resist that power as not fully members of the polity, not qualified to speak at all. It also allows religious claims and repressions to renew themselves in sheep’s clothing, in a safely secular guise. The new regime draws on the old one for support.

Irish anti-abortion protester, 2013

Irish anti-abortion protester, 2013

“Damaged belonging” is the model whenever politics starts to revolve around, not people’s claims for participation, but the State’s claims on their behalf. Sometimes these are people who genuinely need protection, like kids, though (since they aren’t allowed to speak for themselves or describe the hazards they face) the threats conjured against them often run from exaggerated to imaginary: pedophiles rather than poverty, prostitution rather than family violence. Sometimes the furor demands the State defend a purely theoretical person, the fetus. (Barney Frank’s line remains the best ever on abortion politics in the United States: “Republicans believe that life begins at conception, and ends at birth.”) Only a month ago did Ireland — extraordinarily regressive on abortion for all its liberalism in some other areas — pass a law saying that saving a mother’s life could be prioritized over preserving a fetus’s viability.

Sometimes, on the other hand, real citizens need protection from damaged citizens, or people altogether outside the citizenship pale. The poor or, that reliable staple of current European rhetoric, the migrant become the terrors.

So many of these stories come together in … the sex worker. Sex workers number among the demanding, undeserving poor. They’re migrants not neighbors, people from Out There coming to claim our benefits and corrupt our shores. On the other hand, they recruit our children into prostitution. And of course, having done that, they want the State to kill their fetuses for them. (A UK abolitionist site, despite couching itself as feminist, condemns “risk of pregnancy [and] high abortion rate” among the “hazards of prostitution.”) 

Last November, Ireland’s government, under pressure from anti-prostitution campaigners, announced a review of the country’s laws on sex work. (Ireland effectively decriminalized buying and selling sex in the 1980s, but soliciting and brothel-keeping remain illegal, accompanied by the usual sweeping laws against loitering.) The ultimate aim was to impose the so-called “Swedish model,” which criminalizes the purchaser of sex. The campaign to put the screws on the government offers interesting insight into how religious forces ensure their influence in the supposedly secular State. Ruhama was one of the main players. What a nice womany group, down to its ecumenical-lefty name (Hebrew for “renewing life”)! It says on its website that it

regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women’s human rights. ‘Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking for prostitution, is incompatible with the dignity and worth of every human being’ – UN Convention 1949. We see prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.

This defense of “gender equality” is nice. But coming from Ruhama? Weird.

We will do anything to stop prostitution. Even quote the UN.

We will do anything to stop prostitution. Even quote the UN.

In fact, Ruhama is a project of the Catholic Church, not previously noted for its attachment to the idea. When it was founded in 1993, its registered office (legal headquarters, that is) was the Provincialate of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Dublin. In 1995, it changed digs (moving as often as Simon Dedalus!) to the Dublin address of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. In 1998 it moved again, relocating with the Sisters of Mercy. And in 2002 it found its final resting place, at least till today, at All Hallows College, a private Catholic school (directed by the Vincentians, a collection of orders that counts the Sisters of Charity in its family). They must feel nervous, typing UN language into their computers in these sacral locations; isn’t there some anti-Antichrist software on hand? But “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” That’s Luke 10:19.

Ruhama’s board today includes two Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, and one of the Good Shepherd Sisters.  Here, though, is a list of some of its board members from the past:

Sr. Angela Fahy (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1993-2000
Sr. Evelyn Fergus (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1996
Sr. Jennifer McAleer (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1995
Sr. Noreen O’Shea (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1998, 2003-2008
Sr. Helena Farrell (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1995-2000
Sr. Johanna Horgan (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1995-2005
Sr. Aileen D’Alton (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1996-2000
Sr. Margaret Burke (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity) 1996-2006
Sr. Ann Marie Ryan (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 2000-2004
Sr. Clare Kenny (Good Shepherd Sisters), 2008-2009

It’s like Sister Act! Ruhama, as a service organization, also gets tons of Irish government money, some of which it then uses to lobby the Irish government for anti-prostitution laws. The whole thing illustrates the easy way that religious mandates can be repackaged, to mesh with and support State power.

Women in Magdalene laundries, ca. 1930s

Women in Magdalene laundries, ca. 1930s

But it’s more than that. Both of these religious orders ran Magdalene Laundries for decades. Their hands are stained with the sweat of the women who worked there, and the blood of the women who died there. These God-fearing enforcers are the “fallen” people, and not even their own slave laundries could wash them clean. The orders’ offers of compensation to the survivors of abuse have been risibly inadequate, and they’ve continued to rake in money from the properties where the horrors happened. (In land sales in 2006 alone, the Sisters of Mercy “received €32m for a 16-acre tract in Killarney. And the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold the site adjoining its Magdalene Laundry in High Park Dublin for €55m.”) Now, with consummate sliminess, they are using a feminist-sounding front to campaign against sex work, on the grounds that it’s — get this — “slavery.” Or as they put it: Ruhama’s “view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation,” into which they lump all prostitution, “is a contemporary form of slavery, with a distinctly gendered bias.” Really! (On its off days when it’s not oppressing sex workers, the Holy See doesn’t even like the word “gender.”) Ambrose Bierce called hypocrisy “prejudice with a halo,” and you can see why.

Women on their way to Oireachtas hearings on sex work laws, 2013: Eric Luke

Woman protesting outside Oireachtas hearings on sex work laws, 2013: Eric Luke

The Joint Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held hearings on the prostitution laws in early 2013. These were a stacked, tilted joke. The official record shows that only one speaker from the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland was allowed to testify. There were twenty-three witnesses from member groups in the Ruhama- inspired, anti-sex-work Turn Off the Red Light campaign, including two from Ruhama alone. That isn’t democracy, it’s a sing-along; you might as well listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. But then, as Flann O’Brien told his readers years ago, ““The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at crossroads.”

Red light, blue light: The Garda

Red light, blue light: The Gardaí

One academic delicately complimented Turn Off the Red Light for “a brilliantly run campaign” which “rested on a shaky foundation, that of limited comprehensive knowledge about the actual nature … of prostitution in Ireland.” No surprises, then: in June, the legislators recommended the Swedish model, criminalizing all purchase of sexual services. They unanimously added other, still more draconian proposals. People who provide accommodation to sex workers would be criminalized — meaning that indoor sex work (by far the safest kind) will be illegal, and sex workers can be driven from their homes.  The Gardaí (police) would be able to disconnect any phone suspected of being used by a sex worker: an effort, as activists note, to

cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity…. Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked.

And, incredibly, “the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography.” This is absurd on innumerable grounds, but it’s also horrible. Even a sex worker who checks ads (say, to see what the competition are doing) could be arrested.

Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage.

This is damaged belonging with a vengeance. In the name of protecting sex workers, they’re cut off from phones and from the Internet; not just buying their services but contacting them virtually becomes criminal; the law treats and insults them as exploited children, “fallen” and powerless, and all in the name of protection. Down that road lie the Magdalene Laundries that Ruhama’s founders used to run.

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland pamphlet

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland pamphlet

Already, even before a law’s been passed, the deprivation of basic rights is starting. As I noted in a previous post, police in Ireland have rarely if ever used the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a tool of repression common in the UK, one that allows jailing suspects even for acts that are not illegal. But not long after the Oireachtas report, the Gardaí in Limerick sought ASBOs against eight alleged sex workers, mostly Romanian, to strip them of freedom of movement in the city’s center. Years in prison just for showing their faces on certain streets! Once you’ve become a non-person, as Flann O’Brien’s policeman explained, the law’s letter doesn’t matter because you have no name. Anything can be done to you.

The great blog on sex workers’ rights El estante de la Citi has recently posted an analysis of Ireland’s anti-sex-work panic that appeared in the underground magazine Rabble. I recommend the blog. It’s in Spanish, and in fact also offers a Spanish translation of the same piece, and as soon as I opened it Google Translate kicked in on my browser, to turn it back into English — this is globalization in action. Thus I discovered that Google translates “las Lavanderías de las Magdalenas” (Magdalene Laundries) as “Cupcake Scrub.” (It’s probably a tribute to the Spanish-speaking world’s own secularization process that “Magdalenas” first reminds an electronic brain of not the saint, but the sweet.) But this made me remember some of the awful names of anti-sex work purges that police have mounted in the past. New York had “Operation Flush the Johns” this year. Rio de Janeiro, where police crack down lethally on sex workers all the time, has seen Operation Shame, Operation Sodom, Operation Princess, and Operation Come Here Dollbaby. Who is to say that Operation Cupcake Scrub isn’t part of Ireland’s repressive future?

Virgin madeleines: These cookies are clean

Virgin madeleines: These cookies are clean

I want to close simply by quoting some of the Rabble article:

The Magdalene Laundries existed to control women’s lives, and made money, but rescuing modern Ireland’s fallen women is worth quite a bit too. You could never be certain of their motivations but you can certainly speculate as to why some organisations are involved in this. Laura Lee [a sex worker activist] says of the motivations: “Their agenda seems to be nothing more than continued funding. Government funding and salaries. It suits them to portray the sex industry in a very bad light. The rescue industry is worth big money. They’re all saying we’re pimped and trafficked —even if we’re jumping up and down saying no we’re not.” When actual sex workers are telling a different story to TORL [Turn Off the Red Light], you could be forgiven for asking the awkward question, ‘Who might know the most about being a sex worker?’ …

Rachel, a Romanian escort working in Dublin for the past number of years questioned [the claims that Ruhama and TORL make], and the absence of sex workers own voices in the debate. … “They say they want to fight against human trafficking but all the escorts I know work of their own free will. I remember the raid last year, 200-ish accommodations were searched by the police and they didn’t find one single escort who was trafficked or working against her will.”

But despite the good intentions of those who are genuinely behind TORL it doesn’t take away from the fact that criminalising buyers makes things more dangerous for sex workers. The fear of the potential consequences of criminalisation are pretty evident for Rachel: “If condoms will be used as a proof of sex with a client (if it is criminalised) then sex workers might stop using them.” The repercussions of this type of fear for the health of the women and their clients is obvious.

Nassau Count District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the results of "Operation Flush the Johns" in Mineola, NY, 2013

Don’t patronize me: Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice shows results of “Operation Flush the Johns” in Mineola, NY, 2013

Criminalisation pushes the industry further underground and creates more pimps. It also gives the Gardai more control over these women’s lives. And it means that two women who are both sex workers and share an apartment for safety and security might be convicted of brothel-keeping. … Sure, just bring back the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ireland still needs to be saved. You can’t be having filthy, dirty, sinful, sex for money. No, you should be out cleaning jaxes for minimum wage. If you can’t pay your ESB bill or put food on the table for your kids? Well so be it. Better than being a whore and all that.

the-third-policeman

Outstanding defenders of the Irish State: Flann O’Brien novel, cover

Correction: The first version of this blog post incorrectly attributed the Rabble article to activist anthropologist Laura Agustin — mainly because the post that followed it in El estante de la Citi actually was an article by Agustin, and my eyes blurred from having too many browser windows open. My apologies. Be sure, though, to check out Agustin’s blog at The Naked Anthropologist, for plenty of excellent insights on trafficking, sex work, and morality policing that are indisputably hers.