Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraq, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible. 

For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:

And here is the Toronto lecture:

I feel overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.

I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”

The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?

And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.

In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:

  • the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
  • the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.

These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.

It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate's love's victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.

When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.

And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”

So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video.  It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.

Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.

In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free.  And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.

Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from  2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.

With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.

In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted.  Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.

The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.

We do; they don't. Still from 2013'a viral "same-sex wedding" video

We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video

First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.

Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind.  The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.

Mona Iraq, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion.  A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”

It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.

Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.

At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world. 

What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood.  People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the Revolution, and its fourth anniversary.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.

So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?

The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold.  Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.

One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender. 

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 -- mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists -- from a video published on the website of Youm7

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7

The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.

Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.

Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.

There’s another reason for the silence: respectability. 

The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men

In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police.  Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.

Cover of a 1910 book on "white slavery" by Ernest Bell

Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell

And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.

Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.

Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.

Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.

In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.

But trans sex workers? Who cares?

Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

A final reason for the silence: security.

The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.

The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.

We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators?  We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves.  The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.

(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis  know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)

Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and gives him $572 million in military aid, days after pro-democracy activists including feminist Yara Sallam were arrested and abused

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street

John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.

In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General.  ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.

But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.

The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in "advancing LGBTI-inclusive development"

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”

Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy.  The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.

Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.

I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it.  This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.

Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.

  • Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
  • But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.

In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice.  Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters.  And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.

First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.

Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011.  It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.

An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.

As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind.  Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Changeat a Kampala protest against Museveni's 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.

The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential.  We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.

Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.

I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.

We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.

Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference.  This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.

Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies.  Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.

Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.

She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”

Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.

Certain images circulate. Others don’t.

Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.

Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.

Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.

But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.

We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?

The choice is ours.

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

Meet this policeman. He is going to arrest you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from El Wafd, May 2015

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from Al Wafd, May 2015

… “You” can mean many things, of course. Not all my readers are gay or trans or sex workers, though some are (hi there!). Nor are they all Egyptians. But wherever you live, you might wind up here; anybody can visit Egypt (unless a Google search turns up evidence you actually know something about the place, in which case you’ll be expelled). The government welcomes tourists; this month it sent helicopters to kill eight of them, the way big-game hunters cull the population to make room for more. And it loves gay tourists; they’re so much fun to arrest. Meanwhile, that man’s title is actually head of the Morals Police, Shortat el-Adab. Who among us hasn’t thought or done or dreamed something immoral? The very word, adab, casts a wide dragnet in Arabic, covering everything from “manners” to “discipline.” Generalissimo Sisi himself has called for a land more disciplined in every way: “State institutions, namely those with educational, religious and media roles, have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.” Wayward fantasies and errant words of dissent are as unchaste and culpable as misused genitals. Look in that man’s eyes, and tremble. He’s watching you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, the new leader of Egypt’s vice squad, has been on my mind. Morals police arrested “the largest network of gays” last week, 11 of them reportedly inhabiting two apartments in the Agouza district of Cairo along with “sex toys,” “manmade genitalia,” and women’s clothes. Allegedly the criminals charged 1500 LE (just under US $200) per hour. It’s impossible to make out how police caught them, though the cops claimed to have been “monitoring pages on the Internet.” The arrests got unusual coverage — not only in scandal sites like Youm7 and El Watan, but the respectable state-owned Al-Ahram; and right in the lead was the name of the hero head of the Morals Police, el-Shafei.

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

One thing not much noted in the current crackdown on trans and gay Egyptians is how inextricable it is from fears, and laws, about prostitution. The morals campaign has meant intensified repression of women sex workers, though this gets little international attention. The law criminalizing homosexual conduct in Egypt is actually a “Law on Combatting Prostitution,” passed in 1951, amid a moral panic over licensed brothels kept by British colonial forces. Lawmakers, determined to extirpate immorality of all kinds, wrote a bill punishing not just di’ara (the sale of sexual services by women) but also fugur, or “debauchery” — a term they didn’t bother to define. They slapped both with a draconian three years in prison. Courts, culminating in a binding ruling in 1975, held that “debauchery” meant men having sex with men, with or without money. The law thus penalizes women selling sex, and all sex between men. It’s a textbook case of how a badly, broadly written law on sex expands like the Blob in the movies. Although legally it’s irrelevant whether those accused of homosexual sex were doing it for cash, police often claim they were, to stiffen the stigma. But everyone also knows that a woman snogging with her boyfriend or flirting with a man in public, or simply dressed the wrong way, can be picked up for “prostitution.” (Of course, the exchange of money is notoriously hard to prove in any case, meaning cops everywhere rely on stereotypes, suppositions, and lies. Cairo Tourist Police threatened a straight female friend of mine with the charge last October, because she hung around with gay men.)

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

The law was meant to punish women for defiling the national honor with the occupier. Now it suppresses any deviations from the moral “discipline” that plinths and legitimates Sisi’s rule.

So the same adulatory stories announced that el-Shafei’s officers also broke up “four prostitution networks,” involving an airline pilot, a Jordanian girl, Gulf Arabs (real or fictional). Last week el-Shafei caught gays consorting with Gulfies; the week before, twin sisters soliciting in Agouza; before that a 25-year-old woman doing “immoral business” with foreigners. The foreign peril is a crucial angle in today’s Egypt: fears of alien corruption, lusts leaking across borders, make persecuting “promiscuity” seem not only moral but mandatory. “‘Imported Prostitution’ Sweeps Egyptian Society,” Youm7 warned two weeks ago, about Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese sex workers in Cairo. 

The press defines the crackdown’s latest phase as a broad cleanup campaign before the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that began today. “These pre-Eid morality raids have been going on for some time,” my colleague Dalia Abd el-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told a reporter. “We have almost got used to expecting them.” This is true. Higher-ranking officers feel the urge to purge the streets before one of the noblest of Islam’s holidays. Admittedly, it’s a celebration of charity and forbearance, but show too much forbearance and the scum of the earth will spoil the fun. Meanwhile, beat cops get bonuses (and extract bribes) for diligence in duty; and they need them, because Eid al-Adha is expensive. (There’s the long weekend at the beach that many uxorious policemen buy their families, or girlfriends; plus, sacrificial animals cost money, and their prices usually soar before the festival.)

“In Peace and Security.” Cartoon by Andeel for Mada Masr, September 14, 2015

Two things, however, make this pre-Eid campaign feel different. First, security language dominates the holiday — and the crackdown. All the headlines are about threats and counter-measures. The state claims it has “eliminated” a terrorist group in the Western desert that was plotting holiday attacks; meanwhile, a massive, murderous military operation continues in Sinai, a war zone barred to journalists, and we only know the government gloats it’s killed hundreds of “terrorists.” In Cairo, authorities plan to safeguard the Eid with SWAT teams around mosques, banks, movie houses, parks — even on Nile party boats. Throughout, the Ministry of Interior assures us, the Morals Police will play a vital role, protecting women against the population (as opposed to their usual job, protecting the population against women). But morality is now part of security in Egypt. Whatever the Morals Police do, they couch in security terms. One newspaper screamed three weeks ago that male homosexuality in Egyptian society

has increased in recent times … and sets off alarm bells about the causes of what can be called the “emergency disease” which threatens the future of the Egyptian nation, and calls for serious and rapid action from the state to prevent its exacerbation, as a national security issue.

And the other difference is the glut of publicity the police are giving this pre-Eid campaign. Nothing “undercover” about it. One thing you can say about Major-General el-Shafei: he knows how to get headlines.

What else can you say about Amgad el-Shafei? He’s an interesting man. It’s hard to trace the arc of an Egyptian policeman’s career; these cops don’t post their CVs on LinkedIn. The Ministry of Interior is by far the least transparent part of an Egyptian state apparatus that mostly churns out squid ink. Still, you can tell the man is important: he holds the highest police rank. Back in 2014, he shows up on TV (talking about the “spread of weapons after the Revolution”), as assistant director of the Bureau of Public Security at the Ministry.

 El-Shafei on the “Name of Egypt” talk show, April 2014

By April 2015, though, el-Shafei has a different Ministry post; he heads its General Directorate for Investigating Public Funds. It’s one of the most sensitive police branches: “the first line of defense for combatting economic crimes such as, for example, but not limited to, forgery and fraud in all its forms, falsification of documents and national and foreign currencies, promotion of all forms of financial fraud … administrative offenses of bribery and influence peddling and graft,” and so on. Mostly el-Shafei pursued not state officials stealing public funds, but members of the public stealing them: or just plain fraud in general. That’s odd, given how rampant official corruption is in Egypt. (This month, Sisi used the arrest of the Agriculture Minister on charges of taking bribes as a pretext to dismiss the whole government.) But here el-Shafei’s gift for getting publicity truly flowered. For four months, he was on TV and in the headlines constantly: for arresting a scam artist, “El Mestray’iah,” who bilked Egyptians of their savings; for grabbing a gang smuggling hard currency out of the country; for nabbing a fake-investment ring. The press releases must have spurted from his office daily, like healthy flatulence.

His last bow in this role comes July 4, when he takes credit for arresting the “fashion doctor,” an academic who ran a weird scam involving fashion shows. The next time el-Shafei appears, he’s had a change of title. On August 17 his name graces an item about the arrest of three Ukrainian sex workers. He’s now director of the Morals Police.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry's website. Don't blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry’s website. Don’t blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

So sometime in the summer, el-Shafei got a new job. Why? The morals squad, in comparison to anti-corruption work, is a swampy backwater. It has its consolations, to be sure, financial ones included; some impecunious cops actively seek the assignment. (San Francisco’s famous Tenderloin sex district supposedly took its name from a police officer who said, more or less, I used to have ground beef for dinner. But now that I’m working vice, I’m going to get me some of that tenderloin.) Still, it resembles a demotion, and I wonder why. Had el-Shafei done his job too well for someone’s comfort (seems unlikely), or not well enough? Or maybe the Ministry just wanted someone of his caliber in the Morals Police, perhaps to root out corruption. Corruption in vice squads usually means cops take bribes in exchange for not pressing charges. The surest way to stop it is to increase prosecutions; here, el-Shafei seems already to be semaphoring success.

In a society stripped of facts, speculation rules — and I can speculate as wildly as the best of them. The most ambitious case the Morals Police brought last year was journalist Mona Iraqi’s klieg-lit raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December. (I had heard rumors back in September 2014, from well-connected sources, that the Ministry of Interior was debating whether to stage a huge gay show trial on the scale of the Queen Boat. The Bab el-Bahr hammam was it.) The trial failed, and reaped bushels of bad publicity for the police. Rumors of corruption susurrated round it; Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger, claimed the police were in league with a gentrifying real-estate magnate trying to close the bathhouse (which had one of those immemorial, unbreakable Cairo leases) and expropriate the building. Such theories never had a shred of proof. But what if el-Shafie’s new job were the Ministry’s answer to all that: a move to bring back the days of good PR, successful gay persecution, unremitting arrests?

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Who knows? Not I. I do know, though, that an ambitious and publicity-seeking policeman given absolute power, in an authoritarian state, over frightened and furtive and undefended people’s lives will abuse it — because the power itself is abuse. I know that the newsclips this skilled operator spews out have life and momentum of their own; like maggots in dead meat, they’ll multiply, and what will emerge full-blown are more arrests, more suffering. I know that the surveillance and the stings will grow in both brutality and cunning. I speculated last week that the branches of Egypt’s police are competing to get the money and technology the state now has for Internet surveillance: for the kind of keystroke-by-keystroke decoding of people’s discourses and desires that can splay their ganglions bare for the government’s entertainment. How can the Morals Police cut in on the largesse, and build an empire over intimacy? By convincing the state that it’s successful, and that its success defends national security. On both counts, el-Shafei knows what to say.

NOTE: For advice on avoiding police entrapment and protecting yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For very important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

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Julie Bindel sells her mind (not body)

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks by a white slaver

Julie Bindel is a British journalist, a fierce opponent of trans people’s human rights (they’re imitation women), and an abolitionist who wants to see sex work eradicated from the earth. Bindel is now raising money for a book she’s writing, to expose the “global ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement.” She “will outline the emergence of a powerful lobby — the sex workers’ rights movement — that works in favour of a total decriminalisation of the sex industry.” She is “planning to visit around thirty countries in order to conduct my research, taking me to the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Germany, South Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, France, New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Turkey and India”: an itinerary curiously resembling that of the mythical white slavers of old. To fund this self-trafficking, she’s crowdfunding the project, and she’s already raised £6,773.00. She’d only asked for £6,500. All systems are go.

Bindel’s project is predictable: part of anti-sex-work eradicationists’ ongoing drive to paint all sex workers speaking out for their rights as pimps and punters in disguise. (A reporter who attended one of Bindel’s talks at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that her “presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry’” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.”) Or, as Bindel herself exclaims — an old ally of my old friend Peter Tatchell, she shares his oracular way of dealing with opponents: Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM Bindel has the same strategy as rich and puissant abolitionist groups like Equality Now, who have urged “investigating” the paltry funding of sex worker advocacy with the zeal of prurient Mississippi congressmen ogling the Comintern. Those girls only seem to be ragtag sex dissidents; in fact they’re Stalin’s seed, a dark coven of subversives, “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man”! This myth of a monied, mighty plot by “sex workers” who are really pimps in drag is central to how the abolitionists think. They preen themselves on the heroic deeds of tiny Davids slinging at a sinister Goliath. All Bindel’s research and rhetoric, her travel and “tabloid-style personal attacks” and trolling, will be convenient tools to hide the basic fact: that sex workers’ rights groups are the least powerful part of the human rights movement, persecuted everywhere, unrecognized and underfunded, dissed and mistreated by governments and NGOs alike, even by LGBT activists who should share their goals of bodily liberty but sell their easy principles for the ignis fatuus of respectability. I don’t know a single sex worker’s rights movement in the global South that could easily muster the £6,773 Bindel ginned up in a few weeks. “Powerful lobby,” my white ass.

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

But here’s my question. Bindel offers benefits to people who give her money. Or as she puts it, “Those who pay will also have access to special rewards such as signed books, invites to a Q&A, and extra material.”

For £5 you get to “Access activity feed” (here’s my webcam); plus “early access to articles and” — lascivious, the ring of this — “extra content.” For £15 you get “right to ask questions individually.” (Talk dirty.) For £250 and more you get “All the below, plus coffee/lunch and a chat with Julie in London. You may also bring a friend.” Does Nick Kristof need to raid the premises and batter down the door, to rescue Julie from indentured slavery and a repulsive threesome? Should he bring Somaly Mam?

No, of course not. Back off, Nick. This enticement is fine, in Bindel’s book. She’s not selling sexual services, just mental ones. It’s only her mind that’s on the auction block.

You’ve got to get the value system straight. It’s not OK for women to sell sex, because sex is immensely precious, the essence of a woman, the cold gemstone set in her golden loins that establishes her value as a human being. (No wonder Bindel hates trans women; they lack the sex parts that make real women worthwhile.) It is OK when a woman sells her intellectual labors, as Julie Bindel does: because that’s just cheap, mass-market stuff you can find in any flea market in Brixton.

I’m glad I understand Bindel’s peculiar feminism now. Kapish. Let’s move along.

Flash-mob demo on International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Flash-mob demo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

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

Sex work and the Senate: Swedish meatballs

Ny spännande möbel från IKEA! Med IKEAs nya PERVERS ställning kan man hotta upp sitt sexförhållande. Go ahead, translate that.

Ny spännande möbel från IKEA! Med IKEAs nya PERVERS ställning kan man hotta upp sitt sexförhållande. Go ahead, translate that.

There was a time when “the Swedish model” meant either some girl who was dating Leonardo DiCaprio, or a literary anthology of IKEA assembly instructions. Those were innocent days. Now it’s all about sex, and not of the unthreatening DiCaprio variety. Specifically, it refers to what Swedes call the Sexköpslagen or Sex Purchase Law, a 14-year-old act saying that no man kan hotta upp sitt sexförhållande with the use of money. The provision criminalizing the buyer but not the seller of sexual services has become a pattern for pushing legal repression elsewhere, including Canada, England, Scotland, and most recently Ireland. Now even the US Senate is under its influence.

David Vitter is a boringly conservative Louisiana Republican. For the most part, he’s there to vote for whatever the oil industry tells him to, though he spikes up the monotony a bit by fighting same-sex marriage, crusading against gambling, and getting lewd women to dress him up in diapers.

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Vitter in adult clothing

The latter propensity started to make headlines during his first term in the Senate, in 2007. First his phone number appeared in the records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “DC Madam,” a former paralegal who ran an expensive Washington escort service. Vitter more or less admitted things, in ritual fashion: the press conference, the sobbingly supportive spouse, the claim that “I asked for and received forgiveness from God and from my wife in confession and marriage counseling.” Back in New Orleans, another madam claimed him as a client going back to the 1990s, and another source said he was known around the House of the Rising Sun for his diaper fetish. This wasn’t the first time such stories had surfaced. In 2002, he dropped out of a race for governor, citing “marital problems,” in the face of a magazine story detailing his relations with a sex worker.

When I was 18, I stayed for a week in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of Noo Awlins where the Vitters (David, Wendy, and four kids) maintain their happy home. (Mrs. Vitter once told the press about the possibility of an extramarital affair: “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.”) A heterosexual friend of mine had moved down there, ostensibly to teach school but actually for the thriving sex scene. I helped him fill his waterbed, something I have never done before or since, and then he proceeded to max out five credit cards on wide varieties of illegal escapades while I read all of Tennessee Williams on the back porch. There were so many sex shops and massage parlors in the neighborhood that I saw neon even with my eyes closed. There’s a reason they call New Orleans the Big Easy, and that’s probably also a reason Vitter got himself re-elected, and still sits in the Senate lubricating things for Big Oil. Despite Wendy’s unsubtle threat, she doesn’t even seem to have made meatballs of his genitalia.

Vitter’s latest crusade is that obsession of the Republican right, defunding Obamacare. For the last week he’s been on the Senate floor full-time, demanding a vote to strip Senate and White House staffers of federal contributions to their health care coverage. In retaliation, Senators are discussing a draft law targeting him. It would prohibit any federal contribution being given to a lawmaker or an aide if a congressional ethics committee has “probable cause to determine” that the person has “engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.”

This is, although the Senators probably don’t know it, the Swedish model in action: punishing what proponents like to call “the demand side of prostitution.” And you have to admit it’s delicious in the case of Vitter, whose time spent on the demand side has been so long and so hypocritical. The man is really shameless. Just a few months ago, he introduced an amendment to strip certain classes of convicts from the right to receive food stamps ever in their lives. He said it would keep the Federal government from helping “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” not to starve. Oddly, the crime of solicitation of prostitution was not on the list. Even if David goes to the Stockholm slammer for his excursions someday, he can always rely on welfare.

This comes, moreover, just days after another guy has been punished again for taking a walk on the demand side once too often. Eliot Spitzer, formerly known both as Client No. 9 and as Governor of New York, tried to resurrect his political career by running for Comptroller of New York City. He had resigned the governorship five years ago, if anyone doesn’t remember, after he was discovered to have patronized another DC escort agency during repeated visits to the nation’s capital. He lost the race: redemption denied.

But not the Governor: Poster shaming accused johns in Nassau County, NY. Please ignore the fine print.

But not the Governor: Poster shaming accused johns in Nassau County, NY. Please ignore the fine print.

All the same: why exactly are these guys being punished? After all, in the simple act of paying for sex, Vitter and Spitter injured no one — with the possible exception of their wives, whose long-suffering loyalty is a private matter, not a public one. Much as one appreciates the Democratic Senate’s sense of irony, if you routinely punished every Congressmember, or his member, for “improper conduct reflecting discreditably” on Congress, there would be no Congress. The only hurt they did was in their hypocrisy. And the true lineaments of this hypocrisy, alas, are the last things for which they’ll face consequences.

Spitzerfreude

Spitzerfreude: Wardrobe malfunction

We expect right-wingers to be two-faced; but the left-wing strain of progressive Puritanism running Spitzer’s career was arguably more dangerous — and popular. He had long tied himself to anti-trafficking militants committed to making life miserable for both sex workers and clients. As state Attorney General, he let the eradicationist group Equality Now goad him into a years-long campaign of harassment against a travel company that marketed sex tours. He drove the firm out of business, but a trail of frivolous, dismissed indictments and acquittals left the case looking like a huge waste of time and taxpayers’ money. As Governor, he signed an extra-tough “anti-trafficking” law, with the Swedish model in mind, that massively increased penalties for purchasing sexual services (exactly what he was doing at the time) while maintaining penalties for sex workers as well. But what folks hate Spitzer for is having bought sex, not the repressive policies he promoted. Paying women is offensive; persecuting them, fine. Called out for “immorality” during his last campaign, he actually had the nerve to cite his crackdown on consensual activities in his own defense.

All this brings to the fore two facts about the Swedish model. 

First: It doesn’t work. It doesn’t “discourage demand.” If public exposure did that, then David Vitter, who was first accused of frequenting sex workers in 2002, would have stopped then, long before his political career almost crashed to a halt in 2007. God knows what he’s doing now — his wife sounds like the kind of woman who’d charge for her tearful endorsement by making the man wear a permanent ankle monitor. But the very fact that he continues unrepentant on his moral crusades indicates some basic lesson hasn’t been learned. And as for Spitzer, Melissa Giri Grant notices that his anti-trafficking law “didn’t stoke enough stigma to stop even the man who signed it from going to a prostitute.”

There is, in fact, no evidence that Sweden’s own Sexköpslagen has brought down the demand for prostitution, or saved people from trafficking. A recent official evaluation of its results, as Laura Agustin has demonstrated, produced no credible evidence on either score. It’s a classic law that enables legislators to feel good about themselves, while leaving the situation that initially disturbed them undisturbed.

The good wife: David Vitter with Wendy in press conference, 2007

The good wife: David and Wendy Vitter in press conference, 2007

Second: The people the model hurts are sex workers themselves. As Grant says, stigma “can’t be harnessed and directed, or isolated only to the men who buy sex. Under ‘end demand’ policies, sex workers are as stigmatized as they long have been, and they still face violence from the public and from police.” The Swedish government’s own report acknowledged: 

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization [of clients] has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

Women are still swept up in police stings targeting their clients, publicly humiliated and detained. Yet, the report said, this negative impact “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” There’s the rub: Combating prostitution means combating prostitutes. It always does.

Fighting back: Sex workers rally in Kolkata, India, July 24, 2012. They participated in an alternative International AIDS Conference in protest against US visa restrictions that prevented attendance at the main conference in DC.

Fighting back: Sex workers rally in Kolkata, India, July 24, 2012. They participated in an alternative International AIDS Conference in protest against US visa restrictions that prevented their attendance at the main conference in DC.

Spitzer suffered some for his deeds, but the women underwent far worse. As it happens, Kristin Davis, a madam arrested in a crackdown that followed the Spitzer scandal, wound up in the race against him for Comptroller this year, running as a Libertarian. She said she wanted to ask him

If he thought it was fair that he was never charged as a john under his new felony law but that I spent four months in Rikers Island from which I returned penniless, homeless, and forced to take sex offender classes for five months with pedophiles and perverts while he returned to his wife in his Fifth Avenue high rise without ever being fingerprinted, mug shot, remanded, or charged with a crime under the very law he signed.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 1956-2008

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 1956-2008

Even if the “Swedish model” ostensibly lets the hookers off the legal hook, a panoply of other laws are regularly used against them. Spitzer’s downfall started because the Patriot Act mandated tracing suspicious or potentially unlawful bank activity. That radically ramps up the surveillance of sex workers.  But money-laundering and related charges have been levelled against sex work enterprises for years. In 2008, a jury convicted “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey not of prostitution, but of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes, and “racketeering.” The crimes carried a maximum of 55 years in prison. Palfrey killed herself before sentencing. One of her former employees, Brandy Britton, on trial for four counts of prostitution, had also committed suicide the year before.

And Vitter stays in the Senate. Another powerful man waylaid by the “DC Madam” scandal was Randall Tobias. He resigned as George W. Bush’s AIDS coordinator when his number turned up in the case — though he claimed he’d only called the girls for a massage or two. Tobias had been a key promoter of the Bush administration’s pro-abstinence policies. A year before his downfall, he said, in an interview about the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), that

The Congress I think very appropriately has put into the legislation that created this program that organizations, in order to receive money, need to have a policy opposed to prostitution and sex trafficking. I don’t think it’s too difficult for people to be opposed to prostitution and sex trafficking, which are in fact two contributing causes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Unindicted and not too badly damaged, Tobias — a former drug-company CEO –continues to circle through corporate boards. The evil that men do lives after them. The requirement that no organization sympathetic to sex workers’ rights could receive PEPFAR money remained securely ensconced under the Obama administration, until the Supreme Court finally overturned it this June. Sex workers around the world paid for Tobias’ hypocrisy with their human rights, their health, and their lives. That’s exploitation; that’s the raw deal.

In event of arrest: IKEA instructions

In event of arrest: IKEA instructions

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.