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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor…
They always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.
What Ogden Nash believed was good for the literary goose would surely be even better for the activist gander (that’s a metaphor, I know). Yet once you’ve got a comparison in your head, it takes a brain tumor to dislodge it. The reigning simile these days is that Russians are Nazis. Therefore: Putin = Hitler, gays = Jews, 1936 = 2014, and the day after the Olympics = Auschwitz. The latest item is a Huffington Post piece which argues Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law is exactly the same as Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The author proves this by replacing “homosexuality” in the new law’s text with the words “interracial relationships.” Q.E.D.
Unfortunately what his argument lacks is the other half of the comparison — a look at what the Nuremberg Laws said. Evidently the author hasn’t read them, because they say something quite different from Putin’s bill, and a single search-and-replace won’t make them identical. The Russian law treats sexualities as a kind of virus of persuasion, and restricts freedom of expression to keep unwanted ones from spreading. The German laws regarded race as an absolute divide, an unfathomable chasm in morality and biology that the State had to reflect. The Russian law is about defining and closing the public sphere; it censors what people say. The German laws ripped away both public rights and private safety: they stripped Jews of citizenship and began the process of criminalizing all relations, sexual and social, between the “races.” Race as it was in Hitler’s eyes can’t be turned into sexuality as Putin sees it. You’ll never change the latter hatred if you imagine what it wants and where it comes from in the former’s terms.
But there’s no stopping comparisons. Apartheid, of course, comes in a close second to the Holocaust as a travel guide to Sochi. Just yesterday, blogger Melanie Nathan delivered a death-blow to the credentials of a scholar who studies Russian society and history. His crime? The schmuck wrote an op-ed arguing the Stoli boycott was misguided. “His voice should drown in one shot of vodka,” she says devastatingly: “He also did not live through the collapse of an Apartheid South Africa.” Throw him off the ivory tower! It takes a South African to know the Russian soul. Indeed, Cape Town and the various Holocaust museums around the world contain the only qualified Russian experts in the world; all those silly Slavic departments should just shut down. Endless showings of Cry Freedom and Schindler’s List will teach us all we need to know. If we just mimic the non-black, non-Jewish heroes that Kevin Kline and Liam Neeson so movingly served up (“bridge characters,” in Nick Kristof’s helpful explanation, who “get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved”), tyrant Putin’s nyets are numbered.
So I give up. Or maybe I can join in myself. One comparison’s as good as another. The news today is that Putin has just released a decree (“On the use of high security during the XXII Olympic Winter Games”) that essentially ends freedom of movement in and around Sochi from January 7 till the end of March.
There’ll be a “forbidden zone” — this is like a Tarkovsky movie — blotting out most of the city of 350,000 as if it were Chernobyl. Access for regular Russians will be severely curtailed. Any “meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not associated with the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games” are banned during the period.
Western gays are the loudest ones sounding alarms over the restrictions. But they’ll hamstring plenty of other dissenters: human rights groups and Russia’s environmental movement, which hoped to protest the destruction the Games’ construction boom has brought. Independent TV channel Dozhd warned that Sochi 2014 will be like the 1980 Moscow Games, when barbed wire sliced up the city to keep “antisocial” elements distant.
And here’s the thing. This actually is one point where we can learn from the experience of Olympics past, and from other sporting events as well. Putin’s exclusions, though sweeping in their scope, are far from unprecedented in their nature.
The Olympics are always a chance for hosts to do some moral cleansing, and drive away undesirables by brute force. Gay activists join a long list of victims from past Games. Among the exiled have been the homeless, immigrants, drug addicts. They pretty much always include people selling sex, though. If Western gay bloggers or activists want to know what Putin’s decree will mean in practice: ask a sex worker.
Try a sex worker in London, for instance. Before every big sporting event, the same rhetoric reverberates: Prostitutes are going to take over this town. All those repressed athletes with pent-up body fluids, all those spectators rutting! It was everywhere in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. The press trumpeted: “Vice girls hope to strike gold”! Local councillors “called for politicians and police across the capital to work together to tackle the problem of prostitution”:
There needs to be speed of action and there needs to be a London-wide response to this … It’s not legal so why are we tolerating it? I have asked for it to be a policing priority.
“Major sporting events can be a magnet for the global sex and trafficking industry,” intoned Dame Tessa Jowell, the Labour Party’s Olympics maven. “I am determined that traffickers will not exploit London 2012.” (Jowell’s husband had been jailed as a result of his lawyering for Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps a vision of the Italian lecher descending on England like Count Dracula, and making bunga bunga parties proliferate much as the Transylvanian spread toothmarks, clouded her objectivity.)
All predictable. None of it true. The same terrors, the same answers always recur. Before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canadian advocates denounced “The shame of Olympics prostitution,” demanding a clampdown on women to restrain “the sexual desires of fans.” Germany, hosting football Babylon in 2006, braced for a “World Cup sex explosion,” “an influx of sex slaves.” But none of the influx happened. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) debunked the paranoias in a detailed report:
Prostitution abolitionists have argued that large groups of men at sporting events result in increased demand for commercial sex, and that this demand is supposedly met through trafficking women. Anti-trafficking organisations, sex workers rights organisations and other stakeholders have strongly refuted this claim.
They neatly lay out how predictions stacked up to realities:
The predictions are nearly always couched as concern for “trafficked” women, but they mostly come down to twinned anxieties over nuisances to “normal” neighbors, and over the reputation of the host city. Yet, however based in fear and faked statistics, the demand to drive out sex workers is hard to resist. What major sporting events bring is not an “explosion” in prostitution, but an explosion in repression.
Repression! — not in evil Russia, but in liberal Canada and the UK, countries that value human rights, except for sex workers, who aren’t human. Local researchers found that “increased police harassment” of sex workers around the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics endangered their health as well as safety. There weren’t many arrests — this is Canada, eh — but much of the city became a no-go zone. The onslaught displaced them to “more isolated spaces away from health and support services, and increase[d] risks of violence and transmission of HIV/STIs.”
London’s crackdown was worse. In the first eight months of 2010 — fully two years before the Olympics — police carried out 113 brothel raids in the seven boroughs where contests and tourists would cluster. (There were only 29 raids in the capital’s other 25 boroughs.) This pace quickened as the Games drew near. In Tower Hamlets, police arrested 14 alleged sex workers in 2010, then 37 in 2011, and 44 in the first four months of 2012 alone! Toynbee Hall, an anti-poverty charity, said prostitutes were being “cleaned off the streets.”
Prostitutes are being told to stay away from parts of Newham … They have also been given curfews from 10pm to 6am, according to Toynbee Hall. One sex worker told the charity she was not allowed onto the street where she lived after 8pm.
Cops asked for “cooperation” from phone companies in shutting down one of the safer ways for sex workers to screen clients.
They want help targeting numbers advertised on thousands of sex calling cards that litter phone boxes throughout the capital. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, said the mobile phone numbers are a valuable resource for those behind the sex industry. He said an agreement must be reached between mobile phone networks and police … “Hopefully it will become dangerous to advertise your number in these boxes.”
A 2012 report by a Conservative member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, found that Olympics-related brothel raids were forcing more sex workers onto the streets, making them in turn more vulnerable to further arrests — and to violence. The risks of women being trafficked actually grew. As crackdowns drove sex workers out of their usual work spaces, police lost touch with (and trust from) sources who might have helped them identify abused women. (This situation was not helped by the UK’s appalling Sexual Offences Act of 2003, a product of Tony Blair’s oily moralism, which redefined “sex trafficking” to mean something other than “trafficking”: the term could now cover any travel to the UK to commit a sexual offence, whether voluntary or not.) But helping women wasn’t really the goal. Tower Hamlets Council said, “Where they [sex workers] aren’t willing to work with us, we are taking enforcement action against them.”
And this is nothing next to what’s happening in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will host the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics two years later. The latter honor fell to the city just months after Eduardo Paes, a chameleonlike center-right politician, won the mayoralty in 2008. Paes’s campaign money came from real-estate and construction magnates. They dreamed of gentrifying tenderloin territories across the Rio landscape. They’d hired Paes as a repo man, to evict the occupying poor.
Even before the Olympics bid succeeded, Paes launched a massive police assault on favelas and poorer quarters of Rio, terrifyingly called Choque de Ordem — “Shock of Order.” It means semi-military invasions of whole neighborhoods to root out drug gangs as well as other illegal or informal activity: street vendors, squatters, tax evaders, people who don’t pay utility bills, and of course sex workers. Usually, there’s a two-pronged assault. First troops from BOPE (“Special Police Operations Battalions”) attack the district and drive out or kill any dealers or leaders who offer resistance. Then the UPP (“Pacifying Police Units”) move in to deal with non-violent recalcitrants, like prostitutes, and to establish a permanent Pax Paesana in the area. With the Games coming, the aggression grows. To poorer Cariocans, the UPP are the Olympics Police.
Prostitution is legal in Brazil (though pimping and keeping a brothel are against the law), but Paes doesn’t care. It’s disorder, and deserves a shock. Earlier this year one judge, who acquitted detainees from a brothel raid, described a “repressive political climate rising from the adoption of hygienist measures, aimed at preparing Rio de Janeiro for the mega sporting events in 2014 and 2016.” One reporter recounted last year how
On the eve of June 14, as tourists streamed into town for the highly publicized Rio+20 [UN] Conference [ironically, on sustainable development], armed members of the Copacabana Police Precinct and Rio’s public prosecutor’s office arrived at a brothel called Centauros, in the heart of Ipanema Beach. They arrested prostitutes, management and the owner, seized documents, computers and used condoms, and walked out with $150,000 dollars in cash. The owner of the brothel spent a week at a maximum security prison. …
Rio has already shuttered 24 sex establishments in the rapidly gentrifying downtown and tourist‐ friendly South Zone neighborhoods. Another 33 venues have been threatened or harassed by the police. The Rio+20 raid included Centauros and another dozen of the most popular sex venues … It’s the biggest crackdown on prostitution in a generation.
Putin could hardly dream of remaking Sochi in the way Paes and the neoliberals are rebuilding Rio. They’re as drunk on eminent domain as Robert Moses or Albert Speer. 3,000 homes will die by bulldozer, their residents evicted, for a huge highway to exempt Olympic visitors from Rio traffic jams. In the vast favela of Rocinha, the cleanup started by shutting down street parties, a venue for sex as well as fun. The local UPP commander, “a kind of manager in Rocinha,” explained that “Citizenship is a two-way street. Parties ended because they weren’t fitting the rules.” What fits the rules are rich people. “Property values have risen…. Rents are rising as well: a little room costs 450 reais ($225) per month, the price of a house before the UPP.” As the poor are priced out, their homes become hotels for sport-loving tourists. In Rocinha, one posh auberge
covers four floors of a building that once had 106 apartments. Half of them were converted to rooms charging 98 reais ($49) a night. …. [According to the manager], the first shipment of tourists are due to arrive this month. “A group of 29 French people confirmed they were staying for one week. They want to see what a slum looks like.”
Prostitutes exit for more respectable guests. The city envisions converting 60 “four-hour-nap hotels,” used by sex workers and clients, to fancy digs for Olympic spectators. Activists also face exile. “In the Cinelândia cultural district downtown, Rio’s oldest and most active prostitutes rights group, Davida, was evicted to make way for a boutique hotel by a French hotelier.”
Brazil’s resistance should be our inspiration. The massive protests of recent months unleashed indignation at the evictions, exclusions, violence carried out for sport and profit. Sex workers too have been on the march.
Yet in London, few powerful voices opposed the Olympic rollback of sex workers’ freedom — and certainly few LGBT activists. Andrew Boff, who’s gay, was a rarity in raising objections. By contrast, Peter Tatchell spoke out to “end prostitution around the Olympics.”
Anyone remember Carl Schmitt? If you seriously want to make comparisons to Nazi law, Schmitt really should be a starting point. A legal theorist of how democracies die, he wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”
For Schmitt, the key to authority (and, in equal degree, the indispensable secret weapon and the Achilles heel of democracies) was the legal ability to declare an emergency, to invent a moment or a place when law and due process stop. There, pure, arbitrary power can rule. The state of emergency is a paradox; provided for in law, it is nonetheless a “suspension of the legal order in its totality”; it appears to “escape every legal consideration.” Most democracies make allowances for an emergency to stop the democratic order, temporarily. The Weimar Republic did; the President could declare lawmaking, rights, and justice in abeyance, and rule by decree. It seemed like a useful idea at the time. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the ultimate form and zone of the emergency, the “suspension of the legal order in its totality,” in the concentration camp.
The emergency has become both basic metaphor and fact in our modern moment. This dates at least to 9/11, when an act of terror proffered an excuse for setting ordinary legality aside, for Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. The way that law can delineate preserves of lawlessness — much as it draws borders around national parks — obsesses both right and left. And it’s an issue everywhere. I write this in Egypt. An emergency law suspending ordinary rights and justice — allowing detention without trial, trial without evidence, military courts, sentence without appeal — has been in effect in one or another form for all but about 20 of the last 113 years. There’s a curfew now, the Cairo streets close down at 9 PM, tanks hunch at intersections, you can be arrested for wearing a beard. What Putin is doing in Sochi is simply another version: making the city an emergency zone, restricting rights of movement, putting bodies in extralegal cages, using terror as a reason.
There are people, though, for whom the emergency isn’t an exception. There are people who endure the state of emergency every day.
Sex law has never worked the way the rest of law does. It doesn’t play by the same rules or ask for similar evidence. Law tends to see sex as an emergency where the regular principles don’t apply.
Sex workers suffer an extreme example. They often live their lives under a police regime where due process plays little part — an Olympic repression without end, a perpetual state of suspended justice. Provisions allowing detention without a chance of trial are everywhere. Police can impose fines on suspected prostitutes whenever they like, or curfews, or confine them to particular areas of a town. Morals campaigns in Zimbabwe and “quality of life” policing in the US carry comparable effects. “After dark,” several Turkish trans* women told me ten years ago, “if a transvestite goes out even for a social reason, they will arrest you for prostitution. Whether you are a prostitute or not, they assume you are.” To be arrested once for street prostitution in Turkey means to be placed on a register, subject to arrest whenever they notice you again: “Police have such powers that they can arrest you because the way you dress is against general morality or public health, or disrupting traffic.” Until a few years ago, the UK mandated (many ex-colonies still do) that any woman the police judged a “common prostitute” was suspect and could be arrested just for showing herself on the roads.
Street sex workers often circle in a public jail, with daily movement hemmed by invisible but palpable borders. But workers in state-regulated brothels may live in more literal prisons, where police protect public morality by not letting them out. To be a prostitute, in those regimes, is to lose the right to be seen. Why do you think your pungent spaghetti meal with capers and anchovies is called puttanesca — “whore’s pasta”? Because prostitutes confined in state-regulated brothels in early 20th-century Italy were only let out once a week to shop. To live, they needed to make a salty, preservable sauce that would last till their next allowed excursion.
Under such regimes of surveillance and constriction, you are a criminal; you don’t need to be judged guilty to become one. Proofs don’t matter, courts don’t intervene. The New Yorker recently reported on the scandal of “asset forfeiture,” by which police simply seize property from suspects who may never even be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Alleged sex workers and accused clients are among the commonest victims. One US state just passed a law that “permits authorities to forfeit the cash that was used in or intended for…sex solicitation”; it “applies to prostitutes, patrons or pimps.” Any money you have on you, or maybe even in your ATM account, will go to the cops.
And then, in the UK, there’s the “ASBO”: the “Anti-Social Behavior Order.” We owe this work of genius as well to Tony Blair, who introduced it in 1998. It allows a magistrate to control someone’s movement or behavior, not because they’ve committed a crime, but because they’ve done something “anti-social.” It must last for at least two years, sometimes longer. “ASBOs rely on hearsay and police evidence alone,” the English Collective of Prostitutes notes. Liberty, the British human rights organization, explains that even though the order is served under civil law, “Breaching the conditions of an ASBO is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison … Individuals are being sent to prison for committing acts which may not be in themselves illegal.” Even if the act prohibited in the ASBO is something as innocent as playing loud music or walking through Sussex Gardens, you can be treated worse than an armed robber if you commit it.
“There has been a massive expansion in the availability and use of civil orders to regulate conduct outside of the criminal justice sphere,” Liberty says. And who are the targets? The Guardian reported in 2005,
Anti-social behaviour orders are increasingly being used against prostitutes as a “quick fix” way of clearing women off the streets, campaigners warn….
Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union Napo, said … “Some local authorities, in conjunction with police, are using them as a way of clearing the streets of people whose behaviour is undesirable, but not antisocial. The actual offence of prostitution is not imprisonable, but we are ending up with people facing up to five years in prison for it.”
The orders dictate sex workers’ daily movements. Here’s a headline: “ASBO bans Roehampton prostitute from Tooting Bec Common.”
Sarah Caldecott, who has several convictions for soliciting in the area, was given an antisocial behaviour order banning her from entering the zone for the next five years. … Sergeant Jill Horsfall, of Wandsworth police’s Bedford Ward SNT, said: “Now she is the subject of an ASBO Sarah Caldecott should not be under any illusions about what will happen to her if she is spotted anywhere near Tooting Common.”
Restricting where sex workers can go, confining them, controlling them out of the public eye — isn’t that what the “pimps” and “traffickers” stand accused of doing? Tony Blair trafficked in women’s bodies. It taught him to traffic in terror. His limits on civil liberties for despised nuisances foreshadowed some of the “anti-terrorism measures” he would introduce even before 9/11, allowing search without cause, detention without oversight, interrogation without check. The English Collective of Prostitutes says, “[As] with anti-terror laws, ASBOs have spawned a parallel legal system where the normal rules of evidence do not apply.”
“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Sex workers in the post-Blair UK, as in many other countries, carry their own Sochi about with them, shadow and burden above their heads. Yet LGBT activists who protest Putin rarely worry about the infringements of sexual freedom on their kerbs, in their own back yards.
You can learn things from sex workers’ resistance: slogans to borrow, strategies to share. LGBT advocates could look at the campaign to call out politicians on the 2012 repression in London. They might figure out how sex workers got the Greek government to back off from brothel raids before the 2004 Olympics — actually easing a law restricting brothel locations! They might take some lessons from sex workers fighting the restructuring of Rio. But they don’t.
Our Western LGBT activists lack imagination, the kind of imagination that connects you to reality. They don’t imagine sex workers as allies; don’t see their repression as relevant and urgent; don’t believe their activism entails models, their experience examples, or their lives value. Meanwhile, the injustices go on, and no athletes stand up in righteous anger, and Dan Savage and Jamie Kirchick have other things to do. The Republic of Ireland introduced the ASBO in 2007. It’s almost never been used since then, “shunned” out of some instinctive, civilized revulsion at its restrictiveness. Four days ago, though, police tried to invoke it against eight women, mostly Romanian, “to curb prostitution in Limerick.” Ireland cages women. Boycott Guinness, anybody? No.
The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work. Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change. The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon. And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.
“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.
Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.
One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.
Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.
Who writes this stuff for the Times? (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.) Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen? Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features? Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself? Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”
The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:
As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.
Is this guy a pimp? Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.
And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:
In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.
Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:
I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.
The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising. Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.
The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.'” But:
Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.
Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.” Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,
Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.
But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether. We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times.
Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice. Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof. In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”
The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm. In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:
When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.
Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …
In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.
For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”
The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial. “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,” said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”
It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.” Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.
Maggie McNeill ties into the wildly fluctuating figures that Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and their prohibit-prostitution acolytes use to push the idea that child sex trafficking is a massive crisis in the US. Drawing on the research of three intrepid reporters, she invites us to compare
the widely-touted “100,000-300,000 trafficked children” myth … with the police arrest records of the 37 largest American cities … [I]n the past decade there were only 8263 juveniles arrested for prostitution among them, an average of 827 per year (roughly 22 per city per year). Even if one assumes that these cities together have only half of the underage prostitutes in the U.S., that still gives us fewer than 1700 per year. Ask yourself: Even considering the incompetence of police departments, which is more believable: that police catch roughly 5% of underage prostitutes per year (by my estimate), or that they catch only 0.27% per year? …
Not that any of this bothers Maggie Neilson, Ashton & Demi’s “celebrity charity consultant”; she told the reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.” Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827? Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”): as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes. In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services. If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”
- These people throw around numbers like so much confetti.
- At what dreadful point in your life, with what emotions of numbness and accidie and emptiness, with what complete lack of direction and slack limpness of the will, amid what utter failure to believe that you can possibly find a useful niche for yourself or do anything that might even imaginably have an impact on the world for some evanescent good — in what hopeless rut of existential despair do you wake up in the morning and decide to become a “celebrity charity consultant”?
Branded deep in Harvard’s institutional psyche is the trauma of the 1969 student strike, when protesters occupied the president’s office and shut the school down. They were calling for an end to the University’s coziness with the US military, a black studies program, and no more expropriations of working-class housing — but beyond that, as the famous poster said, they wanted a different life, demanded “to be more human.” In the strike’s wake, the University moved the president’s house to a far suburban street to prevent hostage-taking, delved more tunnels between campus buildings to facilitate escape, and formally invited women to join the student body, to keep the radicals distracted. Some distinguished and unnerved professors in the Department of English decided to experiment with thinking the way the demonstrators did. If you wanted to destroy Western civilization, they reasoned, where would you strike next? Naturally, you’d try to burn the card catalog of Widener Library, that comprehensive collection of man’s intellectual accomplishments, to render the lending system impotent and knowledge inaccessible to the race. So they recruited sympathetic colleagues to stand sentinel on our cultural heritage in shifts, and these tweedy, chalk-haired heroes took turns lurking discreetly around the catalogs, on guard lest some filthy longhair slip a Molotov cocktail into a drawer. I often think of this whenever I go to the reading room and see the seamless computerized system doling out books now. Barring a Chinese virus, civilization is safe.
This history helps explain the University’s inept, paranoid response to the nascent Occupy Harvard movement, a few hundred protesters demanding an institution more open to the other 99%. The institution has closed and padlocked the gates of Harvard Yard, stationed police all round as if it were a rather cushy Supermax prison, and barred access to anyone without a Harvard ID. As a public-relations move, this tends to reinforce the demonstrators’ point, that those outside the 1% aren’t welcome there. However, it’s a reminder that the fabled, shared, rich commonality of intellectual life has nothing to do with the University as faux community. Harvard is private property — it is, in fact, quite literally a corporation, and proudly proclaims it’s the oldest one in the Western Hemisphere. It can keep anyone off the grass it likes. The only one allowed to occupy Harvard is Harvard itself.
I’ve written here earlier about the “new enclosures,” the increasing privatization of public space: how much of what we might think is open territory in city and suburb is actually owned by somebody. And corporations buying up the commons can then severely circumscribe our ability to speak, protest, and assemble. It’s important to remember, though, that even space that is formally, legally public — streets, sidewalks, squares — usually comes with all manner of restrictions on who is allowed to use it or to appear there. In many cases these limitations are invisible to “respectable” users, whose looks and manners don’t transgress the written or unwritten rules. But for others, they are vivid and brutal. And it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of these boundaries involve sex.
A new report by the Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC, “Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington DC,” shows some of these. The US capital has passed new laws augmenting “an already stringent system of policing and “zero tolerance” for most forms of commercial sex in the city,” by restricting where sex workers can go.
The most high profile measure allows the Chief of Police to declare “prostitution free zones” (PFZs) in which officers have wide-sweeping power to move along or arrest people who police believe to be congregating for the purpose of prostitution. The PFZ concept was framed as an innovative tool to assist law enforcement in its efforts to rid the District of prostitution. In fact, the law simply legitimized previously existing arbitrary and discriminatory police actions directed at people believed to be engaging in sex work.
This is fairly astonishing. A “prostitution free zone” in the city one of whose streets (K Street, if you’re from another planet) has become a worldwide symbol of corporate bribery and corruption? Shouldn’t members of Congress and similar hustlers be banned from these moral precincts, as well as the working girls? It takes chutzpah.
The inevitable way these laws work is that police arrest anyone they recognize as a sex worker (usually, anybody with a previous arrest) when they’re spotted outside the “safe zone.” One stop from a cop can be enough to restrict your mobility for life. But this is an everyday and widespread way of regulating sex work and keeping the unwanted out of sight. Taiwan, for instance, claims a brand-new law is a liberal triumph that “legalizes” prostitution in certain areas. But in fact it eliminates sex workers’ freedom of movement — and is likely to increase prosecutions.
Taiwan has legalised the creation of red light districts in a bid to regulate the sex industry, but prostitutes themselves say the new law could actually worsen their plight.
Under the law passed by parliament Friday, local governments are allowed to set up special penalty-free sex trade zones, but outside them prostitutes will still be be fined – as, for the first time, will their clients and pimps.
The constitutional court scrapped the previous law punishing only prostitutes on the grounds it was unfair.
But so far no local authority has yet said it will create a legal prostitution area, leaving streetwalkers fearing they face the worst of both worlds.
The desire to set up a segregated sexual geography runs deep. The Dominican Republic is presently debating a proposed law requiring sex workers to carry government-issued cards certifying their health status, at all times. Their work would be confined to so-called “zones of tolerance” — an old but Orwellian term — and they would be restricted to living “in establishments away from residential centers, main avenues of the city and areas that have historical, artistic or cultural significance for the country.” At a public hearing, a neighborhood association representative bemoaned the “shame” incurred
as a result of the activity of prostitution in the place. He also considered as embarrassing and decadent the spectacles and misconduct made by women, homosexuals, and transvestites who sell sex.
A Dominican journalist calls the proposal a “mask of hypocrisy,” a breast-beating substitute for “improving the living conditions of the population.”
Part of the political genius of the Occupy movements is that they give physical, immediate, almost sensuous expression to the sense of exclusion so many economically and politically disenfranchised people feel. They sharpen the contrast between private property and common ground, expropriation and community, the high towers of financial privilege and the cold and open street.
It’s vital, then, to bear in memory the other despised and unwanted people who have been shoved out of the commons into the alleys and the prison cells: the sex workers, drug users, cruisers, vagrants, homeless, and the rest, all those whose bodies expose them to the lash of laws that for the rest of us remain invisible and unfelt. It’s critical (even as the right wing tries to deprecate and demonize the movement as a cover for rutting adolescents to make free love like rabbits) to recall that sex is entwined with money and power as a justification for exclusion. Occupy sex! Own up to it and own it in all its diversity of forms and pleasures. Our bodies and desires need to be reclaimed for a human future too.
It’s movie night! This video, made by sex workers, features sex workers speaking out about women’s right “to choose what happens to one’s body and to control what happens to one’s body.” It’s a rousing defense of the right to bodily autonomy as well as sexual expression, and I particularly like the slinky music playing in the background.
The question of UK aid linkage concerns me because of what I’ve always taken as an issue basic to activist politics: representation. Who speaks for whom? Why should people in London be accredited as honorary consuls for movements thousands of miles away? Against the interwoven obstacles of distance, borders, money, and power, how can those movements make their voices heard?
The borders are psychological, not just political, and there’s as much silence in LA as London.
Mention “prostitution” in Los Angeles and you’re likely to hear of local hero Ashton Kutcher, who campaigns against any form of sex work as human trafficking. (On the other coast, he tried to get American Airlines to pull its advertising from the Village Voice because the latter ran ads for sex work: “Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?”, ran a barrage of tweets.)
Meanwhile, when a sex workers’ rights project called SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You) tried to buy space around LA for a text-only billboard contending that consensual sex work is not the same as trafficking or slavery, nobody would sell. “Any variation of the group’s message was banned by Clear Channel, CBS, Lamar, Regency, Van Wagner, Avant Outdoor, LA Transit Authority, and Outdoor Solutions.” This week, instead, the group is running a mobile billboard, travelling the Los Angeles streets. (Trafficking in sex? No. Sex in traffic.)
It’s not as though those big communications companies are averse to controversial subjects — prostitution included. Clear Channel already runs this sensational anti-sex-work billboard, warning johns that the morally sterling LAPD will get them:
— as well as this militaristic ad against immigration:
(Of these ads, one feminist historian said: “To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting.”)
“Sex workers” is “not a family friendly term,” Barbara Haux, a CBS Outdoor senior account executive, wrote in a rejection e-mail to the clinic. The company said it would reconsider, but only if that phrase was not used.
In a statement to The Bay Citizen, a representative of Clear Channel Outdoor defended its choice not to run the ads, saying that local managers review all content to make sure it meets “standards of the local community.” …
The ads feature cheery photographs of local sex workers (from the shoulders up), their family members and health care providers, images that include a woman in a fur coat, a man with a dog and a couple touching heads. The tagline “Someone you know is a sex worker” accompanies the images.
“This is about humanizing us,” said Naomi Akers, the clinic’s executive director and a former sex worker who is one of 27 people photographed for the campaign. “We’re not just the stereotype of sexual deviant. We’re everyday people.”
The ads eventually appeared on San Francisco city buses.
Southern Africa is way more progressive than San Francisco. Botswana’s ex-president Festus Mogae recently called for decriminalizing sex work (as well as homosexual conduct) to enable effective anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns. His words gave support to out and vocal activists pressing for liberalization across the region.
In response, the Botswanan press has begun featuring the voices of sex workers in ways that would appall California corporations. This article in the Botswana Gazette still tends toward the patronizing, but is far more honest than Clear Channel could stand:
These women in their thirties have become friends; Barbara from Zimbabwe is the bubbly one who says she has been a sex worker for about five years, having fled Zimbabwe in search of a better life. …
The police and nurses are their enemies; they say they are harassed by the police and nurses; sometimes policemen take advantage of them because they cannot report them because sex work is illegal. “The police are always after us; they arrest us, sometimes we sleep with them to let us go. Nurses will not treat us because they say we deserve to be sick because we trade in sex. Our job puts our health at risk and this means we seek medical attention more than any other individual due to sexually transmitted infections (STI),” said Pretty.
The women cannot open bank accounts to save what they earn. “Usually we spend the cash on cosmetics to beautify our selves so that we attract more customers,” Sethunya noted. …
The women want their trade to be legalised and fully support president Festus Mogae’s call at the recent National Aids Council that prostitution should be legalised as a way to fight the spread of HIV/Aids. …
The Botswana Council of Churches with Kgolagano Most at Risk Populations (BCC/MAPS), consisting of approximately 1000 commercial sex worker-members have already set the pace; they help the sex workers with advice and provide them with condoms to emphasise protection at all times. (BCC/MAPS) say they are willing to help the women to quit the trade, but would only be able to do so if they had money to help the women to start up new business that can sustain them….
The women, though, sound like they’d rather organize than quit: “The sex workers believe that decriminalisation of their work would help them to be organised, and afford them with protection from the law.”
My friend and colleague Akim Ade Larcher, originally from St. Lucia in the balmy Caribbean but now working in cold Toronto, finds Canada colder than it should be. Blamelessly placid though the country may appear, a chill still surrounds those whose bodies are different, or who, even more seriously, do things with their bodies of which the state disapproves. Akim writes,
In Canada, the word stigma is associated with sex workers, drug users, prisoners, HIV positive people, gay men, Blacks, sex offenders to name a few. I wanted to explore the concept of stigmatization … and see whether I could capture how the criminalization of sex work and drug use increases risks and harms.
He’s now trying to raise funds to mount an exhibit of photographs and literary texts showing the persistence of stigma and the power of criminal law in Canada. Take a look at the website, which looks fantastic, and particularly the videos. Let him know what you think, and contribute if you can.