Prostitution and Some Left-Wing Men

… like John Baglow.

I think it’s fair comment to point out that the photo chosen by blogger John Baglow to accompany his piece on prostitution posted at rabble is from a campaign organized and funded by the brutal Irish pimp Peter McCormick. I’m sure it was accidental so I will go no farther with that line of inquiry. There are too many other accidents in Mr. Baglow’s piece that require response.

I have no problem when a blogger or any writer of an opinion piece declares their bias – “opinion” – I get it. But Mr. Baglow also points out that he “is a former VP of PSAC, currently a writer and researcher, public policy consultant, occasional academic and poet”. In that case I expect a cogent presentation of the issues involved in debating the merits or lack thereof of proposed legislation to protect communities and exploited persons put forward recently by the federal government. But all I got was a sermon and some insults. Given the ongoing crumbling of mediated public and political debate that we see nowadays with resulting rampant disaffection, cynicism and ignorance, this is disappointing. To see such a blog posted in alternative media is also disappointing. An attempt should be made, at the very least, to take a stab at contributing to the enlightenment of readers rather than making repetitive attempts to mischaracterize important issues involving women, race and class.

It is not only unfair of Baglow to characterize abolitionist feminists as “priggish moralizers” – it’s blatantly inaccurate and manipulative. The abolitionist position is a good deal more nuanced than that and either Baglow knows it and chooses to ignore it in his attempt to polarize the debate, or he is intolerably ignorant.

The abolitionist position is based on an understanding of prostitution as the exploitation of women and particularly of poor women, racialised women and Indigneous women. Note that the coalition of women from the independent women’s movement that participated in the Bedford case was comprised of Asian women, overrepresented and hidden in indoor work which apparently they do not find “safe”; women’s shelter workers; advocates from Canada’s sexual assault care centres; the Elizabeth Fry Society – working with imprisoned women; the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network; and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Surely all these women and their hard work and careful argument cannot be characterized, should not be characterized anywhere, as mere priggish moralism. In my view that conclusion is both sexist and racist on its face. The differences among feminists with respect to issues such as pornography and prostitution are long-standing; arguments are fairly well-developed on both sides. None of us deserves to be dismissed as an “angry radical” and surely not Meghan Murphy who writes for rabble and is a respected voice in the Canadian feminist community. The link to her work strikes me as purely gratuitous and downright mean. Though I must admit I’m happy to be an angry radical if my argument is actually being accurately described. What the hell is wrong with angry radicals?

Now to Baglow’s argument. He lectures us that we mustn’t see prostituted women as victims and tells us that they have agency and that we must accept that proposition at the outset. He doesn’t define or describe agency or tell us in what circumstances we are allowed to see agency as being so circumscribed as to be almost non-existent. Of course we all have agency. Of course women struggle in resistance to their circumstances. That is both the genius and strength of oppressed people. That agency doesn’t erase exploitation and certainly doesn’t erase our social and political responsibility for it. That’s just a non-starter but it does play nicely into libertarian notions so popular today that exhort us to believe that individual freedom is best achieved when society leaves people alone to negotiate their own way through the difficulties foisted upon them by their sex, race and class. It implies that it is those of us who fight for recognition that people in certain circumstances are victimized who are somehow responsible for that victimization and stigmatization. Nice work lefty guy – let prostituted women choose their work and blame women if it’s stigmatized according to some crazy old Madonna/Whore dichotomy. Many of the advocates amongst abolitionists are survivors of prostitution. What they did to escape stigma, in part, was to join themselves in solidarity with feminist analyses and principles. Because those are the analyses and principles that they believe will lead to the liberation of their sisters. That is, ALL their sisters and not just those who claim to choose and be happy in the sex trade.

Those who are oppressed are not often in a position to end their exploitation without advocacy on the part those of us who are not quite so oppressed. Yes, they can fight for themselves. But Baglow fails to recognize that the women of the coalition are doing just that: fighting for themselves. He says we should not see prostituted women as “hapless victims upon whom unspeakable violence and degradation are perpetrated.” Well, certainly not hapless but yes, often victims upon whom unspeakable violence and degradation are perpetrated. Is that really even arguable?

For instance, let’s take Terri-Jean Bedford, one of the litigants in the now famous Bedford case. Some aspects of Bedford’s life are now a matter of public record. Here’s a description from the judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada:

“Terri Jean Bedford was born in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1959, and as of 2010 had 14 years of experience working as a prostitute in various Canadian cities. She worked as a street prostitute, a massage parlour attendant, an escort, an owner and manager of an escort agency, and a dominatrix. Ms. Bedford had a difficult childhood and adolescence during which she was subjected to various types of abuse. She also encountered brutal violence throughout her career … ” see R v. Bedford

There is no doubt in my mind that Bedford has agency. There is also no doubt that she was victimized throughout her life, from childhood on into adulthood, and that her exploitation had a good deal to do with the fact that she was a girl and a woman with limited opportunities and vulnerable to male exploitation. This is not a description of a woman about whom we should be unconcerned. The social harms inflicted upon her are not harms that we should ignore as a matter of law and policy. In some sense she represents what is often referred to as a stereotype of a prostituted woman, abused in childhood, the victim of “brutal violence” and no doubt the victim of the trauma attendant upon such experiences. To say so is not to stigmatize her; the stigma experienced by a prostituted woman doesn’t come because other women care about her experiences or from our advocating for a set of social policies and laws that might reduce the possibility that any woman must suffer what she has suffered.

Mr. Baglow then exhorts his readers to see prostitution as mere labour, lest “bare principle” blind us to the “complex issues of everyday life”. I think Mr. Baglow means we must put aside ethical and normative considerations in order to deal with the ugly reality of prostitution, that age-old and unshakeable institution. But many things are laborious, many things are work, that we choose to put outside the law and outside social approval. In arguing that men ought not to be able to purchase women’s sexual services and remain within the law and social norms, abolitionists are not arguing that women in the sex trade do not do work. We are arguing that men ought not to be allowed allowed to exploit women’s bodies without penalty. We must think about what particular kinds of work exploit human beings, i.e. women, to such a high degree that we cannot condone it. There are many examples of different kinds of work that we find beyond the pale. In citing examples I do not mean to compare them to prostitution but merely to note that human labour is not always legal work: for instance, overtime work that is not compensated appropriately; slavery; wage slavery; child labour. The illegality does not pertain to the worker but to the capitalist and the consumer. As it should with respect to prostitution.

Baglow’s “Mrs. Grundy” comment is, frankly, diminishing and dismissive of women and thus sexist and beneath contempt. I am in solidarity with women who work in the sex trade. I seek a form of solidarity that envisions a society in which women, racialised women, poor women and Indigenous women do not have to sell sexual services to men in order to survive, either psychically or physically or whatever other way. When we take steps toward that vision, we enable and support women in making real choices – still circumscribed by the human necessity to work, but not forced or coerced into a form of work which only very few would truly and freely choose. Mr. Baglow is free to disagree with respect to how we achieve that end. In my view he ought not to be free to misrepresent and insult the efforts of those women with whom he claims to be in solidarity.

As Andrea Dworkin said, “The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.” Amen sister. Amen.

Australia Upholds Sex Trafficking Laws

Back in May, I posted about the Australian case involving alleged sex trafficking.  Here’s the result from ABC News, Australia:

In 2006 a Melbourne brothel owner, Wei Tang, was convicted of enslaving five Thai women.

She was the first person to be convicted under anti-slavery laws introduced in 1999 and was sentenced to 10 years’ jail.

The Victorian Court of Appeal quashed the convictions and ordered a new trial.

The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions appealed against the quashing to the High Court.

Today, the High Court upheld the slavery convictions of the brothel owner and overturned the orders for a new trial.

The Court held that the Federal Parliament had the power to make laws as part of its obligations under the international slavery convention and found there was enough evidence provided during the trial of Wei Tang to meet the definition of slavery.

Kathleen Maltzahn of Project Respect, says hundreds of women are trafficked to Australia each year and enslaved for prostitution.

“A whole lot of cases that have been banked up waiting for this to go ahead, can proceed with a very clear legal framework,” she said.

“We know what slavery is now. And this will present a great deal of confidence and surety when people are trying to prosecute for this.”

See the report of the decision, The Queen v Tang, here

Thanks to Stephen

Women Cops in Iraq

Via the Women’s Media Center, from UPI:

An unprecedented number of Iraqi women have started training to become police officers at the Kirkuk Police Academy, officials say. 

The 37 female recruits who began their training Saturday are the first women at the academy in a year and their numbers are unprecedented, the American Forces Press Service reported Monday.

An academy officer said female officers are badly needed because Muslim customs do not allow men to touch women. The female officers will allow searches of women at checkpoints and government buildings, he said.

In addition, the academy officer said, “women think differently than men. They will bring fresh ideas to how we conduct business.”

For the recruits, becoming a police officer is both a chance to earn a good wage and to serve their country. They hold no truck with terrorists.

“Terrorists are not welcome in the province of Kirkuk,” said one 29-year-old recruit who goes by the name Intesar. “They are not Iraqis; they are not Muslim. It is not our way. They are mad.”

An Iraqi police recruit earns about 185,000 Iraqi dinars monthly — about $81 in U.S. currency — and after graduating will make 500,000 dinar — about $360.

The female recruits must meet the same standards as men to graduate.

I’m trying to figure out whether this is a “good” story or a “bad” story.

The amount of money being paid to these cops is paltry, male or female.  Better than nothing I suppose.  But paltry, considering the risks involved.  But yup, you can get people to work for very little when there are no options.

And speaking of options, what options do these women have?  Aaron Brown’s excellent documentary on Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan played on PBS tonight and he noted that many Iraqi women and girls have been virtually forced into prostitution and other forms of sex trade work in Syria and Jordan because they have either lost husbands and fathers to death or kidnapping in Iraq or because they’ve been abandoned after having been raped.  Hard to believe that some of those female cops aren’t in similar positions and have just as little choice about taking on this equally high-risk work.

I’d hate to think that some of these women could end up doing prostitution work themselves someday.  To say nothing of what it does to women (and men) to do work that puts them in a position of having to harass their fellow Iraqis on behalf of the Bush administration.

International Union of Sex Workers

From truthout:

Positive outcomes can come from the most horrible of circumstances. So while the headline-grabbing murders of five women in Ipswich in 2006 shocked the nation, it also led to a heightened public debate about prostitution – the industry all five women were working in at the time of their death. The views of academics, the police and third sector groups were all sought in an attempt to find out how to ensure the safety of women selling sex – which isn’t actually illegal in the UK, although many of the activities associated with it are. Strangely though, sex workers themselves and the organisations that profess to represent them have been largely excluded from the debate.

    In an attempt to redress the balance, I have come to a quiet pub in north London to speak to Catherine, a prostitute, dominatrix and activist with the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW).

    As we sip our drinks, Catherine tells me the IUSW was formed in 2000 by Ana Lopes, a migrant sex worker from Portugal, who had come to the conclusion “that a lot of the problems in the sex industry were not actually related to the work itself” but were “about the conditions in which the work was done and the amount of power the worker had.”

Read the rest here

Woman’s Death Doesn’t Matter

The only thing important about this woman’s death is that her body was found in a neighbourhood frequented by “prostitutes” who are, of course, the cause of everything evil that threatens the “neat green spaces” that some people are trying to protect in the area.  Of course, nothing evil ever happens to sex trade workers.  At least, nothing that’s more important than protecting nice gardens:

The body of a woman found in an alley behind a high-rise building in the east end is being investigated by police as Toronto’s 38th homicide of the year.

Police received a call just after 7:30 a.m. Saturday reporting the body behind 191 Sherbourne St., near Shuter St. and the Moss Park Armoury.

Homicide Detective Michael Barsky said there were “obvious signs of trauma” to the body, which is yet to be identified.

The woman is likely between 30 and 40 years old, said Sgt. Craig Somers, who was also on the scene. 

Several residents and neighbours said they did not know about the death and did not hear anything Friday night or in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Forensic officers were collecting evidence and searching the surrounding area, but Sgt. Somers said police would not divulge more information until the post-mortem results were returned and the next of kin notified.

Sgt. Somers said that it was a “suspicious” death given the location.

The Sherbourne and Shuter intersection is infamous for drug dealings, residents say.

“This is crack central. That’s what they call it here,” says Kenny Tynes, 47, who lives in the neighbourhood. “This is worse than Jane and Finch.”

Tynes has lived in his Sherbourne apartment for 19 years and says the area is rife with “knifings” and “crack.”

The Sherbourne and Shuter street corner is also popular with sex-trade workers, neighbours say.

Patrick Keyes, 65, has lived here for 22 years, just across from the alleyway where the body was found. He says he has watched pimps drop off prostitutes here and drive away.

“With prostitution goes drugs and with that people get high and stupid. They get noisy,” Keyes said. “I don’t know what causes it but it’s a nuisance. It brings people in this neighbourhood looking for action (sex and drugs) and that is not desirable.”

The front of the 19-floor building is surrounded by a black fence, green lawn and neat flower-beds. Residents say there is a security guard at the front door and there is an intercom security system.

The red-brick back of the building overlooking the alley is also surrounded by neat green spaces. 

Feminist Theory Then & Now

Silvia Federici and a feminist view of “precarious labour”:


How do you struggle over/against reproductive work? It is not the same as struggling in the traditional factory setting, against for instance the speed of an assembly line, because at the other end of your struggle there are people not things. Once we say that reproductive work is a terrain of struggle, we have to first immediately confront the question of how we struggle on this terrain without destroying the people you care for. This is a problem mothers as well as teachers and nurses, know very well.

This is why it is crucial to be able to make a separation between the creation of human beings and our reproduction of them as labor-power, as future workers, who therefore have to be trained, not necessarily according to their needs and desires, to be disciplined and regimented in a particular fashion.

It was important for feminists to see, for example, that much housework and child rearing is work of policing our children, so that they will conform to a particular work discipline. We thus began to see that by refusing broad areas of work, we not only could liberate ourselves but could also liberate our children. We saw that our struggle was not at the expense of the people we cared for, though we may skip preparing some meals or cleaning the floor. Actually our refusal opened the way for their refusal and the process of their liberation.

Once we saw that rather than reproducing life we were expanding capitalist accumulation and began to define reproductive labor as work for capital, we also opened the possibility of a process of re-composition among women.

Think for example of the prostitute movement, which we now call the “sex workers” movement. In Europe the origins of this movement must be traced back to 1975 when a number of sex workers in Paris occupied a church, in protest against a new zoning regulation which they saw as an attack on their safety. There was a clear connection between that struggle, which soon spread throughout Europe and the United States, and the feminist movement’s re-thinking and challenging of housework. The ability to say that sexuality for women has been work has lead to a whole new way of thinking about sexual relationships, including gay relations. Because of the feminist movement and the gay movement we have begun to think about the ways in which capitalism has exploited our sexuality, and made it “productive.”

In conclusion, it was a major breakthrough that women would begin to understand unpaid labor and the production that goes on in the home as well as outside of the home as the reproduction of the work force. This has allowed a re-thinking of every aspect of everyday life – child-raising, relationships between men and women, homosexual relationships, sexuality in general- in relation to capitalist exploitation and accumulation.

Creating Self-Reproducing Movements

As every aspect of everyday life was re-understood in its potential for liberation and exploitation, we saw the many ways in which women and women’s struggles are connected. We realized the possibility of “alliances” we had not imagined and by the same token the possibility of bridging the divisions that have been created among women, also on the basis of age, race, sexual preference.

We can not build a movement that is sustainable without an understanding of these power relations. We also need to learn from the feminist analysis of reproductive work because no movement can survive unless it is concerned with the reproduction of its members. This is one of the weaknesses of the social justice movement in the US.

We go to demonstrations, we build events, and this becomes the peak of our struggle. The analysis of how we reproduce these movements, how we reproduce ourselves is not at the center of movement organizing. It has to be. We need to go to back to the historical tradition of working class organizing “mutual aid” and rethink that experience, not necessarily because we want to reproduce it, but to draw inspiration from it for the present.

We need to build a movement that puts on its agenda its own reproduction. The anti-capitalist struggle has to create forms of support and has to have the ability to collectively build forms of reproduction.

We have to ensure that we do not only confront capital at the time of the demonstration, but that we confront it collectively at every moment of our lives. What is happening internationally proves that only when you have these forms of collective reproduction, when you have communities that reproduce themselves collectively, you have struggles that are moving in a very radical way against the established order, as for example the struggle of indigenous people in Bolivia against water privatization or in Ecuador against the oil companies’ destruction of indigenous land.

I want to close by saying if we look at the example of the struggles in Oaxaca, Bolivia, and Ecuador, we see that the most radical confrontations are not created by the intellectual or cognitive workers or by virtue of the internet’s common. What gave strength to the people of Oaxaca was the profound solidarity that tied them with each other-a solidarity for instance that made indigenous people from every part of the state to come to the support of the “maestros,” whom they saw as members of their communities. In Bolivia too, the people who reversed the privatization of water had a long tradition of communal struggle. Building this solidarity, understanding how we can overcome the divisions between us, is a task that must be placed on the agenda. In conclusion then, the main problem of precarious labor theory is that it does not give us the tools to overcome the way we are being divided. But these divisions, which are continuously recreated, are our fundamental weakness with regard to our capacity to resist exploitation and create an equitable society.   more

via wood s lot

Madonnas and Whores

Sex trade and trafficking in Australia:

IT WAS probably one of the more mixed audiences that Australia’s seven High Court judges have had. Up the back sat a quiet Filipino nun in a habit and veil, interested to see what this nation’s highest court made of issues surrounding the people she works with in her homeland: women trafficked for sex.

In the front row, taking meticulous notes of the complex proceedings, sat sex-worker representative Elena Jeffreys. Her hair was dyed lime-green and coin-gold; she wore a leopard-print coat and fake-croc platform shoes over blue ankle socks; and her top had purple words running down the sleeves – rentboy, slag, slut, harlot, hooker

Welcome to the landmark legal case of the Queen against Wei Tang. This case will decide how Australia legally defines slavery and “possession” of one person by another. It will decide how Australian anti-slavery laws in the 21st century should respond to the nimble evolution of human wickedness into new forms of human exploitation.

Jeffreys, president of the Scarlet Alliance (the Australian Sex Workers Association), says that whatever the outcome, this case will not be the whole answer: “Migrant sex workers deserve labor rights in Australia so that trafficking doesn’t occur.”

It all began in a brothel in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, where the licensed owner, a Chinese immigrant named Wei Tang, had five Thai women working for her as prostitutes. They arrived in 2002 and 2003 on visas that were fraudulently obtained and worked for her under conditions that prosecutors would later allege amounted to slavery. The women had all worked in the Thai sex industry and knew they were to work as prostitutes here. Four of the women were “purchased” from Thai recruiters for about $20,000 each (one woman was bought from a “Sydney owner”).

Upon arrival in Australia, they had little if any money or English and knew no one. They were told they were “contract girls” who owed a “debt” of between $40,000 and $45,000 that they had to work off (a figure much higher than they had been led to expect). This would involve providing sexual services for no payment for up to 900 men. They were housed in bedrooms in which they slept up to four at a time on mattresses on the floor. Their passports and return tickets were taken from them and locked away and their freedom of movement was restricted. They worked 10-to-12-hour shifts six nights a week.

This is a four page article and well worth a look.  But I note that journalist Karen Kassin falls prey to the classic madonna/whore dichotomy when writing of women and sex – nuns and prostitutes, as she mentions.  The article is   here