When Bedford Went to Ottawa

This post was first published on Smutathon.com on 28th September 2019. Now reposted here

His Twitter followers come and go, at least the vast majority that you either don’t know in real life or interact with to any great extent online. I long ago stopped keeping track of who had followed me or unfollowed me, but it was nonetheless a very pleasant surprise, a few years ago, to see that I had been followed by Terri -Jean Bedford. I don’t see myself as particularly prominent among those campaigning for sex workers’ rights, so I felt honoured in a strange kind of way.

For at the time, in 2013, Bedford was something of a celebrity in the sex workers’ rights movement. She had worked for some years as a professional dominatrix in Ontario but had been prosecuted, with two other women, under Canada’s archaic anti-prostitution laws for keeping a bawdy house. As a result she went to war against these laws, and achieved a major victory when, in 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 judgement, struck down the laws.  The reason for the decision was that the laws endangered the safety of sex workers. To quote from the judgement,

“The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risk.”

Specific reference was made to the prohibition on sex workers operating, for reasons of personal safety, from shared premises, and being forced to work on the streets. Laws against living off the proceeds of prostitution were also struck out. The court applied a test of proportionality. Does the harm that the law seeks to prevent outweigh the harm that the law itself may cause? The court found that it did not.  The dangers to which sex workers were exposed could not be justified by the social nuisance that the laws seek to prevent.

Nearer home, sex workers still have to operate in the shadow of laws whose effects are precisely those of the laws struck down in Canada. Only last year, two Polish women were jailed in Yorkshire for “running a brothel.”  In fact, they were working together from a flat for their safety. Our laws endanger sex workers. There are areas where unofficial toleration exists, but this can change quickly, for example when there is a change of police chief. Edinburgh had an enlightened policy towards the city’s saunas in the days of Lothian and Borders Police. All this changed after the creation of Police Scotland. There was a string of raids in the city, with sex workers’ money and mobile phones being confiscated and not returned. Where sex workers cannot trust the police, do not feel able to report incidents and know they will be taken seriously, they are in danger.

Which brings me to Ireland.  In recent years the buying of sex has been criminalised, both north and south of the border. This was sold to the public as an adoption of the Nordic Model, the criminalisation of clients to “End Demand”, combined with the decriminalisation of sex workers who would be given support to “exit”. I hardly need add that nobody asked the sex workers if they wanted to exit or not. It was taken as read that they were all coerced and in need of saving. In practice, however, the existing criminal sanctions were left in place and a number of women have been imprisoned in the Republic, with, in some cases, the courts ignoring the fact that they were mothers and sole carers for their children.

And what effect has this had? A recent study in Northern Ireland looked at the effect of client criminalisation there.  This was particularly interesting as, unlike other jurisdictions such as Sweden, Northern Ireland had good quality data on sex work from the period before the criminalisation of clients. The results are perhaps unsurprising. There has been no measurable decrease in the prevalence of sex work and some suggestions that it may even have increased. Either way, the laws are a triumph of ideology over evidence that endanger vulnerable women.

Sex Work and the not so Libertarians

Matt Ridley of The Times can generally be relied to write nonsense, which is maybe not surprising as his late father Nicholas Ridley never said much that wasn’t nonsense.  Ridley pere’s ideological loyalty to Margaret Thatcher did not save his political career as the gaffes mounted up and she decided he had to go. Father and son Ridley both considered themselves libertarians and in an overexcited piece last week Ridley fils was enthusing about the battle of ideas gripping the Conservative Party now that the new cabinet was full of libertarians of a Ridleyite bent. To be honest ideas are not the first thing that springs to mind when I think about the likes of Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson but I dare say the bar for qualifying as an intellectual has fallen somewhat in Brexit Britain, maybe not low enough for Andrea Leadsom to qualify but you get the pcture.

It is in the context of libertarianism and the Tory party that I want to talk about sex work. There is an arguable libertarian position on sex work, and I heard it put across cogently by an Institute of Economic Affairs representative in a TV debate on sex work a couple of years ago.  It goes like this. The agreement between a sex worker and their client to have sex with an agreed sum of money changing hands, is a private commercial transaction between two adults. It is no business of the state and the state should not seek to interfere in what is essentially a private matter, on the basis of moral judgements about what people choose to do with their own bodies. We might, therefore, expect a libertarian dominated Conservative party to support decriminalisation.

But scratch a right-wing libertarian and you often find an authoritarian not far below the service. The Conservative Human Rights Commisson published a report two weeks ago advocating the introduction of the so-called Nordic Model in the UK. It was as if all that has been said and argued over the last few years on the subject of sex work and the law had passed them by. They did not speak to academics who specialise in the field (maybe not too surprising when most Tory MPs these days seem to think they know better than experts). Nor did they trouble to seek the views of those who actually do know better then the academics, that is the sex workers themselves. I won’t go into the      report in detail you can read well informed refutations of the arguments here and here.

It wasn’t always this way in the Tory party. Some years ago, when Labour MEP Mary Honeyball was advocating for client criminalisation on the European stage, she was opposed by a group of British Conservative MEPs, one of whom followed me on Twitter for a while.  But I don’t need to remind you that the days of British Conservatives doing anything   constructive in Europe are gone, probably for ever.

Tory libertarianism is liberty for the rich. It means control for the rest of us, and for those at the bottom, as most sex workers are, engaging in survival sex work just to keep a roof over their heads,  it means being stigmatised and placed beyond the protection of the law. The fundamental question is not addressed. How are exiting sex workers to make a living?  The report mentions the alleged success of the zero tolerance approach of Ipswich as opposed to the managed tolerance zones of Leeds without mentioning the key reason for that success. which is that money has been made available to support sex workers who want to exit. I can’t see that this is likely to become a widespread strategy. Many sex workers would quit tomorrow if they could. I fear, however, that libertarian Brexit Britain is unlikely to give them the opportunity.

Gavin Shuker Rides Again

The Nordic Model is a bit like Brexit. The more discredited it is by facts and evidence, the more tenaciously its advocates cling to it. It is not entirely surprising that The All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution has recommended the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in its report on pop-up brothels. This group is chaired by Labour MP and evangelical Christian Gavin Shuker. This is the same Gavin Shuker who failed to answer any of the questions I asked him in this e-mail exchange 5 years ago. I doubt that he grasps the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the sex industry (if we can call it that)  or the way that high minded but simplistic solutions to complex issues will do more harm than good. The war on drugs hasn’t been a raging success has it?  This is a similarity to Brexit too isn’t it? And so is the shouting down of people who try to inject a little factual analysis into the debate. For “remoaner” or ”traitor” read pimp.

The report is actually quite long on sweeping statement but short on hard fact and .as the ECP has noted, the growth  in popup brothels may have rather more to do with austerity induced poverty and police crackdowns on more permanent premises  forcing ladies to move on regularly. The group has taken no account of the submissions of both sex workers’ groups and academics or indeed anything that didn’t fit their pre-packaged view of the matter.

 know anecdotally that trafficking does take place and I have heard some shocking stories from current and former sex workers. However the available evidence suggests that a large majority  of sex workers are not trafficked or otherwise coerced.  Many of them have taken up sex work because of their economic circumstances and would, in many cases, much rather be doing something else, but that is another issue. It is also not clear that those who have been trafficked are going to be helped by driving prostitution further underground. Clients and other sex workers can be, and on occasion, have been a source of assistance to trafficking victims and a source of intelligence to the police, a point made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their response to the consultations on Lord Morrow’s proposals (since enacted) in Northern Ireland.

The Nordic Model will not “end demand” any more than any other legislative prohibition in the past has ended demand  for whatever it was the social improvers decided wasn’t good for us. It will not help anyone who has been coerced into sex work. What it will do is bring in even more patriarchal state control over women’s bodies. It both fascinates and appalls me that so many so-called “feminists” are happy to go along with that.

Remembering Laura Lee

It is, I guess, not unusual to hear bad news these days but this week I heard news that truly shocked me.  This was the death, at the scandalously early age of 39, of Laura Lee. Laura had acquired a significant profile over that last couple of years as an articulate and determined sex workers rights activist both in Great Britain and in Ireland, where both Northern Ireland and the Republic have recently introduced laws to criminalise the purchase of sex, both, incidentally, without lifting existing criminal sanctions against the sex workers themselves despite this being part of the sales pitch for the so-called Nordic model which politicians claimed as their inspiration.

I never met Laura. But I came across her back in 2012 when I started blogging and tweeting and stumbled across the debates raging in Scotland over the attempt by MSP Rhoda Grant to introduce a criminlisation law north of the Border. Laura was prominent in this battle as, although originally from Dublin, she lived in western Scotland (hence her Twitter handle @glasgaelauralee),and so I discovered her on social media and we soon followed  each other on Twitter, became friends on Facebook and we chatted quite a bit about the various issues.

I blogged a lot on sex work in those days. I don’t really write much now as I have said all that I had to say and where more needs to be said, there are many others better placed than me to say it. Nonetheless I am FB friends with a number of sex workers and activists from around the world and really value my little online sex work community. Laura was very much part of that

Laura was about to fight her biggest battle yet, to get the criminalisation law in Northern Ireland, (introduced two years ago on the initiative of Lord Morrow of the DUP and against the advice of the Police Service of Northern Ireland) overturned as a breach of the ECHR. Sadly she did not live to see the outcome of that fight.

Those who knew and love her will grieve as they must. Those who did not know her in person will be saddened. But all of us who value the safety of vulnerable women, all of us who value policy based on evidence and not on ideology, all of us who believe in the bodily autonomy of women, must fight on.

None of us, and least all Laura, would ever say that sex work is never exploitative, that many sex workers would not prefer to make their living in other ways, that many want and need exit strategies. What we do say is that the way to make life better, safer, for sex workers, those who want out as much as those who want to remain, is to remove criminal sanctions, to get the state out of all our beds. Continuing the struggle for this is the way to honour the memory of Laura Lee.

Rest in Power.

When EU Citizens Are Not Wanted

As the Brexit negotiations get underway, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK are beimg much discussed and the Government is, apparently, keen to give them the right to stay in the UK after Brexit,

Even  before Brexit, however, there are some EU citizens who are apparently not welcome. This statement from Wiltshire police describes the arrest of three Romanian women who had been selling sex from a property in Swindon. They were arrested and now face deportation.

You.will note that there is no evidence of trafficking or coercion. The ladies were working through choice, and quite openly advertising their services through Adultwork. They were, according to the law, running a brothel which is a criminal offence. In this case running a  brothel is simply women working together for their own safety like the Polish women in Bradford who were jailed in 2013..

If the women were not coerced what basis do the police have for saying this?

“This is a very positive outcome as the women are now safe and away from their clients and are no longer vulnerable to the risks of off street sex work.”

And what evidence is there to support this assertion?

“There are strong connections between the adult sex industry, human trafficking and modern slavery”

This is frequently said but major police inquiries like Operation Pentameter  failed to find any significant evidence of trafficking into sex work although there have been several recent cases of trafficking into farmwork and construction.

Such police stings do nothing to promote the safety and well being of sex workers and surely run counter to the good practice set out in  the Merseyside Model which is supposed to create the trust between sex workers and police that gives the sex workers the confidence to report indents of violence.

It is surely time to decriminalise sex work so that women can work together for their own safety  and so that citizens of out (still) fellow EU states can work in the way they choose without fearing the knock on the door.



Police and Thieves

This is a post I originally published on the Everyday Whorephobia blog two years ago. Following  the criminalisation of clients in Northern Ireland it appears that the flawed arguments of the sex work prohibitionists are enjoying a second wind. They remain however deeply flawed. One of the flaws is the naive faith in the police as agents of”rescue”. Melissa Gira Grant, in her book Playing the Whore, discussed how the police are themselves a major source of violence against, and exploitation of sex workers. Here are some more examples.


We can argue theoretical points all day, about women’s right to bodily autonomy, about whether sex work can really be a free choice in a patriarchal society and so on, but some of the most important issues connected to the criminalisation of sex work are essentially practical.   Are the laws enforceable and who will do the enforcing? It is with the second of these that serious questions emerge.

It has been said that a good police force is one that catches more criminals than it employs. The British police certainly aren’t doing too well on that score at the moment. We have heard stories from Sweden about police harassment of supposedly non criminal sex workers. The Swedish police, by the way, are those nice people who gave Joan Smith a free tour of night-time Stockholm in exchange for an advertising spread masquerading as critical journalism.

A three hour ferry crossing from Sweden is yet another country where the police can’t be trusted. That country is Poland. Here are a few examples of how the Polish police treat women, sex workers and otherwise.

A woman accused a policeman, a friend of the family, of raping her. Several months later she has been interviewed several times but her alleged attacker remains on active duty and has yet to be interviewed. The investigation is focussing on blood tests carried out on the woman, aimed at determining whether she had taken substances that could have caused psychological disturbance and so lead her to make false allegations.

On 9th June this year a 27 year old woman was stopped by a traffic policeman in a southern Polish town as she drove her car. She was tied up with masking tape, raped and had her mobile phone destroyed to prevent her calling for help. At least this case is being taken sufficiently seriously for the alleged attacker to have been arrested.

A senior officer of the Gdansk police was caught carrying out a sexual assault on a disabled 14 year old girl. He has been arrested and suspended from duty but a statement from the press office of the Gdansk police expresses ‘disbelief’ that he could have done such a thing.

Outside the city of Bydgoszcz in North West Poland sex workers stand by a busy road leading to the German border to attract clients among the thousands of lorry drivers who pass this way each day. They are offered “protection” by the local police which means, in effect, free sex in exchange for being left alone.  Some of these sex workers are so fed up with all this that they have gone to the press. One told a journalist that she had had sex with and given oral to one particular policeman on several dozen occasions, usually in the back of his patrol car. This man evidently has a uniform fetish as he makes her dress in his uniform for sex. A reporter who had been seen taking photographs of a policeman forcing himself on a sex worker was stopped and held for over an hour to be breathalysed and have his car checked. When he complained to the local police he was told that these enhanced controls were part of a new campaign to stop pimping and trafficking.

All this happens in an EU member state. Poland is probably no worse than many other countries in the way the police treat women and sex workers. Those who favour criminalisation should answer this question. You will be giving men like these even more power to harass and abuse women. Is that what you really want?

The Policeman in the Bedroom

It is nearly three years since I stumbled on the debates about sex work and its legal status and following the arguments about Rhoda Grant’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland was certainly an education. This was particularly true of reading the cogent, well informed responses to the consultation by opponents of the proposal. Two and a half years on two responses have stuck in my mind. One was from a Scottish professional dominatrix who lives and works in England who raised the issue of the grey area legally that her work inhabits and pointing out what being unable to session with her might mean for many of her clients. The question of whether professional domination is sex work for the purposes of any legal definition is, as far as I am aware, still unanswered, The second response came from a Glasgow based feminist collective and argued that after the advances in sexual freedom over several decades which had largely removed the state from our bedrooms such a law would be thoroughly regressive.

Rhoda Grant failed in her attempt. Across the water in Northern Ireland Lord Morrow succeeded and, 21 and a half hours ago as I write, the policeman re-entered the bedrooms of those of the province’s women who make all or part of their living selling sex. To be fair to the police they didn’t want this and made a well argued submission to the consultation saying that they didn’t see it as their role to police sexual activity that they had no reason to believe was not consensual in the vast majority of cases, and that they considered that attempting to police such a law would divert scarce resources,from the fight against real trafficking. Tellingly they pointed out that clients are often a valuable source of intelligence about trafficking victims, a source that would be choked off by criminalisation.

Lord Morrow, of course, knew better and the PSNI now have to police a wholly unworkable but nonetheless damaging law. You may well have read in the newspapers today the litanies about “victims” “prostituted women” and so on. These comments are wholly disingenuous. It has been a criminal offence for clients to have sex with coerced or trafficked women for several years now. The sole effect  of Morrow’s law is to outlaw consensual sexual activity between consenting adults. I will say nothing about the legal arguments that will doubtless ensue  over what constitutes payment but finish by saying that in Northern Ireland the fears of the Glasgow feminist collective have been realised. The state is back in the bedroom. And that is bad news for us all.

Lord Morrow and the Balloon Man

Last year I blogged here about a Midlands sex worker called “Katie”. I was reminded of her this week when I read about the new clause that has been added to the Northern Ireland Human Trafficking Bill. In the course of the interview my friend conducted with her she talked about clients who come to see her for things other than penetrative sex. In particular she talked about a regular client she calls “The Balloon Man.” He sees her once a month for half an hour. He blows up half a dozen balloons with which Katie rubs him down before bursting them with her long finger nails while he lies on the bed and masturbates. No penetration takes place, in fact there is not even any direct physical contact between sex worker and client. Anecdotal evidence suggests that clients like Balloon Man are not unusual.

This is a problem for the prohibitionist zealots. If you are going to enact a law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services you need to have a robust definition of sexual services. Even Lord Morrow who one imagines coming from a background where they do it in pyjamas with the lights out has realised that there was a potential gaping hole in his pet legislation and he has now, late in the day, moved to close it via Amendment Ten to Clause Fifteen which adds the following to the definition of sexual services:

“B touching B in a sexual manner for the sexual gratification of A, B being physically in A’s presence.’

With the unspoken assumption that A will manually stimulate bellend C resulting in emission D which can on occasion have a pungent smell but is, it seems, acceptable to ATVOD. But I digress.

There are obvious difficulties with this. If, as Lord Morrow seems to believe women are trafficked to touch themselves sexually on the presence of clients, can they  not also be trafficked to perform on webcam, which the amendment specifically excludes? And then we come back to the definition of touching in a sexual manner. How is that to be defined? Is it only touching the genitalia? Or anything erotic? Consider how many men must have masturbated over this since 1946.

Will Lord Morrow now be adding a further clause to stipulate how women may remove their gloves in the presence of men? Defining sexual is, it seems to me, like catching a bar of soap in the bath,  ever elusive. Attempts to define legally what eludes clear definition can only lead to bad law, and what generally follows bad law, function creep. Providers of domination services, for example, may be targeted under this clause. It was apt to start this piece with a fetish since it is in the nature of fetishes that some people find various things sexually arousing that most others don’t. Fetishes lay bare the incoherence of attempts to define in legalistic manner “sexual”. They are a manifestation of human sexuality in all its joyous anarchic diversity. If the new moralists start trying to plug every gap in the law as it appears we will soon have left sex work and trafficking behind and we will be looking at what many believe to be the real agenda: an attempt by religious fundamentalists aided and abetted by people who should know better, to bring the police back into our bedrooms. Remember that what is happening in Northern Ireland today may yet happen in England. Not that Lord Morrow had anything to fear. He always has the lights out.

An Issue of Consent

In the light of a number of recent events I have been meaning to write about consent. My thoughts on this topic atre still maturing but in the meantime I wsih to say this:

The Polish politician Andrzej Lepper committed suicide in August 2011 as his party collapsed around him. Just four years earlier Samoobrona or Self Defence had been part of the governing coalition but a series of scandals had seen support ebb away. The party could best be described as authoritarian populist with socialist rhetoric claiming to fight for the small man against big (read foreign) capital and against corruption. The latter was fertile ground as corruption was indeed a problem and, like corruption everywhere, an unofficial tax on the poorer sections of society. The party’s big problem was that its ranks were stuffed with yes men and women and assorted mediocrities since the leader would brook no rivals. This was a major cause of the scandals.

In 2005 one of the party’s Euro MPs was arrested in Belgium and charged with rape. The complainant was a French sex worker whose client he had been. A quick aside at this point: I learned from this story that many French sex workers travel regularly to Brussels as Euro MPs and expense account Eurocrats mean there is good business for them. It is easy to imagine that many of those who voted in support of Mary Honeyball have been among those using their services.

The substance of the complaint was that , having agreed the services to be provided and the price, the MP demanded bareback. When this was refused he was alleged to have raped her. In fact he was acquitted and the full truth will probably never be known. That is not however the issue. This issue is the immediate reaction of party leader Lepper.

With an unpleasant sneer he told TV reporters that the allegations were absurd since the whole idea of raping a prostitute was ridiculous. I was on a visit to Poland at the time and watched, seething, as assorted uncles and cousins, including, I regret to say, women, agreed with him. In effect, Lepper was saying that even if what the lady said was true it could not be rape since whores cannot refuse consent. It follows, of course, that if someone cannot refuse consent they cannot meaningfully give it either. Sex workers, on this view, are to be denied the rights enjoyed by all other women.

This is a view shared by those at Stormont who voted last week for Clause Six of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking Bill, which will criminalise those who pay for sex. Wholly consensual sexual activity between adults is to be made illegal simply because an exchange of money is involved. The subtext seems clear. It cannot really be consensual because sex workers cannot meaningfully give consent and are to be denied the right, enjoyed by all other women, to have sex with whom they want, when they want. They are whores, they are other. Lord Morrow’s view of sex workers is really no different from that of Andrzej Lepper. Do the supporters of this law realise how much they have in common with a bullying Polish rape apologist?

A Sex Worker Set in Stone

Wroc_C5_82awski_Teatr_Lalek___wej_C5_9Bcie_jpg-seoThis is a picture of the Puppet Theatre in the Polish city of Wroclaw. The fine neo-Baroque building was built in the 1890s when the city was called Breslau and belonged to Germany. It was originally built as a sort of Chamber of Commerce building and there is an interesting story behind the two stone figures who hold up the entrance portal. The left hand one is of a topless woman and few of the people who use the building know that she is a sex worker.  ,

The sculptor had a deeply religious wife who was uninterested in sex. He became, therefore, an habitue of the city’s brothels and a regular client of a beautiful young sex worker called Maria. It is, perhaps, not a good idea for a client to fall in love with a sex worker but that is what he did. This besotted man made plans for them to go away together, to marry and to live happily ever after.

Sadly these plans came to nothing as Maria was murdered by another client. This led paradoxically to her being immortalised in stone by the grief stricken artist and for 125 years she has looked down on German businessmen and Polish theatre goers who have no idea of her sad story.

An interesting tale but what is the relevance to today? Firstly it shows that, despite what some campaigners say, not all clients are callous and uncaring people who see sex workers as nothing more than objects with orifices. Secondly it is a reminder that sex workers, then as now, are at risk of violence. Perhaps the gaze of the statue is, too, a look of reproach at the zealots who would make the lives of her twenty first  century sisters so much more dangerous.