Monthly Archives: December 2015

Why Women Shouldn’t Take Precautions Against Rape

 

First published on The Fifth Column on 24/11/15.

If you’re a female in the UK- and if you identified as or were labelled as female when you were growing up- you’ll have been told something like this:

“Don’t go out at night, it’s dangerous.”

“Don’t go for a walk alone, you never know who is around.”

“Try to fit in your exercise earlier or you’re putting yourself at risk.”

Regardless of whether your parents and family friends explicitly mentioned sexual assault or not, chances are you received far more warnings about the risks of going out alone, staying out late, drinking and contact with the opposite sex than your male siblings, cousins and friends. It might not always be obvious, but the subtext is that all of these things, including flirting or wearing ‘provocative’ clothing, could potentially lead to sexual assault. Women are indoctrinated from childhood to fit their lives around a constant threat of male violence. Women are taught to accept that we can’t do what we want, go where we like, step outside our home on a whim. We have to plan our journeys so that we’re never alone for a second on a night out; or if we are, we have to strategise an alternative brighter, busier route. Even in daylight women are told to hike in ‘safe’ places. Freedom is not for us. Nor is the right to feel safe or enjoy the environment.

Parents and educators seem to spend far more time telling daughters not to get raped than telling sons not to rape. This is actually amazingly stupid, as the only person who can 100% prevent rape is the rapist. As a society we focus on the woman. If schools and families spent as much energy on boys, we might actually have less rape; some rapists honestly don’t understand that what they are doing is rape because nobody has ever effectively discussed consent with them. The MOD appears to have embraced this view with its first-ever military rape prevention campaign of posters aimed at perpetrators.

Men are also at risk of sexual assault and even more at risk of murder than women. But they don’t go through life scurrying from safe place to bright patch to busy spot. They can own the world. I’m not saying that men never worry about their safety; my male friends actually do. But they don’t let it overwhelm their lives and dictate their movements. And when a man is sexually assaulted or even murdered, he usually isn’t victim blamed. Nobody claims that a male murder victim was “asking for it” by wearing “aggressive clothing” or “violent tattoos”, or that he shouldn’t have been out alone at night because it’s “just asking for trouble.” Nobody pens articles on college-age men “taking risks” and how alcohol leads to men becoming victims. People don’t say “well, if he didn’t want to fight he shouldn’t have answered back.”

tellmeiasked4it

Image source: juvenilejusticeblog.web.unc.edu

That’s the thing, right there. Rape is impossible to prevent. You could live in fear for decades and then get assaulted by a friend, colleague, classmate or partner. Even a teacher, neighbour or family friend. Or you could get assaulted by a stranger no matter how carefully you plan; sexual attacks do occur when victims are in groups, in daylight, when youths are accompanied by parents, and even when there are many witnesses. And if you are sexually assaulted, nobody will appreciate the missed opportunities, the anxieties and time wasted over all the years you spent avoiding rape. You can be victim-blamed or even disbelieved by police, press, friends and family. You’ll be criticised for letting your classmate into your flat, for drinking, for “leading him on”, for what you were wearing, for not taking a cab, for staying out after your friend went home with a headache, for not screaming for help, for letting him walk you home. For being a female sexual assault victim.

So why bother? The question is: is it all worth it? Are all the years of self-repression and fear that you have to go through as the price of being female, while your brothers are free, worth avoiding a rape (assuming you even manage to succeed in avoiding it?) As long as you aren’t abducted and kept as a sex slave, sexual assaults are usually over fairly quickly. Avoiding it doesn’t seem like a fair exchange for decades of restraint. Of course sexual assaults can leave lasting adverse psychological effects- but not for everyone. And constant fear of violence is also bad for your mental health. Quite apart from the stress itself, it reinforces the idea that you are vulnerable and a second-class citizen; men can go where they fancy without thinking about it but you can’t.

I’m not criticising women, men, agender or intersex people who choose to take precautions or use rape-drug detecting nail polish or wear anti-rape underwear. These products have quite rightly been criticised for their potential to increase victim blaming, but if they make you feel safer, by all means buy them. I too take alternative routes if it’s dark and I’m alone. I’m also more aware of who else is around me at these times, especially if they’re male.

My point is that as a gender we’ve been brainwashed into accepting that male violence will always and forever impinge on our freedom in a way that as a nation we would never allow terrorism to. After news of ISIS’ plans to carry out terror attacks in the UK we were told to attend the threatened events and carry on as normal. By contrast police tend to warn women to stay away from an area where a rape has occurred and encourage them not to go out alone or late. Whether you agree with bombing the ‘Islamic State’ or not, today’s news has proved once again that politicians are not worried about provoking terrorists, but women are frequently given the message that they can avoid rape by not provoking a rapist. In fact the SlutWalks originated from just such a comment by a police officer.

Why should we be limited because of what men do? Surely they are the ones who should be punished with restricted movement. We may not be able to stop ourselves from taking the safe road home right away. But with the realisation that we’ve been taught to live in fear and organise our lives around men’s violence, we can slowly, surely, start to free ourselves.

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No legal protection for employees fired for their lifestyle, appearance or family choices

 

 

First published on The Fifth Column, July 2015

 

Could you be fired for your lifestyle, hair, or past job? It could be more likely than you think.

We tend to think that we’re protected by antidiscrimination and labour laws. But people have been fired for being an unmarried mother, previously being a call girl and being kinky, and those with a previous work history in the adult industry continue to fear being fired if their previous career is exposed.

The case Flynn v Power concluded that it is permissible in Ireland to fire a woman for being pregnant while unmarried. However, these days EU states are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8 recognises the right to private and family life) and the EU Charter of Human Rights. Art 6 1) TEU holds that “The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights…which shall have the same legal value as the Treaties.” Relevant provisions are: Art 1 “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected”, Art 7 “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private and family life”, Art 9 “The right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed”, Art 21 “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex…social origin…membership of a national minority [or] birth….shall be prohibited.”

Though the Charter is ‘soft law’ and applies to Member States only when implementing EU Law, it is likely that anyone fired for being an unmarried parent would win their appeal if they brought a case to the European Court of Justice. The ECJ has previously interpreted “family life” to include children of unmarried and lone parents (Johnston v Ireland (1986), Eur. Ct. H.R., Ser. A, No. 112, Marckx v Belgium (1979) 2 EHRR 330:342, Berehab v Netherlands (App. 10730/84) 21 June 1988 Series A No. 138, (1989) 11 EHRR 322 S21 and Keegan v. Ireland (App.16969/90) 26 May 1994, Series A No. 290 (1994) 18 EHRR 342 S44).

They could alternatively bring their case to the European Court of Human Rights, or argue on EU Law within their domestic court.

However, this is the only type of family choice currently protected by antidiscrimination law. If a potential employer doesn’t hire you because you’re a young parent or live in a polyamorous household, there’s no statute to protect you.

Because of the Equality Act 2010 which makes it illegal to dismiss an employee for having gender reassignment, transgender individuals have more protection in the UK than in the US, where transgender people have been fired. But a lot of heterosexuals don’t have any protection from employer discrimination. Fetishes, kinks, polyamory and sex work are as yet unprotected. So if you happen to be kinky, are currently in a polyamorous relationship or have ever worked in the sex industry – no matter how long ago that was – you can be fired. BDSM is not recognised as a sexual orientation in the UK, and so kinksters don’t enjoy the same legal protections as LGBTQIA employees. Dismissals for being into BDSM have occurred in Canada, the US and UK. American teacher Melissa Petro was fired from her teaching job for being a sex worker while she was a student. So even your past can affect your present career.

Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexuality; these are basic legal principles. But there are plenty of things connected with the issues of sexuality, race, and gender which aren’t protected. For example, if a man is discriminated against and not hired because an employer deems his long hair ‘unprofessional’, that is a form of gender discrimination if the same employer would have hired a woman with the same length hair. In the same way, an employer might discriminate against a white man who wears cornrows or dreadlocks while a black man wearing the same hairstyle might be accepted because these hairstyles are a part of his heritage. Similarly, black women sometimes damage their hair with relaxers or hot combs to get a ‘professional’ look as they feel that their natural hair isn’t quite good enough. As yet there are no employment regulations which protect a black or mixed race woman’s right to wear her hair in its natural state. In the US women have been fired for wearing their natural hair and for wearing dreadlocks. There are also no laws to stop you being discriminated because of your hairstyle, piercings or other body modifications like tattoos or scarifications.

It is obvious that the current anti-discrimination laws fail to protect people vulnerable to employer discrimination. Perhaps one solution would be to extend and strengthen the existing anti-discrimination laws to enable more marginalised groups to use them against their employers. But employers won’t usually be stupid enough to say “I’m not hiring you because you’ve got tattoos”. So even with strengthened antidiscrimination laws, it might be difficult for the victims to prove discrimination. Even if employers can’t fire their staff or refuse to hire candidates for having being in a polyamorous relationship or having scarifications, they could use other excuses to fire them.

But if more laws or extending existing ones may be of limited help, changing attitudes might just make more of an impact. Discrimination wouldn’t exist without prejudice, and when there is no more discrimination there won’t even be any need for discrimination laws.

To conclude, it’s probably the changing of prejudicial attitudes that is more likely to ultimately result in more protection of employee rights. But until this social change occurs, any of us could be fired for our lifestyle, family form, appearance or previous jobs. You might think that you’re safe- but so did everyone who has been fired simply for being who they are.

Why Amnesty International Should Support Decriminalising Sex Work

First published on The Fifth Column, August 2015

 

Amnesty International’s proposal to recognise sex work as a human right and adopt a position in favour of decriminalising sex work has met with controversy from anti-sex work groups. A group of Hollywood celebrities have signed an open letter to Amnesty calling for sex work to be criminalised.

Anti-sex work groups have confused decriminalisation with legalisation. Decriminalisation is a system in which the buying and selling of sexual services between consenting adults is legal. (However, in some decriminalised countries it may be illegal for sex workers to share accommodation with other sex workers, or the age of consent for commercial sex may be set higher than the age of consent for giving sex away for free. This is the case in the UK). Under decriminalisation, sex worker organisations can work with the police to tackle crime and increase sex workers’ safety. Examples of this are the UK’s Ugly Mugs Scheme and the Merseyside Model, which increased rape convictions to 67%, compared to the UK average of just 6.5%. Decriminalisation is regarded by sex workers, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, The World Health Organisation and academics as the safest and best system.

Legalisation is more invasive; sex workers may have to register with authorities, be forced to have STD tests, be subject to high taxes and State regulation of the industry. Legalisation may also encourage sex trafficking.

Criminalisation involves making buying sex as well as selling it illegal. Most of the USA uses this model. Sex workers are jailed, can lose custody of their children, are fired from their other jobs, forced to join church programs or face jail, end up unemployed because of their criminal record, and forced to testify against their madams or face losing custody of their children. Clients can be jailed, have their name and photo displayed on billboards, and also face employment and custody issues due to criminal records. Even people who aren’t buying or selling sex are affected; for example the police can stop people in the street and arrest them for selling sex if they are found to be carrying condoms.

The ‘Nordic Model’ is a system whereby only the buyers are criminalised. However, in Sweden this model has increased stigma against sex workers- already a stigmatised and marginalised group. The Swedish Government reported this increase in stigma as a positive effect of the Nordic Model.In Norway, the State has plunged many of its citizens into homelessness as police evict them from their homes for selling sex.

Writing in The Nation, Melissa Gira Grant explains “The foundation of this proposal—that countries “review and repeal laws that make those who sell sex vulnerable to human rights violations”—has been mischaracterized as legalizing prostitution. Amnesty’s proposal has also been repeatedly misrepresented by anti-prostitution groups who oppose, who claim that Amnesty is siding with exploiters. What has received little attention from major press outlets and opposition is the testimony of those who live under these laws: sex workers themselves. They have told Amnesty that sex workers’ rights are not only about the right to work, but the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence.”

Pow Wow, a sex workers’ collective in Zimbabwe, said “Criminalisation of clients also impacts on sex workers and would push us more underground. Criminalising clients would make it more difficult for sex workers to advertise services and would mean that sex workers would take more risks and have even less protections from dangerous clients. Although the biggest problem for sex workers is violence perpetrated by the police, there has recently been a rise of violence against sex workers by clients, this also resulted in the recent death of a sex worker. If clients were criminalised then it means sex workers would have to take more risks in order to be able to work and this would make us even more invisible and vulnerable to dangerous clients. The regulation of sex workers and clients would give the police another excuse to abuse their power and extort us and our clients.
“We need to decriminalise sex work so that sex workers can work safely and have better working conditions. We want to able to unionise to protect our rights and have a voice in the policy making space. We want to be able to access condoms and lubricant at subsidized prices or for free. We want access to justice and we want to be able to take action if we are abused, attacked or harassed. We want to be considered a labour force with labour rights.”
The fact that Lena Dunham was one of the signatories against Amnesty’s proposal highlights the way in which sex workers are ‘othered’ by society. In her autobiography Not That Kind of Girl Dunham admits to being filmed for her HBO series Girls simulating sex with a male actor while nude (without body covers, which is standard practice on set). She also claims to have dressed as a “hooker” to spice up her sex life. While she claims that decriminalisation is wrong because all sex workers are exploited, her book reveals rather disturbing experiences of rape and intimate partner (emotional) abuse which occurred as a result of free sex. Exploitation and abuse are not limited to commercial sex, and Dunham knows it. It appears that there’s one rule for celebrities and another for sex workers. Non-sex workers can appropriate elements of sex workers’ lives and experiences (or, more likely, what they think sex workers’ dress and experience are) and that’s perfectly fine as long as they don’t actually receive money for sex.
Pow Wow explains what celebrities should be doing if they want to help sex workers: “Not taking up space in the media that should be dedicated to OUR voices.”

A spokesperson for Amnesty said “Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world so it is important that we understand how, as Amnesty International, we can work to support their human rights.

The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

This is a divisive, sensitive and complex issue and it is important that we get it right. That is why we have been working for the last two years to develop a proposed policy to protect the human rights of sex workers based on solid research and consultation with stakeholders.

The current draft has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organisation, UN AIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. We have also conducted detailed research in four countries.

Amnesty International’s national offices around the world have also contributed to the policy through extensive and open consultation with many different stakeholders. These have included sex worker groups, groups representing survivors of prostitution, abolitionist organisations, feminist and other women’s rights representatives, anti- trafficking agencies and HIV/AIDS activists.

The research and feedback have helped shape the current draft of the proposed policy.

It is important to stress that given that the consultation process is still on-going, no decisions have been made. No policy has been adopted by Amnesty International and it is not possible to speculate about the eventual outcome of the vote.

The draft policy will be voted on at Amnesty International’s main decision making forum, the International Council Meeting (ICM), which takes place in Dublin from 7-11 August.”

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