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.”

Nigel Farage’s UKIP15 Speech (parody)

Now I don’t know what Nigel Farage said at the UKIP conference, and I don’t care. In fact we all know the kind of thing he’s bound to say. I’ll bet it went something like this:

“Britain needs to get itself back to being Britain again. Britain Britain Britain.  And I’m the guy to take you there. You all know you can trust me- me, the guy with the buffoonish grin permanently plastered over my coupon and a pint glass grafted to my hand. Me, the career politician who plays at being the average guy down the pub all you working-class plebs can relate to, despite owing my allegiance to my circle of posh Londoners. I might dress like a country boy but you can bet I wouldn’t touch a Northerner or ned Weedgie scrounger with a barge pole.

“Now what was I saying? Oh yes, me. I’m the guy who’s going to take us out of the EU. And why? Because the Brexit will solve every single problem this country has! Austerity, social mobility, privacy, tax-dodging corporations, crime, gender inequality, poverty, tuition fees- all these issues will be solved once we throw off the shackles of EU oppression! That’s why there’s no need for UKIP as a party to actually save the NHS or differ from the Conservatives on the issues of austerity, tax avoidance and unemployment. They’ll magically solve themselves! All our problems are caused by the faceless unelected pen-pushers in Brussels dictating our every move, not by successive UK governments’ policies of corruption, illegal wars, hiking tuition fees, ignoring child poverty, pissing on immigrants’ rights and constant lying. Nor is our Murdoch-controlled media to blame for demonising the most vulnerable while backing price spiking by energy corporations and hacking phones with the desperation of a teenage nerd voyeur auditioning for a job at GCHQ.

“Now I might be unelected, but I’m not like those foreigners in Brussels. I’m pure English and they’re foreign, just like those shifty Scots north of our borders. Keep ‘em out, I say. Keep the Scots out.

“Now I’m glad to see so many lovely ladies out there. It’s so adorable seeing the lasses getting interested in politics. I only wish more of you darlings would get tatts of my mug. There’s no sight more enticing than a sea of white English rose faces. Not like that angry Scottish broad- too loud. Too many ideas. Women are much more attractive when they behave themselves, aren’t they?

“Now I’m not racist but immigrants- they really are ruining this glorious motherland of ours, that our Geat, Saxon, Norse, French, Celt and Anglo ancestors fought each other- er, I mean fought for. Multiculturalism simply doesn’t work. Back in the days of Queen Elizabeth 1, we already had lots of immigrants- many of them black Muslims- crawling over our hallowed realm, and it only took them until 2015 to completely ruin everything. Even our surnames, such as Blackmore (meaning Black Moore/Muslim) and its variants, are descended from these scroungers. Could anything be more proof that immigrants do not belong here and aren’t British than the fact that we’ve had immigrants living, working and having mixed race kids here for centuries?

European immigrants were also a plague on the rolling hills of our beloved England. England England England. England. French, German, Eastern European. The freeloaders scrambled through hell and high water to scrounge off our then non-existent welfare state.

“And that’s the beauty of UKIP. We’re the thinking man’s- okay, women too- racist party. Joining the BNP or EDL or Britain First makes you look a bit of a chav, and who wants to rub shoulders with soap-dodging plebs anyway? We needed a racist party for us rich boys and I say old bean, we really have done it!

“Now some of my multiculturalist Marxist opponents may say that I’m a single issue guy, and that UKIP is a single issue party. But that’s not true. I have plenty of other ideas besides leaving the EU. Encouraging plebs to make animal sacrifice to worship the Royals for example, and enacting laws to protect our beloved English heritage. Did you know that curries are replacing our traditional English burger and fries as our national dish? And schoolgirls are increasingly adopting ISIS-style garb for PE lessons instead of those yummy short skirts that we do so like to see on 12 year olds? And that the Islamisssisification of Britain has led to the slow phasing out of the English language as children now speak in American idioms? And it’s now the law that all phone chargers have to be halal? Well, I’m going to change all that.”

JobCentre Confidential: An Interview with the Author Tara Lighten Msiska

Job Centre bans man for making complaint, admits they sanction claimants even if they apply for enough jobs

On 22/06/15 at 10:34 (my laptop had to be repaired, hence the delay in reporting this) I saw a Job Centre advisor tell a “customer” (as the DWP calls those forced to attend the Job Centre) that he was now “banned from this Job Centre” for making a complaint against one of the staff. She informed him that the ban would be in effect “while the investigation into [his] allegations” is processed and he would have to sign on at another Job Centre approximately 20 miles away. When I asked my advisor about it, she just said she didn’t know and couldn’t discuss it. She didn’t deny that the Job Centre would do that or find the idea ridiculous or slanderous.

This is deeply concerning. It’s an attempt at censorship- exercise your right to complain and you’ll have to be inconvenienced. The complainant is punished by being banned, instead of the staff member who is the alleged perpetrator. Punishing people for engaging with the DWP (which helps to improve the quality of the services) and exercising their rights is completely unethical and possibly illegal. Even if he’d been banned as a result of the incident that caused the complaint, and not for complaining, surely the ban should be stopped until the investigation is over and he’s proved to be in the wrong and deserve the ban.

After my advisor interview I left the Job Centre and then went back to get more information. My advisor told me that even if a JSA claimant has applied for enough jobs per week, they can still be sanctioned if they didn’t apply for a job that they could do. (I saw this happen when I was undercover in another Job Centre but I never thought the problem was so widespread). The only reason I wasn’t sanctioned today is because the jobs I hadn’t applied for hadn’t closed yet. Whether a job has closed or not is a ridiculois way to determine whether or not to sanction somebody. It’s also unclear if this involves just local jobs; if I regularly apply to jobs far from my local area, it would actually make sense to sanction me for not applying to jobs all over the UK. And why stop there? I’ve applied to jobs abroad; why not sanction people for not applying for every job in the world that they can do?

Job Centre Refuses To Let Man Make New Benefits Claim And Sanctions Woman By Mistake

jobcentreparody

Today I saw three things happen at the Jobcentre. It’s a bit weird that this happened just after I finally launched the ebook. I wasn’t trying to observe anything, it was just a routine interview. I wasn’t even expecting to see anything because my advisor is fine and so, if I were the sort of person who would covertly record, I would have long ago stopped secretly recording Jobcentre staff every time I go. Again, if I were that sort of person, I would only have recorded this particular advisor twice, compared to the 16 or 17 covert recordings of other staff members which I would have if I had ever audio recorded in the Jobcentre.

At about 11:35 Work Coach ‘Allen’ was on the phone to a Work Programme company.

“I’m taking action against him,” he was saying, “Because he hasn’t done a job search in the last two weeks…no this was from a long time ago…12th May.”

Now I’m not disputing that according to DWP policy, this guy deserved the sanction. But it seemed as though Allen was treating the fact that another human being would have no money for two weeks, and thereafter only around £30 a week for months, in a very casual manner. He seemed unaware that this guy would not have enough food to eat or any way to pay for electricity and gas. I didn’t record this.

Then I had my advisor interview and went on the computers to look up the Civil Service Movement Into Work Scheme (work experience placements in government departments which JCPs can refer you to) which I previously used to observe the Jobcentre and write the ebook. I was trying to get my advisor to refer me. She didn’t even know that the Scheme includes all Civil Service agencies and not just the Jobcentre, which shows the sterling quality of Jobcentre training. This is the second time a Jobcentre staff was unaware of Jobcentre initiatives. The first time, I was told that the staff member didn’t know about it until I was on the Work Programme (and therefore not eligible) because “it’s up to you to get off your arse and do things for yourself”. I felt like I was being blamed for researching internship opportunities myself and expecting professionalism and support from Jobcentre staff. When I worked my bosses would never have let me get away with the kind of disorganisation that they get away with. (Come to think of it, my advisors were keen to try to push catering courses and workfare on me, but didn’t deign to breathe a word about the Scheme or internships that would’ve actually been useful.)

Then she found out I’m no longer eligible anyway because I’m now over 25. Though it is great to be not allowed to work for them on the ground of age instead of the ground of which country’s name is on my passport, when that is entirely the fault of the government itself for withholding citizenship from me when I was born- born here, but apparently not British enough to even harass people in the Jobcentre. (Only UK citizens can work in the Civil Service- including in Jobcentres- but anyone can do the Movement To Work Scheme). But I digress. Anyway, the age thing shows how damaging the Work Programme can be. When you’re on the Work Programme you’re excluded from all Jobcentre courses, opportunities and funding. If the Work Programme didn’t exist I could have taken advantage of the Movement Into Work Scheme, perhaps even more than once, doing placements in different departments.

Another pointless rule was explained to me today after I used a JCP phone to call a court about doing work experience there (I have a Law degree). My advisor says that if I do intern in the court, the DWP will only pay my travelling expenses if I’m referred to the placement through the Jobcentre. Otherwise they won’t, and I can’t do it, because it’s over two hours away so it costs too much. The Advisor Discretionary Fund (now combined with the Flexible Support Fund) which provide funding for things to help you back into work only pay for things arranged through the Jobcentre.

But to get back to the story: there I am clicking away at an unnecessarily oversized monitor paid for with taxpayer money, when someone pops in to ask Allen why she was sanctioned. Allen says it’s because the Jobcentre didn’t receive her job search. She explains about a mix-up, a conversation which I’m not able to hear well because of other loud conversations taking place. Allen appears to accept her explanation. He tells her to call the decision maker and explain it to them. Which means she was sanctioned by mistake. It’s unbelievable. (Didn’t record this either.)

Then a man came in and sat at another computer. Lauren (who first appeared on this blog in this delightful interaction) told him to move because that computer was only for making new claims. She repeated this a few times in a rude manner. He pointed out that he was indeed making a new claim. Lauren told him to leave and he asked to be allowed to make the claim. They then argued about him having to sign on at another job centre. He asked her for the bus fare to travel there if she was making him go to another JCP. She kept refusing to pay his fare. So he asked to make the new claim here and she said “Go and come back when you’ve calmed down. Go or I’m calling the police.” He went. (If I was inclined to take videos, I don’t think the video’s audio quality would be good enough to justify posting it on here or on YouTube- I was filming from a distance).

Anyway, on a completely unrelated note, here’s a completely unrelated video of a completely unrelated place.

I Just Published An Ebook- JobCentre: Confidential Is The True Story Of Being Undercover At The DWP

Jobcentre- Confidential3

Back in March I asked the Job Centre to let me do work experience. It’s something the DWP routinely does. They paid my travelling but not lunch but I was happy with this; information usually comes at a price, even if that price is only effort and time. This was the culmination of a two-year long plan to get them to let me intern in a Job Centre so I could blog about it.

I’d originally imagined blogging every day- a sort of journal of my observations. But when the work experience rolled around, I thought it’d be safer to collect all the data first and then release it on the web- or to a paper or news site. But the Job Centre staff were criticising the unemployed and disabled all the time. Even before my work experience officially began I was witnessing unfair sanctions, and ridiculous sanctions and narrow escapes from potential ridiculous sanctions kept happening. Only two days- the first Thursday and Friday- went by without much incident. I was getting way too much information for a single article. I thought about doing a series of blog posts but even that seemed a bit of a waste and I didn’t know if people would want to read post after post. So I made it into an ebook.

Doing the observation was fun. It was more than fun. I don’t know of any single word to describe it. It was like living your dream and doing what you were always meant to do, and expressing yourself- all at the same time! I’d been observed and monitored often as a child and teenager so I was familiar with the process of it; noting down dates, times, patterns of behaviour. And unlike my enemies who’d observed me, I actually cared about getting the facts right. That meant that if Staff Member A told me something, I’d ask Staff Member B the same thing for confirmation. I talked to staff at different grades and doing different jobs- the manager down to the security. I also asked them to let me sit in on advisor interviews, which they granted.

It required a lot of focus though. I’d often have to check the time for accuracy and I was always hungry when I was there, no matter how much I ate for breakfast (no idea why). I had 4 hours- usually three and a half- to collect as much information as possible. I would memorise it and write it on my phone at lunchtime. We had an hour for lunch so by the time I’d bought food and returned to the Job Centre canteen I’d have about 30 minutes at best to eat and write. And that’s if I didn’t use some of the time to chat to any staff whose break coincided with mine- which I often did. I kept it subtle- I didn’t just join their tables on the first couple of days. But I soon discovered that they weren’t cliquey and the social bonds between most of the staff were not strong- they were happily colleagues, but not friends. (This may have something to do with the fact that some staff members were doing Universal Credit training and were absent from normal activities). Remembering every detail and the stuff I had to follow up on was hard. I’d email the notes to myself on the bus home.

My work experience was meant to last 4 weeks. It was stopped after two and a half weeks, for vague and nonsensical reasons (detailed in the ebook). I suspect it’s because the manager found out what I was doing. He used to be my advisor at another Job Centre two years ago and knows my views about the DWP. He also knows about this blog. For all I know he’s reading this.

The manager didn’t say I was being chucked out for potential whistleblowing or conspiracy to commit undercover journalism. But he did say “You’re not allowed to blog about this”. I assured him I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. I wrote an ebook instead.

It’s called JobCentre: Confidential, and it’s here.

I also wrote this article for Guerilla Policy and this one for The Fifth Column.

Thanks to Rick B for the title (its working title was “DWP Undercover” but I thought that sounded a bit dramatic).

Why Revenge Porn Works

Originally published on Cliterati on 4/3/15.

Image credit: roboman28.deviantart.com

Image credit: roboman28.deviantart.com

It’s now a crime in the UK to post or send “revenge porn”. A sensible law in keeping with the spirit of existing criminal law and data protection laws, and, as many would agree, long overdue. But law isn’t the only thing that needs to change. Because without certain attitudes prevalent in our society, we wouldn’t even need a law against revenge porn- revenge porn wouldn’t work.

Picture this scene: it is the middle of the day in a large town. The men- young and middle-aged- stand to one side in the town square. Opposite them stand the young women. The women are making speeches about international politics and mocking some of the men for their bad decisions and cowardice. The men keep silent as the women make suggestions about military strategy and how the state should be run. And the women are all naked.

This isn’t a figment of my imagination. According to the first century historian Plutarch, this really happened, and often. The place was Sparta, the year unknown. And Spartan women didn’t just turn up naked to public policy debates; like the men, they also did military training in the nude. They were expected to be tough and physically strong. 300 and its sequel added too much material to Queen Gorgo’s dress; in reality Spartan women’s dresses revealed their bare thighs because the back was not attached to the front.

To the Spartans the nude female body didn’t signify sexuality, shame or even physical weakness. There was no “either or” mentality about women’s intelligence versus their desirability. Women could be taken seriously without copying men. They could be taken seriously in revealing outfits and while naked.

Bur for women today it couldn’t be more different. We don’t get taken seriously in the corporate world if we’re deemed to feminine or sexy; we have to avoid being the dumb blonde. Wearing a short skirt reduces us to being labelled as bimbos or sluts- targets for pick up artists and slut shamers. Never mind criticising military strategy in the nude, we can’t even avoid being blamed for being sexually assaulted if we were wearing an outfit considered “revealing”. That’s because the female body is seen as something sinful or shameful. And that’s why revenge porn works.

If nudity didn’t equal sexuality and shame, victims of revenge porn wouldn’t be upset by others seeing them sans clothing. Therefore, nobody would do revenge porn. In even more repressive times, an ex could humiliate you by publically revealing that you’re not a virgin. But that wouldn’t work now because sexual experience is not shameful. Ditto revenge porn in future.

Revenge porn only works because of our sexualisation of nudity and the attitude that a woman’s body is sacred so nude images of her are shaming. South Park nailed it with Clyde’s mom, who was secretly filmed nude and had the film go viral, saying “I wasn’t ‘humiliated’, I was wronged”. If revenge porn works because of perceived “humiliation”/shame for a woman to be nude, that means it will cease to exist when sexualisation of female bodies and slut shaming stop.

Without these social attitudes, revenge porn wouldn’t exist or even work, as the victim wouldn’t be bothered by it or bullied because of it. It’s very telling that while all genders are victims of ‘revenge porn’, it’s disproportionately women who are bullied, feel humiliated, and kill themselves.

A change in the law is a great first step. But if we truly want to eradicate revenge porn and nude photo leaks and thefts, we need to change our attitudes to women and how we see nudity- especially female nudity.

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