A feminist perspective on Jacqui Smith’s proposals to change the prostitution laws

December 23, 2008 at 10:05 am (Caroline S, Feminism, Free Speech, sex workers, women)

viceFirstly, let me introduce myself – I’m Caroline Shepherd, and I’m a sex positive feminist who supports sex workers rights. I blog primarily at Better Burn That Dress, Sister, and have a few other blog projects on the go as well (Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy and  in the moderation queue).

Right now, I’m concerned with Jacqui Smith’s proposals. I see Voltaire’s Priest has blogged about this in Sex Workers: Practical Help, not Puritanism and BindelBollocks already, but I’d like to hit you with the feminist perspective, or, because radical feminists traditionally wet themselves when I say I’m a feminist, the sex positive feminist perspective.

Firstly, here, very basically, is what Jacqui Smith proposes –
1) Giving councils more power to close down brothels and lap dancing clubs.
2) Make kerb-crawling punishable as a first offense.
3) Outlaw sex with someone “controlled” for another’s gain.
4) Class sex with a trafficked woman as rape. Claiming ignorance will not be considered a defense.

Sex workers and sex workers unions have objected vehemently. I have a small selection of examples in one of my blog posts, but to be honest, you’re better off going straight to the source – for example, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), particularly this press release from Catherine Stephens. In it, she explains that these laws will quite simply endanger sex workers;  the industry will be pushed even further underground. Sex workers are already incredibly vulnerable as it is, this is frankly unthinkable. In fact, considering this logically – women will be literally thrown into the street, unable to work in a controlled environment and forced to make snap decisions when getting into the car with a client. Furthermore, it is assumed that a woman working for another person is “controlled” and exploited. This is not necessarily so.

People who read my blog regularly know that I am not against prostitution. I see it as ‘selling sex’, not ‘selling women’, and I believe in supporting a woman’s choice to sell sex. I trust her judgement and respect her autonomy to make this decision. It is true that some women do not choose to be in this industry and they must be helped. Pushing the sex industry further underground won’t help anyone, least of all those most vulnerable. I do not believe, however, prostitution is necessarily unsafe, I believe it is made unsafe by bad laws and that decriminalisation and regulation will give women their right to a safe working environment. Being as I support human rights and workers rights, so too do I support sex workers rights.

However, to be perfectly frank – my opinion on sex work is, essentially, inconsequential. One may think sex work is immoral, anti-feminist, “icky”, whatever. The simple fact is there are women out there who are vulnerable and made more vulnerable by bullshit laws. Let’s say we do nothing, keep the laws as they are now. What next? To quote the indomitable Renegade Evolution (a sex worker, sex workers rights activist and blogger), what’s the plan? Harm reduction (discussed here by Ren for Feministe) is the priority here, religion, morality, feminism, that’s not the major concern right now. The need to protect vulnerable women, respect women’s right to choose to sell sex and ensure a safe working environment for women are the priorities. There are times I’m at a complete loss as to why feminists cannot agree to this.

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NuLab and the Social Fund: what the hell were they thinking of?

December 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm (capitalist crisis, Christmas, class, Gordon Brown, Jim D, labour party, poverty, welfare)


Bah, humbug!

If someone wanted to devise a scenario to make the government look as bad as it is possible to look just before Xmas , they could scarcely have done better than this. Publish a “consulation” paper that contains a proposal to charge interest of nearly 27 per cent on loans to the very poorest and most desperate people in the country – Social Fund claimants.

These loans presently get paid (or not paid, as the case may be) by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to people who have no other means of obtaining the most basic essentials – chairs and tables, a bed and bedding, basic carpeting, a reconditioned cooker. But a fridge is unlikely to be allowed, because it’s not considered “essential” unless you have a medical condition. And even then, you’ll only get a payment if the DWP calculate that your Jobseekers Allowance or Income Support is sufficient to cover the repayments within a strictly limited time period. The only good thing about a Social Fund loan is that it’s interest free – and now the government is talking about changing even that! Or at least they were until a public outcry that had even the Tories (for Chrissakes!) accusing them of acting like “loan sharks” forced a humiliating climb-down. It was only ever a “consulatation” , not a serious proposal, bleated junior Minister  Kitty Usher while her boss, the uber-Blairite John Hutton blustered on about how the proposal wouldn’t “necessarily” mean the poor being forced to pay interest on loans. So what, exactly, would it mean? No-one’s clear, except that the proposal involved handing the administration of Social Fund loans over to credit unions, the community savings organisations who are already on record as saying that they want nothing to do with such a scheme.

New Labour at its worst: floating yet another privatisation scheme in the form of a “consultation”; proposing a further attack on the very poorest at a time when fat cats are being given hand-outs; and doing all this in the run-up to Xmas in the middle of a recession!  Just as Brown has been showing some signs of recovery in the polls, too. They really do have a death wish, don’t they?

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Whitewashing the Taliban

December 21, 2008 at 5:50 pm (Afghanistan, anti-fascism, islamism, Max Dunbar, publications, reaction, religion, SWP, wankers, war)

From the people who brought you John Molyneux there is another long, tedious and self-regarding article in the International Socialism journal, this time about Afghanistan. You can guess what it will say, these people have been using the same arguments for so long they can do them in their sleep, but here’s a summary by the author Jonathan Neale:

In every country in Europe majorities in opinion polls are against participation in the Afghan war. Yet the media still present it as a good war. Iraq, they now admit, was a crime or wrong or maybe just a mistake. But Afghanistan is a war on terrorists, we are told; on fanatics, jihadis, sexists, savages; on people who are not ‘modern’ and therefore deserve to die.

Yes, it’s those evil Western imperialists forcing secular democracy upon the noble, untutored tribesmen. Indeed the first part of Neale’s article consists of nostalgic reminisciences of his time in Afghanistan doing ‘two years of fieldwork as an anthropologist from 1971 to 1973’.

[T]he people I knew best were poor pastoralists who had lost their flocks and now made yoghurt. Their lives were not unrepresentative. Most of them got two sets of adult clothes in their lives—one when they first grew up and one when they married. A bicycle was a sign of moderate wealth. Out of 30 households in the camp, three were wealthy enough to afford to offer me a fried egg in hospitality. And they reminded me of it: ‘You ate his egg,’ they said to me. Out of 30 households, 29 ate meat once a year. An average household had one teapot and one cup.

How absolutely darling. I shall certainly make Shah-era Afghanistan the choice for my next gap year.

There’s also this bizarre bit of nostalgia:

When I lived in rural Afghanistan in the 1970s I had a short, trimmed beard. Every other man with a beard was either a white haired elder or a mullah, and all of them trimmed their beards neat and short. I was regularly ridiculed in public for my beard, which was immodest and un-Islamic, and it would have been quite unacceptable to grow it long.

Which proves… er… what exactly?

As you’d expect from this journal Neale concludes that ‘there are no easy outcomes for Afghans in this situation, but the best one is a victory for the resistance.’ That ‘resistance’ being the Taliban, this means that Neale’s main task here is to make the Taliban look good, or at least find diverting explanations for its behaviour.

So we’re told that the Taliban ‘came into being in 1994 under the patronage of the ISI in Pakistan, and with the quiet support of the US’ – so it’s all the fault of the West anyway. The word Taliban just means ‘the students’ and its leadership consists of ‘men with limited formal education’ who ‘had never attended university and did not come from big landowning families’ – good old working class lads, like you.

‘Crucially,’ Neale tells us, ‘the Taliban promised that their leaders and soldiers would not molest boys and girls as the mujahedin commanders had often done.’ Which was nice of them. And while the public executions in football stadia were ‘barbaric’ they were also ‘welcome to many Afghans’. Well, the death penalty may be acceptable to much of the UK public, although I doubt that Neale wants to introduce it over here.

During the 2004 elections the Taliban ‘had the sense not to attack any of the voters at polling stations—people would have been furious.’ Except that they killed election workers, threatened all eighteen presidential candidates with assassination and launched a massive intimidation campaign against potential voters.

Yet for Neale one of the Taliban’s ‘great strengths’ is that ‘they do not engage in bomb attacks against Afghan civilians’ – but they don’t mind shooting them, as in Khandahar two months ago when Taliban killers gunned down twenty-five Afghan civilians, including a child. Still, ‘on the rare occasions when these happen the Taliban issue a public statement denying involvement.’ So that’s alright then.

Indeed, the Taliban have ‘learned, changed their strategy and displayed considerable political intelligence.’ While they banned music and videos when they were in power, now they ‘produce propaganda videos and cassettes of Taliban music.’ Big changes, eh? It’s like Scrooge after the spirits had finished with him.

Next Neale deals with the quislings: regrettably, ‘almost all the feminists have collaborated with the occupation, or the NGOs or Karzai’s government. So have most former Communists, the returned Afghan-Americans, the ‘modernisers’ and the ‘secular’ liberals.’ I wonder why. Could it be because they want a fledgeling democracy over fascist theocracy? What sellouts!

Edmund Standing has already had a go at this and he makes this point:

Yet again, the SWP cannot understand that Islamists are not just resisting the presence of foreign troops; they are resisting democracy, human rights, and, specifically and with most venom, the rights of women and children.

Only today I was talking to a teenage Afghan immigrant whose father was murdered by the Taliban. Try telling him that you want ‘victory for the resistance’, when you mean the same bastards who killed his dad.

To which Ophelia Benson adds:

Well it’s physically impossible for them not to understand that, because it’s physically impossible for them to be unaware of all the myriad news reports of the Taliban burning down schools that admit girls, throwing acid on schoolgirls (that was just last week), murdering teachers in front of their students, etc etc etc. They do understand it, the shits, they just don’t object.

Neale’s piece of propaganda for a fascist movement is something that would have been shocking six or seven years back, but wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now. Yet in light of recent debates as to whether the SWP can be considered a totalitarian party I think that Jonathan Neale has done a real service in reminding us exactly what kind of scum they are and how far they have gone from anything that could be considered remotely left wing.


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Let them eat solar panels

December 21, 2008 at 1:13 pm (class, climate change, environment, unions, voltairespriest)

It was with not a little sadness and familiarity that I read Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer, in which she vocally opposes the idea of a government bail-out for Jaguar Land Rover. It is not so much her opposition to the terms being discussed (I would support an all-out nationalisation rather than the usual cash-injection bailout that has been mooted), but rather an aspect of her reasoning, which is at issue.

There is, as most readers here will know, a long-standing fault line between green and left-wing politics, which has never been fully resolved. On the left, the vast majority of us (myself included) acknowledge the reality of environmental issues such as climate change, species decline or pollution, and we would seek political action to support these problems. Similarly, most (though not all) greens would count themselves as part of the progressive wing of politics, having long ago and rightly dispatched most of the misanthropes and population bombers who infested their movement in the 1970s. However the two movements have never fully married, for all of this apparent convergence, and periodically we see why.

Just to give one anecdotal example, I can remember attending a No Sweat gathering a couple of years ago, where an academic whose name I forget was giving a lecture on the immediacy of the climate crisis. He made, and kept returning to, the point that many of the world’s industries are environmentally unsustainable and will have to change if the crisis is not to become a calamity. This point is plainly true. However I raised the “then what” question, to which he did not appear to have (or want, or indeed think it particularly important to have) an answer. What, I asked, would he suggest as an alternative mode of employment for a coal miner in West Virginia who had never known anything other than the coal industry since he was young. “Well, he’ll have transferrable skills”, came the answer. Like what? “Digging”, the definitive answer delivered with a shrug to suppressed giggles among the assembled audience.

The point here is that whilst green politics does appeal on the left, it only appeals strongly to a certain, overwhelmingly metropolitan and middle class, section with jobs and lifestyles that can easily absorb a switch from cars to public transport, a bit of recycling and buying organic. This is fine if you are within the public sector professions, but rather harder to wear if you are an assembly line worker at Land Rover whose job has to go in order to promote the virtues espoused by others.

And this brings me back to Bennett. She is usually a humane and witty writer, however she treats the jobs and lives which would be shattered by a collapse at Jaguar Land Rover, almost as an afterthought. There are two main points where she mentions the workforce at all:

So, when assessing the plight of Jaguar Land Rover we should ask ourselves – once we’ve thought about all the poor workers – whether we want to live in a world without the 4.2 litre V8 petrol supercharged Jaguar which emits 299g of CO2 per kilometre

So, “once we’ve thought about the workers”, we should get rid of the evil cars anyway, albeit with a certain nostalgic guilt about the union members now swelling the unemployment rolls. There again, maybe their livelihoods are a worthy sacrifice given what bastards Land Rover’s customers tend to be. After all, what’s a few unemployed car monkeys if you get to laugh at Gaunty over drinkies in Farringdon?

Which is not to say Jaguar Land Rover’s workers deserve to be abandoned by the government, like the unfortunate staff of Woolworths. In the unlikely event of the brand’s collapse, public money may be used, instead, to train its former workers to make sustainable vehicles: the recession’s long-awaited green dividend.

Ergo, they could re-train to make Toyota Priuses, in factories that don’t exist, in a region where as far as I know not one major manufacturer is planning to expand. It won’t happen. They’ll end up either on the dole or working in service industries for less than two thirds of what they earned in manufacturing, just like much of the ex-Rover workforce in Birmingham. Substance misuse (primarily alcohol) rises amongst manual workers when they become unemployed, as I and my overworked colleagues can attest to from the bitter experience of people who lost automotive jobs in Coventry. The consequences are devastating.

Unite, my own union and also the one most heavily organised in the automotive sector, has called for a large-scale bail-out of the car industry. For me that would have to be tied (at least) to government ownership of majority stakes in the firms which receive the cash. There would also have to be environmental targets, and longer term I would indeed advocate a change to more sustainable vehicles. However that has more to do with governmental pressure on bosses, than it does with throwing workers onto the scrapheap whilst mouthing green platitudes about how this will not be such a bad thing in the long run.

Unite’s solution is far from perfect. But it is a more humane plan than that offered by “progressives” more concerned with feeling good about their own lifestyles than thinking properly about the human consequences of the policies which they advocate. Workers in the Midlands and elsewhere have suffered enough: it is time to remember who the left is there for.

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You know you’re a fundamentalist when…

December 20, 2008 at 2:42 pm (politics, religion, secularism, voltairespriest)

Andrea Williams, founder of the Christian Legal Centre and author of Nadine Dorries' recent abortion amendmentThis gave me a giggle when I saw it today, but it can be used to illustrate a serious point too. Those of you who argue that secularism (the separation of the state from control by the church) is a bad, irrelevant or “reactionary” concept should give serious consideration as to who exactly you want writing and approving the laws that govern the nation in which you live. Even those amongst us who do profess a religious faith overwhelmingly favour secular government over theocracy, and with good reason.

The list was shamelessly nicked from Science and the Art of Skeptical Thought, and is a tongue-in-cheek way of making a statement about religious fundamentalism:

Top Ten Signs You’re a Fundamentalist Christian

10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

9 – You feel insulted and “dehumanized” when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the “atrocities” attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in “Exodus” and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in “Joshua” including women, children, and trees!

6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs — though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most “tolerant” and “loving.”

3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in “tongues” may be all the evidence you need to “prove” Christianity.

2 – You define 0.01% as a “high success rate” when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.

1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

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Books of the Year #2

December 19, 2008 at 4:52 pm (Christmas, Jim D, literature, trivia)

Our top writers make their selections from around the world.


This has been a good year for collections and reissues of work by major critics. Lionel Trilling’s prose is not without its irritating mannerisms, but the best of the essays in his most celebrated collection – The Liberal Imagination, first published in 1950, now re-issued with an introduction by Louis Menand (New York Review Books) – still retain an impressive combination of ethical gravitas and cultural range.

On the other hand, if you want a rattling good murder yarn, try this:

Strictly speaking, it’s not a “yarn” at all, because it’s the true story of a gruesome murder of a child that took place in 1860. The ‘Rose Hill House Murder’ happened to co-incide with the advent of a professional police detective force in Britain, the emergence of the sensationalist popular press and  the rise of the detective novel. The ‘Mr Whicher’ in the title is a pioneer Scotland Yard detective who was eventually broken by the case. These macabre events, widely reported in the press at the time, apparently influenced Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone and The Woman in White), Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw). It was, in effect, the prototype for every middle-to-upper class ‘English Country House’ murder story that followed.

Author Kate Summerscale has combined a convincing  pastiche of the Wilkie Collins style with meticulous research into the facts of the case and some thoughtful reflections upon murder and murder stories. In her Afterward, she comments:

“The image makes Saville (the victim – JD) suddenly present: he wakes to see his killer and to see death descend on him…I was reminded, with a jolt, that the boy lived. In unravelling the story of the murder, I had forgotten him.

“Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional – to transform sensation , horror and grief into a puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story’, observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is tragedy with a happy ending.’ A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.”

-Published by Bloomsbury (2008), £11.99.

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Bernard Crick

December 19, 2008 at 4:47 pm (politics, Rosie B)

I’m sorry to hear that Bernard Crick has died.  His biography of Orwell is excellent and so are his essays – a clear vision and a liberal and humane voice.  I met him a couple of times and he seemed a nice, amiable guy.

Crick had fierce views about most political subjects, from the Falklands and Iraq to Northern Ireland and presidential prime ministers. His view of politics did not accommodate watered-down consensus. He used to quote Ernest Gellner: “socially tolerant always, intellectually tolerant never”. He maintained that no progress of any kind is possible without political argument, political education and political participation, and that to achieve these the political class had to stop talking to itself and engage with citizens, however uncomfortable, messy and less than ideal that may often turn out to be.

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Say it ain’t so!

December 18, 2008 at 10:58 pm (crap, SWP, voltairespriest)

We all know that the festive season is a time when many people reassess their priorities and where they’re going in life. But for heaven’s sake, there are limits! I’ve just read a disturbing story which, if true, will shock the left-wing blogosphere to its very core.

According to Harry’s Place, rumours are beginning to circulate that Shiraz comments behemoth JohnG has left the SWP. John, the Shiraz Socialist Provisional Central Committee (Marxist-Leninist) demands to know the truth, this instant. Come here and explain yourself!

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Kirsty MacColl

December 18, 2008 at 10:57 pm (music, Rosie B, Uncategorized)

After the death of the Princess of Wales in an accident, there was a clip that was often played of a woman saying, “We have lost this clever, witty something or other.”  Clever! Witty?  There was no evidence given of any of the cleverness or wit of the well-born clothes wearer.

But 8 years ago we did lose a clever and witty woman in a stupid accident.  That woman was Kirsty MacColl.

Hen party version:-

Kirsty MacColl 10 October, 1959 – 18 December, 2000

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Rowan Williams: fucking idiot

December 18, 2008 at 8:08 pm (capitalist crisis, Jim D, labour party, religion)

I have already had cause to denounce the stupidity and superficiality of this ludicrous bearded buffoon, for some inexplicable reason considered a ‘deep thinker’  in some way qualified to pronounce upon affairs of the real world in a way that your average  Guardian-reading wine-bar bore isn’t:

Rowan Williams

 His latest ignorant, pompous pronouncement concerns the so-called “credit cruch” (“recession” to you and me) . According to Bleating Beardie it’ll do us all a bit of good: it’s a “reality check” that should be used to question: “What we are making or what are we accumulating wealth for?”

Fair enough, I can hear some of you say, and not that far from a Marxist analysis, at least in terms of verbiage. But Beardie then went on to attack Brown’s meagre proposals for increased  spending and a VAT cut as a way to tackle the downturn, and came up with the extraordinary statement that: “It seems a bit like the addict returning to the drug. When the bible uses the word ‘repentance’, it doesn’t just mean beating your breast, it means getting a new perspective, and that is perhaps what we are shrinking away from.”

Does this bearded imbecile have the faintest idea of what the recession means in practice for working class people? Does he understand the meaning of the words “redundancy” , “bankruptcy” or “repossession”?

His one single piece of self awareness was when he confessed  during the interview (to BBC’ Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme) that it was “suicidally silly” of him to get involved in the debate. But he doesn’t even seem to properly understand how unfortunate his use of the word “suicide” was in this context.

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