Thursday 13 November 2008

The Poppy Project: the showdown...

On a grizzly, awful day in Brixton, I went to visit the organisers of The Poppy Project to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences. I’d love to be able to tell you that I stormed in there and showed them the error of their ways with copious intellectual shouting before setting the desk on fire, singing the red flag and lighting a cigarette off the debris, but I felt that it would be more helpful to listen and, at any rate, our common ground turned out to be more considerable than either of us believed. So much so, in fact, that most of the discussion time was taken up with sisterly bitching about the state of the world. Here's what was resolved, and here's what wasn't:

Conditional help
‘Every time someone tells me that I don’t really care about prostituted women, I see red. They have no idea.’ Denise Marshall, Poppy's chief executive, was keen to set the record straight, not least on the fact that she and her organisation support both the decriminalisation of 'the women' (by which I here assume she was inferring all prostitutes) and the offer of non-conditional support to all trafficked women. One thing that I hadn't realised when I wrote the original piece is that the conditions that the Poppy Project imposes on the women who receive its care, whilst very much a reality, are a government intervention in the scheme. Indeed, the original conditions of the funding included such gems as a mandate that women who received the Project's help would not then be allowed to apply for asylum, and a condition that they had to have sold sex on the day that they came to the Project. Poppy organisers fought these conditions and managed to get some of them reduced or even removed altogether - but some conditions do remain. Women are not obliged to appear in court, thanks to pressure from the organisers, but they are still obliged to give evidence to the police as a condition of Poppy's assistance. The situation remains unideal, and the marriage between even this most on-message of women's groups and the government which funds it is not an easy one.

Why did the government impose these conditions? 'That's a very interesting question,' said Denise. 'Partly, I think, it's an immigration issue.' The government, not fully understanding what the Project was trying to achieve with trafficked women, was keen that the Poppy Project did not become a vehicle for hundreds of terrible asylum seekers, simply desperate to work in the oh-so-fluffy British sex industry, to scamper into the country. Because protecting women is important, but so is securing the votes of Daily Mail readers.

Conceptual disagreements
Although the reasons behind the Poppy Project’s conditional help and their real attitude towards decriminalisation were quickly established, the research conducted by the Project - research recommending ‘The Swedish Model’ of prostitution reform along with other sanctions adopted by the government for its own ends - remained a bone of contention. The organisers did not persuade me that the research done for the Big Brothel report was in any way systematic or their conclusions sound, and the fact that they did not really attempt to convince a vocal critic otherwise is telling. Anna, Poppy's press officer, told me that part of the reason they push for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is 'conceptual': 'we don't believe that men should feel that they can just buy women's bodies'. It is true, then, that a significant part of what the Project's research is trying to achieve is a shift in social morality through targeted legal change. The problem is that this rarely ever works, even if it were the job of the law to police people’s sexual morality. Legal prohibition often creates more problems than it solves, and certainly in Sweden, where criminalisation of the purchase of sex has been implemented, life has become riskier for the women who choose to stay in the sex trade.

We live in an amoral, free-market capitalist society where, like it or not, most bodies are up for sale for a given fee. Even were the buying of sex to become illegal, as the buying of some chemicals is now, there would still be outlets where sex could be bought, if in a much more underground fashion which poses greater risks for sex workers in the industry. Interestingly, even the Poppy representatives seemed to disagree on this one: whilst Denise was adamant that prostitution is not 'a fact of life', Hannah*, a former sex worker from the USA and a Poppy volunteer, claimed that she could not imagine a time when it would not exist. I cannot reconcile myself to the Poppy mantra that 'prostitution is not a valid career choice', because the fact stands that men and women who choose to go into sex work do have agency - agency predicated on poverty, desperation and, often, a misconception of what the job involves, but agency nonetheless. Prostitution may be a sad and disempowering choice, but it is a choice, and it has to be recognised as a valid one free from arbitrary moral stigma. The problem isn't prostitution itself, but the fact that in a society underpinned by class and gender inequalities people go into prostitution for all the wrong reasons, and are likely to face abuse within the industry – abuse which is all but sanctioned by the British justice system.

We also live in a society where prostitution, particularly female prostitution, has a negative moral loading which makes it far more difficult for sex workers to pursue justice when they are victims of crime such as rape and assault. And this is a fact that no legal move is going to alter until protections are in place to ensure that all women can bring their sexual abusers to justice. Without that sort of systemic change, without real commitment on the part of the police, of parliament and of society in general to valuing the personhood of all women, particularly the young, the poor and immigrants who are most likely to go into sex work, no legal change is going to make a significant difference to the experience of women who work as prostitutes.

The Poppy organisers and I are in agreement that prostitution is a dangerous and unpleasant industry to work in, and that the attitude of this society towards sex work is repulsively hypocritical. But I remain convinced that all that criminalising the purchase of sex would achieve would be to make some women feel a bit better for a short time and drive prostitution further underground in the long run, especially when combined (unlike in Sweden) with moves that further outlaw the selling of sex, which is what the Home Office is moving towards. The point isn’t that buying sex is wrong. The point is that it’s not okay to treat all women like whores, and all prostitutes like pieces of meat that you can punch with impunity. The ‘Swedish Model’ confuses the issue, compromising personal freedoms instead of addressing the real issue. The real issue is not the moral value or otherwise of a woman’s choice to work in the sex industry. It’s the state of the sex industry within a society that fundamentally does not value women, and that’s a complex distinction to make, but a vital one if we are to make progress for women without alienating our allies.

Prostitution is not a crime committed by men against women. The state of the sex industry is a crime committed by society against its poorest and most vulnerable. It is a crime committed by patriarchal capitalism against the poor women and young men that it values least. I believe that in looking to ‘criminalise men’ (their words), the Poppy Project are lashing out at the wrong enemy.

The fact stands, though, that if I spend much more time picking perfectly valid holes in the work of the Project on this blog, then so am I.

We have different ideological conceptions of what feminism means. But there is much that radically abolitionist, women-only groups such as Poppy and socialist feminists like myself can do together. Whether we believe the problem to be men in general or the entire structure of capitalist patriarchy, we all believe that desperate women working in prostitution need support, protection and rights. The practical work done by the Poppy Project is almost identical in motive to the work of socialist-feminist aligned Xtalk, a project established to help immigrant prostitutes improve their circumstances.

Even former employees agree that the academic rigour of the Poppy Project’s research leaves much to be desired, and the actions of government based on their recommendations more still. Our ideological differences are considerable, and we will come to those differences if and when there is a real chance of the most misplaced aspects of that research becoming law. Right now, though, we are more alike than we are unalike. And we have work to do.


  1. I was aware that the conditions the Project imposes on those that seek help were a condition of their funding, so I didn't really blame them for that.

    However, I do think they do damage with their contention that ALL migrant sex workers are "trafficked", especially since the actual meaning of the word is so slippery. It can mean literally kidnapped off the streets and brought to the UK against your will; that you came to the UK knowingly but did not know you would be a sex worker; that you did know you would be a sex worker but were lied to about conditions of employment; or often that you came through a route set up by a criminal gang, which frankly can be said for a lot of people in the UK without status.

    Also, did you find out if they do any lobbying on immigration issues? Because even if it's not their fault, at the moment their organisation does prop up the "law & order" approach to trafficking, where the human rights of migrants are secondary (or often tertiary) to jailing traffickers. Do they do any activism to try to get the government to adopt a more "human-rights" based approach?

    I think there's an issue with the feminist movement generally wrt the complete disinterest in migrant women's rights if those women are not trafficked sex workers. But that's not really the fault of the Poppy Project - they never claimed to be advocating on behalf of ALL migrant women.

  2. "Right now, though, we are more alike than we are unalike. And we have work to do."

    This is the most heartening thing I've read for ages.


  3. Really interesting post. One thing, however: clients aren't criminalised in New Zealand. Many sex workers' rights activists actually see the New Zealand system as a model of good practice.

  4. The sentence. "Legal prohibition often creates more problems than it solves, and certainly in Sweden and New Zealand, where the 'Swedish model' of criminalising the purchase of sex has been implemented, life has become riskier for the women who choose to stay in the sex trade."

    Think you have that wrong, hopefully a mistype. New Zealand has actually decriminalized prostitution, making is safer for sex workers, and easier for safe working conditions like brothels to be managed by non criminal types. In fact a Governemnet review has show this to be quite a success.

  5. Duly fixed, thank you! Apologies for typing and sleeping.

  6. Highon rebellion: on your first point, yes. On your second, it seems from the meeting I had that Poppy are actually looking at ways of extending their help to eg. women trafficked into domestic servitude - i.e not specifically sex work - and as far as I can tell this is an internal initiative. Which is heartening as, as you rightly point out, it's the logical extension of their arguments.

  7. If I've read you correctly, you are wrong, Penny Red.

    The point is exactly that buying sex is wrong. The law does exist to police people's morality, which is why rape and sexual assault and paedophilia and necrophilia are all illegal.

    The act of one person paying another for sex is predicated on the buyer viewing sex as a service, when in fact, it is not, it is a two-way street. If sex is enjoyable for both parties (which it is), then what exactly is the buyer paying for? A consent which otherwise wouldn't be given? Looks like coercion of the vulnerable to me, which of course is one step away from rape.

    The existence of prostitution means that even if we have nothing to do with it, you and I live in a world where all men know that they can purchase sex any time they wish, thereby perpetuating the subjugation of women's experience to that of men.

    Never mind "ALL women", it's not ok to treat ANY woman "like a whore".

    And there should be a stigma around women who prostitute themselves willingly (in preference, say, to working at McDonalds), because they too participate in the notion that it's ok. It's not.

    Nevertheless, the fact is that trafficked women are not prostitutes, they are multiple rape victims (among other things), and should be treated as such.

    Then I start to wonder whether being forced into prostitution by violence is that much different from being forced into it by drug addiction, a history of abuse, extreme poverty and so on.....

    You see how my thoughts are going. This is muddy water, but I still think you are wrong wrong wrong. Big it up to Denise.

  8. So why is necrophilia wrong, again?

    P.S You're not allowed to say anything which is equivalent to "I feel disgust when I think about it".

  9. anon: what point are you trying to make?

  10. Necrophilia's an interesting one, actually. I don't find it morally repugnant as a sexual practice - at least nobody gets hurt - just distasteful. I think it's wrong for other reasons: because it's disrespectful to the dead and frighteningly unhygenic to the point of being reckless with public health.

    There are good reasons for necrophilia being illegal, but if there were enough of a necrophiliac lobby, I wouldn't see a problem with, say, people donating their bodies for the relief of necrophiles within sanitised conditions. Hmm.

  11. from 'redpesto'

    tyra: The act of one person paying another for sex is predicated on the buyer viewing sex as a service, when in fact, it is not, it is a two-way street. If sex is enjoyable for both parties (which it is), then what exactly is the buyer paying for? A consent which otherwise wouldn't be given? Looks like coercion of the vulnerable to me, which of course is one step away from rape.

    But if you pay someone to cook you a meal (or indeed for any other service) which you could otherwise get for free (even if only as a favour or out of kindness), wouldn't the same argument apply? Would I be coercing someone because I offered to pay them for it? Or am I paying them for their time, skill, and labour? I think your argument relies more on the idea that 'sex' is somehow an exception to the rule, for reasons that are never made clear by opponents of prostitution (or pornography). If the parties freely agree to have sex, and agree that there should be a financial exchange, it is difficult to see how the law could or should intervene: a point Jacqui Smith has already conceded in a recent interview:

    She had ruled out a universal ban on paid sex because some women argued they did it out of choice 'and it's not my job to criminalise the demand for that'.

    As I see it, the cornerstone of the governments reforms on sexual offences is the principle of consent. If a woman cannot give her consent because of fears of retribution from a third party, then I think the case could be made for a change in the law (though I would have thought this was covered by the reforms of the Sexual Offences Act from earlier this decade). The problem is that (a) the government has a long history of policing people's sexual behaviour (see the 'extreme pornography' legislation); (b) there's been more moral grandstanding on the issue of prostitution than there has been effective legislative proposals (Smith is already spinning the idea that the proposals will somehow shame men into not paying for sex, as opposed to them taking precautions that they don't break the proposed law when they do). Oddly enough, the proposed changes might simply encourage women to set up all-female co-operative brothels (no nasty male pimps!), or work as self-employed freelancers, as a way round the planned legislation.

  12. Necrophiliacs must on the whole be people who enjoy having sex without the other person's consent, let alone their enjoyment. And I for one find that ethically unsound.

  13. "I think it's wrong for other reasons: because it's disrespectful to the dead"

    They're dead - they don't care. Until zombies start marching through London demanding their rights I don't really care either.

    "and frighteningly unhygenic to the point of being reckless with public health."

    So's selling, preparing and eating meat - kids die every year from meat-borne bacteria even in this country. HIV originated in meat and bird flu started on a chicken farm. Whereas I don't know of anyone dying from corpse-shagging-borne illnesses.

    I think you basically just don't like the idea of necrophilia and your mind is making up reasons why it should be illegal. Now there's nothing wrong with that especially, it happens to all of us, but that's exactly what anti-abortionists do. So don't blame them for it - they're in exactly the same position as you, except you don't like necrophilia and they don't like abortion.

  14. If you read what I said, if there was a system for making sure that necrophilia was consenting - carrying a donor card, for instance? - then I wouldn't technically have a problem with it at all. Like with abortion, just cause some people find it squicky doesn't mean it's wrong.

    I think fucking a corpse is probably more unhygienic, on balance, than preparing meat - particularly if grave-diving. But consent is the key issue here, and we should remember the differences between prostitutes and, well, dead bodies before we get too carried away.

    Prostitutes are being paid for a job of work which involves their body on a highly intimate level. That is consent. If they are being forced into prostitution, if they are raped on the job, or if someone does not pay, then that is not consent and should be treated as rape.

    Is it possible to rape a corpse? I don't think it's the same thing. But I think people should probably be allowed to decide what happens to their remains after death, otherwise it's at least the moral equivalent of breaking and entering. As I said before, I can see situations where consent could be arranged, and that would be okay.

    However, a) comparing necrophilia to prostitution is ugly. With the one, the rape 'victim' is by definition JUST a body; with the other the entire person is involved.

    b) there really aren't many necrophiles out there at all.

  15. from 'redpesto':

    PennyRed: If they are being forced into prostitution, if they are raped on the job, or if someone does not pay, then that is not consent and should be treated as rape.

    I know what you mean, and agree - but I suspect that last example is 'breach of contract' (i.e. the intention to pay) rather than rape (the absence of consensual sex).

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