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Forming the debate: in conversation with The Poppy Project


9:39 pm - November 13th 2008

by Laurie Penny    


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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 had 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 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.

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.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments


This is an excellent piece with which I fully agree (well, apart from the bit about patriarchal capitalism).

Agree as well. Excellent piece, & thanks for getting out there to talk Poppy. Criminalising of prostitution (and stripping) is one of the areas that feminists fall out with each on most often, I think, but this piece sums the reasons against up very well – particularly this par:

‘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.’

Nothing else to add to that, really. That’s it in a nutshell.

One point, though – prostitution in NZ is legal and has been since 2003 as I understand it (think that was when the prostituion reform act came in, but might do some more reading around it). Before that, it was legal to get a ‘massage’ and brothels were called ‘massage parlours,’ although they operated very openly as brothels. There were a number of ‘before’ and ‘after’ studies done at the time of the legislative change, and it seemed the main change was in women’s minds – in the sense that they perceived they had more protection with decriminalisation, which was surely a step forwards. The number of sex workers didn’t increase notably one way or the other before or after criminalisation.

…some good stuff down the end of this article:

http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12516582

about the research done after decriminalisation in NZ, and the advantages cited by women working as prostitutes and the NZ prostitutes’ collective, which is a dynamic, longstanding and influential group (Catherine Healey is excellent if you ever want to talk to her, and has been head of the NZPC for years, so knows a great deal about before and after decriminalisation, and the reasons why women continue to work in the profession). Could be useful to draw parellels and inform the argument here.

This is a great piece, and the quote Katie’s pulled is the best summary of the whole issue.

I’m especially impressed/depressed by the bit where they effectively admit that government policy on prostitution is based on the Venn intersection between Julie Bindel and Nick Griffin. That’s basically a summary of the current lot’s policy on everything, isn’t it? – if you can find something so bloody stupid that gibbering rightwingers *and* gibbering Trots think it’s a good idea, they’ll promote it.

The depressing thing is that when the Tories get in, they’ll have 200 newly elected Mad Nad clones of assorted genders, who’ll be even worse. I’m glad in this context that I’m a white middle-class hetrosexual-ish nearly-30-something man, who’s only going to be affected by the general rubbishisation of society rather than personally fucked over…

(Kate not Katie. Sorry. As someone who gets outraged by being described as Jon, you’d’ve thought I’d pay more attention to that sort of thing.)

hey man no worries. i’ve been called a lot worse tha katie…

“If you can find something so bloody stupid that gibbering rightwingers *and* gibbering Trots think it’s a good idea, they’ll promote it.”

Damn, John B – That really is our Government’s approach to policy-making in a nutshell isn’t it? Nice one.

“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.”

Oh god – not the ‘all jobs are exploitative’ argument again. Yeah I’m typing this sat at work (naughty, naughty). My job is not fabulous. However it is infinitely preferable to being a street prostitute, i sit in a nice clean office, I can piss about, and I get pension rights and nobody rapes/beats me up at work. Now ok, I do find the idea of sex with men completely repulsive, so even if I were to make a good ‘high class’ prostitute where I could (conceivably) earn more money than I do now, it still wouldn’t be a goer. Which brings me on to point 2)

Of course criminalising men buying sex wouldn’t stop all selling of sex. I don’t know if Ms Penny has noticed but the police & criminal justice system already turn a blind eye to a lot of stuff that’s illegal. ie they employ the law with regard to say – drug use – selectively. What such a law would do would make it a lot easier to prosecute men who are say, having sex with underage girls, or trafficked women. Hopefully such a llaw would be applied sensibly, so it would target those areas where women are most at risk. It would also send an important message (because law has an ideological function actually) that women are not commodities. Of course if Ms Penny is happy to live in a society where women are seen as commodities………

Perhaps Ms Penny thinks we should abolish all health and safety at work legislation as well because work is inherently exploitatitve and there’s no point having it. There are degrees of everything. The function of the law is to try and prevent the worst harm. And actually that’s what a Swedish model, sensibly applied would do.

Shit, Poll – sounds like your job is doing yr head in all right. Strike.

To the topic at hand:

Can’t agree with you on too many of those points you raised…

Firstly, and most importantly, sex with men is very good stuff and one of the main reasons to continue to interface with them. Tis a bit – ah – sticky, I’ll grant you that, but even that grows on you. There is also a certain comedy aspect to the aroused male which is to be enjoyed even 20 years after first beholding it – altho you do have to choose the right moment to laugh. So – relax on that one. Hetero sex is not awful just because it’s hetero sex. Prostitution is an economic problem, not a male-female sex one.

Secondly – and probably thirdly & fourthly, etc – this sentence is a big worry:

‘The function of the law is to try and prevent the worst harm. And actually that’s what a Swedish model, sensibly applied would do.’

Nope – really not with you there. I’d argue that only by decriminalising prostitution will women be allowed the full protection of the law. Otherwise – you’re all in hiding. For instance – if prostitution was criminalised and some john was about to smack your face in for you, he’d probably be even more likely to do so if you threatened to call the police. He’d be concerned about having already broken the law. Apparently, now that prostitution is decriminalised in NZ, the NZPC is working to improve employment conditions, health and safety protections, etc – the point being that by being legal, people are actually able to access more aspects of the law more comprehensively.

I would agree with you that work is challenging for all of us.

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.

The irony is that many anti-prostitution feminists give the impression they’re exempt from that ‘negative moral loading’ simply because of their concern for the women. (It’s the same as with the 1980s porn debates and the ‘lesbian sex wars’, where so much effort was spent on policing how other people had sex/got aroused) The politics of sexual pleasure and the politics of gender oppression are not interchangeable (or, if you like, a woman who ‘sleeps around’ is neither automatically ‘male identified’ nor engaged in a radical act of resistance against the patriarchy). That said, this is a really good piece, Laurie – hope you get it picked up in the MSM.

“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.”

Yep. I’m really pleased to see you finally got this Laurie.

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

We do indeed 🙂

“My job is not fabulous. However it is infinitely preferable to being a street prostitute, i sit in a nice clean office, I can piss about, and I get pension rights and nobody rapes/beats me up at work.”

‘kay, now get a job as an undocumented cleaner or farmworker or catering worker. Raping less likely (tho hardly off the scale), but the rest certainly apply – and the women (and men) who become street prostitutes are in contention for those jobs at best, rather than thinking “hmm, shall I go and work in a call centre for gbp20k or shall I sell my body on the street, tough one”…

John B, you are wrong. Street prostitutes are not out of work cleaners of farmhands, they have been until recently, almost exclusively, drug addicts. They have now been joined by imports from Eastern Europe and further afield, thanks to Labour’s mass immigration policies. This has caused a prostitution explosion and with it the exploitation, rape and abuse of thousands of girls.

a) it’s true that indigenous street prostitutes are largely drug addicts.

b) congrats on completely undermining your point by agreeing that most of the new wave of street prostitutes are, err, economic migrants who’d otherwise be looking for cleaning/farming/dishwashing-type jobs.

c) congrats also on falling for the myth that more than a tiny proportion of prostitutes are forcibly trafficked. Doesn’t happen – yet another one where demented Trots and puritans put deliberately false spins on the stats (‘trafficking’ statistically means ‘helping people enter the country illegally’, even though the people entering the country are keen to do so and paid lots of money to do so because they’re desperate enough for cash to want to be sex workers here.

Fair enough on b). However, its wrong to dismiss the problem of trafficked prostitution by using a dictionary definition. Many of the girls are tricked into the trade, believing they would be working elsewhere and then become resigned to their fate.

There is a world of difference between operating out of a nice flat than being forced to turn 20 punters a day in a bedsit above a kfc on Hounslow High Street.

No, what I’m saying is that the definition of trafficking used in the stats is “comes here illegally with outside help”, whereas the way the term is generally used to mean “forced into sex slavery”, as you’re using it.

Thankfully, although the former is fairly common, the latter is extremely rare in the UK – the headline stories about “police bust trafficking ring and send down evil white-slavers forever” are almost invariably about consenting, non-enslaved women in it for the money.

For myself, I think it is a question of a right to complete self-ownership. People have a right to prostitute themselves, or engage in any other kind of sex work, whether for money, pleasure or anything else. People will make poor decisions, and working in the sex industry would be a poor decision for many in even the best circumstances, but it is a liberal’s job to work out whether someone is entitled to make a decision, not to evaluate it. It is also anyone’s right to purchase sex from any consenting individual.

Nick,

For myself, I think it is a question of a right to complete self-ownership.

Of course, it seems self-evident, but it also seems the majority of people don’t agree that others should have control over their own bodies (or perhaps that such concerns aren’t as high-up on their list as the economy, law and order etc).

19. Belinda Brooks-Gordon

This is a very good, considered piece. While, I would be more critical than you about an org. which accepted such vast sums of gov. money (£5.8m) with such strings attached (and only admitting that these strings are such a drawback to help when a searchlight is on them; Ditto their research methods; Poppy spent a lot of time fighting and defending its remit, and methods when they could have been improving them) I agree there is common ground in terms of wishing to help women in the sex industry. The main differences are 1) which policy does that 2) the regard given to men and trans people in sex work 3) what empowerment means 4) what liberty and freedom mean.

I have a small stone in my shoe however about the term ‘abolitionist’. It confuses the issue. The true abolitionists in the feminist history or legal history of work on prostitution were people who campaigned for removal of the laws against prostitution, like Judith Butler. Thus only those who campaign for decriminalisation can claim to be abolitionists. People who campaign for the eradication of the sex industry might more accurately be termed prohibitionists.


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