(Image: Top, L to R: Mathew Cherrington, Mateusz Kosecki, Michael Wenham.
Bottom L to R: Robert Fraser, Steven Mathieson, Nicholae Patraucean)
Prostitution is not safe for women. Women who sell sex face regular physical and sexual violence. More than half of women involved in prostitution in the UK have been raped and/or sexually assaulted – the vast majority of these assaults committed by sex buyers (Hester & Westmarland, 2004). Last year, 2014, six women who sell sex were murdered in the UK: Maria Duque-Tunjano, 48; Karolina Nowikiewicz, 25; Rivka Holder, 55; Yvette Hallsworth, 36; Lidia Pascale, 26 and Luciana Maurer, 23. They were all killed by johns, that is by men who buy sex.
Prostitution is often framed in the context of women’s choices, those of us who oppose prostitution accused of denying women’s agency, their capacity to choose and their right to do so. But a choice based on necessity, on a lack of viable alternatives isn’t really a choice. Five of the six women above were not born in the UK, coming from Colombia, Poland, Israel and two from Romania. The only UK born woman had a problem with substance use. Poor women, migrant women and women with problematic substance use are disproportionately represented amongst women who sell sex. And whilst some men sell sex, women do so disproportionately. Men are also overwhelmingly, regardless of the sex of the seller, the buyers.
Mathew Cherrington had been exercising his consumer choices. The 26-year-old man’s phone records showed he had contacted several women who sold sex before arranging for 26-year-old Lidia Pascale to visit his flat. She suffered at least 11 blows to her head and had injuries on her hands, where she’d put them on her head trying to defend herself. After killing her, Cherrington put Lidia in a black bin bag and into a bin. The final insult, the bin, the destination of unwanted, broken, expended consumables, rubbish.
Mateusz Kosecki chose Yvette Hallsworth because she was “slightly built.” At 18 he was already a predator who preyed on women in prostitution. He had attacked at least three women who sold sex before he killed Yvette Hallsworth, luring her into a secluded alley before stabbing her 18 times using a knife that he had taken out with him. A judge described him has having a ‘fascination, if not an obsession” with prostituted women. His attack on Yvette was described as cruel and savage.
Habitual sex-buyer and frequent consumer of pornography Michael Wenham had spent £15,000 on trying to enlarge his penis but instead lost two inches. He had been married eight years and had three children. He phoned in sick to work and bought a Stanley knife, gloves and plastic sacks. He contacted Karolina Nowikiewicz after the first woman he called wasn’t available. After asking Karolina to undress and get on all fours, he attacked her from behind, slashing her throat, cutting through her major arteries and spinal cord and almost decapitating her. In court, the attack was described as “premeditated, planned and clinically executed.” Karolina was a student, selling sex to fund her studies.
40-year-old ex-banker Robert Fraser was deemed an “ongoing and very real danger to women” by Judge John Bevan. Diagnosed as suffering from paranoid-schizophrenia he is said to have believed that god represented men and the devil represented women. He attacked a 27-year-old prostituted woman in January last year, convincing her that he was going to kill her, shoving her underwear in to her mouth before twisting her head as if he was going to break her neck. 10 days later he bludgeoned Maria Durque-Tunjano to death, she was killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Colombian born British national Maria had been financially supporting her family in Colombia through prostitution. She was still wearing a black corset and high-heeled shoes when her body was found.
Father of two, Steven Mathieson, was in debt due to the extent of his use of phone sex lines. His partner, who knew of neither the phone sex or the debt, was out for the evening and he made arrangements for three women to come to his home. Luciana Maurer was the first to arrive. With his four-year-old son asleep in the house he stabbed her 44 times and cut her throat in an upstairs bedroom. When the other women arrived, he took them in to the room where they immediately saw her dead on the bed. He forced them to strip and to dance for him and raped them both. The naked women were able to escape when Mathieson thought he heard his partner returning. Mathieson dialled 999 and said “I’ve been high on drugs and killed a prostitute.” According to his legal advocate, before that evening, Mathieson had been of “impeccable character.”
Nicolae Patraucean, 21, like Michael Wenham, chose to use a Stanley knife to slit the throat of and dismember Rivka Holden after strangling her following his celebrations at having obtained a national insurance number. Patrucean’s attitude to women in prostitution was illustrated in his statement to a friend “I killed a person … not a person, a whore.”
All women should be safe from men’s violence. With the exception of those whose misogyny infused denial runs so deep that their immediate reaction to that statement is anything on the continuum of ‘what about the men’ responses, there are few who would disagree. Similarly, I don’t know any feminist with an opinion on prostitution that believes women who sell sex should face or fear violence. If abolitionists, harm-reducers and free-choice free-market celebrants of prostitution agree on one thing, surely it is this.
Having a market of women – whether we are selling sex or whether our modified and culturally idealised images are used to adorn adverts of other products – commodifies women. It makes us into objects. As objects we become ‘less than’, less than fully human, not equal. Our value is set by our worth as products on the scale of marketability. This affects all women, whether or not we are those for sale or those used to boost sales. It’s no coincidence that we talk about purchasing power. Regulating the sale of sex doesn’t empower women, it further endorses men’s power over the women by giving them consumer status, rights and choices. Women, on the other hand, become commodities, interchangeable and disposable.
We need to change men’s attitudes to women, we need to eradicate the misogyny and entitlement that fuels men’s violence against women. Inequality between women and men is a cause and a consequence of men’s violence against women. We simply cannot achieve equality between the sexes, let alone the liberation of women from men’s oppression, whilst one sex is for sale, the consumable, and one sex is the buyer, the consumer. Women’s rights to safety must always be greater than men’s rights as consumers.
Six men: A Nick, a Mick, a Steve, a Bob and two Matts. All Johns. Six women: Maria, Karolina, Rivka, Yvette, Lidia and Luciana. All dead. Women should not be for sale.
The bodies of Lisa Anthony, 47 and her daughter Ava Anthony, 14 were found in their home in Surrey home, the day after a man believed to be the girl’s father was found dead in France. It is thought he died after them, the police have said that they are not looking for anyone else.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Preston has said:
“We are in the very early stages of the investigation but we do not believe there to be any threat to the wider community. This is thought to be an isolated incident. We are not currently looking for anyone else in connection with the deaths.”
Not only is Lisa Anthony likely to be at least the 60th UK woman killed by a man or men this year, she the fifth to be killed along with her daughter:
- Bernadette Fox, 57, was asphyxiated and her daughter Sarah Fox, 27, was stabbed on 16 April. Bernadette’s son, Sarah’s brother, Peter Fox, has been detained under the Mental Health Act in relation to their deaths.
- Shighi Kotuvala/Rethishkumar, 35, was found strangled with her twin daughters Niya and Naya. Her husband, their father, Pullarkattil Rethishkumar, 44, is believed to have killed them before killing himself.
- Jan Jordon, 48, her partner and her six-year-old daughter Derin, were found stabbed to death on 23 May. Jan’s son Jed Allen is thought to have killed them all before killing himself.
- Amy Smith, 17, her baby daughter Ruby-Grace and friend Edward Greeen, 17, died in a fire. Peter Eyre, 44 and his sons Anthony, 21 and Simon, 24 have been charged with murder.
I am sick of hearing that there is no threat to the wider community. At least 60 UK women have been killed by men this year. I am sick of hearing about isolated incidents. 60 women dead at the hands of men in 6 months is a pattern, not an isolated incident and women are my community, don’t tell me that we are not at risk.
The UK’s lack of “a consistent and coherent approach to tackling violence against women” has been criticised in an official report by the UN special rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo . In addition, last week Professor Sylvia Walby, UNESCO chair of gender research at Lancaster University, criticised official statistics for drastically under-representing the scale of violent crime against women.
Whilst the UN report commends the “excellent policy framework” created by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, in the Government’s Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls, it notes that “isolated pockets of good practice” are compromised by the “lack of a consistent and coherent human-rights based approach in the government’s response to violence against women and girls”.
Walby explained, at a meeting at the UK Statistics Agency, that the Crime Survey of England and Wales fails to account for nearly half the attacks on women as it caps the number of separate crimes that can be reported by a single respondent at five. She found that if the cap is removed violent crime against women by partners and acquaintances, rise by 70% and 100% respectively, in other words men’s violence against women is massively understated in official statistics. (I’ve also looked at the reality of sex differences in domestic violence before, here, and specifically in relation to fatal intimate partner violence here.)
The government doggedly hangs on to its ‘gender neutral’ definition of domestic violence: “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial [and] emotional.” The definition treats ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as the same thing, it erases sex differences and it obscures the differences between intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic/family violence (the latter also repeated in the UN report).
The UN report also expresses concern about the shift from gender specificity to gender neutrality in our definitions of intimate partner violence, domestic violence and sexual violence (also with regards to service provision) which it refers to as a regressive measure . The fear of naming the agent of violence, men, is one of the most significant failings of the government’s definition and has repercussions in national and local policy and ultimately in the lives – and deaths – of women. Of the 249 women, who according to government statistics were killed in partner/ex-partner over the last 3 years, 247 were killed by a man, one by a woman (in one case the primary suspect is listed as unknown). Of 57 men killed in partner/ex-partner homicides, 21 of them, over a third, were killed by a man. The numbers aren’t the only difference, when men kill women partners or ex-partners, this usually follows months or years of them abusing her, when women kill male partners or ex-partners, it is usually after months or years of having been abused by the man they have killed. The relationship between abuse of women and abused women killing men is such that the development of refuges has led to a greater decrease in men being killed by partners than women.
Yes, men can experience violence too and yes, men can experience violence perpetrated by women but most violence – whether against women or men is perpetrated by men; and when we talk about intimate-partner violence and sexual violence, it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men upon women and girls Intimate partner violence and wider domestic violence certainly do not occur “regardless of gender”.
Coercive control has been included in the government’s definition of domestic violence, but as Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland explain, intimate partner violence doesn’t just include coercive control, “it is a pattern of coercive control.” Men’s violence against their partners and ex-partners isn’t a series of isolated and unlinked incidents. This is true on a societal level as well as within individuals’ relationships. Not all men are violent and violent men are not violent all the time; but all women are affected by men’s violence and women who are in relationships with violent men are affected even when they’re not being violent. Inequality between women and men is a cause and consequence of men’s violence against women. Men’s violence against women isn’t just a problem in some relationships, it is a social problem.
An international study of the issues that relate to the different rates of intimate partner violence in 44 different countries and including 481,205 women found that the most significant factors are those which have been long identified by feminists: socially constructed gender-related norms that normalise men’s violence against and control of women partners and inequality between women and men. Last year Britain fell to 26th place on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index – lower than most of the rest of Europe. It was the UK’s lowest overall score since 2008.
Until we understand the differences and overlaps between intimate partner violence, domestic and sexual violence and the huge sex differences therein, until the majority of us openly decry men’s rights activists who try to deny reality, we will not be taking one of the most fundamental steps necessary to solving any problem: namely defining the nature of that problem. If the government is serious about ending men’s violence against women it needs to look at the causes: sex inequality, the objectification of women and socially constructed gender roles that create toxic norms of masculinity and femininity.
Isn’t it time for us to get over the reluctance to actually name and condemn men’s violence? Isn’t it time that we worked with the causes of men’s violence and not just the results? Isn’t it time that we listened to feminists? Because feminists have been saying this for decades.
The London Young Labour summer conference takes place this Sunday. Among the motions to be voted on, motion 8 deserves particular scrutiny from feminists: it is titled “Standing up for sex workers’ rights, supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.” It is principally concerned with committing LYL to opposing the Nordic model. A number of feminist activists, academics and frontline service providers have collaborated to critique the claims and evidence offered in this motion.
As a feminist and a Labour Party member, I am publishing the full document below and hope that any delegates attending the LYL conference will consider it carefully before voting. It is a detailed and thorough rebuttal of motion 8, and very much worth reading in full. However, the conclusion is a particularly powerful explanation of why the Labour movement should never legitimise an industry founded in exploitative power relations:
as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.
- This statement has been written by a group of feminist women – including academics, activists and practitioners working directly with women who experience male sexual violence. We share an understanding that inequality between men and women is more than a matter of women needing “choices” – a profoundly conservative approach – but is instead about power; specifically the deep and structural power imbalance women face in a society still dominated by regressive notions of gender. In other words, we believe feminism should be as radical as socialism in seeking to end this imbalance, instead of treating women’s inequality, and some men’s exploitation of it, as inevitable.
- We support the decriminalisation of those who sell sex; we recognise the variety of reasons why people, overwhelmingly women, would do this. By contrast, however, we do not support the decriminalisation of those, overwhelmingly men, who buy. Their entirely different motivations and attitudes, and crucially the risk that they pose to the women, manifestly mean that their role in the sex industry must be treated separately. We consider moves to conflate the two and decriminalise both to be an effort to legitimise the sex industry, instead of acknowledging that it is both a cause and a symptom of deeply-rooted, systemic normalisation of men’s sexual entitlement.
- For this reason, although we support the decriminalisation of women who sell sex, we do not support this motion. Despite the title’s claim to be about the decriminalisation of selling sex, in reality the focus is much more on opposing the criminalisation of buying (also known as the Nordic model). We believe that committing London Young Labour to oppose the Nordic model, and thus to support the legitimacy of men buying sex, is the true intent of the motion, and that it is misleading and disingenuous.
- We further believe there are significant flaws in the logic and evidence used to support this end, and we draw attention to these below.
- Clause 1: “Sex work refers to escorting, lap dancing, stripping, pole dancing, pornography, webcaming, adult modelling, phone sex, and selling sex (on and off the street).”
- It should be noted that despite this opening, the rest of the resolution refers, and brings evidence that pertains only to, prostitution – i.e. the so called “full service”, or full access to women’s bodies for the purposes of men’s sexual gratification. Women who sell sex in person are also the group most at risk of men’s violence, and the documented physical and mental health risks that ensue. It is disingenuous to have such a wide definition yet in fact only discuss one aspect of it.
- Clause 2: In Clause 2, the motion concedes that “Selling sex is not illegal in the UK”. However, it continues: “but it is criminalised. Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal.”
- Firstly, this is a hyperbolic and generalised statement. As in all other prostitution regimes, it is local implementation that matters, and this varies depending on the prostitution politics in cities and regions. Furthermore, there is no country where there is no regulation, nor where there are no local variations in practices of police and other agencies.
- The footnote to this statement reads: “Similar laws operate in Scotland, Wales & England. Prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is not illegal, but associated activities (soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, operating a brothel) are. The main laws around sex work in the UK are: the Vagrancy Act of 1824; the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 and the Street Offences Act of 1959 (England and Wales); the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act of 1892 and the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act of 1976, Sexual Offences Act 2003, Policing and Crime Act 2009, Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Anti Social Behaviour Act 2002, Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.”
- It is unclear from the text of the motion which specific provisions of this long list of legislation are to be repealed in order to achieve decriminalisation. A brief review of some of these laws reveals that:
- The Vagrancy Act 1824 is almost entirely repealed and it is not clear which remaining clauses are meant.
- The Sexual Offences Act 1956 criminalises abduction, incest, “unnatural acts” (repealed), living off the proceeds of prostitution and causing or encouraging prostitution of mentally disabled persons (in the language of the Act, “defectives”). One assumes that these are not things women do to “stay safe” in prostitution and therefore cannot be targeted by the motion.
- The Act also criminalises the keeping of brothels and permitting premises to be used as brothels, which we infer is what the motion intends to criticise. It is however a debatable claim that indoor prostitution, or women working in parlours and brothels, is necessarily safer than outdoor or single-woman prostitution. Research conducted by Ulla Bjørndahl in Norway in 2012 has shown that women working indoors are seriously sexually assaulted and robbed by their clients more frequently than street workers (Bjørndahl, 2012, table 11). Indoor workers also reported higher incidence of abuse from a pimp (ibid, p. 15).
- The Policing and Crime Act 2009 mostly deals with police procedure or co-operation, but among other things criminalises purchase of sex from persons subjected to force; again, this provision is surely not the target of repeal under decriminalisation, and more specific information is needed to support the assertion that “Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal”.
- The Sexual Offences Act 2003 mostly deals with sexual offences such as rape, incest and child abuse. There is a section criminalising trafficking and a section criminalising the solicitation by a person seeking to purchase sex from another in a public place. This provision does not criminalise women engaged in prostitution. The Act also elaborates in a minor way on the criminalisation of brothel keeping in the 1956 Act.
- It is outside the scope of this document to conduct a thorough review of the law pertaining to prostitution; however even the partial examination above casts serious doubt on the idea that the effect of the legislation cited is to prevent activities designed to keep women “safe”. The only potential example that does emerge is brothel-keeping, but, as Bjørndahl’s research reveals, and as has been reported by exited campaigners such as Rachel Moran and Fiona Broadfoot from personal experience, brothels are not a reliable means of increasing women’s safety.
- Clause 3: In Clause 3 the motion states that “Financial reasons, and any criminal record gain due to the criminalisation of sex work, are usually cited as the main reason for staying in sex work.”
- This assertion is supported by a reference to research undertaken by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland in 2014. However, careful review of the findings does not support the claim implicit in this clause: that acute financial necessity is what leads women to sell sex, and that they are devoid of other options. From the DOJ report: “The need to earn money to survive (22%), the need to support the family financially (18%), to finance their own education (14%), to pay off debt (10%) and having no other way to earn a living (7%) were stated reasons for respondents to engage in prostitution.” Only the last of these implies that selling sex is the only available option.
- Financial reasons to engage in any form of paid work should be considered as normal; abolitionists fully support the self determination of all women and there is no reason to expect them to make their decisions in any other way than rationally. But from the evidence above, there is no reason to suppose that more undue hardship would come to them as a result of a reduction in trade than would from being made redundant from any other job in the course of normal capitalist dynamics.
- Furthermore, the New Zealand based research additionally cited as support for this claim states only that: “around 93% of sex workers surveyed… cited money as a reason for both entering and staying in the sex industry.” No further detail was available and, despite what is implied by this clause, it is not possible to come to the conclusion that women in prostitution are experiencing unique financial hardship, from which selling sex is their only way out.
- In addition to this inaccurate use of evidence, we suggest this clause lacks both logic and an alignment with Labour values. The mission of the Labour Party cannot and should not be only to keep people in jobs under any circumstance: zero hour contracts, and unsafe or degrading jobs, are rightly considered a focus for a labour movement with a conscience. Therefore it is surely not a sufficient or satisfying argument for the mainstreaming of the sex industry to say that some people might otherwise lose their jobs.
- Clauses 4 and 5: The implicit appeal to the vulnerability of women is made more explicit in clause 4, which reads: “There are a disproportionate number of disabled people, migrants, especially undocumented or semi-documented migrants, LGBT people and single parents (the vast majority of whom are women) involved in sex work.”
- Clause 5 elaborates: “The financial cost of being disabled, the cost of childcare, the cost of medical transition and hormones, racism in the workplace, the vulnerability of undocumented migrants to exploitation in other forms of work and the prejudice faced by LGBT and disabled people undoubtedly contribute to this overrepresentation.”
- The footnote citation for Clause 4 is “Safety First Coalition” only, without any link or reference to any relevant research that would verify this claim. Clause 5 is not referenced and cannot be verified. However, the Northern Ireland (NI) research done by the DOJ, which the motion cites (and which it can therefore be assumed that those moving it consider reliable), found that only 4% of non-EU nationals had an illegal immigration status: the majority of those selling sex in NI were UK and Irish nationals, followed by Romanian and Hungarian nationals who are EU citizens, and of the remaining minority most were on legal visas.
- Analysis of family status showed that 52% in the NI sample were in relationships and/or married; and 42% had children. No detail is provided as to the number in the sample who both have children and are not in a relationship (single mothers). Irish and UK nationals were more likely than foreign women to be in relationships and to have children.
- Regarding the gender identity, disability and sexuality (except in respect to a very small minority of men who have sex with men), the research provides no information. The claims here cannot therefore be substantiated based on the sources provided. While there is a widespread belief among both the general public and advocates of decriminalisation that women engaged in prostitution substantially belong to marginalised groups, the DOJ report in fact reflects high levels of secondary and tertiary education among its respondents.
- Clause 6: This gets to what we think is the real impetus behind the motion: protecting the rights of men who buy sex. It states: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients… was recently passed in the Northern Irish Assembly, despite government-commissioned research showing that 98% of sex workers working in Northern Ireland did not want this introduced.”
- This is a misrepresentation. The research does state that only 2% of those currently selling sex who were surveyed thought the criminalisation of clients was a good idea. However, it does not give the number of undecided respondents or those who did not respond to the question, making this a poor and tendentious use of research. Additionally the wording of the question is misrepresented: whether or not criminalisation is a good idea is not the same as whether the respondents wanted it or not.
- What’s more, when the scope of questioning is expanded to those who have sold sex in the past, the landscape of responses changes considerably. As was found in the consultation by Rhoda Grant MSP exploring the introduction of a “Nordic Model” style law in Scotland: “[it] was clear that the majority of those who have already exited prostitution were in favour of legislation, while those currently involved were fearful of the impact on them” (Grant, p. 51). In addition, only a small proportion of respondents to this consultation objected to the law, and the majority of those were organisations explicitly dedicated to legalisation. Supporters of the proposal included social and health services, women’s organisations, local councils, the White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence against women and so on. The full list is available here.
- This aspect of the motion, the silencing of exited women, is particularly disingenuous and disturbing. In considering the regulation and/or normalisation of any other industry, we would not dream of demanding that only those currently employed in it have a valid view on its management or social impact. It would have been unthinkable, for example to set the terms of the Leveson inquiry in such a way that only current tabloid journalists were seen to have a valid opinion on widespread culture and conduct. The focus on testimonies and perspectives of those currently involved in the sex industry only is unique to advocacy for the decriminalisation of the sex trade, and is ethically baffling.
- Clause 7: “Organisations that support the decriminalisation of sex work include the World Health Organisation, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the National Union of Students and NUS Women’s Campaign, and the Royal College of Nurses.”
- This is in fact a list of organisations which support the full decriminalisation of both selling and buying sex, since they all oppose the Nordic model. Organisations which support the Nordic model by definition also support the decriminalisation of women, but oppose the decriminalisation of sex buying, as well as pimping and those who exploit the prostitution of others. As well as those listed above (paragraph 24) supporting the proposed criminalisation of demand in Scotland, these include:
TUC Women’s Committee, Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Unison, Ashiana, the Centre for Gender & Violence Research at the University of Bristol, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, Eaves, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Equality Now, European Women’s Lobby, the Fawcett Society, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, nia, Northern Refugee Centre, SafeLives, St Mungo’s Broadway, Welsh Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation of England, and Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland.
- Clause 8: In Clause 8, the Motion attacks the efficacy of the Nordic model: “The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women opposes introducing criminal penalties against the clients of sex workers. Their research found that criminalising clients does not reduce sex work or trafficking, but infringes on sex workers’ rights & obstructs anti-trafficking efforts.”
- This is a claim which is contested by many others, and is not supported by actual data on the introduction and implementation of the law in Sweden and Norway. It has certainly decreased street prostitution – which few prostitution regimes do not regulate or even make illegal – in both countries, and the law is considered by police and prosecutors in Sweden as the most effective measure they have in their anti-trafficking efforts. This has been recognised by the Council of Europe (COE, 2014, p. 10).
- Clause 10: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has been proven to lead to further distrust of the police amongst sex workers, a willingness of sex workers to engage in more risky behaviour/safety procedures out of desperation, and does not reduce overall levels of prostitution.”
- This is a contentious and contested claim, and none of the references provided are links to the three evaluations of the law in Sweden (see SOU, 2010 for the most recent). Those studies suggest that precisely because the law decriminalises those who sell sex different, more open relationships have been possible with police and social workers. There is also very little evidence supporting the claim that it has made selling sex more dangerous: the last woman to be killed in prostitution in Sweden was in 1986. Support for this claim also often cites a Norwegian study after their law reform in 2009, which did show those reporting having experienced violence in prostitution increased from 52% to 59% (Bjørndahl, 2012). However, closer examination of the data shows that the definition of violence in the post-2009 study was wider, including name calling, hair pulling and being spat at. It is these behaviours which account for the increase, whilst rape, physical assaults by regular customers/pimps and in a car with an unfamiliar customer actually decreased by half or more in the same period (Berg, 2013).
- Those moving the motion now set out a number of beliefs to support the call for decriminalising sex work, or to put it more honestly, against the introduction of the Nordic model which decriminalises women and criminalises men who buy.
- Belief 1: “Sex work is work. Sex work is the exchange of money for labour, like any other job. It is different because it is currently criminalised and stigmatised.”
- We fundamentally disagree. Sex work is not identical to other forms of labour. Firstly, unlike other labour, sex is an activity which the majority of people engage in freely without remuneration. In this context, it is not labour, but an activity motivated by mutual desire. So, in the buying and selling of sex, what is effectively paid for is the waiving of this requirement of mutual desire. It is emphatically not the exchange of money for labour; it is the exchange of money for consent.
- Framing the debate as an issue of labour rights thus rests on obscuring the fact that the sex industry involves financial coercion of consent, not an exchange of labour for money. And that, moreover, this takes place in the context of a society in which women have less social and economic power than men, and are hence particularly vulnerable to financial coercion. And as the legal strictures around paid organ donation indicate, there is significant potential harm to coercing an individual’s consent to transgressions of their bodily integrity. Since the sex industry relies on this coercion, it should therefore be seen in the same way.
- Furthermore, there are practical barriers to treating the selling of sex (again, this motion seems to refer only to “full service” sex – i.e. intercourse, oral sex, anal sex and associated activities) as other jobs are treated under the law. One key difficulty is around health and safety (H&S) legislation. While abolitionists and supporters of decriminalisation both agree that the safety of the women engaging in sex work should be a paramount concern of any proposed policy, the latter have not been able to give an account of how, for example, bodily liquids would be treated under H&S law with regard to prostitution. In other professions when contact with potential body fluids such as saliva, blood, semen or urine is likely, protective equipment such as face masks, latex gloves (double latex gloves in the case of nurses working in the presence of blood or semen), plastic aprons etc. are recommended or in some cases mandated, for the protection of the workers. It is difficult to imagine how the provision of full intercourse could function while complying with such regulation, and we are left to imagine that supporters of this motion would in fact exclude women from being fully bound by such regulation, treating them very much as not professionals doing “any other job”, but as a special case, worthy of reduced protection.
- Similar difficulties arise when looking at legislation touching on sexual harassment at work and other hard-won legislation which functions to protect workers and structures what is legally considered an appropriate work environment. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for people belonging to the Labour movement to hide behind a glib assertion of “sex work is work” while abandoning the workers in question to be excluded from the protections available to others.
- Belief 3: “The right of consenting adults to engage in sexual relations is of no business to anyone but the people involved.”
- Consent to sex and equality in sex are not the same, as students will know from the fact that sexual relationships between students and teaching staff are prohibited, even where they are consensual. This is a highly contestable statement of opinion which does not reflect society’s growing awareness of socialised male privilege and sexual entitlement.
- As set out above, in selling sex, one person is in reality paid by the other to waive the usual expectation of mutual desire and equal power that applies in non-paid consensual sexual encounters. “Consent” in this context refers to the kind of temporary relinquishment of rights that happens when patients sign consent forms for medical procedures: “I grant you my consent to temporarily have the right to do something to me (for example cut me in a surgery, or have intercourse with me) which I would normally consider harmful and which it would be an offence for you to do to me without this form.” However the patient signing away bodily integrity is doing so out of a medical necessity, whereas the woman is doing so purely out of financial interest and not because of any reciprocity of benefit.
- Belief 4: “The moral panic around sex work and prostitution echoes the moral panic that was present when homosexuality was in the process of being decriminalised. It is no coincidence that many who argue for harsh anti-prostitution laws under the guise of feminism also voted against equal marriage and similar civil rights measures.”
- While some voices may oppose both the sex industry and equal marriage for religious reasons, it is profoundly misleading to ignore feminist organisations and individuals such as those listed above, who oppose the former and support the latter.
- Belief 6: “Regardless of their reasons for entering into sex work, all sex workers deserve to have their rights protected and to be able to do their jobs safely. This includes sex workers who do not find their job ‘empowering’. Whether or not you enjoy a job should have no bearing on the rights you deserve while you do it.”
- By definition, the Nordic model would not deny women this protection, since it too would decriminalise them. This being the case, it is not clear how this motion would better ensure that women can “do their jobs safely”, when its very distinguishing feature is that it protects the “rights” of those responsible for the threat to women’s safety in the first place: men who buy.
- Belief 9: “Tim Barnett was correct in asserting that “prostitution is inevitable, and no country has succeeded in legislating it out of existence”. Sweden cannot show a reduction in the number of sex workers.”
- In the DOJ research cited in the motion, it is estimated that only 3% of men currently regularly pay for sex. If the numbers did decrease in the wake of criminalising demand, then the proportion of men paying for sex would shrink to the point of being insignificant.
- No undesirable social behaviour has yet been eradicated completely – which is why we have laws and courts punishing those who commit murder or theft, despite the fact that they are illegal. To argue that, because it is impossible to prevent 100% of offences, we should not have laws making them offences in the first place is a bizarre for a political organisation, and not particularly coherent in terms of the wellbeing of the women involved in the sex trade. Our concern, as a society, for their welfare should not be predicated on the willingness or otherwise of men to change their behaviour.
- Conclusion: This motion is based on selective and tendentious readings of the research and on assumptions and myths about the nature of prostitution and those who engage in it. It also seems to set out actively to misrepresent the Nordic model and those who support it. It engages in the strange sophistry of defending women as fully self-determined agents operating from purely rational and free motives on the one hand – whilst simultaneously claiming that it is driven primarily by the needs of vulnerable people who have no alternative. And in both these arguments, the interests of the men who fuel the demand are completely absent, suggesting that the industry somehow operates solely to the benefit of the labour force- an odd position for a Labour movement to find itself in. Where it does make any fleeting reference to the role of buyers, it relies on the deeply ingrained belief that male sexual exploitation of women is immutable and can never be eradicated as an argument for normalising it.
- By contrast, as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.
WAPOW (Women Assessing Policy on Women)
Berg, S. (2013) New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence? Feminist Current, January 22, available at: http://feministcurrent.com/7038/new-research-shows-violence-decreases-under-nordic-model-why-the-radio-silence/.
Bjørndahl, U. 2012 “Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to” Accessed at https://humboldt1982.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/dangerous-liaisons.pdf on June 2nd 2015
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2014, “Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe“. Accessed at http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559HYPERLINK “http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559&Language=en”&HYPERLINK “http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559&Language=en”Language=en on June 2nd 2015
Department of Justice, 2014, “Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland”. Accessed at http://www.dojni.gov.uk/index/publications/publication-categories/pubs-criminaljustice/prostitution-report-nov-update.pdf HYPERLINK “http://www.dojni.gov.uk/index/publications/publication-categories/pubs-criminaljustice/prostitution-report-nov-update.pdf%20on%20June%202nd%202015″on June 2nd 2015
Grant, R., “Proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex: Summary of Consultation Responses”. Accessed at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/FINAL_consultation_summary_Criminalisation_of_Purchase_of_Sex.pdfHYPERLINK “http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/FINAL_consultation_summary_Criminalisation_of_Purchase_of_Sex.pdf%20on%20June%202nd%202015” on June 2nd 2015
SOU (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish Government report SOU 2010:49: Prohibition of the purchase of sexual services. An evaluation 1999-2008.
I wrote this piece for Women’s Aid’s magazine Safe:
The Office for National Statistics released findings from the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales on 12 February. Men continue to be more likely to be killed than women, there were 343 male victims compared to 183 female victims (of all ages including children and babies). Court proceedings had concluded for 355 (55%) of 649 suspects relating to 536 homicides. For those suspects where proceedings had concluded, 90% (338 suspects) were male and 10% were female (38 suspects). Men are more likely to be killed, but their killers are overwhelmingly men. Women are less likely to be killed, when they are, they are overwhelmingly killed by a man. When we’re talking about fatal violence, we are almost always talking about men’s violence.
The words homicide, from homo “man” and cidium “act of killing”, and manslaughter “ma” and “slæht or slieht” “the act of killing” are identical etymologically but have developed different legal meanings. Like the word “murder” both could be described as being ‘gender neutral’, but they are not, both render the killing of women invisible. The word femicide seeks to address this. The first modern and feminist definition of ‘Femicide’ is attributed to Jill Radford and Diana Russell (1991). They used it in the context of feminist analysis of men’s violence against women to address the sex-specific killings of women. Whilst some contentions remain over a definition, the definition ‘the killings of women because they are women’ is most frequently used. As well as women killed through intimate partner violence, femicide includes (but is not limited to): women killed by other family members, the torture and misogynist slaying of women including serial killings, the killing of women and girls in the name of “ honour”, targeted killing of women and girls in the context of armed conflict, dowry-related killings of women, female infanticide and gender-based sex selection feticide, killings of women due to accusations of sorcery and/or witchcraft, the deaths of women associated with gangs, organiSed crime, drug dealers, human trafficking and the proliferation of small arms, the killing of women and girls because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and FGM related deaths. Femicide can include women killed by women if the motive is associated with sexist or misogynistic patriarchal values, but is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.
Femicide is a global issue. About 66,000 women and girls are violently killed every year, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey.1 But comparing county-by-county data is challenging, partly because there isn’t a globally accepted definition, or even a globally agreed need for a definition, but also because most countries’ data-collection systems do not record the necessary information, whether that is the sex of the victim and perpetrator, their relationship or any known motives for the killing. The data that is available suggests that countries with the highest femicide levels correspond to those with the highest rates of fatal violence. El Salvador has the highest femicide rate (12.0 per 100,000 female population), followed by Jamaica (10.9), Guatemala (9.7), and South Africa (9.6). Half of the countries with the top highest estimated femicide rates are in Latin America, with South Africa and Russian and Eastern European countries having disproportionately high rates. It should be noted that high rates of female infanticide, sex-selective and forced abortion challenge the absence of countries including India and China from this data. England and Wales’ femicide rate, by comparison, was 0.66 per 100,000 female population for 2013/14.
The ONS findings for 2013/14, consistent with previous years, found that women were far more likely than men to be killed by partners or ex-partners than men. 84 women, around 53% of female homicide victims (over 16) had been killed by their current or a former partner, compared to 23 men (7% of male victims over 16). The ONS definition of partner/ex-partner homicide includes killings by a “spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-spouse/ex-cohabiting partner/ex-boyfriend/girlfriend and adulterous relationship” but also “lover’s spouse and emotional rival”. Combining data for 2011/12 and 2013/14, the ONS tell us that of 57 men killed in partner/ex-partner homicides, 21 of them, over a third, were killed by a man. Of these 21 men killed by men in the context of partner/ex-partner homicides, 14 of them were killed by a lover’s spouse/love rival. Of 249 women killed in partner/ex-partner homicides over the same 3 years, 247 were killed by a man, one by a woman (in one case the primary suspect is listed as unknown). None of the female victims of partner/ex-partner homicide were killed by the spouse of their lover or an emotional rival. Similarly, no male victims of partner/ex-partner homicide were killed by a female spouse of their lover or a female emotional rival. Not only are men killed in the context of an intimate relationship less likely to be killed by their actual partner or ex-partner, they are much more likely than women to be killed by someone of the same sex.
Another important difference between women and men killed in the context of intimate partner violence is the history of the relationship. When men kill women partners or ex-partners, this usually follows months or years of them abusing her, when women kill male partners or ex-partners, it is usually after months or years of having been abused by the man they have killed.2 So, there are four important differences when we compare women and men killed in the context of a current or previous intimate partnership (figures from the ONS 2011/12 to 2013/14 data):
- Far fewer men than women are killed in the context of intimate partner violence (57 v. 249)
- Men are much more likely to be killed by the spouse of a partner or a love rival (14/57 v 0/249)
- Men are much more likely than women to have been killed by someone of the same sex (21/57 v 1/249)
- Men are more likely to have been killed by someone they were abusing, women are more likely to have been killed by someone they were being abused by.
If we look at men who kill women (who are not current or ex- intimate partners), it is clear that they have more in common with men who kill female current or former partners, than the much smaller number of women who kill male former partners. The concept of femicide, making connections between all forms of men’s fatal violence against women provides a more useful theoretical framework than comparing people killed in the context of intimate partner relationships across the sexes. Sex inequality in patriarchal society cannot be ignored.
Since January 2012, I’ve been recording and commemorating UK women killed by men in a project called Counting Dead Women. Looking at my own records for the same year as the ONS data, the next biggest group of women killed by men was women killed by their sons.3 Between April 2013 and March 2014, at least 12 women were killed by their sons, two more by their son-in-laws, three by their grandsons and one by her step-grandson. These patterns are not replicated in rates of women killing older male relatives: fathers, fathers-in-law or grandfathers. A further three women were killed by their fathers, and one more by her step-father.
Male entitlement is a deadly seam running through male violence against women, whether coercive control, rape, prostitution, trafficking or femicide. Prostitution, pornography and trafficking are forms of violence against women, reducing women to commodities, possessions and objects for market exchange. Men are the purchasers, controllers and profit-makers, this market of women cannot be extricated from a context of inequality between women and men. At least 5 women killed last year (the same year as the ONS data) were women exploited through pornography and/or prostitution. There were over 64,000 sexual offences recorded by police last year, overwhelmingly committed by men, with young women those most likely to have experienced sexual assault. 1.4 million domestic violence assaults against women were recorded. When men kill women, regardless of their relationship or lack of it, they are doing so in the context of a society in which men’s violence against women is entrenched and systemic. When misogyny, sexism and the objectification of women are so pervasive that they are all but inescapable, can a man killing a women ever not be a sexist act?
In addition to the women killed in partner/ex-partner homicide and those killed by sons or other family members:
- One woman was found dead, hanging with a tow rope belonging to the man accused of killing her around her neck. She had more than 30 injuries to her face and arms. He was found sleeping on a blood-stained bed beneath her dead naked body by police who had been called by a neighbour who found water dripping through her ceiling. The man, who had been in a relationship with her, claimed not to remember anything that had happened for five hours before police woke him up in bed. In the weeks before her death, he had sent her a text which read “You’re getting tied up, I will treat you like a random victim, gonna do you Manchester style.” He claimed she had died during a consensual sex-game and was found not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter. He walked free. The influence of eroticised violence against women cannot be disregarded in this woman’s death.
- Glen Nelson murdered Krishnamaya Mabo, the court where he was convicted heard that he had gone out seeking a woman to rape. The sentencing judge commented “He killed her deliberately to prevent her testifying about the attempted rape. The violence and sexual assault were inextricably interwoven.”
- 23-year-old Jamie Reynolds murdered 17-year-old Georgia Williams. During his trial Prosector David Crigman said Reynolds carried out a ‘scripted, sadistic and sexually-motivated murder’ and described him as ‘a sexual deviant’ who has had ‘a morbid fascination in pornography depicting violence towards young women in a sexual context since at least 2008’. When arrested he had 16,800 images and 72 videos of extreme pornography including digitally modified images of up to eight other women he personally knew in which ropes had been added around their necks. Georgia Williams and Jamie Reynolds were ‘friends’, they had not been partners.
Sexual violence runs through these murders and many others that are not men murdering partners or ex-partners. Gender, the social constructs of masculinity and femininity are also integral. One of the significant achievements of feminism is getting male violence against women into the mainstream and onto the policy agenda. One of the threats against this achievement is that those with power take the concepts and under the auspices of dealing with the problem shake some of the most basic elements of feminist understanding right out of them. It is important that we do not allow the connection between the different forms of men’s violence against women to be lost. We need to name the problem as men’s violence against women and we cannot allow a ‘gender’-neutral approach to domestic violence intimate-partner to obscure this.
On the same day that the ONS released their data from the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales, Women’s Aid and myself launched The Femicide Census. The Femicide Census was built with support from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Deloitte LLP and for the first time will allow detailed tracking and analysis of fatal male violence against women in England. So far data of 694 women killed by men in the years 2009 to 2013 has been collected.
It is self-evident that each woman killed by a man is a unique individual, as is each man who kills a woman or women. The circumstances around each killing are never identical. But that doesn’t make them isolated incidents. By refusing to see a pattern we are refusing to see the myriad connections between incidents of men’s fatal violence against women; and by refusing to see the connections we are closing our eyes to the commonalities in the causes. When we link the killings of women by men and stop thinking about isolated incidents, we begin to see the real scale of the problem. The Femicide Census will contribute to increasing awareness of men’s violence and to greater knowledge and analysis of men’s violence against women and girls, it is a crucial step towards prevention. We also want The Femicide Census to commemorate women, to remember the women and girls who have been killed and the friends and families that mourn them.
To reduce femicide we need to protect the network of specialist services dealing with all forms of men’s violence against women. Refuges in particular can provide a crucial place to escape, though given that women killed years after the end of a violent relationship are not rare, it cannot be assumed that women will be safe after leaving a refuge and this may be particularly important in the context of on-going child contact. In addition, community based support, ‘Healthy relationships’ education, policing, prosecutions, and work with perpetrators are all vitally important, but none of this will tackle the root cause of men’s violence against women.
Men’s violence against women is not natural and it is not inevitable, but it is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men and underpinned by other manifestations of that inequality: gender and/or sex roles, sexism, misogyny, and the commodification and objectification of women. We need to name men’s violence. We need to keep the connections between the different forms of men’s violence at the forefront of our analysis. We need to say that all the women killed by men were important. If we don’t make the connections and look for the true root causes, we will not reduce the numbers of women being killed by men. By enabling us to record and analyse comprehensive data on women killed by men, the Femicide Census can be a step towards the change that we want to create.
1 Small Arms Survey, Femicide: A Global Problem
2 Browne et al., 1998; Websdale, 1999; Dugan et al., 2003.
3 Karen Ingala Smith, Killed by their Sons, 2015
23-year old Zaneta Balazova was found dead by her children on 2nd April 2015 in Benwell, Newcastle. Pavel Cina, 25, has been charged with her murder.
Newcastle City Councillor, Dipu Ahmed, commented:
“People need to understand this is an isolated incident. Police reacted very quickly and made an arrest.”
“Let’s not raise tensions. We have to grieve for the person who is dead.”
“The people here have always been strong when things like this have happened in the past. No matter what community they are from we need to come together.”
Perhaps Dipu Ahmed would like to define what he means by isolated.
Zaneta Balazova is at least the 26th woman suspected to have been killed by a man in the UK in 2015.
Zaneta Balazova is at least the fifth woman suspected to have been killed by a man in Tyne and Wear in the last year.
Zaneta Balazova was part of a community called ‘women’. Women, my community, are being killed by men. Like Dipu Ahmed I want us to grieve for the woman who is dead. Unlike Dipu Ahmed, I believe that we need to raise tensions. We need to be angry about yet another murder of one of our community. If members of any other ‘community’ than women, were being killed by members of another ‘community’, other than men, we would not be talking about isolated incidents.
Last year I wrote a piece for Socialist Resistance. I talked about my work for a feminist women’s charity working with women who have experienced men’s violence in the context of some of my thoughts about feminism and social class.
I have asked Socialist Resistance to take the piece down following their behaviour towards another feminist, Glosswitch. You can read about what happened – and the piece that she was asked to write – here.
SR: You run the blog Counting Dead Women. Fatal male violence is perhaps the most easily measurable indicator of violence against women. What is the extent of the problem as revealed by official data and your knowledge of the subject?
KIS: I started counting dead women at the beginning of 2012 when 8 women in the UK were killed by men in the first three days of the year. I was frustrated that connections weren’t being made and the systemic nature of male violence against women was being ignored. Once I started counting, I found it difficult to stop, partly because through doing the counting, I feel like I’m learning so much that just isn’t there in the official statistics. Plus, I think the way official statistics are presented takes away the humanity of the women and it’s too easy not to be horrified by what is happening to women at the hands of men. I’m not sure that fatal male violence is the most easily measurable indicator, mainly because, as your question suggests, official data hides the extent of the problem, and I know how much time I have to spend trying to keep a record of women killed by men in the absence of official statistics.
Currently available Home Office statistics tell us a lot about the relationship between a murder victim and their killer. We can see the sex of the victim and whether they were killed by partner/ex, their child, parent, other relative, acquaintance or a stranger but the sex of the killer within or across these categories isn’t revealed. For example, official statistics tell us that on average in the 11-year period between 2001 and 2012, 11 women a year were killed by their child. Through Counting Dead Women, I’ve found that in 2012, 16 women were killed by their son, in 2013 it was 13 women and by the end of September it’s 9 women. So most –almost all – women killed by their child are killed by their son, and this has been completely hidden by the official statistics.
There’s also the issue of whom to count, for example, what about men who aren’t found guilty of murder, but manslaughter? (Murder’s a bad enough word for disguising the sexist nature of fatal male violence against women but the word manslaughter wipes women right out of the picture). On top of that there are cases where the man is found guilty of neither murder nor manslaughter, including a woman killed last year who was found hanging naked above her bloodstained bed with more than 30 injuries and the man who the court deemed innocent of killing her, found by police sleeping below her. I’ve grappled with the issue of defining fatal male violence against women since I started recording women killed. At the moment, I’ve settled for women, aged 14 years and over, women killed by men in the UK and UK women killed overseas. Regardless of the relationship between the woman and the man who killed her; regardless of how he killed her and who else he killed at the same time; regardless of the verdict reached when the case gets to court in our patriarchally constructed justice system created by men and continually delivering anything but justice to women; regardless of what is known and not known of his motive.
SR: The organisation you work for, Nia, was formerly called the Hackney Women’s Aid (HWA). On the site it says it’s “committed to working within a feminist ethos”. How does that make it different to other groups doing similar work?
KIS: Sadly, even us calling ourselves feminist makes us different, it’s increasingly rare that women’s groups do that. But of course it’s more than that.
It means that our work names male violence and that services are provided in a framework which recognises that there are inequalities between women and men in society, and that male violence against women and girls is both a cause and a consequence of inequality. That we don’t see male violence against women as reducible to individual acts perpetrated by individual men, but as a key instrument of men’s domination of women, supported and normalised by patriarchal institutions, attitudes and social norms and values.
Having a feminist approach means that we believe women when they tell us about what has happened to them and we do not blame women for what has happened to them.
It means that when we talk about empowerment, we’re not talking about women feeling good if they make certain ‘choices but that we recognise that power imbalances exist between individuals and groups and sex, race, class and other forms of structural inequality limit choice and life chances, and ‘choices’ are made within a context of power imbalances. We see our role as to help women and children understand the options available to them and to support them in making choices within the limits of those options and to advocate on behalf of the women and children that we work with as individuals and collectively.
Delivering feminist informed services means recognising that women and girls have specific needs that are not met by services not informed by feminism, that women, girls and children who have experienced male violence have a diverse range of needs, that we provide services that are sensitive and responsive to women’s individual and collective needs, as opposed to a ‘one size fits all’ approach
It means that we don’t just deliver services but try to raise awareness of male violence and power imbalances and campaign for change.
SR: Organisations like the HWA emerged with the rise of a mass feminist movement and many of them vanished. Others have been “professionalised”. This makes them more accountable to local and national government and, perhaps, less obliged to be answerable to the women who use the services. Is this a tension in the work that you do?
KIS: Absolutely. I’ve been working in the sector for 24 years, and I’ve seen domestic and sexual violence become much more mainstreamed, but as that’s happened, the feminist perspective that was central to the movement has become diluted.
I’m angry that in the 1990s more secure funding was offered to independent organisations running specialist services that had been developed by survivors and activists; funding that came with a contract for services from their local council. But since around 2005, these contracts have been put out to tender by the local authorities that provided the funding and too often sold off to the lowest bidder able to meet a service specification. We’ve lost too many specialist women’s organisations and it is continuing. It’s harder and harder for independent women-led organisations to survive, and the fight to survive takes away energy that we should be spending on supporting women, girls and children and campaigning for change.
I wouldn’t say ‘professional’ and ‘feminist’ have to be mutually exclusive – and that’s a balance we try to maintain all the time – but nia is currently funded by around 20 different funding streams, each with its own set of targets, outputs and outcomes, usually but not always set by the funder. We have to meet those targets or we lose funding, and if we drop out of the picture and the work goes to an organisation that isn’t built upon a feminist understanding of male violence against women, then that’s a massively retrograde step for women, in my opinion.
It’s a constant struggle – and incidentally one of the reasons that my blog and Counting Dead Women are so important to me. Most of my working hours are spent on ensuring the viability of nia and the quality of our services. It’s only in my own time that I get the chance to think and write about male violence against women.
SR: The government is determined to pare services to the bone. How is this affecting services like yours and the women who use them?
KIS: I’ll give you an example of something that happened with a refuge: In 2010 a contract was advertised at a maximum value of £419,000 per year to provide 33 bed spaces in 5 refuges, the local women’s group had been providing refuge for over 30-years. When the contract was awarded, it went to a large organisation that wasn’t a specialist women’s organisation, they had bid for the contract at £338,462.
The local area did not lose refuge spaces but in order to meet the lower contract value, the new organisation managed to circumvent employment protection laws and made all the existing staff team redundant, offering them new contracts at lower rates, more hours per week and less annual leave. Most accepted. Since then, as staff left and new ones were recruited, salaries were offered at lower rates. With this sort of contracting the central focus becomes not ‘What could we do for women and children with this money?’ but ‘How could we deliver the specification outlined in this contract – and nothing more – for the least possible cost?’
I have heard from former colleagues working for such organisations that they have been pressurised to offer jobs to applicants that they do not believe have sufficient skills, experiences and aptitude.
With the loss of that contract, the viability of the area’s specialist women-led charity was threatened. Charity central management and administrative charges are frequently the subject of scrutiny, with the assumption that a charity with lower central costs offers better value. But it isn’t that simple. In order to operate legally and safely, there is a point at which further cuts to core costs cannot be made. The higher the organisation’s turnover, the more there is available for central services, and the more opportunity there is to introduce economies of scale. In this example above, the charity has survived – only just – up to now, but across the country many have closed, including specialist BME women’s services.
Quality services protect but quality costs. Nia holds three separate quality marks: Rape Crisis Service Standards for East London Rape Crisis, and both the Advice Quality Standard and CAADA Leading Lights for our Independent Domestic Violence Advocacy service. Attainment of all three service standards requires provision and proof of quality of service, of management, of policies and of governance. It is more expensive to provide better quality services and even more expensive to demonstrate that you do.
How does this affect women? I regularly hear of women being turned away from refuges because they’re deemed to have support needs that are too high, or because they don’t speak English. One refuge turned a woman away saying she had an alcohol problem because she said she drank two glasses of wine a night. Women are provided services by fewer staff and by staff who are less skilled and have less experience. And the gap between us and them, staff and ‘service users’ changes fundamentally. Women’s services used to be primarily run by women who knew that we were no different from the women using them, many staff ourselves survivors of male violence. I see that less and less now, and think women ‘service users’ – women who have experienced male violence and are responding in a completely rational and natural way – have become pathologised.
SR: The idea of women only political spaces is one that has always been contested. Why isit an important idea to defend?
KIS: Men dominate, they take up disproportionate space, whether we’re talking politics or public transport. Men define and steer parameters of discussion and women are socialised to listen and allow this.
I think with male presence, it’s all too easy to lose what feminism is – the struggle for women’s liberation from male oppression – and for it to become about equality and before you know it, the discourse becomes one of men’s suffering. Men get too defensive when women discuss male power, male violence, male entitlement, male privilege; frankly, we’d get nowhere because we’d take up all our time responding to men who manage to make the issue about them all the time. Get a bunch of men together talking about male violence and see how quickly the subject of male victims comes up, or take a bet to see whether ‘male victims’ or ‘not all men ‘comes up first.
It’s good to experience being a woman away from the male gaze, away from men’s agenda, I don’t think it’s possible to stand back and truly understand how women are affected by men with them around. Even outside of politics, women only spaces are rare and precious, something that too many women never even experience, even for that reason alone they’re valuable.
SR: You wrote that ” feminism isn’t about equality, it’s about women’s liberation from men’s oppression”, quickly adding that you’ve no idea what a society without patriarchy would look like. How does that translate into action and change?
KIS: I think it makes it clear that sweating over the small stuff isn’t going to get us very far. That doesn’t mean small localised actions aren’t important but that we need to frame them within a broad structural framework. For example, when women are killed by men, there are frequently references to police failure. But all the tinkering with police procedures in the world won’t end male violence, not in a society where women are objectified and commodified, where socially constructed gender is a vehicle for women’s subordination, where the law was created by rich white men and serves rich white men’s interests. It means I’ve got low expectations for genuine large-scale change within my lifetime and I can see that could lead to despondency, but I hope that my actions as a feminist take us a small step closer to such a society.
SR: You are from a working class background. Has that influenced your feminism?
KIS: I’m not only working-class, I grew up in the North in a mill town in the ‘80s, when the decline of manufacturing, like the decline of mining in other parts of the North and Midlands, meant that the day-to-day lives of ordinary people went through a massive change in a generation. I genuinely couldn’t see how my life could have more in common with what I called ‘posh girls’, than the lads who lived in my street that I hung out with. I was social class conscious before I was sex-class conscious. So the first thing my class influenced was me thinking that the premise of feminism was daft.
And then I started to learn about how sex class and social class combined to create a particular set of circumstances for working-class women that were not the same as those for working-class men and to understand how things that I accepted as inevitable were anything but. Although I was too young to have been a risk as a victim, growing up in Yorkshire in the 70s and 80s meant growing up knowing that we weren’t safe because of ‘the ripper’ (Of course we didn’t know he was Peter Sutcliffe before he was caught). There was male violence against women in my family, friends’ families and friends’ relationships, like many young women I had direct experiences of male sexual violence, but without a feminist analysis I had no concept of this as part of a continuum of male violence that functions to control and restrict all women. I was surrounded by male violence but unable to see it.
That the Equality Act 2010 covers age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity but not class and not poverty, should be scandalous. It’s a bit like us not being able to analyse and challenge male violence, if we can’t name it. There can’t be a strategy to address life chances that are reduced by class and poverty if we don’t recognise them as fundamental causes as well as consequences of inequality and disadvantage. And it’s not just about a reduction in social mobility, because to have social mobility you need ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. I honestly think that class has become one of the least well understood inequalities. I’ve had people who don’t understand class politics tell me that I’ve ‘lost my working class credentials’ because I’m a CEO. That’s what happens when politics gets reduced to identity politics, ie non-politics. Being working class too often means having lower aspirations, settling for less and certainly being judged as less. I still see the surprise register when I speak in meetings full of people that haven’t met me before and a Northern working-class accent comes out.
As my life experience has broadened, it’s helped me understand the need for feminism to take account of multiple inequalities, like race, disability, heteronormativity; and to understand that if we don’t stop and think, we end up making assumptions that exclude and ignore and won’t change the lives of women who are not always in the forefront.