Monday, 5 July 2010

a response, a rant, a moan

Bristol Feminist Network, Sex work and blogger responsibility

Last week on the Liberal Conspiracy website, a blogger named Elly accused the Bristol Feminist Network of nimby-ism, and suggested that, as a network, they were opposed to sex work and sex workers, and that their protest was motivated by a distaste for the sex industry.

This was untrue.

To substantiate her claims, the writer went on to compose various tweets, including one that made up a quote from the BFN website, stating that on the home page we had written, in relation to objecting to a planning application for a strip club, 'write your objection NOW', when in fact, the website home page said 'Urgent can read the appeal documents can make your own objection here.' The 'urgent' was included in the headline because if you did choose to file an objection you had to do so by the 28th June.

Why is this important? Lets start from the beginning.

Last year, a businessman applied to open a lap dancing club on Old Market street, a road that is generally considered to be Bristol's red light district on the outskirts of the city centre, between Barton Hill and Easton. A number of women from BFN and Bristol Fawcett went and campaigned against the application and won. Not least because in the planning application the club owner had written that he would be opening a restaurant that would become a strip club at 9pm, however he had not remembered to include restaurant equipment in his 'restaurant' plans.

He has since appealed, and the women originally involved in the protest emailed the members of BFN inviting them to object to the appeal if they wanted to. These are the key words. BFN does not decide on behalf of its members what their opinions are and what they think. Instead, we let people know about campaigns, we give people access to resources and we run discussion groups to talk about issues so that we can all work together to form our own individual view points.

Because of my own personal views on the sex industry I decided to object to the appeal. My friend who had alerted me to the appeal sent me the objection statement she had written and I adapted it to reflect my own views. I then posted my objection on my blog and on UK Feminista as a resource, so that should other people wish to object, but didn't have the time to write their own statements, or wanted some ideas, they could use mine. This was exactly the same practise I had used when writing model letters to MPs or the PCC etc – allowing people to access resources that might help them make their own complaints. I wrote clearly at the top of the statement that I was writing as an individual who was a member of BFN. This is because of the importance of explaining your own interests, but as my views did not represent the views of all my BFN colleagues, I was not able to write that I was representing the network.

Makes sense? Right. Back to Liberal Conspiracy, Firstly, on the blog post, Elly quoted a line from a statement that I had written as an individual, and presented it as being a quote from the Bristol Feminist Network. She has since apologised to me, but the fact is this was a serious misrepresentation of the view points and the actions of the network. By presenting my statement as coming from the whole network, a group of well over 500 people, she was suggesting that me – just me – was deciding the agenda and speaking on behalf of a big group. A group who don't all agree on sex work or the issues surrounding the sex industry. At BFN, we go to great lengths to ensure that we do not speak on behalf of members, and that our own personal views do not take precedence over the members. So, for example, on the website home page we clearly say 'we do not subscribe to one type of feminist thought' and, in relation to the 'urgent action' we wrote that BFN are not against consensual decisions around sex and sex work. It is not for us to tell people how to think and we take so much care to make sure this happens. Therefore, for Elly to quote BFN, when she meant me, was damaging to the network's representation.

The quote that was used was in answer to the objection's questions about environmental impact on Old Market. This is a very specific question, and I answered it by explaining that streets where sex work establishments abound are often isolating to women – leaving them feeling vulnerable and unsafe. I wrote that the abundance of SEVs on Old Market leave me feeling that I cannot walk down the streets of a city I have lived in since I was four.
I can understand why this quote comes across as NIMBY-ism. Indeed, taken out of the context of the fact:

• That it was from a planning objection

• It was in answer to a question of environmental impact

• I don't live near Old Market

then you could see why it would read as NIMBY-ism. However, as in so many issues of feminism, context is vital here. Within the context of asking how a new business will impact the environment around it, it is particularly pertinent to suggest that women will feel unsafe in their local environment. When talking about a planning application, it is vital to talk about impact. And seeing as I live a good few miles from Old Market, the lap dancing club isn't opening in my back yard. When you take these elements into account, NIMBY-ism becomes rather a flimsy accusation.

Further, this was one moment in the objection statement where I talked about how the opening of the lap dancing club would effect me, giving connotations of NIMBY-ism. Elsewhere in the statement I discuss the problems of violence against women where we find SEVs. I talk about the illegal activity – such as sexual harassment and prostitution that happens in SEVs. I talk about how the idea that SEVs provide great employment opportunities to women is a chimera, especially when we see how women have to pay to work in SEVs, often leading to competition with the other women, leading to breaking of the no touching rules in order to get bigger tips. I talk about how the plans for the smoking area haven't been thought through, and questions remain unanswered about how the surreal lap dancing club/restaurant dynamic will work. None of these discussions are about NIMBY-ism.

Therefore none of these points were raised in the critical blog post.

The result was a complete misrepresentation of my motivation for objecting to the lap dancing club, and a reputation damaging representation of BFN's views and beliefs. Coupled with the incredibly loaded word 'distaste' and readers of the blog post were left with the impression that I – and by extension BFN – were some kind of outraged Mary Whitehouse NIMBY figures, rather than as an individual with very real and informed concerns about how the normalisation of the sex industry is effecting women of all ages, class and backgrounds. My objection to the sex industry isn't motivated by distaste.

It's motivated by the following points and more:

• Female sex workers are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than women who are not sex workers (Salfati, James, Ferguson)

• The Ipswich and Bradford murders, and the disgusting reactions in the press

• A study in England and Scotland that 2/3 of 240 prostitutes had experience client violence (Church, Henderson, Barnard and Settings)

• The fact that trans sex workers are in even greater danger of abuse

• Inequalities faced by immigrant sex workers, compared with native sex workers

• The 1.2 million people trafficked as sex slaves (International Organisation of Migration)

• The 500,000 – 600,000 people trafficked every year over national borders to enter the sex industry (International Organisation of Migration)

• 68% of prostitutes suffer from PTSD (M Farley)

• 88% of pornography portray physically aggressive acts against women

• 50-75% of prostitutes enter sex work before they are 18 years old (Paying the Price – a consultation paper on prostitution)

• Prostitution takes place in lap dancing clubs (Challenging men's demand for prostitution in Scotland)

This is a snapshot of the reasons I object to the sex industry.

NIMBY-ism is emphatically not among them. Neither is distaste.
But anyway, back to the blogpost.

One of the accusations laid against me was the idea that by objecting to a club opening on Old Market I was pushing the sex industry out of the city centre and into the less salubrious areas of Bristol. This is absurd, not least because Old Market is not in the centre of Bristol and is, in fact, one of the less salubrious areas of the city. When I picked Elly up on this, she explained that she hadn't checked where Old Market was and she didn't know Bristol. This is completely ridiculous. If you're going to write for a national website, and make accusations on the website about an organisation's motivations, you need to get your facts checked. I imagine that most people reading the website don't know where Old Market is, so a completely false impression was given in order to support the writer's agenda.

It's just unfair isn't it? It's just unfair to write a post to support your own agenda (that women who oppose the sex industry do so out of NIMBY-ism and selfish reasons) without taking into consideration the actual facts of the matter. People who read that post would have a real skewed and warped opinion on the great work of BFN and my own views. It's easy to write something sensationalist by taking quotes out of context. It's much harder to try and express the subtleties.

One of the issues Elly has with feminists who object to the sex industry is that they silence the voices of sex workers. But so do the men and women who support the sex industry. In fact, they are so busy pushing their pro sex industry agenda – that, as Elly puts it, it's the same as working in McDonalds, (which, if nothing else, ignores the fact that no-one pays McDonalds a fee for the privilege of working there) and the 'look at Belle de Jour, she's done alright' angle, that the women who are harmed by the sex industry are completely silenced and ignored.

Take this quote in Kat Banyard's book, from a prostitute who is angry about the comparison that the sex industry is the same as stacking shelves:

“Whoever says that prostitution is just ordinary work has never walked even a minute in my shoes, or any other [call] girl's that I know. Prostitution is far from ordinary. It's demeaning and degrading and by no means a way to an end. It's actually a trap.” (The Equality Illusion, pg 145)

Or this lap dancer?

“Lap dancing is one of the hardest things I've ever done. I've found it tough, soul destroying. You are constantly lying about who you are, because you don't want to tell these men about your real self. You don't know them, and yet you are exposing yourself sexually and physically. Worst of all, for me, you are forced to behave in a way which is completely demeaning and submissive...The last thing they want is a clever lap dancer. You have to play dumb, that's the way to make the most money...and perhaps most importantly pretend to find them attractive when you do not find them attractive.” (The Equality Illusion, pg 136-37)

Most sex workers don't get glossy TV dramas made about them. They don't get book deals or interviews in shiny magazines where we are sold the myth that sex work is an empowering choice. They get mental health problems, they get PTSD, they get infections, bruises, broken bones.

The women who walk past sex entertainment venues get harassed or attacked.

When pro sex work advocates say that feminists deny women in sex work a voice, they forget that in fact they are doing exactly the same thing. Yes there are sex workers who enter in the industry and enjoy it and get something out of it. But their voices seem to ring louder in the cultural consciousness than the voices of the women who don't fit the empowered model. It seems to me that feminists who object to the sex industry seem more prepared to allow space for that alternative voice, the voice that isn't on TV billboards, the voices that slip through the cracks.

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