Niki Adams cautions against ‘the Swedish Model’ and raises concerns about the role of the religiously-motivated, State-funded Irish pressure group ‘Ruhama’.
“To the moralist, prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock.” – EMMA GOLDMAN, Anarchism And Other Essays
Niki Adams, an English former sex worker and current spokeswoman for the International Prostitutes Collective, is a highly intelligent, strong, campaigning woman. But she refuses to describe herself as a feminist.
“At this moment in time, feminism is too closely associated with elitist women,” she says. “It isn’t really speaking for grassroots women, and it certainly isn’t speaking for sex workers. So I couldn’t describe myself as a feminist.”
Since 1975, the International Prostitutes Collective has been campaigning for the abolition of the prostitution laws which criminalise sex workers and their families.
“The International Prostitutes Collective is comprised of the English Collective of Prostitutes,” she explains, “the US Prostitutes Collective, based in San Francisco, and has a network in other countries, including New Zealand, various countries in Africa, in India, and in some countries in the Caribbean, such as Guyana. We work closely with women in those countries.
“We actually started in 1975, and our two aims, which are still a priority for us, were to end the criminalisation that sex workers face, which undermines safety by preventing sex workers from coming forward to the courts in relation to violence; and to fight for financial alternatives to prostitution, so that women can leave it, if they want to. We campaign for safety, and against imposing either a stigma or discrimination on sex workers.”
Adams recently participated in an RTÉ Prime Time debate on the proposed legislation to criminalise the buying of sex in Ireland. She was pitted against Sarah Benson of the highly funded Catholic organisation, Ruhama, and Denise Charlton of Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) – and performed superbly, effectively skewering the fallacies being touted by the Turn Off The Red Light campaign.
The legislation currently under discussion here, is based on what’s known as the ‘Swedish model’. In 1999, Sweden introduced a law that criminalised the purchase of sex, targeting the men who paid rather than the women who provided it. Grieviously sexist in its conception, it was also profoundly condescending to those women who freely choose to work as prostitutes.
Loudly trumpeted as a success by the Swedish government, the authorities in Ireland are now under pressure to follow suit.
“The Swedish model is disastrous for sex workers, and would be disastrous for Ireland, and for England, where it is being talked about as well,” Adams insists. “They claim that, as a result of criminalising clients in Sweden, prostitution has reduced, and that there are less women out there. But our question is: where do the women go? Do they know whether the women are safer? Whether they’re happier? Whether they are better off? Whether they’re working more, for less money?
“Or whether, in fact, as we have heard from women in our network, they have been displaced to border towns, that they are now working even further underground, and have been generally maligned and persecuted.
“The Swedish model,” she adds, “is premised on the fact that there is a lot of rape and violence against sex workers. Which is true, there is a lot of rape and violence against sex workers.”
But Niki Adams makes the point that this is part of a much wider issue of violence against women in general.
“That’s what should be addressed. In Ireland, and the UK, there are already existing laws against rape and violence and assault and false imprisonment, and all kinds of coercive and violent acts – which are not being implemented. That has to be the first priority: to use those laws against people who are violent. And prostitution, which is essentially consenting sex, has to be distinguished from rape and other forms of violence.”
Adams makes an interesting comparison with the alarming domestic violence statistics in Ireland and the UK. “Domestic violence is rampant,” she says. “Two women a week in the UK – and in Ireland there are very similar statistics – are killed by their partner, or former partner.
Two women a week! And nobody proposes, as a solution, that we ban marriage, or we abolish women having relationships with men. So why do it in relation to prostitution?
“If they proceed with the idea of criminalising clients, all that it will do is divert police resources, which should be going into addressing rape and other violence, into a general crackdown on prostitution. And it will force sex workers further underground – and into more danger, not less. There’s no way that we can come forward as sex workers to report violence if we fear that we will be prosecuted.”
Needless to say, she’s dismissive of Ruhama’s moralistic Turn Off The Red Light campaign. Indeed, she considers that organisation to be highly dubious.
“Well, Ruhama has a bad history,” she states. “They were started by the same order of nuns which were responsible for the Magdalene Laundries. And until they clean up that history, I don’t think that they should be considered qualified to comment on any issue of abuse against women.”
Adams also questions the veracity of the data Ruhama use in relation to so-called human trafficking.
“They are funded to deal with trafficking victims, and therefore they have a vested interest in exaggerating the number of victims,” she says.
“Ruhama are saying that 80% or 90% of women in the sex industry are trafficked. That is a complete fabrication. It’s a lie. And we proved that it’s a lie here in the UK – and it needs to be exposed as a lie in Ireland.
“Based on that ‘statistic’, they call for a banning of prostitution – but
they’re really promoting a moralistic, judgemental agenda, which is going to be extremely harmful for women in the sex industry. And our question has to be, when one in five children in Ireland are going to school hungry, and we know prostitution is increasing because poverty is increasing, and that 70% of sex workers are mothers, if you want to do something about prostitution, and ensuring that women are able to leave the profession – we have to begin by tackling poverty.
“Nobody is doing that. Instead they are talking about an outright ban – which would make it much harder for women working in the sex industry, many of whom don’t have an option to leave it.
“But even if they do, and if we as prostitutes, decide anyway, that working in the sex industry is a better job for us, or a better choice compared to our other choices, who are they to say that we are more ‘degraded’ working as a sex worker than we are if we have to beg, or skip meals to feed our children?”
There are many feminists who reject the moral argument and who fully support women who choose to work in the porn industry or in prostitution. It is a view that resonates with Niki Adams.
“Who are Rumama,” she asks, “to say that it’s worse working in the sex industry than it is working 40 hours a week on a minimum wage or a zero hour contract, and still not making ends meet?”
Despite the moral crusade against sex workers being carried out by misguided politicians, goody goody feminists and well-funded religious organisations such as Ruhama alike, Adams says that the International Prostitutes Collective will continue to fight until prostitution is, at the very least, decriminalised.
“Two things are happening,” she says. “One is that there is a movement of sex workers, which is very much a part of a grassroots women’s movement, who are demanding control over our own lives. And we will not be pushed around, including by feminists in well-paid jobs, in comfortable positions, who are really part of the elite now.
“That movement is getting stronger. At the same time, poverty is getting much worse. Violence is getting much worse. Women are less able to go to the authorities for protection and to get justice if they are attacked. Those two things are happening, so it’s really a fight to the death. But we are determined to defend our rights to work in the sex industry, and make our own choices about how we support ourselves and our families.”
She points to the New Zealand experience, where prostitution was decriminalised in 2003. “It’s been proven to have a beneficial impact,” she says, “in that women are more able to get out of prostitution because they are not institutionalised, with a criminal record, that prevents them getting other employment.
They’re also empowered to demand protection from the police, when there are incidents of violence.
“For those people who’re proposing the Swedish model, why don’t they look at New Zealand, where the benefits are very concrete and verifiable,” she continues. ‘It’s a very good model to follow. We are determined to win decriminalisation, but we know that things are getting much worse for a lot of people, such as sex workers, and we don’t feel that we will be able to win outright, unless a lot of other grassroots working class people also win better working conditions and a better quality of life.”
Does the ICP have any Irish members?
“Yes, we do. We have about five or six women that are regularly in touch with us from Ireland. We have a network in northern Ireland as well, and in Scotland and in Wales. So although we are the English Collective of Prostitutes, we were thinking of changing our name. Now, we’re just waiting to see what happens with Scottish Independence.”
For more information visit prostitutescollective.net