The “war” with Denis MacShane on Newsnight was not about statistics but about the policies the statistics were invented to justify. New Labour legislation would increase police powers against both sex workers and clients. Now that the figures have been discredited, MacShane calls them ‘futile’.
Paxman was not “hostile”; he was Paxman. But MacShane was confronted with experience and arguments he could not answer.
He now admits that, “I don’t know how many girls [women, please, MacShane] are trafficked into Britain.” Why didn’t he say that in the Commons? He mentions Amnesty International as a possible source for the statistics that 25,000 women have been trafficked into the British sex industry. Where is Amnesty’s research saying that?
Rahila Gupta did not “demolish” the Nick Davies Guardian report. There is no parallel between figures of trafficking and “other subterranean issues such as domestic violence or rape”. Statistics on rape are based on serious (both independent and Home Office) research over years; all had similar results. The problem Nick Davies documents is that trafficking research (like the Iraq dossier on weapons of mass destruction) was “sexed up” to produce the “right” results, i.e. invented. With rape, police aren’t recording thousands of crimes; with trafficking Davies found 122 were made up.
And if rape research was based on proving that all sex with men is rape, as seems to be the position on prostitution of feminists like MacShane, would its findings be credible? We have always said that in rape as in prostitution consent is the issue. But feminists are now on a crusade alongside Christian fundamentalists who even oppose sex outside of marriage. Once again women are a source of evil, and women who support our families by prostitution are vilified.
We have never heard of the “Esso outfit” which claims that “only 2% of women choose freely to work in the sex industry”. We’d be glad to know where their statistic comes from and what they mean by “freely”. Are we “free” when we lack money to feed children and pay rent?
We have always campaigned for safety and economic support so no-one is driven into prostitution by poverty or other violence. We started in 1975, taking our lead from prostitutes who went on strike all over France after the police responded to a series of murders by arresting the women. In 1980 we picketed the Old Bailey to highlight the discriminatory conduct of police and prosecution in the Yorkshire Ripper case (the then attorney general famously said that “Most of the victims were prostitutes but sadly some were not”). In 1981 we conducted an academically structured and monitored survey which uncovered how criminalisation made sex workers vulnerable to attack. In 1982 we took sanctuary in a King’s Cross church for 12 days after the police responded to a rape by arresting the woman’s Black boyfriend and targeting Black sex workers. In 1995 with Women Against Rape and Legal Action for Women, we helped two sex workers to bring the first successful private prosecution for rape – one woman was supporting her children, the other her disabled husband. In 2003 we pressed the government to give victims of trafficking the right to stay so they could report violence. No takers. In 2008, in the aftermath of the Ipswich murders, we initiated the Safety First Coalition which brought together the Royal College of Nursing, anti-rape and anti-poverty advocates, probation officers, prison and drug rehabilitation projects, church people and Ipswich residents, and others.
We work with organisations which oppose immigration and welfare laws that impoverish women to the point of destitution. They agree with us that anti-trafficking laws are being used as immigration control.
When I mentioned on Newsnight that “safety has been our priority from the start”, MacShane replied “And that’s why so many get killed.” Typical of “gutter tactics”, as Gary McKinnon’s mother called them. But this time he didn’t get away with it.
He now complains about Newsnight’s “self-appointed experts indulging in a futile war of statistics in which the victims are voiceless”. Why did he agree to go on? He’s certainly no “expert”. We can introduce him to many voiceless victims, including of trafficking: the women and men drafted into agricultural and domestic work under conditions of slavery. Why reduce trafficking to sex work?
We organised for MPs and peers to meet with mothers working to support disabled children who are institutionalised in prostitution by a criminal record; immigrant women who send money home to their families; rape victims dismissed by the authorities; nurses and church people who work directly with prostitute women (and men). We invited the government to hear from New Zealand’s five-year successful experience with decriminalisation, and how it has increased, not trafficking or prostitution, but women’s health and safety. Neither MacShane nor anyone in government was interested. It didn’t fit their repressive criminalising agenda.
What seems to upset MacShane is that we are an independent women’s organisation, not a Home Office front. Unlike the Poppy Project we’re not funded by the government to the tune of £9.5m. And unlike those professional feminists who reduce prostitutes to victims so they can tell us what’s good for us, the Wages for Housework Campaign (WFH) makes a way for all grassroots women and believes that we have a lot in common whatever work we do.
Selma James, colleague and widow of CLR James, was our first spokeswoman – she was happy to listen, learn and represent those of us who could not be public. As an anti-racist working class housewife, she felt strongly that women were not to be punished for the ways we find to support our families. She agreed with Virginia Woolf that brain prostitutes were more dangerous than body prostitutes.
It will be news to the International Marxist Group that they gave birth to WFH and the ECP. Are we being red-baited, or is it not conceivable that we are just a women’s organisation? Do we need to have men behind us to be effective?
MacShane’s track record doesn’t bear scrutiny. He strongly supported the Iraq war and was against an inquiry into the war. (Has he shown any concern that prostitution in Iraq has skyrocketed since his invasion?) As a Foreign Office minister he welcomed the military coup against Venezuela’s democratically elected president Hugo Chavez. (The coup was reversed and the British government had to backtrack.) He is a known apologist for Israel, equating criticism of its war against Palestinians to anti-Semitism. (So much for concern for victims of violence.) And of course he over-claimed on expenses…
Finally, on the Policing and Crime Bill. Why are MacShane and the government only mentioning the clauses in the Bill that criminalise clients? What about those that target street workers for arrest and ‘rehabilitation’ under threat of prison, and encourage raids on premises so our hard won earnings can be seized and kept?
And what about the Welfare Reform Bill being pushed through Parliament at the same time? It abolishes Income Support, the only benefit single mothers and other carers have been able to rely on. We know from experience that most prostitute women are mothers, especially single mothers. How many will be driven into prostitution with benefit cuts? How about telling the whole story, MacShane, of driving women onto the streets with one bill, and arresting them with another?
Hopefully the House of Lords will be more scrupulous with the facts.
Sex trafficking: a futile war of statistics
The descent of a Newsnight discussion on the sex trade into a shouting match shows how difficult it is to debate the issue
Anyone see the ding-dong between Jeremy Paxman and Denis MacShane on Newsnight? I was there. It was an utterly weird experience to be in the dock, under Paxo’s hostile interrogation, because I have spent some time in the House of Commons campaigning against the sex slave trade.
I honestly don’t know how many girls are trafficked into Britain. I once quoted a Daily Mirror report in the Commons. Its headline talked of 25,000 women and was based, so the paper reported, on Home Office and Amnesty International statistics.
This week the Guardian front-paged a report that came to close to arguing trafficking does not exist. The Mirror and the Guardian are both good papers with good journalists. Which is correct?
Rahila Gupta demolished the Guardian report on Comment is free. She also drew attention to an outfit of former prostitutes called Esso, which believes only 2% of women freely chose prostitution. Esso is new to me, and I hope the BBC and other media turn to it instead of always to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). I mean no discourtesy to this organisation, which grew out of the Wages for Housework campaign started by the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, but I cannot find on the web any details of its constitution, internal democracy, funding, or membership. The ECP spokeswoman said on Newsnight that only two trafficked women had come to her attention. This sounds far-fetched.
The Newsnight report managed its investigation without talking to a single prostituted woman or a single trafficked victim. Instead we had self-appointed “experts” indulging in a futile war of statistics in which the victims are voiceless. But to say that the reports of every international outfit that has highlighted sex slave trafficking do not apply to our blessed isles is silly.
Regional newspapers publish advertisements from brothels offering “new girls every week”, and the web is awash with offers of paid-for sex from young women brought into Britain to service male needs. The Poppy project, which seeks to help trafficked girls and other prostituted women who try to flee from their pimps and controllers, can house a few dozen at its refuge, but it turns away hundreds more who seek to escape from the slavery of offering themselves to dozens of men a day in massage parlours and brothels. Perhaps Newsnight might go and interview these victims instead of “experts” pooh-poohing the problem.
The real debate turns on what is to be done. Male politicians rarely challenge the conventional wisdom of the Belle de Jour or Happy Hooker books and articles that becoming a prostitute is a voluntary business of pleasure and profit – and just another profession. I pushed the House of Commons and Tony Blair to sign the Council of Europe convention on trafficking, despite opposition from Whitehall and some boy members of the cabinet. Now Labour women like Harriet Harman, Vera Baird, Fiona Mactaggart, Jacqui Smith and others who suffer unspeakable condescension from the media – and, if truth be told, too many patriarchical masculinist Labour MPs and current and former ministers – have edged the debate into new territory.
They are seeking to switch the focus of responsibility from women to men in the debate over how to deal with trafficking and sex slavery. The idea is simple. Instead of penalising women, make men accept that paying for sex with a trafficked woman or under-age girl is a criminal activity. If that means more appearances in front of magistrates and naming and shaming, so be it.
The rough analogy is with kerb-crawling. It was commonplace until police and councils started photographing and publishing the number plates of the kerb-crawling cars. Nothing eliminates the willingness of some men to pay for sex, but there is no need to use this desire as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the tragic exploitation of women, often with murderous consequences, that the sex industry entails.
These amendments are now in the House of Lords. Will they be supported or defeated by these venerable gentlemen? Sadly, in the Commons Tory MPs have indicated that they do not want to support a move to curbing the demand side of the sex slave industry. It is not clear if David Cameron has taken an official position. Of course, all measures to tackle the supply side by interdicting trafficking and punishing pimps and traffickers should be undertaken. As a minister and then serving on the Council of Europe, I have examined such measures but came to conclusion that unless the demand side was also tackled by placing men in front of their responsibility, little progress would be made.
Last night’s Newsnight debate showed how difficult it is to get a serious discussion on this important issue. Perhaps it is time to ask middle-aged male grandees from the Guardian and Newsnight to step aside and allow a different journalism to examine the problem.
That goes for me as well. I pondered hard before accepting an invitation to go on what I knew would be a shouting, point-scoring exchange, not a serious discussion of human evil and individual tragedies that shame our time and our politics. Now attention should turn to those other grandees who sit in the House of Lords. Will they defend men or their victims? We shall see.