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Sex trafficking in the Netherlands: should we believe the hype?

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At some point in any debate over the legal status of sex work, supporters of prohibitory laws will invariably claim that sex trafficking has skyrocketed in the Netherlands since prostitution was legalised there, that this is a known fact not even disputed by the Dutch authorities and that this proves that legalisation and decriminalisation lead to an increase in sex trafficking.

It’s an argument that has always annoyed me, first because of its obvious cause-and-effect fallacy and second because the Dutch model is not one that is supported by any sex workers’ right advocate that I know of. It’s not unlike invoking the USSR to argue against socialism – in fact, it’s just another logical fallacy, the straw man.

Nonetheless, it’s something that comes up so often I thought it really couldn’t be ignored, so I had a look at the most recent (2010) Report of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings. The Rapporteur’s role is described on this page:


The Rapporteur’s main task is to report on the nature and extent of human trafficking in the Netherlands, and on the effects of the anti-trafficking policy pursued…

The Dutch Rapporteur works independently and reports to the Dutch government…

The Bureau of the Dutch Rapporteur of Trafficking in Human Beings keeps in contact with and gathers information from individuals, organisations and authorities involved in the prevention and combating of human trafficking and in giving assistance to trafficking victims.

For their information, the Rapporteur and her staff have access to crimnial [sic] files held by police and judicial authorities. Because human trafficking often occurs across borders, the Bureau also has many contacts abroad and co-operates with international organisations.

This, I think, is as close to an “authoritative” source as we’re going to get. The usual caveats about measuring hidden/illegal economies obviously apply.

So let’s go straight to the statistics, which are maintained by a body called CoMensha. As sex work opponents claim, these do show a significant increase since the law reform of 2000. Here’s the chart on page 92:

So, case closed? Well, hardly. The Rapporteur herself states that:

The likely explanation for the increase is the intensification of investigations by the police and the public prosecution service, as well as the growing attention to human trafficking. It is also possible that there is greater awareness (and in more agencies) of the need to report victims of human trafficking to CoMensha.

[internal references omitted]

In other words, the numbers aren’t actually increasing, we’re just finding more of them. The Rapporteur could of course be entirely wrong about this; perhaps the recorded increase does reflect a real increase as well. I quote her here only to point out that what sex work opponents portray as an undisputed fact actually isn’t.

But even if you take her words with a grain of salt (she may be independent of the government, but she’s still appointed by them), there are a number of problems with these figures. The first becomes apparent after a moment’s glance at the chart: the number of detected victims actually remained fairly steady for a few years after the law reform, and in fact was significantly lower in 2003 than it was in 2000. Bear in mind, these are only detected victims, and the actual number could have varied in either direction. But on the face of it the numbers don’t seem to support the claim that legalisation itself is behind the increase. You might expect there to be some lag in the law’s effects, but a sharp increase after an initial slump strongly suggests there’s something else going on there.

The real spike in the numbers occurred after 2005, and it should be apparent from the shape of the curve that something significant happened at that point. Sure enough: in 2005 the Dutch law on trafficking was amended, to cover non-sexual labour and the trade in organs as well (previously it had only applied to sex trafficking). So, a certain amount of that increase has nothing to do with the sex industry. How much of it? Well, on pages 174-175 the total number of victims specifically linked to the sex sector in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 is given as 338, 473 and 419 respectively. So here is that chart again, with the number of reported sex trafficking victims for those years noted in red:

In fairness that probably understates the case a bit, since in each of those years there were upwards of 200 reported victims whose sector of exploitation was unknown. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but for the time being we can reasonably assume that some of these were in the sex sector. Even taking that into account, though, it must be clear that the expansion of the trafficking law beyond the sex industry has a lot to do with the impression of a recent trafficking explosion.

Another interesting point is made on page 91. While the usual reaction to statistics like this is to assume that they underrepresent the real numbers – because so many victims go undetected (something I certainly acknowledge) – there is also the possibility that they overstate the case as well. The Rapporteur explains:

it is possible that the persons reported to CoMensha are not all actually victims, so the number of registered victims could also be higher than the actual number of known victims in the Netherlands. This is because there is no formal assessment based on specific criteria by which the registered person’s status as a victim can be verified.

The broad categories of “notifiers” (persons and groups reporting victims to CoMensha) are charted on page 99:

This looks to me as though basically anyone can report a “trafficking victim” to CoMensha, and CoMensha will include that person in its data without ensuring they truly qualify. That must call into question whether the numbers have been inflated through misrepresentation of their actual victim status. A footnote on page 91 says that “very vague reports” will not be registered, but also that CoMensha “has no firm criteria for defining a ‘vague report’”. Also worth pointing out is this bit on page 111:

For almost a third of the victims reported to CoMensha since 2007, it is not known whether they had already been exploited or, if they had been exploited, in which sector.

There are two separate issues here. First, what exactly are the criteria for identifying someone as a trafficking victim if they have not “already been exploited”? I don’t think that identification would be unjustified if, say, they were intercepted en route to a brothel when they thought they were being taken to work in a restaurant, but it’s not at all clear whether that level of certainty is being applied. (I’m reminded of the often-cited statistic of 100,000-300,000 children trafficked in the US every year, which actually refers to children who are simply deemed to be “at risk” of sexual exploitation because of their personal circumstances, such as runaways, and may never actually face exploitation at all.) There’s clearly potential here for erroneous inflation of numbers – and certainly for the statistics to include people who might not be included in the statistics of other countries which only count the “already exploited”.

The second issue is the part about it not being known which sector the victims were exploited in. As mentioned above, these unknowns have accounted for more than 200 trafficking cases per year. What exactly does it mean for a sector to be unknown? That the notifier didn’t know the sector, or that they knew it but didn’t report it? I can certainly accept, given the nature of human trafficking and the trauma its victims can suffer, that it may be possible in some cases to recognise that a person has been trafficked without being able to ascertain the sector. But 200+ per year strikes me as an awfully high number of indeterminate-sector cases, and I would have to question whether some of these reports can really be taken as evidence that trafficking occurred at all. If on the other hand the notifier simply didn’t include the sector in their report to CoMensha, that question doesn’t arise – but you would wonder why CoMensha wouldn’t go back to the notifier and ask for clarification, since it’s a pretty important variable.

Another interesting thing I noticed was in the tables indicating the nationality of victims (pages 160-167). These also include the ranking of the top five nationalities – and the number one nationality of reported victims, since 2004, is Dutch. In fact, Dutch victims have accounted for at least a quarter of all reported victims since 2006, and for nearly two-fifths in 2007-2008. I found that extraordinary. It is true that trafficking can occur within state borders, but it’s fairly unusual for a state to recognise its own nationals as trafficking victims, at least on such a wide scale.

It’s difficult to explain this anomaly without more information, such as a breakdown of the sectors in which the Dutch victims were exploited. The only hint is in the fact that the proportion of these victims who were underage has averaged to 30% since 2006, suggesting that the “loverboy” phenomenon may be implicated. But that doesn’t account for the majority of cases. One possibility could lie in the Dutch definition of trafficking, which to my reading is extraordinarily broad. The UN definition is often said to boil down to “movement, control and exploitation”; however, the Dutch law allows for convictions without any “movement” element at all, within or across state borders. Note Article 1.1.6, which defines a trafficker as anyone who “wilfully profits from the exploitation of another person”. I would suggest that applies to more bosses than it excludes.

If the Dutch authorities are applying this broad a definition of trafficking, is it any wonder the numbers are as high as they are?

In fact, when you take all these qualifications into account it’s quite possible the Dutch figures aren’t excessively high at all (by “excessively high” I mean in comparison with other countries; even one case is too many, of course). Let’s go back to that 2009 figure of 419 sex trafficking victims. Seems a lot higher than Sweden’s 2009 number of 34 (see page 35), doesn’t it?

But first of all, they don’t seem to be comparing like with like. Pages 10-13 of that Swedish report discuss the nationality of the victims and from what I can tell they are all foreign; the report refers specifically to people being trafficked into Sweden. Now this could mean that Dutch people are being trafficked in the Netherlands while Swedish people are not being trafficked in Sweden, but more likely is that Sweden simply uses different terminology for its own nationals who experience “trafficking” within Sweden. So, what we need to compare the Swedish number to is not the total number of reported sex trafficking cases in the Netherlands, but the total number of sex trafficking cases of non-Dutch citizens in the Netherlands. We don’t have that exact number, but the Dutch report states that in 2009, 26% of all trafficking victims were Dutch nationals; if we apply that percentage to the sex trafficking victims we get a rounded figure of 109. Subtract that from 419 and we can estimate now that in 2009, 310 people were reported as sex trafficked into the Netherlands.

Next thing we have to look at is who is doing the reporting. The Dutch figures reflect reports from all sources; the Swedish figures reflect only police reports. In 2009 the Dutch police reported 61% of all Netherlands cases. Applying that figure to the 310, we can estimate that the Dutch police reported 189 cases of sex trafficking into the Netherlands. This is still significantly higher than the 34 cases of sex trafficking into Sweden reported by the Swedish police, but you see how the difference narrows when you take greater care to ensure you’re comparing the same things.

We’re left with figures that suggest a sex trafficking rate in the Netherlands around 5.5 times greater than the rate in Sweden. According to Googled World Bank statistics, the Netherlands’ population is around 1.75 times greater than Sweden’s, making the Dutch rate disproportionate by a factor of 3.75 – you’d expect the Dutch police to report 127.5 cases of sex trafficking rather than 189. So that’s 61.5 cases in 2009 that can’t be accounted for by the population difference alone. I can think of several possible reasons for this extra 61.5 that have nothing to do with the legal status of prostitution (other things that make the Netherlands a more attractive destination country, like its location and climate; or the much broader definition of “trafficker” in Dutch law; or operational differences in Dutch and Swedish police approaches to trafficking), but we really are in the realm of pure speculation at this point.

Of course, we’d need a more detailed set of statistics to really compare the two countries anyway. It’s quite possible that there is actually a wide disparity between sex and non-sex trafficking behind the percentages applying to overall trafficking which I used to arrive at that 189 figure. But that disparity could go either way, so it can’t be assumed that I’m underestimating the real difference between reported cases in Sweden and reported cases in the Netherlands. I could, in fact, be overestimating it and the actual figures could be much closer together. The point of this exercise is not to make any claims about the actual rate of sex trafficking in the Netherlands, but simply to show that there is a wide variety of factors behind the reported rates – and that you can’t simply compare sets of figures from two different countries without considering how all these factors could influence the results.

Another relevant question is how the Dutch numbers after law reform compare to the numbers before it. The most recent Rapporteur report doesn’t give figures from before legalisation, but I was able to find them (in somewhat different format) in the First Report, on page 49:

So clearly the problem was growing in the Netherlands even before legalisation, and perhaps the law change was entirely irrelevant to a trend that was developing anyway. However, even if the law itself had an effect, the report suggests this may be due (at least in part) to a reason that is very different to the one put forward by the anti-sex work movement – and it’s a reason that echoes a point I’ve made over and over again on this blog.

To put it in context: In the latest report, the Rapporteur states (page 26) that the purpose of the 2000 law reform was to

legalise a situation that was already tolerated.

The first report had gone into this in much greater detail, saying on page 11 that prior to 2000

in practice a distinction was made between voluntary and involuntary prostitution and the government in principle limited its concern for prostitution to regulating the exploitation of voluntary prostitution and combating involuntary prostitution. Because the ban on brothels…was still in the Penal Code, this policy in practice meant that the exploitation of voluntary prostitution in the Netherlands was in fact tolerated. This toleration developed in the course of time from a passive tolerance to an active tolerance (Venicz c.s., 2000). Passive tolerance meant permitting the establishment of prostitution businesses, as long as they did not cause any inadmissible nuisance or other articles of the law were not infringed. Active tolerance, on the other hand, meant the government taking controlling action so as to guide developments in a particular direction by various measures. A classic example of this is the system of tolerance orders or licences for brothels and other sex establishments used in many municipalities at the end of the 20th century, by which requirements and stipulations were laid down for their establishment and operation. And so in the 20th century the government did take virtually no action against brothels, except in those cases involving manifest abuses, exploitation of involuntary prostitution or disturbance of public order, peace and safety. In spite of an earlier attempt to amend article 250bis Penal Code in the Eighties, the ban on brothels was finally only abolished from the Penal Code on 1 October 2000.

Now, you might read this thinking that the 2000 law didn’t actually change a thing, and that what we should be talking about here is not what happens when prostitution is legalised but when it is tolerated. But there is an important difference between the two, and it’s one that has been noted in the context of Australian law reform as well:

Police, of course, under a legal system which officially legitimises certain forms of prostitution or certain places, are obliged by the government to enforce laws on other prostitution in order to justify the “legalisation”.

So what are the “other forms of prostitution” which were tolerated in the Netherlands until 2000 and are now enforced against? Well, one of them is prostitution by non-EU migrant workers (or those from EU countries excluded from the Dutch labour market). The legality of sex work notwithstanding, it usually isn’t an option for them unless they have residency on some other ground; it is impossible to get a work permit for the Dutch sex sector and very difficult to get recognition as a self-employed sex worker. And thus, as the sex workers’ rights group De Rode Draad told the Norwegian Ministry of Justice in 2004,

The situation for immigrant women has become much more difficult. Formerly these women’s work was tolerated in the same way as other sex workers’. With the legalisation of one group of women, the work of another group of women now becomes illegal. (page 34)

The Rapporteur’s current report doesn’t really go into this, but it does quote from an earlier report (the third) which addressed it in some detail, noting on page 22 that:

A number of NGOs have repeatedly argued that where aliens cannot work legally in the sex industry in the Netherlands but are still interested in doing so, a ban on or obstacle to doing this legally means a considerable risk of becoming dependent on third parties, with exploitation as a potential and harmful consequence. They therefore regard the ban on issuing work permits for prostitution work in salaried employment and the conditions that are or may be imposed on subjects of Association countries who want to come and work in the Netherlands as self-employed prostitutes as encouraging [trafficking].

So in other words, if it is the case that trafficking has increased as a result of legalisation, it’s because of changes in the government’s approach to migrant sex work, not to sex work generally. It’s an issue of immigration law rather than prostitution law. This, I think, is absolutely critical to a proper understanding of sex trafficking in the Netherlands – whether the actual rate is going up, down or sideways.

What about the claims of exploitation in the legal sector? I’ve seen all sorts of statistics thrown around about this, used to justify the argument that you can’t protect sex workers by legalising the industry. The Rapporteur doesn’t cite any data on this topic, but does accept the existence of these abuses and the failure of Dutch policy to adequately address them. On page 140 she states,

the view that entering the profession was an individual’s free choice that should be respected…may have obscured the sight of forced prostitution, especially since establishing a licensing system for the prostitution sector was expected to make licensed prostitution more manageable, and hence lead to eradication of abuses in the sector. Over the last decade, the emphasis in attitudes towards the prostitution sector seems to have shifted to the vulnerability of the sector to human trafficking. Several notorious cases that have shown that widespread exploitation can also take place in the licensed prostitution sector have undoubtedly been a factor in this.

Well, if Dutch lawmakers assumed that licensing on its own would sort out coercion in the sector then it’s hardly any wonder they’ve had problems. If that was all that was needed, there would be no abuse in any legal and regulated sector, and clearly that is not the case. Here, the report shows the risks not of legal prostitution per se, but of a poorly thought-out scheme which lazily equates “legal” with “non-exploitative”. I suspect that if Dutch lawmakers had taken more input from Dutch sex workers when drawing up their law, this might have been pointed out to them.

Since people frequently seem to have trouble grasping this point, I’ll close by reiterating that these reports cannot be assumed to reflect the actual amount of sex trafficking in the countries they relate to. No really accurate, reliable measure is possible – and the true numbers could be either higher or lower. But if one legal model is going to be advocated over another on the basis of the trafficking rates under those models, those doing the advocating have to find some basis to show that a model has the effect they ascribe to it. This requires showing that, as best as can be determined, not only is there more trafficking under one model than under another but also that there is a causal link between the model and the trafficking rate. The Dutch Rapporteur’s report could support the anti-sex work argument on the first count, but the statistics are not sufficiently disaggregated to say for sure: we don’t know enough about them to pull out all the things that the Swedish authorities aren’t counting and make a like-for-like comparison of the numbers.

The report actually does more to support the claim of a causal link, in the sense that it acknowledges risk factors connected directly or indirectly to legalisation (the laissez-faire approach to the licensed sector and the restrictions on some foreign workers). But the crucial thing here is that these are causal links to the Dutch model of legalisation, not to legal prostitution per se. They could just as easily be used to support arguments for the establishment of a proper inspection scheme, or for allowing non-EU migrants to work in the industry – two things that can only happen in the context of legalisation, decriminalisation or de facto tolerance.

So to answer the question in the title of this post: no, but we shouldn’t discount it entirely either. It may be impossible to say for sure whether the Netherlands actually has more trafficking than other countries, but it definitely has a legal regime which in some ways seems to facilitate it. The reasons it does so may not be the ones put forward by the anti-sex work movement – but that doesn’t make the need for change any less compelling.

Children’s rights must not mean women’s wrongs

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Last month the Irish Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that the long-promised referendum on the rights of children would finally be held this year.

The background to this lies in the following provisions of the Irish Constitution:

Article 41
1. 1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
2° The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

3. 1° The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.

Article 42
1. The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

5. In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.

The proposed referendum, as agreed by an all-party parliamentary committee, would leave Article 41 intact but remove those two subsections of Article 42. The replacement text is rather lengthy so I’ll just provide a link rather than post it all here.

The impetus for this change comes from a series of judicial and policy decisions, which have been seen as making it so difficult to interfere with the sacred institution of The Family (and more particularly the marital family) as to effectively tie the State’s hands when it comes to child protection and welfare. A few examples:

  • The 2001 case Northwestern Health Board v HW, where the Supreme Court upheld the right of parents to refuse to allow their child undergo the PKU test, a totally safe procedure to detect a disorder that leads to brain damage if untreated.
  • An unspeakably horrible case of familial abuse in County Roscommon, revealed a little over a year ago. You can Google it yourself, I don’t have the stomach for it. The mother had obtained an injunction preventing the children being removed from the family home; her affidavit cited the rights that she and her husband, as a married couple, had over their children. Social workers on the case confirmed that Article 42 had a sort of chilling effect on their efforts to protect the children, as it led them to believe they would need to prove a nearly impossible threshold of neglect.
  • The 2006 “Baby Ann” case (N v Health Service Executive), in which a two-year-old girl was ordered returned to her birth parents. They had consented to her adoption, but changed their minds and subsequently married – at which point, according to Justice McGuinness, the rights of the family took over from the best interests of the child as the “central issue”. (Actually, on the peculiar facts of this case the birth parents would have had a decent argument even without the constitutional imperative, but there are obvious reasons to be concerned about the court’s emphasis on the primacy of the marital family.)

So you can see why there’s widespread support for amending the Constitution to specifically enshrine the rights of children. What little opposition there is is mainly coming from two of the most repellent groups in Irish society: the xenophobes, who fear the amendment being used to prevent deportation of Africans with minor children; and the uber-Catholics for whom any interference with the marital family is anathema. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the list of amendment opponents reads like a Who’s Who of the Irish anti-abortion movement – whose concern for the rights of children clearly ends at birth.) Ironically, although the latter group is far more organised and politically powerful than the former, it is the deportation issue that is actually holding the referendum up. I was present at a private meeting a couple years ago where a then-Cabinet Minister, a current Cabinet Minister and a backbench member of the other current government party all agreed that the wording would have to be changed to assuage those fears.

Irish feminism, on the other hand, seems to be pretty much entirely behdind the amendment, and that’s fairly understandable. After all, the primacy of the marital (read: patriarchal nuclear) family hasn’t exactly done us many favours; and while the amendment won’t remove Article 41.1, it clearly will narrow its scope. But while I wouldn’t argue that we should vote “no”, I do think some important issues have been overlooked in the debate. Consider the following:

  • In 2006, the High Court ordered that a Jehovah’s Witness be given a blood transfusion (subscription required) contrary to her express wishes, the first time this was done to a competent adult. Counsel argued and the Judge accepted that her child’s need for a parent overrode her right to refuse medical treatment.
  • In the US, women have lost custody of their children for working outside the home, being lesbians and even reporting domestic abuse.
  • According to a representative of the fabulous Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services Ireland who I was speaking to recently, some Irish women have been threatened with prosecution – yes, prosecution – if they insisted on giving birth at home rather than under the full control of the professional (and strongly male-dominated, and extremely paternalistic) medical industry.

What these cases all have in common is that they’re examples of the “best interests of the child” being used to further a patriarchal agenda, in which motherhood automatically strips women of their autonomy. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just the standard assumption of self-sacrifice that having children always entails; it’s the quite deliberate channeling of women with children – whose primary identity is now “mother” – into tightly prescribed roles, with the legal system there to act as enforcer.

I’m being a bit deliberately melodramatic here and I’m not suggesting that passage of this amendment will actually turn us all into Stepford wives. But I don’t think we should be complacent about the risk of “children’s rights” becoming another tool of state misogyny. Let’s not forget that this is a state where woman’s primary role as housewife and mother is actually enshrined in the Constitution (Article 41.2, for readers abroad). Do you trust all of our judges to read the new amendment in a way that protects children’s rights without trampling on women’s? I don’t.

I’m also uneasy about the way this amendment could be read in juxtaposition with Article 40.3.3, on the right to life of the “unborn”. Judging by some of the cases coming out of the US at the moment, it seems that pregnant women in some states might be only a few years away from being forcibly institutionalised to prevent them doing anything that might possibly lead to the birth of a less-than-perfectly-healthy baby, such as having the odd glass of wine or eating too much junk food. It’s a strange sort of logic that allows women to be penalised for “neglecting” foetuses that they have every right (at least on paper) to abort, which I suspect is why those laws aren’t more widespread throughout the US than they are. Here, of course, the constitutional position on abortion is no impediment to such laws – and with a mandate to protect both the rights of (actual) children and the rights of the “unborn”, there is, I think, a worrying possibility that this American trend could catch on here.

Again, and just to be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that feminists should oppose the amendment. In all likelihood I will vote for it myself, on a simple cost-benefit analysis (as in, I think overall it will probably do more good than harm). And I don’t have any suggestions as to how it could be worded to avoid these nightmare outcomes, especially while the odious Articles 40.3.3 and 41.1-2 remain. But we shouldn’t be leaving it to the racists and religious fanatics to highlight its possible unintended consequences. We should be putting the State on notice that although we want to see better protection for Irish children, we are not going to tolerate it becoming yet another tool to oppress Irish women.

On Rush Limbaugh, slut-shaming and whorephobia

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I imagine that most readers by now have heard of the latest outburst by the right-wing American egomaniac Rush Limbaugh. On his radio show he referred to a Georgetown University student who had testified before Congress on the need for contraception to be included in health care coverage. Misidentifying the woman (whose first name is Sandra), he said:

What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.

Limbaugh’s comments understandably (and correctly) led to outrage, and he was eventually forced to apologise after his advertisers started doing wobblies. It’s rare enough that he apologises for any of the garbage he spews, so it has to be seen as at least a small victory that sufficient pressure was brought to bear on him for this one.

Nonetheless, some of the reaction has made me a bit uneasy. Limbaugh is one of those people who can’t understand why a woman would want to be anything other than barefoot and pregnant, so his ignorance of the importance we place on access to contraception is hardly surprising. That’s not what prompted the almost unprecedented level of condemnation. Nor did the anger focus in on what I think is the real issue, namely, his attempt to silence her by making her into an object of sexual ridicule – with the implication that any other woman who dares speak her mind on this subject will meet the same fate.

While some of the criticism got this point, too much of it centred on the idea that Limbaugh had defamed Sandra Fluke by use of the terms “slut” and “prostitute”. A good example was this petition I was asked to sign:

Pull your advertising from Rush Limbaugh’s radio program immediately and permanently. He called a Georgetown Law School student testifying before Congress about women’s access to birth control a “slut” and a “prostitute.” His reprehensible remarks are an attack on all women, including women who are your customers.

The blurb accompanying the petition underscores the point by saying

We will not let Republicans brand women who assert their right to health care as “sluts” and “prostitutes.”

There’s a clear subtext here – and it’s a rather nasty one, reinforcing the same old good girl/bad girl dichotomy that I always thought feminism stood against. Sandra Fluke is just a woman who needs birth control (for her long-term monogamous relationship, no doubt), not because she sleeps around for fun or to earn her living. And how dare you “brand” her, Rush, by suggesting the latter?

The irony is that this has taken place after nearly a year of “slutwalks”, in which many women of the same demographic as Fluke appears to be – white, middle-class, educated, soft-left – have marched to “reclaim” the word “slut”, to work toward, according to the Slutwalk movement’s founders, “reappropriating the word ‘slut’ to mean someone who is confident in their sexuality…and not ashamed of enjoying consensual sex.” Does that petition sound like it was written by someone who thinks being a slut is nothing to be ashamed of?

Throw “prostitute” in with that and you get some good old-fashioned whorephobia which is, unfortunately, something white western feminism isn’t exactly unknown for. The bile that the likes of Melissa Farley has thrown at sex workers is out of fashion these days, with anti-sex-work feminists preferring a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach. But it’s hard to see anything but a deep contempt for women who do sell sex, where the accusation of selling sex is deemed an unpardonable affront.

And lest anyone try to argue that those who have responded in this fashion are not offended by what Sandra Fluke was called, but merely by the fact that (seemingly) false and irrelevant allegations were made, let’s consider what would have happened if Limbaugh had used a different term. Say, “lesbian”. This is also a word that has been used to describe women who stand up for their rights, in a manner aimed at discrediting and silencing them. It is, however, a word that 21st century feminism would never consider an insult in its own right. If that was the word Limbaugh had used, I think it’s highly unlikely it would have aroused the same kind of outrage – and if it did, any petition would be very sensitively worded and would make absolutely clear that the objection was contextual and not to the suggestion of lesbianism per se. Because nowadays feminists (generally) don’t stigmatise women for the who of their sexuality – but some, it seems, are still happy to stigmatise women for the how many and the why. The women in question are stigmatised enough by society, sometimes with deadly consequences, without us adding to the hate.

Just as a postscript: I emailed the petition authors with my views on the matter, and received back a standard “thank you for your comments which we shall consider” reply. I then went ahead and signed the petition anyway because, as I said, there is a genuine issue around Limbaugh’s attempt to silence. But I added a comment to my signature stressing that that is the real issue – and that if Sandra Fluke did happen to be a slut or a prostitute, there would be nothing wrong with her anyway.

On surrogacy, slavery and choice(s): My response to Breda O’Brien

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Breda O’Brien is a conservative Catholic and columnist with the Irish Times, notable for her resolute adherence to church doctrine in all matters reproductive. She has become notorious for crackpot columns like this one, a response to the horrific case of the 9-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather and whose mother and doctors were excommunicated after getting her an abortion. (Her rapist, quite tellingly, was not.) The column is behind a pay wall, but to summarise, O’Brien’s response was first to grab her own 10-year-old daughter and put her on a scale to compare her weight with that of the Brazilian girl, and ultimately to proclaim that if the same thing happened to her own daughter the pregnancy would be carried to term.

Last Saturday she wrote this piece, which I hope can still be read without subscription. It’s an attack on surrogate motherhood, which she condemns as “just another form of slavery” and wants to ban, although she does not clarify exactly what form this ban would take. The clear implication of her column is that surrogacy is something only done by desperately poor women in the developing world, which isn’t actually true; here, for example, is the website of a Canadian woman who seems to have become a professional surrogate and encourages others to do the same. I don’t think she’s aiming her “Information on how to become a surrogate mother” at Kolkata slum-dwellers – but even if she was, the possibility that they might rationally consider surrogacy a better option than their alternatives is one that O’Brien simply cannot fathom.

I sent a response to the Irish Times but, true to form, they didn’t print it. In fact, they haven’t printed any replies, which is unfortunate (I can’t believe mine was the only one). This is an increasingly important issue – not least because of the gap in Ireland’s laws which means that some children produced through surrogacy are ending up stateless – and as Ireland’s paper of record, the Times has a responsibility to facilitate debate on it and not to simply print one side of the argument and leave it at that.

Anyway, here’s the response that I wrote.

Breda O’Brien raises a valid point about the potential for exploitation of women as surrogate mothers, although her invocation of slavery to describe what is more likely to be a preference among limited options is unfortunate. Real slaves do not get to make even constrained choices.

It is not clear, however, why surrogacy should pose any greater legal dilemma than adoption, which O’Brien seems to believe should be not only legal but mandatory when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy which she would otherwise abort. Is it not also a form of surrogacy to compel a woman in this circumstance to bear the child for the benefit of another woman?

Furthermore, O’Brien is silent about exactly HOW Ireland should make surrogacy illegal. Would she criminalise a woman who becomes pregnant on behalf of another? Would she force such a woman to become the legal mother herself? Or would she simply deny Irish couples the right to recognition as parents of a child born through surrogacy, leaving the child and birth mother to whatever fate awaits them under the laws of their own country (in the hope this will never be Ireland)?

Finally, O’Brien fails utterly to address what will happen to the women who become surrogate mothers due to lack of other options. Those who use protection from exploitation as a reason to deny a source of income to persons in poverty have a responsibility to outline how they expect those persons to compensate – now, not in some future utopia where there are adequate alternatives available.

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