On Friday, the Criminal Justice (Sexual Services) (Amendment) Bill was introduced to the Dáil. This bill, if it is passed, will criminalise the purchase of sex from prostitutes. Thomas Pringle TD certainly has strong feelings about it, attesting that “gender equality is not achievable while women are for sale,” and that “when people make a conscious decision to purchase the body of another human being to do with it what they see fit, that is unacceptable human behaviour, which should not be tolerated or accepted as the norm”.
Discussing how to deal with prostitution is difficult. The debate very quickly gets hijacked by people who either miss the point or intentionally bury their heads in the sand and start grandstanding on the morality of the sale of sex as a commodity. This is a philosophical point. It does not matter. What matters is that people are being trafficked here and live out their lives in conditions too horrendous for most of us with a voice to debate to even imagine. It’s time to wake up and face the fact that most prostitution is sexual slavery. Sex with a prostitute is most likely rape. I have never heard the “it’s their choice” line from anyone who works with sex workers on the ground – in their experience the woman who 'genuinely wants to exchange sex for money' does not exist. There's always some level of coercion, addiction, desperation. And even if there are some women who do genuinely work of their own free will, helping them to find another source of income in order to protect the many women who are working against their will is what any decent society would do.
I used to be very much in favour of decriminalising and regulating prostitution. I thought it was the way forward into a society where women would be more empowered and that having everything open and legal would ultimately halt trafficking and afford sex workers more protection. That isn’t the case.
Prostitution isn’t about morals, or liberation, or particularly about sex. It’s about money. Sexual slavery and human trafficking will continue for as long as they are profitable, and the clearest way to mitigate them, and the best way to protect more women and girls from horrendous lives, is to decrease profitability. The only way to do that is to decrease demand by making sure there are consequences that will make people think twice before stepping into the red light district. On a purely moral level, we all know that to have sex with someone who lacks the capacity to say no is utterly wrong. There’s no way to be sure that a prostitute is acting of her own free will, which means there’s no way someone who uses prostitutes can say he is not guilty of rape. Being forced into sex, howsoever it is done, is humiliating and degrading, and in the truest terrible meaning of the word, utterly violating. Having sex with a woman, very likely underage, who has more than likely been forced into having sex with you – even if you are not directly doing the forcing – is rape. And paying for both the privilege of abusing her and the privilege of not having to admit that that is what you are doing is a crime worthy of far more than a four-week jail term, the strictest punishment meted out by this bill.
In 1999 Sweden, admirably progressive, criminalised the purchase of sex. In five years, trafficking fell 41%, and the price of sex fell – a sign that demand was dropping and profitability of exploitation was plummeting. How does Amsterdam, poster child of the leagalisation and regulation movement, compare? Very badly. Brothels were legalised in Amsterdam in 2000. Ten years later underage girls are still being pimped out, trafficking increased following legalisation, and despite a decade of free, regular healthchecks, STI’s including HIV have not decreased in brothels.
If we legalise the purchase of sex we will normalise it, and that will increase demand and profitability. The argument that this bill “will drive the industry further underground” is rubbish. It’s already underground. Sex traffickers already find their way around laws and regulations across international borders. It is hard to see an extra layer of regulation stopping them from redoubling their efforts if prostitution is normalised and the market suddenly increases. They will only stop when the profitability falls so low that it’s no longer worth the risk.
Even if regulation works, there will always be things that legitimate organisations won’t be able to provide, such as sex without a condom on punters positive for STI’s and HIV, and underage girls. Traffickers will specialise to these areas, making an already horrendous situation even worse. In fact, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesperson Niall Collins noted that at a seminar organised by the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign
, former prostitutes “often misrepresented their age to clients because the younger they pretended to be, the busier they became. The demand led nature of prostitution in Ireland creates a sinister market of men who desire underage prostitutes.”
I welcome this bill, but I am concerned it doesn’t go far enough. Much prostitution comes down to organised rape, and for punters to get at most a spot fine or four weeks in jail is grossly disproportionate to the wrong they do. Ireland has a history of making great laws which are never enforced, and of diluting down said laws with dubious loopholes. For example, since 2008, it has been illegal to buy sex from someone who has been trafficked – but with a handy loophole whereby the purchaser can claim that he didn’t know the person had been trafficked, it’s difficult to see this new regulation having any impact whatsoever.
And it won’t be enough to simply decrease profitability. We need to make sure we have the resources and the will to get women out of prostitution if they want out. Independent TD Mick Wallace said that for many prostitutes “sex work is their only source of income and their means of providing for their families. Criminalising their clients will put these sex workers at increased risk of poverty, and lead to further stigmatisation and marginalisation.” This is a completely unacceptable cop-out. Mr Wallace must surely know that if his government was functioning, no woman would be placed in such desperation in the first place.
His statement is an admission of failure.by Naomi Elster-------------
Naomi Elster is a scientist and a writer. She is currently researching more effective ways to treat breast cancer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She is deputy editor of HeadSpace, a non-profit mental health magazine distributed for free to service users of psychiatric wards and mental health support centres. Her play "Scabs" will run as part of this year's 10 days in Dublin festival on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July in the Pearse Centre, Pearse Street. She blogs at http://nothingmentionednothinggained.wordpress.com
On 19th May 2012, the Irish Feminist Network held its first ever conference. The rationale behind the conference consisted of the need to document the current resurgence in feminist activism in Ireland, while also situating this resurgence within the wider context of the history and potential future of Irish feminist movements. The conference was themed “Feminist Activism in Ireland: Past, Present and Future.” In order to do this broad topic justice, we structured the conference in terms of successive feminist ‘waves’ in Ireland, and were fortunate to have an amazing line-up of speakers
. There were panels on the first, second and third waves of feminist activism, and keynote addresses by prominent politician, Mary Lou McDonald, and women’s migrant rights activist, Salome Mbugua from AkiDwA.
A lot of thought went into organising the logistics of the conference. With a non-existent budget for an event of this size (140 attendants), the IFN nonetheless sought to make the day as pleasant (from a logistical point of view) an experience as possible. The co-ordinators were aware of the need for childcare to allow single parents to attend, and wanted to be maximally inclusive. We further wished to avoid huge corporate entities that quite often exploit women’s labour, hence our choice of the Sean O’Casey Community Centre
as the ideal venue for the conference. The centre has a crèche, and they were happy to open it for us on the day. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough up-take for this facility in the end.
In order to promote the conference, the IFN undertook its most intensive media campaign to date. Articles were written
, endless invitations sent out via email and Facebook, press releases formulated, radio interviews recorded
, and supportive journalists broached to include us in their work
. All of these efforts paid off, as tickets sold out
the night before the big day. At 15Euro a head (including lunch, coffee in the morning, and childcare), we wanted the cost of a ticket to be affordable. Even at that, though, the IFN followed the suggestion of a wise supporter and introduced a sponsorship scheme to allow those who could not afford a ticket to still attend owing to the generosity of anonymous sponsors.
The conference was opened with a poetry reading by acclaimed poet, Catherine Phil MacCarthy,
who really set the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the day. We then heard inspiring stories and first-hand experiences of feminist activists of the first, second and third waves. The final session on the future of feminist activism in Ireland allowed for smaller group discussion, with thematic groups on topics such as feminism and gendered economic inequality, feminism and reproductive rights, and feminism and the university. Each of these thematic groups was asked to discuss ‘what lessons can be learnt from previous feminist activism?’, ‘how do these impact the current situation?’, and ‘what practical measures can we adopt/pursue for the future?’. The concrete proposals for action emerging from these groups can be read in full below, and include actions such as increased education around abortion (feminism and reproductive rights group), gender auditing of university staff (feminism and the university group), protesting on the streets against economic inequality (feminism and gendered economic inequality group), creating space for dialogue between different voices (feminism and migrant women’s rights), and the challenging of heteronormativity and gender roles in schools (feminism and young people).
While registering, conference attendants were given coloured cards on which to write what a feminist future meant to them. We then put these cards up on a pin board for people to read during the lunch break. The answers have been really creative and inspiring, and for the following two months we uploaded an image
of one card per day for people to view on Facebook or Twitter. This has been a great way to promote supporters’ views on their feminist futures, and to continue the dialogue on what kind of feminist futures we hope to achieve.
All in all, we had a fantastic experience putting together this conference, and have thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that have developed therefrom. We know that there is always room for improvement, and taking your feed-back under consideration, we hope to bring you an even bigger and better conference in the future. For those of you who missed it, we will be uploading videos of the day on this site, so stay tuned! For those of you who were there, many thanks for making it a really fun and intellectually stimulating day! ClaraIFN Co-ordinator
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A RECENT GUARDIAN article
examined the current ‘explosion’ in feminist grassroots activism in the UK. New feminist groups are on the rise there, and the intensification of people’s engagement with the feminist movement is being attributed, to a large extent, to young women and men.
Pupils as young as seventeen are reported to have organised in protest against local shops selling magazines that objectify women. There is, thus, a newfound enthusiasm for feminism, spurred by the obvious inequalities that still pervade our so-called liberal democratic societies.
Ireland is no exception in this regard. Recent years have seen a resurgence in feminist activism in Ireland, with new groups like the Irish Feminist Network
, Cork Feminista
and Feminist Open Forum
forming a conduit for people eager to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo and willing to proffer alternative visions for the transformation of social and political structures. Groups focused on specific feminist themes have also sprung up, with the 50:50 Group
focusing on women in politics, for example, or Women on Air
concentrating on women in the media.
While Ireland has, of course, a continuous history of women and men advocating for changes in gendered power imbalances, and these new groups undoubtedly benefit from the insights and support of their activist forbearers, there is something unique about this particular moment in time which makes it conducive to oppositional political activism.
Mistrust and exasperationThe mistrust and exasperation people feel at the way the country has been mismanaged and brought to financial ruin, has in fact resulted in a general questioning of the wisdom of those in authority, and has ultimately spawned a climate relatively hospitable to a whole plethora of activists, who are not just content with accepting the current state of affairs.
Many of these critically engaged advocates believe that the correctives needed to redress the failings of those in charge are not being implemented – or that they are being meted out unfairly, making certain members of society pay more than others. They resist such unfair treatment at the hands of the powers that be, and bring different perspectives to problems that are frequently portrayed monolithically and in ideologically uniform ways.
Ireland’s activist groups thereby provide alternative analyses of the issues negatively affecting people, or indeed identify certain issues as being problematic in the first place.
In a society where political decision-making still rests in the hands of a largely uniform and unrepresentative body of politicians, and where the news media
regularly excludes large swathes of people, it is essential that Ireland’s activist groups voice not only dissent, but also proffer creative solutions that will result in a more just, equitable and therefore stable Ireland. Feminist activist groups are doing precisely that, and are thereby contributing to a more vibrant civil society, which comes complete with demands for increased accountability and transparency.
While the momentum for change is palpable, we should not underestimate the challenges feminists still face. It is precisely the entrenched nature of issues surrounding women’s objectification in the media, denial of reproductive rights, or lack of affordable childcare – to name but a few – that is driving people’s (re)engagement with the feminist movement, but that also highlights the enormity of the task at hand.
The ‘silent majority’In some cases gender inequality is perpetuated by hugely powerful industries, such as the fashion and beauty industries, and in others, it stems directly from political decision-making that disempowers women and children in particular.
In order to be maximally effective in working toward increased gender equality, feminist activist groups need to build upon their momentum by capturing the spirit of the ‘silent majority’ . That is, the very people who are affected by the issues – for gender inequality affects us all – but who may not be willing to express or act upon their negative experiences. Given the years of backlash against feminism, and its portrayal of feminists as hairy-legged men-devouring monsters, this is a tall order for a reinvigorated movement, but one that is nonetheless achievable.
The environmental movement, which similarly saw its members reduced to tree-hugging hippies, has managed to make the green agenda palatable to the mainstream. Indeed, political parties are now eager to proclaim their ‘green’ credentials, and being concerned with issues of environmental sustainability is no longer looked upon as a radical or outlier position, but rather as the norm.
Building upon its achievements thus far, the feminist movement can and must now follow suit by rearticulating social and political norms, thereby making gender equality the new standard of normalcy. We have already begun to do so by achieving gender quotas, for example, or by getting tangible commitments by government on the issues of sex trafficking
and reproductive rights
In a climate that is hospitable to proposals for wide-sweeping change, and where people are questioning traditional understandings of social and political issues, what could be more normal than the normalisation of gender equality?
Dr. Clara Fischer
Cross-posted from thejournal.ie, Thursday 10th May 2012
We owe it to both young women and men to change media messages which repeatedly reinforce harmful norms of masculinity and femininity. By Clara Fischer
With the drama of the Oscars over for another year, it might be time for reflection on the messages the film industry, and particularly Hollywood, is conveying on a near-global scale. Messages in film? But surely the entertainment industry is simply about that: entertainment? Not so: research shows that what might seem like light-hearted comedy or action-packed drama
, is in fact increasingly gendered
– that is, it portrays women and men in pointedly stereotypical ways. Worryingly, this phenomenon is having extremely negative effects on women and girls. A recent report by the American Psychological Association
cited impaired cognitive ability, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders as consequences of the sexualisation of women and ever-younger girls through the media.
While films constitute only one particular aspect of the onslaught of objectifying and sexualised images within the larger 24 hour media cycle, they give us a particular insight into the cartoonish nature women are assumed to hold, but also to accept as audience members. Women usually star as the love interest, the princess to be rescued, or as the general supporter of the male protagonist, lurking somewhere in the background as a Side-Show Berta. Alternatively, as we know from such movies as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, women are hyper-sexualised and dangerously assertive. This latter variation on the theme should not be confused with a kind of liberated and independent agency, but rather constitutes another example of the reductive and objectifying view described in the literature as the ‘male gaze.’ Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, as they say, but who is the beholder?Certainly the filmmakers, producers, and studio bosses are overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white and upper/middle class. Is it any wonder, then, that their experiences and stories are told, while women’s fall to the wayside? Even when
women’s stories are told, though, they usually come in chick-flick form, which means they revolve around getting, keeping, or regaining a man – hardly a faithful depiction of the very complex lives we lead, yes, as partners, as mothers, as lovers, but also as workers, as leaders, as teachers, as writers, as politicians, and the myriad of other roles we may adopt in our daily lives.
A simple way of highlighting the lack of meaningful portrayal of women in movies is the Bechdel test
, developed by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip, The Rule.
According to the test, a film has to fulfil three criteria to pass: 1) the film has to have at least two women in it 2) these two women have to talk to each other 3) they have to talk to each other about something other than a man. This minimum of women’s relatively substantive inclusion in film is rarely achieved. Indeed, the majority of our most cherished movies fail to fulfil the principles of the Bechdel test. That is not to say that these movies can’t be good or inspiring pieces of cinema, but rather that the clear absence of women in film is a systemic problem. It is the sheer scale of women’s omission from movies, which makes the test so powerful and damning.
As noted, on those rare occasions where women do star in more sustained roles, perhaps even as the protagonist, those roles are increasingly stereotyped. Not only is this trend particularly damaging for younger female viewers, who adopt self-objectifying attitudes and behaviours, but it feeds into a larger raunch culture which ultimately disempowers women by promoting women’s sexual availability or physical appearance as the sole measure of our worth. The financial return for such a culture is of course handsome: the peddlers of beauty and slimming products, of unnecessary surgical procedures, and of dietary programmes and fads are indeed rewarded by the heightened anxiety women feel about their bodies, and ultimately, themselves.
And yet, there appears to be a weakness in this profit-driven model of women’s objectification: women might actually opt out. In a recent interview, Meryl Streep made this point by noting that the clichéd depictions of women in film might actually drive women away, thus leaving the profiteers minus a fairly large demographic. Films such as MissRepresentation
, which highlight the complex and often negative role the media plays with regard to women’s portrayal, have also met with a level of enthusiasm which clearly indicates a groundswell against the stereotyped images women are bombarded with on a continuous basis. It seems that the mainstream movie industry has confused the beholders of beauty, their female viewers, with the reductive cartoon characters they assume them to be, instead of recognising them as the critical, thinking human beings they really are.
While opting out and critically engaging with the media is a viable option for media-literate adult audiences, it is less so for those who are still developing a sense of themselves. We owe it to these young women and men – for gender-stereotyping similarly skews boys’ attitudes and identities – to change the media messages, which repeatedly reinforce harmful norms of masculinity and femininity. One way of doing this is by simply taking our purchasing power elsewhere, by withdrawing economic support from the culture of objectification. If we believe Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, we seriously have to question what kind of women, and men, our society is fostering.Dr. Clara Fischer IFN Co-ordinatorCross-posted from Politico.ie, THURSDAY, 05 APRIL 2012 14:01 CLARA FISCHER
Accents Coffee Lounge
The IFN Book Club, managed by the awesome Lisa Wixtard, is one of our most regular and long running events. If you’re looking to get involved or just meet some keen IFNers, coming along to the monthly book club is a great way to do it!
We meet on the first Tuesday of every month at 7pm in Accents Tea & Coffee Lounge on Stephen Street in the City Centre. The book for each meeting is decided at the previous one based on member suggestions and we try to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction.
Don’t feel you have to have read the book to attend! Discussion of the book usually lapses into more general discussion of the issues raised by the book to the delight of all present. Here’s a list of what we’ve read in the past to give you an idea of what we’re about…
- Living Dolls, Natasha Walter (July 2010)
- The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhyss (September 2010)
- Reclaiming the F Word, Catherine Redfern (October 2010)
- The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti (November 2010)
- How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran (September 2011)
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (October 2011)
- Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, Susan Faludi (November 2011)
- Sisters: The Personal Story of an Irish Feminist, June Levine, (December 2011)
We hope to begin updating this blog with reviews of the books we discuss, so watch this space! Hope to see you at the next book club:
Tuesday, December 6th, 7pm at Accents Tea & Coffee Lounge, Stephen Street to discuss See the Facebook group here
and also check back to our site regularlly for updates!