Friday, 27 April 2012

Safety and Exploitation in the Oldest Profession

This piece started as a reply to a letter in my local newspaper, by a Mr Dalton who I know personally through our mutual work in a local peace group. He was effectively condemning the profession of sex working as exploitative, with the workers portrayed as victims and their clients as ‘sad’. He gave examples of the increase in trafficking, sexual slavery and child prostitution as evidence for his assertion that ‘prostitution is exploitation’.

This got me thinking, because sex working is a subject that interests me and one of my friends used to be in the profession herself. While she admits that prostitution is almost always exploitative, her experience was nothing like that portrayed by Mr Dalton in his letter.

Let me say that I agreed with a great deal of his letter, and feel the same compassion for the victims of crime that he mentioned. He’s a liberal and humane man with a deep concern for human rights, which I share. But the letter seems too great a generalisation. It’s as if he took examples from the extreme end of the spectrum, and then tarred the whole profession with that brush. It’s certainly true that prostitution is often highly exploitative, and that there has been a great increase in trafficking over recent years. So the kinds of experiences that my friend had over ten years ago may be rarer now; although I’m sure there will always be honest people who decide to make a living from selling sex. But to state in such a bald way that ‘prostitution is exploitation’ is too great a simplification, and I don’t see that in itself it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially if it could be legalised and the women involved better protected. It’s the exploitation that is wrong, not the prostitution.

My friend, who I’ll call Martha (not her real name) lives and works overseas, in a far less controversial profession; but she used to work near the heart of Soho in London. She wasn’t very happy as a sex worker, although some of her friends were more comfortable with it than she was. Neither of these women were forced to become sex workers, and although they were exploited financially, they felt physically safe and were not abused by those they worked for. They chose to be sex workers, and when my friend was totally fed up with it, she chose to stop being one.

Tragically (and everything Mr Dalton says about the desperate circumstances of many sex workers is true), a huge number of women don’t have that choice. But many do, and their reasons for sex working are as varied as the reasons people choose any job. Neither are they necessarily any more likely to become HIV positive than people with a predilection for one night stands are; in fact, they may even be safer. Mr Dalton’s letter very much overemphasises the danger here, as if there’s something especially unhygienic about having sex with a prostitute. Sure, it depends on where they work, how desperate they are for money, and other factors. But Martha and her friends weren’t HIV positive; they worked in the business for many years, and protected themselves every time they worked. Neither she nor her friends ever became infected with anything.

Mr Dalton’s letter really got me thinking though, because the subject of exploitation, trafficking and slavery is such a serious one. So I asked Martha if she would tell me more about her years as a sex worker, because I didn’t feel I knew very much about it. She sent me the following reply - which I’ve edited somewhat, without removing anything she says about her experiences:

Hey Michael! Don’t worry; I have no problem in talking about my days of a working girl. No regrets, that’s what I think. Sometimes one can find a greater exploitation between a man and a woman who are in a “loving” kind of relationship than between a prostitute and her client. In the latter, everything is clear and open. It is like any other business where one has to deal with people. Some people are easy going; some others are hard to manage. 

All I know is my own experience and things I heard about at the time. Everywhere I worked I felt exploited by the premises owners and maids. The rental we had to pay was very high and the maids were very expensive. Not only we had to pay a very good wages but we also had to give them commission over our earnings. Sometimes we would go home with a lot less than we paid out…or even owing money. It was sad, depressing and humiliating. They wouldn’t pity us. The one I worked with most often was the greediest. 

All the girls would go for medical checkup frequently, and we were very aware of the danger of doing anything without proper protection. Yes, it’s easier to catch something with a one night standing than with a prostitute.

I thought it was quite safe. Out of all the years I worked there, we got mugged only once, but that can happen anywhere. We just have to be careful everywhere these days.

Well, about trafficking, slavery and all the rest of it; I don’t consider it prostitution; these are crimes, despicable crimes. Just the thought of what these poor girls, usually children, go through brings tears to my eyes. Some men are just so sick that I can hardly find words to describe them; they should be put in jail for many years…and where children are involved, they should throw away the keys.

Many kisses to you and baby Tally, and kiss Angie for me when you see her.


Beyond its honesty and openness, there are several striking things about this message. The first is in Martha’s opening paragraph, where she writes about the contrast between the ‘open’ relationship between prostitute and client in contrast to certain other relationships. Working girls and their clients only do openly and honestly something that mirrors the more covert dependent/exploitative relationships that can exist between other partners. It’s often been argued that traditionally, the state of marriage was exploitative, in that the wife would provide sex, the rearing of children, cook the meals and keep the house clean, all in return for financial security. In past times, it was virtually impossible for the vast majority of women to be financially independent.

Martha and her friends were exploited not only by men (in the sense that the rents were very high) but also by other women. This somewhat turns the table on the popular idea of prostitutes as tragic victims of men’s despicable behaviour – which of course is often true, but a simplification nonetheless.

They felt safe. That’s not to say that some clients weren’t ‘hard to manage’, but generally the women felt okay, and the clients were as mixed in personality and behaviour as any other segment of the population.

They practised scrupulous sexual hygiene. It’s not how promiscuous you are that makes you dangerous as a sexual partner; it’s how blithe and careless you are in your behaviour. Again, in some ways sex working is not much different from some other sexual relationships, and may in certain respects be a lot safer. I realise that some working girls, if desperate for cash, will have sex without using condoms – but again, this is far from universal.

The fact that there are often dangers involved in sex working, and that many sex workers are desperate, exploited, abused or under-age, doesn’t strike me as a reason for generalising or discriminating in a negative way. Many sex workers themselves insist that these are valid reasons for legalising their profession. Legalised brothels, monitored for safety and hygiene, would do much to protect sex workers from exploitation, and both the workers and their clients from infection. Sex workers are still often afraid to approach the police when they have serious reason to, for fear of arrest and prosecution. Stigmatising or legislating against prostitution tends to drive it underground, where it’s far more dangerous.

Martha’s letter shows that even near its best, prostitution is a pretty exploitative profession. And even many of Martha’s clients were probably under the mistaken impression that they were paying her for the pleasure she gave them, and not the maids and others who fed off her. But then, look at the way that bankers exploit their staff and customers, and sex working suddenly doesn’t seem that different. The banks (who caused the financial crisis) and corporations who make billions in profits and don’t even pay their taxes; MPs who effectively commit benefit fraud through their expenses (our taxes); multi-millionaire government ministers who keep getting richer while cutting vital welfare and services… The Murdochs! It’s the way things are now (capitalism is parasitic almost by definition), and it seems to me unfair to single out just this one profession.

On the other hand, at its worst this one profession involves abuse of a terrible kind. I’m not sure if trafficking and slavery are continuing to get more common or not, but certainly it’s worse than most exploitative practices you’d expect to meet in everyday life. Perhaps it’s because of these terrible practices, that while Mr Dalton correctly (if slightly sweepingly) refers to prostitution as exploitation, the examples he gives are of the worst kind: sexual slavery, trafficking and paedophilia. Yet my friend Martha says that these crimes are ‘not prostitution’ – they are simply heinous crimes. They bear little relation to the profession she used to work in – unless it’s in the same sense that a brain tumour is like a mild headache. We would not call an Eastern European au pair who is kept as a slave a nanny or a cleaner, even though she does many of the same things as a nanny or a cleaner. She is simply a slave.

Perhaps it’s just a question of semantics. Yet I feel that labelling and wording are important when making generalising statements about a particular group within society.

Personally, I think that sex working fulfils a widespread need. I’m sure that many clients are purely casual or thoughtless in their behaviour, and some can be abusive too. But many people (not necessarily men, either!) find it difficult if not impossible to have a sex life without paying for it – whether because of loneliness, lack of confidence, lack of opportunity or even disability. Having spent the first decade of my adult life without a girlfriend or even a one night stand for comfort, I can’t say I blame them. Some people have strong moral views against prostitution, but I would not like to judge either the sex workers or their clients, certainly not without knowing their personal reasons.

Is it ‘sad’, as Mr Dalton says, that the clients of sex workers choose to obtain sexual satisfaction in this way? Yes, maybe, although the reasons for being a client must be at least as varied as the reasons for being a prostitute. Perhaps, not being able to have sex at all is even sadder – you’d have to ask the person concerned. But of course, not many clients would come forward to answer the question, because the stigma is so severe.

As for the difference between sex shops and brothels, I think Mr Dalton over-emphasises it. He says in his letter that the new local sex shop is morally okay but a brothel wouldn’t be. But pornography can be highly exploitative in many of the ways that prostitution can. I wouldn’t have a problem with the presence of a legalised brothel in my town; after all, I expect sex is sold here anyway, just like anywhere else! We can’t prevent prostitution; not for nothing is it dubbed the world’s ‘oldest profession’! What we can do is make it safer and less exploitative – for as many people as we can. In a civilised society, surely people’s safety, health and well-being should be the most important concern?

Legalising brothels would also mean that clients would know they could go to legalised establishments without fear of harming anyone or having anything to do with that appalling kind of slavery. I’m sure that many of them must care just as much as anyone about the injustice and cruelty that has been on the increase in recent years, and would not want to contribute to it. Legalising brothels would not protect everyone, but it would be a huge step in the right direction. Sadly, unlike in some other countries, governments in Britain have so far placed a Victorian ‘morality’ above common sense, decency and the safety of all concerned. We can only hope that things will change for the better in the future.

I know that Mr Dalton is not prejudiced in the way I mean here, but it seems that there are already far too many groups in our society who are stigmatised and generalised about: from Muslims, travellers and asylum seekers to the disabled - and even foxes! To state the obvious, sex workers and their clients are as much a varied mix of people as the rest of us. Yes, there can be appalling abuse and exploitation involved, and because of this we need to make the profession as safe and out-in-the-open as we can. But I believe it’s also true that, even now, the oldest profession can often be less sensational and much less sordid than many people believe. 

Postscript: A follower of this blog has sent me the link to this story, about a call from a (female) New South Wales MP to decriminalise sex working and provide government funding for the disabled to hire sex workers This is the sort of humane response to sex working - and also the disabled - that is a breath of fresh air to me. As far as I know, the state of Victoria has already legalised brothels. In the current political climate though, I can't see either of these measures happening in Britain!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Shared Natures: getting out, and meeting Ellis the fox cub

Like so many people who suffer from chronic pain or illness, isolation is a constant difficulty. I spend a lot of time at home, only able to move around for short periods because too much activity can trigger pain flare-ups. I go for a short walk each day. I’ve never learned to drive, and to do so now would be too expensive as well as painful, due to problems with sitting. For three days a week I’m completely alone because my partner Angie lives and works in London on those days. In these circumstances it can be very difficult to stay positive and cheerful, and I know that this isn’t unusual amongst the many other people who live in similar circumstances.

As I rest, on and off, in my very comfortable reclining chair in the living room, I am sometimes prey to a kind of existential loneliness, where I feel cut off from the rest of the world. Because I have periods of anxiety, noise can be stressful, and silence can be spooky. Four years ago I had a nervous breakdown in this house, suffering severe anxiety for several months, and with a lot of hard work and support I recovered, but I still occasionally have setbacks. I work hard at various relaxation and self-help techniques, and they do help a great deal. But despite the frequent presence of our beloved cat Tally, nothing helps to combat isolation like contact with other people does. For several years now, my main contact with the outside world on those three days has been television, the internet and the occasional phone call. Facebook, that social network with a bad press, which is often accused of encouraging isolation and ‘virtual’ relationships, has made a huge positive difference to me, all the more now since I’ve joined a closed group for other sufferers. The support and friendship we people in different corners of the world give each other is an absolute joy, and my only regret is that because much of my computer time is taken up with writing, I don’t spend as much time with my friends there as I’d like.

This rather lengthy preamble is meant to contrast the life I experience most of the time with an episode of sheer joy when I was actually able to get out and do something different. The episode itself gives me an opportunity to write about a recent passion of mine which is all the more intense because of the current British government’s obsession with legalising the persecution of wild animals – and the surely-not-coincidental proliferation of anti-fox stories in Conservative tabloid newspapers. All my life I’ve related to those who are persecuted, bullied, legislated against or bombed to smithereens – so no wonder I became a peace activist! Maybe it has something to do with years of bullying in my childhood, or maybe it doesn’t. But like I said once to my therapist, in a moment of realisation, one of the reasons I’m so against fox hunting is that “I always felt like the fox”!

The British Wildlife Centre is an hour’s drive away from Eastbourne, and very close to the beautiful Ashdown Forest (where a certain Winnie-the-Pooh once lived). Last autumn I visited it with Angie, and for about half an hour or so I spent time in their fox enclosure, photographing these beautiful animals as they were fed by the keepers. I got some lovely photos, but it was also a very moving experience for me. As I sat so near the foxes, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could want to chase, terrify and kill them. Their resemblance to certain household pets (and I always think of them as curiously cat-like dogs, even though they’re far more closely related to the latter) was incredibly striking. The same look of intelligence was present in their eyes and behaviour. Would any of those ‘hunters’ traumatise and kill their beloved dogs or cats? No!

My passion for foxes really began in those moments of closeness. I tend to agree with the Buddha that most acts of evil or cruelty are done in ignorance of our shared natures. We don’t have to anthropomorphise animals to make this true. It’s a scientific fact that we’re all related; humans and all other animals have common ancestors.

Earlier this month, in the midst of the Ashdown Forest spring, Angie and I got a chance to go again. This time it was to meet Ellis, a rescued orphaned fox cub who was being reared at home by one of the keepers (where he apparently enjoys playing with her adult black Labrador). Once he’s old enough, Ellis will be released into an enclosure with Biscuit, one of the adult foxes.

As Katie the keeper held him, we got so close to Ellis that we could have cuddled him ourselves. The cat-like quality was even more evident; although a canid, Ellis still reminded me of Tally in his movement, eagerness, and nervousness battling with curiosity. The little thing couldn’t keep still! – constantly moving from one side of Katie’s body to the other, and consequently not easy to photograph. But both Angie and I felt the same strong impulse to smuggle him home. And although he was born a wild animal, Ellis seemed already at least half-domesticated.

I spent a while on my feet, not only with Ellis but also photographing polecats, adders and a sleepy adult fox who rested under a yellow-flowering gorse bush and looked a little warily at the small children crowding by the fence (“Hello, Foxy Loxy!”, said one). So I was in a little worse pain than before, and the car journey home seemed longer than the one earlier. But I can do these things sometimes, just not on an everyday basis or in a flare-up. The pain settled down again – and I got some lovely photos of Ellis!

As I sat telling my therapist about this a few days later, I realised that when I have these special times – getting out somewhere new, meeting other people, doing something I love – “I feel indistinguishable from my old self”. I meant the self that I felt I was before I became ill. And this is one of the dilemmas for all of us living with chronic pain or illness. We long to be able to do the things we used to do, live the lives we used to lead. We all feel a great sense of loss, as if we’ve lost our identities as well as the ability to do things. But we’re held back by pain, or by severe fatigue, or (in my case) anxiety and loss of confidence as well. This isn’t always obvious to non-sufferers, because our illnesses are often invisible – indeed, we are often invisible, when forced to spend most of our lives at home or even in bed. This is partly why I feel such a sense of kinship with my friends in that Facebook group. We all understand these dilemmas – our frustrated needs, our isolation, our physical and emotional suffering, and our frequent misunderstanding by other people. It can be very healing, comforting and cheering to get in touch with people I share so much with.

Even so, I am trying to get out a bit more now. I felt like hibernating in the winter – spending more and more time curled up in bed. Now I’m starting to come out again. We could have gone back to see Ellis yesterday, as he was running about in his new photographic enclosure; but that lack of confidence I mentioned returned, and I didn’t quite feel up to it. It’s a difficult balance – doing too much could precipitate a flare-up. But I want that feeling again, of experiencing the ‘old me’, of being Michael again. I’m still Michael at home, of course, the same as I ever was. But thanks to pain, anxiety and isolation, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Now a new opportunity has come up. The Fox Project (in fairly nearby Kent) has days when the public can meet the foxes in their hospital, and other days when we can meet and hold the cubs. This is too good an opportunity to miss! The next day is 6th May, and if we can’t make that one then I’ll make sure we get there sometime soon. To hold a cub!!! What a privilege! Such noble animals, yet sometimes so easy to get close to!

I know I’m a bit fluffy. But one thing I learned four years ago when I’d recovered from my breakdown, was that it doesn’t matter how embarrassing or childlike I behave any more – and my love of furry animals dates way back to my childhood. As long as it doesn’t hurt or harm anything, if it’s fun and brings pleasure to life then it’s okay. I’m learning to be kind to those aspects of my personality, instead of feeling ashamed of them. So I’ll carry on being fluffy! But it doesn’t mean that I lack respect for these wonderful creatures. Wild animals they may be at heart, but I recognise and rejoice in our shared natures.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunshine Made From Rain

For some time now, I’ve been trying to think of a good title for this blog. All the really great ones seem to have been taken. As I ran through the blogs of friends of mine who similarly suffer from chronic pain and illness, a beautiful phrase kept coming into my mind. ‘Sunshine made from rain’… It’s not the name of a blog but a poem, written by a Facebook friend last year, not long before she died.

Amberlin Wu was a dancer, a writer, and activist and a therapist, living in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She kept chickens in her back yard. She also suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – as she put it, “the bad kind”, the kind that is absolutely devastating to sufferers’ lives. I didn’t know her well, so the details of how CFS affected her life I’m not really sure, but I do know that she had good periods when she could go out to the beach with friends, and flare-ups when she could barely get out of bed or even move. She worked hard to publicise an illness (or, quite possibly, a collection of different illnesses) which is still deeply misunderstood by many of the public and even medical professions. As my friend (and Amberlin’s) Toni Bernhard has said, ‘chronic fatigue’ is an absurd misnomer. It is a state of deep and chronic sickness, nothing like the ‘fatigue’ that most of us experience from time to time.

I only ‘met’ Amberlin on Facebook only a few months before her death; we had both written contributions to a mutual friend’s book project, and I thought hers was just wonderful. We only really exchanged a few brief messages over that time. As a result, I still don’t know exactly what she died of, but assume that it was from complications of her illness (little known fact amongst non-sufferers: CFS – or ME, as it’s more commonly known in the UK – can sometimes kill). And her poem, ‘Sunshine made from rain’, has felt even more touching since she passed away; it expresses deep sadness and joy in almost equal measure. To experience the world around her so fully, even through pain and illness – and then, quite suddenly it seemed to her friends, to leave the world entirely… At the time I had no idea she was so ill, or that CFS could take away a life, just like that.

What came across most, however, from Amberlin’s life, her writing and her personality, was that she truly loved life, and that she was determined to live it as much as she possibly could – and to help others live it too. Her Facebook page is still online, kept going by her mother Ann, and messages to Amberlin are still posted by her friends, saying how much they love her, miss her, and value the friendship she gave them. She was an incredibly loved woman – that much is so clear. With respect to her cluck-clucking chickens, it was Amberlin who made sunshine out of rain.

Although I’m not nearly as devastatingly ill as Amberlin was, my own chronic pain and anxiety have affected my life in some similar ways. And having been through periods where I was tormented and couldn’t see a way out of the hole, I’ve re-assessed aspects of my life since and am trying now to create something positive out of the pain I’ve been through – both for myself and for others. Because of this, the title and content of Amberlin’s beautiful poem resonate with me all the more. So the poem has given me my own title for this blog. Warm thanks to Ann Wu for kindly giving her consent for me to use and quote from it, and to Amberlin for writing it. And of course, for living her life and being the warm and giving friend she so clearly was to others.

You can visit Amberlin’s blog at Meanwhile, here is her poem.

Sunshine made from rain

Today, I’ve been teetering along tears

I don’t know what or why

To stay in bed

Or get into a car and go

Go somewhere that might take me away.

There’s a grief inside me

Though I don’t know its name

It reaches up into my throat

With its clenched fist

Making it difficult to swallow.

The cluck cluck of chickens

Comes through the open window

Floating in from the farm

It’s magic born from sadness and suffering

It’s sunshine made from rain.