Run entirely by unpaid volunteers, FiLiA is a national feminist conference that takes place annually in the UK. This year it was in Bradford on the weekend of 19 and 20 October. In this article we provide a very brief summary of some of the highlights of the weekend for us – focusing on critique of the sex trade. However, the conference covered many other feminist issues, which we don’t have room to cover here.
Survivor-led march against the sex trade
On the Saturday evening there was a survivor-led march in memory of all the women and girls who have be murdered in prostitution. As the FiLiA website explains, their deaths often go unreported and when they are reported, the victims are usually blamed, the murder is seen as almost inevitable, the murderer invisible.
We gathered outside the conference venue and walked to Centenary Square, where women read out the names of the nearly 200 women who are known to have been murdered in the sex trade in the UK since 1990. This was followed by a minute’s silence. Then we raised white roses and cards with the names of the murdered women.
After that, a pot representing the ‘invisible man’ was deliberately smashed. Made by artist Claudia Claire, the outside of the pot had images of punters and pimps and the havoc and violence they wreak, with bright images of women on the inside. She collected the smashed shards to take back to her studio where she plans to use the bigger pieces to rebuild the pot, with the gaps where pieces are still missing providing windows onto the women’s lives represented inside.
During the ceremony some of us talked to members of the public who were curious to know what was going on. Some were clearly moved and thanked us. Others repeated the tired trope that it was a woman’s ‘right to choose’ to be a ‘sex worker’ and asked who were we to say she couldn’t? This is such an easy soundbite that has little bearing on the reality of women’s and girls’ lives. But it was hard explaining it was the men’s choices we were criticising not hers in that wind-swept Yorkshire square with people dressed for a night out on the town.
One man told me that his mother was a ‘sex worker’ and she had done it out of ‘choice’ to supplement her income. I felt her courage at making such a sacrifice in the hope her children would not grow up in poverty, that they could have a better life. I felt her courage at not letting her son see the toll, the price, it had had on her life. I felt his need to never acknowledge the reality of what it cost her. To see his mother’s love for him.
But I was unable to help him see that women should not need to make that sacrifice when men have money spare to buy sexual access to women who just want to keep their kids off the socioeconomic floor; that this is a systemic, structural issue.
And I was grateful to Fiona Broadfoot, heroic Bradford sex trade survivor, who organised the march, who understands the urgent necessity of telling the world the truth about prostitution, and the violence inherent to it, and all the intersecting layers of brutal inequality on which it is based.
Feminist perspectives on the sex trade
On both days of the conference there was a morning session on ‘Feminist perspectives on the sex trade,’ during which we heard powerful speeches from sex trade survivors and abolitionists from several countries.
On the Sunday morning, Manuela Schon, a feminist activist from Germany spoke about how the German legalised prostitution system exposes the myth that legalisation makes prostitution safe, and her work in documenting the women murdered in prostitution through the Sex Industry Kills project.
She had been on the march the previous evening and started her speech by saying:
“After our minute of silence a man came up to me and Inge, who is another activist from Germany, and asked her, who had been reading out the name of Rebecca Hall, if she knew Rebecca. She said no and he replied that he did. He had been at the Vigil by coincidence, walking by and being interested in what was going on, when he heard Inge say her name. Rebecca was one of ten Bradford women whose names we read out yesterday.
He told us he and Rebecca went to school together twenty years ago and he still thinks of her. He told us she was a very lovable person. You can hear my voice shaking, because this was such a beautiful moment. This is exactly why we are running the Sex Industry Kills project. The women we lost in the sex trade were loved by family and friends, who miss them deeply. They should never be forgotten!”
She went on to tell us many shocking facts about the legalised sex trade in Germany.
How about a million men buy women in prostitution every single day in Germany.
How the German authorities stopped collecting data on violence against women in the sex trade after the passing of the 2002 law (which liberalised the already legal system of prostitution) on the basis that it would be ‘stigmatising,’ even though they continue to collect such data on taxi drivers.
How by framing prostitution as work, the violence deliberately inflicted on the women by pimps and punters is seen as inevitable, as ‘accidents at work.’
How the 2002 law redefined pimping to mean only people who control another person’s prostitution and take more than 50% of her earnings.
How she is convinced that the effects of all of this pandering to men’s sense of entitlement has had a terrible impact on the general relationship between the sexes.
How people who say that legal prostitution is safe are either liars or they have no knowledge of the reality. There are no indicators of any measurable beneficial impact of the 2002 law.
If we want to stop the harms of prostitution, she said, we must stop prostitution altogether. And she finished by promising “We will bring the Nordic Model to Germany.”
Hushke Mau, a survivor of prostitution in Germany, talked about how the legalised system does not decriminalise the women in practice because there are so many rules, it’s impossible to keep them all.
Fanni Des, a Hungarian researcher, told us about volunteering with women involved in prostitution in Amsterdam when she was an Erasmus student there and how that was when she first realised that vanishingly few women in prostitution are there by conscious choice.
The organisation she volunteered with hired her because she speaks Hungarian and many of the women in the sex trade in the Netherlands are Hungarian (also Romanian and Bulgarian). The extreme poverty in Hungary (and Romania and Bulgaria) and the lack of a social welfare system disproportionately impacts women, making them easy to manipulate. Unable to provide for their families, many leave their children with their husbands – who usually displace the childcare onto the grandmothers – and take up opportunities ostensibly to work as domestic and childcare workers in Western Europe. But in reality many end up in the brothels – but are unable to acknowledge this to their families back home.
These women fear every client but can’t turn to the police because they are in breach of one or other of the innumerable rules or immigration law. So they have no recourse other than mutual self-help strategies. The authorities know it’s a racket but the vast profits and taxes blind them and no one does anything to bring about change.
She emphasised the huge responsibility western countries have to women from poorer countries and how we must resist the way both individual men and the collective sex industry have impunity to use and abuse poor women.
Raquel Rosario Sánchez talked about her research into punter forums where men review the women they buy in prostitution. Their words blow wide holes in the myth that prostitution is a consensual arrangement between equals – a myth beloved by Amnesty International and all those who campaign for full decriminalisation of the sex trade.
Punter reviews make it crystal clear that in practice during the prostitution encounter he owns the woman and seldom questions his ‘consumer rights.’ As we have written elsewhere, this is the relationship of slavery. It is a human rights abuse.
Meeting friends, old and new
We had a stall and it was wonderful meeting friends, old and new, from the UK and all over the world, and to tell them about our campaign.
In the photo on the left is Luba Fein, an abolitionist activist from Israel, standing by our stall. She spoke on the Saturday ‘Feminist perspectives on the sex trade’ panel.
This is how she summarised her talk:
“The sex trade seems impossible to beat. They have billions of dollars, while we only have our truth. They tell men that exploiting vulnerable women is normal and acceptable, while we expect them to change. They promise lawmakers legendary profits that will flow to the economy and state coffers if the sex trade is decriminalized. We require investment in law enforcement and rehabilitation of victims.
Seemingly, this war has already been lost. But against all odds, in just 10 years, 7 countries have adopted the Swedish model of banning the purchase of prostitution, while not a single country has decriminalized the sex trade.
Behind each of the seven victories is a story. A story of uncompromising struggle, strenuous work and unmatched female solidarity. I am here to tell you our story – a story of Israeli abolitionism.”
Call to sign the petition against the Leeds Managed Prostitution Zone
Fiona Broadfoot asked everyone to sign a petition against the so-called ‘managed prostitution zone’ in Holbeck, Leeds. This is supposed to decriminalise the women involved in street prostitution, but like in Germany and the Netherlands, in practice it decriminalises the pimps and the punters but not the women, as we found when we went there earlier this year.
Join us at FiLiA in 2020
Next year the conference is on 17-18 October in Portsmouth. Do join us there.