Tuesday, October 4, 2016

To Daphne Bramham: Sex Workers Deserve Better Journalism

Guest Post by Jason Congdon

In a pair of recent Vancouver Sun articles, columnist Daphne Bramham misrepresents both the legal context in which sex work occurs and the arguments for decriminalization made by sex workers and their advocates.

Misrepresentations like these threaten to distort and derail a much-needed reconsideration of sex work policy in Canada.

False claims about Swedish sex work law

Bramham’s September 21 column, “Outlawing the purchase of sex has been key to Sweden's success in reducing prostitution” makes at least three clearly false claims.

First, Bramham claims that in 1999, Sweden "became the first country in the world to prohibit the purchase of sexual services." This is clearly untrue—one need only look to the United States, where paying for sex has been illegal since most states passed such laws in the decade following the 1910 Mann Act.

Second, Bramham asserts that "No prostitutes were murdered in Sweden last year; in Germany, where prostitution is legal, 70 were killed by pimps or buyers." She may be correct about Sweden, but the notion that 70 sex workers were murdered in Germany in 2015 is preposterous. 

For example, whereas a total of 296 homicides occurred in Germany in 2015, anti-prostitution advocate Melissa Farley documents just one attempted murder and one suspicious death among sex workers in 2015. 

Bramham offers no evidence for her claim, and her sentence implies that legalization leads to murder. If this were in fact the case, she wouldn't need to misrepresent these statistics.

Finally, Bramham suggests that "rape and domestic violence have not increased in Sweden.

In fact, according to The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, sexual offences in general, as well as rape in particular, have increased nearly every year since 1999. Rape and aggravated rape more than doubled from 2,104 instances in 1999 to 5,918 in 2015. 

Sexual offences in general rose from 9,081 to 18,057 during the same period. While I don't think this necessarily reflects upon Sweden's Kvinnofrid law, Bramham’s claim misrepresents the statistics reported by Sweden's government.

Bramham makes other misleading claims, such as insinuating that changes in men's self-reporting indicate changes in actual practice, when this may simply indicate the effect of criminalization on men's willingness to admit they buy sex. 

She also overlooks the racist and nationalist overtones of Sweden's policies, which are reflected in the policing of immigrant women who comprise a large percentage of those who sell sex on the street in Sweden. 

Whereas she says "foreigners are referred for help to non-governmental agencies;" according to the Swedish Institute, they are usually deported—most likely to the unfortunate circumstances they fled before arriving in Sweden.

I wrote to Bramham and her editors on September 28, asking for these mistaken claims to be corrected; neither Bramham nor her editors have responded and the article remains uncorrected. 

Meanwhile, the comments originally posted by sex workers and their advocates in response to the column appear to have been deleted.

Misrepresenting sex workers and sex work advocacy

Bramham’s follow-up column, “As Vancouver fails to enforce prostitution laws, Trudeau government needs to declare its stance on legalizing sex work,” continues this pattern of distortion, this time focusing on the ongoing battle over sex work policy in Canada.

The column features several ideologically manipulative claims. 

First, Bramham says that Vancouver fails to enforce Canada’s criminal code, neglecting to indicate that the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department are consciously choosing to implement a discretionary policy crafted in consultation with a variety of local sex work advocacy organizations who work for the health and safety of sex workers, including WISH, PIVOT, BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, PEERS and PACE. 

Second, Bramham refers to sex work exclusively as prostitution, “work that’s inherently harmful,” thus conflating consensual and non-violent transactional sex with that which is exploitative and dangerous. 

Third, she caricatures sex workers and their advocates as claiming that “prostitution is a job like any other,” ignoring scores of depictions of sex work as positively unique. 

Sex workers may desire the rights and protections afforded to other workers, but they do not depict their work as Bramham does, who fails to represent the nuances or the variety of paid sexual labour.

Perhaps the most glaring misrepresentation in Bramham’s column, however, is the idea that sex workers and their advocates claim that their profession “ought to be legalized”. 

In fact, legalization is explicitly not the goal of the individuals and organizations advocating for sex workers’ rights; rather, they argue first and foremost for decriminalization of sex work. 

Decriminalization is about eliminating harmful laws that make sex work more dangerous; that’s what the Bedford case was all about. 

In contrast, legalization entails making laws to discipline, govern, penalize, regulate, and/or tax sex work. 

The organizations listed above, with whom the Vancouver Police consulted in creating their “Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines,” all advocate for decriminalization.

Better conversations about sex work require better journalism

My purpose in highlighting the mistakes and manipulations in Bramham’s articles is not so much to litanize her errors or to show that she is wrong; her mistakes should be corrected, but she and sex work abolitionists in general are entitled to their opinions. 

However, arguments for and against sex workers’ rights are only as strong as the evidence and reasoning that supports them, and misrepresentations of facts and manipulative arguments, like those outlined here, undermine the public conversation about sex work policy in Canada. 

Journalists in particular, whether reporters or columnists, have a duty to represent their subject matter in an accurate, fair, and balanced manner. 

Failing to do so reflects poorly on journalistic media while confusing the public and muddying the debate. Moreover, it disserves and disrespects the people and practices being depicted. Sex workers deserve better.

According to sex workers, laws and policies that criminalize sex work cause suffering and contribute to shame, stigma, and even violence. 

It is the prerogative of those who disagree to make their case, but it is the responsibility of journalists and advocates who wish to “end demand” for sex work or to “abolish prostitution” to represent sex work and sex workers reasonably and responsibly.

About the Author

Jason Congdon tweets on sex work and sex workers' rights: @elfeministo.

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