Feminism in London – 2009

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On Sunday, I attended the Feminism in London 2009 conference.

This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

This Is What A Feminist Looks Like (AKA spot the odd one out)

The conference was inspiring, depressing, uplifting and infuriating in equal measures. That’s probably a good thing.
I’ll briefly discuss some of the sessions I attended and also what I think the organisers could do better next year.

The Conference

Kate Smurthwaite expertly chaired proceedings and kept the event running to time.  Not an easy task with several hundred people to shepherd.  I found the talks by Beatrix Campbell and Susie Orbach very inspiring but was very conscious of the fact that many of the aspects of feminism they addressed did not directly affect me. There was no doubting the passion and ire that the speakers felt and they held the audience spell-bound.
A few interesting titbits I picked up…

  • Labiaplasty is being “aggressively” marketed to young women.  That’s the surgical mutilation of the sex organs for cosmetic reasons.
  • Plastic surgery in general is specifically targeting young women and girls.
  • The rise of photoshopping models is creating a idealised body image which is literally impossible.
  • In 2006 the US spent $56 billion on education – it spent $100 billion on diet industry.
  • If dieting worked – you’d only have to do it once and the industry would go bankrupt.
  • For more discussion on body-image issues – visit AnyBody.

At the back of the hall were a pictures of amusing subvertising – that is sexist adverts which had been defaced.

Somewhat Strident has a set of stickers that you can use to “accessorise” any sexist material you find.  Zazzle sell a “This is offensive to women” sticker which can be stuck on to any poster you find offensive.

“It’s easy out here for a pimp” anti-porn slideshow

This was simple a slide show with a commentary – no time for Q&A.  It was also quite US focused.  The material was from Stop Porn Culture.

The first half was about the pornification of society – especially that targeted at children.  There were audible gasps of horror at the “Hooters Girl (In Training)” t-shirt.

Is this suitable for kids?

Is this suitable for kids?

Then there was the superb juxtaposition of these album covers.  One from Tiffany the other from Shakira.  Both aiming at similar demographics but separated by 20 years.

iffany Album from 1987

Tiffany Album from 1987

Shakira Album Cover

Shakira Album Cover

The essential point was that children are being groomed to believe that they are merely sexual objects.  That the only way to happiness is hyper-masculinity – guns, girls, bling – for boys, or hyper femininity – guys, stripping, submissiveness – for girls.

The porn aspect – as in the deliberate watching of sex acts – only covered a small portion of the talk.  It covered contemporary attitudes to pornography among young people, such as

“From what you’ve said, it sounds like your relationship is fulfilling otherwise, so it might be best to keep his porn-watching in perspective and to try deal with the feelings that come up as a result of your recent discovery.” Gurl.com  answer to “My Boyfriend’s Into Porn

And the way that pornography producers don’t just try to feature younger and younger models – they also seek to attract a younger audience.

Marge Simpson, a cartoon character, on the front cover of Playboy magazine.

“[Playboy] knew that this would really appeal to the 20-something crowd,” said Playboy spokeswoman Theresa Hennessey.

Given my former involvement with the porn industry, you will be unsurprised that I didn’t agree with all the sentiments presented.  However, it’s very clear from watching modern music videos that women are usually presented as little more than sex-objects and men as all-powerful beings who can control women.

It may even be said that groups like the Pussycat Dolls are little more that strippers marketed at children.

I don’t think that we need to protect children from their own sexuality – nor should we seek to regulate consenting adults’ sexual urges.  But I do find it very worrying how highly sexualised images are being used in the most mundane and inappropriate places.

What’s Wrong With Prostitution?

I’ve never visited a prostitute.  I’ve never known anyone who has gone – or admitted going – to a prostitute.  My knowledge is, essentially, from Belle de Jour and Band of Gold.  Presented by Rebecca Mott, Anna Travers and Denise Marshall of the Poppy Project.  What I heard was distressing, uncomfortable and yet, somehow, filled with hope and optimism.

I’ve linked to their sites so you can read their words rather than my interpretation of them – but I’ll summarise some of the points which came out of the Q&A.

  • “Prostitution isn’t the oldest profession – agriculture is.”  Prostitution hasn’t been going on for ever – it is not inevitable.
  • “Do a privileged minority of women prostitute oppress the vast majority who don’t want to be involved?”  There are a few, well educated women for whom prostitution is a choice.  But their voices tend to drown out the vast minority for whom it is abuse.  The case for prostitution is often skewed towards the minority at the incalculable expense of the majority.
  • Prostitution is rape. It is rape on an industrial scale. Too many left leaning / liberal groups ignore the mental, physical & sexual abuse of prostitutes.  Instead they concentrate on the “liberty” to sell oneself.
  • The GMB have a union section specifically for sex workers.  However, they allow pimps, brothel-keepers and other “abusers” to be member.
  • “Prostitutes don’t need a union because prostitution isn’t a job – it’s abuse”
  • Prostitutes shouldn’t be criminalised – paying for sex workers should be.
  • When Sweden criminalised paying for sex, their was a massive drop off in prostitute numbers.
  • New Zealand’s legalised brothels have lead to a massive increase in trafficked women.

It’s fair to say that this session did change my opinion.  I’d previously been fairly blasé about sex workers.  I’d assumed that it was a person’s right to sell their body if they wished.  But the reality of the massive scale of abuse has lifted the scales from my eyes somewhat.

As Rebecca Mott said (and I paraphrase) “You can’t say that women choose prostitution. If you’d asked me, I would have told you I entered prostitution as a free choice and that I really enjoyed it. It was only after I was free that I realised what terrible abuse I had been through.”

Poverty and motherhood: How society undervalues women’s work

I’m not a mother and I have no intention of being one.  That didn’t stop the final two sessions of the day being inspiring.

  • Abi Moore from Pink Stinks was hugely entertaining and moving on the needs to prevent “pinkification” of women’s culture.  You can hear her on Woman’s Hour.
  • Early Learning Centre – teaching girls their place since 1974.”  Specifically in relation to their stifling lack of choice in girls’ fancy dress.
  • The average age of a single mother giving birth is 31. Not, as the tabloids would have you believe, 14.
  • Less than 2% of new single mothers are teenagers.
  • “Women’s rights do not come cheap – neither do women”
  • “Liberation does not look like Gok Wan!”

A full list of all speeches is available.  The event was also videoed and, I hope, will be available later.

So, on to the inevitable critique of the day…


This was one of the most well organised conferences that I’ve attended. Sessions ran to time, everyone was given a handout showing where and when each workshop would be, the PA was loud enough so everyone could hear. However, there were some traps that they – and many other organisers – fell into.


It’s the nature of events that there will be queues – but there are actions you can take to mitigate your patrons’ annoyance.

  • Tell people which queue is which.  It’s incredibly frustrating to get to the front of one queue only to be told you were in the wrong one and have to go to the back of another.
  • A simple sign or a few volunteers is enough to ensure people know where they are supposed to be.
  • Get everything done in one queue if possible.  Rather than queue for a meal ticket and then queue for lunch, consider integrating the two queues or selling tickets directly to those standing around.


There was a noticeable lack of dissenting opinion.  I’m not talking about getting Richard Littlejohn in to abuse people, but having someone from Red Thread or the English Collective of Prostitutes in the prostitution section may have been interesting.

However, it wasn’t billed as a debate – so it’s a fairly minor quibble.

Audio Visual

I’ve never been to a conference where the AV equipment has worked flawlessly.  FiL was better than most in that not too long was spent fiddling with microphones.

  • Make sure you have enough mics. If you don’t, make sure your cables are long enough to reach all participants.
  • Do a dry run so you know your slides work.
  • Don’t position anything between a projector and its screen unless you want to make shadow puppets.
Microphone Shadow

Microphone Shadow


I was surprised that this was a paid-for event.  After attending several free conferences / BarCamps, it’s temping to think that every event should be free.  Given that the hall was full to busting, it’s obvious that a sub £5 ticket isn’t a barrier for entry.

The event was sponsored by The Maypole Fund – although there was no overt sponsorship.  No schwag, banners, leaflets etc.  I wonder if getting a few more organisations to sponsor the even could have lowered the cost further or paid for lunch.

There were several stalls – such as those from The Fawcett Society and Pink Stinks – who were selling membership, books, giving out fliers.  I’m not suggesting that they should be charged for exhibiting – but I wonder if, say, a Fair Trade chocolate stall would have been able to help fund the event.


Feminism isn’t dead.  It’s not even resting.  It is a living force with thousands of millions of women and men pushing forward for equality.  We’re in a better position than we were, but are a long way from where we want to be.

This is not what a post-feminist society looks like. Not yet.

Further Reading

7 thoughts on “Feminism in London – 2009

  1. Denny says:

    You may already be aware, but the Poppy Project are not uniformly respected in feminist circles. This article has a more balanced spread of viewpoints (with Ms Bindel first, but it’s worth reading the others):

  2. Interesting to read your comments. Glad you enjoyed the conference. A few people have asked me – not that I was in charge – why the ECP or a pro-prostitution group wasn’t invited which strikes me as weird. I mean if we had a panel on child abuse I wouldn’t expect to see someone who thought it was harmless on the panel. Also of course I can’t imagine that prostitution survivors would be comfortable speaking on a panel with the ECP. I have been on panels with ECP members before (most recently for a “debate” on prostitution for CurrentTV) and I had people screaming in my face, calling me a liar, and then following me to the toilets trying to intimidate me. I was terrified, I can’t stomach how I would feel about watching a prostitution survivor being put through that.

    I agree with you about queues, definitely could use some signs – I don’t think anyone was expecting quite that great a turn out. Not sure where exactly the chocolate stall would have been (there was hardly room for all the stallls they had( but I’m not sure how much it would help. The cabaret show raised over £600 so money is coming in. Also I believe the lunch was donated so money spent on lunch was also effectively funds raised. If you know someone who would like to promote something at next year’s conference I’m sure the team would like to know but I also think it would be a shame to take space away from the many good causes there to focus on selling stuff.

    Well hope to see you and some of the many amazing events that the stall-holders and speakers were promoting on the day.

    1. Hi Kate,

      I take you point. I was expecting a debate on prostitution – however, in the context of the actual event it made total sense not to include anyone from the “other side”.

      Hopefully next year’s event will be in a suitably large venue to hold even more campaigning stalls as well as one or two selling ice-creams. I’ll see if I can dig up anyone who might be able to sponsor next year.

      Gutted I missed the cabaret – actually more gutted I didn’t win the holiday in France 🙂

      Thanks for commenting – and for compèring.


  3. Catherine Stephens says:

    “Do a privileged minority of women prostitute oppress the vast majority who don’t want to be involved?” There are a few, well educated women for whom prostitution is a choice. But their voices tend to drown out the vast minority for whom it is abuse. The case for prostitution is often skewed towards the minority at the incalculable expense of the majority.”

    There is no evidence that the majority of sex workers are unwilling. Research finds a range of reasons people enter and remain in sex work.

    80,000 people are estimated to work in the sex industry – mostly women, but also men and transgender people. Estimates for street sex work range from as low as 3,000 to as high as 22,000. The Home Office estimates 4,000 women (5% of the total) are trafficked. Between 73,000 to 54,000 (91.25-67.5%), by far the majority, are non-trafficked indoor sex workers.

    Speaking personally, as a result of my activism for sex workers’ rights, this writer has been frequently abused by women who call themselves “feminists”. Several times those who campaign against sex workers’ rights to self-determination have attempted to undermine what I say – not by offering contradictory evidence, but by targeting me as an individual as someone who is “privileged”. For example, “Educated and eloquent, [Catherine Stephens] cannot justifiably advocate on behalf of women who have been pushed into prostitution by perpetrators, poverty and marginalisation.”

    Justifiably or not, I advocate full human, civil and labour rights for everyone who works in the sex industry. I advocate freedom to choose, respect for those choices, and an absolute right to say no. I advocate fair and safe workplaces, whether run by independent sex workers, groups of us together, or third parties who facilitate our work. I advocate that people who work in the sex industry should have the full protection of the law, just like the author of this blog, and your non- sex worker readers.

    The organisation I work with, the International Union of Sex Workers, is almost unique in this country in that we’re an organisation of people currently working in the sex industry, with experience of the industry’s day to day reality. It’s open to everyone who works in the sex industry and adult entertainment – a really diverse group, with many differences between us. However, there are some things we all share.

    Sex workers share stigma. We share social exclusion. We share vulnerability. Many of us share criminalisation. So the IUSW resists attempts to divide sex workers, to impose upon us a hierarchy of class, of culture, of gender, of national origin. We campaign for everyone in the sex industry to have the same human, civil and labour rights as other citizens, the same protection of the law as other citizens and for our inclusion in decisions which will affect our rights and safety.

    “Prostitution is rape. It is rape on an industrial scale. Too many left leaning / liberal groups ignore the mental, physical & sexual abuse of prostitutes. Instead they concentrate on the “liberty” to sell oneself.”

    Most people who exchange sexual services for money can tell the difference between those who pay us for sexual services clearly negotiated and those who take advantage of our criminalisation and social exclusion to rape, rob or assault us. If someone is unable to distinguish between consensual sex and rape, they are unsuited to selling sexual services.

    Sex workers provide sexual services for money – crude and simplistic language such as “women sell themselves” implies that for a woman to exchange sexual contact for financial return constitutes an irreversible surrendering of self. This is not the case – women are people, not vaginas. Clients do not “buy” women: to buy something means that it is yours in perpetuity, to use in any way you wish and these are not the terms on which anyone offers the sale of their services. Clients receive specific experiences for a specific fee: if they deviate from these agreements, they are not clients, but perpetrators of assault. If someone is not free to negotiate for themselves the services they offer and the fees they accept, this is not prostitution, but slavery.

    “The GMB have a union section specifically for sex workers. However, they allow pimps, brothel-keepers and other “abusers” to be member.”
    “Prostitutes don’t need a union because prostitution isn’t a job – it’s abuse”

    The IUSW campaigns for human, civil and labour rights, and the full protection of the law for everyone in the sex industry, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion, and for the inclusion of sex workers in decisions which will affect our rights and safety.

    No British legislation on the sex industry actually refers to coercion, violence, abuse or exploitation; nor does our definition of trafficking. Laws that do not refer to abuse are useless in targeting abuse.

    The only way to work free of the risk of prosecution is to work for yourself in complete isolation.

    If two people work from the same building, the owner or tenant is criminalised as a “brothel keeper” – sex workers do not have the right of free association, considered a basic right in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

    “Controlling for gain” – legislation on “pimping” – explicitly includes people who are working of their own free will.

    Our legal definition of trafficking is so broad that anyone knowingly giving a sex worker a lift to work, even if they are not being paid to do so, is potentially at risk of prosecution.

    The law not only builds in isolation, it builds in vulnerability. A substantial proportion of violence experienced by indoor sex workers is through robbery. Gangs make a rational choice, in the expectation of a small number of people on the premises, cash available and reluctance to report. This reluctance to report is due to mistrust of the police response, and realistic anxiety of arrest if the premises can be considered a brothel or the site of controlling for gain.

    Despite this, there have been cases where brothel owners have alerted police to suspicions of trafficking. Regrettably, there have been cases where those suspicions have been proven correct, where victims have been rescued, traffickers arrested – and the police have then returned to the source of their information, to arrest, prosecute, imprison and confiscate their assets. This acts as a considerable disincentive to report.

    One of the cases the IUSW is currently supporting is that of a brothel which reported a violent attack to the police, and are now being prosecuted. There have been many prosecutions for brothel keeping in which no evidence of coercion or exploitation has been given – just people working together.

    “Prostitutes shouldn’t be criminalised – paying for sex workers should be.”
    “When Sweden criminalised paying for sex, their was a massive drop off in prostitute numbers.”

    There has been no quantitative evaluation or baseline statistics by which to judge the effect of the Swedish legislation. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has carried out surveys since the criminalisation of clients and in 2007 reported “This is the third time we have done such a survey … once again … it is difficult to get a clear cut picture on the extent of prostitution.”

    Academics and sex workers say that it is harder to assess clients as they’re more nervous and negotiations rushed.

    The Swedish Ministry of Justice reports that sex workers contest the police assertion that trafficking has diminished, and report an increased presence of organised crime syndicates and youth involved in sex work .

    On street in particular, women face lower prices, longer hours, unsafe sex, and more aggressive competition between women and for clients. All these have impacts on both sex workers and the communities of which they are part.

    Both indoor and outdoor sex workers say they’re more apprehensive about seeking help from the police.

    Don Kulick in “Four hundred thousand Swedish perverts” (Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 2005) comments “The truly surprising thing is not that the law impacts extremely negatively … The truly surprising thing is that politicians and feminist groups … resolutely ignore these negative consequences in their continual insistence that the law is good. … the law may indeed feel good for those who are only interested in … ‘sending a message’ they don’t like prostitution. But for those involved in sex work, the law … is a disastrous throwback to an era of violence, exploitation, persecution and police harassment that many of us thought could never be possible in a country that is supposedly so enlightened and progressive as Sweden.”

    Julia O’Connell Davidson, one of the few academics to explicitly analyse the role of “demand” in the market for sexual services concludes: “…we could almost say that supply generates demand rather than the other way about… attempts to suppress the prostitution market, whether focused on sex workers or their clients, necessarily implies subjecting those who sell sex to what Radin describes as “the degradation and danger of the black market … it is … hard to see why anyone genuinely concerned with protecting and promoting human rights would place measures to tackle consumer demand for commercial sex at the top of their policy agenda” (italics mine)

    The General Secretary of UNAIDS calls for countries to repeal punitive laws against sex workers and our clients on the grounds that these laws breach article 21 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country).

    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said ”In countries without laws to protect sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men, only a fraction of the population has access to prevention [of HIV]. Conversely, in countries with legal protection and the protection of human rights …, many more have access to services. As a result, there are fewer infections… and fewer deaths. Not only is it unethical not to protect these groups; it makes no sense from a health perspective. It hurts all of us”.

    “New Zealand’s legalised brothels have lead to a massive increase in trafficked women.”
    New Zealand has decriminalised, not legalized sex work, so sex workers now have the protection of the law, to the extent that at least one client has been prosecuted for removing a condom during sex.

    The New Zealand “Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003” published in May 2008 says that “information received from Immigration Service NZ indicates that no situations involving trafficking in the sex industry have been identified (Department of Labour, 2007). In addition, there have been no prosecutions for trafficking under section 98D of the Crimes Act 1961…The Committee is satisfied, on the basis of information received from NZPC and other NGOs involved with street-based sex workers, that during its period of investigation, there were no internationally trafficked women working as street-based sex workers in New Zealand.
    The Committee is aware that some people working in the sex industry are doing so in breach of their immigration status. The Committee does not endorse this illegal activity. However, it is also concerned that these sex workers are not protected under the PRA and may be vulnerable to exploitation. The Committee considers the prohibition on nonresidents working in the sex industry, coupled with New Zealand’s geographical isolation and robust legal system, provides a protection against New Zealand being targeted as a destination for human traffickers.”

    “Feminism in London” is organized by “the London Feminist Network”, an organization which considers all prostitution to be violence against women. This ideological position, their entirely subjective opinion, necessarily affects their estimation of abuses in the sex industry as they consider everyone who offers us a place in which to work to promote violence against us and every client a rapist.

    As a result of this ideological slant, a wide range of evidence is ignored – for example, there is no evidence that the majority of sex workers are unwilling. Where sex workers have the protection of the law, studies have shown equivalent job satisfaction to other women.

    For example, the fact that there is no evidence that most purchasers of sexual services wish to buy services from the unwilling. In fact, clients can be part of the process of identifying trafficking. In Turkey the government set up a well-publicised hotline for reporting trafficking, across all industries. In the six months to January 2006, three quarters of the tip offs came from sex workers’ clients. Those calls resulted in the destruction of ten trafficking networks and freedom of 100 women. Here, cases have come to court after clients paid tens of thousands of pounds to free women from slavery.

    For example, the ESRC funded study Migrants in the UK Sex Industry. This is the largest qualitative study ever of migrants in the sex industry; there have been no quantitative studies.

    For example, Pentameter 1 and 2 – nationwide, intelligence-lead police operations – raided 1,337 premises (estimated as more than 10% of the total) over two years, and found 255 people who were considered to be possible victims of trafficking (by contrast, a single raid on a farm in November 2008 rescued 60 victims of trafficking). Of those 255 people, only 37 accepted assistance from organisations like the Poppy Project, the Medaille Trust and the Salvation Army.

    For example, Suzanne Jenkins’ research, which interviewed nearly 500 sex workers (a very high number for a quantitative study) and explicitly explored sex workers’ experience of power relations between themselves and their clients. 54.5% of women said their relationships with their clients were equal, while 26.2% saw their clients as more vulnerable; 78.7% felt always or usually in control – only 0.7% saw the client as being in control; 86.5% never or rarely felt exploited by clients.

    Jenkins’ research also examined the role of stigma and shows fear of stigma blights sex workers lives. 30% of the 300 female participants reported having felt threatened, and in almost all cases, the threat was of being publicly exposed as a sex-worker. Stigmatisation and marginalization of sex workers is no more an inherent part of sex work than homophobia is an inherent part of being lesbian or gay. Stigmatisation and marginalization, like the law, facilitate violence against us.

    For example, the majority of violence against sex workers comes from those who do not pay for sex. Many assailants express hatred of sex workers and appear to feel their actions are legitimated by society’s abhorrence for commercial sex. A substantial amount of violence to street sex workers comes from members of the ‘general public’, such as gangs of youths, local residents and vigilantes. Gangs target brothels for robbery and violent crime in the expectation sex workers will not contact the police for fear of arrest. If a migrant sex worker reports a crime against them, their visa status is investigated; if in breach they will be deported, regardless of the crime they report.

    For example, in Liverpool, where violence against sex workers is treated as hate crime and a specialist worker facilitates reporting, police are achieving a 40% detection rate for rapes committed against street sex workers reported to the police; six times higher than the national average for all women. 90% of cases for violence against sex workers that went to court during 2005 to end March 2009 resulted in convictions. But this means listening to sex workers when we talk about violence, not describing everything that happens to us as assault. Particularly, it means not arresting sex workers when we contact the police to report crimes against us.

    For example, the views of the UK Network of Sex Work Project, whose 60-odd members provide frontline services to sex workers (including assistance with exiting) across the UK day to day, and take a very different ideological view from Poppy. The UKNSWP promotes the health, safety, civil and human rights of sex workers to live free from violence intimidation coercion or exploitation, to engage in the work as safely as possible and to receive high quality health and other services in conditions of trust and confidentiality without discrimination. They require member projects to recognise and respect sex workers as full human beings with the right of self-determination, “including the right to remain in sex work or leave sex work”. To give an example of the relative numbers of sex workers seen, Poppy, which “provides accommodation and support to women who have been trafficked into prostitution” reported having had 925 referrals in the five years since March 2003. In contrast, MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health, which, as can be inferred from the name, concentrates predominantly on street working women) has seen 900+ in 9 months. From this far larger and more diverse client group, it draws very different views from of sex workers and clients, and sees sex workers as people who have self-determination whose choices should be respected.

    Policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, not on ideology, assumption and stereotypes.

    1. Many thanks for giving the position of the IUSW. Sorry for my legalisation/decriminalisation confusion. It’s always interesting to hear the other side of the story. I’m sure everyone’s experience of sex work is different – so it’s very good of you to point towards what I hope are some relatively unbiased studies.

  4. Catherine Stephens says:

    A slight omission
    In contrast, MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health, which, as can be inferred from the name, concentrates predominantly on street working women) has seen 900+ WOMEN WORKING INDOORS in 9 months

  5. Catherine Stephens says:

    “… it’s very good of you to point towards what I hope are some relatively unbiased studies”

    These are academically valid studies, and work by broad based NGOs. Much research by Poppy has been condemned by academics for breaching basic ethical guidelines, incorrect data analysis and faulty methodology – one publication was so poor that 28 academics submitted a critique on these grounds. For example, it considered evidence that sex workers can make decisions for themselves as an indicator of trafficking and coercion. (The accompanying press release also compared places sex workers work to infestations of rats.)

    If you would like further factual information on this issue, and references for any of the data, just let me know.

    More sex worker voices can be read at

    Policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, not on ideology, assumption and stereotypes.

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