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Sex and science stuff 23/11/09

November 23rd, 2009

Dr Petra

On 12 November 2009 the Policing and Crime (P&C) Bill went through Parliament. The hotly contested and controversial Clause 14 – originally proposed to prosecute anyone having sex with a prostitute who was ‘controlled for gain’ (a vague and unworkable term) – was changed so people will now only be prosecuted for paying “for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force”. This will now become law.

New legal changes will also be coming into effect soon. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes these include “a new definition of
“persistence” for loitering and soliciting which makes street workers more vulnerable to arrest; removing “persistence” from the kerb-crawling law so that guilt can be proved on the first offence; compulsory ‘rehabilitation’ orders, though the government has had to limit to 72 hours the time street workers can be detained before they are brought to court for breaching the order; more powers to close premises where they suspect that certain prostitution offences are being committed, including someone being ‘controlled for gain’; more powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize people’s assets and property and profit from them”.

These proposed legal changes have been subject to political debate for many years now, and the P&C Bill was noteworthy for the deliberate disregard by many politicians for independent evidence on prostitution. Many academics, sex workers and those campaigning for better health and social support for anyone involved in prostitution see the proposed changes as continuing to put prostitutes at risk, and will continue to challenge the current trend of policy making based on opinion rather than evidence.

Still on the topic of prostitution the unmasking of popular blogger Belle de Jour has been a media favourite over the past couple of weeks. In case you don’t know the history Belle de Jour is a blog about a high class call girl that proved so successful it led to a book deal and spin off TV series. It also led to some frankly astonishingly bad sex features in women’s magazines (where high class prostitution was mixed in with aspirational and commercial sex messages). And complaints from some quarters that the TV series in particular was glamourising prositution. All the while debates in mainstream media raged about whether Belle really was a prostitute, or whether she was a male journalist making up stories.

It turns out Belle is a scientist, Dr Brooke Magnanti. She was a sex worker for several months after submitting her PhD thesis (a time well known for being strapped for cash and in-between jobs). Having already been a science blogger, she then blogged about her sex work experiences. This would have remained secret but an ex boyfriend threatened to out Dr Magnanti who decided it was safer to tell her own story to the media.

This has led to a really odd mix of media coverage with journalists expressing surprise that a smart woman was also a prostitute, rehearsing sad stereotypes about prostitution, and in the name of ‘balance’ contrasting Belle as the happy hooker with dismal stories of drugs and disease. It’s been open season to revive the ‘glamourising prostitution’ argument – although now with added bite as critics have a named person to go after, rather than an anonymous blogger.

Channel 4 news did host an interesting discussion on the topic (albeit with the standard hat tip to high class prostitution vs. murdered prostitutes – an unhelpful comparison which does nothing to respect the memories of those prostitutes who have been killed or injured).

This whole case raises a number of issues for academics and universities. We know from bitter experience that academics involved in prostitution (or who support sex workers) have faced discrimination at work. I’ve written a short piece for the Times Higher on this topic, feel free to join in the conversation about this issue that’s running below this piece.

Many of those involved in the debates and campaigns around supporting sex workers identify as feminist. It was unfortunate, then, that a key component of Saturday’s Reclaim the Night march focused on celebrating Clause 14 (see above). Given the fact that many sex workers had felt excluded by radical feminism in this debate – and many academics also felt the agendas and so-called ‘research’ of such groups was given greater weight by the government – it’s a shame the divide was further emphasised on an event that should bring women together. Not least sex workers who are more likely to be at risk from sexual violence. Penny Red has a candid take on this story, while Sarah the bringer of tea explains why Trans women are also excluded by some feminists involved with Reclaim the Night. Distressingly it seems that a woman was attacked while on the demonstration (which is both ironic and depressing).

I’ve no quibble with the right to protest against sexual violence or for women’s safety. My concern, however, with events like this is they don’t present a safe space for all women and often have the effect of alienating the very women those organising such activities are claiming to protect.

The National Chlamydia Screening Programme has been reviewed by Dr Ruth Hussey for the Department of Health. You can read the five page summary here. This indicates there are concerns over whether the programme will be continued, too many (and as a consequence confusing) sexual health branding messages (via websites etc). The report also reveals problems with funding, agreement on which services are responsible for delivering testing, and PCTs that are not aware of/up to speed on evidence and so are promoting ‘good ideas’ rather than evaluated best practice. Well worth a read if you’re a healthcare practitioner, health commissioner or anyone working in sex education.

Spot what’s unethical about this research. A Leeds University professor asks four of their female students to hang out in nightclubs and observe whether women pull more men if they’re wearing more revealing clothing.

Following on from recent research about the lack of evidence underpinning cosmetic genital surgery The Guardian has an interesting feature exploring issues about vulval ‘enhancement’. While Vagina Dentata takes a more sex positive view with some handy hints for some vulva-related gifts. Just in time for your Christmas list.

Cory Silverberg has details of what promises to be a fantastic online course about Disability, Sexuality and Rights which could be very useful to those of you working in healthcare, education or social care.

If you’re around tomorrow evening you may want to pop along to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub where a number of science bloggers will be debating What next for science activism in the new media?. Here’s a summary of what will be discussed:

The rise of science blogging and the effective exploitation by activists, scientists, and science writers, of online communication has been a significant but fairly recent phenomenon. This meeting, which is an unofficial sequel to the Science OnLine conference in London earlier this year, will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of this phenomenon, both now and in the future. A stellar panel of Martin Robbins, Petra Boynton, and Hauke Riesch, as well as the writer of Gimpyblog and a writer from Evidence Matters, will set out their views on the current problems and challenges facing science bloggers, activists, and online communicators. They will reflect on what has so far been achieved and also offer thoughts and insights on what can – and cannot – be achieved next. This will then lead into a general discussion and Q&A session.

Hope to see you there!

Finally, you may have noticed I’ve organised the links on the blogroll over to your right. I’ve had a number of emails from people asking me to link to their blogs. Please do feel free to let me know of any blogs on sex education, activism or science/psychology/journalism you think I’d be interested in. I won’t endorse blogs that are judgemental, sex negative, promote commercial or aspirational views of sex that are unrealistic, or endorse outdated or unhelpful ideas. But I am happy to link to blogs that are evidence based, represent critical thinking, and are accessible.

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