Sunday 24 June 2012

The Economics of Hooker Books

One of the more persistent criticisms I get these days is that by being public about my really rather normal experience of sex work, I am "silencing" people who label themselves a victims.

I'm not going to rehash the particular arguments regarding Happy Hookers vs. Abused Victims here, in part because Maggie McNeill has already done it. Suffice it to say that people who have read my writing know my experience of sex work, while useful, positive, and not abusive, was not quite the shopping-and-shoe-buying fantasy critics paint it as. But then most people who think that about me have never encountered my writing firsthand and are instead basing their impressions off a half-remembered advert featuring Billie Piper's tits. I understand. It's easy to get confused.

But it did give me a moment of pause: is my writing crowding out other voices in the market? I decided to examine this further.

Since many people purport to tell the story of sex workers for them, I excluded books that were either not written by or not straight biographies of a particular sex worker. I also excluded all that were fiction (such as my own Playing the Game) or deal with post-sex work life (such as Lily Burana's I Love a Man in Uniform).

Anyway, here are the results:

As you can see, my books are outnumbered by hooker memoirs that predate mine (Tracy Quan and Xaviera Hollander in particular). Outspoken strippers also chalk up plenty of contributions to the genre.

But outnumbering all of us by far are the 'misery memoirs' about prostitution. (Don't get angry at me for the sweeping generalisation. That is what the genre actually is called.) There are, to use the technical term, fucking shedloads of these books. You'll notice more than a few bestsellers in that stack as well. These were just the ones I could fit into the graphic; there are dozens upon dozens more. Many if not most of which were published after my books first came out.

It's probably fair to conclude that not only has my writing not stopped others from contributing their experience to the general debate on sex work, but that you're actually more likely to get noticed if you're unhappy with prostitution than generally satisfied with it.

With the swirling vortex of Kristof/trafficking/concern porn making the rounds, in fact, now might just be the right time to do it. If you were of a mind to write a book like that.

I encourage people with real firsthand views on the topic, whatever they are, to write. In fact moreso if you are not white, or not a cis woman, or not from the US or Western Europe. Women who look and sound approximately like me are already pretty well represented in the hallowed halls of sex worker lit. Let's diversify it all over the damn place until the orientalists and anti-migration-disguised-as-anti-trafficking types have to eat every last one of their words.

Just so long as we all understand that there is no such thing as one story of sex work - they are as diverse as the people in it. My story is my story. Your story is your story. None of us speak for all sex workers. And be honest. As Bob Dylan memorably put it “If you live outside the law you must be honest.” So long as we are all on the level, then getting as many true voices out there as possible is no bad thing.

Now back to the critics...

For pity's sake don't come crying to me if you're not as popular as you like. As the objective evidence shows, it categorically is not down to me whether or not people want to read your writing.

As regards writing as a career, it is dangerous to assume I or anyone else is getting "vastly rich" off of writing (as one bitter soul recently accused). Many people seem to think that writing a book, even a bestselling one, is a ticket to financial freedom and nets far beyond what even your common-or-garden escort can potentially make. I hate to break it to the dreamers, but that is not so.

If it was, do you think I'd still be writing? Hell, no. I'd be kicking back with J.K. Rowling and E.L. James in our secret volcano fortress warming my toes on a fire built by our minions entirely out of £50 notes and cackling madly. As opposed to the reality - sitting in my home office in a very average house in one of the poorest areas of the country. I'm not bankrolled by any grant-grabbing NGOs, my personal appearances usually only cover expenses, and nuisance legal threats from people with a lot of time on their hands cost more than all my living expenses combined. I've done better than most by writing and am still a long way off being a millionaire.

As it turns out, I hear the person who made that accusation supposedly comes from family money herself and spends her time as a dilettante poetess. If that's true, well, good luck with that. Whatever works amirite?

Best of luck, former fellow hos. This is not exactly the road less traveled but is no less bumpy for it.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Science. Probably a girl thing.

Like most people I saw the Science: It's a Girl Thing! teaser on Friday. My first reaction was "meh". Watch, ignore, move on.

But apparently it has ignited all sorts of controversy. Within hours my twitter feed was filling up with people - mostly not girls, not scientists, or both - who were slamming the advert for being too pink, to feminine... in short, too stereotypically girly.

Disclaimer: my science heroes as a kid were Mr Wizard, Carl Sagan, and Jack Klugman in Quincy M.E. Not overly feminine, I'll admit.

Awesome role model for chicks

While I found the original advert a bit like Cosmo on acid and really not to my taste, it's fair to say the UK media Twitterati were not its intended consumers.

I wouldn't have been impressed with the trailer even as a teenager, but then, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist and had already stopped caring what the mean girls thought. Not everyone who could be interested in science gets there by age 13.

So, about Science: It's a Girl Thing! does it hit its target, or does it fail?

What a lot of the negative comments focused on was that this was funded by the EU. For those who don't know, the EU funds a lot of projects under its Framework Programmes to not only conduct research, but also to promote science and technology in general.

A few years ago I worked on an EU project, for instance, that was interested not in research per se, but in managing a consultation about existing knowledge in the area (the contribution of particular pesticides to child neurological development). We organised conferences on these themes, and produced guidance documents for the EU on various related subjects.

Being able to present well was a vital part of the job. It wasn't the coal-face of research that most of us came from, but if you think things like that aren't important to science in general, you're much mistaken. As far as EU-funded projects go, making videos to try to get teens to think about science is absolutely within their remit.

The second thing is that the video everyone objected to was a trailer. As we all know, trailers are sometimes misleading. In this case that's definitely true.

If you look at the other videos associated with the project - something very few people seemed to do - it's clear the teaser is not the meat of the campaign and was probably made by a different team. The teaser had been removed presumably because of the negative reaction, but the rest of the videos are still there. Those videos cover things like a day in the life of a virology student, a nanotechnology engineer, and a bioengineer from Helsinki. With nary a pink lab coat to be seen. I dare you to go and tell any of these women their work is "fluffy" or "inconsequential".

Rest assured the project will come with a follow-up assessment of how well it did reaching its target audience... an audience that, by definition, is not you. At least for once we were not treated to the usual monochrome 'woman with hair in a bun looks at petri dish' or 'woman at lab bench peers into microscope' crap. Like it or not this was a campaign that was trying something different and for that alone should be commended.

 For all you know, she's got eye makeup like a drag queen back there.

Someone tweeted at me that there's research that "proves" this sort of encouragement of girls doesn't work. So I went and had a look at it.

To summarise, "Betz and Sekaquaptewa recruited 142 girls aged 11 to 13 and showed them mocked-up magazine articles about three female university students who were either described as doing well in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM), or as rising stars in unspecified fields. The three also either displayed overtly feminine characteristics or gender-neutral traits."

Apparently the subjects reacted negatively to the girly girls. Interesting stuff. But it's not clear that the paper sought to define an approach to addressing attitudes about women in science. Rather its results seem to confirm what surely we already know: that these negative associations exist and that people do not see femininity and science as complimentary. If you're going to write off visible femininity being not-opposed to science ability based on a 'personality science' study that serves to approximately tell people what we already know, then why bother doing anything?

Then there's the tone of the criticism in general which is, frankly, as condescending as it accuses to advert of being.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is making a career change into science. I found myself getting somewhat irritated that she, unlike me, did not appear to be willing to follow science to the nth degree and put her nose to the unrewarding research grindstone. Rather she wanted a degree in a subject she was interested in that could lead to a solid job in a few years' time.

She basically caught me out making the very assumption critics of the Girl Thing campaign are making: that if you're not on track for a Nobel prize, then you're not good enough for science. I realised how many of my assumptions about what science is "for" were shaped by my education-positive, science-positive upbringing... a background she did not have. In other words, the luxury of wallowing around in academia? Was not of any interest to her. She's the best judge of how to live her life - not me.

It felt pretty shit to realise what I was doing (sorry, S).

This points to what I feel is a greater malaise and one which seriously does hamper achievement. When we already know what class and income barriers there are for young people - not only girls - to get into white collar career paths, why would we want to make that worse?

We have to acknowledge that something that offends your taste may not actually have a negative effect. I hate CSI and Silent Witness. I hate forensic fiction shows with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. As someone with a PhD in forensic science, I feel it cheapens the real science and misrepresents what we do.

However, I can't deny the simultaneous explosion of students into forensic science that accompanied Marg Helgenberger and Emilia Fox swishing their luscious locks over murder victims. An explosion of students, by the way, that is predominantly female.

In yr crime scene, soiling yr DNA evidence

I would probably raise an eyebrow at any colleague who told me that they got into forensic science because of CSI, but to be honest, is that really any worse than my love of Quincy? And does being dismissive of eye-candy actresses pretending to be like me make me a better scientist than my CSI-loving colleague? No, it doesn't. The difference in our influences is not a matter of ability, it's a matter of personal taste, and that is something which is in no way correlated to being good at the job.

It's an effect that is not uncommon, in fact. Loads of people looked at Indiana Jones and fancied a go at archaeology. I'd wager Ally Beal had some impact on the law profession. Maybe the key to getting more young people interested in science isn't having a snarky blog only people exactly like you read (controversial, I know), but having relatable images in wider media for others to observe. Even if those images happen to be model-pretty and a bit daft.

(Insert your own paragraph about the impact Brian Cox will surely have here.)

Whether the rapid post-CSI expansion will have been a good thing for forensic science is another conversation. But it's interesting to see this happening largely at the former-poly universities. I would hold that these girly girl characters have made the field relevant to young women who had the innate ability to go into any science, but perhaps lacked the self confidence and support to see which field might be most relatable to them. Things which some of us take for granted. Having the confidence to strike out and do something different is not a given for everyone. And yes, this is absolutely a class thing... and a girl thing. It is all kinds of a privilege thing.

Admit it, you don't know that she didn't do that herself.

If you work in a lab with lots of other women, you'll see girly girls, tomboy girls, and plenty of others in between. It literally takes all kinds. Ability to do well in STEM subjects is not a function of appearance or sexiness.

But at the same time looking good and being sexy aren't barriers to being capable at science, either.
With so many people concerned about the crisis in young women wanting to be Kim Kardasian instead of Madame Curie, maybe it's time to acknowledge that we need to cast the net a little wider. Your experiences as a woman are not limited to these extremes.

While the original splashy video has been removed, I'm not sure this is a victory of any sort. I'm a little disappointed they turned tail at the first sign of criticism. Frankly the tone of the backlash provided a level of coverage the rest of the campaign would not otherwise have had. And if it turns out to have been misguided as so many believe, then what better way to learn how to improve the campaign?

But my guess is that regardless of whether or not you like pink and whether or not the advert offended you personally, the outcome will not have been all negative. The assumption that someone who aspires to look like a Kardashian can't or shouldn't become interested in science is frankly bollocks. And the assumption that young girls should be influenced by whatever the chattering classes deem appropriate is also bollocks. If that offends the po-faced middle class - for whom access to science careers is not in question anyway - then so be it.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Stay classy, Rescue Industry

In the cutthroat world of filmmaking it must be hard to get noticed. Some make their names by honing their craft over years or even decades, learning the business from the ground up, and keeping their egos in check. Others sleep their way to the top. But that's kind of lame. Why make good films or suck off a decent producer when you can hop on the concern-porn cause of the week and gain tasty, tasty attention that way?

Enter 'Balkans the Movie', a yet-to-be-made film that aims to expose the seedy underside of human trafficking by, er, cobbling together a lot of ethnic stereotypes and asking NGOs for funding. Nice work if you can get it. Certainly seems to have worked out for Nefarious: Merchant of Souls (which, incidentally, is so my next character if I ever take up RPGs again. Or alternatively my thrash metal band's debut album).

The Balkans site is looking to cast such no-doubt sensitively and intelligently written characters as "Big Mama" (a large cockney lady married to a Jamaican) and "Fats" (a Kosovan by way of New Orleans). Cast extras include "10 Prostitutes," whose roles are not entirely clear apart from the fact there will be a "porn scene" and an "auction". Don't worry about the lack of scripts, though, ladies: the director assures you "I shall ask you to improvise on the day." Is your asshole-ometer up in the red yet? No, nor mine. Not. At. All.

The site also makes clear that not only is the film gritty with potentially crude sex portrayed, it's also unpaid. Yes that's right, if you're lucky enough to get this gig you'll be pulling down not union rates or even minimum wage, but you will score a complimentary DVD. With profits to go to "anti-trafficking charities". The film will however be sent to "top industry contacts" who no doubt will dispatch it directly to the circular file. So basically you get to re-enact "harrowing scenes of torture" for free!

Executive Summary: We're going to stick it to those horrible people exploiting young women by, er, exploiting young women.

There isn't a mainstream porn studio in the world that could get away with this shit.

If the concept of the film hasn't made you roll off your chair yet then get a load of the script. What there is of it, anyway, since most of the film will go all Mike Leigh on our asses and depend on the actors' improvisation skills. We experience the story through the eyes of Joe, who is "Unstoppable, determined, curious, witty, vulnerable and a good liar ... educated at Cambridge ... Joe's heritage enables him to infiltrate this group as his father is from Eastern Europe." 

So far, so Misha Glenny. Minus the credibility.

"Joe is one of the remaining few journalists committed to the ethos of investigative journalism – to uncover the truth using all methods in spite of the risks."
As long as "all methods" means "getting handjobs," yeah? Has someone alerted Leveson yet?

Our Joe may be green, but by gum, he knows a good story when he sees it.
"I'm onto a new story with the break-in thing--absolute page one stuff-- ... It's gonna be bigger than Watergate!"
All the President's Men this ain't but please, tell me more, maybe I've missed what's so exciting here...
"Guys get into arguments over nothing and before you know it, one of them is dead. They're shooting each other all the time."
Oh. Never mind then.

More dialogue WTF: 

"Fats had killed a made man, elite Mafioso."
Now, I may be no expert - I'm only half-Eastern European and half-Sicilian, so what the hell do I know? I'm pretty sure - not 100% certain, but pretty sure - that Eastern European gangsters are not, kind of by definition, "mafiosi". 

Enter Natasha. Nats here is our hooker with a heart of gold. You can tell because she's giving Joe a rubdown and guided tour of her singing ability by page 2. She sounds all sorts of awesome:
"Natasha left her country in Eastern Europe to find a rich man in the West. Unfortunately she was conned and is now serving as a prostitute."
Serving as a prostitute? Bitch, I'm a sergeant in the Hooker Corps!

On a more serious note, though, sounds to me she found exactly what she was looking for and needs to reframe this new arrangement not as a problem but as a solution. A rich man in the West. Only, you know, an hour at a time. Why put up with a guy full-time when you can get cash in hand and have the odd evening to yourself? Hell to the yes.

The best part about Natasha is she speaks like a minor character from Isaac Bashevis Singer:

"When I was 15, my parents married me, against my will, to a man aged 35, whom I did not love. So started my miseries."
Feel free to imagine the sad violin here. Or alternatively some jaunty squeezebox à la Gypsy Weddings. Your call.

But wait! There's more. So much more:

"Smart Nick is Downtown Joey's son and a possible successor to him but first he must learn the business. "
Unlike the writer, this may entail more work for Smart Nick than merely watching The Wire with the sound turned off. I like this Nick fellow, not least because
"He has developed an upper class Oxford accent..."
I didn't know the university had its own accent! Learn something new every day. Smart Nick deploys his hard-won knowledge of Received Oxford Pronunciation on such gems as: "Next to him dancing with sexy girl is Jim Whip, number 2 top porno star in UK."

Mark-Francis Vandelli doesn't get this role it will be a crime against Thespis.

Oh wait, there is an Italian in the film! His name is 'Sammy Cigar'. We Italians are all called things like that, you know. We're also orange puppets made of sponge who sit around eating Dolmio every Saturday night with Mamma. He owns a nightclub too? You could have knocked me over with a feather.

The there's Leo, the Obligatory American.
"Leo was born into music, although his family were not in the industry he managed to make the right connections,  is in his early forties and is American. His break came when he graduated from Harvard in Art History and dated the daughter of the Chairman of Warner Music. He has managed huge acts, is a millionaire, loves young women (18+) and sometimes dabbles in cocaine."
The actual Chairman of Warner Music, Lyor Cohen, has a daughter all right. She turns 10 this year. Way to score, Leo!

The film's website helpfully informs us that 
This story is fictional and is not intended to be racist or to offend anyone. 
It's not intended to be racist. Like, I didn't intend to steal that cupcake, it just ended up stuffed in my gob unpaid for, officer. (For what it's worth I'm not offended. I'm more bemused and slightly mystified but not actually offended. Kosovan gangsters from Louisiana may feel differently.) Also:
All characters are fictional and any resemblance to any person/event or situation whether present or in the past is coincidental.
Don't worry, hon. There is absolutely no danger anyone is going to mistake these characters for real people.

Do you know what the script reminds me of? This date I had years ago. I met up with a guy from Guardian Soulmates who told me he was an aspiring novelist who eschewed a career as a postdoc chemist for two (yes! two!) masters' courses in writing. He then proceeded to tell me in much detail about this amazing book of his that was mysteriously unpublished. It involved a super-secret society at Oxford whose bitch-queen was a virginal descendant of the real Royal Family (whoever they are) and gets deflowered by her super-secret fraternity at the end. He saw Emily Blunt in the lead role for the film adaptation. There wasn't a second date.

I could go on. But I won't. Because I'm not even past page 12 yet and you probably have other things to do today. Suffice it to say that I actually hope a rubbish trafficking hype film with characters like "Detective Inkling" and "Chinese Man" gets made. If only so I can MST-3K the shit out of it. And let's be honest, if I had no conscience and no qualms about not paying the talent I would be kicking myself right now for not coming up with this lucrative wheeze first.

In fact I actually hope this is the product of some some hard-eyed cynic grabbing what cash he can out of the system before the whole trafficking panic collapses in a heap of invented moral scares and bullshit statistics. In which case, mate, I owe you an apology and a drink.

Monday 18 June 2012

Why Scotland should not make sex work illegal

UPDATE: MSPs have voted that Grant's bill will have to go to consultation and will not be fast-tracked. Which is good news. But the fight is not over, and expect more to come when the consultation hits.

At the same time that the Moratorium 2012 campaign kicks off in London, spearheading a common-sense approach to sex work, there appears a bid in Scotland to try to make prostitution illegal. Just to recap: soliciting, running a brothel, and kerb crawling are already illegal (as too are trafficking and sexual exploitation of children). Exchanging sex for money at this point is not. Not yet.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant claims "Scotland should become an unattractive market for prostitution and therefore other associated serious criminal activities, such as people trafficking for sexual exploitation, would be disrupted." Grant is, unfortunately, badly informed and wrong. I'm going to keep this one short and sweet because the points are pretty straightforward...

Scotland does not have a sex trafficking epidemic

Sex trafficking is the excuse frequently given these days to harass and criminalise sex workers. Problem is, it's not remotely the "epidemic" they would have you believe. If you're not already up to speed on the whys and wherefores, I highly recommend reading Laura Agustin's work on this. Or if I may be so cheeky to suggest you could also buy my book. 

Specifically, it is not happening in Scotland“In Scotland, to the best of my knowledge, we don't have a conviction for human trafficking,” said police constable Gordon Meldrum. Meldrum had previously claimed research “proved” the existence of 10 human trafficking groups north of the border, and 367 organised crime groups with over 4000 members. “We had one case which was brought to court previously but was abandoned. My understanding is it was abandoned due to a lack of evidence, essentially.” Strange how the evidence seemed to disappear precisely when someone was asked to produce all these fantasy baddies, isn't it? 

It's not only Scotland where the trafficking hype falls flat though: investigation throughout the UK has comprehensively failed to find any supposed sex trafficking epidemic.

Not convinced by the evidence? Then consider this: criminalising sex workers and their clients removes the most reliable information sources police have for investigating abuses. Police don't have a great track record on this: In interviews by the Sex Workers Project with 15 trafficking survivors who experienced police raids, only one had been asked by law enforcement if she was coerced, and only after she was arrested. SWOP-NYC make this case clearly.

Criminalising sex work has been shown in Scotland to make criminal activity worse

Criminalisation has all kinds of effects on the behaviour of sex workers, but unfortunately, none of those effects are good. Fear of police forces sex workers to get into clients’ cars quickly, and possibly be unable to avoid dangerous attackers posing as clients. When vigilantes and police roam the pavements, sex workers wait until the wee hours to come out, making them more isolated and vulnerable to harm.

Such an approach can also result in a transfer of activity from streetwalking to other ways of getting money. High-profile crackdown results in repeated arrests of prostitutes, which translate to fines that sex workers, now burdened with criminal records, are unable to pay except by more prostitution or by fraud, shoplifting, and dealing drugs.

Take Aberdeen, for instance. From 2001 onward, the city had an established tolerance zone for sex workers around the harbour. That ended with passage of the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act in 2007. In the following months the city centre experienced an influx of streetwalkers and an increase in petty crimes.

Quay Services, which operates a drop-in centre for streetwalkers, reported that sex workers became more afraid to seek assistance, and the number of women coming to the centre dropped to “just a handful”. There was also evidence that displacing sex workers led to more activity in the sex trade, not less – convictions for solicitation tripled.

This kind of ‘crime shuffling’ takes prostitution out of one area and dumps it on another. It only resembles an improvement if you fail to look at the full picture.

Prohibition never works

There is a lot of talk in the political sphere about the need for “evidence based policy”. This means rejecting approaches that are moralistic and manipulative. Sex workers have suffered the tragic consequences of prejudicial social attitudes that lead to bad policy. The prohibition approach has not worked. It will never work. The people who endorse this view are putting people in danger and should not be guiding public opinion any longer. Disliking sex work is not a good enough argument to justify criminalising it. Is there any public interest served by preventing adults from engaging in a consensual transaction for sexual services? No, there is not.

Bit like the war on drugs: making the business profitable only to criminals, awaiting the inevitably grim results, then claiming that it’s the drugs themselves, not the laws, wot caused it. Few reasonable people believe that line of argument when it comes to drugs. Why does anyone believe it when it comes to sex?

Moral disapproval is a bad basis for policymaking. I don't find the idea of taking drugs at all appealing, but I don't assume my own preferences should be the basis for law.

The condescension heaped on people who do sex work is embarrassingly transparent. All this mealy-mouthed, 'oh but we want to help them, really’. How’s that again? By saddling people with criminal records and taking away their children? Do me a favour.

As well as the happy prostitutes there are unhappy sex workers in need of support. Society should protect the unwilling and underage from sexual exploitation and provide outreach for those who need and want it. We already have laws and services for that. Maybe the laws should be more intelligently enforced and the services better supported. But prosecuting the victimless crimes does neither of these. It helps no one.

The potential existence of abuses does not mean such work should be automatically criminalised if for no other reason than doing so makes the lives of people in sex work worse, not better. Criminalisation is the very opposite of compassion. Rhoda Grant is hiding behind an "end demand" approach that will not achieve what she claims it will, but will punish sex workers and send those with already chaotic lives further into a downward spiral. If that isn't punishing them with no hope for change then I don't know what is.

It's time we started acting like grownups and stopped pretending that making something illegal makes it cease to exist.

Right to a family life 'not absolute'?

Theresa May, as per her now-weekly ritual, manages to make herself look ridiculous again. This time it's over Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or as Ms May likes to refer to it, "Human" rights. That's okay, Theresa - I use scare quotes when referring to you as a "human" too.

Article 8 is the right to a family life which, if you read the right-wing papers, is somehow responsible for everything wrong in Britain today. How exactly something intended to keep families together is in direct opposition to the aims of a government that claims its priority is to... err... keep families together is some question indeed.

This is the law that, according to May last year, let someone brown and gay stay in the UK because he had a cat. Only, that isn't what happened. Because as people who have interacted with the law know, it's wasn't the immigrant's rights that were being upheld. Nor even the cat's. It was the human rights of his UK-born, British partner. A right which May does not consider "absolute".

The changes are set to come in July 9th. If your wedding is scheduled for the day after, too bad, according to May. It's being couched with stories of criminals for now. Andrew Marr interviewing May this morning tried to focus on that aspect. But in the interview May clearly spoke of targeting all family settlement visas. As those of use who have been following the proposed changes know, the government would like very much for this policy to apply to everyone. Unless of course they're rich.

Chew on that a while if you please. Because for every story of some migrant who, according to the rabid anti-immigration types, is packing the country full and sheltering behind their "supposed" "human" "right" to "a" "family life" (have I got enough quotes in there for you, Theresa?) there is actually a British person whose family is being threatened.

You might not like the idea of British people falling in love with foreigners and wanting to settle here, you know, the place where they live. But there it is.

Add to that the fact that people from elsewhere in the EU can bring their non-EU spouses here, claim treaty rights, and settle with almost no need to navigate the byzantine UK Border Agency applications. The government is endorsing a policy that actively discriminates against the families of British people. Surely even people who oppose all immigration must be wondering what the hell is going on there.

And while we're here, let's bust a few myths:
  • The criminal myth. This route lets in criminals? Um, no. Applying under the family route already means you can't enter if you have unspent convictions (even traffic violations) in the UK or your country of origin.
  • The benefits myth. This route leads to foreigners eating up UK benefits without paying in? Wrong again. Applying under the family route already means you have no recourse to public funds, i.e. benefits. It's stamped on your visa so there's no mistaking.
  • The job-poaching myth. Non-EU migrants are stealing jobs from British people? Go on, pull the other one. By EU law it is illegal to hire a non-EU/EEC person unless the employer can show there were no minimally qualified European applicants. This is one I've run up against before. It's deeply depressing to be told you were by far the best applicant, but someone whose qualifications barely scraped the job description is hired instead. If someone like me gets a job, say, scrubbing toilets for minimum wage - which I have done - it's not because I was willing to work for less. It's because British people didn't want that job enough to even apply for it. Not my fault.
No one disputes the right – indeed, the responsibility – of a government to oversee migration and restrict it where necessary. Most of us who come here do not object to playing by the rules. But the reasons May gave for the changes are misleading. The consultation she references was heavily influenced by suggestions from the pressure group MigrationWatch and concerned mainly with forced marriage and money. And crucially, they will do nothing to stop people who flout the rules, only punish people who do try to do things by the book.

May claims changing the settlement rules will "differentiate between genuine and non-genuine relationships". Only the government's already making forced marriage illegal. Detailed spouse interviews might be a sensible policy to put off sham weddings but May has no plans to introduce these, as presumably that would mean hiring and training more Border Agency staff. May is concerned about migrants not fitting in, as well. But there are no suggestions the Life In the UK test will be changed to become more relevant... and in fact, May wants more people to take it. The laughably unfit-for-purpose LIUK tests out-of-date information that is not remotely useful for living here. I memorised the percentage of single-parent families in Wales circa five years ago for why, exactly? It's as good a tool for integration as a spork is for digging the Channel Tunnel. A 1950s ship steward's handbook is better prep for living here. A copy of Heat better still.

Let's look at a couple of suggestions for reforming immigration that are often suggested by the public, who probably have a better understanding of the needs of the British economy than most politicians do:
  • Many people say they would like to see an immigration points system across the board, like the one used for the now-discontinued Tier 1 General visas. This system took into account a balance of age, qualifications, employment, history in the UK, as well as income. It wasn't perfect but at least it acknowledged that people who are young and qualified or employed as key workers are unlikely to have high incomes (yet).
  • People also say they would like a system "like Australia's". Australia is sometimes assumed to be the last word in hardline immigration policy. But as far as I know - this from friends of mine who have moved - the British people who qualify for skills-based residency are allowed to bring their partners and families regardless of income. Short term access to cash isn't the main factor; the longer-term needs of the local economy are. An electrician's wife gets to stay because she is a family member and he is vital to their growth. It seems reasonable.
So why is Theresa still harping on if forced marriage, sham unions, integration, and net benefit to long-term economic health are not actually being addressed by the change?

The key to what these proposals really mean is in the election pledge: Cameron promised to reduce net migration. That's not the number of migrants total, that's the difference between migrants arriving and British citizens leaving. Sorry to break it to those who think the country is "packed full" or "under siege": the government is not interested in decreasing migration per se. They'd be as happy if immigration increased, as long as loads of Britons left. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mail readers.

While the majority of incomers to the UK come from Europe, EU inward migration is something that can not be changed legally without leaving the EU. As well, fewer Brits are moving to Spain and France than used to since the bottom fell out of the new build market there. So attacking the family route, non-EU migrant is the easiest way to lower the numbers. If a married couple cannot settle, not only has a migrant left, so has a UK citizen. This gets net migration down twice as fast as controlling other visas. The approach is crafted to appear successful to the rightwing without producing meaningful change for anyone.

Getting extra British people to leave must be part of the consideration, otherwise why attack family route visas at all? It's not the largest category by a long shot. Last year 564,005 non-visitor visas were issued outside the UK. Of those, 57% were student visas, 26% were work visas and a scant 8% were family settlement. They've already taken steps to ensure coming in as a student is not a route to settlement, and work visas are being tightened as well. Even with those changes it's going to be next to impossible to get net migration in line with the party's promise without a lot of people leaving. The potential to double the result is what makes raising the bar for family settlement so attractive to the likes of May.

Even so, the numbers are not going to go down that easily - even someone whose stand on immigration is very conservative should be able to see that May's plan will not deliver the promised numbers. EU migration in particular can not be addressed in the current system. Well, helpfully, the stalling economy affects net migration too. Plenty of folks say they would leave if they could, many are. Hey presto, population control achieved at the cost of making people into the very economic migrants they say they hate. Way to go Dave and Co.!

If I sound cynical about the government juking the stats that's because I am. In 2010 I changed from highly skilled migrant to a marriage visa out of attachment to my husband and as a statement of our intent to live in the UK. Little did I think that it might have been better to stay with the visa I was on, or even remain single. Those aren't the kinds of jaded assessments you want to make when planning a life together.

Our situation is better than many because I was already working here, so my income counts on our applications. For those who meet abroad the picture is very different. Overseas income doesn't count unless you have huge savings to bring here - over £16k under the new rules. Third party support (aka getting cash from family) will no longer count towards income. And there will no doubt be people who fall in love and get married before they realise there's no way they can bring their new husband or wife to live with them. Not legally, anyway.

May proposes upping the minimum income level to £18600, goes up to £22000 if you have a child, then adds £2400 for each additional dependent. In other words: means-tested love. It doesn't consider a family's real expenses, wealth such as house equity, or where they live. Apart from London and the Southwest, average gross earnings for families of any size everywhere are close to or below this amount. Huge numbers of UK households would not meet the new requirement. The applications care about income only - not the type of work you do or whether it's in demand - so key workers like teachers and nurses would be unable to sponsor a partner. Here is a template to write your MP about these changes.

In spite of the vast differential in living expenses between various parts of the country, there is no suggestion a family's actual expenses will be taken into account. For example: we live in the Scottish Highlands and own our house outright, so basic monthly outgoings are minimal compared to someone who is carrying a mortgage in London. We all know people who are barely making ends meet on professional incomes and others who are living their dream on a shoestring budget. Applying an arbitrary income level to all applicants makes no sense.

Under the old rules, family-visa applicants must already show they have enough income to cover essential bills. Most submit a budget to reflect their individual circumstances. This is to prevent migrants from relying on the state; what critics of family immigration don't realise is that most of us can't receive benefits anyway. My biometric ID (remember those? You may not have them, but we do) clearly states "No public funds". Family migrants can – and do – go to work and pay into the system like anyone else. If you have the right to work but no right to public funds of course that's what you do. And we are not exempt from UK taxes just because we weren't born here.

There is a pervasive myth that migrants do not contribute, which is in stark contrast not only to most people's real-life understanding of the immigrant work ethic, but also  just about any stats you care to present (see below for the numbers on benefits). Look at the representation of visible first- and second-generation migrants in food service, in the NHS... these are not people who came over with established careers and huge bank balances, because if you already had those, why would you move halfway round the world? They're people who came with skills, desire, and elbow grease to spare. If you think migration started with New Labour and is a net loss to Britishness, then maybe it's you who should be taking the Life in the UK test.

DWP statistics [pdf] show foreign-born residents – at 13% of the population – represent only 6.4% of benefits claimants; 7% of foreign-born residents receive them, compared with 17% of UK-born residents. (In these stats, 'foreign born' can mean EU, who are entitled to benefits here unlike most non-EU; it can also mean born abroad but British passport holding as well. So for foreign-born, non-EU, non-UK passport, the percentage is probably rather lower.)

Consider same-sex partnerships, for whom moving elsewhere as a couple may not be an option whatever their income. I hope the LGBT community starts to make more noise about this, because my guess is it will be a same-sex union that is the first to test May's changes in court. Many same-sex couples do not have the option to "just" settle elsewhere as a family. Here's a couple already facing potential problems from those changes, whose wedding date was set ages ago for what now turns out to be three weeks after the new rules come in. The media fallout should things like this hit the court system? Will not be pretty.

Since when was income correlated with how real love is, or how well anyone fits in? Being able to afford jumping through the hoops does not make my marriage more genuine than anyone else's. It just means I have the money and time to negotiate the new rules. Most overseas partners will not be as lucky.

Vince Cable had it right when he criticised "the timewasting bureaucracy which stops foreigners working, studying in – or even visiting – Britain legitimately". The changes May suggests don't do much to worry the people who are staying illegally and cause a lot of stress for those who are on the level.

May's weasel words about the right to a family life not being "absolute" - her talk about "balancing" this right against other rights - doesn't hold water. How does a family settling here affect someone else's human rights? I've scratched my head on this a while and can't come up with a single sensible example.

The spouses and family members, and British people who love them, are paying the price for political expediency and pandering. These are British families plain and simple and the current government wants them out. Make no mistake, natives: this government wishes you would all just go away.

This year I finally became a permanent resident of the UK after two years of marriage and a whole lot more of living and working here. As we left the Border Agency appointment my husband seemed a bit put out. "All they wanted were my bank statements and your fingerprints," he mused. "They didn't even ask me what colour your toothbrush was."

Friday 8 June 2012

London 2012: Will the Olympics bring more prostitutes?

It's a well-known rule in journalism that if the headline asks a question, the answer is invariably "no". So to see the question above on this blog will probably not surprise you.

What might surprise you is to learn it was also the headline of a prominently-featured article on the BBC website yesterday. Of course, as is the current fad, when they say "prostitutes" they mean "trafficking", and vice-versa.

It's been long known that there is no connection between major international sporting events such as the Olympics, the World Cup, and sex trafficking. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who hosted a meeting on this very topic earlier this year. Take the word of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, who produced a must-read report (pdf) on the actual effects of sports events on human trafficking. Go check out Laura Agustin's excellent summary too.

The facts:
• 2010 World Cup, South Africa: the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development did not find a single case of trafficking over the Olympics time period.

• 2010 Olympics, Canada: no evidence of trafficking and sex workers reported a fall in business.

• 2006 World Cup, Germany: 33 cases were referred to the police for further investigation, out of which 5 cases were confirmed to be trafficking (4 women and 1 man). No other cases were found, despite the fact that the police conducted 71 brothel raids (these raids did not identify the 5 confirmed trafficking cases, but did lead to 10 deportations).

• 2004 Olympics, Greece: When trafficking statistics were compared for all of 2004 with all of 2003, there was an increase of 181 trafficking cases (which is a 90% increase). According to both the police and the International Organization for Migration, none of these cases were linked to the Olympics.

• Super Bowls in the USA in 2008-2011: Although law enforcement increased, they made no additional arrests for sex work-related offences during this time.
You might be wondering, and it is a good question, why there isn't sex trafficking during these events. The answer is simple. Criminals may be criminals, but organised crime does not exist for the purpose of being evil. It exists to make loads of tax-free dosh. Does it make financial sense for sex trafficking to occur at these events? With London rents skyrocketing around the venues, with the Home Office plans to tighten border security, with the police already well misinformed about the magnitude of the trafficking problem, you'd have to be mad to pursue this as a business plan.

There was perhaps a time, back in the 90s, when sex trafficking in some parts of Eastern Europe might have netted you some cash if you already had the distribution network, but it's not the case now. Add to that a large native population willing and legally able to exchange money for sex and you'd be laughed out of Dragon's Den for even suggesting it as a goer. I've met a lot of dodgy characters in my day - drug dealers and worse besides - and to a person they were not in it to lose money. In many cases the black marketeers I know were actually better businesspeople than anyone in legit trading.

In spite of all this, we are still treated - almost daily now in the run-up to London 2012 - with the same old guff such as stories that sex trafficking 'almost doubled' during the Athens Olympics.

In this particular case, 'almost doubled' means that the number of reported incidents was 181, a 90% increase over the previous year. So yes, they did 'almost double'.

However if you too are underwhelmed by that number, it's with good reason. Applying all the usual disclaimers - any instance of forced sex trafficking is abhorrent and should be prosecuted vigorously, this is an argument about best use of police time, tax money and other resources - what does the reported change from just-shy-of-100 people to 181 actually represent?

Prostitution is legal and regulated in Greece, however, not everyone works legally and not everyone registers, because hello, do you want your name on the Greek government's hooker list? Probably not. Anyway, estimates put the number at about 1,000 legal prostitutes and 20,000 illegal ones. Given that these numbers are the ones put about by the US State Department which does not have a great track record on accuracy, it's a little suspect. But let's say for the sake of saying that represents some kind of starting ballpark figure and probably even an overestimate. The 21,000 total gives us about 1 in every 250 women in Greece working as a prostitute - actually a realistic enough proportion for Europe.

In the year before the Athens Olympics, the reports of sex trafficking at 95 represented 0.45% of all prostitution in Greece. And after the Olympics? 0.86%. Less than 1% of prostitutes in Greece were trafficked both before and after the Olympics.

There is no particular evidence, statistical or otherwise, to suggest that the fluctuation in this rather small number was due to the Olympics per se. In fact it is certainly within the bounds of what we call the 'law of small numbers' which dictates that they can and do fluctuate in a way that represents a high percentage of the values themselves, but given the rarity of the events involved, this is expected and not necessarily significant.

Here's an example. Let's say in the year 2008, there was 1 death in all of Scotland from a vending machine falling on someone. Then let's say a year later, in 2009, there were 2 such deaths. While it would be technically true to say that the number of vending machine accidental deaths 'doubled', is this a fair representation of the data? Is this a significant trend that is likely to continue? (Which would mean that by 2032, there would be 8.38 million such deaths in Scotland, or approximately... er, 150% of the population). No, obviously not. The change from 1 to 2 in a given year seems clearly attributable to chance. You'd be silly to conclude the change from one small number to another "means" very much without a lot of additional evidence.

If you've read my paper on the effects of lap dancing on sexual violence in London, you'll already be aware of how over time these small numbers fluctuate wildly. For context, the UNHCR gives the number of trafficked persons for Greece as 137 in 2005, 83 in 2006, 100 in 2007, 162 in 2008, 125 in 2009, 92 in 2010.

Now if these things had no knock-on effect, and if police resources and tax money were infinite, then sure, why not go after human trafficking even if it's only a very tiny proportion of all sex work in Greece - or in the more immediate case, London? But alas, it is not a matter of infinite police time and tax money. And it is definitely not a matter of no knock-on effects.

According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "Police crackdowns and brothel closures tend to displace sex workers from flats and saunas to less safe work venues, including the street, and make them wary of all authorities so they are less likely to access services or to report episodes of violence or crime to the police."

Given that the anti-sex lobby are so dead keen to keep claiming that all sex workers are inevitably the victims of violent and sex crimes, that seems like it's going to affect a hell of a lot more than a couple hundred people, no? Why does a small number of people matter to them more than a potentially far larger pool of people? Is it because that's where the grant money and column inches are at?

Not only is this increased danger the outcome in previous incidents of trafficking panic, it's happening right now in London. The Moratorium 2012 campaign, organised by x:talk, confirms:

Stop the Arrests Campaign is aware of ‘clean up efforts’ already underway in London, particularly east London, in the run-up to the Olympics ... Last December in Barking and Dagenham a violent gang carried out a series of robberies on brothels at knife point. Sex workers were deterred from pursuing the attacks after police threatened them with prosecution. Thus many more were attacked and one woman was raped.
Got that? Send the police after non-existent sex trafficking, and they end up cracking down on non-trafficked sex workers. When that happens, people in sex work are put in more danger. No one is made safer by doing this. No one is saved. Moratorium 2012 is calling on an end to the pointless and dangerous harassment. Please, sign the petition.