Friday, March 26, 2010

Ways and Means: a feminist issue?

Yesterday's Guardian ran Julie Bindel's Iceland: the world's most feminist country in the Women's section of the paper. In her article, Bindel jubilantly celebrates the power of feminism at work in Iceland-- as demonstrated by its government's moves to virtually close down Iceland's sex industry by banning stripping, lapdancing, and the profiting of businesses from nudity, "for feminist, rather than religious, reasons."
Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: "It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold." When I asked her if she thinks Iceland has become the greatest feminist country in the world, she replied: "It is certainly up there. Mainly as a result of the feminist groups putting pressure on parliamentarians. These women work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with their campaigns and it eventually filters down to all of society."

The news is a real boost to feminists around the world, showing us that when an entire country unites behind an idea anything can happen. And it is bound to give a shot in the arm to the feminist campaign in the UK against an industry that is both a cause and a consequence of gaping inequality between men and women.

According to Icelandic police, 100 foreign women travel to the country annually to work in strip clubs. It is unclear whether the women are trafficked, but feminists say it is telling that as the stripping industry has grown, the number of Icelandic women wishing to work in it has not. Supporters of the bill say that some of the clubs are a front for prostitution – and that many of the women work there because of drug abuse and poverty rather than free choice. I have visited a strip club in Reykjavik and observed the women. None of them looked happy in their work.

So how has Iceland managed it? To start with, it has a strong women's movement and a high number of female politicians. Almost half the parliamentarians are female and it was ranked fourth out of 130 countries on the international gender gap index (behind Norway, Finland and Sweden). All four of these Scandinavian countries have, to some degree, criminalised the purchase of sex (legislation that the UK will adopt on 1 April). "Once you break past the glass ceiling and have more than one third of female politicians," says Halldórsdóttir, "something changes. Feminist energy seems to permeate everything."

Johanna Sigurðardottir is Iceland's first female and the world's first openly lesbian head of state. Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, an organisation based in Reykjavik that campaigns against sexual violence, says she has enjoyed the support of Sigurðardottir for their campaigns against rape and domestic violence: "Johanna is a great feminist in that she challenges the men in her party and refuses to let them oppress her."

Reading to this point, I was feeling ambivalent-- & thought, ah, yes, when I read Bindel's implicit acknowledgment that not all feminists are likely to share her sense of triumph:
Then there is the fact that feminists in Iceland appear to be entirely united in opposition to prostitution, unlike the UK where heated debates rage over whether prostitution and lapdancing are empowering or degrading to women. There is also public support: the ban on commercial sexual activity is not only supported by feminists but also much of the population. A 2007 poll found that 82% of women and 57% of men support the criminalisation of paying for sex – either in brothels or lapdance clubs – and fewer than 10% of Icelanders were opposed.

Jónsdóttir says the ban could mean the death of the sex industry. "Last year we passed a law against the purchase of sex, recently introduced an action plan on trafficking of women, and now we have shut down the strip clubs. The Nordic countries are leading the way on women's equality, recognising women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale."
My uneasiness is not, of course, caused by Jónsdóttir's wish that women be "recogniz[ed] as equal citizens rather than commodities," but rather because of my concern that the strategy of criminalization doesn't have a great track record for bringing about profound changes in ingrained attitudes.

In any event, it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.


Athena Andreadis said...

Iceland is far more homogeneous than the UK, its population is ~300,000 compared to Britain's ~4 million. So it's easier to form a consensus on issues

On the other hand, having women make up nearly half of Iceland's parliament (compared to England's 19%) does change the frame and tone of the debate. It's interesting that the newer parliaments of Scotland and Wales both have higher female representation.

It's true that criminalizing an activity does not necessarily improve the outcome (the war on drugs is the poster example). But human trafficking and forced prostitution are undeniably involved in the sex trade, which makes some of its aspects very close to slavery.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Anent trafficking, Athena: just so. Hence my ambivalence.

Eleanor said...
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Eleanor said...

The tiny size of the country and the fact that everyone knows everyone (more or less) might make enforcement easier. My father spent WWII in Iceland working for the US government. The US had a huge military base there. The military would sent Icelandic American soldiers (who spoke the language) out in civilian clothes to spy on the Icelanders. The idea was, these guys were disguised as native Icelanders. Soon after real native Icelanders would come up to my father and say, "What is Thorbjorn Gislason's cousin from North Dakota doing dressing up in funny clothes and hanging out in bars?"

Granted, the population has doubled since then. More than doubled, I think. But the Icelanders still pay attention to one another.

Currently, there is a novelist in Iceland named Einar Mar Gudmundsson. He is widely regarded as the best Icelandic writer since the Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, and the Icelanders are hugely proud of him. When I was in Iceland in the early noughts, I kept meeting people who asked me, "Have you met Einar Mar? And was he drunk?"

An interesting country, where the most highly esteemed person is a writer, and everyone knows he has a drinking problem and is willing to talk about it.

If the majority of Icelanders are against sex clubs, then they will probably get reported pretty quickly and the employees deported, since they are not -- per the article -- native.

Eleanor said...

Yes, I did meet Einar Mar; and yes, he drank a lot.

Eleanor said...

Maybe it's incorrect to say Einar Mar was the most highly esteemed person in the country. But they were obviously proud of him, though they knew he had problems.

Unknown said...

There are a huge number of misconceptions in this article, and since they're so common, I thought I'd address them.

My main critique of Bindel's article is that she has formed her opinions of sex work, trafficking, and prostitution without actually talking to any sex workers.

She writes:

"I have visited a strip club in Reykjavik and observed the women. None of them looked happy in their work."

It's pretty arrogant to think you can solve somebody else's problem without talking to them.

Next misconception: that criminalizing sex work will stop it. Under capitalism, as long as there's a consumer of anything, it will be for sale. Criminalization will only drive sex work underground and make it less safe for the people in it.

The trouble with criminalizing sex work is that it invariably criminalizes the sex workers and gives police officers a huge amount of power over them - power that can so easily be abused.

A final note about human trafficking and forced prostitution: yes, it's absolutely awful and must be stopped. But be aware that people in the sex work industry are often the only ones in a position to recognize it and therefore to have an ability to oppose it.

A side note: I recently attended a film festival of sex-made media. It was pretty eye-opening. (There will be a repeat in the summer, if any Seattle-area people want to see it.) One thing I didn't know about is some recent strings attached to U.S. money sent to stop AIDS. One condition is that the organizations who get the money can't work with organizations that work with prostitutes. Guess what this does to prostitutes' ability to obtain condoms.

Athena Andreadis said...

Dear Eleanor, I'm taking this opportunity to mention that I found A Woman of the Iron People very thought-provoking.

On the issue of writers and their prominence: in this, the US is in the minority. In many cultures, mine included, authors (poets in particular) are a moral and political force. They're often treated as celebrities and their opinions carry weight.

tsubakmetov said...

To me the question of whether sex work degrades or empowers sex workers seems to be the wrong question. Regardless which side you argue, you'd be looking at the problem from a top-down perspective disconnected from the context of capitalism and without a groundedness in the lives of real people.

As for the issue of trafficking, while the question of whether sex workers are empowered by their work is problematic, I think the question of whether trafficking victims are degraded or empowered by their criminalization is pretty clear. Nobody would argue that domestic violence victims should be arrested in order to save them.

Here's a good article talking about trafficking and prostitution: