In Other News, Sky…

Jamie, unlike many autistic children, has in fact been a brilliant sleeper for most of his life – we definitely caught a lucky break there. However, he does go through phases now and again of being hard to settle, and Christmas holidays have been a big culprit for the past few years, this year included. This has in fact been very much a "Wow, parenting really does get better! Cool!" moment, as the situation has been a dramatic improvement on The Great Sleep Fiasco Of Christmas Holidays 2011, which I prefer not to revisit even until memory except to say that at times I was seriously wondering whether the penalties for beating children unconscious/tying them to their beds were actually that severe. Two years down the line, Katie at least has developed the common sense to realise that there's actually something to be said for staying in bed and trying to get to sleep at night, so that means only one of them at a time to deal with, which is a massive relief.

However, Jamie's antics have been keeping Katie awake, and, unlike her brother, she usually does take a long time to drop off. Last night, when she was still awake long after even her brother had finally succumbed, I tried talking her through a visualisation I sometimes do for her at such times to help her to relax, called 'floating on a cloud'. This involves getting her to picture herself floating upwards on a cloud and looking at all sorts of lovely things below/around her. I worked my way through the usual sequence of grass, flowers, trees, and baby birds.

"The mummy and daddy birds are flying in to bring their babies worms to eat," I told her. "They're taking care of them just the way Daddy and I take care of you and Jamie. Well, except that we don't bring you worms to eat, but you know what I mean."

"They're taking care of the babies by doing the things for them that they need," Katie clarified. "Just like you and Daddy do the things for me and Jamie that we need."

"That's right, Boo!" I hugged her proudly. "And now you're floating up higher, higher, and seeing all those beautiful green leaves spread out below you… up, up, into the blue, blue sky.

"It isn't blue," Katie objected.

"Really? What colour is it?" Katie likes adding her own imaginative twist on things; I thought for a moment that she'd just decided to float off into a pink sky because she liked it better, or some such.

"It's some other colour that Daddy told me about. I can't remember what, but it just looks blue because that's the way we see it."

"Kid," I told her, "you're floating on a cloud here. I wouldn't delve too deeply into the physics of this if I were you."

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Talking with children about religion – an atheist parent’s experience

For some considerable time now I've been thinking, as one does, that I should really get back to blogging, and even planning different possible re-entry posts. Then, by pure chance, I stumbled across a blog carnival on one of the subjects I'd been thinking of writing about – the Carnival for Atheist Parenting – and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to restart. This is my submission for November's Carnival of Atheist Parenting.

I was interested to see that a lot of people feel daunted at the thought of discussing religion with their children, because that's never been the case for me; on the contrary, I think it's an interesting topic that I've looked forward to discussing with them as they get older and finding out their views on. Maybe that's because I don't have any particular endpoint in mind in terms of their eventual belief. My goal has always been not to teach them to be atheists, but to teach them to think for themselves about what they believe and why.

I don't raise the subject, but when it comes up – when the children have Nativity plays or tell me some snippet of religious education they had in school – I take the opportunity to mention that different people believe in different things. Some people believe in lots of gods, some in just one god, and some in none, and they'll probably decide for themselves what they believe as they get older. Last year, Katie's first Nativity play was set in Fairytale Land and was introduced and concluded with a song containing the line "Will you please remember, we are just pretend/But the story of Jesus rea-lly happ-ened" (yes, the scansion was that bad). I burst out laughing when she first sang that at home, and explained that, in fact, a lot of people do think that the story of Jesus is made up as much as any fairy tale (while, of course, a lot of others believe in it).

For several years, of course, neither of them was that interested in the topic. (I still remember being asked to discuss Jamie's thoughts on the Christmas story for a school assignment when he was five; he came out with 'Mary was very great. Joseph was brown and Mary was blue.') Lately, however, they've had more thoughts about it.

Katie has decided she, also, doesn't believe in God. "You and Daddy don't," she told me when I inquired as to what had led her to this conclusion.

"That's not really a good reason, Boo. I mean, I think we're right, but you shouldn't believe something just because Daddy and I do. You should think about whether or not you believe it."

Katie gave it a moment's further thought and stated "Well, I see real things on the news and I've never seen God on the news." Which struck me as an interesting point. Of course, it's still open to logical challenge, but I let it go for a bit – she's starting to give some thought to what she thinks and why, and that means she's on the right track.

Jamie, some weeks after that, announced "I'm secretly a Christian."

"Why secretly?" I inquired, with fleeting visions of undercover Bible-reading and cloak-and-dagger church attendance.

"Because I believe in God."

"Oh. Well, that doesn't mean you have to be a Christian. You could be one of the other religions or be Christian or just believe in God without being any religion. Do you think you believe in one god or lots?" (This last always strikes me as a great point for getting some perspective on the whole do-you-believe-in-God-or-not question; the fact that those aren't the only options. To paraphrase Stephen Roberts slightly, we're all atheists one way or another; it's just that some of us are atheistic about more gods.)

"One, I think,"

"Yes, that's probably simpler. What made you decide that?"

"Well," Jamie said thoughtfully, "I think something has to happen to us after we die."

So, so far I'm raising one atheist and one unspecified theist. I'm  awaiting further developments on the topic with interest.

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Auntie Sarah

On Sunday, 22nd September, my aunthood was upgraded from one nephew to two. My sister had been booked for a planned Caesarean on the 23rd, but Zephaniah 'Zephy' Daniel didn't want to wait (possibly having realised that all the coolest families have child spacings of precisely three years and five days) and made his exit a day earlier than planned. Mother, child, father and big brother are all doing well and Zephy is absolutely gorgeous. Congratulations, Ruth and Neil, and I look forward to continued adventures in aunting.

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Miss Dose, the doctor’s daughter

In September, Katie will be starting school. The school have a rather well worked out induction period involving visits first with a parent and then without, and the filling out of a booklet about her likes, dislikes, attributes, and abilities, including some questions about basic knowledge such as ability to name shapes, colours, and body parts.

"Katie," I told her, "your new school wants to know if you know any bits of the body. Can you think of any?"

She thought about this carefully.

"Skeleton?" she suggested.

Give her time; by the end of primary school I expect I'll have her up to scratch on the full list of internal organs.

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Ah, the warm glow of being viewed with awe and respect

A few weeks ago, Katie's nursery school was doing a theme on 'People Who Help Us', and asked me to come and say a few words to the tots about my chosen profession. Having done this before for both reception classes at Jamie's school and for Katie's other nursery (she's at two – long story) I agreed quite equably, turned up, gave the assembled preschoolers a few minutes of discourse on how my job helps others, and showed them my stethoscope. (More accurately, I showed them the stethoscope I'd borrowed from one of the practices I work for, my own having gone AWOL.)

"Doctors help us," my daughter mused to me later on, "so we need you. Even though you don't know as much as Daddy."

Charming. Reminds me of the time when Barry first went back to work, and was telling Jamie about what was required in becoming an engineer. "You have to pass lots of exams," he explained, "which means you have to answer a lot of questions to see if you know the answers to them. Then you have to go to university and do lots more exams."

"I think," Jamie mused to me later that evening, "I'll be a doctor when I grow up. Because I don't know the answer to very many questions."

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Anti-prostitution laws: the trouble with the Swedish Model

It's Friday the Thirteenth, so I'm blogging for decriminalisation of prostitution.  For the backstory to that apparent non sequitur plus my general views on the matter, read this post.

This time around, I thought I'd write about a commonly-discussed prostitution law that's usually known as the Swedish Model (as that was the country that thought it up) and sometimes as the Nordic Model (as other Nordic countries have since adopted it) and is often put forward as The Answer To The Problem Of Prostitution.  I picked this one because it's a prime example of a law that's supposed to be for the benefit of prostitutes, but in practice causes them major problems that could be avoided by decriminalisation.

The Swedish Model, simply put, is to make it technically legal to work as a prostitute, but illegal to visit a prostitute.  Well, not literally 'visit', of course – if your best friend happens to be a prostitute, you're still quite free to pop round to her house for coffee any time she happens to invite you.  'Visit' in the sense of 'be a client of a prostitute'.

Let's look at what this means.  Supposing I were to experience some cash flow problems and to decide, after some consideration of the options, that my best bet for making the necessary money was to charge for sexual services (1).  Accordingly I find an interested man, we agree on a price, we do the deed, and he pays me (and I presumably then go and pay my latest mortgage payment or gas bill or whatever I needed the money for).  If this were to take place in a country that's adopted the Swedish Model of prostitution law, then that man would now be a criminal.  For engaging in a mutually consensual and mutually acceptable act,he could find himself subject to a fine, a criminal record, and possibly a prison sentence.

It would make not a blind bit of difference how carefully I'd considered my decision beforehand, how certain I felt of it, how polite and pleasant he was while hiring my services, or how happy I was with the whole transaction after it had taken place.  It wouldn't matter that, according to the law in my country, I have been considered fully capable of making my own sexual decisions for the past twenty-five years.  It wouldn't matter that, had we chosen to do the identical things for free, the law of the land wouldn't have had the slightest interest in us.  In short, under the Swedish Model the question of whether I had consented to what had just gone on would not matter, because I would not be considered capable of giving consent to it. 

So what, exactly, is the idea behind criminalising consensual and harmless activity?

The Swedish Model seems to be based on the beliefs that

a) having sex for money is the one job so unpleasant it's impossible that nobody in their right mind would ever willingly choose it.  Therefore, all women in the job must either have been forced into it by violent pimps or traffickers, or they must not be in their right mind and therefore their opinions on the matter can be disregarded.

b) prostitution is inherently a Bad Thing anyway, and thus ought to be stopped, but doing this via a model that frames women as helpless victims with no say in the matter is more politically correct than doing it via a model that frames them as evil fallen women.

Now, the fundamental problem with this is of course that the first of those beliefs isn't true and the second is an extremely questionable opinion. And, while people are entitled to their questionable opinions, if they want to enshrine them into law to be imposed upon others then they ought to be held to a rather higher standard of evidence. 

Even in the one area where the reasoning behind the law does hold up as ethically solid – the desire to help those women who actually have been forced into prostitution – it's very debatable whether it's doing a blind bit of good.  Dodillet and Ostergren's paper The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success And Documented Effects, and Jordan's newly-published essay The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering, both examine the effects of the law in practice, and both point out that there is simply no conclusive evidence as to whether the law has helped reduce forced trafficking in the sex trade in the countries where it's been implemented.  (One particular concern that neither paper mentioned on this subject, by the way, is that some women in this situation have actually managed to escape their plight thanks to the help of a client who found out what was going on.  A law that puts clients at risk of being arrested themselves if they approach the police with concerns therefore has the potential to backfire tragically as far as protection for trafficking victims is concerned.)

In addition, the above two papers raise a number of concerns about the impact that this law is having on prostitutes themselves.  I'd strongly recommend that anyone interested read one or both of the full papers (available online at the links I gave above) as there's no chance of me doing the full arguments justice.  However, probably the most worrying are the reported accounts of the effects that it's had on streetwalkers. 

Streetwalkers – prostitutes who pick up their clientele on the streets, rather than in brothels or via escort agencies or personally advertising – account for a minority of all prostitutes, but are the group that best fit the stereotype of prostitutes as vulnerable women living a desperate existence.  The huge spectrum of working conditions that a prostitute might experience, starting at the top end with high-class escort workers who spend much of their time in expensive hotels and command huge hourly fees, hits bottom here.  Much of the streetwalker trade takes place in their clients' cars, which is an extremely dangerous place to be if your client turns nasty.  Their rates are a lot lower.  They're much more likely to be arrested than off-street prostitutes.  Rates of drug addiction are much higher.  They're a lot more likely to be in desperate straits emotionally and/or financially.  So, if the Swedish Model actually was – as its supporters often claim – helpful to all those poor vulnerable prostitutes who need rescuing from the misery of their lives, this is exactly the subsection of the world's oldest profession that you'd expect to see benefiting from it.

According to reports, it is in fact causing them significant and severe problems.

The problem is, of course, that if someone is working in such an unsavoury job it's generally because she's very, very short of other options in her life.  Using the force of the law to drive away a large proportion of their customers doesn't change whatever life circumstances have led them to this point.  All it does is to limit their already limited options even further.  They still need to earn the money, but they have fewer clients to pick and choose from.  That means they may be more likely to feel their only option is to accept unpleasant clients or to agree to acts at which they normally would have drawn the line (potentially including sex without condoms).  On top of that, because of the need to avoid the police, they have to ply their trade on the less well populated, more dimly lit streets.  They have to rush through the initial negotiations for fear of being caught, and that means less chance to assess their potential clients and pick up any worrying or off-putting vibes from them.  All of which can put them in a lot more danger.

So, overall, the Swedish Model looks like pretty bad news for prostitutes.  It's bad news in practice because of the extra difficulties it causes for them and the significant extra danger it inflicts on the most vulnerable women in this job.  And it's bad news in principle, because it's fundamentally based on the idea that prostitutes are not considered capable of making their own decisions about something as important as what work they choose.  That last, of course, could be bad news for other women as well.  Speaking for myself, I really don't want a law on the books that boils down to 'If a woman makes sexual choices outside of what society sanctions as appropriate, she can thereby be considered incompetent to make her own decisions.'  That could be a very scary road to go down.

 

(1) I do wish to point out that this is a hypothetical example.  In the first place, I wouldn't break my marriage vows for love nor money; in the second place, I already have a way of making money from activities that involve seeing people in states of undress and doing a lot of the sort of things that make many people wince "Ick! I could never do that".  Of course, working as a doctor doesn't command nearly as high an hourly rate as Maggie used to earn in her career, but it's still the job I love and I'm sticking with it.  And I defend the right of a prostitute who wants to keep her job to do the same.

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Life with my son

Welcome to the March 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With Special Needs

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how we parent despite and because of challenges thrown our way. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

 


For the second time, I’m taking part in the Carnival of Natural Parenting despite not considering myself a Natural Parent, in response to a topic that happened to be relevant to my unnatural self as well.  The topic this month is ‘Parenting With Special Needs’.

My son Jamie, now aged seven, is autistic.  He’s not what you might think of when you think of an autistic child; he doesn’t spend his days sitting in corners rocking unresponsively, locked into his own little world.  He’s fully verbal, attends a mainstream school, and loves to tell you about his computer games, cooking, and the things he’s learning about space and planets at school this term.  But, if you met him, you’d pretty soon notice some unusual things about the way he acts. 

When I say that he loves to tell you about his computer games, that doesn’t really cover it; he will talk incessantly about his computer games, and, while I appreciate that this is within the bounds of normal behaviour for a seven-year-old, the way that he does it isn’t.  He’ll describe the game in obsessive detail without ever giving you any sort of general explanation of what it’s about, unable to see the wood for his focus on every tree.  If you try to stop his monologue to do something else it will freak him out.  So will any attempt to stop him when he’s fixated on an idea or way of doing something (including an idea that someone else in his life should do something in a particular way).  It’s often not obvious in advance when that is – he’s not one of those children who need every little detail of the routine always to be the same, but, when he has got it into his head that things should go a particular way, any expectation that he change his plans without warning will cause all hell to break loose.  He doesn’t really understand how the way he acts can affect the feelings of others.  He doesn’t really get the normal social conventions that other people pick up easily enough to take for granted.  He manages at school only with full-time one-to-one assistance from a teaching assistant and a lot of flexibility on the school’s part about how much of the curriculum he actually does. 

Communication can be a problem because, while Jamie superficially seems to have very good verbal skills, but it really isn’t the way that he most easily takes things in, and I’ve had huge problems with getting his attention to ask him or tell him things.  This can be extremely frustrating, all the more so because he seems able to understand perfectly well when he wants to and it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking he’s just being naughty and ignoring me.  But he isn’t; he genuinely has a problem processing what he hears, and the fact that he often does manage to deal well with that problem doesn’t change the fact that it is a problem.  He’s a lot better at it than he used to be, but it will never be the easiest way for him to take things in.

The key, with this, has been to write things down.  Whether it’s something as simple as the choices available for lunch (for a good while, I had a standard menu saved on my computer to print out a list of choices from which he could pick) or a more complicated issue that needs a social story to help him understand what he should be doing, writing rather than talking has been a huge help.  It seems appropriate; my husband and I met on a social group on the Internet, and now, twelve years later, here we are communicating with our first-born child in writing.

I’ve written before about my attempts at trying positive discipline with my children.  Jamie’s difficulty in communicating his wishes definitely made this harder at first.  Before I’d ever heard the term ‘positive discipline’, I’d devoured Faber and Mazlish’s ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk‘, with their description of solving discipline problems by presenting the dilemma to the children in an empathetic way (“Oh, no!  You and your sister both want to have the yellow cup!  Looks like you both really want it!  What can we do?”) thus inspiring the child to come up with his or her own answers.  I loved the idea and looked forward eagerly to trying it out with my own children as soon as they were old enough (I read it when Jamie was a toddler).  But, for a long time, it was an absolute non-starter for Jamie – he would carry on screaming with no concept whatsoever of the possibility of trying to solve the problem, leaving me wondering unhappily what I was doing wrong.

(I eventually found Ross Greene’s books ‘The Explosive Child‘ and ‘Lost At School‘ to be useful reading here, although they aren’t about autistic children; they’re about working with children who don’t have the normal social skills and do need a lot more prompting through the whole problem-resolving process than the children in the ‘How To Talk…’ examples.  They didn’t teach me anything very new about the process, but the books did help me to realise that it was OK for my son to need quite a bit more guidance through the procedure, and that doing so was helping rather than stifling his development in this area.)

But, as the years have gone by and Jamie has matured further, I’ve found that problem-solving is starting to work.  It’s working more often in the short term, and, little by tiny, tiny bit, he’s picking up more of the skills of self-control and conflict resolution that I want him to learn in the long term.  And, as I’ve learned more about the principles of positive discipline, I’ve realised that they are, if anything, even more important with my son.  Instead of seeing unwanted behaviour as ‘naughty’ and something to punish him out of, I’ve learned to see it as his lack of ability to behave appropriately, and his need for more teaching and guidance.  Or as his response to the stresses that freak him out and that I need to learn to understand.  Often when Jamie acts in a way that seems ‘naughty’ or inappropriate, it’s because some seemingly ordinary part of life is freaking him out in a way it wouldn’t freak out another person, or because, for all his verbal ability, he’s just not very good at explaining his feelings to us. 

I remember one occasion, a couple of years back, when, in the middle of a screaming fit, he made up a rule that Katie and I weren’t allowed in the living room.  I don’t remember the exact rule – I think he defined a narrow age range that was permitted in and that would have excluded both me and Katie while including him – but I do remember him screaming it at us, screaming over and over “You are not allowed in the living room!  Get out!”  I was outraged – how dare he try to make up rules about who was or wasn’t allowed in a room of the house that we all shared?  And then I suddenly thought about what it must be like to be a little boy with autism who really needed a few minutes on his own, just a bit of space, but who wasn’t good at explaining his feelings in words and was feeling too overwhelmed by life right now to phrase his reasonable request in a socially acceptable way.

“Jamie,” I asked him, “do you mean that you want to be on your own in the living room for a bit?”

“Yes,” he said a bit more calmly.

“Then the way you say it is ‘Could you please leave?'”

He repeated the phrase, and I scooped up Katie and left.  Because, after all, once I’d got past the way he was asking to what he was asking, it was a perfectly reasonable request; heaven knows I’ve needed a few minutes (or hours) on my own for down time in the past.  He simply hadn’t known how to ask for it without having a meltdown.  By understanding where he was coming from, I’d been able to help him with the skill he needed.  (And, after that and other similar occasions, he’s since then been able to echo the phrase back when it’s needed at least some of the time.)

Life with Jamie feels normal to us because it is what’s normal to us.  It’s just the way our parenting experience has been.  Maybe it would have felt different if we’d had Katie first and were always comparing Jamie to a memory of a neurotypical (the autistic word for ‘non-autistic’) child of the same age, but, as it is, we pretty much take his differences in our stride and figure out ways to work with them or work round them.  Parenting is about accepting, respecting, and working with your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Parenting Jamie, with his particular and less common strengths and weaknesses, is just the variation of that principle that we have in our lives.

People so often hear ‘disability’ or ‘autism’ as dark scary words warning of dire fates, but to me, those words have always been positive.  They’re words that open up new worlds of interest to be explored, worlds that hold some of the keys to understanding my son and to understanding more about people anyway.  And they’re words of comfort and reassurance; the words that told me – and still tell me, in times of doubt – that Jamie’s differences and difficulties aren’t due to any failing on my part as his mother, that they’re not evidence of anything I should be doing differently or more of or less of.  They’re words that have freed me to understand him as he really is.

Being Jamie’s mother is often difficult, usually interesting (apart from the whole listening-to-monologues-about-computer-games bit, which is mind-numbingly boring), often challenging, frequently fun, and nearly always exciting and intriguing.  And writing all of that kind of feels like a ‘Duh’, because, well, isn’t that what being anyone’s mother is like?  Obviously, if the genetic shuffle had dealt me a neurotypical child for my first as well as my second then my overall parenting experience would have been rather fundamentally different, but I’m glad that wasn’t how things ended up; I like having one child of each variety, one with whom I can have a fairly normal parenting experience and one who’s stretched my experience and my ways of seeing the world into new and interesting shapes.  Our story isn’t a story of tragic struggle or heroically overcoming the odds or finding new meaning in life – none of the traditional themes for Disability Stories.  It’s just about my two children – one disabled, one not – and about how grateful I am to have such a funny, interesting, challenging, lovable, wonderful little boy and girl in my life.

***

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon March 13 with all the carnival links.)

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Revenant

Given that the whole point of struggling through NaBloPoMo was to overcome my writer's block and get me posting more, you'd be forgiven for thinking at this point that it really wasn't worth the trouble, given how scanty my posts have been lately. To be honest, I'm not sure what happened; first there was the scramble to sort out all the Christmas preparations that I should have done weeks earlier combined with trying to get that mammoth post about bedsharing risks written on my other blog, then there was the Great Bedtime Nightmare of the Christmas holidays where the children's always-shaky journey towards bedtime disintegrated completely under the weight of holiday excitement and one, other, or both of them would take until midnight or later to get to sleep every. bloody. night. that holiday, then shortly after I got that improved somewhat Jamie got worms and his sleep went haywire again, then I was trying to actually spend a bit of time with my poor husband after all those shattered evenings, then I'd got out of the habit of blogging, and suddenly here I am two months later with nothing written other than one post about Nativity plays and one about sex workers' rights.  (At least the content makes up in eclecticism for what it lacks in quantity.)

So, what's been happening?  I really do need to get back to posting the snippets more regularly, even if not on a daily basis this time; without that, life with the kids blends into a sort of general fog of thrilled contentment at their general wonderfulness laced with frustration at what little devils they can be when it suits them.  Some specific moments:

When it snowed, a few weeks ago, I showed Jamie the white-blanketed world from the window when he woke up.  "It's really cool that Great Britain decided to do that," he commented.

………..

Katie: "What's sawdust?  Does it come from a sword?"

………..

Jamie (who has been learning about the solar system at school, and also, as luck would have it, has a placemat at home with facts about the different planets on it): "Saturn is really big, and it's got 61 moons!"

Katie (whose placemat shows a map of the world): "Russia's really big also, and it's got THIRTEEN moons!"

…………

Me, to Jamie: "I was born in 1970."

Jamie, surprised: "How do you remember that?"

 

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Their bodies, their choice

Last year, clicking through links from different blogs, I came across one called The Honest Courtesan, written under the nom de plume of Maggie McNeill.  I've been reading it ever since; it makes a pleasantly interesting change from all the heated debate over parenting-related issues that is my more usual fare.  Maggie is a former escort worker who blogs in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution.

I've never had a problem with the concept that prostitution should be legal; I've always found it far harder to see why it shouldn't be.  I have never seen a voluntary exchange of sex for money as being something that should be the law's business (except insofar as any profession should be assured of good working conditions), and I'd like the portion of my taxes that's spent on law and order to be spent on clearing up things that actually do harm other people rather than wasted on arrests of/sanctions against people who weren't doing anyone any harm in the first place.  So the idea of decriminalising prostitution (1) wasn't a new or startling one to me.

However, reading Maggie's blog, and some of the sites she links to, has been an education on the complexities of the subject.  And an eclectic one.  Maggie writes a lengthy post every day, nearly all of them on the topic of prostitution, and she approaches it from every angle imaginable.  Current events, legalities, ethics, philosophy, personal experience (never written to be racy or titillating, but do be warned that she does get pretty frank and open about some of the details), history, and even the odd bit of prostitution-related fiction (and, no, it's never pornographic fiction).  As you can imagine, I've learned a lot about the subject, and a lot about anti-prostitution arguments and some of their flaws.

So, a couple of years back, Maggie made a suggestion.  For reasons explained here, she suggested making Friday the Thirteenth a day for speaking out in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution. I wasn't reading her blog then, and so I didn't see this until her follow-up post on May 13th of last year; as it happens, this is the first Friday the Thirteenth since then, and thus the first opportunity I've had to use this day to speak out on the subject.

While most happy to oblige, I wasn't sure where to start on dealing with the complexities of this subject and the many myths around it. As it happens, however, the perfect cue came up a couple of weeks ago; the subject of prostitution somehow came up in the middle of a blog debate about something utterly different, and one commenter summed the different positions up rather nicely:

What a certain sector of feminist thought argues is that sex work can be *chosen* and is a legitimate and potentially empowering choice for women. Those that disagree will often retort that no one would choose prostitution if other options were reasonably available and though they may not be “forced” at gun point they are “forced” by lack of access to education, poor support for addictive illnesses, shredded social safety nets, etc.

And so, for this Friday the Thirteenth, I want to reply to the position described in her second sentence.

First of all, there is an important factual error to note here: the claim that no-one would choose prostitution if other reasonable options were available. In fact, many women do precisely this. Last year, in Wales, researchers surveyed women in the non-streetwalker forms of prostitution (brothel work and escort work) to find out about their reasons for entering the world's oldest profession, and were surprised to find that – far from being forced into it by desperate circumstances – the majority of the women they spoke to had willingly left good careers in other areas to go into sex work.  Similar findings were emerging from research done in the USA.

While many people will have a hard time believing those findings, the fact is that a career in the higher-end forms of prostitution has many benefits – it's very well paid, women can set their own hours, working conditions are often excellent (they may see their clients at luxury hotels, and at least one post on Maggie's blog is a review of the quality restaurants to which her clients took her before, or sometimes even instead of, getting down to the part of the evening more usually associated with the job), and there is no doubt that they're going to have a lot of satisfied clients. So, in fact, it isn't so surprising to find that there are women such as Maggie who genuinely enjoy their work in prostitution and who choose to stay in the job in spite of having other perfectly good options available to them. In fact, the biggest problems that many women face with the job are simply those thrown in their way by the restrictive laws around the profession that have been put into place in misguided attempts to help these women.

However, it is also, of course, quite true that many other prostitutes are only in the profession due to being forced into it by straitened circumstances – they don't like the idea of having sex with multiple strangers, but they need the money and either they have no other way of getting it or the other jobs available to them are worse. (2) And this fact is often used as an argument for trying to stamp out prostitution – that anti-prostitution laws are needed to help and protect those women forced into the profession.  What this argument ignores, however, is that if someone has picked Option X as being the best available to them out of a limited selection of disliked options, all that removing Option X does is to leave them with the options that they've already concluded are even worse.

If a woman has decided that prostitution is the least unattractive option available to her at this time in her life, making it illegal is not going to change whatever life circumstances have led her to that decision.  It may leave her with one of the choices that she has already decided to be more unsavoury to her (destitution, or working at a worse job); or it may leave her working as a prostitute anyway, with her lot made worse by the added burden of anti-prostitution laws.  Either way, it is not going to help her.  She does not need anti-prostitution laws set up in a misguided attempt to 'protect' her – she needs help and support coupled with an acknowledgement of the fact that, if she is an adult of sound mind, she is the person best placed to make decisions about her own life and that she should have the right to do so.

So, for the above reasons and many others: yes, I do agree that sex work can be freely chosen.  I do agree that it is a legitimate choice.  I do agree that it can be potentially empowering for women.  And, while I recognise that there are large numbers involved in the industry who do not find it empowering and would not want to be in that job if they had a better option, I also recognise that making it illegal is not the answer to that problem.  Today is my first Friday the Thirteenth of blogging for the rights of sex workers: I hope it won't be the last.

 

Footnotes

(1) There is, apparently, a technical issue of wording to be considered here: apparently legalisation is not the same as decriminalisation.  Legalisation requires prostitution to be subject to whatever laws and licencing procedures the government may deem relevant, and governments, apparently, have an appalling track record on that score; their attempts to set up legal frameworks to control and regulate prostitutes have invariably led to laws that have done far more harm than good.  Decriminalisation apparently means that you stop making it illegal without the requirement to throw in a bunch of totally unnecessary and problematic new laws.  I am not a lawyer and don't play one on TV, so I do hope I got that distinction right.  In any case, this is why decriminalisation is the term that Maggie uses and the one that I have used here, other than in the footnoted sentence describing my views prior to encountering her blog.

(2) I'm not, in this post, discussing the far more uncommon but far more tragic cases in which women are forced into prostitution in the more literal sense of being under threat of violence to themselves or their families if they don't comply, such as trafficked women.  I think that people from all sides of the prostitution debate can agree that trafficking is a hideous crime that needs to remain illegal, regardless of what happens with prostitution laws.  However, although making prostitution illegal is often advocated as a way of fighting sex trafficking, there is little evidence that it is of any help; meanwhile, anti-prostitution laws harm the women who are involved in the profession by choice.

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‘Tis the season

It's been a blur of last-minute on-line orders, frantic scribbling of cards, and vows to do Flylady's 'Cruising Through The Holidays' scheme next year like I should have done (hang on a moment – didn't I make that same vow before?) but I did, finally, get enough Christmas preparations done in time.  And, after that, Christmas itself was wonderful.  Barry's family were staying so I had people to fob the kids off on while I curled up for two blissful days of indulging in books and chocolate.  And, yes, I did emerge for long enough to help with meal preparation, but Barry did the bulk of that, producing a magnificent Christmas feast and some decent recipes for the leftover turkey this week. 

For the Nativity this year, Jamie's school gave a performance of 'The Supersonic Lamb', which, like 'The Hoity-Toity Angel' the previous year, followed the theme of 'Conceited being journeys to stable and, as a result, learns valuable life lesson about importance of not being conceited'.  As Jamie's in Year 2, he got to have a speaking part this year instead of just being part of the chorus, and chose to be one of the three kings.  We did have a minor crisis at one point when he decided, after everyone had learned their parts and it was far too late to change, that he wanted to be an old sheep instead and if he couldn't do that he wasn't going to be in the play at all – when I heard that I was all, good grief, child, even Edward VIII required rather more inducement than that to make him give up on kingship and, by the way, if you feel that way I happen to have this rather nice mess of pottage here which I'm willing to trade for the very reasonable price of only one birthright and would I be right in thinking that you might be interested… but, in fact, when I saw the production I did see where he was coming from on this, as the old sheep actually had really important parts.  (They had a dispenser-of-wisdom role, repeating the play's moral – "It doesn't matter at all whether you're first or last, just as long as you try your very hardest" – at frequent intervals throughout.  The kings had a couple of lines and one song.)  Anyway, after some persuasion all round Jamie reconciled himself to being a king.  And a very fine job of it he made, standing up there in his cloak and crown and joining in the lines and the song with the rest, and I wiped away a happy tear or two as I watched.

Katie's nursery had a short sing-song of children's carols and Christmas songs, which Katie had great fun singing around the house for days beforehand, occasionally with the conventional words but more often with her own misinterpretations and/or cheerfully scatalogical changes of the lyrics mixed in.  At one point, collecting the blocks of the marble run I'd been trying to put away, she told me they were food that we had to take to Away In A Manger's house to make the Baby Jesus lie down.  We were supposed to put her in a Christmas-themed costume, but when Barry found an angel costume in Sainsbury's for her she insisted she wanted the ballerina one instead – I came up with the idea of putting her in that and saying she was the fairy on top of the Christmas tree, but, when I told Katie that plan, she insisted that she was a ballerina.  And, no, not the Sugar Plum Fairy either (my next idea) – a ballerina.  (I did not succeed in explaining to her that the Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by a ballerina.)  So, a ballerina she was – I figured (correctly) that no-one was going to turn her away from the nursery carol concert because her costume was inadequately Christmasy to be allowed in.  Anyway, it was better than Buzz Lightyear, which had been her initial suggestion.

On the day itself, Katie squealed in delight at all the new Duplo she could add to her collection and sneaked Pringles and chocolates throughout the day, and Jamie accepted his new gifts with equanimity and spent the day playing his various electronic games both new and old.  And I enjoyed my time off, dived into my stack of new books, and am feeling quite refreshed and at least somewhat ready to face whatever the new year may bring.

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