Aaaaand another

Before I had children, one of my passions was for religious debate – in particular, comparative Judeo-Christian religion and debating Christian proselytism attempts in light of details of the origin of Christianity. (Look, don’t knock it; everyone needs a hobby.) When I had my first child, I found my interest in this was subsumed by my interest in debating the ins and outs of parenting dogmas, which, believe me, is similar enough to religious debate to be an excellent substitute.

Lately, I’ve been moving back into the world of religious debate; so, of course, I’ve decided it’s time to have a blog about it. So I have now set up Thoughts From An Atheist. If you like discussions/debates on contentious topics on the subject of religion, do come and join in. If not, then, well, don’t. :)

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Filed under I think this line's mostly filler

Day In The Life

Welcome to the March 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Day in the Life

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 given us a special glimpse into their everyday.


Some brief backstory here: This is the third time I’ve written a submission for the Carnival of Natural Parenting despite the fact that – and I appreciate this may well be considered a vital criterion that I’m missing here – I’m not part of the Natural Parenting movement myself. (I aim to live and parent responsively and consciously, all right – I’m just not particularly crunchy about it.) But I like blog carnivals, and, for the third time, a carnival topic has come up that’s made me think ‘Hey, I’d find it really interesting to have a shot at writing about that.’ The first two I took part in, in case you’re interested, were my philosophy of parenting and my experiences with special needs; this time, the topic is a delightfully all-inclusive invitation to share a typical day in hourly photos or in a diary entry, and I figured I’d have another shot at writing a submission. The Carnival organisers can always turn it down if they object. Maybe I should have called it ‘A Day In The Life Of An Unnatural Parent’?

I prefer writing to taking photos, so I went for that option; besides, that has the advantage of not showing anyone how messy my house is. (Taking photos of consultations at work would also not be an option, for obvious reasons.) I liked the idea of doing it on an hourly basis, so I’ve stuck with that format. This is, as closely as I could remember and record it, my account of where I was each hour from waking up on Friday, 27th February.


05:30 – In bed. The alarm goes off and, with the skill of long practice, I roll over with barely-opened eyes, press the snooze button, and slip effortlessly back into sleep. I don’t have to get up until around 6, but I set the alarm for half an hour earlier to give me that much time to surface gradually.

06:30 – Kneeling next to the dishwasher, unloading the bottom tray. I’ve already hauled the load of towels I put in yesterday from the washing machine in the kitchen to the dryer in the garage and poured out a morning cup of tea to brew ready for my husband, so, when I’ve finished the dishwasher and got my own breakfast ready, I’ll have a bit of time to sit and relax with my laptop while I eat. As long as Jamie doesn’t wake up early, which he’s been doing more often lately as his growing body sheds his sleep needs. A few crucial quiet minutes to myself before the day proper begins.

07:30 – Heading into the kitchen to make breakfast for Jamie. The rituals of getting the children ready in the mornings are proceeding nicely on schedule – Jamie is dressed, Katie has her tights on and is deciding which story to choose while she has her hair brushed. Both of them are still in bed; Katie in her own, eyes still firmly shut against the day, and Jamie in mine, a waystation on the way downstairs and into full wakefulness. One bowl of Choco Rice Pops, no milk (yeah, not the most nutritious of breakfasts, but I’m glad to at least be starting to use up the boxes of cereals that have been taking up kitchen space since Jamie went through a brief and unsustained period of cereal enthusiasm a year or so back). And Katie’s drink, to carry upstairs for her to drink before she has her hair brushed.

08:30 -Patiently, matter-of-factly, disentangling Katie limb by limb from the sprawl of pillow and duvet that’s made its way onto the floor next to her bed and carrying her downstairs. Ignoring the fake wailing, accepting the real frustration of a not-a-morning-person (‘But I’m nocturnal!’) having to get up and face the day’s responsibilities, teaching her by example the lesson that you keep going regardless and do what needs to be done.

09:30 – Poring over a patient’s notes on the computer screen, deciding whether I can sign the repeat prescription for Temazepam for him that showed up in my pile. Whatever I decide about it, best do it quickly – the first couple of patients are arriving, and I want to at least be on time for the start of surgery, even if that state of affairs is inevitably destined to be a highly temporary one.

10:30 – Seeing a post-op patient, answering his questions, updating his records. It’s a long one and I’m slipping more deeply into the inevitable running-lateness that is my constant companion in my working life.

11:30 – Typing up the notes of the latest patient, fingers flying so as not to lose time. (Teaching myself touch-typing when I was seventeen was among the smartest decisions I ever made.) At least that one was a quick one – I made back a few minutes, got myself from 45 minutes behind to a mere 40.

12:30 – Sitting with another complex one, listening, advising, arranging the one practical bit of help I can offer towards this person’s insoluble problems and giving the sympathy and understanding that probably matters as much or more. And slipping further behind again while I do it, but for once I can do that without pressure – with only two more left to see and, oh joy, no visits on the list for me today, I can give this one the time that’s needed.

13:30 – And another. The second-to-last was here with a routine matter sorted out in a few minutes (and I shared his frustration at the one-hour wait he’d had to have it sorted, while still knowing I wouldn’t have done things differently), but the last patient’s another complex one. But zie is the last, and, free from pressure apart from the hunger that I’ve learned to put on ‘pause’, I work my way through to whatever limited resolution there is to be found for this person at this time.

14:30 – Typing again, documenting the phone call I just made about a blood test result and the medication decision that the patient and I collectively reached. Must hurry – I should be leaving in the next few minutes and still have a couple of things I want to get done before I go. After catching up on the test results/incoming mail over lunch, I allowed myself a few minutes to decompress and read the internet, but it drifted into a few more than it should have and now I’m pushed for time again in this life where a few minutes here or there make a difference.

15:30 – Driving home, the children in the back. We’re normally home by this point, but we stopped to get a cake for Katie from today’s school cake sale (Jamie’s had already been bought and consumed before I collected Katie; his class lets out fifteen minutes earlier, and, as much of a pain as that is with a hyper decompressing child to keep out of trouble for fifteen minutes every day before being able to get his sister and leave, it’s at least useful for beating the queue at the termly cake sales). It’s been a good day for the children overall, but Jamie lost his ever-volatile temper after breaktime in an escalating situation that ended up with him kicking one of his TAs and pushing another; now he’ll have to write letters of apology to them both and lose thirty minutes of his computer/DS time as a penalty (we remain committed to trying to teach the children through discussion/explanation/coaching, but the practicality is that sometimes we need a deterrent as well). He was furious a minute ago when I reminded him of this and he’ll be furious again in another minute when he remembers, threatening me with unspecified dire fates if I dare to ‘delete’ any computer time, but for a minute in there he’s giggling over something he’s said or remembered or heard from his sister, the ever-precarious balance tilting back towards cheer again.

16:30 – The kitchen again, cleaning out the lunchboxes I didn’t have time to do earlier. It’s been a difficult hour, with Jamie, moody over his lost computer time, still muttering dire warnings to me. Not to mention messing around with his sister’s Geomag creation until he inevitably ended up squashing it and screamed indignantly about it being an accident. (Because, hey, who could have possibly predicted that repeatedly pretending to sit on it would end up with it accidentally being squashed! Funny how these things just happen! Though, to be fair, he did reassemble it for her.) Usually at this time of day I can leave the children alone for short periods of time while I get other things done, but today I’ve needed to be there, a low-key calming presence, and, more to the point, someone alert and on guard in case I need to step in and prevent a situation from escalating.

Which was tiring, and annoying, and the kind of joyous relief that has me thanking the universe for mercy. Because, a couple of years ago – less – he wouldn’t have had the restraint to keep it to muttering. He’d have been screaming and fighting and I’d have been physically wrestling him down to keep him from grabbing the forbidden DS, and grabbing the flying fists and feet to keep from getting hurt, and trying desperately to juggle this with meeting Katie’s demands as well. Now, he can keep it together well enough for me not to need to do more than sit with him and keep an eye on him. It’s slow, but he’s growing. He’s maturing. I love seeing it.

But it still meant the darned lunchboxes didn’t get cleared out earlier.

17:30 – Waiting for Jamie to finish watching something on my computer so that I could reclaim it. We have limitations on his computer time because otherwise he plays it every waking minute and his brain disintegrates into screaming mush – DS and Wii only after 4 pm on school days, computer not till after 5.00. But recently he’s started learning computer coding at school and discovered all the free programmes on the Internet for children who want to learn to code, and a new passion has been born. It’s definitely one I want to encourage, so I’ve decided that coding should fall under the ‘available from 4 pm’ category (useful skill or not, it does still involve sitting in front of a computer screen and he needs some kind of a break from that), but for some reason that probably made some kind of sense at the time I’ve been letting him have my computer to do it rather than changing the time limits on his computer. Which can sometimes make it hard to reclaim the computer when I want to use it. At the moment, Jamie and Katie seem to have found someone else’s coding programme involving pictures of a kitten creating coloured lights to music. Amazing what you can find on the Internet.

18:30 – Starting to get dinner onto the oven trays, ready for cooking. The delays earlier have led to dinner starting later than I’d meant to; then again, Friday dinner is always later than I mean it to be because by that time of the week I’m always tired and struggling to find the motivation to get up off the sofa and get stuff in the oven. Oh, well. Weekend in sight. I get out the somewhat random assortment of frozen and tinned foods that has accreted into our normal Friday night meal plan (cooking is not, shall we say, quite the forte of our household).

19:30 – At the dinner table.Dinner table conversation, alas, isn’t something we’re that great at either. Barry normally watches the news over dinner; I feel I ought to insist on a TV embargo with Sociable Conversation, but the reality is that it would end up being a monologue by Jamie about his computer games, with Katie interjecting now and again with random and somewhat surreal comments about kittens. So it’s another of those issues I’ve always just put off till some unspecified and nebulous later time. I skim through the week’s BMJ, figuring I might as well be getting something useful done with the time.

20:30 – Upstairs in the bathroom, getting Katie ready for bed, taking a few minutes to floss and brush my teeth while I wait for her to finish on the toilet (which can be a looooong wait). Jamie’s still downstairs, maybe talking computer games with Barry or maybe lost in one of his own computer monologues complete with sound effects as he plays through assorted imagined game fragments in his head. Until a few months ago we always did things that way round, but then Katie protested the unfairness and so now the children take turns to be the one who gets a bit of extra time downstairs (much to Katie’s chagrin, because since Jamie had several years of being the second one upstairs then she should have several years of being the second one upstairs or otherwise it will be THE UNFAIREST THING EVER!! I informed her that she already had. She wasn’t mollified.) I’ll call Jamie up when Katie’s ready for bed. Trying to get them both ready at the same time tends to be… counterproductive.

21:30 – Stretched out across my bed. The children are finally in bed, though I’ll still have to listen out for them – mostly they settle down these days, but when one of them starts talking or making noise things escalate rapidly through a vicious circle of setting each other off into heights of overexcitement if not calmed down quickly. But for the most part my time at this time of day is my own. I’ve put some laundry away and soon I’ll have to go downstairs, wipe off the countertops and dining room table so I don’t come downstairs to a mess in the morning, do the exercises I didn’t have time to do earlier, write more on this blog post before the details of the day fade too far into obscurity. But for now I’m just enjoying the rest, the quiet, the chance to read undisturbed for a few minutes. If I can keep my eyes open long enou…


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Filed under Here Be Offspring, The doctor is OUT. To lunch.

Another project

So, I’ve been plugging away at this parenting gig for a good long time, and I’ve now reached the point where I have children of nine and six. In fact, by this time next week, I’ll have children of ten and seven. Wow – it seems like only a couple of geological ages ago that I was getting up for night feeds. So, for those of you still struggling through the baby and toddler years, my PSA of the day is this: Yes, those rumours about how those stages end really are true. Hang on in there, and some day you too will have children who can eat the same food as you (even if they won’t), make it through most nights without requiring feeding or attention, take themselves off to the toilet and deal with all needed post-excretion cleanup activities, entertain themselves without completely demolishing your front room, and have interesting conversations to boot.

Anyway, one of the things about this age I particularly like is school. Part of that, of course, is the whole thing of having my children looked after for a few hours most days at the state’s expense, but there’s also the fact that I find it fascinating. I love hearing about what they’re learning and what topics they’re working on and seeing what Katie gets for home learning, which is what they call homework these days (Jamie is in a specialised autistic unit and doesn’t get any). And it’s something I’ve often wanted to blog about, except that I can’t think of any particularly pithy observations to make about it – just lots of rambling on about such gripping stuff as the fact that Jamie’s current class topic is Britain from the Stone Age through to the Iron Age whereas Katie’s for last term was Hot and Cold Places and we haven’t had the handouts sent out about this term’s topic yet. All of which, as riveting as it is to me, would be also of interest only to my mother, possibly some other family members, and the occasional Googler for information on what UK children might get set for homework at such-and-such an age.

While this might not seem like such a problem given that it’s not as though I write anything else on this blog these days, I do at least in theory plan to start using it for edgy observations on the state of the world or something. And then, the other day, I suddenly realised the perfect and obvious solution to this problem was to set up another blog for the sole purpose of writing about school-related stuff. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it years ago.

And thus did it come about that I have set up The School Chronicles, where I will waffle on about school-related stuff to my heart’s content while saving this blog for any actual interesting posts I ever get round to writing in the future.

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Filed under Here Be Offspring, Onward and upward

An Abundance Of K(C)atherines

(Short note: I wrote this post back when the date says, saved it with the plan that I’d give it a reread for any edits prior to posting it, spent a lot of time not getting around to it… and I am now getting back to it in January 2015. Normally I just post my late posts when I post them, but this was downright ridiculous and anyway the story comes from last June, so I’ve posted it with the original date. This may of course be confusing to anyone who checked my blog in the meantime and knows perfectly well that this post wasn’t up until June, so, there you go, that’s the explanation.)



“Guess how many imaginary friends called Katie I have?” Katie asked me this morning.

“Um… three?”

“No. Guess again.”


“Not quite.”


“Yes! That’s right! There are the SuperKatie twins; that’s one and two. The Hero Katie twins; that’s three and four. And Commander Katie, who’s in charge of them and has a sword. You do not want to make her angry because she might hurt you.”

“Um… she’s got an imaginary sword” I pointed out. “How much is she going to be able to hurt me?”

“A lot.” Katie clearly wasn’t having any of her imaginary friends dissed here.

Meanwhile, Katie has made some real friends at school, one of them a girl called Catherine. Her mother and I finally, after some false starts, managed to set up a date for Katie to visit last Friday, and the two of them played happily together for hours, decorating Catherine’s living room to look like a park so that they could have a picnic there, and finding a dead bee and (Catherine insisted) an orange tarantula in the garden, which Catherine rapidly retrieved her plastic sword for defense against (yup, let me know how that works out for you, child). Then I invited Catherine’s mum in for a coffee when she dropped Katie off and the two girls promptly disappeared upstairs to see Katie’s room, reappearing some time later to ask for flour, salt and sugar for the strength potions they were making for the fairies. I provided small amounts of all of those, but drew the line when they returned later to ask for butter.

“But we need butter! The invisible spell book says so!” Catherine protested.

“Sorry.” I stood firm against the apparently unassailable logic. “The other things you had can be vacuumed up if they spill on the carpet. Butter makes too much of a mess.” (Also, we only had olive spread. I decided not to get into discussions of how that might affect the potion quality. Strong fairies with better cholesterol profiles?)

“Why don’t you use invisible fairy butter?” Catherine’s mother suggested.

“Fairies don’t have butter,” Catherine insisted.

“Yes, they do! They use it to fly.”

“Fairies do not use invisible fairy butter to fly,” Catherine explained patiently. “They use pixie dust.

Catherine’s mother conceded the point, but I remained firm on not conceding the butter, so the two of them retreated and (I later learned) made do with the last of the rose lemonade instead, which Catherine assured Katie was authorised as an adequate substitute by the invisible spell book. Equipped with all of that plus chalk dust, the multicoloured bubble mixture we’d bought a couple of weeks ago, and gold glitter glue, they mixed happily away upstairs and, by the time we eventually went upstairs for Catherine’s mother to retrieve her daughter, had a nice little laboratory going on the table in the children’s bedroom, from which they’d produced two brimming pots of work-in-progress strength potion (and slopped a lot of water onto the library books, which may never be the same again). Catherine was solemnly directing operations – “Shine the torch on that for two minutes, Katie! It needs some light!” – and proved difficult to extract, but eventually she departed with promises all round that she could come and visit again shortly and finish the potions then. In the meantime, Katie will keep enjoying the company of her imaginary friends.

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Filed under Here Be Offspring

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.


Filed under Deep Thought, Here Be Offspring

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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Filed under Family values, Glory, glory, hallelujiah

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.


Filed under Here Be Offspring

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."


Filed under Here Be Offspring

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.


Filed under Deep Thought, Sacred hamburger