Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.
The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill (NI)
Sarah Thin, Durham University
On the 20th of October, the Northern Irish Assembly passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, a controversial new law which purportedly seeks to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation by, inter alia, criminalising the act of paying for sexual services. It is likely to become law by mid-2015. By targeting the buyer as opposed to the seller (a novel approach within the UK), the proposals aim to recreate the supposed success of the ‘Swedish model’, the idea behind which is to reduce demand within the sex trade thereby reducing levels of sex trafficking.
There has been heavy criticism of the proposals: a survey of sex workers has found that 98% of them oppose the proposals and 61% believe the new law would make them less safe. Many argue that the Swedish model ‘strips women of their agency and autonomy’ by criminalising the consensual buying and selling of sex, has increased the stigmatisation of sex workers, and its success appears to have been greatly exaggerated. While no-one would deny that human trafficking is a major problem in today’s society, claims that the majority of sex workers in Northern Ireland are victims of trafficking have been shown to be unfounded, and many believe the plans will simply force the sex trade further underground, making it even more difficult to combat the issue and provide support to victims. These proposals, while presumably well-meaning, conflate the two separate issues of trafficking and consensual sex work and are likely to be at best ineffective, most likely very harmful. We must hope that the new campaign for a similar law in England meets with a more considered approach.
Sexual Consent Classes in Oxford and Cambridge
Bethany Houghton, Durham University
Oxford and Cambridge universities have implemented new workshops about sexual consent for incoming first year undergraduates. These workshops, which carry the same weight as typical fire, health, and safety classes, are the first of their kind.
The workshops began with a quiz about statistics on the rates of sexual crimes in the UK, highlighting figures such as the 80,000 women who are raped each year, and that 52% of female students have experience some kind of harassment in or near their institution. After this, there was a discussion about different scenarios and whether consent had been given – these included a queer relationship and a scenario featuring intoxication. The sessions concentrated on positive consent and the subject matter ensured the focus wasn’t on the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ rape myth and was instead centred on respecting others.
There has been some criticism that the “brightest brains in Britain” shouldn’t need consent explaining. However sexual consent does not feature on the national curriculum and most students arrive at university with only rudimental biological sexual education and a lack of understanding on the issue of sexual consent. The damning statistics show that there is clearly a problem within universities campus and Oxford and Cambridge aren’t immune from this, therefore there is a clear need for conversations on sexual consent. Half hour workshops are unlikely to be a panacea for sexual violence however anything that attempts to stem the tide and help reduce rape culture must be welcomed.
Oscar Pistorius – violence against women in South Africa
Kate O’Callaghan, Durham University
Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced for five years for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, under the charge of culpable homicide. Pistorius killed his girlfriend of three months and that is undisputed, with Pistorius himself admitting to the shooting in a sworn affidavit just days after the incident on February 14th, 2013. As Pistorius would have the world believe, he mistook her for an intruder and did not intend to shoot her four times through a locked bathroom door. The argument of the prosecution – and indeed the view of many ANC women – is that Pistorius was aware she was behind the door and meant to kill her.
South Africa is a notoriously violent nation. A group of the Women’s League of the ruling African National Congress, most of them black, have expressed the opinion that Pistorius’ girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of an all-too-common crime, one that crosses all social and racial boundaries: domestic violence.According to a recent study carried out by the Medical Research Council, a woman is killed every eight hours by her intimate partner. The figures reflect the situation across South Africa.
The case has connected black and white South African women when their paths may not otherwise have crossed. The allegation that Pistorius may have abused his girlfriend has forged an unlikely understanding in a country where deep racial divides remain. The women campaigning during the trial said they did not know Pistorius or Steenkamp. He lives in an exclusive and wealthy community in a country where the average white household earns six times more than the average black household.
The Fight for Gender-Neutral Bathrooms
Gita Keshava, Durham University
On Monday, October 20, gender-neutral bathrooms opened on the streets of Shanghai. Although unisex public toilets have been increasing in other areas such as airports and railway stations, this marked the first time that they have appeared on the streets. These bathrooms are able to accommodate parents with children of a different sex, disabled people, and adults caring for seniors of a different sex. This is currently a trial, but every district and county is expected to have at least one by the end of 2014.
On Tuesday, October 21, the Trans*Action and Advocacy Student Coalition at San Diego State University, USA, demonstrated on campus with the aim to raise awareness regarding Trans* issues and the need for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. In addition, the student coalition has challenged students and staff to stop using gendered bathrooms for a week. It is the hoped that steps such as these will raise awareness of the difficulties that Trans* people face on a daily basis and bring to life the many problems that lie within the engrained binary of our world. No one should have to fear going to the bathroom, and it is the simple act of having gender-neutral bathrooms that makes campuses and communities safer for everyone.