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From abortion to sex work, why the state shouldn’t control women’s bodies

Behind the opposition to decriminalise both abortion and sex work lies the belief that some women are incapable of physical autonomy

Last week, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), alongside key women’s organisations, launched a campaign to decriminalise abortion. Across the UK, abortion is still governed by a piece of Victorian legislation that, outside rigid conditions, renders it a criminal offence.

Punitive law decreases safety, says BPAS. In this, the campaign resembles that led by Amnesty International last year, which called for the decriminalisation of sex work.

In both campaigns, cries for decriminalisation, bodily autonomy for women and anyone with a womb were at stake. Yet one was met with wholehearted support, while the other provoked fury.

In 2007, when Amnesty suggested that abortion should be removed from criminal law, a furious coalition of Catholic bishops claimed the charity was risking its "excellent record as a champion of human rights". Roll on to the sex work campaign of 2015 and the organisation was accused of the same, this time by a number of feminist groups (and the politically-astute Meryl Streep).

Does the crossover make you uncomfortable? Because crossover there is.

Behind the opposition to decriminalise both abortion and sex work lies the belief that some people – and both abortion and sex work are associated primarily with women, so specifically, some women – are incapable of physical autonomy, that their choices are so socially harmful, so deluded, they must be legislated against.

In both cases, abolitionists refuse to listen to those whose lives are at stake: the sex workers, and the abortion activists.

Feminists have traditionally united to fight for reproductive rights, but there is division even here. Last year, the Telegraph carried out a "sting", which highlighted the – in reality, virtually non-existent – problem of gender-selective abortion. Should the practice be illegal? No, say groups such as Abortion Rights UK, labelling gender-selective abortion coercion an issue of domestic violence, not of reproductive health.

“Criminalising ‘types’ of abortion is not the answer,” says the organisation. “This is punishing women for gender inequality in society.”

As with abortion – and with surrogacy, another bone of contention – so with sex work. Under capitalism, almost every form of labour reflects and is shaped by social inequality. Yet there’s no call to ban, for instance, the cleaning industry, which props up class, race and gender hierarchies.

Simply surviving can be a feminist act, can be "empowering" – that elusive, largely useless concept – but it isn’t always. Not every choice we make will fit within our dreams of political utopia. No one is claiming that agency always equals feminism. However, the removal of it, the demand for state intervention in women’s choices, is deeply anti-feminist. There’s nothing radical about denying us agency over our bodies.

A view of the state as a responsible arbiter of justice, and of the police as a benign force for good, is one that comes from a place of privilege. For many people, it simply isn’t the case.

Abolitionists who support the criminalisation claim to be protecting the vulnerable – unborn babies, trafficked women – but by allowing the state increased access, the outcome is yet more danger.

BPAS points out that those who are unable to access abortion on the NHS, even in England and Wales, tend to be migrants, women experiencing domestic violence, and the underage. These are the groups most at risk from criminalisation. Buying abortion pills online and carrying out a DIY home abortion is illegal.

Similarly, police have been shown to disproportionately target migrant and drug-using sex workers. Increasing law enforcement – for instance, by criminalising the buying of sex, as Northern Ireland has done – has been condemned by leading human rights organisations around the globe. In neither Norway nor Sweden, pioneers of the “end demand” model, has trafficking decreased. The inverse relationship between safety and police involvement is felt more keenly still in the Global South and East.

Feminists of carceral inclination will find an ally in Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who led 2015’s campaign to ban gender-selective abortion and is now crusading to criminalise the buying of sex. While her surface sentiment – to protect women – is laudable, what underlies it is less pleasant.

Since 2010, Bruce’s party in government has slashed 50 per cent from domestic violence and sexual abuse services. Tory cuts have been repeatedly shown to hit women the hardest. Why then the special attention to abortion and sex work? Perhaps both are violations of the sacred family unit. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both Bruce’s campaigns neatly align with her party’s anti-immigration agenda.

Sex work, surrogacy, DIY abortions – the controversial things we do with our bodies – may reflect inequalities, desperation sometimes, but they are not the inequality themselves.

In the US, the race gap in abortion (women of colour are five times as likely to terminate a pregnancy than white women) has been heavily exploited by pro-lifers. But the gap is the reflection of a problem – poverty and unequal access to resources – not the problem itself.

Human rights aren’t a hypothetical concept. Opposition to decriminalisation, built on subjective distaste, ignores the real, often imperfect, situations we find ourselves in.

Criminalisation feeds stigma, creates danger. Abortion may upset you, sex work may disgust you, but removing survival options will solve none of the inequality you claim to despise.

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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.