Call to arms

// 19 February 2008

Charlotte Cooper of Subtext Magazine shares her thoughts on the launch of the new Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution

My main problem with the feminist movement today has been the lack of calls-to-arms, or a defining moment or idea to bring us together. Suffragettes were smashing authority and being trampled underhoof of horses. Second wave feminists threw open the doors of the office to show the glass ceiling and ingrained sexual harassment. And we, the third wave, struggle against a tide of pole dancing keep-fit clubs that proclaim ‘yes, this is feminist’, and float in the ever-changing tides of the so called ‘noughties’ with no uniting cause.

Imagine then, my unbridled glee when I saw the open invitation to the first meeting of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution. The new, pro-active group could very well define this era of feminism by liberating women from the chains of sexual abuse and physical violence, and pushing into place new, firm and fair legislation. Co-founded by Finn Mackay, founder of the London Feminist Network and lifeblood of Reclaim the Night, and Julie Bindel, a woman whose association with direct action feminism shatters the bones of the weak minded like plate glass windows in a sex shop, are putting in place a movement to shape the future.

Both women, however, took a back seat in the proceedings of this meeting chaired by Hilary McCollum, which aimed to breathe life into the coalition and kick start the activism to come. In an auditorium filled with nervous energy and eager faces, Aravinder Kosaraju, Jan MacLeod, Denise Marshall, Fiona MacTaggart MP and Gunilla Ekberg helped build the case for the FCAP and feed these feminists with the words they would need to spread the cause.

Kosaraju began by explaining her work at the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping. CROP offers much-needed support to the swathes of family members left in the cold when a child is professional groomed for prostitution and removed from the family fold. She explained how young girls are targeted, introduced to a myriad of men, drugs and drink, and forced down a road that will only see them find help when it’s too late to catch the original perpetrators. The crime of grooming children into prostitution is one which remains massively unrecorded, there are no national statistics. Confronted with this onslaught of information on the dark corners of abuse and coercion, one could only assume we were too far behind to mount an attack.

Then Denise Marshall, director of Eaves housing for women and Fiona MacTaggart solidly built a case for a change to the current English law – although prostitution is not illegal, prostituted women are targeted through proclamations against soliciting, while men get off scot free. Marshall ripped apart the sacred myths we see repeated so often in the press, about prostitution being ‘the oldest trade in the world’ and pushing ‘the happy hooker’, while MacTaggart described the overly beaurocratic practices which are stalling change or real debate in Parliament. The combined effect of these two speakers provided great gusto to the cause – and the birth of this new coalition.

Hurrah then for Scotland, or more accurately Glasgow, where the city council has taken a hard line on prostitution, rightly tagging it as commercial sexual exploitation which should be stopped. MacLeod, part of the Glasgow Women’s Support Project which works alongside the council in coalition with voluntary sector, women’s police services, mental health and homelessness groups, enlightened the group as to the huge steps they were already making to clean up the country. Providing intervention when wanted, women are given a real exit plan to reclaim their place as equals in society. The courses of educating the public through training days and events are a star part of this plan, invoking discussion and debate, something at the heart of the successes in Sweden.

Gunilla Eckberg, Swedish specialist advisor on prostitution law, co-director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and general fempresario, rushed us through an array of ideas, legislation, information and anecdotes surrounding her enormous experience in breaking and making the system. Through lengthy campaigning to educate the people, parliament and police, she described how Sweden has become a favoured model for much debate – although not forgetting to touch on the current, conservative government’s lacklustre implementation of the country’s legislation – which criminalises men who buy sex but not women who sell sex. Some critics have argued that this has driven prostitution underground, but Eckberg explained that this is not possible – prostitution has already migrated online, for fear of arrest on the streets. She successfully framed the reasons why this approach would make an easy transition into the British statute book. And, as the last speaker, she clearly defined the point of the evening: where do we go from here?

Mackay made a rousing statement to close the meeting. We were to strike while the iron was hot; this was our time to make a change. In a movement underlined by apathy and confusion, occasionally tainted by the ‘me, me, me’ of the current climate rather than the grouped voice of change, this may unsettle some. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to organise for anything so important, and rather than shirk this responsibility we should embrace it. FCAP offers the chance to get involved and frame the changes we make to our society, a chance you would be stupid to pass up.

Help make prostitution synonymous with the violence, rape and abuse and you will be taking the first steps to reforming the way women are seen in society. One step closer to being people, no longer objects to be passed around for fun and satisfaction.

Appetites now thoroughly whetted I hope you can make yourself heard through the official website or subscribe to the Yahoo! group.

Comments From You

ceejay1968 // Posted 19 February 2008 at 5:13 am

Awesome article.

Tonight, my local news in the U.S. had a segment on prostutition via Craig’s List postings. The investigative reporter took the issue to the state’s Attorney General, who contacted Craig’s List. Within 24 hours, all such listing for the two major cities in my state had disappeared, but then, a day later, by press time, more had appeared again.

It’s like whack-a-mole.

The Attorney General seemed to assume the gripe was that children could access the explicit images that are now being shown along with the prostitution ads on Craig’s List, so after the one round of whack-a-mole with the site, his attitude on the news was “Well, parents just have to watch their kids.”

Idiot. The point is not just the kids. The point is that this is illegal and it is trafficking in women. I am going to write to him (it IS a man – or did I need to clarity, really?).

Helen // Posted 20 February 2008 at 11:47 am

While it’s great to feel fired up by the flame of feminist solidarity and activism, I’m shocked and grieved to see this activism happening at the cost of other women. As Laura Woodhouse herself said on this very blog (/blog/2008/02/hsd), while as feminists we may be revolted at the sexual exploitation and objectification of women by men, prostitution is still an option that many women will choose over less well paid work or no work at all. To “call women to arms” to “clean up the country” results in persecuting those vulnerable women that FCAP is doubtless trying to help. The “hardline” Scottish example has led to increased victimisation and violence against sex workers: for evidence, visit SCOT-PEP’s website, particularly the article here:, which shows how attacks against sex workers have increased since a “hard line” on kerb crawling was introduced.

Solidarity is great, but I can’t identify with a feminism that takes an ideologically hard line that victimises some of our most vulnerable sisters, and silences their voices.

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