Feminists and Evangelicals compete to rescue fallen women

The British Humanist Association is complaining about a government decision to award a contract to what it describes as a "vital service for trafficked women" to the Salvation Army. Previously, the funding for the Poppy Project worth around £2million per year had gone to Eaves, a feminist group that campaigns against the sex industry.

The BHA describes this as a "shock move" and "deeply concerning." Praising Eaves as a "pioneering women’s charity" which was "motivated solely with regard to the well-being of those women", the statement - attributed to Naomi Phillips - dismisses the Salvationists as homophobic and "a church motivated by a clear mission to evangelise". The BHA fears that the church will "discriminate and proselytise" in the way it provides the service, and calls upon the government to bar religious groups from tendering for contracts such as this one.

This is all a bit rich. Eaves might not disturb the peace and quiet of your local high street by banging tambourines, but their evangelical zeal is, if anything, even greater than the Sally Army's.

Motivated by an ideological opposition to all aspects of the sex industry - on the grounds that it "helps to construct and maintain gender inequality" - Eaves campaigns for tougher anti-prostitution laws (for example, for a Swedish style ban on all purchasing of sex, however consensual) and has been accused of carrying out and publicising misleading research into the prevalence of sex-trafficking and the damaging impact of lap-dancing clubs. The organisation was a favourite of the last government and of the Home Office, whose own "research" and consultation exercises tended to draw heavily and uncritically on Eaves/Poppy papers such as "The Big Brothel" and "Sex in the City".

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon of Birkbeck is prominent among those who have drawn attention to the apparent conflict of interest involved. Two years ago she wrote:

There are many linked organisations with no interest in questioning ramped-up figures on trafficking. The Poppy project's parent organisation, Eaves Housing, has an income of more than £5m, and a large sum of this comes from the Home Office. Eaves' objectives are threefold: to provide accommodation, advice and support directly to women and children escaping domestic violence and women trafficked into prostitution and domestic servitude; lobbying and responding to government papers on violence against women; and researching and highlighting issues around violence against women, including prostitution, trafficking and domestic violence. The Home Office gives money to the Poppy project, which in turn lobbies the government. If this sounds rather circular, it is.

The 2006 accounts describe the cosy relationship it has enjoyed with government. "In addition to direct service provision Poppy research and development team has been nurturing relationships with both government and non-governmental agencies. Members of the project joined Mr Paul Goggins, the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office, on an official UK presidency visit to Lithuania and following a meeting with Mr Mike O'Brian, the solicitor general, were invited to attend the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking." (Page 8).

As "Eaves plan over the long term is to be recognised as one of the leading agencies on violence against women issues in the country [sic]" (page 2, pdf), one fears this implies corporate domination over the interests of, rather than provision of service to, women. Funding comes from the Home Office (via the Office for Criminal Justice Reform) and also from the former Association of Local Government, London Councils. This is worrying because these same organisations are the ones being lobbied by Poppy, Eaves and Object.

Brooks-Gordon has also described the help offered by the Poppy Project - which has been criticised for making help conditional on women leaving prostitution altogether and turning in their pimps - as "like the worst sort of Victorian philanthropy". Eaves denies any link between its campaigning and its housing provision, but there would certainly seem to be a conflict between providing objective, non-judgemental support to genuine victims of sex-trafficking and other abused women, and the organisation's absolutist opposition to the sex industry as such.

The foreword to The Big Brothel, written by Eaves chief executive Denise Marshall, brackets prostitution together with rape and child sexual abuse as a form of "violence against women". She allows that women (there is no mention of men, that would spoil the intellectual conceit) in the sex industry may be socially excluded and have poor access to housing and health support but rejects the one solution - decriminalisation - that the evidence suggests would most benefit sex workers and protect them from the risk of harm. This is because the report insists that prostitution is itself a form of abuse, that even the suggestion that some sex workers are not coerced "serves to create a notion of genuine victims and non-deserving women" and that any relaxation of the legal regime would "amount to official endorsement of these constructions of gender identity".

Marshall goes on to compare prositition, once again, with child abuse.

For those who say ‘prostitution has always happened and can never be eradicated’, imagine what the reaction would be if solutions to child sexual abuse were presented in this way. If governments were to say “well we can never stop it, so we must make sure that the children suffering it can have care after the event,” there would, rightly so, be universal outrage.

The equation of adults making informed choices (but choices with which feminist activists disagree) with abused children particularly telling. And the repeated reference to "construction of gender identity" shows where her true priorities lie: not with the social circumstances of the particular women they aim to help but with the theoretical framework through which they view the sex industry. The implication is that even if decriminalisation objectively benefited the women involved (as it probably would) Eaves would still oppose it because it "sends the wrong message".

And what of the Salvation Army? Interestingly, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson claimed that awarding them the contract would be "much better for the victims of trafficking" because they offered a wider geographical spread and because, unlike Eaves, they were prepared to extend help to men as well as women. (Their bid was also 60% cheaper, presumably because they are not entirely reliant on public money.) In other respects, however, the Army's agenda would seem to dovetail quite closely with Eaves'. In 2009, Nick Davies noted that they were as eager as the feminist group to exaggerate the scope of the trafficking problem. And it's fair to say that the organisation has been rescuing fallen women for much longer than Eaves has. Here, for example, is Captain William Baugh's appeal for funds to build a refuge for such unfortunates in 1883:

On Sunday night last amongst about a dozen others who came out for salvation, four prostitutes came out and (as far as we can judge from appearances) they are real. They were there on Monday night and testified. But then what hope have we of them while they are at large in their own town? Can nothing be done? Can we not raise a home in which to place them under proper Salvation Army management? We could get others no doubt then, but till then we are spending our strength for naught with such precious souls who cannot call their body or soul their own. We have got to get them away from the dens in which they are living, but are at a loss to know what to do.

More recently, the Army has involved itself with such campaigns as scare-mongering about prostitution and sex-trafficking during previous World Cups and a push to remove prostitutes' business cards from phone-booths. The latter was described "as a very positive signal of the ongoing commitment to anti trafficking policies and policing which determines to put an end to this ‘modern slave trade'." Which is, to say the least, debatable.

At least the Salvationists are up-front about their religious motivation. If anything they tend, as individuals, to be considerably less judgemental than their ideologically-driven counterparts in the feminist movement. As regards their motivation and objectives, there's little to choose between the two groups: they use the same language of degradation and objectification, and they share the same fundamentally conservative view of a woman's "proper" sexual role. When it comes to sexual illiberalism, religious and feminist groups have long been in covert and sometimes overt agreement. Yes, the Salvation Army probably at some level want to convert the women they rescue to Christianity. But Eaves want to convert them to their brand of doctrinaire feminism. Is that really any better?


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