Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Stormont inquisitors enjoy sex worker witch-hunt

Laura Lee was quizzed by members of the justice committee

The Salem witch trials did not end in 1693. They're still going, albeit in a modified format, up at Stormont today. Alright, so the justice committee hasn't hanged anybody for being possessed by the devil. But for smug piety, overweening arrogance and thick bull-headedness, you just can't beat this lot.

Watching them in action, you could very well be back in Salem in the final years of the 17th century. We already have the requisite sin-saturated climate, the thoroughgoing distrust of women. All it would take is Pilgrim hats, lace collars and a few pairs of knee-breeches and you'd be there.

"Ours is a divided empire, in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer": DUP MLA Paul Givan, chair of the justice committee? No, it was actually Reverend John Hale, the witch-finder from Arthur Miller's famous play of the Salem trials, The Crucible. But close enough in outlook, to my mind.

I've seen the unedifying spectacle of the justice committee in action before. When representatives of Marie Stopes stepped forward, entirely voluntarily, to answer questions about how the charity was complying with criminal law on abortion in Northern Ireland, they were treated with suspicion and elaborate contempt by certain members of the committee.

It seemed, at times, as though the Marie Stopes women were themselves on trial.

More recently, respected Queen's University criminologist Graham Ellison has had his own bruising encounter with the committee, when he gave evidence concerning Lord Morrow's draft Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, which aims to make it illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland.

A private email, which had somehow found its way into the hands of DUP member Jim Wells, provided a crude and very convenient means of distracting attention from Dr Ellison's important analysis of this radically flawed Bill, shifting media focus instead on to comments made in the email about the DUP's benighted attitude to gay people.

There was barely a word about the real issue that the academic was there to speak about: his judgment, shared by many, including myself, that this ill-considered, ideologically driven legislation – cooked up by an unholy combination of radical feminists and religious fundamentalists – will do more harm than good to the most vulnerable people in the whole situation: sex workers themselves.

Which brings me to Laura Lee, a long-time sex worker, who campaigns for the rights of people who work in the sex industry and who, therefore, knows what she's talking about when it comes to the potentially deleterious consequences of Lord Morrow's Bill.

Now, how do you think the members of the justice committee reacted when they came face-to-face with a real-life prostitute?

I sat in the bath last night and watched the whole 45-minute hearing at Stormont on the internet. By the time it was over, the water was cold and I was boiling with indignation. And I'm not the only one. Lee's treatment was so bad that she has registered a complaint with the Assembly.

Dr Brooke Magnanti, the former sex worker known as Belle de Jour, wrote to David Ford, the Justice Minister, protesting that the committee was "inappropriately hostile, insufficiently objective and forewent listening to Laura's testimony in favour of mean-spirited point-scoring and blatant attempts to break and shame a witness".

Lee does much of her sex work with terminally ill and disabled men, offering them a discount from her normal rate in view of their circumstances. In one of the most repulsive parts of the hearing, Paul Givan asked her, "Why would you exploit a disabled individual and make him pay?", as though Lee was targeting defenceless men and entrapping them into having sex with her.

Several of Lee's disabled clients wrote to her afterwards, expressing their disgust at this snide jibe, which they considered as insulting to them as it was to her, given it undermines their own powers of autonomous decision-making.

Where is the dignity? Where is the objectivity? Where is the ordinary, decent respect for a different point-of-view? The posturing men of the justice committee clearly fancy themselves as grand inquisitors, when in reality they mistake boorishness and stupid sneering for incisive interrogation.

It is our public representatives, not sex worker Laura Lee, who should be ashamed of themselves.

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