Defending ROSA & a combative socialist feminist approach

The historic victory for the abortion rights has been a beacon for all those fighting misogyny worldwide. Unfortunately, in this context, ROSA has been subject to a smear campaign of sorts online. Some tweets and social media posts even lump ROSA in with right wing politicians who our movement had to fight head-on for years even for the right to a referendum. The vitriolic nature of the tweets would indicate there has been a whispering campaign for a whole period. It’s very regretful that misinformation and untruths have been used to sully the name of other activists on a widespread basis which makes it necessary to deal with the issues raised.

We would ask if you have seen or heard any of the smears listed immediately below that out of fairness you read this article and then judge for yourself if the attacks on ROSA activists are justified.

ROSA Socialist Feminist Movement has played a very active part in the repeal movement. As well as being part of Together 4 Yes, ROSA did did its own Time4Choice activities with over 8,500 Yes posters put up and tens of thousands of leaflets distributed. This includes the poster of Savita which had a real impact in the final week and half of the campaign. ROSA was originally initiated by women and LGBTQ members of the Socialist Party in 2013. As some of the smear also relates to points about the Socialist Party, this response is from Socialist Party activists in ROSA.

Mud-slinging — what’s being said?

The main accusations against ROSA activists are;

  • That ROSA is opposed to sex workers, in fact, that ROSA is actively campaigning to endanger and harm sex workers;
  • That ROSA’s direct actions with the abortion pills affected the supply of pillsand some who needed them couldn’t get pills;
  • That ROSA’s Buses did not really provide abortion pills to anyone;
  • That ROSA’s actions led to activists in the North being prosecuted;
  • That Socialist Party activists initiated ROSA because they tried and failed to take over the Abortion Rights Campaign, implying they are undemocratic and that ROSA isn’t a real movement;
  • That ROSA excludes the trans community.

If any of this was true, it would be damning. It is categorically untrue. The sheer breadth and nature of the accusations point to an attempt to sling mud hoping some will stick so that ROSA is demonised and damaged.

ROSA shares plenty of common views with others in the pro-choice and feminist movement. We are also different but we don’t believe we should be condemned for that. We will answer the points about sex workers and abortion pills and later we will explain why we adopt a militant campaigning approach; why we have serious issues with the impact that of the sex industry in society; and why we believe socialist feminist change is urgently needed.

But some quick responses to these accusations:

  • No activists in the North were prosecuted due to ROSA’s actions. Unfortunately this notion undermines ROSA’s attempts to help force meaningful change in the North.
  • Far from trying to control the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), which implies we are selfish and undemocratic, Socialist Party members supported its establishment to help organise people stepping into pro-choice activity. ROSA was launched because we felt that broader socialist feminist ideas are essential.
  • Saying that ROSA didn’t directly help people get abortion pills on our buses or generally, is not only untrue, it also disregards and dismisses the actual experiences of the hundreds of people we have assisted to access safe abortions along with Women On Web.
  • Ruth Coppinger TD, a ROSA activist, successfully pushed to ensure that the decriminalising of soliciting was included in law in 2017. Ruth also proposed an amendment to change the definition of brothel keeping to decriminalise sex workers who are simply working together indoors but not pimping or living off the earnings of other sex workers. Unfortunately that was voted down.
  • ROSA’s actions with the abortion pills did not cut the supply. In fact use of the pills trebled, helping more people with crisis pregnancies and playing a key role winning abortion up to 12 weeks.
  • Any accusation that ROSA is excluding of the trans community is highly offensive to ROSA’s trans activists. ROSA consciously aimed to include the trans community in its referendum campaign, ensuring that we had trans inclusive posters — eg “Stop Policing People’s Bodies”, all ROSA’s leaflets had trans inclusive language, and ROSA had a trans activist speaking about trans issues at its Yes rally in Liberty Hall. The trans movement in Ireland and internationally is vital and an inspiration.

Political and tactical disagreements inside movements are inevitable, however we have a problem with attempts to sully ROSA’s good name. But we reiterate, we are always willing to work with others and discuss disagreements in a friendly and productive manner.

Sex Industry

All feminists and the left should respect and support sex workers. However, there can be differences and debate about the role and nature of the sex industry itself. Neo-liberal capitalism has proliferated the possibilities for capitalists to expand the sex industry. Globally it is estimated to generate $186 billion profits a year.  The nature of work today is increasingly low-paid and precarious. This is especially the case for women workers and consequently, necessitates increasing sections of working-class women, migrants and LGBTQ people to work in the sex industry. The overwhelming majority of sex buyers are cisgendered men, and the majority of sex workers are women, both trans and cis, reflects patriarchal culture. Sex tourism gives a glimpse of the racist inequalities that the sex industry also reflects. The fact that sex buyers are usually economically significantly better off than the sex workers means that class, race, sex power inequities all intersect in this industry.

As its profits are secured through ideas of male-entitlement, the sex industry not only reflects but also perpetuates a culture that feeds male violence against women and gender non-conforming people in society broadly. In general sex industry magnates are both tapping into and fostering misogynistic, racist and transmisogynistic ideas in society — namely that women’s bodies, especially migrant and trans women’s bodies are something that can be possessed, and that their sexuality, sexual needs and desires are subservient to men’s.

The dehumanising notion that women’s bodies, non binary bodies, are objectified, commodified and are something to be possessed is therefore central to the sex industry. This makes it a dangerous industry for those working in it. In the US, where disgracefully in many states sex workers are still criminalised, the  American Journal of Epidemiology reported that sex workers suffer a “workplace homicide rate” 51 times higher than the next most dangerous occupation. In Germany where the sex trade is legalised, in 2007 the Federal Ministry found that 41% of sex workers had experienced violence while carrying out their work. All of this means it is crucial that sex workers can organise together for their rights to increase their safety, to challenge the discrimination and repression they often experience at the hands of the state.

Not only does the patriarchal culture of the sex industry pose dangers to those working in the industry, the growth and prevalence of the sex industry poses a danger to women and gender non-conforming people generally. This is because the industry relies on macho culture and has a vested interested in promoting these attitudes. Qualitative research (2008 & 2011) showed that men buying sex were more likely to commit violent acts and often had misogynist attitudes. More than a fifth of them reported enjoying feeling power over a sex worker. The growth of the sex industry and the macho culture that it oozes and feeds off, has a negative effect in society in which gender based violence is a daily reality. We have a generation of young people, led by young women and non binary folk, who are rejecting misogyny and victim-blaming and shaming of women’s sexuality and gender norms and the sex industry is overwhelming backward in its portrayal of women and gender roles. The notion that women’s sexuality is subservient to that of men’s that’s so prevalent in the sex industry, makes that industry an enemy of genuine sexual freedom and liberation.

For all these reasons, the sex industry profiteers globally are dangerous to all women and LGBTQ people. Peter Stringfellow, recently deceased lap-dancing club boss, said of his strip clubs, “Here no man is ever rejected. He doesn’t have to chat her up. A beautiful girl is paying him attention – that’s a powerful thing for a man.” This is why opposing the growth of the sex industry market is completely legitimate.

Supporting Sex Workers Rights

ROSA is a broad socialist-feminist force with activists who may have differing viewpoints on many topics including what exact laws should govern the sex industry. Of course we are all agreed that workers in the industry should not be criminalised in any way. Founding member of ROSA, Ruth Coppinger TD proposed amendments to the Sexual Offences Bill in the Dail last year to try to improve conditions and safety for sex workers including:

Deleting a section of the Bill that would have criminalised sex workers loitering for the purposes for soliciting clients.

Changing the definition of brothel keeping to decriminalise sex workers who are simply working together indoors but not pimping or living off the earnings of other sex workers.

An amendment requiring the government to review supports and exit services for sex workers that report traffickers, organisers of prostitution, pimps or brothel-owners to the Gardaí, including ‘Garda protection, regularisation of immigration status, financial compensation, access to employment, training and other exit services’.

Fundamentally, there is no legal magic bullet that eliminates danger for sex workers, precisely because the ideas of male entitlement at the core of the industry, are dangerous. This includes the New Zealand legal model, in which migrant sex workers are unable to work legally, therefore creating a parallel underground industry with migrant sex workers being criminalised. It includes the Swedish model with many indications that Swedish men go abroad to buy sex. Neither Ruth Coppinger nor ROSA was ever part of the Turn Off the Red Light that campaigns for the Swedish model. Concretely on the question of criminalising the buyers of sex, Ruth did not support this in the Dail in 2017 due to safety concerns for sex workers.

Answering Specifics

Some accusations that ROSA oppose sex workers stem from the “Stand With Her” demo on 31 March 2018 in which 8,000 marched on the occasion of the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict in the Belfast rape trial. This was a spontaneous movement and ROSA activists in Dublin, alongside Ruth Coppinger, helped coordinate the arrangements and felt that, within reason, anyone who wanted to speak should be allowed to. When the demonstration was proposed at a protest on Thursday, a number of people approached us about speaking on Saturday. On the Saturday people spoke of their own experiences, one spoke about being a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and of experiences in the sex industry. Some comments offended some demonstrators who saw them as stigmatising those who work in the sex industry. These were that person’s personal views and clearly didn’t represent the views of all demonstrators, nor of ROSA. In our view it would have been wrong to censor anyone speaking at such an event. We invited the Sex Workers Alliance and Consent in UCD to speak a couple of days in advance but unfortunately not all the groups were able to attend. Instead of doing anything wrong, ROSA facilitated a powerful demonstration in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence, and consciously tried to be inclusive, including of sex workers’ representatives.

Comments by Ruth Coppinger

Screenshots of a comment from Ruth Coppinger’s personal Facebook account in 2014 have been reproduced to portray ROSA negatively. The comment, “Sex work”? A despicable euphemism”, was off the cuff, and a reaction to attempts by some to sanitise the impact of the multi billion Euro/Dollar sex industry on society but Ruth recognises that the comment was offensive to sex workers and should not have been made.

Separately, as Amnesty International was moving towards a policy that the whole sex industry, including pimping should be decriminalised, Ruth commented that they shouldn’t go down this road on her personal Facebook page and a person commented sardonically that yeah it would be awful if these workers got, and then listed a series of important rights. Unfortunately, Ruth responded “Yes it would be”, continuing in a sarcastic vein, thinking the idea she would oppose such measures unbelievable.

For this article Ruth Coppinger comments directly as these Facebook posts have become central to attacks on ROSA itself. “I felt the growth of the sex industry and its link to the increase in violence, rape culture and oppression in many parts of the world was being ignored but I completely accept that my comments were wrong and I’m sorry for any offence caused to any sex worker. During the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill in the Dail, I moved specific amendments for the decriminalisation of sex workers so that they are not harassed by the Gardai and for State supports for those seeking other employments. I will continue to support measures to increase sex workers’ safety.”

The urgency of anti-capitalist struggle and socialist change

We have a different analysis than some others of the nature and impact of the sex industry. We believe the development of sexism, chauvinism and male violence against women and the LGBTQ communities cannot be divorced from the huge growth in the sex industry.

This is why, while supporting measures that directly help and assist sex workers, we oppose facilitating the further spreading of the sex industry. It depends on the details of the specific situation, but in a general we are opposed to decriminalisation or legalising of pimping. The very nature of the sex industry is that it can never be made safe. What is guaranteed is that with the extension of the sex industry more women and LGBTQ folk, in the industry and in society generally, will suffer the dangerous consequences.  In all instances, what’s crucial is the building of a broad struggle against sexism, against poverty and precarious work, for a life for everyone that affords real freedom and choices.

Neither ROSA nor the Socialist Party opposes sex workers. For the genuine reasons mentioned we are opposed to the sex industry and its effects. We have clarified our views on the sex industry and sex work, we feel others should clarify what their own views are on the sex industry. Do they accept that the misogyny it pedals has a negative effect, or do they feel it has a positive effect or no effect at all? This is an important question that should be addressed.

The rights of sex workers and all workers to housing, to free healthcare, to security, not precarity, are being eroded everywhere. Global wealth inequality and the rise of the hard right wing in a number of states must serve as a warning to the vital necessity to build a mass left political alternative. New economic crises for capitalism are looming — the need to challenge capitalism as a system, through an organised, mass working class struggle is in fact an urgent need. Lack of choices in life for the majority of the world’s population, the prevalence of sexist culture and many industries profiting directly from that, none of this is acceptable. While we advocate to reduce harm and make positive reforms, we believe there is an urgent need for socialist change.

ROSA & the Abortion Pills

ROSA’s focus on Abortion Pills was a very important contribution to the pro-choice movement. The abortion ban was sustained on the basis of hypocrisy, where the political establishment had the safety valve of people travelling abroad for abortion. In the years before repeal, it was clear that the political establishment could not hold back the growing demand for a referendum. The more contentious issue became what legislation would follow. The political establishment, backed up by the press, argued that only limited legislation would be accepted — ‘hard cases’ only such as rape and fatal foetal abnormality. ROSA’s direct actions with the abortion pills were a conscious attempt to change the debate — if more and more were having abortions every day on Irish soil, a proposal for only a very limited legal reform could be made untenable.

ROSA’s abortion pills buses and train flouted the law and aided people get safe abortions with WomenOnWeb.org, in actions that gained major national and international publicity. Given the deep-seated public support, the state was forced to turn a blind eye, making a mockery of the laws and 8th Amendment.

There is absolutely and categorically zero basis to the claims that ROSA in some way jeopardised, or is jeopardising pregnant people’s access to the pills. In fact, the opposite is true. Every single person who contacted Women On Web, or ROSA directly around our major public actions received the help and medication they needed, but furthermore, our actions enormously increased knowledge about and therefore access to the pills. In fact, over just two days in October 2015, the Bus ensured 25 people accessed abortion pills. Research carried out by Abigail Aiken shows that, of the 38 women she interviewed who had accessed safe medical abortions at home, at least half identified major public actions as the way they found out about the pills.

It is true that some activists voiced opposition to our plans for the Abortion Pill Train (2014). However, every ROSA public action with abortion pills was a joint initiative with the doctor activists of Women On Waves and Women On Web (WOW). Women On Web is the largest telemedicine organisation providing abortion pills on the island of Ireland, and in many states across the world. Here is a statement from Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, director of WOW supporting ROSA’s actions with the pills http://rosa.ie/supply-use-abortion-pills-ireland-role-rosa/. Rebecca says that “the actions with ROSA created more awareness about the possibility of the use of abortion pills in Ireland and the number of women being able to have a safe abortion with the pills increased,  more than 200 per year since we (ROSA and Women On Web) started our collaboration.” The other reputable provider, is Women Help Women.

The argument put forward in opposition to the ROSA and Women On Web action (and we were grateful of support from Sinead Kennedy, Richard Boyd Barrett TD of People Before Profit, and other activists who travelled on the train) was that it would alert the state and that this would put the supply in danger, putting the most vulnerable people at risk. Though we did not think this was likely, we said if that happens we will find other ways to get the pills in, always working hand in hand with Women On Web. We said that the status quo cannot be accepted, that it must be actively fought, that the actions would increase the knowledge and confidence of those who need to access abortions in Ireland, those who are barred from travelling due to poverty, lack of citizenship, being in an abusive relationship etc. That it would empower, as well as directly challenge the narrative of only limited abortion, precisely because women taking control into their own hands would shift the debate.

As it happened, the Abortion Pill Train did not have any effect on pills being posted into the North. In the North, some pills being seized at customs (usually all pills are seized in the South, so pills are posted to the North) goes up and down at different times. Before and after the most recent Abortion Pill Bus (March 2017) for a few weeks some of the pills from Women On Web were seized but we don’t think this was necessarily connected to the bus. Some activists had police turn up at their homes around this time. The investigations have now been dropped and no charges are being filed. ROSA worked with Women On Web to ensure every person who needed to access the pills during this time, was able to access them in time.

As well as the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly, the reality of increasing numbers of people accessing abortions with pills within the state was an absolutely vital factor in the Oireachtas Committee advocating 12 weeks on request, something that Ruth Coppinger in particular really put on the agenda of the Committee. As Dr. Peter Boylan said about the pills, the genie was ‘out of the bottle’. Every key figure in the political establishment who was forced to change their position on abortion has cited the pills as a key factor.

We recognise of course that many pro-choice activists aid pregnant people access safe abortions at home. All who have done so, have done literally life-saving work. However, ROSA is the only pro-choice campaigning organisation that consciously took the abortion pills out of the private, into the public sphere in order to ensure it became a real factor to push for the change needed. This is putting anti-capitalist ideas into action — i.e. being confident that change can come from below, from the young, from the working class, and absolutely no illusions in the deeply conservative political establishment and an unrelenting commitment to build pressure through struggle as the only way to create change. As Frederick Douglass said, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress”.

No prosecutions of activists in the North

The police in Northern Ireland have targeted isolated women in vulnerable circumstances who have used the pills and who have been reported to police by third parties with evidence. A number of Socialist Party pro-choice activists in the North have had their houses raided and were taken in for questioning. More recently, ROSA NI has been established, and has faced intimidatory tactics from the state. Taking the abortion pills into the open and building public support for decriminalisation and access, is vital for legal change.

The whole pro-choice and trade union movement should act together to resist any repression. However, while the PSNI has raided activists houses looking for pills, they have subsequently taken no action, and no activists have been prosecuted regarding abortion pills, so the accusation against ROSA is baseless. To suggest that years after the Abortion Pill Train of 2014, ROSA’s initial collaboration with Women on Web, that collected pills from activists in Belfast and brought them to Dublin is responsible for recent intimidation by the PSNI is not realistic. Two days before the Train, RTÉ PrimeTime did an investigative piece on Women On Web which explained exactly how pills got into Ireland through Northern Ireland. The Train did not alert authorities to the pills, they already knew about them.

One tweet said that someone who came to the Abortion Pill Bus to get pills was not helped. Every person who approached the Bus / ROSA / Women On Web for pills got the assistance they needed. People contacted ROSA through email, social media and phone as well as physically coming to the bus to get this support. Either the person who tweeted made a mistake or was given mistaken information  or perhaps there was a person who wanted to get the pills but didn’t talk to one of our actual organisers, or the accusation has no basis. If an activist was aware that someone needed assistance, we would expect that they would directly contact ROSA to ensure the assistance was secured, not send a misinformed tweet years later. We are able to assist anyone who is under 12 weeks pregnant to get pills if they are approved by the Women on Web doctors and have done so for hundreds of people since 2014 and over 50 in the forst 5 months of 2018.

Why was ROSA established and what’s its purpose?

The claims that the Socialist Party established ROSA because it couldn’t ‘control’ the Abortion Rights Campaign is baseless. ROSA is not a specific, single-issue campaign or anything like ARC, but rather a socialist feminist organisation to struggle on a whole range of issues, based on the viewpoint that a major feminist movement was going to develop in Ireland and internationally, and that ROSA could assist in building an anti-capitalist and socialist feminist pole in this movement. Although Socialist Party members initiated it, ROSA quickly became a broad group, mainly organising young people — school students and college students, and lots of young precarious workers including many migrant workers.

ROSA has always collaborated positively with the pro-choice movement. When the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was founded, ROSA consistently sent delegates to participate in the Steering Group and ROSA assisted in practical tasks related to Coalition Conferences and International Women’s Day events. ROSA also helped build the attendance for every March for Choice, organised by ARC.

But there’s no smoke without fire, right? Some clearly have the hope that by slinging as much mud as possible, some will stick What are the motivations? We draw a complete distinction between the small amount of people involved in an utterly unfair campaign against ROSA, and others who are genuinely discussing the issues and have questions and may have questions regarding our views. Maybe some did not like the nature of the Yes campaign that ROSA ran. We have no problem debating out differences of strategy and tactics in a constructive manner inside movements and have consistently worked productively with many we may have differences with on approach.

Some people went along with ‘toning down’ a pro-choice message in order to win. ROSA ran a #Time4Choice Yes campaign with thousands of posters, tens of thousands of leaflets that made pro-choice arguments, as well as tried to answer some of the scaremongering of the misogynistic ‘No’ campaign. Our Savita poster brought the victims of the 8th Amendment centre stage. Perhaps some people don’t/didn’t agree with our assessment or confidence that people generally would respond to a strong and well argued pro-choice message, and preferred a more cautious path. Some social media threads attacking ROSA included points criticising that ROSA put up its own posters that went ‘off message’ raising pro-choice and bodily autonomy ideas. However, in fact, ‘choice’ was the single biggest reason why people voted Yes according to exit polls.

Socialist Feminism Needed

Some people are critical of the system of capitalism itself, but don’t believe there’s a possibility that a mass struggle can take on the system, and so become focused on navigating or negotiating within the system. People are of course entitled to their opinions but we take a different approach regarding how change and reforms can be realised.

We think we need to ensure that the new feminist wave in Ireland and globally has anti-capitalist and socialist politics at its heart. This is because capitalism, by its nature and because of the crisis stage it has reached, is incapable of providing for people’s needs, but instead it is undermining people’s rights the world over.

Anti-capitalism in ideas and action is the only way to build a feminist struggle that’s consistently in the interests of young women, working women, poor women, women of colour, trans women and traveller women. This is in contrast to a liberal feminist approach that accepts the injustices of capitalism and for the most part is content with feminising the elite. Many young people identify as intersectional feminists as they precisely wish to be part of a movement that’s inclusive of the most oppressed which is extremely important — and we think that for all oppression to be ended, a consistent anti-capitalism is necessary as the profit motive and system is inextricably linked to wealth inequality, class division, and racist and sexist power gaps.

ROSA’s socialist feminism wants to see the building of a movement of all genders that unites the working class and all oppressed groups. It’s clear that young women and non-binary people, who have been at the forefront of so many social struggles around the world in the last few years, will play a leading role in this and will ensure that their own issues from victim-blaming to macho culture to the pay gap, will be foregrounded in any socialist struggle — ROSA is trying to contribute to this struggle.