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So. the other day, I went to a meeting of abolitionists. We’re cooking up some events and speaks and so on with one of the women who was instrumental in getting the Swedish prostitution law in place. You know the one, where the buying of sex is illegal, but the selling is legal.  And there are exit programs and stuff for women so they can get out and stay out.

the thing about Sweden is, they moved from a more liberal legalizing model to a more feminist partial decriminalizing model in 1999-2000.They never seemed to go sideways into a pathologizing/medical model. Not that I can tell, anyhow. Not like we have.

Oh it’s so fucking frustrating, let me tell you. There are all these women downtown (and i’ve been working a tiny bit more at the women’s centre lately — the one that’s not really a women’s centre, on account of all the m-f trans guys who are there–there are more and more of them–booming voices and glitter and perfume…give me strength)–and these women, they’re all on drugs of one sort or another, all struggling hard to stay afloat and they are suffering suffering. With great humour, though, you know, i gotta say. And also with only thinly concealed rage–if these women could see each other, past their own individual pain and see what they shared and work together to alleviate their suffering, if they could manage somehow to look up–we could take over. really and truly.

Anyhow, so there we are all in this pressure cooker of rage and pain and a thin stream of ribald humour flowing through, and the only thing these women have that offers even the dimmest glimmer of hope, is ‘harm reduction’. It comes from all directions, this “harm reduction” (i have to put it in scare quotes, ’cause it’s scary…)–it comes from social services, medicine and law and has leaked from those big institutions to the shelters, to the street nurses and the outreach workers and the do-gooders everywhere–even feminists, we said, “sure, let’s try out this harm reduction thing” at first, twenty years ago–We said, “let’s have some safe fix sites, let’s meet the women where they are at, let’s go there and get them”. But we haven’t.  the best we’ve done, far as I can see, is to meet them where they are at, there in the pressure cooker, and then we ALL stay there. We’re all in the soup together. uh-oh…

When the women’s centre was founded, sometime in the early 1970s, it was founded by the women who lived in the area, lots of them Chinese women, a few Aboriginal women, and some white women. I think all of the women were working-class. Not down-and-out degraded and messed up from men’s violence an melt-yer-brain-onto-the-inside-of-yer-skull drugs, just regular poor, or getting by. And these women, I don’t know much about the beginning, but i figure they knew they needed a place to be together, a space that was free of the male gaze and the threat of male violence. A place they could have coffee together and make some small discoveries of what it means to be a woman in the world of men, in that place that at the time they called “skid row”. by and by they got a little money together, with this grant and that, and they began to offer a meal once a day. Soup.  And they hired some women to work there. they tried to keep it a collective, even though some women were paid workers and some were volunteering, but gradually the divide widened and the services broadened and within a few years, less than twenty, for sure, the paid staff were credentialed and professional (‘small p’ professional, but still…) and the volunteers were do-gooders from rich neighbourhoods or the women who used the centre who couldn’t get paid work. Either women on their way up or women on their way down. Like the workers in security companies–kids on their way to the armed wing of the state, or has-beens, on their way down and out of the work force. sounds cynical, yes.

Women still  come in to the centre to be together, to be sure. But they know better than to be looking to us for a way out. They look to us for some food, a set of underwear, a tube of mascara maybe…some shampoo a shower, maybe the number to a shelter. But we’re not doing them any favours. We’re meeting them where they are, but we’re not seeing them, you know? We try.But the thing is, these women have been medicalized. the whole fucking neighbourhood is treated like a diseased and gangrenous limb. the people who live there are an infection. the gentrification is the antibiotic–okay the metaphor’s breaking down…but it seems there’s no place for them. These women, there is no place for them. They can’t see where they belong, they don’t think they’re worth better than to line up for soup, line up for condoms, line up for needles, line up for the doctor, line up for donated clothes, shoes, underwear… and they all have acronyms. PTSD, OCD, ADHD, or they’re bi-polar or schizo-affective or borderline personality (wtf–like “here’s your diagnosis, honey, it seems that you ALMOST have a personality–but not quite”)–and they have the meds to go with ’em. dear god.

So. The women who use the cetnre now, in this century, this country, they are still poor, like thy were forty years ago, but now on top of poor, they’re also crazy and sick and addicted and labeled and stapled and slotted and


No way out.

So instead of getting beside them, intead of pulling the oppressive forces off, or diverting the pressure of the state and the doctors and the law enforcement folk, what do we do? We collude. We end up agreeing with “The Man”.

Women’s lives are increasingly difficult. There’s less moeny, fewer opportunities, more desperation, where did it come from? I don’t know, but some of us have nice paying jobs because of it now. and there is a bigger and bigger gap between us and them. Some of my co-workers, they ask me, they say, when i start going off about prostitution and pimping and fucking harm reduction that doesn’t–they say, “well, what about choice?” One time one of my co-workers said that and I said, “What kind of coice tdo they have? between the devil and the deep blue sea, that’s no fucking choice, that’s slavery, honey-pie, and no one chooses that. They make the best of it when they get trapped in it, is what they do. Looks like choice to you ’cause you don’t wanna have to give up anything, do ya?” I was a bit harsh. I get a bit, well, riled up.

it’s not exactly accurate, my co-worker seems to like the women we work for, (give stuff to, more like)  — but really , all this ‘harm reduction’ crap is saying to them is,  ” Guess that’s right, not much else you’re good for, there, sister. We’ll work on getting you more condoms and bitty alcohol swabs so you can get fucked but keep clean. Here ya go, here’s a coffee and a sandwich and a clean needle. Enjoy your choice.”

anyhow. lookit that, i went off on a rant there…sorry. i was talking about the abolition meeting. And we’re planning for one of the women who made the Swedish law to come here. And we have a lot of questions–like what has ahppened to the women who used to be in street prostitution? Where are they? how are they? What’s it like for the front-line workers, the rape crisis workers and the transition house workers and addictions counsellors and the educators? How does it all work for the women who used to be on the streets in prostittution? And how does it work for the feminist anti-violence workers in Sweden? They don’t have such a thing as harm reduction there, do they? I don’t know, but i sure hope not. anyhow, she’s coming here, so I can ask her what she knows, and i CAN’T WAIT.

Here’s one more thing, before i finish this dog’s breakfas tof  apost–Harm reduction is the Big Thing now, whereas twenty or thirty years ago, Feminism was the Big Thing. Back when i was starting out in this radical feminist stuff, there was government money for women’s anti-violence work. Slowly, slowly, the funders got more powerful than the agents they were funding. The women started to say the things the fellas with the money wanted to hear, and it wasn’t long before the women’s groups started to believe those things that the institutions of power told us we had to say in order to get the money…

uh-oh. that last paragraph needs more analysis–and i have to go and i’ve been fiddling with this damned thing for too long already, so i’m just gonna post it. If you’re reading this and you want to ask for clarification, please do, or add to it or something, have at ‘er, there’s so much more to excavate…

About easilyriled

My mom was Edith, my dad was John. I have a brother, who is Shawn. I have many friends and allies and mentors in my life. I'm white, over-educated, working in a field for which I am not yet trained, messy, funny, smart, lesbian, feminist "Not the fun kind", as Andrea Dworkin said. But I, like the feminists I hang with, ARE fun. Radical feminism will be the roots of our shared liberation. Rejection of sex-stereotypes (gender) and male domination will give us wings.

7 responses »

  1. OK, this post is the most convincing thing you’ve said yet about ‘harm reduction.’ I get it. Thank you.

  2. We’ll work on getting you more condoms and bitty alcohol swabs so you can get fucked but keep clean. Here ya go, here’s a coffee and a sandwich and a clean needle. Enjoy your choice.

    YES. i actually dont have a problem with giving this kind of “help” but we have to understand, thats all it is. condoms are sexual first-aid always anyway (sheila jeffreys words, not mine) to help women survive PIV-centric sexuality…and everything else you are describing pretty much is too. these women are the walking wounded of PIV.

    they DO need sandwiches and condoms, yes. but i am having trouble seeing any of this harm-reduction stuff as feminist, i guess is my point. its helpful, but not feminist. its not theory-based, and therefore will never incite meaningful, lasting change. i would be a terrible social worker. just terrible.

    • yep, you’re totally right about the ‘harm reduction’ thing being under-theorized, FCM. It’s anti-feminist, in that there is no liberatory goal whatsoever. fucking maddening. the whole social worker racket is just that, a racket–it dehumanizes everyone involved, including the social workers. They might start out all shiny and idealistic and helpful, but the system sucks the life outta them. I’d be a terrible social worker, too. and that’s a good thing…
      Thanks for your comment, FCM…

  3. Thanks so much for this – I think harm reduction is a highly dangerous practice. I tend to call it “coffee and condoms” way of dealing with prostitution.

    I think it makes the helpers feel good about themselves for being so brave to help the poor victim prostituted women and girls – or as the prefer to say sex workers.
    There no intention to see them as full humans, or to listen with open ears to the demand for holistic and long-term exiting projects.
    No, they do there good deed and that is enough.

    What makes very angry is it only focused on street-based prostituted women and girls, and then only if they are easy to find.
    It is rarely that these harm-reduction projects go to indoors prostitution – and if and when they do they get permissions from the managers/pimps. Which of course means it all seems fine and dandy, and that all the “girls” have chosen to be there.

    • thanks, Ms. Mott. yes, you’re right, too that the only women targetted for so-called ‘harm reduction’ are women on the streets, easy to fine–and usually in the most degraded circumstances. the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is comfortably broad…

  4. Pingback: Radical Feminist Dictionary: Harm Reduction « Against All Evidence

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