I made some mistakes. if you got it, please don’t circulate it. I’m going back to the drawing board.
Category Archives: harm reduction
Well, Monday March 26, the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled on the appeal of the Bedford case, which challenges the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws. you can find it here.
Apparently, Canada’s prostitution laws violate the charter rights of
prostituted women sex workers. Specifically, the right to freedom of association (sec. 2d), and the right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person (sec. 7) . The appeal judges decided that the Communicating law did not violate the Charter rights of prostituted people sex workers, and represented a reasonable limit on rights to expression. Because as we know, it is difficult to tell–no matter how much time you have to “screen” some guy– when he’s going to go off on you. Women in prostitution have told us many stories about going with men they knew, regular ‘clients’, men the met and talked with for an hour or so in the bar, men referred to them by trusted friends– who, when alone with them, became violent. And, you know, women often MARRY men who turn out to be abusive– five minutes on a street corner isn’t going to make a difference–he always decides how to behave, she will never have that control. In theory, then, the communicating law can be used against the men who buy sex.
You know, of course, that even though it is always men who initiate communication for the purposes of prostitution (“hey, baby, how much?”) –it is almost always women who are charged under this law*.
On the other hand, running or being found in a common bawdy house and living on the avails of prostitution will no longer be illegal. the Government of Canada has one year to rewrite the law to decriminalize pimping, except in cases of trafficking, child prostitution or other exploitative circumstances. Because, you know, women who are sucking cock indoors are not exploited. That’s “consensual commercial sex” or something. those women are CHOOSING this ‘work’.Also they are much less of a nuisance than women who are sold on the street corners. Who, by the way, may ALSO be there by choice.
But now they can CHOOSE to work inside–now they can CHOOSE to set up shop together, now, they have CHOICES of how to do their work–
“An underlying premise of this project is that difficult choices made under constrained conditions are still choices and, indeed, many of the sex workers that worked on this project felt insulted by the repeated accusation that they are not capable of making “real” choices” (2004, Pivot Legal Society: Voices for Dignity, p. 6)
That there quote is from a report by Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. they are also launching a Charter Challenge against Canada’s solicitation laws. As evidence, they gathered 90 affidavits from women in prostitution in the Downtown Eastside from the women who ‘felt insulted’.
Let me take a moment to pick that quote apart a bit. First of all, “choice” is a noun, right? it is a thing. Something one can have or make. When women’ make difficult choices’, they are making them out of some material, let’s call this material “options”, or “conditions”. these are, in concrete terms, the option to sleep; to eat; to rest; to clean herself; to read; to care for her children; to nurture friendships; to feel comfort. She can pick any or all of these options, she can do any of these things with her pocket full o’ choice. But she needs something else in order to do any of these things, because we live in a free market capitalist society. She needs money. She has to buy all of these options. For all of them, she needs money. Money to afford the rent to pay for a place to sleep, and food to eat. Money to pay for clean clothes, soap and a towel; money to pay for all the things her children need to thrive under her care. And if she can’t get enough money for any of that, she’s gonna be in pain. So she needs money to pay for the drugs she will take in order to numb the pain — of exhaustion, hunger, humiliation, and the deep sorrow of being without her children. and drugs are cheaper than rent. What does that even mean in the context of prostitution? The women who make these choices are resourceful and brave and annoying and funny and tough and obnoxious. The women who are in the most danger, those women who populate the dark corners of the inner city; the women who find themselves alone and impoverished in mid-life; the women who can’t both pay the rent and feed the kids; the women who can’t bear the pain of living without drugs that numb the pain of memories– these women ‘choose’ prostitution because there are no other choices.
Pivot never revealed who made the “repeated accusations” about these womens’ capability. I suspect, however, that they mean abolitionists. They mean me. And they mean many of the women who work with women in the Downtown Eastside, and in the rest of the city, and all over the world. They mean those of us who are not content with merely ‘meeting women where they are’. We want to meet her, and get her out. I can’t be free until no woman has to fuck a man in order to have a meal or pay the rent or get her kid a birthday present. The INSULT, dear Pivot Lawyer people, is that they have to live in this beautiful city, surrounded by all this abundance, and ‘choose’ to suck cock for money in order to afford anything remotely resembling a choice. This post by Janine Benedet says it better than I can.
What does that even mean, “real choices”? of course they are capable of making real choices. But they don’t have the raw material necessary in order to *make* choices. they are capable. they don’t have the resources. They are “public women” hidden from the public. They do not have influence, tools, language, money, power, or the means to use them. They are in deep trouble. They are victimized daily–by the men who buy them, by the state that keeps them impoverished, by the weight of patriarchy and capitalism and racism all together hobbling them together as an abject mass.
And who wants to be known as a victim? nobody. But if we don’t know the victims, we let the perpetrator get away, too.
Here’s what one woman had to say about her life as a “sex worker”, and how empowering it is:
I feel more empowered in a lot of ways than many women. Women who are accustomed to living a normal 9-5 existence and are married and perhaps have kids would find it extremely difficult were they to find themselves in circumstances like those I have to live with. If an ordinary middle-class woman were to find herself in a hotel room in the DTES with no money, no food, the rent due, their belongings stolen and the landlord banging on the door, they would likely slash their wrists, or at the very least need psychiatric help, since that’s the only kind of help they could get. If I were to find myself in their position on the other hand, I could easily adapt to their circumstances. However, I’ve only lived in the Downtown Eastside for seven years. If I’d lived here much longer, I don’t know that I’d be alive (From an affidavit used as evidence in the Charter Challenge by Pivot Legal Society).
Empowered indeed. the Pivot Legal Society used as evidence for their Charter Challenge case (similar to the Bedford case) anonymous affidavits from 90 prostituted people (almost all women) in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Bedford relied upon arguments based on three women in prostitution, two of whom now pimp other women, rather than do it themselves, and the other who primarily is prostituted indoors. Judge Himel’s decision makes for interesting (if depressing) reading, you can find it here.
Himel acknowledged in her ruling that women in prostitution faced many dangers. But agreed with the applicants that repealing the laws would reduce these dangers.
Well. it will certainly reduce inconveniences to men who are seeking to buy sex. Every one of the affidavits from the Bedford case, and from the Pivot case too, describe coercion, violence and harassment by MEN. Women said they were afraid of being criminalized, and annoyed that the laws were unevenly applied, and that they suffered from shame and stigma, to be sure. But they also related harrowing stories of beatings, rape, theft and other degradations meted upon them by the men who cruised the streets and the internet looking to buy a hand or a hole into which to thrust their penis. Clearly, every one of the women who testified about their experiences in prostitution, on both sides of the argument, have been victims. They were victimized by the men who bought and used them; victimized by police, courts, social services…
and they are victimized by the folks who call for harm reduction and for decriminalization and regulation and for more respect for
sex workers’ choices (how can ya have respect for something that isn’t there?), and more dignity for their work without questioning the men who victimize these women in the first place. If you don’t acknowledge there are victims, you will never see the perpetrators. And so it goes.
Here’s the F-word blog post by Laura Johnston, which describes the implications of the appeal decision.
so much heat and no light. all this talk about ‘respect’ ‘dignity’ ‘choice’ ‘agency’
fuck that. Hah! that’s a pun, considering the topic of this post. That’s it, eh? that’s what decriminalizing prostitution amounts to, really. ‘fuck yer agency, baby. here’s twenty bucks to get on yer knees.’
I’ve said it before, i’ll say it again, repealing these laws will not make these women safer. And even if it would, “safer” is still not safe. Safe is not the same as free. Women might be absolutely safe from further assault inside brothels. But they’re a long long way from freedom. Therefore, we are ALL a long long way from freedom.
Carry on, then. we’ve more work to do here.
* mind you, for at least the last 5 years, the local police have not arrested anyone under the prostitution laws. Not the women, which is fine; but not the men, either, which is not fine. And anyway, there is nothing else for the women–not housing not training or education not decent jobs even if you get some education, and not childcare if you get a job or place in school–it’s a rat maze, eh. And so far the only path to the tube that dispenses the yummy pellets is prostitution or drug dealing…or participating in research projects…
Alright, i’ve gone from being “self-diagnosed” to ‘big ‘p’ professional’ diagnosed” over the last six months. For the last few weeks, i’ve been dutifully taking medication for ADHD.
It’s freaking me out.
These drugs are amphetamines, fer cryin’ out loud! So i’ve been off coffee too. That’s weird. I don’t like it. this is harm reduction, i guess. the problem is the world, it’s my response to the world, i can’t change the world, I have to capitulate — for now — i was getting all panicky and sleepless.
Now, as far as psychiatric diagnosis go, this one isn’t nearly as stigamtized as, well, fucking near everything else–bi-polar, schizo-affective; schizophrenia; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Post-traumatic stress disorder (what’s ‘post’ about the trauma, by the way?); oh, you know, on and on and on, the range of labels for ‘freak’ could fill a book.
oh, hang on, they DO fill a book! It’s the DSM lV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders. It’s a big weighty thing and there’s something for everyone in it. Really and truly. I remember, way way back when i was in my first or second year of university, and the professor of the psych course i was taking (everyone had to take some science courses and some arts courses, whether we were ‘wired’ that way or not–the uni called them “breadth requirements”. I took quite a few psychology classes), at the end of the semester, when we were all a bit sleep-deprived and pretty squirrely in various ways, read us the entry for schizophrenia from the DSM.
“if the patient presents with four or more of the following symptoms,” the professor read, ” they may be diagnosed a schizophrenic”. Then he read out a long list of symptoms. It was an amusing yet uncomfortable moment. We all kinda squirmed and looked around the room. When he was done, he closed the book, and he said, “psychiatrists don’t really know, you know. They just have to sell drugs.” Did he say that? really? or is it just what I wish he had said?
The DSM 5 is due to appear within the next year or two. it’s rumoured to be bigger and better than ever. Pretty soon, nothing in the range of human behaviour needs ever be considered “normal”. I resisted for years and years. I’m still not sure, at all, about this whole ADD thing. I KNOW it’s not me, I KNOW it’s the world–we are bombarded with information and calls to action and this that and the other thing to attend to ALL the time. all the time. It’s exhausting. How does one woman attend to it all? And keep up with the laundry and dishes and all the christly e-mails every day, and then of course there’s the whole PhD thing, coding and analyzing and marking and writing and trying to find work to pay tuition and call Mom and remember to write and work out and….good lord. meanwhile, the piles in my apartment are growing, and the dust is accumulating and i’m seeing moths flying around now, and there’s no surface on which to write, or prepare food and i keep on top of the bathroom, mostly, but it’s just all sifting inward and from my computer screen i see the Inquiry into the Missing women lurching along, and all the lawyer boys puffing out their chests at each other pretending to be ‘experts’ about women’s lives.
and of course there’s the ongoing Occupation going on everywhere (on already occupied land). And I haven’t stepped foot in that protest yet–
I feel like i’m in the middle of everything but missing it all.
What the fuck are these drugs supposed to do, anyway? Help me focus. but on WHAT? Oh never mind.
maybe they are working. The path from my door to my desk is a bit wider now. I don’t wake up at 4 am anxious about everything anymore (just at 5 or 6, and only anxious about one or two things). A few weeks ago, i finished an assignment for my professor two days before deadline. and when i met her about it, she suggested a few tasks i could do to help me plan my next things, and I have done a couple of them. Not all, but some.
And i don’t feel all panicky anymore. well, not as much, anyway. Maybe it’s the drastic drop in caffeine consumption.
But the doctor said i’d be able to finish my dissertation, and it’s not done yet. Patience. this is thirty+ years of prevaricating that i’m trying to deal with here, and it’s gonna take more than drugs, and even if the elves DO bloody well turn up, i obviously can’t count on them. So I will have to change some things. Many things. The world and my responses to the world.
It’s weird being medicated for a “disorder”. My judgments about mental illness are becoming apparent. I find myself censoring myself about revealing that i’m on these drugs. I feel no such reluctance when i talk bout my asthma meds, or having mild COPD.
There ya go. it’s all learning. I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Two more sleeps till i go off to Ottawa for the Women’s Worlds–1800 women in Ottawa–organizing activating speaking singing dancing arguing motivating obfuscating interfering intervening — maybe the earth will shift a little bit on its axis, maybe the movement toward the liberation of women will be revitalized maybe some of us will meet as adversaries and part as allies.
I don’t know. I am trying to not have expectations. I am asking for guidance, what is the next right thing? I’m pretty sure the next right thing is to finish the paper i’m going to present, but then again, we didn’t promote our panel as a series of papers so much as a conversation. It will be a difficult conversation, though, i want to have something to which i might refer–paper to look at if it gets too hot to look at the other women in the room.
We’re talking about harm reduction and prostitution. We are all activists in our way, one an Aboriginal woman finding her voice and vision as an artist, another a formerly prostituted woman, a third is a feminist law professor at a conservative wealthy school, and me, finding my voice as an academic, an activist and a former front-line service provider. I’m a bit long in the tooth to be just finding my voice, and i am impatient and self-deprecating (sometimes crossing the line to self-trashing) about how long it takes me to write, to speak , to plan and implement–but there’s a time for things, and this is my time, now. Well, our time.
Oh dammit. it’s ten-thirty at night and i have spent the day being so sleepy, i couldn’t focus. all i could think of was how much i have to do–i went to school i met with my advisor i got a flat tire i put my bike on the bus and took it to a shop, i asked the young man to fix it and please can i have a tune-up and as these things go, there were a million little things that were wearing out or broken or in some kind of shambles or other, so $350 and four hours later, no, more like five, i had a new bike. And i walked to a restaurant and read about pornography and took some notes for the class i’m teaching in the fall and I wrote a few lines for the panel next week and i tried to do the next right thing, one thing after another, the next right thing, but i was lonely and wanted a coffee and i wanted something–
i have yearnings, see, i don’t know what i want, but here , right here is this hole–it’s a hole, mind you, not an opening–not yet. I used to fill that hole with alcohol, I used to quell the screaming that came from there with wine and beer and vodka and sometimes, good single malt scotch. Other times, mouthwash. And i’d rock back and forth and hum or sing and I’d write about things I couldn’t decipher the next day. Now i have other things, the hole isn’t so big or deep or frightening anymore. Because i have found some things to line it with–good friends and allies, work that gives meaning and nourishes me, meetings a few times a week, some tools for living–lots of exercise and reading and thinking. I have to be consistent though and vigilant, because if I let my guard down, that screaming demon at the bottom of the hole, well, it’s still there, isn’t it? It will always be there, but it’s not mean or bad, it’s really sad and lonesome and frightened; it’s become bitter and mean with the sadness of all of it. That screaming demon is me. Just as much as the woman who pulls a 250 lb deadlift is me, just as much the woman who taught 31 people a bunch of difficult theory is me, just as much as the woman preparing a panel about harm reductions’ failed promises is me, just as much as the woman who calls her mom every week is me. Sometimes that screaming demon still overwhelms and paralyzes. But not for as long, ’cause i don’t give it liquor now. whew. I drag it off to meetings or the gym and give it a good talking to and try to give it some loving and shine some light deep down to where it lives.
But right now, two nights before i head off to this conference, that demon is fuckin’ antsy, lemme tell ya. I hate crowds. and there will be 1800 women. I’ve looked at the conference program. It’s 101 pages long. panic. I can’t pick what to go to, where to place my energy and attention, who to find and talk to, 1800 women, hundreds of papers, performances, conversations and actions to attend to–all of it urgent, absolutely urgent. We are in mortal danger, women are. Everywhere on earth we are in danger. Just this week I read an article that was posted on a list-serve i’m on about little girls in India being turned into little boys–because boys are more valuable. And we know, we’ve known for a long time about selective abortions and female infanticide and ‘corrective rapes’ and ‘comfort women’ and about all the women who are peddled through the mail-order bride industry, and those girls along Franklin Street here in East Vancouver, and the women going to the ships and the women trapped in mansions by their wealth and their miserable husbands–‘keeping up appearances’–
and we are pitted against each other — “we have to listen to the experiential women” — say the liberals, though they don’t call themselves liberal, they might call themselves progressive or even radical. they talk all about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ and “listening to the experiential women”–as if we are not ALL of us experiential. They mean, by that fancy word, women who are engaged in systems of prostitution and pronography. But which of us has NOT, at one time in her life or other, been approached by a man for sex, “wanna sit on my face?”, “How much?”, “hey baby, whatchoo doin’ tonight?”– which of us has not been faced, at one time in her life, with the ‘choice’ of whether to have sex with a man in exchange for a meal or a bed or money or drugs or alcohol or protection or belonging or…? Which of us is NOT experiential? I don’t know one. myself included.
We have all of us experienced growing up female in a world that hates females. We all know what it is like to be sexualized as our breasts and hips grew, we all remember our first menses. Some of us did not want the attention of men as we matured and tried to disappear, some of us sought it out and tried to draw their attention. All of us were aware of it, though. All of us knew both the thrills and the dangers that men held for us. At an event last year, part of the urban women’s anti-violence strategy, we talked about how old we were before we knew about rape. None of us made it to the age of ten before we learned about it, as if it were a virus that struck women and girls at random. We knew about it and we knew that there were things we had to do to keep it from happening to us.
That, of course, was a big lie. That there was or is anything we can do to keep it from happening to us. That there is anything we can do or take or say to ‘reduce the harm’ that men will do to us in order to protect their power. There is nothing. Short of gathering and speaking loud and holding each other up and saying to those men, “no”. But it is the men who have to decide to stop demanding sex, to stop harassing us, to stop letting each other get away with using porn or buying women or raping their lovers. Men. The source of the harm. We have to organize and listen to each other (ALL the experiential women, every one) and we have to be tender and disciplined with each other — and men have to stop. making. us. do. their. fucking. work. Their fucking and their work.
1800 women. a good start. maybe we can together find a way to harness all our screaming demons and make them work FOR us instead of against us. my heaven’s i’m nervous…
I start teaching this week. the course is for secondary school teachers and it’s called “social foundations of education”. I was surprised that i got to pretty much design the syllabus myself. I was trying to get everything in there, you know, the history of education in BC, the social construction of childhood, the increasingly virulent reproduction of patriarchal socialization as evidenced by hyper-sexualization of girls (and boys, actually, all that camouflage and so on–though my friend L, who is a righteous Aboriginal warrior in her own right, advocates dressing all Indigenous children in camo stuff, because, well”we’re at war with you all, don’t you know, gotta look the part”) ahem. right. Never just a fashion statement. Clothing choices are a political statement. Either a capitulation to the status quo (like pink for girls and blue for boys) or resistance against it (camo for all the Aboriginal kids).
I had this great conversation this morning with a friend of mine. She and I used to sing in the same choir, we were in the tenor section–“the terrible tenors”–which did not refer to our singing but to our behaviour. Sometimes the choir director brought her “bad kitty” spray bottle to practice. heh. We realized we were from the same province, though not the same town, pretty close to each other. and we liked each other right away.
She’s a yoga teacher. Now, I like yoga, but sometimes yoga teachers and yoga practitioners can be a bit whifty, you know what i mean? They go rabbiting on about chakras and chanting and energies and that’s all fine, I guess, but sometimes it makes me a bit uncomfortable. For instance, there was this one yoga instructor at my gym for a while, and she would have us do this big long chant before and after practice. That made me all twitchy, on account of I didn’t know what the words were, or what they meant. For all I knew, we coulda been calling the wrath of whomever, the ancestors or the rivers that used to flow through this city, or the ocean gods, down upon our heads. One wrong syllable, and WHAM! curtains fer you, sister. So enough of us asked her for the words and the translation that she finally supplied them. She was a bit…oh, righteous about it, though. When she brought the photocopied sheets for us to refer to, she said, “Sometimes the Western Mind needs the words” or something like that. In that tone some people have of “i’m so much more enlightened than you are” kinda thing. pah.
She was young and white, too, by the way. pretty much as Western Mind as I am. probably she’d been to India, though, so she got all tuned in there.
Anyhow, back to my buddy today, she said, and this was really great to hear, “Some of the harm that’s being done in the name of yoga here is just….maddening. it’s really dangerous how some people practice”. I’d never thought of that before. How can yoga be bad?
“Well, take Kundalini, for example”, she said, “it’s a practice where breath is really emphasized and fast poses and it stirs up lots of energy, and when people do that they’re practically floating–” so in an altered state, that is, they are practically floating and all energetic and happy. But they are also really vulnerable and exposed. And in this city, people don’t have a guru, a teacher who keeps track of how you’re doing and what you’re learning and how the practice is affecting you, and we pick and chose too, oh, today i feel like Bikram’s, and the next day it’s this studio that does Hatha, or Iyengar or whatever, and we never settle and if someone is vulnerable or in trouble or even just ignorant, they can get in a lot of trouble.
You know, it’s another sign of our liberal, or neo-liberal times, eh. We’re supposed to just do what feels good, and take on whatever identity that “resonates” in the moment, and float around from one thing to another without attending to the contexts within which our choices are made, and our identities formed. it made sense what she was saying, that so much harm is done by this proliferation of teachers and yoga studios and this and that…people are desperate for connection and meaning, but also we don’t really want to work hard at it, cause we’re afraid. and we’re in pain. J. said that she was so filled with self-loathing and she was so anxious about drawing attention to herself and so fearful and confused when she finally found yoga that she too latched on to the New Age goop that said, “you can create your own reality” and all that. It was just as she feared, she had created her own reality and it SUCKED. But she hadn’t, not really. She had taken on the messages that said that we are responsible for how we feel and we do have an array of choices and this is the new world and we are creating the context as we are living it….but what about where we come from? and what about our ancestors and the land upon which we walk and the powerful who maintain the structures within which we have to make these so-called “choices”? As she practiced yoga, and started to be able to breathe and open up to the big world around her, and make some connections and stop being so self-involved and at the same time becoming aware of the world beyond, she could see–
anyhow. what she was describing as the harms of yoga practiced willy-nilly without context sounded to me like harm reduction. you know what, it began as palliative care for drug addicts. It emerged from medicine and it has always been only to reduce disorder, crime and overdose death. It has NEVER been to end addiction or make any systemic changes. no. so now, now that harm reduction has spread like a viral you tube clip over the land of social services there is this confusion about what it is meant to do, and how it is meant to be implemented, and it’s attended to at the expense of ANY other approach to ALL social problems. and like yoga, it is the individual practitioner who is meant to be responsible for how it all goes. The addict has to use the safe injection site and clean needles, the woman in prostitution has to negotiate condom use and refer to the ‘bad date’ sheet to keep herself safe–it is up to those who are harmed to reduce the harms done to them, and the inconveniences that others endure because of their ‘choices’– to use in public, to dispose of condoms in gutters, to die in dumpsters…you know. Same like the yogi who goes mad because all this energy has been stirred up and awareness opened and then they go out and experience the world in that new way and lose their connection to reality–
“There is so much harm being done” said J. “And don’t get me started on kharma,” she said, and I wanted to ask more about that, too, but it’ll have to wait, ’cause i have this course starting tomorrow and i’m just frantic with nervousness.
But anyhow, I know it’s all tied up with this neo-liberalism. And as we were talking, i realized we’re in the same soup together. We are looking for improvement, relief, connection, meaning. The liberal way is to look for a negative conception of freedom–the ‘you do your thing and i do my thing, we are not in this world to live up to each other’s expectations’ kinds of freedom. That’s harm reduction. That’s North American yoga. ” this will make you safer, this will keep you from dying, this will open up your energies”
But THEN what? Then you’ve got a lot of still addicted, but now dependent on all the systems that simultaneously preserve life and enthrall life, still prostituted, but now dependent on the services that open the doors to the punters and offer you condoms and referrals to services that amount to band-aids, not engagement with solutions–still lonesome and self-trashing, but now euphoric and rootless in the same world there was before the yogic practice–
maybe i need to add more sentences to that last paragraph–I think I understand the connections–it’s the same de-contextualized answer in different guises–it’s not a solution. The radical solution has not yet been found, but there are women working on it. We know, Simone De Beauvoir figured it out, we have to be responsible for the well-being of others–a positive conception of freedom (thanks Darlene R. for that insight, all your work on that has left a lasting impression on me)–we need each other. we are all of us implicated in these structures of class/race/gender and unless we are looking at the big picture, unless we are always connecting the dots, we are always going to be settling for this lonesome fruitless ‘feel-good’ emptiness.
And Hannah Arendt, you know what, she was no friend of Simone but they came to roughly the same conclusions–these difficult brilliant women, they both realized that we need each other. and no one can be free until all of us are free, and we can’t achieve freedom by just doing what we want and having what we desire. We have to DO freedom by taking care of each other and by sometimes throwing ourselves in front of the tank, and by really attending to examining our responsibilities and who is with us and how we can end the suffering of others. end it. not reduce it.
And Pierre Bourdieu, he’s the dude i’ll be teaching about mostly for the next six weeks, i’ve mostly been reading him lately, and i need to know more so i’m gonna teach about him. he was a working-class guy who became one of the most influential thinkers of all time, and he kept saying, especially in his last years, that those of us who have a little influence, a little more room to move, we HAVE to look at the structural causes of suffering and inequality. it’s our responsibility–as academics, as journalists, as teachers–we have to push and pull and make room and interfere with the downward spiral of expectations and chances–(that’s from Pascalian Meditations, 2000, p. 216 or so–“we adjust our expectations to meet our objective chances”–that is, if we’ve been poor all our lives, we are going to expect to deserve more of the same–basically). it’s more complicated than that–and really dense and difficult and French, but worth wrestling with.
and my friend, J. It was refreshing for both of us to meet and talk and realize that we are on the same kind of path, we are not content and we are not willing to settle. She uses yoga (among many other things) to help people ground and to keep connected to alleviating suffering and tapping into the connections, I use, I dunno…blogging, maybe teaching, (we’ll see i hope that works out), telling stories, making jokes, lovin’ my friends…
Context is very important. a “post-structural” analysis of anything is premature. oh dear. look, that’s the first time i’ve said ‘post-structural’ in this whole post and now i’m gonna hit ‘publish’. talk about out of context! sorry. I’ll get to it. now i’m gonna go to choir practice, though. And of course that’s political too….
Well. last week, I posted that piece “feminist lesbian position on prostitution” here and at the Mediacoop.ca page. In English and French, there. Also on the Policy Action Research List (Par-L) which has somewhere around 2000 subscribers, feminist-ish in leanings, but all over the map in terms of analysis and agreements. It was written by three women, Kathleen, Jacqueline and me–but informed by our combined 50 years of idea-making, arguing, listening, organizing, agitating and providing crisis intervention and services to women escaping male violence.
Anyhow. So, it’s getting around. And we’re interested in engaging with people about it, and trying to expand our analysis and understanding of how compulsory heterosexuality operates to reinforce the patriarchy and prostitution is an integral part of that. How can we stand in solidarity with women still engaged in prostitution, pornography and other aspects of the flesh trade? So far, Vancouver does not have any exit services for women in prostitution. So far, women who get out, still get out because of a series of lucky breaks, or really fuckin’ unlucky breaks (she gets the shit beat out of her one last time and becomes no longer marketable; she develops chronic illness or pain as a result of the constant stress, anxiety, uncertainty; or she dies).
The “women’s” centre where I work, the drop-in, it also operates a night shelter. Now, this shelter, it’s set up in a place that was built as a clinic and learning centre kind of place. So it has a couple of small examination rooms, a few bigger meeting rooms, a kitchen, a library, and bathrooms with showers in them. We put out cots and blankets around 10:30 and heat up some soup. Women come in from 11 till 2 or 3 am, and grab their bedding and a bowl of soup. Some women put their cots right in the hallway near the desk where the staff sit at the phone. Some women put their cots in the furthest corner of the quiet room.
It’s a shelter. It’s a place for women to come who have no home, or who live in hotel rooms–there are no bugs there. There are other people. You share the bathroom and showers, but with other women (well. some of you have read other posts where i talk about the m-f transsexuals who use the centre–they’re at the shelter, too, some of them–and some of them, as at the women’s centre, are a danger to the women there–goddammit)–mostly. it’s safer than the street. It’s “harm reduction”. But it’s not a solution. Not by a long fuckin’ shot.
We recently heard that funding has been secured for the shelter to be open 24 hours. And my coworkers there are all happy about it and stuff.
But when i heard that, my heart sank, and I felt a little nauseous.
This is the fucking problem.There is NO safe shelter for women in Vancouver. Our place opens up at 11 at night and women have to leave by 8 am, and take their stuff with them. It is less likely your stuff will be stolen by the other people there than at a co-ed shelter, but it’s still one thing to worry about. It is less likely you’ll be raped (recently we heard of other shelters, notably one long-time shelter in a church, where women are routinely attacked and raped by men who use the shelter. http://www.rapereliefshelter.bc.ca/learn/resources/statement-vancouver-rape-relief-womens-shelter-rapes-women-shelter-first-united-church ), and more likely you will believed if you report a rapist. women find a kind of family there, as we do everywhere…women listen to each other, even when one of ’em talks in “word salad”.
But these women don’t WANT a shelter. They want freedom from fear. They want a home. They want people around whom they can love, and who love them, too. They want off the un-merry-go-round. They might say, “oh, that’s great, we need a safe place to be 24 hours a day. That’s gonna be great.”
But it’s not great. It’s barely a beginning. maybe it’s not even a beginning. There are no safe shelters for women there, true. And there must be at least two–one for single women, one for women with children–But that’s not enough, it’s not even that respectful of women to just have shelters. You know what, with the money that flows into that neighbourhood, all of those women could be housed in their own place, and supported with workers who can help them keep their place, develop a sense of belonging with a community, host others to a meal–make home. not shelter. HOME.
Anyhow. I kinda drifted away from my first thought, about the shitstorm stirred up by my previous post. Holy smokes. We hit a nerve, we did. Lots of people think we’re anti-sex, anti-prostitute, anti this n’ that. Because it’s on my blog now, people are reading other stuff i posted, and that’s good, I guess. But invective is flying around on crackbook. It’s painful. you know how that is, eh–most people want to be liked. I do. It matters to me what people think of me, and if they think that i’m hateful and dangerous (especially to potential allies), well, that’s difficult. Mind you, i think that some of their positions and actions are damaging–but the people aren’t hateful. No. We are all good people, and we want to do good, and be useful. I’m pretty sure.
We’re off on a different track. The “prostitution is a form of male violence” track is very far away from the “prostitution is labour” track. If you’re arguing to me that “sex workers want to be safe and respected in their careers as sex workers”– it is not an argument that addresses the points we raised in our position paper. Because we don’t start from the premise that prostitution is a form of labour, like hair dressing or retail sales or nursing. So, we say, “women are routinely violated in prostitution” and you may answer that with, “women want to work in well-managed brothels”–and the second sentence doesn’t follow from the first, although both may be true. Women will STILL be routinely violated in prostitution whether they are in well-managed brothels, in their homes, or on the streets. And women presently in prostitution often would much rather be in well-managed brothels than in the streets, or alone in their own homes or the johns hotel room or car.
But why settle? We are settling for ‘shelter’, and we are settling for ‘safer’. And it’s not enough. My allies and my friends and colleagues, we want Home. And we want Free. Even if we don’t know what that looks like, exactly. But for me, it doesn’t even include money. let alone ‘sex for money’. It does include sex, but not the coercive, commercial, ‘i get to own you for an hour’ kind. And it includes shelter, but not the ‘this is your corner for the night and keep an eye on your stuff’ kind.
One funny, random thing–(this really is random)–I’m going to be in my first triathlon this coming weekend, and there’s a woman in my gym who’s done them, too, the sprint and olympic distances–and she asked me the other day, “Have you ever transitioned?” and I said, “no. I was born this way.” anyhow. We thought that was amusing.
Okay. back to the other stuff. And you know what? About this whole “choice” business? It’s a really neo-liberal concept–and european, too. one of my advisors said the other day, she was offering me some criticism about a paper I’d written, and she said, “you really have to trouble this notion of choice here. When you consider Aboriginal women, who are really over-represented in street prostitution, the whole notion of individual choice is problematic. Aboriginal people don’t talk about ‘choice’ and individual decisions–they live in the world in a much more relational way–they talk about their relation to the land, and responsibilities to the ancestors and to seven generations hence, and relations to the community–“individual choice” doesn’t come into it.” So, you know, when you’re going on about how women can choose prostitution, it again privileges the choices of women who do operate in the world as individuals, who come from that world-view, and does not question how her choices affect her relationships to other women, to her people and community and all that.
And of course, nowhere in the comments are the choices of them men mentioned. Who are these men who buy women? who are they who are the johns and what about their responsibilities? How has he become a man who thinks it’s his right to be able to pay for sex? This kind of entitlement is also conditioned, he has learned to expect his desires to be accommodated no matter what. Even men who wouldn’t dream of buying sex, they use pornography–it’s everywhere, everywhere. How can we be human when the pull to the lowest common denominator is so strong?
Anyhow. this is getting too long. and i’ve got papers to write. I’ll post this for now, maybe add more later…
whoa. it’s all happening at once. An abstract for a panel that i submitted to the Women’s Worlds was accepted!
I thought of an idea for a paper. Then my advisor gave me a title:
“What you’re proposing”, she said, “with your argument for abolishing prostitution, is a front door and a back door.” I knew what she meant, I thought. We had just been talking about some of the things I had been learning about from women i was interviewing. They were all of them front-line workers, and most of them were also feminist activists. That is, they provided both services to women escaping violence, or women living in poverty, and tried to run interference around the state (welfare, legal stuff, divorce, childcare and custody issues) and provided organizing opportunities and worked on systemic advocacy in their groups. Everyone has expressed great care for the women they work with, some are hopeful, some are angry, some are very sad, and not doing the work anymore–and others still are just marking time. The women who are part of a feminist group, or in feminist organizing, they seem to be women who are more hopeful and angry–still working toward a broad horizon of, a shared vision, of freedom.
“Harm Reduction offers a front door, a way in from the immediate dangers of the streets–but the building’s falling down, and they still have to go back out that same door sometime again. On the other hand, the back door that you are talking about leads into a garden of opportunities…”
Ah-hah moment. She’s good with the metaphors, my advisor is. So, I had a title, then.
I’d been tossing around ideas for an abstract. I wanted to go to Ottawa to the women’s worlds, and I know i want to talk about harm reduction and prostitution–I also wanted to talk about how front-line, feminist anti-violence workers and activists have been shut out of the discourse, especially in the recent round of policy development that the city of Vancouver has taken on. The level of vitriol directed against feminists around here is fierce. You know how it goes, we want to abolish prostitutes–not just prostitution–there’s this misconception that we’re after criminalizing everyone connected to prostitution, rather than the profiteers–there’s the accusation that we don’t respect women’s choices (that’s my fucking favourite), and that we’re moralistic and anti-sex. Anyhow, whatever. Women i’ve been talking to are expressing a lot of frustration about this faux debate. Really, women are pitted against each other in this, and we take sides–the labour side or the liberation side, and the men just keep wading in and picking off the vulnerable among us, buying the women off the streets, out of the sweatshops, the brothels, the escort services, scooping them up into the ships in the harbour. Not her choice, no. Only his.
so anyhow, then I was talking to my friend and ally, a woman who has been a leader in Canadian feminism for nearly forty years. She has been grinding me for YEARS to write, to get my stuff out there, to take myself seriously, to work alongside and through my fears, to stand beside her and other women. She’s a force, that one. Sometimes I rise to the occasion, sometimes i give into my fears. Like we all do, I guess.
It’s easier to rise now that I’m not drinking, I’m finding.
Anyhow, so she said that I’d be more likely to have my proposal accepted if I turned the paper into a panel and got some other women from across the country to join in. she suggested a few names, and I sent them all an e-mail. Lo and behold, some of the women I asked said, “sure” and some said, “ask so and so” and we met online, if not in real life and so I sent in the form and bobsyeruncle, we got in.
This conference happens every four years, and it’s international. so it’s, you know, a pretty big deal. Of course i’m totally freaked out as well. the name of the panel is: ” A front Door and A Back Door: Feminist Alternatives to Harm Reduction Approaches to Prostitution”. the four of us are all some mix of all/or — front-line workers, anti-violence activists, academics, and women formerly engaged in prostitution. We are all feminists. We don’t all hold the same views about the topic, or anything else. We promise to challenge each other and the people who attend, and we are aiming to ‘raise the bar’ in regard to alliances with women presently or formerly prostituted. We aim to improve our practice and our analysis of a feminist analysis of all the ways that men maintain and protect their power over women–how the state funds that patriarchal protection and interferes with women organizing toward our shared liberation.
Note the title of the conference is “Women’s Worlds” Not “Women’s Movement” or “Feminist World” (wouldn’t that be nice–a feminist world–what the heck would THAT look like?)–so i figure there’s bound to be some anti-feminists kicking around. Queer theorists, post-moderns, burlesque queens–
Some post-moderns are not entirely anti-feminist, though the post-modern idea in general seems pretty antithetical to a women’s liberation movement. it’s typically European, for one thing, the whole post thing, and individualistic, and liberal–“i can’t speak for anyone but for no-neck, knuckle-draggin’ asthmatic flat-footed dykes from the Canadian Prairies”. C’mon. I’m part of a world of women, and the working-class, born in north America of ancestors of European settlers, and university educated–there’s masses of people with whom i share a world-view, a bunch of experiences, a context–
what is it to be a history-less people? I watched this short video recently http://queenunique.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/kiri-davis-a-girl-like-me-youtube. One of the young women talked about the danger of not knowing the history of her people, “We’re from Africa, but where?” and without knowing much, or anything, of her people–what land, climate, culture, language–from which her people were stolen, “we take what’s imposed on us”.
And often the people doing the imposing had fled from, denied or forgotten their history, too.
whoa. messy. No wonder post-modernism gained so much traction in north america. A bunch of history-less people, some with all the stuff and power, and makin’ shit up about themselves and about the people with way less stuff and power.
The thing i really like about the rape crisis centre that i’m allied with (it’s a collective, of which i was part, twice, but am no longer–so I can’t say they are MY beloved collective–however, we are in a complicated relationship–as feminists often are–and I do love them fiercely)–is that, at nearly forty years of age, it has an institutional memory. You can’t swing a cat in this town but you’d hit someone who was a member, or trainee, or called the lines or stayed in the house. Or worked with them on some project or demonstration or event or case. Forty years worth. There are women working there, as paid staff and as volunteers who have worked there for five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years. They know some things. They are active now and they are also archival, these women. And there are feminist and other political magazines and books in their library room, and they tell about more things. This place, it is not like the dusty archives of the town museum that only the odd grad student goes to, no. Their archives that are accessed every week. The history of that place, those women (all forty years of them), is alive. It informs the day to day work, and provides a context. “What happened when we tried that in 1985? what’s different now? how shall we shift to account for the contemporary moment?” It’ s not reinventing the wheel–it’s adding a chassis.
they are part of a Women’s Movement toward Liberation. Me too. Even if i’m not part of that collective–I am part of something big. A worldwide uprising of women. I wish that conference could be called the World-Wide Uprising of Women Conference. But it kind of is. It will be. I know there are radicals from everywhere planning to attend and raise a ruckus. RADICALS. way more fun than the “fun feminists”. yep.We take up a lot of space because we have a past and a vision and hope for the future; and a plan of action for each day. In lots of ways we’re making it up as we go along, of course we are, but we’re basing it on something real, vital and necessary. Women’s resistance. Centuries of it. Together. with all the things we have in common, and all the differences fitting together like a puzzle (we’ve lost the box–metaphor for diaspora and settlers–but we’re figuring out what the picture looks like).
the other night in the transition house, we were all sitting around talking about stuff. Our lives, you know. women from this city and that city, from that country over there, and that one on the other side of the world–a lesbian and a bunch of straight women, a couple women in their early twenties, one in her thirties, a couple in our forties, one in her sixties–and through different languages and class backgrounds, and racializations and sexuality and ages and experiences==we found so much in common. We challenged each other about racism. “They have to wear veils” well–but it’s still blaming the victim, isn’t it? And when western countries make laws about that, it’s never in the interests of women, it’s two patriarchal forces butting heads, and women are harmed–and pitted against one another. the talk swirled about the table. The Muslim women nodded, and the Catholic woman asked about the similarities she saw in their religions of origin. We nudged each other to look at sexuality as something that’s constructed by patriarchy, and that we can re-construct as we learn from each other how to be autonomous. One woman said, “this is a moment in all of our lives when we are changing really fast, we’re so important to each other.” I hope I always remember that. How important we are to each other. This. share the stories. Offer what you have. Ask for what you need. Which may be different from what you want.
A Worldwide Uprising of Women. That’s what we need. And here it is. Get those damned posts outta the way, here we come!