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Category Archives: male violence against women

So many feminists–

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And we made the most of our limited time. Last week, I was  in Ottawa, the capitol city of Canada. It was  an exhausting and exhilarating week, to be sure. So many workshops and panels and singers and dancers and conversations to have that one week was not enough:  not enough but a beginning.

Not a vision of freedom, but glimpses for sure.

I  met some women who read this here blog! there were women from Italy and Nigeria, from Central America and India and Bangladesh and South Korea and Okinawa and Denmark and Norway and the Yukon and there are Indigenous women from Mexico,  Samiland and the Interior of BC and the Six Nations and –there were many many more women i’d have like d to meet, talk with, plot with, and grow to understand. But this was a beginning.

i was in a short conversation one night with a woman from south africa, a friend on facebook, who said she honours the women in prostitution in her country, because there are so few choices for women for work, and the women who engage in prostitution become rich and don’t have to do soul-destroying menial jobs for their whole lives. We honour them too, i said, but we have no respect for the fellas buying them, we want them to take responsibility and stop demanding access to women’s bodies. And we want all women to have enough.  to have much better choices between a grinding boring ill-paid menial job and prostitution. in fact, it would be good if those two ‘choices’ weren’t on the palate at all. How ’bout that?

it’s the trap that I dare say we all fall into, all the time–we talk about the women’s choices, we talk about how to help the women–we talk endlessly about hauling the babies out of the river or teaching them how to swim, and we don’t pay any attention to the guys throwing them in there. That’s an old story, the story of the babies in the river. One that Cherry Smiley of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network  told in the panel we were on together–you know,  a woman sees a baby floating in the river. She rushes in to save it. Then another baby appears, and another and pretty soon the river is filled with babies, and women scooping them out. Cherry added a few women teaching the babies how to swim. Then one woman boots it up=stream. Someone calls out to her, “where are you going? can’t you see we need your help here?” and she replies,  “I’m going to see who’s throwing them into the  river!”

I’ve heard that story many times before and mostly in the context of the anti-male violence work, though I know now that Pete Seeger tells it, too. I had not heard the part about some of the rescuers teaching the babies to swim.  I don’t know if that’s Cherry’s addition, but it’s a pretty good metaphor for harm reduction.

anyhow. It was a transformative week–so many feminists in one place. And the Abolitionists owned the conference. There were panels about feminist legal interventions–the Norwegian women told us how they managed to get their government to implement the Swedish model of prostitution law–they targeted Johns, they used a big bold sense of humour, righteous rage, and courage.

We were courageous last week, holding each other up, giving each other the best of our thinking, and the most we could of all we had learned in our daily work and lives. Lee Lakeman and Diane Matte were gracious and disciplined chairs, animators of a daily conversation called Flesh Mapping: prostitution in a globalized world. They have both been fierce feminist warriors spreading the joy of struggle for decades now. Their organizations, La Cles in Montreal and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter are influential world-wide now.It was wonderful and encouraging to meet the La Cles women and to learn more about their activism–they’re an admirable bunch, to be sure.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard women express admiration for Vancouver Rape Relief and Vancouver feminists.  Made me all proud and humble at the same time. I have had a small small part in the successes of this powerful group, and learned an enormous amount from my association and collaborations with them. I think, after last week, that I can finally move into a more useful place, finally having confidence that my voice is important, and the work I am doing is necessary for the movement. I must put together the stories and experiences of all the women i’ve worked with, beside and for over the last quarter century–it’s urgent. I’m a theorist now, an activist academic and i can figure out a way to make the contradictions fuel our shared movement toward freedom. It’s okay to be afraid. The women before me were afraid. They have paid a great price to clear a path for me. It’s my responsibility to carry on the fight and pass what I know to those who are beside me and coming after. Finally, and beginning now–

and still play my accordion and do stand-up comedy. Cause there is joy in the struggle. and everything is political. damn. there are so many stories to tell but i gotta go now, i’ll get to it all later…another time another post, i have articles to write now…

screaming demons

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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…

Generations.

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Last week, I went to this fundraising event. Every year, at the end of May, the radical feminist gang i work with sometimes, they have this big ol’ fundraiser that raises about 35K for the transition house. 35k isn’t much these days, but it’s also a very fine picnic. there’s a gang of men who work together to raise money for the organization. they answer to the collective that runs the rape crisis line and transition house. They incorporate public education about male violence against women into every fundraising event they do. They work to address their own sexism, racism, classism and that of other men. and they decorate, cook and clean up for the walk. it’s not really an action, ’cause it’s more about allies gathering together and celebrating another year of work, and catching up with each other.

this year was my 22nd at that walk. I’ve missed a few–when I was mad at them, and wanted to nurse my resentments more than I wanted to address them; or the year my lover and I broke up and she was with the collective still, so she was there and i was with someone else and all twitchy and guilt-ridden. there was the year my dad died, and he got really sick just before that weekend. A couple of times i worked at the transition house instead of going, or did something else but still collected pledges and stuff. Of the 22 years i’ve been associated with that gang, i’ve been to perhaps 17 or 18 of the walks. Probably actually walked the whole way around 4 or 5 times, truth be told.

Oh it was so fun this year. One of my ex-lovers, her daughter was there. with her childhood friend–I’ve known both of them since they were 5 or 6. they’re grown women now, in their late twenties. One is in the training group, the daughter of my ex. She was raised in that collective, and now she’s working there. That’s kind of cool. And it’s kind of not.

Because, you know what, the goal is that we work our way out of a job. That we end male violence against women. We haven’t done that yet. But we will. Then we can have collectives of artists and gardeners and engineers and cooks and builders and storytellers and flute makers and potters and …but whatever it ends up becoming, once we have stopped men from beating the crap out of us and holding all the power and wrecking everything (god bless them), whatever happens, it will remain true that we will need each other; there will still be suffering; we will still have to attend to the well-being of others. We have to be patient, though. How many centuries of male supremacy do we have to overcome? Generations. It will take us generations.

It will take us generations and yet it is absolutely urgent.

what’s the coolest thing about my young friend working there is that it’s proof that we offered her something tangible. Even if we were tired and resentful and angry and sorrowful from hearing all the horror stories and trying all the time to patch women up and hold each other up and make some room for ourselves and our sisters–even with all that, there must have been some hope and light and beauty in there. I remember when she was a child, of course I do. And as much as her mother and I sacrificed and worked “for the glorious revolution”, this girl paid, too. We made a lot of mistakes. We fought a lot. Especially near the end of our love affair. It must have been really hard for her. But we always loved her. And we always loved the women’s liberation movement. I think she knows that.  it’s hard being human.

unofficial tradition of the walkathon is that I suck the helium out of one of the balloons and sing “I’m Just a Gigolo.” This year there was enough helium for that and a couple of John Prine songs.

heh.

 

random

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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.

huh.

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….

Slut-Walk. sigh.

Remember Take Back the Night? That was a BIG thing for decades. It was a women-only protest against male violence against women. We gathered as dusk fell over our cities and towns.  As many women as could come–no permit, the cops were never invited (though they always showed up)–we provided our own security–women in vests, or identified with armbands, who made sure we were all together, that the women who were spray painting or stickering were shielded from the surveillance of the state. That the women who removed their shirts had room to move, but be safe within the march, too. We had an “arrest one, arrest all” policy that everyone attending these marches agreed to. We wore jeans and sneakers, dresses and heels, feather boas and long elegant gloves–boots, slippers, rings and bangles, or wallets stuffed into our back pockets.

As we gathered, there was often music, always speakers–women who were activists, anti-violence workers–one or two women gave a speech about the work of the year, the reasons that we gathered like that, every year, third Friday in September, across the nation. We read telegrams, then faxed messages, then e-mails from other women in other cities and towns in Canada–all of us gathering in solidarity as dusk fell. We together lit a way for us to walk together in safety and defiance with each other. All of us were (are) women who had been harassed or attacked on the streets by men, women who adjusted our behaviour in attempts to keep us safe (don’t walk at night, carry your keys in your hand as a weapon, don’t go out alone, don’t do this, don’t do that–you can’t wear that). We were (are) women who had been raped, battered, incested, prostituted, insulted, harassed, put down, held down, excluded, diminished–by men. By patriarchy.

But together, for that one night, everything was possible. We knew we were safe to be together, we protected each other, encouraged each other, healed each other and stoked the fury of our collective rage and faith in each other. Faith in our Liberation Movement.

I tell ya, those marches were so much fun. One year, the year before I got to BC, I think, ’86–when Expo was in full force in Vancouver, the women of Rape Relief built these giant puppets and danced them through the city. The next year, ’87, I was part of the organizing committee for Take Back the Night in Victoria. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. But we got maybe 20-30 women (and a couple of sensitive guys–we did agree on women only, but these guys didn’t get the memo. whatever, i didn’t notice them till the end of the march) and we walked down the middle of the road (and partly on the sidewalk) for a few blocks–I gave a speech about pornography in front of an “adult” video store, and we yelled at the man who had the fine timing to open the door and scurry away from our taunts as we arrived. We opened the door to the police station and chanted “get your laws off our bodies” at the cops at the top of the stairs. I don’t think they took us seriously. well. Never mind. we were fine. we chanted and sang and danced, the tiny band of us, through the sleepy streets and then we held hands and sang and made our plans to get home safe.

The next year i missed it. I was wrapping up a treeplanting contract in Northern Saskatchewan. Another great story altogether….

I remember those marches–exuberance and rage, joy and light in the darkness, all women together. We always had to ask men to leave. We always had some push back from women who said we were sexist for excluding men–but we also always had men who were willing to do childcare, and provide rides home to women after the march, and back off.

“whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!”

Take Back the Night was a women only protest against male violence against women. Very clear. We knew that sexual harassment, you know, wolf whistles, invitations to perform fellatio, queries of “how much?” and so on, were along the continuum of men’s everyday violations of our safety, bodily integrity, confidence and abilities. We knew that we needed each other for protection (not our boyfriends or husbands or fathers). We knew that those seemingly innocuous comments about our looks, or our expressions (“Smile, Beautiful!” they would command) were/are not  compliments, they are intimidation.

Men rarely attack women they do not know. But when they do, it makes front page news, because all the other ordinary men can point at the monster and say, “see? that’s terrible, I would never do that, you’re much safer with me”, and the patriarchy wins our capitulation again.

so. Take Back the Night was about that. We knew there were always women who could not come out at night because they were held prisoner in their homes by abusive men. And we knew there were women who could not join us because they could not take the risk, however slight, of being arrested. We marched for them, too.

Now, there’s no Take Back the Night. There still are marches held here and there, but they’re not women only, for the most part. They’re not even about male violence against women. They’re about bullying. or violence. in general, as if it’s an air-borne virus that randomly strikes out of the blue. “we must stop violence”– like, um, how do we do that if we don’t NAME who is doing it to whom? you got a vaccine for that?

no. Now we have Slut Walk. this cop in Toronto, he said that women who dressed like sluts were asking to be raped. Or something like that, some offensive, victim-blaming remark like that. which included the word “slut”. So, women in Toronto got all dolled up in their hosiery and push up bras and short tight skirts and went walking together in Toronto. This weekend, they’re gonna do that in Vancouver too.

I won’t be there.

I know, I don’t have to dress in a skirt or anything in order to participate. But the whole thing kinda skeeves me out. It’s not about male violence against women. It’s not about the systems of oppression, rooted in patriarchal power, that keep us from freedom and safety wherever we go. It’s more about individual choice, and capitulating to the impositions of stereotypical gender roles — “This is what a feminist looks like” kind of rhetoric that valorizes a certain kind of beauty that is appealing to men.  How the hell did we get here? This whole business of “I choose to wear this clothing, these shoes, I CHOOSE it” stuff. Do ya? really? how is our choice shaped? what are we giving up when we choose one thing over another? what are the costs or benefits to our freedom–our real freedom, i mean, I mean the freedom that comes from acting in solidarity with others–taking responsibility for the well-being of others? When we wear shoes that hinder our ability to walk easily, when we wear tight clothing that shortens our stride, when we wear binding undergarments–I know, I know, “they’re comfortable, I can run in these shoes, I LIKE this stuff”–I know. I’ve heard women say that.  But who designed that stuff? And to what purpose? and how can it be liberating to wear constraining clothing? I don’t get it.

and this whole slut walk thing, it’s only about women’s individual choices of what to wear,  it seems. Men are not named as the threat to our autonomy. But they are. the man who called those women “sluts”, he was talking about women who had been raped by men. He blamed women for the violence done to them by men. He said, in not so many words, that men are incapable of governing their own behaviour, nor could they be expected to be responsible for the decisions they made when faced with a woman dressed a certain way.  He let men off the hook. Enormous insult to men, that comment, as well as to women. but women, in response, have not made the connections between our individual choices and the structures of domination within which those choices have been made. This walk is not about shaking the foundations, or dismantling those structures of domination. This walk is only about the legitimacy of the individual choices made within those structures.

Anyhow. I won’t be going. I think anytime women organize together in our own interests, it has transformative potential. But in this case, I don’t think the potential for transformation will be realized.  to quote Gertrude Stein (out of context, to be sure–sorry, Gert), “There’s no there there”, ya know?

Talking to Zero

I was on Davie street last night, and i started to stick a “buying sex is not a sport” sticker onto the sandwich board outside one of those sextoy and peep show shops. I just get angry when i see the silhouette of a woman advertising these sex shop places– long fluffy hair, big sticky-outty boobs, teeny waist, ass stuck out at kind of an odd angle, and stiletto heels–c’mon. like, really? how do we KNOW that’s a representation of a woman, really? ’cause no  woman I know looks like that, even back-lit.

anyhow. so i stuck a sticker on her head. and this big scary lookin’ guy comes outta the shop. he’s got this little red beard, and round-ish glasses, and a kind of faux-hawk and black shorts and a black long-sleeved t-shirt on. i remember a wallet chain coming out of his pocket and piercings here and there. He’s only  a little taller than me, but he’s pretty broad. Big forearms. and he’s MAD. he starts peeling the sticker off, so i smooth it down, and then he smacks my hand away. Like i’m a little kid with her hand in the cookie dough, not hard, just a smack, you know. And i say, “hey, man, be gentle.” He starts yelling, he’s really mad at me for putting this sticker on his sign.He says, “What do you think you’re doing??”

I say, “you’re making money off the degradation of women”

“How do you figure that?” (he’s still shouting) “Degradation of women, we sell dildoes, too, is that degrading to men?”

“well, yes, as a matter of fact–this whole industry–it’s degrading to women, it dehumanizes men–you know, it makes men lousy lovers, porn does”.  That’s a line I heard once from a lover of mine. She often came out with these pithy, smart statements.

He looks disgusted, he calls me narrow-minded, he says, “you don’t know what you’re talking about, all you’re doing is spewing this stuff, you don’t have any evidence–come inside, come talk to me about this–”

“Ah, I got my bike…” I don’t really want to talk to him. I’m kind of afraid, and I want to make a good argument, I don’t feel confident, though I know what i’m talking about sometimes it’s difficult to be articulate.

“bring it in” he says. So. I do.

The shop is bright, the dominant colour is pink. the walls lined with female mannequin torsos dressed in bikinis and boas, i see a maid’s uniform (but not a sensible one) and leopard print lingerie. there’s a rack of jars with various coloured gels and pink penises in shrink-wrap hanging on the wall. There are pictures of women, white women mostly, “provocatively” posed, advertising lubes and gels and toys of various sorts. A jar of condoms on the front counter.

He yells at me that i am trying to restrict people’s choices, “you people” he calls me. “you gotta give me proof–I am doing people some good, here.” He tells me that women come in and ask for things that will  help them with their sex life, with their husbands and then a few weeks later, they’ll return and thank him for saving their marriage. He doesn’t say anything about men coming in asking about how to please their wives, how to save their marriages…funny. I don’t think to point this out to him.

I say, “you know, it’s not just about “choice”–how do we know what of the things we do are free choices, and what come from reacting to constraint? Look at the increasing sexualization of children, of EVERYONE–we are being reduced to our orifices–in the case of women–and you’re right, it’s degrading to men too–you are nothing but a cock, and I’m a cunt. I’m not willing to put up with it.”

He is not satisfied, of course. He asks if I knew anyone in the sex industry.

I think of the women I know from the drop-in. The young ones who are addicted now, who sway on the street corners near the port–the brassy middle-aged woman who teases me about lingerie–the Aboriginal women who take handfuls of condoms and stuff them into their purses before heading out at closing time. I think of the women who have told me stories about their childhoods–being beaten with jumper cables, being passed around from father to uncle to cousin; I think of the women who worked dancing in bars who tell me about men following them to their hotel rooms, and the names the men call them and their strategies to protect themselves–

And I say to the man, I say, “Yes, I do as a matter of fact. Many women, and of those women, there is not one who would be there if she had other choices–and they say that  it is really difficult for them to make healthy sexual intimate partnerships outside of the industry.

Of course, he knows a girl (that’s what he called her, a girl) who is a sex worker (that’s what he called her, too–a sex worker), and she’s never been raped or assaulted, and she loves her job and she makes lots of money, she has a very healthy sex life with her boyfriend. I said, sure, you can find women who say they choose it, and they like it, and it’s all working for them. But ask again after they have been out for a few years.

He said that not everyone who’s been raped has a bad sex life, he said he himself had been raped as a child, sexually abused, and he had a healthy sex life with his wife. I said that’s good, and i’m sorry that some man had hurt him and i kept repeating, if we were equal, we wouldn’t even think of using this stuff, we would have talk instead of toys, we could imagine exciting fulfilling sex that didn’t depend upon silicone and botox and pictures of unreal women–

“It’s not just women,” he shouted, “men too, there are lots of women who come in here for toys to enjoy with their husbands”

Sometimes i’m inarticulate in the face of defensiveness like his. he tells me that he’s worked his whole adult life in the sex industry, and he tells me that I am unrealistic, “do you know how much money the sex industry makes?” Yes, i know. I know it’s huge. I know all that. but I also know that we must push back, we have to interfere with the demand, we have to not put up with it…

I said ‘interfere with demand’ and he heard, ‘ deny people choices’. I said, “equality” and he said, “there’s no such thing, you think there is, but there isn’t, and there can’t be”. I said, “i don’t agree. Why settle for this?”

He said, “it’s not just women who are objectified, and it’s not just men who are my customers” . I said, “Oh yea? look at your own store–in the window, women’s bodies, on your sign outside, a woman’s body, along the walls, womens’ bodies, pictures of women on your walls, on the packaging, and sexualized representations of women–

“look” he finally said, “I agree with you, and I would never sell anything I thought was degrading, I help people, I help people make choices…You people want to take peoples choices away”

“Lookit” I say to him, “I am not blocking the door, I am not saying people can’t come in here, I don’t have the power to do that, and I don’t even want to. I want people to make different choices, that’s all. I want people to think about what they are doing, think about where their choices come from, think about the consequences of their actions–” I didn’t say, but I thought of it after, “and I want you and other men to know that there are other ways to be masculine, to be a man”

Sometime in there, he says, “I got offered a job running an escort agency last year, and I said, ‘okay, if you can guarantee that the girls are there by choice, and they’re fine with it, and happy and have their shit together…”

I guess he didn’t get that guarantee.

another time he says, “i’ve never paid for sex, I think it should be something between two people, who have a relationship, and know each other”

But he still sells porn, he sells women through the peep shows at the back. Two bits for the peep show.

He says to me, “look, I get guys coming in here for GHB, lots of guys, mostly Asian, to be honest, and they’re not from here. I explain to them that we don’t do that here, that’s not how we treat people, it’s wrong and against the law. I won’t sell that stuff. But I know they’ll get it somewhere else, I know that.” I can tell. He thinks I’m idealistic and naive.

Maybe. But I am not despairing.

I’m trying to recreate our conversation. But I can’t remember now, not exactly. I finally left because I had to go, and I could tell we were not going to agree. But I gave him a sticker, I said, “look it up”

buyingsexisnotasport.com

And I thanked him for asking me to come in to talk.

I liked him.

He shook my hand at the end and said, “My name’s Zero”

I said, “my name’s Erin. Thanks for inviting me in. Be well, Zero”

Really? his name is Zero? as in “nothing” or as in, “infinite”?