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Holy shit-storm, Batman…

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Well. last week, I posted that piece “feminist lesbian position on prostitution” here and at the 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. ), 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…

About easilyriled

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

21 responses »

  1. Bonfire Maiden

    Thanks for naming the madness of harm reduction that passes itself off as a ‘solution’ here in the Downtown Eastside. We so easily settle for less than dignified responses to poverty and exploitation. How have our imaginations become so limited? Even this discussion around prostitution as work shows how truncated we’ve become in what we might spin as dreams for our communities. Secure brothels where men are free to buy women? Really? That’s the best we can do?

  2. Yes, the flip side of all this optimism about safe brothels etc, as well as harm reduction is a far deeper resignation–i.e the idea that men’s appropriation of women is inevitable. Thus the magic alchemy happens of converting the horrible into the inevitable and thus the inevitable into the good–as a choice, as “doing the best that we can.” The profound cognitive dissonance in the parallel and un-touching “sides” of the debate is due to the lack of meaningfulness in words like “subordination” and “exploitation.” (Neo)liberalism exerts its spell so that with the infusion of “individual choice,” “subordination” can not be applied to prostitution. And choice and “labor” are inextricable here. The problem with slavery wasn’t with the kind of conditions the slaves lived in but with slavery itself–this idea is so hard to get across. And I’m not sure how the parallel lines can meet– the forces of individualism as combined with men’s interest in maintaining the sex-industry are stacked so very heavily against the conditions of opening a real dialogue.

    • If “we” don’t soon figure out a way to have a conversation about this issue rather than battering each other verbally, we are going to do damage to ourselves, our communities and the possibilities for positive change. I think we need to focus on that even more than on the issue itself. I am wracking my brains ….

  3. Or … my brain is wracked.

  4. Yeah, brain-wracking has happened for awhile. and a lot of damage done. I agree.
    I would like to re-frame and just ask the posters who are critical of this piece–Must we accept that men’s (do you accept that the majority of clients who are men?) desire to buy sex is inevitable? If we don’t accept that, is there a way to address the fact that at least some aspect of the issue of the sex industry has to do with the way the patriarchal system works? do we want it to work this way? Can we imagine a different world and work towards that? Abolitionists are saying that we want a world in which one population of human beings are not bought and sold–or buyable sellable–by/for another population of human beings. Can we start a conversation and respectful debate there?

  5. “(do you accept that the majority of clients who are men?)”
    I meant: do you accept that the majority of clients of prostitutes are men?

  6. I actually don’t think we can start there. Much of the opposition comes from “sex workers” and their advocates. From their point of view, they have made a rational choice to be prostituted and don’t want to be treated like victims. Nor have their livelihoods cut off by abolition. I don’t know how to deal with that position without victimizing. Really. I think there is something “wrong” with that “choice” – like that within a patriarchal society, it is no choice at all. But who wants to hear that? It’s like telling a married woman that you think marriage victimizes women. It does. But some women just do not want to hear that. How to talk about that?

  7. Hysperia, That’s exactly why I would start by questioning the role of men and not addressing the issue of choice first off. It’s a dead-end starting place in this conversation. Let’s say women are choosing. So what? Most of women’s “choices” within a patriarchal society are constricted and worse. Even if a woman “chooses” prostitution does that alter the fact that men are buying sex? It does feel that there is an underlying assumption that the sex industry is here to stay, because men will always want to buy sex. So why not ask if this is the assumption, and if so, why? And if it’s acceptable? I can anticipate answers but the question does not focus on the women’s behavior, decisions, livelihood.
    I am critical of the very notion that anybody has “choice” in any context in this social order but that’s a whole other can of worms. At any rate, instead of asking women about their decisions, why not address the sex industry as a whole and why it exists? it’s unlikely that we’ll come to a consensus but my hope is for a real *debate* that is civil, and in good faith–or towards making a good faith effort to explore certain questions together. Short of that, there’s no point to having any discussion, is there? And discussion/debate may indeed be impossible given the thickness and weight of the ideology and men’s stakes and capitalist stakes and how that impacts all of us–but I was motivated to ponder this by Erin’s and I think your own comments….

  8. And I thank you Kathy – you can call me Elizabeth! So I do get what you’re saying. Where I’ve had arguments, though, is over the fact that abolitionists are trying to destroy a market that some women claim they value. I do think this is a conflict of interest that can’t be resolved. I think the common place might be a belief that we are all “in good faith”. We all want what we think is “best” for women but we view that differently. I am just so tired of being personally attacked over the issue. In once conversation, a very well-known feminist activist whom I quite admire said that abolitionists want women to be brutally murdered. And she stuck with that throughout a lengthy conversation, when challenged. That makes me feel hopeless.

  9. Yeah, the starting points are so incommensurable…
    and i guess we have to at least act *as if* we trust that the other side is looking for the best interests of women. And if it’s a market where women find value- then I think debating the value of the market and not the women is important. For example I don’t care if people find value in working in the fast-food industry- the market is horrible. Of course fast food workers do not take it as a personal assault if the fast food industry is criticized. Which goes to show the contradiction in the position that sex work is just work, and not sex, and if it’s sex.. then the question is –what kind of sex given that it’s for the buyer’s pleasure?
    Basically i’m not sure how much rationality is involved here.. so here I go losing my fleeting moment of optimism, dang.
    And Elizabeth- someone who argues that an abolitionist is a murder is not playing with a full deck and that’s the long and short if it–that’s a conversation that is worthless because reasoning and thinking has nothing to do with it.

  10. one more thing: i want to stress that the *defense* of the sex industry is part of the structural conditions specific to our neoliberal era that make the sex industry itself “prosper” today and seem more and more inevitable. So these conditions need to be analyzed–the conditions of anti-feminism for example, and the ways that the sex industry is ever-more deeply entrenched in a neo-liberal capitalism that enshrines it *as* a market because all relations are now market relations etc…

    • Kathy and Elizabeth, this is a most interesting conversation you are having. It’s telling that none of the people who are interested in making prostitution ‘safer’ (but not getting rid of it) are in on this dialogue about how to have a dialogue. disappointing. there are many points where we agree–“miss Kranky Pants” left a couple of comments on the previous post saying stuff like “given the choice between feeding the kids and not feeding the kids, women will turn a few tricks” (not her words, but that’s how I understood it). and there must be more social supports, treatment options, educational opportunities, safe housing, etc. available to women–all that stuff we agree on–as well as the point that women should not be criminalized for prostituting.
      but still women in prostitution (not all, but some–) perceive abolitionist arguments as moralistic and anti-prostitute–and conflate the arguments to be about sex, rather than sexism…i don’t know how to get around it.
      uh-oh, gotta go. thanks again

      • We are not in on the conversation for the same reason you wouldn’t hang out on our blogs long. It doesn’t feel so good. I am in no way interested in getting myself into internet fights and this is one of the rare times i commented on a blog post. That said, I came back to see the comments but it’s most probably my last visit here. Plus, it takes a lot of time when we are also busy doing our own political work and make sure sex worker’s voices are taken into account on all levels.

        (*) Clarification: Sex radicals or feminists in solidarity with sex workers are not functioning on a neoliberal framework. Post modernism in the sense of no truth can be all encompassing, is more of an influence. Sadly, while for us, recognizing that sex work can both be a site of exploitation and a site of empowerement, exploration and pleasure is what we feel the most respectful to everyone, it is not the most pallatable discourse in terms of drafting policies. It’s way easier to appeal to politicians when you have clear statements like: all prostitution is bad, criminalize it. In terms of political clout, abolitionists have had more pull because your discourse aligns with NEOLIBERAL and CONSERVATIVE and RELIGIOUS people who also want to criminalize sex work for a variety of reasons, none of them friendly to women.

        Now, the consequences are grave. As I was pointing out in my last comment, the people who are being criminalized through ‘special prostitution laws’ are the women themselves. Just got check stats canada or the Attorney general’s website. You’ll find the numbers. And while you did quote me properly and it is true that we are in fact demanding the same things in terms of framing this with a social justice lense, you are missing a piece of my puzzle: The woman who chooses to sex work because she doesn’t want to get student loans and actually enjoys the schedule, the money and the relationships, more people seem to kinda be able to ‘swallow’ the choice part (although you guys are calling us names here..). The woman who lives in poverty (poverty is ROUGH and UGLY as we all romancing of what it can look like) and who has to choose between 600$ in welfare money that doesn’t cover her rent and childcare money and food for her children chooses to sex work because the money is better than her welfare check alone and the schedule means she can be with her children for more hours of the day, retain housing, etc. This woman is choosing too. POOR WOMEN CHOICES ARE TO BE RESPECTED TOO! Even if she’d much rather not do that, she made a choice even if it was within constraints. Now, we can work on the ‘constraints’ (more social housing, more childcare, more accessible student loans, etc) but in the mean time, let’s not wage war against women, let’s keep people safe.If you take a step back and look at the global picture, not just canada, sex work is populated primarily by low income women who are already among the most at-risk and oppressed members of society. In many circumstances, selling sex is the best economic decision a person can make in their situation, and oftentimes the sex workers vehemently do not want to be rescued. While yes, we should work to create a world where people are guaranteed the freedom and dignity of having their basic needs met, and a variety of work to choose from, the reality is that we do not live in that world yet, and for now there are people whose very survival depends on them making the best choice for their individual situation. And sometimes that means selling sex. It’s not about ‘settling’, it’s about listening to what sex workers are telling you (The following from Monica Shore’s blog):

        Don’t assume your problems with the sex industry are the industry’s only problems. Some of the most time-honored criticisms of the sex industry—it solidifies patriarchy or commodifies female sexuality—are significant considerations. But they may not be top concerns among sex workers themselves, who are usually more interested in avoiding harassment or abuse at the hands of law enforcement, finding the safest possible workplace and earning a livelihood. As sex worker and artist Sadie Lune has said, “Stop punishing me just because you may not be able to imagine being me.”

        One thing that sex workers are consistently saying across the board (and especially loudly in Sweden) is how the Swedish Model (the criminalization of clients) has fucked them over once again.. (seriously, go see the Rose Alliance collective, the biggest sex worker collective in Sweden: they are fiercely fighting to repel these laws).

        First of all, these laws were after without ANY consultations with ANY sex workers (sounds familiar?). Then, if you look at what sex workers themselves have to say about the consequences of this model, this is it in a nutshell: The clients of street based sex workers mostly moved to indoor sex workers because of the fear of arrest. Less clients for street based sex workers doesn’t mean less sex workers, it means working longer hours, accepting client you would have refused, being pressured to do things you could have refused to do, incentive to work in isolated areas because clients are nervous, clients are nervous therefore they are hard to read (screening), less time to screen clients. Now for indoor workers, it’s mostly been good news aside from the fact that ‘concerned neighbors’ can call in a suspected ‘victimized woman’ and if the landlord doensn’t evict them, he can be jailed for living on the avails. AMAZING, we are making sure sex workers are kicked out of their housing.. So again, the smallest percentage of the industry, the street based workers, who are often the poorest and the most marginalized to begin with, are the most criminalized of all, suffering the brunt of the stigma (because to arrest client, the police still rely on ‘outing’ sex workers and ‘calling them to account’ and harassing them. Sex workers still can’t access police services when they are being assaulted as they face the risk of being revictimized) It absolutely didn’t put a dent in the stigma these people face on a daily basis (again,the whole ‘victim with less agency than a 13 y-o’ never helped anyone) which is part of why the murder rates are so high (our bodies are rendered ‘disposable’ through how we are constructed, because of the stigma, criminalization, infantilisation, etc).

        WHY OH WHY are you guys not following OUR lead and OUR voice in figuring out what would be the best route towards the realization of OUR human rights? The only truly feminist approach to sex work is to respect the voices and experiences of actual sex workers, to listen, to give space to organize, to stand in solidarity, to stop victim-blaming (prostitutes are the reason why women’s bodies are commodified.. uh no. Imagine what sex, commercial sex included, could look like in a world without mysogyny.. Let’s rally around that instead of bashing other women with the pretense of ‘rescuing’ them).

        *shakes head*
        Peace out.

  11. All I can say is that the only way to stop prostitution is make sure that men don’t want to buy sex. The mothers, sisters, grandmothers & aunties have to teach the next generation of men that women are their equals and not to be bought or sold. That is the very simplified version of course. But it is what I am teaching my son. And I am teaching my daughter that she is loved and worthy. I had never heard of an abolitionist before meeting Erin and her clan. Now I too see a future world where we live in peace and people are not sellable. Thanx, Erin. I enjoy your blog so very much!

    • Thanks, Joanna, I’m so glad you’re out there, too. Men have to be in on the education of the youth, as well–and the very structures of society need to change, really. Most women already do all they can to raise their sons to be human and their daughters to be powerful (and human, too, of course)–but unless we can interfere with the institutions of power that entrench hierarchies based on sex, race and class, we’ll be in the same mess. Men get lots of stuff (power, money, influence) for buying in. No matter what their mothers do to teach them about equality and respect. they might respect women, and consider us equal, but within the structures we have, they are still rewarded because they are men, no matter what they think. Know what I mean? i’m really glad you have the faith and optimism to raise up your kids to expect the best of us all. and that you see a world where we live in peace and equality. Me too. It’s a ways off, yet, and we may not see the effects of our actions for a long time, but it’s important to act anyway.

  12. Response to Kranky – I’m not following your lead because I disagree with you profoundly. You don’t represent all prostituted women. For instance,the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network is firmly on the side of abolition, as is the Elizabeth Fry Society and Vancouver Rape Relief. That’s just a small sampling. You’re going to have to deal with the opposition. Shaking your head and asking us to give up our principles is not going to do it. That’s what the conversation was about. Your intervention simply takes us back to the crux of the matter: that women disagree on this issue and we have not found a way to talk to each other across the divide. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it just can’t be done. I don’t like to think so but you are among those who push me in that direction.

  13. If you look at a woman and see a human being whose only options you imagine to be “whore” or “sufferer of unbearable awfulness,” your myopia is limiting your ability to see prostituted women as fully real, intelligent, diverse and capable people who have options in life just like yourself or other humans. Denying their ability to be anything but prostitutes is a terrible injustice against the people you have pigeonholed.

    When prolife nutters give abortion providers the ‘choice’ to stop providing abortions or be killed, human rights advocates don’t shrug and accept that abortion providers HAVE TO choose the least-ugly choice of the ones prolifers have given them.

    Likewise, when pimps and johns give poverty-stricken women (and children, lots of children in prostitution) the ‘choice’ to sexually submit or suffer starvation, exposure, drug withdrawal, etc, human rights advocates don’t shrug and accept impoverished women HAVE TO choose the least-ugly choice of the ones pimps and johns have given them.

    Don’t give in or give up to terrorist threats, stop them by refusing to abide by their evil terms. We’ve come far enough that managers saying “fuck me or you’re fired” is illegal, now let’s bring that to the “fuck me or suffer/die” terms of johns.

  14. I thought you may be interested in a new post i written about harm reduction, and my fury about it. It is called “Coffee and Condoms”. I love to know you think.

  15. Who assumes that in selling a services women are selling ‘themselves’? Is sex all that women are? Are men selling sex selling ‘themselves’? Is sex so appalling that only the utterly degraded poor would ever think to make a quick buck by any form of it – prostitution, porn, strippers? How about male strippers? Does their sex make them and the women paying for their act different?

    Just what prostitutes are in a night shelter anyway? When do most street prostitutes work? What entitles the Lesbian minority to speak for the hetero majority?

    What if women truly ‘liberated’ themselves and saw nothing to be ashamed of watching porn or male strippers? What if women stopped feeling that male sexual attraction to them made them ‘objects’ and their sexual attraction to men made want to submit as objects? What if women approached men as equals, both grown up enough to accept sex as usually mutual pleasure, occasionally a one-way treat or relief from a professional?

    What if we were living in 2011 instead of 1961? Oh we ARE? I’d never have guessed!

    • I didn’t really want to approve this. I did because I think it just demonstrates, rather than mistakes in our arguments, more your unwillingness to attend to our arguments at all. We are talking, Idiocracy, about interfering with the demand for paid sex. not about “women selling themselves”. We are talking about lesbian solidarity with women who are engaged in prostitution or prostituted. We are not “speaking for the hetero majority”. We see nothing liberating about pornography. Liberation, we assert, is not descending to the lowest common denominator, but in insisting on, and working toward much better, fuller, richer lives and relationships that are not commodified, or constrained by impossible poverty, fear, oppression (and its opposite, unearned power and privilege). We cannot “liberate ourselves” individually. The powerful, the men who set the terms and make the demands, must share their resources, hand over their power, and in general get their boots off our necks. What we can do, toward our own liberation, is stop capitulating to the demands, and help each other up and out. Not cooperate with our oppressors by watching porn or strippers–but look up, and imagine better.

      I just realize that i spent way too much time and energy replying to your comment/questions. If you really want to have a conversation, go away and read more and come back with some well intentioned interesting questions or challenges.

  16. I can see why you had to think twice about posting the comment but I see why you did and it’s just as well – since it’s accompanied by your response. Discussion is not possible on the terms she sets – though I’d like to take her statement apart, one bit at a time. However, there are important things to do out there just now! LOL


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