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Category Archives: pornstitution

damn amsterdam

April 14, in the evening, I went to a screening of Buying Sex, a recent Canadian documentary by Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nashon that describes the recent Bedford case, wherein Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down after a challenge brought by Alan Young and appeals through Ontario and Canada Supreme Court. Anyway, the filmmakers follow the case as it ambles through the courts from the original Ontario court decision to the first appeal, leading to the final appeal of Canada to the Supreme court. They interviewed lawyers, women who have left prostitution, academics, policy makers and men who rape women for money buy sex. There were disturbing bits, especially the footage from a German brothel, you could hear a woman moaning in pain and saying, “that hurts…”, there was a bit in there featuring a woman who ran a brothel in New Zealand, where she pimped out young women–“I just said two days ago, ‘i need a blonde, younger than 20, size 6′, and then you came!” she said, crowing about her newest acquisition– and the interviews with the johns was uniformly awful “men need sex, if we don’t get it at home, we’ll pay for it. it’s human nature”  which is ridiculous of course–they were so … entitled yet shut down and cynical. ugh. But there was a lot of hopeful footage, too–Swedish men talking about how they reject that, and one guy (the guy who made the movie about the German brothel) talking about how important it is for men to care for their children, and to see women as their peers — and the women, the women who were lawyers and the women who were once prostituted and the women who were front-line workers (though we didn’t see much of them, and heard very little–I know they were interviewed, though–I know they are front and centre in this fight–but marginalized in the media. sigh).

Then we heard from a panel of women, all of them part of women’s groups, active feminists — and all of them affected by the prostitution and pornography industry, as are we all. Each of them talked about prostitution as a particularly vicious form of male violence against women, a practice of colonial rule, and each of them talked about their hopes for a future that has no prostitution in it — where women and men will be equal to each other, politically, economically, socially. It will take a revolution, this equality, and it will take a long time, too. But we’ve been a long time with men’s boot on our neck, these things take a while to correct. Don’t know when it all went sideways, but we can straighten things out if we want to. And enough of us want to, seems to me. Look at the crowd there for the film screening–the room was pretty full. nearly two hundred people, i think. There was one guy there who was one of the johns in the movie. he went to the mic to ask a question. He has a disability, travels in a wheelchair, and introduced himself by saying, “I am a client of sex workers” — that was kind of brave in a fucked-up way. And then he asked a question about how to prevent people from entering prostitution — that was weird. He didn’t seem at all apologetic or self-reflective, couldn’t see the contradiction, it seemed. One of the panel members said, “stop buying women, stop using pornography”. Everyone said that at one time or another. The guy wasn’t defensive, anyway, seemed to me. Then again, even if he was, he wouldn’t get a lot of sympathy about the whole buying sex thing. People asked thoughtful interesting questions. Of course mostly men came to the mic, it’s always mostly men.

Then i went to a late night twelve-step meeting. and sitting right across from me was a young man with a t-shirt from Amsterdam’s red light district. silhouette of a naked woman right there, in the shape of a capital A, the second one in the name of the city. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and frowning at him. of course he didn’t notice me. I didn’t go up to him after the meeting to tell him he’s an asshole for wearing that shirt, and he has some amends to make to ALL the women in his life for promoting pimping and prostituting women like that, and … but i didn’t. because i was tired, and angry and disappointed — just ’cause you get into recovery doesn’t mean you don’t stop lovin’ the bullshit patriarchy feeds ya. And i was second-guessing myself, too, there’s that whole singleness of purpose thing going on — but really, sexism DOES interfere with women’s recovery — a few weeks ago, i was at that same meeting, and another young man, when he shared, he said, “I want to tell all the men here to not hit on the women in the rooms. I heard that about 1/3rd of our membership is female, and when i was out there, it looked a lot like 50/50 to me–maybe women aren’t coming here because men put the moves on them, and that’s wrong–women are dying out there, we have to really look at our behaviour and stop preying on them” — he did speak in terms that strong. I was grateful to him, and other men said after, “thank you for saying that”. None of the women speaking after thanked him, but that’s fine, he did the right thing, and that should be thanks enough, and the acknowledgment from other men that he spoke a true thing they needed to hear. We don’t owe him any cookies. But still. I am grateful to him. I hope he keeps that up. i hope he meets buddy with the porny t-shirt and takes some care of him.


choice is a noun. ‘victim’ is not an insult.

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…

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”

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”?