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Monday, August 25, 2014

Victoria Sexual Assault Centre bravely breaks from the pack to stand in solidarity with sex workers

   
Draw close to the debate about decriminalizing the sex industry in Canada and you will quickly learn that while sex workers' organizations are working hard to move this issue forward, they don't enjoy much support from most women's groups.
    At least on the surface, the problem seems to boil down to a fundamental divide between those who see all sex work as exploitation and victimization, and those who support Canada's adult sex workers in making a free choice to work in the industry and in safe circumstance. Many women's groups have tended to align themselves with the exploitation side of the debate, which has left sex-worker-led organizations largely on their own to fight for safer working conditions, equality and basic human rights.
    Given what a hot-button topic this is among women's groups,  it's a powerful thing that the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre has done in stepping up to the plate this week to announce its solidarity with Canadian sex workers. The organization voted unanimously to support decriminalization and join the fight to stop Bill C36, the proposed law the federal Conservatives want to bring in to criminalize even more of the sex industry.
    With other women's centres such as Vancouver Rape Relief taking the opposite position on C36, it took real bravery for VSAC to stand up against the more popular view of sex work as victimization (a view that rarely includes the opinions of real-life adult sex workers who say they choose to work in the industry). VSAC is even standing in opposition to the position taken by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, which is against decriminalization and views all sex work as violence. That takes guts.
    Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and the Harper government are so certain they are right on this one - that the answer to problems in the sex industry is to crack down harder on it with more laws. They're wrong. And what's really disturbing is that so many otherwise terrific women's organizations, whose strong feminist roots ought to have taught them all to be mindful of silencing and patronizing other women, are also wrong.
    Yes, some people really are suffering and being victimized in the sex industry, and we need to do a lot more to help them. Human trafficking for any reason must not be tolerated, and children should never be exploited, coerced, abused or forced into any kind of work.
    But that doesn't have to come at a cost to the adults who choose to work in the sex industry, a group that I suspect probably numbers in the tens of thousands in Canada alone. Why are rights-based organizations that do such good work on so many other fronts unable to acknowledge that there is a significant population of sex workers who completely reject being portrayed as helpless victims? Why do sex workers have to suffer just so others can feel safe and smug in their pretension that it's possible to eliminate the sex industry if we just lay enough criminal charges?
     But along comes the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre to remind us that all it takes is one brave soul to break from the pack. Who knows what waves VSAC's decision might set in motion? Those who feel passionately about improving sex workers' rights are already convinced on this issue, but there remains a very large world of unconvinced who might be ready to consider the rights of sex workers if more support started coming from "mainstream" fronts.
     Years ago when I visited some of the legal brothels of New Zealand, I learned that the Federation of Businesswomen of New Zealand was among the organizations that actively supported decriminalization efforts. I felt a flash of pure envy for a country where even the regular folk were ready to stand in solidarity with sex workers. Surely that day will come in Canada? Surely.
     PEERS Victoria has worked hard for many years to explain the realities of the sex industry to a doubting community. I've been connected to PEERS in various ways for 15 years now, and admit that at times I wondered if any of those messages were being heard. VSAC's support is profoundly heartening confirmation that while the pace of change sometimes feels glacial, somebody is listening.
    

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Who knew? I'm really into Twitter

    Last week when I commented on Facebook and then reworked the comment into a blog post that I could tweet, I felt like I was one with the social-media universe. I know a lot of people who have mixed feelings about social media and how it's changing the cultural landscape and way we interact. But personally, I love it.
    The big surprise for me has been Twitter, which I avoided for the longest time. The idea of being restricted to 140 measly characters just didn't do it for me, and I really didn't want a whole new "thing" to have to tend on-line.
    But I finally caved a couple of months ago and signed on, only to discover that a well-planned Twitter feed is like having an army of story-hunters around the world connecting me to the most interesting and diverse angles on what's going on out there. I've never had so many interesting news stories put in front of me.
   I like Facebook, too, although it tends to be used more as a gentle and life-affirming medium for my age group, a place where we go to feel good, catch up on the Facebook family goings-on, and share photos of the grandkids or our winter vacations. I also really like it for crowd-sourcing information, like "Who are the best caterers in town?" or "Where's a good venue for a public meeting?" I've spent this past summer in a series of great housesits thanks to connections on Facebook.
    Twitter, on the other hand, is a rougher space where the news is mostly edgy and the clash of opinions much more pronounced. I guess I must have been missing that in my life, because I'm not only loving the stories that my fellow Twitterites are delivering, but also my own hunts to find stories to share with them in return.
    Could a Twitter-like thing be the replacement for newspapers, which appear to be in their death throes? Could be, although the best Twitter stories for my money are still largely generated by paid journalists working in real newsrooms (Globe and Mail, New York Times, CTV, CBC, established on-line news sites). I think we'll always need at least a few good reporters who get paid to do their work, because otherwise a crowd-sourced news site like Twitter risks devolving into a forum for conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated comment, scams and incoherent rants. (Or cute-kitten videos.)
     But something Twitter does much better than traditional media is to act as a kind of clearing house so that stories from all over the world are coming directly to the Twitter subscriber without first having been boiled down or reinterpreted by media in the country where you live. It's like removing the middle man, and it really opens up the global conversation.
    There is much more space on Twitter than there has ever been in traditional media for the voices of activists, protesters, radical thinkers, and those wanting to shake up the status quo. Facebook is where we go to have a hug and share a life anecdote, but Twitter is the place for those wanting to foment a little rebellion. I've been so happy to discover a global community of sex workers on Twitter, where they are shaping a unified political voice through this new connection.
    And you know, I kind of like communicating in 140 characters and hashtags. I like a format that lets me reveal the more intense side of my personality. I admit, I would like more than 89 followers, but hey, it's a start. Come find me and we'll mix things up a little, maybe start a small revolution. I'd like that.
    

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I'm just going to keep saying this: Stop Bill C-36

   
 I wrote this response to a couple of my Facebook friends just now on a great comment thread that has developed on my Facebook site. The comments came after I posted a rather pleading message to people to get past the knee-jerk stuff around the Canadian sex industry and get informed before Bill C-36 becomes law. Figured I'd put it out to my blogger audience, too, because damn it, all of us who feel this way need to be shouting from the rooftops right now before this country goes and does something that is shameful, regressive, poorly considered, potentially harmful, discriminatory and mean.

     For Lisa and Darlene, you are both my friends and I have MUCH time for both of you, and I do understand that this is a divisive subject. But this is a time for getting together to understand why each of us feels the way we do. I know that both your viewpoints come from your own life experiences. But we can't just stay here like this, in a standoff where we will be doomed to repeat our many failures on this front. Even if we believe absolutely that the industry must end and people urgently need help to leave it, surely we still want safer work places and human rights for those who are not yet in a position to leave, or in fact are quite happy to stay. 

There is room for all of us in this tent, but this ridiculous pretence that we can "help" people by further criminalizing the work they do is insanity. I don't think this has to be a question about accepting the sex industry, it's about providing the same level of basic rights, respect, access to civil protections (police, contract law, employment standards, etc) and community welcome to people regardless of what job they do. 

    Those who want to debate the right and wrong of a sex industry can continue to do that and see what can be done about it, but the question of decriminalization is, in my mind, not one about why people buy and sell sex but one of rights for a large population of workers who are mostly women, mostly earning at the lower middle income level, and really needing a break from being judged, talked over, silenced, patronized, misunderstood and arrested. I can barely handle that my own country is poised to make life just that much tougher for these workers. People, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. Please don't sit on the fence on this one.

And here's my original post on the subject. 

     How can a country so similar to ours, Australia, be progressively having a public discussion around ensuring employment insurance for sex workers, while Canada is poised to retreat into further criminalization? I know people hate this subject - I know it by the teeny number of "likes" I get when I post anything about it, compared to when I post a photo of an attractive flower or a grandchild. But people's need to not have to think about the existence of sex work does not outweigh Canadian sex workers' need for safer work places and a little dignity and respect. If you've ever thought that you really should learn more about sex work and get out from under the misinformation and myths, now's the time. Start with the Sex Work 101 section on the new PEERS web site. http://www.safersexwork.ca/sex-work-101/. And please, please, join the fight to stop Bill C-36.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Canada looks better from a distance these days


    It appears that I may have developed an idealistic sense of Canada while I was off living in Honduras these last two years. I was thinking of it as a great country with a few problems it needed to pay attention to at the time I left Canada in early 2012, but perhaps the distance - and the contrast with super-troubled Honduras - led me to forget about the "pay attention" part and just remember it as a country that largely had its act together.
    At any rate, coming home and learning about some of the messed-up stuff that's actually going on in my homeland has been pretty discouraging..
     The stuff around sex work has been particularly unsettling, given my affinity for the people who the rest of us leave without rights, dignity or safe workplaces just because we wrinkle our noses at what they do for a living. It is so, so sad that we're preparing to go backwards with a law that will only make things worse for sex workers.
     But the video of the contaminated water pouring out of the huge Mount Polley mine tailings "pond" was another serious wakeup for anyone who thinks Canada's got it all figured out. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, that vast volume of poisoned water just pouring across the landscape. How was it possible, that we would allow a 170-hectare "pond" at a mine to be so poorly maintained that a breach of this size could happen?
    These kinds of things - stupid laws, the ignoring of environmental regulations - happen regularly in Honduras, of course. But while I wouldn't want to make excuses for any country, the truth is that the place is relatively new to democracy, poor as hell, badly educated for the most part and has a government style so hands-off and self-serving that it could have only been created by the most Republican of the U.S. Republicans that have influenced the country so heavily.
    But what's Canada's excuse? We're comparatively rich, our infrastructure is amazing, and our education system is like a golden dream to anyone from a developing country. We have been a democracy ever since we were born as a country, and at least in theory talk a good game about the importance of democratic processes and citizenship. We are very big on equality, and at times have been brilliant leaders on the world stage with our progressive attitudes and drive to be fair.
     Yet here we are, with a chance to do right on behalf of an underclass of sex workers that is largely female and contains the most stigmatized, misunderstood and discriminated-against  people in the country, and we are walking backwards - toward greater discrimination, higher risk of violence, deeper inequality. Is this my Canada?
     As for that haunting spill at the Mount Polley mine, the weird thing is that we've got tens of thousands of regulations in this country, including I don't know how many that would have something to do with not being allowed to leave your tailings pond to get in such disrepair that it might rupture all over the wilderness.  I bet most of us presumed the whole point of having so many laws around things like that was to ensure a day would never come when Canadians would have to see a massive lake of arsenic-contaminated water pouring across our landscape.
    And yet there it was. And yes, we can blame the government, as many people already are. But we citizens have been here the whole time that various federal and provincial governments were taking apart the regulatory bodies and stripping away the funding that used to ensure things like tailings ponds got monitored. We reelected the same kind of governments over and over again. We voted for governments that hated to govern, and it is just a little late to lament their failings now.
    Anyway. I guess it's just a reminder that no country is safe from bad law-making and stupid thinking (like that corporations could ever be left to monitor their own environmental impact, or that you could "help" sex workers by criminalizing their customers).
     I guess I started getting a little dreamy about Canada while I was away. I got thinking that while we admittedly stumble on some fronts, overall we were on the right path. But I'm back in the real world now.
   

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Search for the truth on sex work

 
So many untruths are being bandied about as the Tories try to railroad uncertain Canadians into accepting new prostitution laws that will criminalize even more of the industry.
    I know from my own circle of friends - at least the ones who aren't sex workers themselves - that it's almost like people are frightened to rethink what they think they know about the sex industry. Yet there is so much exceptional research out there that challenges this fuzzy belief that to be a sex worker is to be a helpless, trafficked victim dragged into the business by a man who will beat you if you don't comply.
    But surely the public's instinct to want to avoid thinking about an industry they find unpleasant hardly outweighs the rights of tens of thousands of other Canadians to a safer workplace and some respect and dignity. In other words, get informed, people.
    And here are some excellent research papers and relevant info to help get you started: