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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

So much misinformation in Senate sex-work hearings

     Having a Twitter feed during the Senate's meetings on sex work is both a blessing and a curse. I got so much minute-by-minute info yesterday on the opening day of the meetings that I practically felt I was there, but at the same time I spent the day fuming at all the inane, hurtful and poorly informed comments being made by some of the senators and that infuriating justice minister of ours, Peter MacKay.
     Sex workers and sex-worker organizations that support decriminalization have a huge presence on Twitter. The feed coming out of Ottawa was frenzied from the moment I staggered out of bed yesterday morning, as that three-hour time difference meant that my 7 a.m. rising came a good hour into the meeting. And man, my fellow tweeters were incensed, mostly by MacKay and his continuing assertions that the "vast majority" of sex workers are victims in need of rescue, not workers in need of legal workplaces.
    That statement alone set the tone for the fiction that mostly passes for decrim debate coming out of government these days. In truth, no one knows anything about the "vast majority" of Canadian sex workers, because research has been skimpy and almost exclusively focused on survival sex workers on the street. That group accounts for just 10 per cent of the total sex worker population, and even among that 10 per cent, the diversity of experience is far more varied than research with a few people could ever capture.
     The Tories want to give the impression that they have consulted on this move to criminalize sex work even further. But isn't it strange that Peter MacKay toured Canada in his consultations and never spoke to even one sex worker who is currently working? He didn't stop in at Pivot Legal Society while passing through Vancouver, despite that organization's prominent role in the Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year that threw out three of Canada's main prostitution laws as unconstitutional. He didn't visit sex-worker organizations. Here's how Pivot summed up MacKay's time in Vancouver, in theory consulting with "the people" on C-36.

... Minister MacKay did not spend his time meeting with sex workers. He did not visit where sex workers live or see where they work or listen to their stories. Instead, he hosted private meetings with senior lawyers from major law firms and attended fancy breakfasts at private clubs.

    The Vancouver group Sex Workers United Against Violence sent out invitations to every one of our 412 MPs to come and learn more about the realities of sex work in Canada directly from the people working in it in the Downtown Eastside. Only one MP took them up on it.
    Anyway. We are worlds apart, those of us who feel strongly that decriminalization is the only way to assure more safety, equality and respect for sex workers, and those who think they can abolish the industry by criminalizing more of it. Do your own research into that position and what you'll learn is that there isn't a country in the world that has had success trying to abolish sex work.
    I fear the fix is in, though. The Conservatives have carefully collected feedback that shores up their position, and victims of abuse to tell their admittedly tragic stories to the media as if they were representative of every sex worker experience ever. Never mind that Conservative statements about how further criminalization will protect sex workers fly in the face of the experiences of sex workers and the findings of international research around measures to reduce violence.
     And yes, there will be another court challenge, but years and years will pass before the courts can rule yet again that our laws hurt far more people than they help. Peter MacKay, I hope you realize that the suffering of all the sex workers shut out of Canadian society and forced to work in even more unsafe conditions between now and then is firmly on your shoulders.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Revised post: First day of Senate invitation list shuts out sex workers, but things improve on Days 2 and 3

 And yet another revision as of Sept. 10: Yes, the speaker lineup had more balance than I initially thought, but sex-worker organizations note that even so, the ratio was 2:1 in favour of further criminalization of the industry. A wise media scribe also noted that media tend to cover the first day and the last of a meeting, and that it had to be more than coincidence that the first day was almost exclusively anti-decriminalization. 

Mea culpa: Turns out I was looking at only the first day of the Senate meetings when I wrote this, in which the lineup is very much abolitionist. But here's the full list for the 3 days of meetings, and I see many more sex-work groups have been invited to speak. Sorry, Senators! Carry on.

Looks like the Conservative-controlled Canadian Senate is taking extreme measures to avoid hearing anything that might shake up their conviction that all sex workers are exploited victims when the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee considers Bill C-36 next week.
     The bill will add even more criminality to sex work if it becomes law, making the purchasing of sex a crime for the first time in Canadian history. It's a controversial bill, coming on the heels of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in December that threw out as unconstitutional three of the country's major laws against sex work.
     A wise government would have taken a step back to really consider the implications of the highest court in the land ruling that Canada's anti-sex-work laws hurt more people than they ever helped. It would have taken a long look at the significant research in Canada and all around the world that has found that the best way to improve the safety, equality and lives of sex workers is to decriminalize the work.
     But the Conservatives had their minds made up long before that Supreme Court decision was handed down. They opted for a different tack, choosing to just shut out the voices of anyone who doesn't think like they do on this issue. The invitation list of those requested to present to the Senate committee on Bill C-36 next Tuesday is blatant confirmation of that.
     Only two of the 11 organizations and individuals invited to present hold a view different than the Conservatives. These two groups will be alone in the crowd in their support of decriminalization, and their view of sex workers as capable people able to make their own choices and deserving of equality, safe workplaces and respect.
     Three presenters are traumatized parents of missing or murdered daughters. I'm sure their tragic and emotional stories will play well on the news that night, even though it's hard to see that C-36 would have changed anything about the circumstances of their children's deaths had it been in force back then. None of the presenters are sex worker organizations, even though Canada has quite an abundance of well-informed groups armed with convincing research in support of decriminalization.
    Instead, the Senate committee will be hearing mostly from groups that support  Bill C-36. They are passionately against prostitution. They're all supporters of the muddled version of the so-called Nordic model that the government is proposing, in which the buyers of sex are especially targeted for criminal charges, but the sellers nonetheless remain at risk for a variety of charges as well (not to mention are forced to retreat even deeper into the shadows to try to protect their customers).
     The Senate presenter list was clearly carefully crafted to ensure that most of the day will be devoted to groups saying exactly what the Conservatives want to hear. You wouldn't want to be the two groups in the room with something different to say facing a lineup like this one:
  • Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Member of the Women's Coalition For The Abolition of Prostitution, which believes no one makes a truly free choice to work as a sex worker.
  • Native Women's Association of Canada. Also a member of the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. 
  • Walk With Me Canada. An anti-trafficking organization that opposes decriminalization and supports C-36.
  • Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. The name of this group pretty much speaks for itself. The group sees all sex work as male violence against women and wants prostitution abolished.  
  • K. Brian McConaghy, Director of Ratanak International, which describes itself as "a Christ-centered organization committed to serving the people of Cambodia by being an agent of change in Cambodia’s social, economic, and spiritual landscape." What that's got to do with sex work in Canada, I don't know.
  • The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. A coalition of 160-plus church denominations that have strong opinions against gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and sex work.
  • Ed and Linda Smith, a Regina couple whose teenage daughter left home, got into drugs and ended up murdered in 1990 while working the streets in Victoria. Fighting against prostitution has been a cornerstone of the Smiths' lives ever since. 
  • Mothers Against Trafficking Humans. Anti-prostitution group founded by the mother of a young woman who went missing in 2006. 
    The two presenters who will speak that day in support of equal rights and equality for adult, consenting sex workers are Pivot Legal Society and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Both are fine organizations with thoughtful, well-considered positions, but I fear their voices will be lost. I note that both have also been placed in speaking positions that are just before a break, which makes me wonder if they will also end up rushed through their presentations after the more Conservative-friendly groups have had their say. 
    Like all the other Canadian sex-work organizations, PEERS Victoria didn't get an invitation to present. But they sent in a presentation anyway. Read it here if you're still not sure what's so bad about Bill C-36.
     Let's hope at least a few senators will have the decency to seek out the points of view of the other side, that at least some will feel foolish supporting a law opposed by the very people who it aims to "save." You'd think that before you rode off on your white horse  in the certainty that there was a nation of exploited, helpless victims needing rescued from prostitution, you might want to hear from a few of them first. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

U.S. income gap by race worse than apartheid era

   Still reeling from the news that they're putting Uzis into the hands of nine-year-olds for fun in the U.S. (well, at least until they accidentally kill their shooting instructor), I now see that whites in the United States believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism. Oh, my.
     But there's loads more in this piece from the New York Times than that little depressing tidbit. Like how the income gap between whites and blacks in the U.S. is now greater than it was in South Africa during apartheid. Or how a white boy born today in the U.S. will live an average five years longer than a black boy born at the same time.
    Read it and weep, or at the very least confirm once and for all that race issues are very much alive and tragically well among our neighbours to the south, if recent events in Ferguson, Missouri leave any room for doubt. Americans are great people individually, but collectively they've got some serious problems. The unravelling is starting to show. 

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.