Global sex workers and the “Freedom Festival”

•July 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There is a theme in critiques of pro-sex worker rights movements, that the only sex workers advocating for sex worker rights are the privileged few. The middle-class, stereotypically attractive, able-bodied, educated, and often white individuals who have enough choices available to them that they can claim that sex work is a legitimate choice for anyone.

I have some issues with this critique, as I think it places poor, differently-abled, uneducated and coloured sexuality in some other category, where sex-for-pay is only ever exploitative. On the one hand, I believe that multiple intersections of oppression leave people more vulnerable to exploitation. On the other hand, I think if we can accept that privileged individuals can freely choose sex work, then denying that anyone else could also freely choose it is a tricky bit of cognitive contorting.

However, I realized, based on my reaction of “oh, wow!” to this article that I have, at least to a certain degree, internalized this belief. (Perhaps because there is some element of truth to it in certain circumstances? Thoughts for later.)

The article discusses the response of global sex workers to being barred from attending a prominent US conference on AIDS. The sex workers created a separate conference in Kolkata, where they are working together to draft policy and discuss how they can protect themselves and other sex workers (and clients, and everyone) from HIV/AIDS. 

These are not the “privileged few” that are often seen as the only sex workers advocating for sex worker rights. These are sex workers who would easily be cast by the ethnocentric North American mind would write off as oppressed and exploited.

(And, let’s be honest here, I mean my mind. My ethnocentric, North American mind would have said, quietly, “probably sex workers in India are oppressed, no matter what I think about liberated and autonomous sex workers here. Probably they have no choice – how could they, they are so much worse off than we are! Probably they are people that we should be advocating, not for their rights to work but for their right to be liberating from that work.” And how arrogant is that?! Yuck. Internalized racism… YUCK! I hate running into those nasty little pockets of prejudice and holier-than-thouness in my mind. It’s not even logical, this idea that “they” would be “worse off.” That idea blinds me to both the injustice that happens here – the sex workers here who are experiencing what I assumed any sex worker would experience elsewhere, and it also blinds me to the activism that is happening elsewhere. It makes feminism here something that we can share with the needy world, rather than what it should be – fighting our own battles and recognizing that other people are fighting other battles. Bleh. I am ashamed of my “oh wow” reaction because of everything that it indicates in my own unexamined views of global sex work.)

So, what are these sex workers advocating for?

According to the article, “The Kolkata meeting will deliberate on the “Seven Freedoms” — the right to move, work, have access to healthcare, participate, organise, be free of violence and discrimination — without which sex workers say they cannot reduce their vulnerability to HIV.”

The right to move, work, have access to healthcare, participate, organize, be free of violence and discrimination… sounds a lot like what sex workers in North America are also advocating for. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction, and it seems to me that if the people impacted by the industry want and say that they need harm reduction strategies to be put into place, then it is necessary that people who study the issues and legislate about the issues should listen to that. Whether you want to abolish sex work because you think it’s immoral or because you think it’s necessarily exploitative, or you want to see it legalized because you think it’s a legitimate choice for people to make about their bodies and their livelihoods – either way, when a group of people feels strongly enough about an issue to organize and advocate for harm reduction in order to keep themselves safe… that seems important.

And no matter how shady and uncool the reasons for my “oh, wow” reaction may have been, this article made me say it. I think this is amazing. I think it requires a lot of thought. And I think those sex workers are amazing for pulling together their own conference in the face of being barred from the larger US conference. That takes dedication and commitment, and I think that’s really cool.


Some things I like

•July 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’m excited about some things I’ve seen and read recently.

The Rape of Mr. Smith is one of them.  Brilliant!  I’ve seen countless analogies that show how ridiculous the “asking for it” response to rape is, but this is probably my favorite.  Very well-done.

Also, Scotland’s anti-rape ad and The Curvature’s breakdown of it are both brilliant.

I have a list of things to blog but have been busy adventuring!  So, enjoy those things at least.

Girls who kick butt

•June 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

A Wrinkle in Time was written in 1962, and was exceptional for its young, strong, female heroine.  There weren’t a lot of positive representations of women, let alone young women, being put out into the pop culture at the time.

But… in 2010, books, movies and tv shows that give us a young, strong, female heroine are still exceptional.  I find that incredibly frustrating.

I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time for this class.  I actually read it first, because I bought it first and it seemed like an easy read.  I read it in lock-step with Geek Love for a few days, finishing one and starting the other, and it was a very odd experience.  The two books are very, very different.  But reading them that way was actually really good, because I could see so clearly how the “horror” of the circus was so much better than what was happening on Camazotz.  Meg and Oly both have a strong desire to fit into their groups, and an inability to actually do so.

Meg wants what so many young kids want, to fit in.  She’s a geek that I could really relate to – I was also incredibly nerdy, and had a “look” that just didn’t really fit it.  (I was also pretty clueless.  When I first got headgear in grade 4, I wore it to school.  Because I thought it was cool.  I was… well… I was wrong.)  I loved that Meg’s inability to fit in is the thing that saves her when she first meets IT.  That seems like a message that lots of young people would benefit from, I think we should scream it from billboards and bus ads and all over the pop culture “It’s best to be unique!  Be yourself!  Be nerdy and geeky and awkward!  Fitting in is not all it’s cracked up to be!”

I’m not sure how I feel about the end of Meg’s story, though.  In the end she does conform to the expectation that women will be the nurturers and the ones who hold the moral responsibility.  That weight of responsibility can be so damaging to women’s autonomy and sense of identity.  If we are responsibility for morality, how do we explore our sexuality?  And who defines the morality that we’re responsible for upholding?

In the end, Meg can’t do anything other than love other people.  She has no active role, and she just becomes part of the monolithic myth of the nurturing, selfless woman that we get bombarded with all the time.

However, I’m conflicted about it.  One of the reasons I love Buffy so much is that she died to save the world, because of love.  She took the Christ story and gave it a feminist retelling.  So not all instances of women using the “power of love” are negative.  I just don’t know if Meg’s case is positive or negative.  My gut reaction is that it’s negative, and it’s a backslide from the stronger character that she presented earlier in the book.

Homophobic fuckery

•June 18, 2010 • 3 Comments

Last night was a pretty good night, except for one thing.

That thing was homophobic fuckery.

I have a profile on OKCupid, a dating site.  I’ve got “bisexual” as my orientation, and “available” as my status, and among the things I’m looking for is “casual sex”.  My profile states that I love sex, I love kinky sex, I’m interested in exploring sexually with new people.  It also states that I’m in a relationship, and that all of my exploring comes with my partner, who is also bisexual, as part of the deal.  I’ve got a link to his profile, where he is also “bisexual” and “available” and looking for “casual sex”.  We have three rules when it comes to sex – Consent, Consent and Safety.  We have a fantastic relationship and an open, fun, exceptionally hot sex life.

I’m saying all that, because the first thing that happened when I got the two messages below was to feel ashamed of my profile.  I instantly and intensely felt like I had done something wrong, like my sex life and my views about sexuality somehow invited abuse.  But they didn’t.  There is nothing wrong with liking sex.  There is nothing wrong with being open about sex.  There is nothing wrong with being an open and sexually assertive woman.

But apparently some people just can’t handle it.  Last night I got these two messages –


Jun. 17, 2010 – 9:23pm

You are such a fine piece of ass! Very verbal…a bit over serious..think far too much…and you hang with fags! But still…apart from your overly crammed opinions and ultimately superficial understanding of the world…you should meet me sometime! I promise to take you to a bar someday…pay for all the drinks…hook you up with a girl…for my enjoyment…then you can reward me afterwards!

You know…

Jun. 17, 2010 – 9:44pm
…I beat up fags for fun….not because I enjoy it…but because they deserve it! I know fags spend a lot of time in gyms…because they are kinda like women…worried thier asses are too fat! But still…easily recognizable on the street,,never met a faggot who could fight back! Wait! There is one in the US…in the American army…he could totally kick my ass lol! But that is all! Pretty sure you are on 17th avenue! That is fag central!!!Hanging with a fag! I may make it my life goal to spot you…with your fag friend! Put your fag friend in the concrete…..make him understand the errors of his ways…then take you home afterwards…split you open…then make you remember why God created women….

My sexuality wasn’t the primary target of his threats, although he didn’t send a message to my partner despite checking out his profile.  He was mostly concerned with my “friend”, and with showing me the error of my ways.

I appreciate his concern, but would appreciate it more if he would go fuck himself first.

We called the police, because the threats were so direct, and because my profile linked to some of my freelance writing and to this blog, so finding my name and school would be pretty easy.  Unfortunately, they said that they don’t have the resources to track someone down who sends threats anonymously (or, I guess, pseudonymously) over the internet.  OKCupid had a much better response, and he was gone from the site by the time I got up this morning.

It makes me angry that this happened.

It makes me angry that someone would think they could control and regulate my sexuality and that of my partner because of their narrow, bigoted, ass-backwards, offensive views.

It makes me angry that my first reaction was shame, and that I seriously considered drastically altering my profile to fit the more acceptable norms.

It makes me angry that most of the people who send me messages are clearly looking for casual sex but are not able to put that openly in their profile.

It makes me angry that my partner gets checked out regularly by men who list themselves as straight and yet indicate an interest in hooking up with us.  It makes me angry because they should not have to feel like being open about their sexual interest is something shameful or something to be hidden.

It makes me angry that my sexuality, my partner’s sexuality is even considered cause for comment like that.

It makes me angry that the threat of violence is used so casually and so carelessly.  That physical assault and rape are threats that can be issued so easily and that there’s really nothing that can or will be done about it by the authorities.

It makes me angry, and it makes me want to do something to change it.

I’m not going to change my profile (although I did clean up some of the more identifying things, and took out the links to my writing).  I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like sex as much as I do.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m not what I am – sexual, and open about it.  Fuck that noise.

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do, other than to keep doing what I’m already doing – being open about sex, and running the erotic writing workshop – but I’m going to find something.  This is unacceptable.  He made me feel very uncomfortable (and that’s a pretty drastic understatement) and I’m going to find a way to make homophobic, misogynistic, cowardly fuckers like him feel equally (although differently, because I have no interest in making anyone feel afraid like I felt last night) uncomfortable.  Some kind of campaign?  Start working with an awareness organization?  I don’t know.  If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

But I’m going to do something, because I am really, really fucking angry.

Revisiting Pop

•June 17, 2010 • 1 Comment

Definitelygendered wrote earlier on the subject of Pop, the Swedish child whose gender identity is not being revealed until the child chooses for itself.

So much of the concern over Pop had to do with “hiding” the child’s gender, and setting the child up for problems later in life.  Something I hadn’t realized is that this concern is incredibly ethnocentric.  I took it for granted that Pop’s parents were doing something fairly unheard of.  I made the same assumption that I think most of the readers may have, which is that by not gendering Pop at birth or very shortly after, Pop’s parents were doing something highly “unnatural” (although, in my opinion, awesome.)

It turns out, this is not the case!  Not all cultures assign gender at birth or shortly after, and not all cultures see a direct correlation between biological sex and a person’s gender.

The Lakota, for example, don’t use pronouns like “he” or “she” or otherwise gender a child until 4 or 5 years of age, at which point the child will have shown the gender that it is.  In cultures that include a third gender, gender is not necessarily related to biological sex, and cannot necessarily be assigned until the child is old enough to demonstrate their own gender.

The thing that I find most interesting about this is that I knew that cultures existed that included an idea of a third gender.  I knew about the Berdache (although I didn’t know that was a term created by the people studying the First Nations, and is offensive.  Winyanktehca is their own term and the more appropriate one.  If you’re interested, here is some more information) and the Sworn Virgins and the Hijra, and others!  And yet, this knowledge didn’t sink in far enough, obviously.  I still looked at the Pop story from a very narrow, ethnocentric perspective, without applying my knowledge of third genders and alternative gender systems.  It makes sense that in a non-binary system, gender would not be necessarily linked to biological sex.  It makes sense that assigning gender would be a more lengthy and individual process, because gender is linked more to personality than to body parts.  It makes perfect sense!  And I had all the necessary pieces of knowledge to put that together, but I didn’t make the connection.  That inability or unwillingness to make the available connection is a kind of blindness that comes with privilege.  By assuming that the system I use is somehow the more “natural” system, I am putting myself in a position of privilege.  By choosing not to make the available connections, I am ignoring knowledge that would question the “natural” or “right” nature of my little part of the world.  That’s problematic!

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and perspective lately, and it amazes me how often we are blind to our own privilege.

At the moment, I’m working on a paper for my Anthropology of Sex and Gender class, on the topic of masculinity.  One of the assigned readings was a David D. Gilmore article, “My Encounter With Machismo in Spain”, which is terrible.  His bias is so screamingly obvious.  He describes routine street harassment of women and young girls, which often results in the girls being terrified, and even having their clothes torn off.  A few pages later he says that the men are not violent, and that “a barroom brawl is anathema to these genteel, courteous folk”.  His definition of violence is so narrow, and his definition of gentility (a curious word to use, in itself) and courtesy are also questionably narrow.  To my eye, the article is written from a very biased, very male-privileged perspective without taking into account the relevant experience of the women involved, or the fact that violence does not always include fisticuffs.

My paper was supposed to be on the topic of definitions of masculinity within various cultures, how these differ and how they are the same.  It’s an interesting topic, but I wrote to my professor this morning to see if I can write instead about how anthropologists represent those definitions of masculinity, and how the language used to describe a culture’s definition of masculinity can reflect the anthropologist’s own biases and views.  I want to look at how anthropology interacts with gender, more than gender itself.  I have no idea if she’ll let me, since it’s a pretty significant shift in topic.  I’m also not sure that it would be a good idea since the paper is due in a week (gulp).  But it’s so much more interesting!

Anyway, that bit of new information (I learned about the Lakota not gendering the child until 4 or 5 in class on Tuesday) cast the whole issue of Pop in a new light, and was the final little piece that fell into place for me in recognizing one of the problems with the way that concern over Pop was voiced.  It was interesting.

I don’t think you can ever get to the point where you don’t unintentionally speak from a privileged position on a regular basis.  We’re so comfortable in our perspectives, and it’s not easy (maybe it’s not possible?) to constantly question your own views.  But, it’s worth trying, at least!

Things that make me angry…

•June 16, 2010 • 2 Comments

I was at Eau Claire this afternoon with my mom, buying books at the Benny the Book Worm book sale.  We stopped at Paper Root Studio to get a birthday card (and so that my mom could sneakily buy me an Emily the Strange lockable diary.  Mom, you are the best.)

I found a card that said this:

“East vs. West

Eastern philosophy tells us to live in the present.


Western philosophy tells us to open the present.

Happy Birthday!”

The thing that makes me angry about the card is the clear privileging of the “Western philosophy” and the dismissing of the “Eastern philosophy” as well as the oversimplification and the fact that it insists on a clear-cut binary that just does not exist in those black and white terms.

Am I over-reacting?

Clone wars!

•June 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

(I apologize.  But really, is it so wrong that I can’t pass up a Star Wars reference?  I think not.)

Although I’m very interested in the subject of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Never Let Me Go”, I just haven’t been able to really engage with it while I’m reading it.  After the fact, when I’m thinking about it, I think it’s fascinating.  It’s very meticulously crafted, with all the important information doled out carefully over the chapters.  It’s also a very interesting social commentary, and I think very relevant.  We do tend to walk blindly in the direction of our “fate” without stopping to argue or consider the alternatives, just like the clones in the novel.  That’s the message that has been most relevant for me, I think.

I’m not sure why I can’t connect with the actual writing.  I think it has something to do with the second person narrative.  Every time Kathy calls me into the book, I find it jarring.  It takes away my autonomy, my ability to insert myself into the story when I want, and where I want.

Now that I’ve written that, it seems really brilliant.  The whole novel is about not having any true autonomy, and about the illusion of autonomy and the unconscious surrender of autonomy.  The clones are allowed to live a semi-normal life most of the time (we are allowed to read the book as we normally would, most of the time).  By removing my autonomy as a reader, and forcing me to come into the book on Kathy’s terms, Ishiguro makes me complicit in my own discomfort.  Just like the clones.  Although, thankfully, when I completed the book I wasn’t completed myself!

I don’t mind books that make me uncomfortable.  Comfort zones are, in general, highly over-rated.  But I like a specific kind of discomfort and “Never Let Me Go” gave me something else.  It was interesting, and valuable, and has led to some great conversations and new things to think about it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the process of reading it.

I don’t know what it was like for you, but for me it was quite unsettling.