Friday, December 10, 2010

Dreaming... of an end to violence and exploitation

I had a dream last weekend.  In my dream, someone placed a very small child in my arms.  Something was different about this girl - at least, I think it was a girl.  Her face had bird-like features: her eyes were enlarged, and her nose was shaped more like a beak.  But as I gazed down at her, I was suddenly overwhelmed with love for this delicate, vulnerable creature.  "You are... beautiful," I said to her.  Hearing the sincerity in my voice, she looked up at me and whispered, "Does that mean I'll be safe?"  An odd exchange.  When I recounted it to Danice the next day, it sounded creepy, but I assure you, this scene was actually quite moving in the dream.

I don't often remember dreams, and when I do, there often seems to be a reason for it.  I had been wrestling with a lot of insecurity, and as I prayed the next morning, I saw myself as the child in the dream, looking for security and safety, listening to hear God tell me I was beautiful and loved.  I thought I knew why I had dreamed it... but there was more to come that day.

That afternoon, I attended a public forum about violence against women in my neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside (DTES).  Three female politicians, representing the three levels of government, sat on the panel - a city councilor, our MLA, and our MP.  They gave brief speeches, but generally expressed a desire listen to us.  There were other women on the panel who represented various womens' organizations in the neighbourhood.

As the people in the crowd began sharing their experiences and recommendations for curbing violence against women in the DTES, one of the first issues to come up was prostitution.  I learned that almost every woman on that panel, including each of the three political representatives, supports the decriminalization (legalization) of prostitution. 

This is a divisive issue in my neighbourhood.  Good people who care about women and their rights come to opposite conclusions on the topic.  I have often avoided talking about it, especially in conversation with other activists in the DTES, because I have wanted to focus on things we agree about - the need for housing, for example.  But after sitting through this intense 3-hour public forum, and dreaming this dream, I am convinced that I need to write about this and explain where I stand right now, and why.

Many women spoke up at that forum.  Some of them were friends of mine, like Michelle Miller (with REED - Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity), and Trisha Baptie (with EVE - Experiential Voices Educating), two women for whom I now have even more respect.  They spoke courageously and passionately, affirming that violence against women will not end until prostitution is abolished, not only because many of the missing and murdered women in the DTES have been prostituted women, but because prostitution itself is inherently violent.  They spoke in favour of the "Nordic model," pioneered in Sweden, and now also in Norway, Iceland, and Bulgaria: decriminalizing the women being "bought," and instead criminalizing the men who "buy" them and the pimps who "sell" them.  Since these laws were passed ten years ago in Sweden, prostitution has decreased significantly.  In countries that have gone the other direction, by legalizing prostitution (e.g. the Netherlands, Australia), the sex industry has expanded, demand has increased, and so has sex trafficking (forced sex slavery, often bringing in women and children from other countries). 

I had heard these arguments before, and I had heard the counter-arguments: this talk of abolition is just moralistic guilt-tripping; if two consenting adults want to have sex then we should let them; women should have the choice to do "sex work" and should be able to do so in a "safe" environment (a brothel).

But what I hadn't heard before were the voices of the First Nations women.  I watched the subtle ways these marginalized women reclaimed their power at the forum, whether it was by standing up and standing behind one another in support, or speaking with their backs to the panel, addressing only the crowd, blocking out the politicians.  Some were very controlled and composed, some were very angry, some were grieving, but they had one thing in common: every single one of them wanted to see prostitution abolished. The Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN) opposed legalization of prostitution, and the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) had also just voted unanimously to oppose legalization (thanks for the edit, Trisha!).  They spoke of the vast over-representation of Aboriginal women in street prostitution, and the ways that sexism, racism, and classism play into the violence inherent in all prostitution.  They described prostitution as "the continuation of colonization - the colonization of our very bodies."  Most importantly, they told stories.  Stories about their sisters, their cousins, and their daughters, some exploited and abused, some missing, some dead.

As one Aboriginal woman spoke of her daughter, who had been raped not long ago, and had run half-naked down the street asking for help, only to have the cop called to the scene dismiss her as "another sex worker," my dream suddenly came flooding back into my head, and the connection between beauty and safety became clear.  This half-naked girl became the vulnerable child in my arms, whose beauty was never sincerely acknowledged, who only wanted to be safe.

I oppose the legalization of prostitution, not only because I think sex is sacred and should not be for sale, not only because I think all women and men are made in the image of God and have inherent dignity and worth that is trampled when one uses the other as an object or commodity, but because I believe I am called to speak for and defend the most vulnerable people in our society, and I can't think of a more vulnerable group than low-income First Nations women on the streets, except perhaps young women and children trafficked for sex.  If indeed there are women out there who are legitimately choosing sex work, and fighting for the right to do so, I call on them to legitimately choose another line of work for the sake of the vast majority of sex workers who are not choosing this work, but are enslaved in it, entrenched in it, or are tolerating the violence and degradation of prostitution as a means of survival.

I call on the men reading this to refuse to buy women, and to speak up about this.  I call on the women reading this to protect and support their vulnerable sisters, and to speak up about this.  I call on parents to teach their children about the dignity of every human being.  I call on the leaders of my city, province, and country not only to criminalize the buying of sex, but also to raise the welfare and minimum wage rates, and to provide more support for low-income women, especially single mothers, so that no one is put in a position of needing to sell their body in order to make ends meet.

And I call on God for mercy, as I do every time I'm biking home from work at night and I see women waiting on the corners only a few blocks from my house.  They are beautiful.  I want them to know what it feels like to be safe, safe deep down, safe in every way.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with just about everything you say here - the crux of the issue, for me, being criminalizing the "buying" - but NOT the selling. In my opinion, it is the client who has a true element of choice in this matter. Any situation in which one "chooses" between sheer survival or the violence, degradation, fear and even constant risk of death (through either violence or illness) is no "choice" at all. These are relationships of victims and "bourreaux" (as say the French ... victimiser ?) established by social class - by money. Anyone who feels that there IS choice here ("after all, why not go work at McDonald's" etc.) for the sex worker, is operating from a bourgeois perspective which fails to both imagine the diverse emotionally and socio-psychologically impoverished backgrounds in which many are raised and acknowledge the power of habit and privilege (or lack of it) to determine so-called "choices" (wherever one might be able to squeeze in any possible minute element of "choice" - and often one cannot.) I view this practice the way you do and yearn for its end just as much as you do - but unless we can indeed criminalize just the buyer and not the seller, I'm not sure that criminalizing the entire thing is what most helps these women (and some men) who do it. I share your vision of the "ends" but I'm still uncertain regarding which "means" will be the most effective in protecting these vulnerable people and helping them long enough to undo the severe damage which circumstance has already wreaked in their lives both physically and mentally. I suppose I have looked at the decriminalization of the whole thing as the first necessary step: bringing the victims out of the dark so that we can at least identify them and then help in providing that encouragement and sense of security which the image of your dream so beautifully captures. But I am open to the possibility that I may be wrong. I just see poverty as being the primary cause here and the element which would first have to be resolved in order for decriminalization not to be necessary. And, unfortunately, I don't see the problem of poverty being resolved any time soon.

You continue to write with enormous insight, intelligence and integrity. It really is good (and inspiring) to hear your voice again.

Erin said...

Beth! Beautiful Blog. I love your photos, too, what an eye for beauty you have. Thank you for this.
anonymous, decriminalizing the buying of sex exposes the sellers to further exploitation. Anywhere it has been attempted, it has been an absolute disaster for women (and children). If we say to the exploiters, "okay, we trust you to not exploit them *too much*," we're giving up on the safety and freedom of the women, and the potential humanity of the men, too, far as I can figure. We all deserve better.
thanks again, Beth. the Beautiful People are lucky to have you.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.


Thank you for writing this Beth.


Lindsey Joy
aka A huge fan

Sarah said...

Excellent post Beth. I had been pondering a blog post but couldn't really add anything to an already well written post. There are a couple points though. It's easy to critisize men especially if we've been hurt by men. I think it's important to acknowledge the men who are choosing differently and challenging other men. We grew used to seeing fathers abdicating their responsibility as fathers but neglect to acknowledge those who make the difficult decision to stick around when it's easier to walk away because we have a system that supports single moms and we think nothing of single dads and yet the rate of single dads households are growing at a rate double then that of single dads. We have girls being raised by their dads without their mother. Yes we need to consider single moms but we need to support little girls growing up without Mothers and coming alongside men struggling to raise their f.girls knowing their daughters need healthy women rolemodels. Scarey thought, now women are abdicating their responsibilities as Mother. In the past we read the riots act men.. we shoukd support single parents but it would be sad to not see the unique challenges men are facing today as single fathers who aare the primary caretakers of their children.

Anonymous said...

@ Erin: I'm not comfortable with the criminalization of a group of people we already recognize as exploited because of the vulnerable class into which they were born - poverty, by and large. I have no problem in criminalizing those who are doing the exploiting, though - the buyers. That was my bottom line. However, I recognize that we can't criminalize the latter if we decriminalize the whole sex trade. Like I said, I'm not sure of what the answer is but it seems clear to me that the status quo is not working - after how many hundreds / thousands of years?

@ Sarah: I think that what children need are good HUMAN role models - the more the better - regardless of their sex. I have never actually been able to tell much of a difference between good male vs female role models. And somehow, the thought of it taking a whole village to raise a child just came to mind. For me this means that children, in their immediate intimate space, need loving and wise human beings looking after them and teaching them how to become loving and wise, in turn. But they also need to find, beyond the intimate caregiver circle, healthy communities and societies into which they can integrate themselves in joyful and meaningful ways.

Anonymous #1 - AKA Helena

Beth said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. For information about the effects of decriminalization, I've found the resources on the REED website helpful. See especially "10 Reasons not to Legalize Prostitution".