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.