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Hostile clashes dominate women's conference


Hostile clashes dominate women's conference

Pro-sex-worker activists beaten down in name of feminism
At the recent Women's World 2011 Conference held in Ottawa, sex workers and their allies found themselves silenced and outnumbered by anti-sex-work groups and a controversial art exhibit entitled Flesh Mapping: Prostitution in a Globalized World.

Promoted as a global feminist conference, Women's World 2011 saw the convergence of almost 2,000 women from 92 countries, from July 3 to 7 at the University of Ottawa.

Designed to bring together researchers and activists on women's issues, this year's event unexpectedly highlighted a deep and painful fissure in the feminist movement, with hostile clashes at the sex-worker advocacy panels and in the common spaces over the course of the five days.

The week's schedule included numerous panels arguing, from various angles, to end global prostitution. This movement, more commonly associated with an earlier generation of anti-pornography, anti-sex-work feminism, argues that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, further entrenching patriarchal structures.

In comparison, pro-sex-work groups at Women's World were small in number. Groups like Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER), Toronto's Maggie's and Montreal's Stella work as sex-worker advocacy groups, arguing for safer working conditions, harm-reduction strategies and the option to choose their occupation. Together they support groups like Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), which has made significant grounds in arguing for decriminalization in Canada.

The chasm between the two groups became obvious at the Women's World multimedia exhibit Flesh Mapping: Prostitution in a Globalized World, which attracted much attention among media and conference delegates and marked a strong prohibitionist ideology throughout the conference.

The exhibit included 70 used bed sheets as canvases that expressed sentiments such as "Women are abandoned in the name of choice."

It was a disturbing exhibit for many, but, for activists like Tuulia Law of SPOC and the president of Students for Sex Workers' Rights at the University of Ottawa, it felt personal.

"It was a huge room - located, ironically, just down the hall from the Pride Centre - with messages about the horrors of prostitution and the impossibility of choice written all over and a bed in the middle," says Law. "Even the name - they were mapping our flesh - I found incredibly offensive, but being in that room, with all the folk-art-looking quilts and sheets that denied our existence and our choice, that denied the existence of choice in the sex industry at all, just made me want to die."

Oral presenters at the two sex-worker advocacy panels were also harassed.

A social-justice activist and former sex worker, Simone (not her real name), was a Women's World volunteer who attended a panel called The Stigma of Sex Work: Addressing the Problems, Organizing for Change.

"I realized there was a strong prohibitionist presence from the beginning. It was clear in the schedule and the general focus on the Flesh Mapping exhibit. And I overheard conversations in the elevators and all around me. I knew people were organizing to disrupt the workshops," says Simone.

After the presentations by panellists, which included Frédérique Chabot (POWER) and Colette Parent and moderators Chris Bruckert (University of Ottawa) and Nengeh Mensah (the Université du Québec à Montréal), the language turned personal.

When one audience member suggested that the presenters were perpetuating not only patriarchy but also the oppression of capitalism with their choices, a group of anti-sex-work supporters stood up and cheered.

"The panellists' responses were so powerful and well-spoken, but they were not heard. It was such a feeling of hatred towards sex-positive feminists," Simone says quietly.

"I got up and went to them where they stood congratulating each other. I said, "We had this much space in this conference." She holds up a hand, her thumb and finger an inch apart. "This much. And you squashed it. Why are you denying my existence? My choices? I am in this room," says Simone.

"It felt like a tornado went through the room," agrees Lindsay Blewett, an escort who attended the workshop. "It's really hard to describe how it felt. I felt so powerless, as nothing we could have done would have changed anything. They were not there to dialogue. They were there to humiliate us, to silence us, to laugh at us, to yell at us."

The hostility didn't end in the workshops. Pro-sex-work activists wearing T-shirts chose to sit quietly outside of the Flesh Mapping exhibition on the last day, offering informational materials and buttons in an effort to share another perspective.
Joining them was Bruckert, a researcher and professor from the University of Ottawa.

"We sought to take the high road and were respectful," says Bruckert. "It was perhaps 10 to 12 of us, mostly women, one young male student. A number of us were current or former workers; others were allies... I should note that I was there in part to show that some of us older feminists also question the prohibitionist discourse."

The reaction to their presence was visceral. One sex worker was asked if she'd ever been raped.

"One wonders at the bounds of human decency," Bruckert muses.

Another anti-sex-work supporter did media interviews, pointing to the group and implicating them in the harm done to other women, while others accused them of ignoring the needs and hurts of aboriginal women and of being in alliance with the police.

Though the group tried to respond to each concern, they were not heard.

"It was extremely demoralizing," says Chabot.

A representative for Women's World shared her disappointment at the events: "We now recognize that pro-sex-worker activists felt unsafe at the congress. We take this very seriously and have plans to dialogue with representatives of that community about how to ensure the situation is not repeated at future Women's Worlds and similar gatherings."

While the experiences of sex workers and their allies at Women's World left many wondering about solidarity and the meaning of feminism, Bruckert stands firm.

"I have been a feminist for 35 years and refuse to let that go. I am, however, profoundly disturbed by what I saw and experienced at Women's World. This was a silencing of the voices of marginalized women and unprovoked verbal violence. I am at a loss to define this as anything other than second-wave feminist imperialism."

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another man speaking
Sorry, but Xtra doesn't just belong to 'wimmin'. I am a guy. I am also a friend (and client) of Lindsey. Here is the issue from another perspective: what she and I (and other CONSENTING adults) do sexually in private is none of your goddamn business. Nor is it the government's, the cop's, women's groups, men's groups ,the clergy etc. Leave us alone. Fix your own sex lives.
Stay the hell out of ours.
Why is a man speaking?
I am presuming that Martin Dufresne is a woman reclaiming a traditionally male name. If not, and this person is indeed a male (and not a transmale) then their words are poison and should be banned from a wymmens' forum about wymmens' issues.
Sex Worker And Proud
Since coming out as a sex worker activist, I have found myself unwelcome in so many feminist spaces that I have disavowed it.

I am so often shocked by the fact that my clients and fans will take the time to get know me but feminists will not. I went to one conference where pornographic images were played for the crowd. The audience was encouraged to describe the image. Every phrase was negative--brainless, soulless, piece of meat, bimbo, worthless, and many more.

I never understood what the point of that exercise was but it made it clear that there was nothing that I would be welcome to contribute.
@ winnie
Yes, actually I have read all the majority of articles, and the rhetoric and the falsely interpreted data as well as the debunking articles and analysis of those same reports. I also do have a background in qualitative and statistical analysis. I also have real life experience, over 10 years. Have you? Have you seen the police admit that the number used to promote anti trafficking are highly exagerrated? that the #s used to provoke a crackdown on brothels and sex workers in the UK went from a student study of 140 foreign workers brought into the country to a whopping 140,000, of which, of course the police were only able to find 30?, and of those 30, charged 5 or 6?
You see, I don't take someone else's word for fact, I look deeper into the media and research and find out for myself. Especially when these socalled facts so grossly conflict with my reality, and the reality of hundreds of other sex workers that I network with. It started with the claim that all sex workers started at 14, and all sex workers were abused, or suffered incest or whatever bs they try to feed the gullible. Surveying online indoor workers, showed the average age much higher, certainly over 20, and that a great number started when 35 or older. How does that play into that particular piece of nonsense used as Proof? The facts are out there, and if you allow yourself to be served up someone else's truth without personally verifying it, then you shouldn't be promoting it.
If you bother to read Elizabeth's link, you will hear the same opinion. Open your mind, there are more stories. And afaik, prostitution and prostitute are words, but one cannot be prostituted. Its a ridiculous term meant to brainwash people.
Who to Fear
Another conversation elsewhere brought this classic article to mind. It's a blog post by Born Whore titled "It's You I'm Afraid Of." It's germane to this discussion and great reading, period. Find it at http://bornwhore.wordpress.com/2009/04/06/its-you-im-afraid-of/
Trauma storiesw
I am not trivializing Rebecca Mott's story, nor do I have any intent to deny that she is honestly describing what she really experienced. It sounds like Ms. Mott was under the control of at least one violent pimp and that she had no real choice about whether she would become a sex worker. This is completely wrong. No one should be forced into the sex trade by anyone, ever. No one who is in the sex trade should be forced to engage in activities without her own, enthusiastic consent. Pimping and sexual assault are crimes and the pimps and criminals should be prosecuted, absolutely. However, I am very tired of what Audicia Ray calls “sex worker trauma porn”--stories about how horrible sex work is, how bad the men are, how exploited, degraded, used and abused honest sex workers always feel. We know that’s not true for most of us. These stories are frequently told--indeed, the women's experiences are often exploited--to fulfill agendas promoted by others, such as the prohibitionists, who do not actually care about the safety and well-being of women working in the sex trade by choice or under duress. The stories are told in support of a naive campaign to eliminate prostitution which will not succeed but will certainly drive prostitution underground and promote the interests of pimps and violent abusers. This is not to say that being a paid companion is a bed of roses all the time. There has to be a way to engage with the stories of women who have retired or been rescued from the sex trade. There has to be a way to listen to the broad range of sex workers' stories and experiences instead of silencing those who do not support a particular agenda.
who is actually dismissive?
Wow, I am astonished at folk's like Kathleens's quick and utter dismissal of anyone that disagrees with them, eg Martin, and Anna. Very hypocritical for someone complaining of the same thing. Without seeing Anna's evidence, you dismiss it. So have you read every research study on sex work then? And have training on data analysis, sampling procedures, etc?

Did you read any of Rebecca's blog? She was in various forms of prostitution, indoors mostly, for well over a decade. To dismiss her experiences, and that of women, hundreds over the years, that she saw and spoke with, sometimes befriending, as ONLY her experience, ONE woman's is downright ignorant. Do you think she never spoke with other women in the brothels, etc she was in? That she doesn't have the weight of what happened to the sisters/women she knew on her shoulders? Do you think she is so self centred as for it to be all about her and her fweelings?

Most else of what i want to say has already been said, so i won't :)
selective reading
martin, selecting one blog for one experience, in order to justify silencing or ignoring the experiences of sex workers who are actually talking, here and at that conference, is very selective, and very poor research. Why persist in ignoring the stories already presented, in order to further a biased agenda? Given the reality, that sex workers will work whatever obstacles are put in their path, isn't it better to deal with that reality instead of dismissing it? Heads in the sand, imagining dangers that do not exist indoors, and so on. As an argument, it is also dangerous to work indoors, is lame since the point is that it is MORE dangerous to work outdoors. Isn't the point to get safer working conditions for everyone, regardless of what that work is. Do you think that sex workers are more in danger because they work alone? Then why isn't your solution that they be able to work in pairs or in a brothel, with others? If your only concern is that by working indoors can lead to dangerous situations, then how is it that your solution is to eliminate the work altogether? It is dangerous for gas station attendents to run out and try to stop someone who gassed up and tried to drive away. Several have been killed when doing this. The solution wasn't to shut down all the gas stations, or to make buying gas illegal. The effort was made to increase their security. The customers were required to pay before pumping.
So what is the difference? You take the legal business of prostitution and make sure , just as Judge Himel believes, that it is not made more dangerous by applying punitive laws in the guise of "helping". You aren't helping anyone by scaremongering with false information presented as "facts". You do not know the facts, because you have chosen to ignore and dismiss them.
One woman's experience of prostitution and denial
Reading Rebecca Mott's blog about her experience of indoors, allegedly safer prostitution, has been a learning experience for me. Maybe it can be for others before the shallow trivialization and denial of such experiences proceeds too far:
Anna,, seattle, the "research" you refer to is highly biased, and is not supported by real and recent facts. A study is being done now on the topic, but a related study done a couple of years ago is what is driving it. In the earlier study, it was very clear that indoor workers were not experiencing violence or safety issues on anywhere near the level of a street worker.
If you are truly interested in real information about the sex trade with real legitimate research, I would suggest you read the information provided in the ruling by Judge Himel in the recent court challenge in Ontario, Canada. In this information, Judge HImiel makes it VERY clear that anything Melissa Farley presented as "facts" were highly suspect and would not be allowed into the discussion. In addition, overturning certain laws that attempt to control our legal prostitution in Canada were based on safety issues, one being that workers who worked indoors had a lot more control over their environment, did not have safety issues because of this, and that it was clear to the judge that working indoors was highly effective in ensuring they were going avoid a lot of dangerous situations.
In the not too distant past, a couple of gas station attendents were killed by customers attempting to leave without paying. What is your solution to protecting gas station attendents from the very clear and present danger they are in by choosing their work?
You are judgmental when you try to link a mental disorder (anorexia or cutting) to the choice to be a sex worker. How can they possibly be linked in your mind? Its more appropriate to say a sex worker would rather choose sex work than to put herself in very obvious danger of working at a gas station, imo.


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