Are We There Yet?

This year, Vancouver Rape Relief commemorated International Women’s Day by screening Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a 2015 historical drama that follows a group of white Suffragettes in early 20th century Britain as they work to win voting rights for women. The film, which has been rightly criticized for its distinctly whitewashed depiction of the British Suffragette movement, is a bleak yet inspiring look at the tactics and personal sacrifice needed to bring about substantive change for women.

After overcoming some initial hesitation, the film’s main character Maud Watts becomes increasingly involved with the Suffragette movement during a moment when the movement’s tactics shifted from more palatable forms of protest to direct action including throwing bricks through windows, igniting bombs in mailboxes, and cutting power lines. As her involvement in suffrage increases, so do the costs Watts incurs, as she loses her job, her son, her home, and is arrested several times.

With each loss she becomes more resolute, as do others, including the character of Emily Wilding Davison, a real life suffragette who died at the 1913 Epsom Derby after stepping in front of King George’s horse to bring attention to women’s suffrage. Inaction becomes impossible as these women lose more and more, leaving them with less and less to lose.

The struggle for women’s liberation has had other moments of determined, resolute action besides the Suffragette movement. During feminism’s second wave, from the 1960s to 1980s, feminist tactics ranged from protesting the 1968 Miss America pageant, organizing Take Back the Night rallies, picketing and vandalizing sex shops and strip clubs to the Dworkin-MacKinnon Civil Rights Ordinance that proposed treating pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights and enabling them to seek damages in civil courts. Feminists realized significant gains, including increased legal protections against some forms of gender discrimination, legalized abortion and birth control, and the establishment of rape crisis centres before pushback from right wing and religious groups quashed their progress.

In 1975, 90 per cent of Icelandic women participated in a one day general strike, refusing to work, cook, or look after children, closing or crippling newspapers, factories, schools, banks, and air travel to demonstrate the overlooked importance of women’s labour.

Since then, the individualistic, master’s-tool-using type of feminism that has become mainstream has pursued incremental, non-threatening gains that are unevenly distributed, disproportionately benefiting mostly Western, middle class, heterosexual women. And while life for some women has improved (somewhat), mainstream feminist discourse continues to ignore the struggles of our most vulnerable, and their relentless, collective work towards women’s liberation too.

Have moderate means replaced direct, radical action because life has gotten better enough, for enough women? Or, is that belief — a belief that doesn’t hold up when measured against global reality — part of what holds women back from large scale social change? If we look closely at how bad women around the world actually have it, we must ask why it isn’t considered bad enough to warrant decisive action. What else has to happen before we’re ready to do more?

There are quite a few well-established theories exploring the conditions that tend to be present in societies before moments of widespread and definitive social change –conditions that precede revolutions. Most of these theories agree that societies reach revolutionary moments when the interests of enough marginalized people are ignored so severely that the trust holding society together breaks down, leading to shifting allegiances, and, after a crisis, resolute action becomes the only option.

Unsurprisingly for theories constructed in patriarchy, where women aren’t considered a political group with distinct political aims, they don’t apply all that well to our struggle for liberation. Focused mostly on overthrowing governments, established theory ignores that women are oppressed by an interlocking system of economic, political, legal, and social institutions like gender, the family and heterosexual relationships, all of which need to be dismantled and reconstructed in order for all women to be free. Recognizing that blind spot, a closer look at these theories shows they have some valuable things to say about where we are, and where we may need to go.

Let Us Eat Cake

Societies work when the powers that be respond to the needs of marginalized people. It’s difficult to reconcile continued rates of male violence against women, and the way societies, legal systems, and governments around the world respond when women come forward looking for accountability with the belief that our interests, safety, and freedom are given much importance at all.

Societies that were serious about addressing male violence against women wouldn’t blind ourselves to its gendered reality, where men commit 95 per cent of all violent crime, and 98 per cent of all sexually violent crime, instead churning out victim-blaming campaigns that encourage women to keep ourselves safe by restricting our behaviour. If women’s interests mattered, women reporting sexual assaults wouldn’t encounter suspicion, hanging under the spectre of vengeful false accusations and treated like entrapping, attention-seeking manipulators.

If societies truly served the interests of the female half of its population, a situation like we have in some parts of the world today, where male violence against women is increasing so rapidly it boosts overall crime rates, would be met with a determined and sustained response. Instead, with nearly twice as many women killed by domestic partners since 2001 than Americans killed in the 911 attacks and ensuing Iraq and Afghan wars, a proportionate response is seen as unrealistic, extreme, unfathomable. And while I’m not advocating for military intervention, it’s worth wondering: in the absence of some kind of a War on The War on Women — what evidence should women look to in order to convince ourselves that our interests matter at all?

Trust Breaks Down

Societies are less likely to reach revolutionary moments when they operate on mutual trust and a shared vision of the common good. These societies are usually tightly cohesive, traditional ones where most people have a sense that things are running more or less the way they’re supposed to. Large-scale social change becomes possible when that trust breaks down.

For women, the personal truly is political. We couldn’t be more cohesively integrated with men: they are our fathers, brothers, sons, friends, colleagues, bosses and, for some of us, our significant others. Many women are financially dependent on men because of the lower value assigned to women’s labour, others are trapped in abusive and exploitative relationships, many aware that women are 70 times more likely to be murdered in the two weeks after they leave.

Our gendered socialization only amplifies the power of these close bonds. Conditioned from birth to be gentle, small, and modest, women are taught that our worth lies in our relationships – relationships we must maintain through an unwavering, unquestioning propensity to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Encouraged to please and accept, we’re taught to doubt our instincts and to blame ourselves instead of demanding accountability.

Societies certainly try to convince women that the way things are is inevitable and unchangeable. With religious narratives losing ground to justifications rooted in biological essentialism, we’re told behaviour is rooted in biological sex differences — that the arrangements and institutions that oppress us exist because of hormones and hardwiring. And while these explanations certainly stifle hope that things could be different and allow for the status quo to continue, they don’t hold up to what we continue learning about the learned nature of behaviour and the differences between men’s and women’s brains.

Does all of this add up to trust? If we are to believe that men who are violent or exploitative are that way because they cannot physically control themselves, how can we be expected to trust them? And why should we expect them to work with us in good faith for our liberation?

Considering the many ways women are literally tied to men and the intricate set of justifications our society uses to tell us why things won’t change, it’s no surprise that many women are unwilling or unable to stand up. That’s why it’s even more important that those of who can stand up do.

Allegiances Shift

When the trust needed to keep society operating breaks down, revolutionary change becomes more likely when people with greater financial, social, and political power shift their allegiance away from protecting their own narrow interests, and instead recognize the common interests they share with marginalized people. These privileged people redirect access to power and resources away from maintaining the status quo to replacing it, joining with those marginalized people who have always been ready to make the greatest sacrifices.

Given today’s mainstream feminist movement’s support for ideas and policies that ignore – or actively harm – the most disadvantaged among us, it’s clear that what’s missing is the realization that the true measure of how women are doing is how our most vulnerable are doing, and not how much more comfortable the mostly comfortable can become.

There is willful ignorance involved in “reclaiming” sexual objectification as empowering without considering how this reinforces the idea that women’s bodies exist for male approval and appraisal, and the many ways that belief impacts women and girls around the world. There is dangerous myopia at play when Western feminists criticize female genital mutilation Over There while smearing those who recognize rising rates of cosmetic surgery closer to home as part of the same dynamic where women’s bodies are mutilated into shapes defined by men. There is narrow-minded indifference required to support sexual exploitation industries like pornography and prostitution, favouring misguided harm reduction policies that maintain a class of mostly impoverished, mostly brown-skinned women who are coerced with money into sexually servicing men.

Instead of recognizing that no women are free until all women are free, mainstream feminists leave our most disadvantaged to their own devices while shunning the radical and collective action of the grassroots women’s movement as outdated and irrelevant, remnants of a bygone era as opposed to the driving force needed to spur more fortunate women to action.

Crisis

The established theories agree that revolutions tend to happen in response to acute triggers – crushing disappointments after periods of steadily rising hopes. How does this apply to women, who have lived under patriarchy for thousands of years, and, besides a handful of revolutionary moments, worked within the prevailing power structures to try to change them? Does that mean it just hasn’t gotten bad enough for us yet?

That depends on your definition of “us.”

 Domestic violence, overwhelmingly violence committed by men against their female partners or family members, is the greatest cause of injury for women. Studies show that between 35 and 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women are seventy per cent of all people in poverty. Women and girls are 70 per cent of human trafficking victims, and 98 per cent of victims of sex trafficking. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. By conservative estimates, one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Chances are much higher for our most vulnerable: in North America 83 per cent of disabled women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and, in Canada, 57 per cent of aboriginal women have been sexually abused.

 How can we know these facts and not consider the conditions women live under a crisis? This is a crisis – a crisis we have been conditioned to justify and accept. A crisis that has persisted for so long that we’ve constructed all sorts of stories to explain why this is how it has always been, stories telling us why this is how it will always be.

So sisters, are we there yet? Are enough women impoverished? Abused? Killed? Are we ready to look outside our narrow experiences and recognize that our best chance to liberate all women is by working together for all of our interests? Are we ready to respond to this crisis for the crisis that it is, to begin forcing the institutions claiming to serve our interests to do the same?

Are we there yet? If we’re not, how much worse does it have to get — for how many of us — before we are?

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It’s Time for Mayor Gregor Robertson to Address Prostitution in Vancouver

On Wednesday, November 18th, in East Vancouver, about a dozen people from the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood attended a panel discussion called Creating John-Free Communities. Panel members from Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity (REED), Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating (EVE) and human rights lawyer Gwendoline Allison discussed the exploitation in prostitution and encouraged local residents to write to Suzanne Anton, BC’s Minister of Justice, asking her to enforce anti-prostitution and trafficking laws across the province and provide funding and programs to help transition women out of prostitution.

Prostitution is a well-publicized issue in Vancouver, so I was surprised to hear, for the first time, that a declaration mayor Gregor Robertson signed this summer pledging action to address climate change also committed to “ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of modern slavery, which are crimes against humanity, including forced labour and prostitution.”

Robertson has made battling climate change a key part of his platform, even going so far as to commit to making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. Unfortunately, his position on prostitution has been less consistent and, given the city’s recent position on Bill C-36, downright dangerous.

Not that long ago, Robertson expressed concerns about prostitution, speaking out against legalization during his first election campaign. In his first term, he signed a declaration naming prostitution as violence against women and committed to stopping, in his words, its “sexual enslavement of women and youth.” A few years later, in 2011, Robertson suggested using social media to expose “johns and those who are exploiting people in our community, women primarily.” So it’s clear that, not long ago, Robertson understood prostitution to be dangerous and exploitative, a view that’s hard to debate given the history of violence against prostituted women in Vancouver that continues today.

Prostitution exists throughout Vancouver — in licensed brothels, massage parlours, strip clubs and, most visibly, on city streets. Our Downtown Eastside, a diverse and complex neighbourhood whose success stories and strong sense of community are too-often overlooked, is infamous not only for its open air drug use, but also for its highly visible street prostitution scene, where poor, mostly Indigenous women are pimped, exploited, abused, and murdered.

Although Vancouver’s abolitionist community is diverse and determined, the city’s dominant narrative around prostitution has been shaped by well-funded organizations (and sex industry profiteers) who lobby for full decriminalization based on the misguided (and profitable) notion of harm reduction. These groups who claim so-called sex workers are harmed by stigma, but not by the pimps, johns and traffickers who abuse and exploit them, advocate to reform and regulate the industry, to treat it like any other type of work. Claiming to speak for “sex workers,” their pro-legalization stance ignores prostitution’s roots in colonialism, its racism, sexism, and the ways prostitution reinforces male entitlement and the objectification of women. Those who rely on harm reduction models in order to fund themselves also have a financial stake in ensuring the marginalized remain so.

Treating “sex work” like other types of work ignores the brutal realities of prostitution in Canada, where, of those in prostitution, 76 per cent have been raped (and of those raped, 67 per cent have been raped more than five times). Reducing stigma doesn’t change that 95 per cent of prostitutes, when asked, “What do you need?” answered “to leave prostitution,” followed by 82 per cent who needed drug and or alcohol treatment, and 66 per cent who said they needed a home.

Given that reality, watching our mayor contradict his early position in order to align himself with those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns has been disturbing. These days, the mayor, the City, and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) now stand firmlybehind “minimizing harm” but not working to dismantle prostitution, and firmly against Bill C-36, Canada’s new federal legislation that criminalizes pimps and johns in keeping with the Nordic Model. It’s no coincidence that the City’s approach is the least costly and least labourious way to address the interconnected issues of poverty, addiction, marginalization, and prostitution.

The Nordic Model targets the demand for commercial sex that feeds human trafficking. This framework, which has been shown to reduce both the demand for prostitution, and violence in prostitution has three prongs: it criminalizes buyers, decriminalizes prostituted women, and invests in programs and services that aid women to exit prostitution, and offer them real support once they’re out.

Bill C-36 is Canada’s imperfect interpretation of the Nordic Model. To be fair, the Bill falls short by criminalizing communicating for the purpose of selling sex near a playground, school, or daycare, plus, the federal government needs to commit more funds towards exiting services and social safety nets. Still, by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, it’s an important first step towards protecting Canada’s most vulnerable women.

You would think a mayor who has already recognized prostitution as violence against women and who suggested publicly naming johns to deter them from buying sex would support and work to strengthen legislation that recognizes the inherent exploitation in prostitution — especially after signing a declaration that commits to ending that exploitation and counts prostitution as modern slavery and a crime against humanity. Instead, Robertson is now, essentially, supporting men’s right to buy and sell women, shutting out local abolitionists, and blatantly ignoring Canada’s laws.

If Robertson is serious about ending prostitution, and not just playing politics, there is a clear path forward. A path that includes working with the new federal government to strengthen the aspects of C-36 that criminalize pimps, johns, and traffickers.

In the meantime, since, under Robertson, Vancouver has demonstrated willingness to opt out of enforcing C-36 altogether, it could instead opt out of enforcing the communications prohibition alone, and begin using C-36 as a tool to hold traffickers, pimps and johns accountable for their exploitation. The city could offer prostituted women real alternatives: increase exit services, drug treatment programs, and double down on the mayor’s failed pledgeto end homelessness.

On the other hand, if Robertson signed the declaration to attract more publicity for his climate change agenda, with no real intention of acting to end prostitution, I hope he thinks carefully about who he has sacrificed and who he is betraying in doing so. Either way, Gregor Robertson has questions to answer and contradictions to explain — and I look forward to joining Vancouver’s abolitionist community as we push him to respond.

Absention As a Political Act

Earlier this month I signed a letter to federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair asking him to clarify his party’s position on Bill C-36, Canada’s foray into the Nordic Model, which has been proven to both reduce demand for prostitution and keep prostituted women more safe.

This week, Mulcair responded with typical pro-decrim rhetoric, smearing Bill C-36 (which was passed after extensive consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief) as a political game.

I’m getting really tired of supporting so-called progressives while they ignore women’s oppression. For me, Mulcair’s response was the last straw. Here’s my letter to Vancouver East NDP candidate Jenny Kwan, letting her know why I won’t be supporting her candidacy next week.

Hello Ms. Kwan,

As a longtime NDP supporter and resident of Vancouver East, I am crushed to hear Thomas Mulcair’s response to a letter signed by more than 100 men and women asking him to clarify the NDP’s position on Bill C-36.

Bill C-36 is the only thing the Conservatives did right. It correctly positions prostitution as exploitation of women and, accordingly, criminalizes the purchase of sex while at the same time decriminalizing prostituted women and increasing the exit services available to them.

As a longstanding member of this community, you are surely aware that the vast majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy. This reality is in stark contrast to the currently popular red herring argument that “sex workers” freely choose to enter prostitution, and that decriminalizing pimps and johns puts prostituted women at risk. It is violent men who put prostituted women at risk, and decriminalizing prostitution protects those men, and sustains the conditions under which they can cause harm.

Bill C-36 is the first step towards the Nordic Model, a model implemented in Sweden, which has seen 0 murders of prostituted women since its adoption 15 years ago. In contrast, in Germany, where prostitution has been decriminalized, more than 60 prostituted women have been murdered since 2002. I urge you to investigate these facts before replying with the commonly stated, but completely disproven claim that decriminalizing prostitution helps women. This claim is simply not supported by fact.

In Canada, Bill C-36 was passed after consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief. Support for Bill C-36 is in line with your commitment to aboriginal women, and the only logical position for someone who claims to care about exploited women.

If the NDP refuses to support prostituted women by supporting Bill C-36, I will be forced to abstain from voting. I cannot support a party that relies on debunked, regressive ideas that endanger women’s lives.

I have been an engaged and active voter my entire adult life. I used to shun people who didn’t vote, judging them as apathetic or lazy as we obedient, politically engaged people are taught to do. Now that I recognize that neither the Left nor the Right serves women’s interests, I’m beginning to see abstention as a valid political choice. Messy? Perhaps. Dangerous? Potentially. But, surely, no more dangerous than supporting a party that won’t support a law that helps keep vulnerable women safe.

A Reminder for the Left: No One is Free Until All Women Are Free

On Friday, September 25th, 1200 people gathered at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver to hear three preeminent speakers discuss socialism, oppression, and rebellion. The event, a roaring success – packed to the gills with local Lefties, desperate for change – was organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRR) and Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), with proceeds from ticket sales going to support their work helping women escape male violence and fighting for women’s liberation. It was programmed with the intention of incorporating a discussion of women’s oppression into socialist activism and so Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges’ speech was bookended by powerful talks by Alice Lee of AWCEP and longstanding feminist activist Lee Lakeman, who worked with VRR for over thee decades before retiring in 2013.

All three speakers demonstrated the way in which women’s oppression should be a logical focus of socialist rebellion, a critical and timely message given the Left’s embrace of policies and behaviours that actively harm women.

AWCEP is a feminist group that recognizes prostitution as violence against women, and works to abolish it using an anti-oppression framework. Lee’s speech centred women of colour, explaining that human trafficking is a product of capitalism, colonialism, and a sense of male entitlement that normalizes sexual access to female bodies, pointing out that all of this is central to patriarchy.

Chris Hedges began his speech by expressing solidarity with AWCEP and VRR’s abolitionist position and reminding us that, in the spring, a few liberals tried to have him banned from speaking at Simon Fraser University on account of his critiques of the sex industry and alliances with groups like AWCEP and VRR. Moving on to discuss corporate malfeasance, climate degradation and the need for a united socialist response to neoliberalism and capitalism, issues covered in his new book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges mentioned the dangers of masculinity and repeatedly wove women’s oppression into an ultimately grim sermon aimed at motivating decisive anti-capitalist action.

In her talk, Lee Lakeman recounted incident after incident of male violence against women covered in the media, offering these incidences as examples of a sustained attack on women’s liberty. She reminded us that we have heard these stories before, that they aren’t isolated, they’re not going away, and that they will not go away if the Left doesn’t fully incorporate feminism into their activism and begin fighting on behalf of abused and marginalized women.

Lee, Hedges and Lakeman all demonstrated how a movement that aims to free citizens from the oppression that is capitalism must free all citizens, including women beaten or raped by men, and women exploited by men on porn sets and street corners.

It’s an important message at a critical time when neoliberalism’s focus on unquestioned individual choices threatens feminist progress. A moment when Amnesty International, an organization that claims to promote and protect human rights, has decided to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, legitimizing male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and relegating a class of mostly brown-skinned, mostly poor women to sexual servitude. A moment when the Left embraces pornography as empowering, without bothering to question the violence and degradation on screen, consider the working conditions, or the demand pornography creates for sex trafficking.

The Left’s dismissal of women’s oppression isn’t a new phenomenon. Much has been written about sexism in the civil rights movement and how the hippies’ pursuit of “free love” was a pursuit lead by men for expanded sexual access to women’s bodies. Like many feminists of her time, Andrea Dworkin’s activism began in the civil rights movement, where she learned that so-called progressives fighting for human rights don’t bother themselves much when it comes to women’s rights – certainly not at the expense of their erections:

Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat… The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

The Left’s refusal to “get it”, this gaping blind spot, is dangerous for women, and although Alice Lee, Chris Hedges and Lee Lakeman shined light into that dark corner, I was disappointed to see a number of audience members stream out immediately after Hedges’ finished speaking, continuing to trickle to the doors while Lakeman reminded us, in her powerful speech, that women continue to be raped and murdered while the Left stands by. While most of the audience stayed, moved and inspired by Lakeman’s courage and willingness to tell the truth at any cost, I was not surprised to notice that most of those walking away were men.

So Lefties, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop patting yourself on the back for protesting sweatshops and human trafficking then going home and getting off watching women degraded in pornography and not thinking about the connections. It’s time to stop embracing “sex work” as empowering choice while ignoring that the majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy, and who want out. It’s time for leftist men to stop thinking sexism and oppression are what other men do to women and start looking at yourselves.

Because feminists see you, women see you. We see your hypocrisy and your refusal to examine your own behaviour and challenge your entitlement. We make decisions about whom to trust, ally with, and fight alongside, and we see you abandoning women. We see you not seeing us at all.

[Originally published on Feminist Current.]