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Global Flesh Mapping: Day 2

This morning, hundreds of participants from the 11th International Women’s Worlds Conference marched to Parliament in solidarity with the Sisters in Spirit initiative to condemn the unacceptable number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. The feminist conference is held this week in Ottawa until July 7, 2011 and will host a variety of workshops, presentations, conversations, art installations, actions and more.

Featuring daily at Women’s Worlds is the multi-lingual, multi-media exhibit Global Fleshmapping/ Les Draps Parlant/ La Resistencia de Las Mujeres: Prostitution in a Globalized World. It incorporates interactive videos, games and 70 used bed sheets as canvasses on which women from across the country have expressed their resistance to prostitution and sex trafficking. On each day of the conference, 16 women from around the world come together in spontaneous, public consciousness-raising discussions about the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women in their own local areas. This group includes women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, academics, community organizers and others.

The morning’s march to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa set an appropriate stage for the topics of conversation at the Global Flesh Mapping exhibition today. We raised the questions: in the context of a racist and capitalist state system that women and especially Aboriginal women experience as oppressive, how can those who advocate for the abolition of prostitution use the government structure? Which reformist strategies, requiring feminists to work within the patriarchal state, are worth time and effort? Which strategies are truly transformative and meet feminist revolutionary standards?

Cherry Smiley, from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network

Cherry Smiley from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) told the group that AWAN is well aware of the contradiction of looking to the state when it has been an oppressor to Aboriginal women in the form of residential schools, criminalization and imprisonment, and foster care, among other genocidal policies. “However,” she continued, “often what is left out when people ask for the removal of all laws is that we are then still stuck with unregulated capitalism and the destruction that comes with it.” Considering that many of the women participating in this discussion link prostitution with the sexist commodification of women’s bodies under capitalism, they agreed with Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz from Mexico when she said that prostitution must be treated as “the oldest expression of patriarchy.” She advocates for what is known as the Nordic legal model, which views prostitution in this way and thus decriminalizes those in prostitution while criminalizing the demand for women’s bodies from johns, pimps, and brothel owners.

Kim Pate (left) from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and Trisha Baptie (right) from Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating

Kim Pate from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies reminded the participants that this legal change would not be enough. From her experience working with criminalized women, she is concerned that a strictly legal agenda could be co-opted by law enforcement officials to promote the rigorous criminalization of certain people. She cautioned participants to be clear that the abolitionist position does not only demand legal change, but is also “clearly linked to anti-capitalist strategies like a guaranteed livable income,” an anti-racist understanding of the link between prostitution and the trafficking of women of colour internally and across borders, as well as a class-based understanding that “brothels will not eliminate the street trade at all” since the most marginalized women will remain on the dangerous streets. Her organization has recently replaced their long-standing support for total decriminalization of prostitution with a perspective that denounces the actions of those who promote and profit from prostitution and trafficking as criminal.

Suzanne Jay (right), from the Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution

Other participants stressed the need for transformative strategies like direct actions and public education. For example, Suzanne Jay from the Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP) spoke about their strategy of exposing massage parlours to Asian women in Vancouver to build awareness about the racism operating in this type of indoor prostitution. In building a map of massage parlours the group found that, “out of 81 massage parlours, 50 of them advertise Asian women.” The group aims to change the social conditioning that tells their community that Asian massage is “a cultural thing” and promote the understanding that rather, it is the exploitation of Asian women.

Vednita Carter, from Breaking Free

Similarly, many women invoked myths that might be exposed as such with direct actions and public education. The words and strategies of women who had left after years in the sex industry were powerful. Vednita Carter of the U.S group Breaking Free problematized the separation of child prostitution from adult prostitution because “when she grows up and is still involved in prostitution, we say it is her fault – that is not a choice. When you make a choice, you know what is involved in that choice.” Trisha Baptie of Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating talked about the ideology of harm reduction: “In a way, I want my girlfriends to be safe tonight and have a condom, but we have to think bigger…abolition is bigger than harm reduction because it is harm elimination.”

From Global Fleshmapping’s international conversation today, it is clear that feminists consider the state a patriarchal institution. However, it seems that most women at the table today do not consider reform and transformation as mutually exclusive; in conjunction with other strategies, the enactment of legal and social changes can be used to expedite the possibility of a world free from violence against women.

Global Fleshmapping is presented by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and Montreal’s Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle.

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