July 6 is the third day of the 11th International Women’s Worlds Conference, held this week in Ottawa with the attendance of thousands of feminists from around the world. The conference hosts 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 bedsheets 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 will come together in spontaneous, public consciousness-raising discussions about the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women in their own areas. This group includes women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, academics, community organizers and others.
Today’s conversation started by acknowledging the leadership that formerly prostituted and indigenous women have provided to the abolitionist movement in Canada. Participants from various places and nations in this land, as well as from Haiti, Morocco, Bangladesh, Denmark, South Korea, America, Mexico, Japan, and Italy were asked: considering that the women who are active in this movement have various levels and types of privilege, how can the movement best work in alliance with women who have left or are currently in the sex trade, women of colour and indigenous women? How do women display solidarity in a way that is not tokenizing, patronizing, or exploitative?
Women had many answers, but what came across most clearly was the importance of listening and respecting the leadership of women who are affected the most by prostitution. Trisha Baptie and Veronique Bourgeois both started by suggesting that while they as survivors have a very specific voice in the conversation, all women are affected by prostitution because it encourages the commercialization of women as objects. That said, both of these women stressed the need for feminists to have objective and non-judgmental views toward women in prostitution in order to ally with them. Corroborating this sentiment, Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz told the table that women in prostitution in the Latin American abolitionist movement demand to be treated as absolute equals: “They are not the subject of studies, they are not objects to be classified.”
The participants from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) told the room that indigenous women are often ignored or spoken for by researchers, academics, and non-native women, and thus speaking for themselves is important. Fay Blaney from the same group reminded the attendees that while some of them speak about prostitution in the second and third person, “we discuss this in the first person…There is no struggle to bridge the divide between us.” Cherry Smiley quoted another member of their group: “We don’t need you to give us space – we have it, and you are in it. We don’t need you to let us speak – we have a voice, and you need to listen.” This statement recalled the words of Jeannette Lavell, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada when she said earlier this week: “We native women have had a hard time getting our voices heard and we need non-native women to help us stop the legalization of prostitution, for native women’s sake and for your own sake as well.” Many women at the table demanded a space for women to organize themselves, rather than patronizing offers of “sandwiches, counseling, or advocacy,” as front-line worker Erin Graham put it.
Other topics that participants mentioned included the need to keep the discussion of prostitution focused on the demand from pimps, johns and brothel owners, as well as the importance of the language used in the rhetoric of the pro- and anti-prostitution positions. For example, if “poverty is often what causes women to prostitute themselves,” as Bourgeois says from her previous experience in prostitution, then calling this coercion “sex work” implicitly legitimizes her situation as a viable solution to women’s poverty, which stems from systemic inequality.
Among all of the various topics discussed, it seemed unanimous among the participants that to ally with the most marginalized women is to stress the necessity of social programming that benefits anyone who needs it. Vednita Carter, founder of the group Breaking Free and a survivor of prostitution, stated that above all else women need tangible things to be able to leave prostitution, like a place to live and food to eat. But Esohe Agathise from Nigeria and Italy noted that “these resources are just not there because women’s issues are not on the agenda.” In response to the same reality in her area, Clorinde Zéphir from Haiti made a powerful call for support: “We need to ask people to support the necessary changes to our society…The abolition struggle takes root in basic demands that are unavoidable…We need to dare to dream of this world; call on people, writers and media, to help us develop this vision and go against the current of the past centuries where prostitution seems to be, for most people, a natural reality.”
Global Fleshmapping is presented by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and Montreal’s Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle