Canada
3 min

Anti-porn feminists

Women's conference still divided on sex work

It’s 8pm on a Saturday in Montreal, and a group of women unfurl a banner in front of hundreds of activists, gathered over plates of raw vegetables and chickpea dip. They raise their fists in the air, triumphant after having picketed a peep show on St Catherine Street and proceed to lead the crowd in a cheer of “no to porn, no to prostitution.”

While this sounds like a scene out of Bonnie Klein’s 1980 anti-porn documentary Not a Love Story, it actually took place a couple of weeks ago. I was in Montreal for the Waves of Resistance conference, which brought together more than 500 women under the age of 35 to share skills and dream up creative ways to fight the right-wing swing here in Canada and around the world. The impromptu cheer was only one out of more than 30 actions carried out by conference participants over the Thanksgiving weekend, and thankfully, many of the women in the audience seemed equally as puzzled and appalled as I was by the display.

There were other snapshots that weekend — a few of them infuriating, but the vast majority inspiring. What else do you expect when you throw together the raw power of hundreds of women aged 14 to 35? When you combine days of debate and discussion, too few hours of sleep and massive differences in terms of age, experience, language, sexual orientation and familiarity with feminism, you are bound to run into a few roadblocks.

It was a good wake-up call for me. It reconfirmed my conviction that feminism isn’t dead, but it also exposed the cleavages that are still present in the movement a generation after they almost tore it apart. The thorny issues of sex work and pornography continue to divide women in collective meetings, at rallies and on the plenary floor of conventions like Waves of Resistance.

When these issues bubbled to the surface in Montreal, my first instinct was to roll my eyes and mutter, “Didn’t we have this debate in 1982?” And then in the same breath I remembered that, when these conversations first captured the women’s movement, I was only a toddler and many of the participants in the conference hadn’t even been born yet.

My sense of activist lineage comes from being raised by feminist parents, from conversations with older activists, and from my somewhat obsessive self-study of feminist and queer history. I have to wonder if each generation of women will struggle with the same issues, or if at some point we’ll have achieved enough of a consensus to roll up our sleeves and actually challenge the laws that continue to condemn sex workers to violence and intimidation.

My chosen community has a pretty specific set of norms. We are pro-choice, pro-sex and trans-positive. But I have often wondered if, by rejecting so much of second-wave feminism for its transgressions on porn and sex, we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Have we abandoned the important work that older feminists did to counter sexism in the media, set up shelters and campaign for affordable housing and childcare?

These issues dominated the workshop schedule at the Montreal conference, and the one workshop on the sex industry didn’t include any representatives from sex workers and, notably, excluded the women from Stella — a Montreal organization that has been fighting for decriminalization of prostitution for more than a decade.

Surely the women’s movement has advanced to the point that we can make the distinction between human trafficking and consensual sexual activity. If you talk to any sex worker, they will likely acknowledge the complex ways that societal expectations of women and the misogynist attitudes of both their customers and the police contribute to an unsafe work environment. But the only way to advance the debate with compassion and a dose of reality is to speak with sex workers not for them — something that the organizers of the Montreal conference failed to do.

There’s no denying the power of a 20-year-old’s rage. I spent a decade in Doc Marten boots, rejecting what I saw as heterosexist assumptions about beauty and sexuality. Young women have every right to rage against the patriarchy and reclaim their bodies from unrealistic and sexist expectations. But when they project their rage onto strippers and sex workers, they misdirect their anger and alienate women who could benefit from our solidarity.

While the final manifesto adopted by the Waves of Resistance participants stops short of calling for the decriminalization of prostitution, it does clearly describe “women in the sex trade” as being part of the feminist movement. Too bad the performers from the peep show on St Catherine St weren’t part of the conference. Their voices would have made our conversations so much richer.