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.”