The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.
On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:
the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1
Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people.” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed.
Every year since 1995, thousands of people all over the world have joined forces in an effort to end police brutality, repression, and the criminalization of our lives. In America, yesterday, October 22nd, has become known as the National Day to End Police Brutality. These efforts were launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and have historically focused on violence perpetrated against men.
As the developer of the hashtag #BlackTransLivesMatter and a national partner of the larger #BlackLivesMatter network, I must point out that the violence against folks like us manifests in many different ways and hits black cis and trans women the hardest.
A provocative critique of anti-trafficking celebrity spokesman Ashton Kutcher and the rescue industry complex penned by sex trafficking survivor (and Tits and Sass contributor) Laura LeMoon is making the rounds. Predictably, white people are pissed. “Kutcher is just trying to help!” exclaim my white, cishet acquaintances on Facebook, clearly missing LeMoon’s point that “being a good ally on the issue of human trafficking means listening, not talking.” LeMoon also offers a relevant take on the racialized and racist narratives inherent in much so-called philanthropy:
“The savior complex that activists and ‘allies’ typically display is particularly important to be examined through the lens of the white savior complex. It is no coincidence that most of these so-called allies are, in my experience, upper-class white people who seem to continually distance the realities of sex slavery from themselves and reward their egos through the integration of racist stereotypes that they often promulgate as justification for their domination and supremacy in the movement.”
Many of these philanthropic organizations associated with white savior complexes claim a feminist mission, which is why sex workers, particularly sex workers of color, have been some of the most vocal opponents of white feminism. White feminism, especially feminism that actively excludes trans people (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, TERFs) and sex workers (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists, SWERFs) is steeped in white supremacy. TERF and SWERF perspectives are reliant upon the preservation of white womanhood, which is always maintained at the expense of people of color. This is why Brittney Cooper writes that “[w]hite women have been some of the worst perpetrators of racial aggression and racial indignity in this country, but their aggressions frequently escape notice, precisely because white womanhood and the need to protect it animates the core of so much white supremacist aggression toward Black people.”
The inherent racism of white womanhood escapes notice precisely because doing white femininity entails curbing accountability. Eschewing agency, especially sexual agency, is essential for the performance of white womanhood. It’s why so many white feminists harbor disdain for sex workers—sex workers put a price on performances of femininity which are typically demanded of femme-presenting people for free and without full consent. Think of it this way—there is a reason Christian Grey is not a Black man. Rape fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey appeal to white women because doing white femininity means abating all culpability. White womanhood fetishizes submission to white men because it allows white women to skirt responsibility for all things unbecoming a “good girl”— namely, again, sexual agency. The toxicity of white womanhood is evident in TERF and SWERF feminisms; I’m sure I’m not surprising any Tits and Sass readers with my analysis thus far. What receives far less attention, at least in circles of predominantly white cis sex workers, is how we—white cis women—propagate the institution of white womanhood at the expense of marginalized sex workers.
Let me be clear—I am a white, cis, former sex worker. I have a straight job these days. I experience a great deal of privilege on a day-to-day basis, even as a queer person who is also a single mother. And even though my girlfriend experiences hardships in the world on account of being trans, we are, after all, both white. All this is to say that intersectionality is not just about acknowledging the crossroads of oppression; it is about acknowledging intersecting privileges.
So, yep, I wear a Scarlet Letter. And yep, my lover is a woman. And yep, being a single parent is hard. But please, white cisters, stop ignoring how struggles like mine are compounded for non-white people. White cisters—particularly those of you in the sex workers’ rights movement—I’m coming for you.
In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.
Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.
The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.
When we posted the Respectability Politics Round Table, Black beauty blogger and sex worker Peechington Marie immediately spoke up on Tumblr with a well-justified critique: Why, given that the term “respectability politics” itself originated within Black feminist scholarship, did the round table not include any Black sex workers as participants? We apologized for having this kind of Oh Shit Moment and asked Peechington Marie to write a short addendum to the round table elaborating on the history of the concept within the Black community and how respectability politics affect Black sex workers.
We call it “respectability politics,” but when the phrase was first coined in 1994, it was called “The Politics of Respectability” and was used by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as a chapter title in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. But respectability politics, even before Ms. Higginbotham called them by name, affected every African American person in one way or another, and still affect us today. Try asking a Black friend of yours: “Do you know anyone who goes out in public with curlers in their hair?” and you’ll likely get an earful, maybe about why they absolutely don’t know anyone who would do that (except for their great aunt who always acted like she never had home training anyway).
Being respectable in the early Black community meant behaving in a way that would not embarrass yourself or other Black people. For example, The Baptist Women’s Convention used to visit poor Black folks, giving them pamphlets with titles like “How To Dress” and “Take A Bath First.” This was done to educate working class people on what were both the accepted and acceptable social norms established by wealthier Black communities. No one wanted their cousin LeRoy or his wife to show up to a church function improperly dressed or without their manners, and so the politics of respectability were born.