On November 30, an event is being held in Vancouver to remember the victims of the 1989 massacre at L’École Polytechnique. The event’s purpose is to seek ways to end violence against women. It has attracted some criticism, however, for the inclusion of a lecture by author, activist and professor Janice Raymond.
Raymond is Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts, and was a co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and is controversial in both sex work and trans communities.
Raymond will be presenting a lecture entitled “Prostitution: Not a job, not a choice.” In it, she discusses her efforts to abolish sex work, which included advising the federal government’s legal team defending anti-prostitution laws during the recent Supreme Court Bedford v. Canada hearings.
Hilla Kerner, a member of the Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) collective, which sponsored the event, explained why they felt that the lecture was an appropriate choice:
The connection that we’re making between prostitution, between women in the sex trade and the murder of 14 students is that they are all different but harsh expressions of the same phenomenon of women’s oppression and the patriarchal forces that try to keep women in a subordinate place. On this particular day, we intentionally remember those 14 women in the political and historical context that this man killed them. But we also use the day to talk about violence against women now, to reveal the different forms of male violence against women, and to celebrate women’s resistance…We do see prostitution as one form of male violence against women.
Katrina Caudle is a sex worker and sex work advocate who has done escorting, queer feminist porn, amateur porn and nude modeling using the names Velvet and @faeriedark. Caudle disagrees with Kerner, saying that decriminalization provides a better option.
“Decriminalization removes stigma and barriers to safety,” says Caudle. “Abolition removes my right to choose… I’m tired of this idea that somehow the mere whiff of sex and money together makes rational adults suddenly dangerous deviants loose on society. If we are terrible, maybe society needs more deviants. It certainly needs more adults talking about sex.”
Raymond’s appearance is part of VRR’s formal campaign to abolish sex work. In addition to Raymond’s lecture, the memorial also features a discussion of Bedford v. Canada by Suzanne Jay, of the Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution, and the film, Buying Sex.
In the organization’s November 22 statement, VRR defended the invitation, stating:
One of the most prominent, international debates is Canada’s laws surrounding prostitution which the Supreme Court of Canada is currently deciding.
[Raymond’s] expertise has been instrumental in campaigning to have prostitution recognized as a form of violence against women — a view shared by many equality seeking groups across Canada. [Raymond’s] research and advocacy helped define the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Palermo Protocol). She is an important and highly valued ally in the fight to end the prostitution and trafficking of women and girls worldwide and we are honored that she can join us!
Caudle argues that legislation simply drives people to work in the shadows. “Criminalization leaves workers more vulnerable. It’s that simple. Whether or not you believe in sex for money or the validity of that, criminalization of this profession makes it harder for people to stay safe. It allows rape to run rampant, it allows murder to run rampant, it allows police brutality to run rampant. It creates a culture of stigma and fear, rather than a loving community,” says Caudle.
Kerner instead believes that her organization has a responsibility to act. “We made an intentional decision many years ago that we will respond in our services to all forms of male violence against women.” In addition to rape crisis counseling and peer support, the VRR collective operates a womens’ shelter and campaigns to improve the police response toward violence against women, works toward a guaranteed livable income and provides funding for womens’ groups.
The memorial’s focus on abolishing sex work is also not the only issue that is being raised.
Raymond is perhaps best known for her outspoken condemnation of transsexuality. Her 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, initiated a long and bitter rift between trans advocacy and some feminist groups.
In that volume, she argued that transsexuality was a male invasion of lesbian spaces, and that transsexualism “would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” In one of her most infamous passages, she argued that:
All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well… Because transsexuals have lost their physical “members” does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women — women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women so that they seem noninvasive…
Her 1980 paper, Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery, is said to have ended U.S. state and federal health care coverage and accommodation for trans people in the correctional system. Her writing and lobbying also negatively affected insurance coverage of trans-related medical services, leading to the specific exemption of trans-related procedures in many jurisdictions.
VRR is also known for its legal dispute with Kimberly Nixon, a trans woman who filed a human rights complaint after being denied training as a rape crisis counselor with the shelter.
On its surface, that 12 year battle had many difficult facets. It seemed even the staunchest supporter of trans human rights had to recognize that the emotional turmoil following rape was not a good time to confront the prejudices that someone seeking rape counseling might have toward trans women. However, the dialogue that happened during the legal conflict was far less diplomatic or nuanced, and there was little attempt to determine if there might be a reasonable middle ground.
There may be some signs that the hostility has slowly been changing.
VRR still does not provide services to women who are trans or have a trans history — though Kerner adds that they will not let someone facing an urgent emergency be deprived of help — but there does seem to be a wider variety of mixed perspectives on trans issues, at least, within the collective itself.
Kerner explained, “different women in my collective have different analysis about transgenderism. The position that we agreed, which is grounded in the particulars of our work, is because the core principle of our service is peer counseling. We offer it to women who have a shared experience of being born as female and raised as girls into women…”
Morgane Oger argues that the policy-sanctioned exclusion is tragically ironic. Oger was a mechanical engineer attending UBC in 1989, and for her, the murders in Montreal were particularly jarring because her faculty was the one most impacted. She is an organizer of one of the planned counter-responses to Raymond’s visit.
“I see this strange paradox, where Marc Lepine targeted women because they looked like women to him, specifically. He looked at them and said ‘ah, you’re a woman, I’ll kill you….’ And then, over 20 years later, I’m finding myself in an argument whether certain women shouldn’t have access to crisis support after sexual violence…”
As a response to Raymond’s visit, Oger says that she’s working on “a demonstration, and we’re putting together a video message for society.”
She adds that while details are not final, this response will probably be a recorded flashmob display, held some distance away from or at a different time from VRR’s memorial. This is out of a desire not to interfere with the respect being paid to the women who were massacred at L’École Polytechnique. “It’s clear that the closer we are to VRR’s event, the more we are associating ourselves to it, and so if we’re doing an event to ask for our specific things… the best thing to do is do it in our own space.”
Oger’s is not the only planned response, but some of the original discussions about protesting outside the library have resulted in disarray, and others still struggle with how to do so and still respect the memorial.
One person who withdrew from organizing a response, writer and blogger Natalie Reed, commented that “We don’t really have a right to criticize VRR and Janice Raymond for exploiting that tragedy to service their own unrelated ideological agenda if we’re so willing to do just that ourselves…There is nothing wrong with how most people view and mourn the shooting at L’Ecole Polytechnique, and the memorial is not what deserves protest. There is plenty wrong with organizations like VRR prioritizing a hateful, bigoted ideology over their professed mandate of serving the needs of survivors of rape and sexual violence.”
When news of the upcoming lecture was first released, one writer, using the name El Feministo, wrote an open letter to VRR and the hosting facility, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), about concerns regarding Ms. Raymond’s inclusion:
To be clear, this is not an attempt to censor or censure VRR or Raymond. To the contrary, I invite VRR to step inclusively into the realm of civil society rather than continuing to privilege the purity of your particular voice at the expense of the people you exclude. Inviting a dialogue between Raymond and the people she speaks against so stridently would be a step toward dissipating the pain and harm that Raymond’s views have caused to so many people…
For their part, the VPL has responded, saying that facility administrators understand “why VRR’s choice of speaker for their event is concerning,” but that “we use the B.C. Human Rights Code and Criminal Code of Canada as our litmus tests for the limits of free speech because we have to make space for all ideas in our community as per the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — even those ideas we personally or institutionally disagree with…”
In the meantime, division remains over what should be done about sexual violence.
Kerner discounts the possibility that women would willingly choose to engage in sex work or be empowered by it.
“I think that the word ‘choice’ is a bit tricky when we talk about oppression, because I believe that women at any given moment choose the best option they can, under very limited conditions. So I respect women’s choice, but again, I cannot ignore that many women — especially women who enter prostitution — have very limited choices. And every time I’m with a woman in prostitution, I get reinforcement of that. That if there were other livable income options, if there were drug treatment, if she could get her kid back, if she could have a different life, she would choose them.”
But Caudle counters that a person providing the kind of services that VRR does will often have a skewed field of experience by seeing only one side of sex work.
“I’ve done lots of different kinds of work in my life. I’ve enjoyed them all in different ways. I’m not dependent on street drugs, I don’t have children…. Without intimate knowledge of different sex work experiences — like indoor work, like call girls, like escorting — this individual doesn’t have the right to speak for me. She knows of one very real side of the exchange of sex for money — but not the whole story…”
Mercedes Allen is a graphic designer and advocate for transsexual and transgender communities in Alberta. She writes on equality, human rights, LGBT and sexual minority issues in Canada, and the cross-border pollination of far-right spin. She blogs at Dented Blue Mercedes and operates a trans information website at http://www.albertatrans.org/
Photo: flickr/Kris Krug