The Ottawa RebELLEs would like to stand in support of sex workers who attended Women’s Worlds 2011 and denounce the hostile experiences that occurred during the event. While we understand that this conference was intended as a space to “connect and converse” and that the organizers of the conference worked towards creating safer spaces for this to happen, it is our position that some of the events that took transpired during the conference contributed to creating an unsafe and hostile climate for sex workers to participate in feminist discussions as equal members.
As young feminists, as allies of sex workers, and for some of us, as sex workers ourselves, we understand choice, bodily autonomy, respect for experiential knowledge and diversity of experiences as core feminist principles. For us, this includes supporting sex workers, acknowledging sex work as labour, respecting the choice to engage in or transition out of the industry, and fighting for the decriminalization of prostitution, which we maintain would increase sex workers’ safety and autonomy, and allow for improved occupational health and safety, and labour organizing. This involves listening to sex workers, respecting the diversity of our experiences, and not assuming we are all victims. Our position is that sex workers are members of the community, and more specifically, of feminist movement(s), that deserve the same respect and entitlements as our neighbours.
While we have observed that anti-sex work feminists (who self-identify as abolitionists but who we will refer to as prohibitionists because we do not believe that sex work is slavery) have taught us to expect a cold welcome at best at pan-feminist gatherings. However, we are deeply saddened by some of the experiences that sex workers have experienced during the Women’s Worlds conference. In two of three sex worker rights events, prohibitionists loudly and aggressively interrupted, drowned out, and humiliated presenters (some of whom were current or former sex workers), accusing them of being complicit in capitalism and the exploitation of women, but most importantly, of not being feminists.
Sex workers found their experiential knowledge being discredited, and were offended at the content of many events at the conference, which appeared to award greater space to anti-sex work positions, notably the Fleshmapping exhibit that took place in the University Centre throughout the conference. Sex workers who desired to make an alternative reading of sex work more visible in this space decided to silently occupy the adjoining hallways, making resource and other materials available publicly. We were subsequently verbally abused by a large group of prohibitionists.
The Ottawa RebELLEs stood in solidarity with this group and our members witnessed these events as attacks that reduced some sex workers to tears during the conference. It is our stance that these actions undermine the space set out for dialogue and constitute a direct attack not only on sex workers themselves but on democratic and feminist processes for dialogue.
As young feminists, we acknowledge the importance of this issue and feel that the polarization of this debate is harmful to sex workers, allies, activists and all interested parties. We advocate for an open dialogue from a peace-building perspective, which requires moderated and facilitated spaces for exchange. Large international feminist gatherings such as Women’s Worlds 2011 are ideal spaces to open dialogue on these critical issues and we feel that these discussions should include the participation of sex workers themselves.
We recommend that future Women’s Worlds conferences consider this feedback in working towards providing the opportunity for participation, meaningful dialogue, and safe spaces for everyone, including sex workers. We also recommend that any feminist gathering or event should do the same, and look forward to continuing discussions that include sex workers and provide spaces for exchange that hinge of peaceful dialogue and the inclusion of voices that speak from experiential knowledge.
The Ottawa RebELLEs
This contribution was prepared by Maria-Hélèna Pacelli and is inspired by and adapted from a letter prepared by Tulia Law and Celine Couchesne of the Students for Sex Workers Rights, University of Ottawa, addressed to Women’s Worlds 2011. It stands as part of the Ottawa RebELLEs ongoing work to supporting sex workers rights, but does not claim to represent all members of the RebELLEs movements.