Prostitution and Some Left-Wing Men

… like John Baglow.

I think it’s fair comment to point out that the photo chosen by blogger John Baglow to accompany his piece on prostitution posted at rabble is from a campaign organized and funded by the brutal Irish pimp Peter McCormick. I’m sure it was accidental so I will go no farther with that line of inquiry. There are too many other accidents in Mr. Baglow’s piece that require response.

I have no problem when a blogger or any writer of an opinion piece declares their bias – “opinion” – I get it. But Mr. Baglow also points out that he “is a former VP of PSAC, currently a writer and researcher, public policy consultant, occasional academic and poet”. In that case I expect a cogent presentation of the issues involved in debating the merits or lack thereof of proposed legislation to protect communities and exploited persons put forward recently by the federal government. But all I got was a sermon and some insults. Given the ongoing crumbling of mediated public and political debate that we see nowadays with resulting rampant disaffection, cynicism and ignorance, this is disappointing. To see such a blog posted in alternative media is also disappointing. An attempt should be made, at the very least, to take a stab at contributing to the enlightenment of readers rather than making repetitive attempts to mischaracterize important issues involving women, race and class.

It is not only unfair of Baglow to characterize abolitionist feminists as “priggish moralizers” – it’s blatantly inaccurate and manipulative. The abolitionist position is a good deal more nuanced than that and either Baglow knows it and chooses to ignore it in his attempt to polarize the debate, or he is intolerably ignorant.

The abolitionist position is based on an understanding of prostitution as the exploitation of women and particularly of poor women, racialised women and Indigneous women. Note that the coalition of women from the independent women’s movement that participated in the Bedford case was comprised of Asian women, overrepresented and hidden in indoor work which apparently they do not find “safe”; women’s shelter workers; advocates from Canada’s sexual assault care centres; the Elizabeth Fry Society – working with imprisoned women; the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network; and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Surely all these women and their hard work and careful argument cannot be characterized, should not be characterized anywhere, as mere priggish moralism. In my view that conclusion is both sexist and racist on its face. The differences among feminists with respect to issues such as pornography and prostitution are long-standing; arguments are fairly well-developed on both sides. None of us deserves to be dismissed as an “angry radical” and surely not Meghan Murphy who writes for rabble and is a respected voice in the Canadian feminist community. The link to her work strikes me as purely gratuitous and downright mean. Though I must admit I’m happy to be an angry radical if my argument is actually being accurately described. What the hell is wrong with angry radicals?

Now to Baglow’s argument. He lectures us that we mustn’t see prostituted women as victims and tells us that they have agency and that we must accept that proposition at the outset. He doesn’t define or describe agency or tell us in what circumstances we are allowed to see agency as being so circumscribed as to be almost non-existent. Of course we all have agency. Of course women struggle in resistance to their circumstances. That is both the genius and strength of oppressed people. That agency doesn’t erase exploitation and certainly doesn’t erase our social and political responsibility for it. That’s just a non-starter but it does play nicely into libertarian notions so popular today that exhort us to believe that individual freedom is best achieved when society leaves people alone to negotiate their own way through the difficulties foisted upon them by their sex, race and class. It implies that it is those of us who fight for recognition that people in certain circumstances are victimized who are somehow responsible for that victimization and stigmatization. Nice work lefty guy – let prostituted women choose their work and blame women if it’s stigmatized according to some crazy old Madonna/Whore dichotomy. Many of the advocates amongst abolitionists are survivors of prostitution. What they did to escape stigma, in part, was to join themselves in solidarity with feminist analyses and principles. Because those are the analyses and principles that they believe will lead to the liberation of their sisters. That is, ALL their sisters and not just those who claim to choose and be happy in the sex trade.

Those who are oppressed are not often in a position to end their exploitation without advocacy on the part those of us who are not quite so oppressed. Yes, they can fight for themselves. But Baglow fails to recognize that the women of the coalition are doing just that: fighting for themselves. He says we should not see prostituted women as “hapless victims upon whom unspeakable violence and degradation are perpetrated.” Well, certainly not hapless but yes, often victims upon whom unspeakable violence and degradation are perpetrated. Is that really even arguable?

For instance, let’s take Terri-Jean Bedford, one of the litigants in the now famous Bedford case. Some aspects of Bedford’s life are now a matter of public record. Here’s a description from the judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada:

“Terri Jean Bedford was born in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1959, and as of 2010 had 14 years of experience working as a prostitute in various Canadian cities. She worked as a street prostitute, a massage parlour attendant, an escort, an owner and manager of an escort agency, and a dominatrix. Ms. Bedford had a difficult childhood and adolescence during which she was subjected to various types of abuse. She also encountered brutal violence throughout her career … ” see R v. Bedford

There is no doubt in my mind that Bedford has agency. There is also no doubt that she was victimized throughout her life, from childhood on into adulthood, and that her exploitation had a good deal to do with the fact that she was a girl and a woman with limited opportunities and vulnerable to male exploitation. This is not a description of a woman about whom we should be unconcerned. The social harms inflicted upon her are not harms that we should ignore as a matter of law and policy. In some sense she represents what is often referred to as a stereotype of a prostituted woman, abused in childhood, the victim of “brutal violence” and no doubt the victim of the trauma attendant upon such experiences. To say so is not to stigmatize her; the stigma experienced by a prostituted woman doesn’t come because other women care about her experiences or from our advocating for a set of social policies and laws that might reduce the possibility that any woman must suffer what she has suffered.

Mr. Baglow then exhorts his readers to see prostitution as mere labour, lest “bare principle” blind us to the “complex issues of everyday life”. I think Mr. Baglow means we must put aside ethical and normative considerations in order to deal with the ugly reality of prostitution, that age-old and unshakeable institution. But many things are laborious, many things are work, that we choose to put outside the law and outside social approval. In arguing that men ought not to be able to purchase women’s sexual services and remain within the law and social norms, abolitionists are not arguing that women in the sex trade do not do work. We are arguing that men ought not to be allowed allowed to exploit women’s bodies without penalty. We must think about what particular kinds of work exploit human beings, i.e. women, to such a high degree that we cannot condone it. There are many examples of different kinds of work that we find beyond the pale. In citing examples I do not mean to compare them to prostitution but merely to note that human labour is not always legal work: for instance, overtime work that is not compensated appropriately; slavery; wage slavery; child labour. The illegality does not pertain to the worker but to the capitalist and the consumer. As it should with respect to prostitution.

Baglow’s “Mrs. Grundy” comment is, frankly, diminishing and dismissive of women and thus sexist and beneath contempt. I am in solidarity with women who work in the sex trade. I seek a form of solidarity that envisions a society in which women, racialised women, poor women and Indigenous women do not have to sell sexual services to men in order to survive, either psychically or physically or whatever other way. When we take steps toward that vision, we enable and support women in making real choices – still circumscribed by the human necessity to work, but not forced or coerced into a form of work which only very few would truly and freely choose. Mr. Baglow is free to disagree with respect to how we achieve that end. In my view he ought not to be free to misrepresent and insult the efforts of those women with whom he claims to be in solidarity.

As Andrea Dworkin said, “The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.” Amen sister. Amen.

Why I’m Idle No More

First in a series of posts.


What is THE most important issue of our times? For me, there is no doubt. The treaty obligations of settler Canadians just have to come first and they have to come first now. Those of us who are not indigenous to this country have ignored those obligations since we entered into them. This has resulted in First Nations and Inuit people becoming the most harshly treated people in this country, across the board, on all indicators. Their access to adequate housing on reserves is appallingly inadequate and movement into urban areas often leads to urban poverty – mental illness, addiction, prostitution and subjection to state violence and street violence of all kinds. Both on reserves and in urban areas, far too many are without access to decent medical care, standard education options and community supports. The state is more likely to “help” First Nations people by stealing their children, as it did in the past. First Nations land is robbed and stripped of resources and polluted while communities are poisoned. Yes, we should worry that the poisons and pollutants run downstream. Why wouldn’t we worry first that they attack the land and people to whom we have legal and ethical obligations?

My life’s work outside my family has been a commitment to the liberation of women. In that regard, First Nations women are the most legally subjugated people in Canada, subject to the most violence, the fastest growing rates of incarceration in the country and systematic, historical and ongoing action to relieve them of those most precious to them … their children.

I’ve always believed in grassroots action, even though I was an academic. I’ve always believed in working from the bottom up because if we resolve the problems of those who suffer the worst exploitation, oppression and repression, we cannot but resolve those problems for all. Trickle UP actually works. It only makes sense. That, I suppose, is the more selfish reason for supporting Idle No More, Sisters In Spirit, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, Chief Theresa Spence, the National Aboriginal Women’s Association and many other FN organizational and community actions. For my own children and grandchildren, and yours. I think that’s ok. Doing the right thing has those kinds of benefits.

We must also listen to those many Indigenous people who live on unceded land in Canada – those with whom the state has never negotiated treaties and whose attempts to claim their land through legal processes are backed up in the courts and dealt with unjustly.
As a white settler woman, I still have a lot to learn. I’ve made mistakes in the ways I’ve tried to be an ally and a supporter and I’m sure to make them again. But as a friend said last night, “Better to risk a flawed activism than to maintain a perfect inactivism.” I’m doing my best and that’s what we all have to do. If we want a future in this country, in relationship with those nations who lived here first, on Turtle Island, we have to do it now. That’s what I think.


Julia Gillard & Feminist Freedom Fighters

  • Monday, October 29, 2012

    Socialist Alliance activist and feminist Liah Lazarou gave the speech below to Adelaide’s Reclaim the Night rally on October 26.

    * * *

    I’d like to say a big thank you to the Reclaim the Night Collective for organising this important event and everybody who is here tonight to reclaim the streets and to fight against the violence and sexism women face on a daily basis. Tonight is our night, to unite as women and to bring attention to the struggles of our sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, grandmothers and the structural oppression that is so embedded in our everyday lives.

    Tonight has come in a really interesting time. It has come when the recent political landscape has been suddenly concerned with the language of feminism, no more evident than when Julia Gillard proclaimed Tony Abbott a misogynist, something I’m sure many of us were delighted to finally see and hear and a message that spoke to many of us – Tony Abbott the misogynist called out in parliament for what he really is.

    But what was hardly reported was that on the same day the Senate passed through a new law cutting single parent payments by between $56 and $150 a week, which will mostly affect women, women from the already marginalised sections of our society and putting them more at risk of violence. As a single mother myself, I was outraged at this blatant contradiction because further entrenching poverty is violence against women.

    So when we rejoice at Julia Gillard’s speech against sexism, let us take it for what is really is. Fighting against sexism is not about making one speech in parliament and in the same day attacking some of the most vulnerable women in our society.

    The reason Julia Gillard was able to make that speech was because of the feminist movements of the past. It was because of the feminist freedom fighters who came before us and who struggled and fought for women’s liberation.

    Women have been saying for a long, long time that discrimination against women and sexism does not just exist in a bubble: we are subject to oppressive gender norms at all levels of society and it is completely institutionalised in the home, the workforce, the media, the judiciary, religious and educational institutions and of course in parliament.

    Today women still only earn 82% of a males wage, the majority of unpaid work is done by women,
    most sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women, 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner violence in her life time, violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness of women aged 15 to 44 years in Victoria, the police don’t take women’s claims of violence and harassment seriously and that most rape cases that go to court don’t end up with a conviction.

    On the back of the horrific Jill Meagher crime and the recent murder of a young South Australian woman by her partner, we have seen rising concerns around rape and male violence reigniting public concern around women’s safety.

    But more CCTV cameras will not stop violence against women. Male violence begins in the home, in the institution of the family. The cornerstone of class society which treats women like property, allowing them to be owned, used and exploited. This is where our first conceptions of sexism are learned and this is reinforced by the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls and by our sexist corporate media.

    For decades we have been sold the myth that feminism is no longer relevant. That we have gained equality. We know this to be false. We know that this is false and that it works to stifle our voices and our ability to be organised and fight back.

    A new study on violence against women, conducted over four decades in 70 countries, reveals the mobilisation of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians. So the onus is on us. It is up to us to keep coming out on the streets and to create a strong feminist movement.

    Feminism is not just about calling out sexism. We need a feminism which makes real demands. We need to create a feminist movement that aspires for real change, which challenges the exploitation and oppression of women and of all people by the wealthy minority and the system which profits from our suffering. Solutions will come from women coming together, educating and organising towards this end for there is nothing more empowering than the act of solidarity and women involved in collective action together. Unity is strength. Until we have created a world where we are not attacked, abused and discriminated against because of our gender, where gender is irrelevant and we are recognised with respect as human beings, our struggle continues.

    Until there is no wage gap, until we have complete control over our bodies, until the police and the judicial system takes domestic violence and sexual assault seriously, until there are adequate facilities for all women in need, until there are compulsory education programs against violence, until we create a culture where men are taught to respect women, until we do not invade other countries and kill our sisters, until no refugee is locked in detention centres, until our indigenous sisters have their culture respected and true land rights, until we have a safe climate future and our global sisters are no longer the victims of the big polluters who are destroying the earth and its ecosystems and until there is no more violence in the street and in the home…

    Until then our struggle continues. But I believe that if we fight, we can win!

Feminism and “The F-Word”

My response to CBC’s documentary “The F-Word:  Who Wants to Be a Feminist?” is up at  Here’s a bit:

One of the framing questions asked by the film is “where did feminism go wrong?” In getting to the answer the film outlined some of the goals and objectives of “second wave” feminism. But if this means the status quo is represented as the answer to the question of where feminism went wrong, the answer will focus only on the shortcomings of the second wave.

There would be something to be grateful for here, too, if the documentary makers had focussed on those “failures” in their socio-economic and political context. The pressures of neoliberalism over the last two decades have led to the marginalization of many liberation movements, feminism is just one of them. The critical issue for contemporary movements is to understand how that happened and, of course, that means critical analysis of the goals and strategies of the movements themselves.

But the exclusion of this type of context in the documentary rendered it inaccurate, unhelpful and defeatist.

Did the doc at least get its history of the Canadian second wave right? Absolutely not.

Check it out here.

And Judy Rebick!

In 1911, the first International Women’s Day marches were held across Europe. A few days later on March 25, 146 immigrant women were killed in the Triangle Factory firebecause the bosses locked the doors from the outside. Russian socialist Alexander Kollentai proposed that the next year IWD would honour these women and the theme of IWD became bread and roses and the date March 8.

At the time, most women workers in Canada were domestic or textile workers. As soon as they got married or pregnant they were fired. They made up to 80% less than men for the same job. So the demand for bread was obvious.

As the song Bread and Roses, which has become an anthem of the women’s movement says, “Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.” The rose is a powerful symbol of the female and of love. That symbol comes not only from its beauty but also from its tenacity. The rose bushes in my garden still have leaves on them in early winter and they bloom almost until the frost.

The rest is here.

Give Yourself a Slap Upside the Head Canada


In these days of action for democracy in Egypt, Canada once again finds itself on the wrong side of humanity’s hope for freedom, thanks to His Harperness’ failure to condemn the brutal totalitarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. In that context, I hope everyone watches this:


And just to clarify that the bone I’m picking is with the state of Israel and not all of Israel’s people, watch this too:

Grieve Christina with Care

Christina Taylor Greene, born at 12:50 p.m. on September 11, 2001; died at 10:10 a.m. on January 8, 2011.

Dear Christina,

I wanted to talk to you before you become a face on plastic amulets in our convenience stores, before the struggle over the meaning of your birth, life and death becomes a fight over political territory. I know I am appropriating your birth and death for myself. I do it with good intentions and in the hope that it would make you happy.

You were born in a moment of your nation’s despair, hatred, fear and rage. You knew none of that but you, as all of us, have lived in its grip for your whole life. It sounds as though your family didn’t let it hold you too hard. You were life for them when their country-people focussed on death. You were beauty and innocence and, little doubt, hope. Someone even put your face in a book called Faces of Hope, so you became a symbol for a larger circle of people than those who knew you and nurtured you.

That circle has failed you, Christina. Perhaps against our own wills we allowed your birth and the nourishment of your young life to be overtaken by our own selfish wishes for revenge, our desire to take back our own innocence by force, by our anger and rage and childishness. We moved from the terrible day of your birth too quickly, forgetting to mourn, forgetting what mourning means. We stayed in our rage and bitterness too long and polluted your environment so that it could no longer sustain you. We are famous for making this kind of mistake.

In the time since you were born we have killed many children like you. We thought we were doing that to protect you, so that you could grow up whole and strong and give us those gifts I see in your eyes. We forgot how easily and quickly we could destroy those gifts if we didn’t prepare ourselves to accept them.

We grew scabs over the pain caused us on the day of your birth. But they were scabs made of fear and a need for retribution and they allowed poisons to fester beneath them. We allowed our wounds to become fuel for violence. We have spent years spitting at each other. For all that I am against war and for peace, people have felt my spit on their faces too, I have been in such a rage about the killing. I know I am part of what killed you.

Yesterday, you went to hear and see Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords because you were interested in the workings of government and your curiosity caused a neighbour to invite you to meet her. Your interest, your neighbour’s interest in you, these are such good things. But we didn’t give you a good or safe place to explore your interests and curiosities. We gave you adults shouting inanities back and forth. We gave you insulting and hurtful and painful chatter. We made fun of people who called the rhetoric hurtful and insulting. We gave you words as weapons and vehicles to carry the poison of those festering injuries we sustained back on the day you were born. And long before that.

I’m not a romantic or an idealist, Christina. It’s become very difficult to say the words “all you need is love” and be taken seriously. Perhaps because we have never really understood what we meant when we said those words. Maybe we thought those words just meant “don’t worry, be happy”. Though even that is hardly a bad thing.

We seem to have forgotten that wise women and men (and children) have pondered the meaning of those words for centuries and only understood them fleetingly and through a dark glass. We don’t think those words are “useful” in “real” life which is harsh and hard and technical and practical and scientific and rational and emotionless. Many people sneer at those words, Christina, and think they are nice enough in a song but of no useful significance. Others think they can use them in their churches and synagogues and mosques and decide what they mean in those limited places and forget what it means to bring them out into the world – the real world that often doesn’t look as though it was made for love but was.

I’ve had a bad year myself, Christina. I watched a livestream of some very vengeful men hurting some peace-loving, gift-bearing people on a ship bound for a place called Gaza and it affected me profoundly even though I wasn’t quite sure how. I watched a bunch of vengeful men, and probably some women, intimidate, corral, beat and imprison some friends of mine in Toronto and it affected me profoundly even though I wasn’t quite sure how. It has seemed in the past year that everything I’ve always worked for and towards was in tatters and that the world was going from bad to worse. I wondered if there was anything I could really hope for, or in, any more. I’ve been pretty angry and have often felt embittered. I use that word, “embittered”, because I felt someone made me bitter, I didn’t take responsibility for choosing bitterness. That was dumb of me. I take that back. I am not bitter, I was just being stupid for awhile. You have caused me to wake up a bit.

I want this bad death that has been inflicted upon you by all of us to lead to something better, if not something good. Like a world where kids can admire and respect and actually learn some wisdom from their elders because their elders have taken the trouble to be respectable and wise. A world where it’s actually sensible to participate in the ways we govern and nurture ourselves and look after others because we do our best at it and respect ourselves and others who try. Hey Christina – a world in which we’ve taken the trouble to know ourselves and understand what a good life might be and care enough to work for it. If we got that for ourselves, if we thought enough of ourselves to demand it, we wouldn’t be able to help being good to each other, because that’s what being good to each other requires.

We need to grieve you now, child. I admit, I’m trying to get on the grief bandwagon here quickly and take over. I know I’m going to be angered by the way your death gets exploited and people tread either too hard or too lightly on your life and its meaning. I know I’m going to get it wrong too. I just hope I can stay committed to a gentle path of grieving you, one on which I don’t cling too hard and fast to anything in particular and don’t respond too nastily to others who think they know what you meant and what you mean. I do think I know something though. I’ll try to hold onto it and share it, in your honour, without wearing my rage.

You are so beautiful. I’m glad to know you. And so sad you are gone.