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The Naked Anthropologist · Acting Up about sex work, and how middle-class norms rely on police enforcement | The Naked Anthropologist

Acting Up about sex work, and how middle-class norms rely on police enforcement

I have attended more than one meeting where abolitionist protesters take over from the floor, grabbing the roving microphone or shouting down speakers whose ideas they find objectionable. Before my talk at the Vancouver Public Library last year I was warned that people from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might come and protest.

Saying I would handle any questions they chose to ask, if they waited until the end to ask them, I proposed we have a plan for disarming any more disruptive protest. All I wanted was a couple of people willing to go to the protesters and escort them out of the room. One of the organisers was upset at my suggestion, saying If they really want to protest then there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just have to close the event down. I was startled by that, and privately asked a couple of people if they would do this for me. One of them hesitated but acquiesced and the other didn’t reply.

The protesters that came, who were known to the organisers, left quietly after listening to about 40 minutes of my talk. The reasoning afterwards was The way you talk it’s not easy for them to find a place to launch an attack. One of my ways to disarm such attacks is to mention myself early on the upsetting issues and keywords that protesters are ready to say are omitted; in this case imperialism, genocide, indigenous rights, rape, the horrendous situation in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, police negligence, racism.

France’s new Minister for Women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was disarmed for several minutes the other day by protesters from ACT-UP and STRASS as she began to talk about her proposal to abolish prostitution. When this proposal was first presented in the Guardian, I wondered whether she might actually be unaware of the very long tradition her ‘idea’ belongs to, but it is being linked to some sort of new leaf turning over in France since all the DSK brouhaha.

My point is about something else here – how easy it was to disrupt an event dependent on middle-class norms of politeness that expect everyone to accept hierarchy and the authority of the speaker, the person with governmental power, no matter how banal her ideas are. Those in charge act completely unable to deal with the protest, send for security officers and wait passively until they arrive. To me this seems emblematic of how members of the Rescue Industry shamefully rely on the police to enforce their values.

The same norms of politeness say that disruptive protest is destructive to democratic debate, but in a situation where no debate is possible and authority figures continually disappear and dismiss the opinions of the people actually being talked about, disruption makes a different sort of point.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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  1. oh thank you. I love this article..

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    1. I’m so glad you appreciated it – of course I was thinking of you.

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    2. It’s the latest tactic in debate. Shut down the other side. It’s usually used by those whose arguments are at risk of going down in flames when exposed to calm reasoned criticism. Having the right to free speech is not the same as having the right to shut down someone else’s free speech with your own.

      I need to stop reading this stuff. I just can’t wrap my head around the irony of someone with the title of minister for women’s rights wanting to eliminate the right of a woman to exchange sex for money. It sounds too much like fighting for peace or fucking for virginity (to quote George Carlin).

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      1. I know how you feel – thinking it’s better to avoid reading this stuff. That we would have reached the place where we see irony and they see utopia – terrible.

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      2. I am somewhat concerned-was this indigenous group supportive of “rescuing” or something else? I’m just worried about the racial dichotomy: you’re white and many of the group are of indigenous heritage. Were there Women of color that were supportive of sex work at the talk?

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        1. Sorry, but you do not know who is ‘white’ here. I hope you do not reduce the term to shades of skin colour? The last thing I engage in is essentialist race politics. Of course there are indigenous groups and individuals who are abolitionist and who are not, of course there is diversity, of course audiences are unpredictable and interesting.

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          1. I don’t reduce it, I was just voicing concern because of how the article was written. But I see that I have misread it, my apologies.

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            1. no problem, glad to clarify more if needed.

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            2. Yes, how is someone with a name like Agustin white?? I’m not white and I’m here to tell you that the, um, non-whites “start at Calais.” Google that for the original language ;)

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            3. Hi Laura, I’m happy to see this kind of discussion. Just so folks know, I was one of the organizers of the Vancouver talk Laura mentions. I know there were pro-sex worker rights Aboriginal women and women of colour in the audience. Noting I am white and do acknowledge there are various power dynamics that greatly favour me as a white person – to put it simply.

              To begin with, I think most of us have had the experience of having our events hijacked by abolitionists and Vancouver is no exception – in fact Vancouver is considered the worst place in Canada for this kind of abolitionist behaviour. I certainly agree we can largely ascribe the reluctance to directly engage with this behaviour to middle class norms and the social control they engender and support and I would say, there are few places that are so deadly polite as Canada. I grew up poor – and not pretend poor- so I believe I’ve always seen and felt those pressures in particular ways. I’ve also never been a well-behaved person, as was often pointed out to me once I began to ‘join’ the middle class.

              However, the abolitionists who engage in these kinds of behaviour are not bound by these norms and I find that interesting. The Aboriginal women here who are abolitionists are the most given to mobilizing to shout us down -to attack us – and I think that’s for two reasons: they very rarely get to buy into the middle class and they have a powerful tradition of community protest, including protest where they understand they will not succeed with their demands – mostly they’re not even acknowledged, let alone successful.

              As for the non-Aboriginal abolitionists, I’m mostly seen that kind of behaviour from women who are either core or brand new members of an abolitionist-centred group – there’s a strong group support mentality working there. I tend to think I can read people as poor, working or middle class and I tend to identify the most aggressively vocal people as more working then middle class. I also engage on these issues on Canadian feminist list serves whose membership is most often drawn from feminist academics. The tactics used there are classically middle class: silencing and isolation. I haven’t had much to do with the religiously-based abolitionists. The one-woman group we have here uses some version of loving kindness on me. I understand the Americans are not so nice.

              On Vancouver: I don’t know who said we would shut down the meeting rather then escort the abolitionists out. It may even have been me. Whoever did say that would have been aware that attempting to get them out of the room would have created a huge scene that would have ended with the meeting being shut down – with the polite middle class audience feeling greatly disturbed by the experience.

              Esther

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              1. Thanks for your comments, Esther. The Vancouver library story turned out well, and I am not blaming organisers for wishing to avoid nasty conflict. I do believe there are tactics to try between total passivity – such as that shown by the French Minister’s team – and total shutdown, and so asked someone to help me out that way if necessary. It wasn’t necessary, so my theory wasn’t put to the test, and you may well be right that the audience wouldn’t have been glad about it. So I am happy the other kind of disarming seems to have worked.

                It is telling that to mention aboriginal politics in Vancouver leads almost instantly to dichotomies about race and class. I understand why and have not wanted to stick my oar in but thought I might refer to that story as a lead-in to the French video, interesting because here the middle-class norm favoured the disruptive protesters.

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              2. You may be right about abolitionists getting the most publicity, these are good examples:
                http://feministcurrent.com/5590/a-history-of-oppression-canada-colonialism-and-prostitution/
                http://www.peopleofcolororganize.com/activism/slutwalk-whiteness-privilege-sex-trafficking-women-color/
                also note that the second link cites a post from a blog, Rebecca Mott’s blog, to be exact, that detests transgender people and pays no mind to sex worker unions in India. So yes, it’s very one sided and assuming.
                There was also this, the younger folks of native heritage seem to disagree on sex work’s morality:
                http://inciteblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/indigenous-peoples-in-the-sex-trade-%E2%80%93-speaking-for-ourselves/

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              3. PS: I forgot to say, I’m an ally, not a sex worker. Also adding: Things do become more complicated when those attacking are former sex workers and very often the ABoriginal abolitionists here are former workers. More complicated because the audience often believes they have something to add to the discussion. The tables can turn, so that we look like the enforcers/silencers.

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                1. Abolitionist activists often claim to have been excluded or silenced at events that simply are not about them, and I won’t have it when I’ve personally been invited and gone to the trouble to prepare a talk. I have no trouble telling people in this situation that they are out of order.

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