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Monday, August 31, 2015

The life of an urban nomad


 This new "homeless" life that my partner Paul and I now live is marked by many moves during our times back in Canada, when we shuffle like urban nomads from one housesit to another. Since returning to Vancouver Island five months ago, we have relocated 10 times.
     It stressed me out when we first started doing it last spring after returning from two years in Honduras. But do anything for long enough and a routine seemingly always starts to emerge. We've now grown quite adept at constant relocation.
      We've been doing Cuso International volunteer work in Central America for most of the last three years, first in Honduras and now for shorter postings in Nicaragua. While we still have a small storage locker here in Victoria, we've mostly given up all our stuff so that we're free to go wherever a posting or a whim takes us.
     The periods in the south are relatively stable in terms of housing; we rent a place to live while we're there and stay put for the duration. It's the periods when we're back on the Island that are the most nomadic, as housesitting for people on summer vacation generally means stays of no more than two to four weeks in any one place.
     When we make our big moves between Canada and Central America - which we're set to do again in mid-September - we have two gigantic suitcases and two large backpacks to hold our worldly belongings. But we try to keep things tighter for the "local" moves, using only the backpacks and whatever else we can stuff in the car. (We've figured out how to live without permanent housing, but not without a car.)
      What I've most noticed about the new life is the need for a flexible wardrobe. Gone are the days when I would stand in front of a roomy closet contemplating which fashionable outfit to put on that day. I need clothes that will stuff into a backpack and come out looking not too disastrously wrinkled, and that serve me equally well for schlubbing through an ordinary day and on the rare occasions when I have to look professional or fancy. I need simple shoes that go with anything, because the bottom compartment of my backpack holds only three or four pair.
      While housesits are typically all-inclusives in terms of household goods like cutlery, bedding, pots and pans and such, there are still a remarkable number of things that the modern nomad needs to bring along.
      I have a small backpack filled with nothing but electronics chargers, battery chargers, and specialized cords for all our cameras, phones, e-books, and music players, for instance. We also pack a big blue tote full of basic items like peanut butter, olive oil, breakfast cereal and various other goods that can't be fully consumed in the course of a single housesit, and quite an alarming number of personal-grooming products.
     Then there are the books we're reading, the notebooks we're currently using for work (and the three or four others that you might need because you took notes in them for previous work); the random collection of "important papers"; at least a little jewelry, although it sure is prone to getting tangled and lost in this new lifestyle; the laptops, iPads and external hard drives; and whatever else didn't fit in our backpacks. We've also got two bicycles, but I'm in the habit of riding mine over to wherever we're headed just to relieve some of the packing pressure.
      Our rule is that whatever we're taking can't be more than one carload, and must require no more than two trips out to the car to carry it all into the new place. Otherwise, I think you could go quite mad just from the process of moving house so often.
     This new life has taught me a great deal about what really matters to me in terms of my living situation. Should a time come when we settle down in one place again, I will shop out housing options with much more insight into what makes me happy.
     For example, I now know I have a strong preference for houses that face southwest and have light flooding in through many windows. I need an outside space - not big, but sunny and private, with at least a few flower pots to tend.
      I need to be in a neighbourhood that has a decent grocery store within walking distance and an assortment of recreational options - pleasant roads leading off in all directions for cycling, maybe a beach, nice walks, birding options - close at hand. I need a decent internet connection and a comfortable place to play my accordion, ideally in a closed-off room where I don't have to feel self-conscious about interrupting other people's peaceful reveries.
     I need my own music playing on a decent sound system, which is why the little Bose bluetooth speaker we bought last summer has become one of our most precious possessions. And for at least some part of every year, I need my house to be located not too far from wherever my children and grandchildren are, because being able to hang out with them definitely makes me happy. (I also need my almost-90-year-old mother to continue welcoming two disruptive house guests who arrive regularly on her doorstep to seek shelter in gaps between housesits.)
     When those conditions are met, I'm happy.
     I thought I would miss having my own art on the walls. But I don't. I wondered if it would drive me crazy to have to do a wild search through every unfamiliar kitchen drawer whenever I needed a spoon or a whisk or a bottle opener. But I've gotten used to it. I wouldn't have imagined I could handle having all my clothes in a messy pile on top of my backpack due to the absence of closet space and empty dressers in other people's houses. But now I barely notice.
     "Flexible and adaptable" - the motto of the Cuso volunteer, and now the watchwords of our lives. Most days it's a pretty good life.

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International! Here's our fundraising site. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cue the triumphal chorus: Amnesty International passes policy supporting decriminalization of sex work

    This is an amazing day for the sex workers' rights movement with the news that Amnesty International has approved its draft policy supporting decriminalization of adult sex work.
     "What will it all mean?" asked one of my friends. I admit to not being sure what it will change in the immediate future. But as a symbol, it's significant when the world's most recognized human rights organization acknowledges that criminalizing sex work violates the rights (and threatens the lives) of sex workers.
    I've had the good fortune of getting to know a lot of sex workers over the last two decades, so for me it hasn't been a stretch to understand that criminalizing sex work increases the dangers, the sense of isolation and the stigma for those who work in the industry. It sorts sex workers into a different category of human - one who lives and works alongside the rest of us every day, providing us with services that we want, yet is denied the most basic rights that all of us enjoy.
    If this was a question of a particular race or economic class being discriminated against in our own countries, we'd have been all over it decades ago. But it's about sex workers, and that subject apparently really weirds us out. So we have shamefully let this disgrace continue much longer than a civilized society ought to permit.
    Criminalizing sex work shuts workers out of civil measures like employment tribunals and contract law. It relegates them to work in the shadows by denying them safe, legal places to work. It leaves them to the whims of police, who will be free to use their own discretion in deciding whether to treat the workers with respect or as lower life forms who they can feel free to abuse.
     In many countries, including Canada, criminalization denies sex workers the right to work together, and never mind that there's a mountain of evidence and a whole lot of logical thinking to tell us that isolating people in their work puts them at greater risk for all kinds of bad things.
     Around the world, major organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations have already endorsed decriminalization after their own careful investigations. Some might even argue that Amnesty International was late to the game, given all the research and reports that have stated over and over again that nothing is improved for sex workers or society by criminalizing the industry.
     Yet we were almost sidetracked by an open letter signed by anti-sex-work supporters in the runup to the Amnesty International vote, accusing the organization of betraying its principles and siding with "pimps." We were almost sidetracked by movie stars like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, who signed that petition and significantly added to the level of media hype and misinformation that followed.
     People actually gave credence to the uninformed musings of celebrities over two years of thoughtful investigation by Amnesty in drafting its policy. (Here's a great video from Amnesty on how that public battle all shook down, and that highlights the many ways that opponents used misinformation to try to create a backlash against Amnesty.)
    As the British might say,  I was gob-smacked by that turn of events. But I suppose I am grateful for it, too, because it reinforced that those who oppose sex work as morally wrong are fully prepared to sacrifice sex workers' safety and rights if that's what it takes to make their case.
      They believe that their need to hate sex work trumps workers' needs for safer workplaces, fair treatment by police and courts, and the basic human right to live equal among us. I've suspected that's what they believed for a while now, but their hysterical misinformation campaign against Amnesty was the confirmation.
      Will any of them rethink their positions now that one more respected organization has done its homework around sex work? I don't understand their way of thinking at all, so can't predict. There's something about the issue that seems to blind otherwise thoughtful people to common sense.
     And those who are still on the fence are legion. Many excuse themselves for not taking a position because the issue is "just too complex" and they don't have time to think about it. (What, people should die and suffer because you can't be bothered to learn enough to form an opinion?)
     But increasingly I am feeling the power of a global movement pushing for change. Maybe Amnesty's support will be a defining moment for busting through the general population's apathy on this issue.
     Anyway. My biggest hug to Amnesty. Stay strong, you guys. You're on the side of the angels on this one.

This good read on Vice summarizes much of the Amnesty battle. 

A good Q&A with Amnesty about its decision, particularly useful for its clarity around difference between decrim and legalization, and that you can support decriminalizing adult, consensual sex work while still being vehemently opposed to sex trafficking and exploitation. 

And if you're all cool on this subject and want a good belly laugh, check out this parody of the moment that "sexwork exclusionary radical feminists" - SWERFs - learn of Amnesty's decision.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The day I interviewed to be a sex worker

One summer day when I was a young reporter in Kamloops, my bosses at the newspaper sent me off to pretend I wanted to get hired as a lingerie model.
    The advertising department at the paper had been running classified ads seeking young women interested in working as lingerie models. The paper wanted the advertising revenue, but was worried the real nature of the business was prostitution. So they sent me off to pretend to be a job applicant so I could report back to them, a task that I accepted without hesitation.
     The interview was in a hotel room at The Dome, a fairly popular place in mid-1980s Kamloops. I can’t remember what I wore. An average man of average age – 35, maybe, with the everyman feel of someone who, like myself, had known life in a B.C. resource town – invited me to sit down. A few minutes later, a woman of about the same age joined us.
    My managers back at the paper had sent me to the job interview in the company of a male reporter, who was to park outside and be ready to save me from whatever darkness might lie within. This made me laugh then and now, although I do appreciate that my bosses at least wanted somebody to witness me disappearing behind the door where unnamed depravity was possibly lurking.
    In fact, the job interview was notable for its complete ordinariness. The man didn’t seem concerned that I had never worked as a lingerie model, and talked about how my job would be to go to private parties - some of them in hotel rooms - where I would model lingerie to potential buyers and be paid a commission.
    We got to the point where we had said pretty much all there is to say about lingerie modelling, but the feeling of an elephant in the room just kept getting bigger. I saw that it was going to be up to me to cut to the chase. I asked if there was an opportunity to make additional money selling something more than lingerie.
    The man and woman who were interviewing me both let out these huge sighs of relief, and instantly relaxed into  much more personable, jokey versions of their previous selves.  Yes, yes, exactly, the man enthused to me – I was welcome to sell much more than lingerie. Once that door shut between me and the lingerie enthusiast and the big wide world, he said, the two of us were free to explore any opportunities we wanted.
    The interview went on for probably an hour, and got a lot more comfortable for all concerned once we got past the lingerie cover story. As we wrapped up, the man told me I would have to come back the next day and take my clothes off in front of the woman, who would verify that I had no "huge scars" or obvious disfigurement. The man reassured me that as far as he could tell, I almost certainly would get the job. I left the hotel room feeling strangely exhilarated.
     I never returned for the second interview, although I’ve always liked to think that if I had, I could have had that job. My bosses were waiting for me the second I got back to the office, and I'll never forget the riveted looks on their faces as I recounted my interview. They hung on every word. I came to see that verifying the legitimacy of a lingerie seller might not have been their only motive for sending me on the assignment.
    I never went undercover again in my journalism career. It’s a fairly dishonest way to land a story, and I frown on it other than for the rare stories that simply can’t be told without subterfuge. 
    I suppose that might be why the story of my sex-work interview has gone unwritten until now. Or perhaps I simply had to grow old enough not to care that I might hurt my former bosses' feelings by revealing that what was most striking to me about that notable day was the hungry looks on their faces as they listened to me. I think I learned something new about men that day. 
    I trust no reader will take this anecdote of mine to mean that I “know what it’s like to be a sex worker” or something insane like that. There is much more to sex work than a job interview. I will leave it to my many brilliant and fascinating friends who really do work in the industry to tell those stories.
    All I'm saying is that one time maybe 30 years ago now, I did a job interview with a couple of people trying to set up an escort agency in Kamloops. And I’m still pleased that I nailed it. 

Catch the video on sex workers' rights that I put together in conjunction with Peers Victoria for the June 13 Day of Solidarity for sex workers. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Who you gonna call? Fact Checkers

The Washington Post is doing some great work these days with their Fact Checker feature, which is digging into all kinds of "statistics" being thrown around out there to see where the figures come from and whether there's any truth to them. Think of it as the rhetoric version of that TV show Mythbusters.

Today's myth-busting was around the "fact" that 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of sexual exploitation. Take a look at how they tested those figures and what they found out - fascinating stuff, and all of it underlining that we need to be very, very careful in deciding what to believe when topics are highly emotional and potentially divisive. That old adage about believing half of what you see and none of what you hear has never been truer.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Inflated human trafficking statistics serve nobody

     Found myself making a long, ranty comment on a Facebook thread this morning and realized, hey, that could be a blog post. Those of us who write for food appreciate writing that lends itself to more than one application. 
     So here's the article that started everything, a Washington Post piece on the vast and profoundly misleading inflation of human-trafficking figures around the world, and why that has happened. 
     Posting it on Facebook brought out some interesting comments from people I don't usually interact with, but in the end I feel like we had the chance for a good conversation, each of us writing in our little boxes one after the other. Here's the thread if you want to take a look at how it went. 
     Talk of human trafficking has become something of a flash point for me in the last couple of years, as it was wrongly used and amply abused to justify the terrible injustice enacted against adult sex workers last year in Canada when their customers were criminalized for the first time in the country's history. I am all about rights for sex workers, and it has been devastating to see the number of otherwise thoughtful Canadians who can't get beyond the word "trafficked" to consider the actual impact of our poorly considered laws on the lives of tens of thousands of rational, informed and unvictimized Canadian adults earning a living in the sex industry. 
     Somewhere around the 4th-comment mark in the Facebook thread, I weighed back in with these comments below. Would love to keep this conversation going, so I hope you'll share your own thoughts on this. 

Even when you look at what drives human trafficking, it's largely the demands of the developed world for cheap goods and services. You'll hear some people going on about the maquilas in Central America, for instance, but who do we think those internationally owned clothing factories are making clothes for?? In countries like Nicaragua and Honduras, where there are loads of maquilas, people there are actually forbidden from buying those clothes, made by them in their own country!
      Nobody can get snippety about issues like human trafficking without fully understanding that our easy way of life totally depends on the labour of poor people. Like everything else in this world, it's all about demand. As long as a market exists for something, there will be people somewhere who will have to do the work of that. We can't morally object to that fact while at the same time happily enjoy the products of that labour. 
     And we are way beyond boycotts of one product or another - the labour of poor people is completely integrated into the lifestyle of North Americans, from the clothing we wear to the vehicles we drive, food we eat, cost of our cellphone service. And that's not even counting the labours of poor people from other lands in our own countries - the farm workers, construction workers, nannies, etc, legal and illegal. The people who we have decided should live by different rules than the rest of us in the same country because we want to reap the benefits from cheaper labour right here at home. 
     Meanwhile, poor people of the world would be completely hooped if the developed world suddenly decided to quit exploiting them and close down all the international operations and genuinely crack down on illegal migration. 
     A fifth of the Honduran GDP is generated by migrant Hondurans working in the U.S., a vast number illegally, and sending money back home. When you leave home to do the long, hard and horribly dangerous scrabble from Honduras to the US, and pay money for somebody to get you through that final bit across the river, are you being trafficked or are you just trying to dig you and your family out of poverty by doing what you see as your only option? I mean, it is a COMPLEX subject. 
     But we do it a huge disservice when we try to make it about good and evil, heroes and villains. A whole lot of money gets thrown around on buzz about "human trafficking," and the fundamentals go untouched as always.