Friday, December 20, 2013

An historic day for sex workers, but a storm's building

And so it comes to this: Girding my loins for a battle to stop sex work from being declared illegal in Canada. Good grief, my idealistic 30-year-old self would have been gob-smacked to hear she'd grown into a person holding the completely opposite view on prostitution.
     It's a long story on how I got from there to here, and you can find more details here if you're curious. But the quick version is that for the last 17 years I've had the pleasure of getting to know many, many people who work in the business. Over time, I learned that my idealistic vision of a world where nobody would ever have to sell access to their bodies was in fact causing violence and suffering against the very people I wanted to help.
     For people who share my opinion that the only way to end the violence is to ditch the country's harmful laws around adult, consensual sex work, today is a joyous day. The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the laws around keeping a common bawdy-house, living off the avails of prostitution (pimping), and communicating in public with clients. (CBC news story here.) Those laws have created huge risks for sex workers because they prohibit indoor workplaces and deny workers the protection of the police or the courts.
     Whatever your views of sex work, know this: The laws we had weren't serving anyone. They increased the danger many times over for sex workers, but at the same time did nothing to prevent the visible problems of outdoor sex work that drive communities mad. Nor did they do anything to stop people from entering the sex trade, or curb the number of men buying it.
     And even in communities where nobody was doing anything to enforce the laws against prostitution, those laws were still causing harm. They stigmatize and shame sex workers. They criminalize a sex worker's earnings even though the work is actually legal (it's just the marketing, location and earnings that have been illegal to this point). They leave sex workers to live in deathly fear that someone will find out what they do for a living, or used to do, because the shame is that deep and they know all too well that they could lose their house, their job, their family or their spouse if outed.
     We're going to hear a lot over the next few days about why this court decision is the worst thing ever. For the sake of tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers in Canada, please look for a wide variety of sources when informing yourself around this issue. Here's a great piece from April by Joyce Arthur to get you started.
    The removal of these laws has not "ripped the lid" off prostitution or opened the way to the exploitation of children and vulnerable women. We will not see a huge increase in prostitution, because it already exists in every village, town and city in Canada and its growth is driven by market demand, not legality. Trafficking and child sexual exploitation rightly remain illegal. All that has happened is that we have thrown out three poorly considered and largely ignored laws that were inadvertently doing great harm to vulnerable women in particular.
    So for those who believe in a safer world for everyone, this is a momentous day. But as I mentioned earlier, it's also a day for loin-girding against the next imminent threat on the horizon, that being indications that the Conservative government wants to declare the sale of sex illegal. At the party convention in early November, the party supported a motion to criminalize the sale of sex - which would be a first in Canada - and declares "that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold."
     You can't argue with the passion of the motion. But the reality of it would be disastrous. No country in the history of the world has ever eradicated sex work through criminalization. For better or worse, the human drive for pleasure has created a vigorous market for sex work. All that legal sanctions do is force the industry into the shadows. And as we know so well in B.C., bad things happen in dark places.
    Were the government to declare the sale of sex illegal, there would be no legal ground to stand on when fighting for the right to safer working conditions. Such a change simply can't be allowed, or all the halting gains for sex workers will be lost in an instant and we'll be back to working conditions that practically invite predators to target vulnerable women right under our moral noses.
     So those of us who believe in safer work places for sex workers are now going to have to fight against the criminalization of sex work, which will almost certainly be the Conservative government's response to this court ruling. We are not done yet.
    Still, what a development! I fear the loss of support from those who are almost there on the issue of safer work places, but won't be able to stomach a fight to stop sex work from being declared criminal. Can we agree that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold, but that paid sex between consenting adults is something else entirely?
    This will certainly be a fight that will push everyone into their corners. Those of us who feel strongly about this issue will have to be the boldest, most confident versions of ourselves in the midst of what will undoubtedly be a no-holds-barred attack by some feminist movements and women's groups that will denounce us as apologists for the men who buy sex and victimizers of women.
    But surely we've got today to celebrate. Today is for the winners. Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, Valerie Scott - I am clapping loudly, and it's all for you, the advocacy groups and other sex workers who stood beside you, and the lawyers who helped make your compelling case. It's never easy to be brave, but your courage has changed history.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When Facebook friends fall out

I just did my first "unfriend" on Facebook. I never would have thought that anybody could get my back up enough to want to unfriend them, because I'm one laid-back person when it comes to allowing people their say. But it turns out that even I have limits.
    In my six years on Facebook I've accepted almost anyone as a friend as long as they seemed like a real person. I spent so many years as a "public figure" writing for the Times Colonist that Facebook just seems like an extension of that part of me rather than a fenced-in place that only my genuine friends can access.
    I've been completely open to all the wacky ways that my 1,597 pals choose to express themselves on the social media site, and love the whole open-forum feel of the place. I love being connected to a wildly diverse group of people who together represent all points of every spectrum out there.
     But I guess that line in the sand was always there even if I didn't know it. And today somebody crossed it.
    I'd posted a comment that today was International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, suggesting everyone should head on down to the rally tonight in Victoria, BC, in support of sex workers. "Why are they called sex workers?" wrote the now-banished friend. "How about 'Stupid Cows'"?
    Anyone who has made my acquaintance in the past decade knows that I am hardcore in my support for adult sex workers. That doesn't mean I can't be Facebook friends with those who believe otherwise, however. I'm sure I have more than a few acquaintances who don't share my views, because sex work remains a divisive topic that is almost as predictable as abortion when it comes to sending people scrambling for their strongly held positions on the subject.
   But calling sex workers "stupid cows" - well, that's just not on. That's not intelligent debate, that's just offensive. It's like being racist, or homophobic. I've probably unknowingly got others like that among my Facebook friends, too, but from this point on I'll be watching more alertly for signs of them showing their true colours.
     Part of me wonders if there's something wrong with the "stupid cow" woman that she would even write such a thing. Or if somebody hateful snuck onto her computer while she wasn't looking and wrote that. Or maybe it's a Catfish thing and she isn't who she says she is at all; when I (belatedly) visited her site today to try to understand what kind of a person would say such a thing on my Facebook page, I did get to wondering if she was a real person or just a front for some mean-spirited and cowardly person to hide behind.
      At any rate, I do hope this unpleasant business won't sour me on being open to random connections on Facebook. I've had some really heartfelt conversations with people I barely knew until we "met" on Facebook. But every now and then an idiot's going to sneak in past the open gate. And I'll relish the chance to unfriend them.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't blame poverty for thoughtless animal cruelty

   In the wake of the truly awful death of a little dog in our neighbourhood on Sunday, I've had a lot of conversations this week about animal cruelty in Honduras. The poor dog was scalded with boiling water by a restaurant worker trying to shoo her away, and died eight slow, suffering days later from her massive injuries.
    The news completely horrified me and virtually all of my Canadian friends, for whom that level of casual animal cruelty is incomprehensible. Were anyone to scald a dog to death in my hometown of Victoria, B.C., I am quite sure there would be something close to riots over the incident, and possibly the need for police protection for the perpetrator.
    My Honduran acquaintances, on the other hand, took the scalding as just one of those things that happens sometimes. They made it clear that while they don't endorse such things, they also don't feel moved to do anything about them. One told me his own dog had died two years ago in similar circumstances. Two other dogs on my street have also been scalded. I wouldn't suggest that Hondurans view dog-scalding as an acceptable practice, but nobody reacted with much surprise to the news of poor Coquetta's death.
    That Honduras has no animal-cruelty laws or SPCA-type body to take complaints is a problem for anyone who has a heart for animals. But I think the bigger barrier to preventing acts of unthinking cruelty is that many Hondurans don't even consider such things to be a problem. The most common reaction I got when I talked about the death of Coquetta was along the lines of, "Well, life is tough enough for the people here. How can they worry about the animals too?"
    But here's the thing: How can they not? Statistically, Honduras is one of the most violent countries on the planet. Hondurans talk all the time about the need to get a handle on their crazy murder rate, which tears apart the social order, sows terror and destroys the lives of an average 20 families a day in a country with a smaller population than New York City (which, for the record, had the same number of murders in all of 2013 that Honduras chalks up every 15 days).
    Sure, life is hard here for a lot of people. But hardship alone doesn't explain the extreme violence. No Latin American country has it harder than Haiti, for instance, yet that country has a murder rate 12 times lower than Honduras.
    If a society is serious about ending violence, it has to be tackled at every level in the culture. And at every level of Honduran culture, there are real problems.
    Whether it's executions ordered by the Honduras drug cartels, fights between rival gangs, domestic violence, ancient family feuds, child abuse or dog scalding, the common thread in my opinion is an acceptance of violence as a way to resolve life's problems.
    In terms of animal cruelty, the widespread poverty in Honduras does explain some of  the widespread neglect of animals. A family struggling to feed itself is also going to struggle to feed its livestock and pets.
    But deliberate cruelty is something else. Poverty doesn't explain why a person would scald a dog. Or swerve their car toward a skinny mutt in the street. Or break an animal's leg with a mighty kick. Or poison every dog in a small village with rat poison, because one of them ate your fish.
    I am routinely left gape-jawed by the small acts of animal cruelty habitually practiced here. Even the most social animals here will initially cringe when you reach out to pat them, having learned through hard experience that humans generally do harm.
   When they learned of the terrible death of Coquetta, my Canadian friends urged me to call the authorities, to organize other outraged Hondurans for a protest. They urged action against a perpetrator who they presumed to be sick and dangerous.
    Alas, there are no authorities to call, and no appetite among the people I know to do anything other than shrug the incident off. I wish I could believe that the people perpetuating cruel acts here really were demented and disturbed, but the ugly truth is that cruelty to animals is seen by many as a "normal" thing to do. The woman who allegedly scalded Coquetta to death goes to church every Sunday, and I wonder if she even thought more than a few seconds about her act even as she heard the screams of a little dog fatally scalded from nose to tail.
    I went to the restaurant Tuesday and talked to the staff about what I'd heard. The owner vehemently denied that anyone she employs would do such a thing, although she did note that dog owners should keep their pets closer to home. (She also said gossipers had best be careful in Honduras, because people get killed for that.) I also noticed one staffer who sat apart from us, listening but not participating. I can only hope that if one of them did commit this terrible act, at least they now know the impact of their casual cruelty.
    Of course, there are many Hondurans who love and care for their animals. At the risk of making a sweeping statement, however, I'd say there are more who don't. I don't know why. But until somebody other than the foreigners cares about that, nothing will change.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The gap that just keeps growing

     Something about being in the capital of Honduras in the runup to Christmas has really brought the income disparity issue home to me. I was in one of the big malls this week looking for books to take back to the Angelitos Felices kids as a gift, and seeing all those shiny $25 children's books that rich Hondurans are buying for their own kids just made me really sad.
   The gap between the rich and the poor exists everywhere, of course. In Canada, the average income for the top 20 per cent of the population is 5.5 times as much as the bottom 20 per cent. But in Honduras, the top fifth earn almost 30 times as much as the bottom fifth. (In the U.S. in 2012, incomes for the top 1 per cent grew by 20 per cent compared to a 1 per cent growth for everybody else, creating the biggest income gap since the 1920s.)
    Just how much wealth Honduras actually has is never clearer than when you're in Tegucigalpa, where the malls just keep getting bigger and the prices in the high-end designer stores are the same as what you'd find in the same store in New York City.
    The contrast is disconcerting. In the capital, you could be dining at a super-flash Thai restaurant in Tegucigalpa listening to a fine jazz trio (see my little video above) even while the 14 kids at Angelitos back in Copan Ruinas are scratching by on the simplest diet imaginable in a children's home that regularly has neither electricity nor water because the woman who runs it can't afford to pay the bills.
    I really hope the campesinos that my organization works with never have to see just how rich Tegus is, because the one saving grace about being poor in Honduras is knowing that so many others are poor too that it's almost a normal state. I fear it just might break their hearts to see for themselves how unbelievably wealthy some of their countrymen are, including their political leaders.
   Wealth distribution ought to be a subject that consumes all of us. The gap between the rich and poor is tied to every health indicator out there, and is a significant determinant of the future of a country. If Honduras just took two per cent of the earnings of the top fifth and redistributed that money to the poorest fifth - as education scholarships, for instance - it would effectively increase their income by 40 per cent.
    So much positive change at the bottom of the income scale, so little impact on those with the big money. But the rich and powerful in the country just keep on pocketing that wealth and leaving it to international development organizations to bail out Honduras' poor. Makes a person want to pack up the development tent and go home.