In prostitution, ‘race, class, and sex intersect in the worst of ways to subjugate Native women’

Cherry Smiley

Last month CTV News aired a short documentary as part of their “First Story” series, called “Stepping from the Shadows,” which looks at indigenous women and prostitution, the Bedford decision, and how the future of Canada’s prostitution laws could impact indigenous women and girls in Canada.

The documentary features women such as Jackie Lynne, Cherry Smiley, Summer-Rain Bentham and Mona Woodward, who describe the ways poverty, racism, sexism, and violence lead indigenous women into prostitution and keep them there.

“Race, class, and sex intersect in the worst ways to subjugate Native women — and in the act of prostitution it’s the most racist, the most sexist… And the man holds all of the economic power in that,” Lynne says.

Indigenous women and girls are overrepresented in street prostitution and are, according to Cherry Smiley, the most affected, yet she says in the documentary that the recent judgement on Bedford vs. Canada left them out of the decision.

Jakie Lynne
Jackie Lynne

“There was no mention of colonialism in the judgement, there was no mention of aboriginal women and girls in the judgement,” she said.

Smiley says the voices, experiences, knowledge and traditions of indigenous women have been silenced and ignored in this case. This, of course, speaks to a larger pattern we see wherein certain voices are privileged in conversations around prostitution, as well as to Canadian society’s general treatment and view of indigenous people.

Woodward says that when her sister died just outside of Calgary, the police didn’t even bother to do an investigation. “Society, as a whole, does not care about aboriginal women,” she says. “And they certainly don’t care about sex trade workers, if you’re aboriginal and you’re poor.”

And so while we seem to revel in the stories of white, educated, middle class women who entered into prostitution, perhaps of their own volition, who can fit the role of “happy hooker” and placate our desire to believe that, “oh, it’s not so bad,” “it’s natural,” “it’s just a job like any other,” the voices of the women most impacted are silenced and erased.

We desperately want prostitution to be simply about consenting adults engaging in fun sexy times, no big deal. What we don’t want is to address are the larger issues around who ends up in prostitution and why. We also don’t want to deal with the fact that, behind all this — behind the existence of the entire sex industry — are men who want the “right” to have whatever they want. And I say “whatever” rather than “whomever” because it seems clear that men who buy sex (especially the men who buy sex from indigenous women and girls on the Downtown Eastside) don’t particularly want to think about the humanity of the women and girls they are using.

What’s behind prostitution and the men who buy sex, I’m told by sisters and allies like Trisha Baptie, is that men want someone to whom they can do the things their wives and girlfriends won’t let them. Meaning that they want someone who they don’t have to think of as a full human being. As indigenous women have been historically dehumanized, it’s no surprise that society and johns would choose them to be the discardable humans, offered up to violent men as the rest of us look away.

Summer-Rain Bentham
Summer-Rain Bentham

What we also don’t like to talk about are the cycles of abuse Woodward and Lynne discuss — the way indigenous girls are abused in their homes and how that leads them into prostitution. Nor do we like to discuss the ways in which prostitution is a deeply racist industry, as Bentham points out.

“We’re targeted from the time when we’re small and taught that it’s an option for us. We’re taught that our bodies aren’t actually ours but that they are to please men,” Bentham says.

The comments that stood in most in contrast to what we hear from many of the indigenous women featured in the documentary came from Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, who talked about the “agency” and “choice” of women who enter into the sex industry. While she claims “women can decide whether or not they’re going to engage in sex work,” it seems that the reality is that real “choice” and “agency” is what many women don’t have. “While we might not think that sex work is really a viable or safe alternative for women, that’s not our decision to make. It is their decision to make,” Gibson adds.

Is it? Is it really “their decision to make” when we as a society have taken so much from indigenous people, forced girls and women into homes with abusers and then pushed them onto the streets, then abandoned them with few alternatives or resources, left them vulnerable to predators, and then looked away as they are murdered and go missing? Is it really fair to say, “well it’s their decision” within that context? Is it really a “safe alternative?” If we believe that, it seems we aren’t listening.

Gibson says that up to 57% of women who use the WISH drop-in center are aboriginal (despite the fact that they make up only 2-4% of the population in Canada). What does this tell us about “women’s choices?” If prostitution were just a great “choice” women just happen to make, wouldn’t more middle class white women would be doing it? Or maybe men? Why is it that those people don’t “choose” prostitution?

The rhetoric of “free choice and agency” reeks of free market capitalism and delusion.

Smiley points out that “when we decriminalize pimps and johns or when we move towards a legalized regime of prostitution… we’re putting all of our faith and hope in capitalism.”

“We’re hoping that that greed will somehow regulate itself and we’re hoping that somehow pimps and johns will all of a sudden decide they want to put women’s equality before profit and before dollars,” she says.

Bentham believes that fully decriminalizing prostitution (i.e. decriminalizing pimps, johns, and brothels) will further entrench aboriginal girls and women in street-level prostitution, saying that they are not going to be the ones in the supposedly “safe” indoor escort agencies or brothels.

That indigenous women — the most marginalized people in Canada — are the ones funneled into this industry, groomed via sexual abuse from the time they are children, offered no options for escape, no housing, no education, no support services, are ignored when they disappear and are murdered, and are dehumanized by men want to think of and treat them as non-human should be one of the most significant aspects of this conversation. It is unacceptable that the voices, experiences, traditions, and realities of these women and girls are left out of debates and decisions around prostitution and prostitution law.

It is also unacceptable that we discuss this as anything but a violent and oppressive industry. To do so is to further erase those who are already silenced.

Smiley thinks Canada should adopt the Nordic model.

Cherry Smiley
Cherry Smiley

“What we want is prostituted women and girls to be decriminalized, we want the pimps and the johns to face criminal sanction, we want the government to put money into exiting services and services that help [prevent] women and girls from entering into prostitution in the first place,” Smiley says.

“We’re talking about alleviating poverty, we’re talking about safe and affordable housing… women-only detox, addiction services, mental health services, access to jobs, access to education, and especially for our women and girls we need access to our languages, to our cultures, and to our lands,” she adds.

We can do better Canada.

You can watch the entire episode here.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.