On May 1st, a number of Canadian pro-sex work groups released an open letter to rabble.ca. The letter demanded that rabble, “end [its] association with [Meghan Murphy] as editor and columnist” on the basis of her views concerning the sex industry, her long-standing criticisms of popular culture and the objectification/pornification of women and girls, and her supposed racism.
Meghan Murphy is not the problem. Patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and racism are the problem, and Meghan is being vilified for simply stating this truth. The open letter stated that Meghan’s material dehumanizes and disrespects women with different experiences and perspectives than hers. In reality, it is the men who engage in the sex industry as pimps, johns, pornography users, and sex industry supporters who dehumanize and disrespect all women and girls, and Meghan’s writing has revealed this truth. When we really begin to rattle cages and challenge the status quo, the patriarchy comes out swinging, both figuratively and literally. Make no mistake — the backlash against feminists can, does, and has killed women and girls who dare to speak up and truly challenge the systems that oppress all women and girls.
My Grandmother and Grandfather have always taught me to treat others with respect, to be brave, and to speak up for what’s right. Being respectful does not mean agreeing with everyone all the time. Being respectful can mean stating a difference of opinion. Being respectful can mean opening a dialogue with others on tough issues. Being respectful means speaking up when we see an injustice. Being respectful means being critical of patriarchal systems and billion dollar industries that cause so much damage to all women and girls, and to Aboriginal women and girls in particular.
Critical thinking and critical writing about systems that oppress women and girls is absolutely essential to feminism. Everyone may not agree (especially those concerned with maintaining the patriarchal, racist, colonial, capitalist status quo), but this doesn’t mean that we take away the ability of women to express critiques of harmful systems. And this especially doesn’t mean that we take away the ability of women to express critiques of harmful systems in the name of “feminism.”
There is a very important distinction between the systems that harm women and girls and the women and girls who are harmed. As an example, we can be critical of the residential school system without blaming the residential school survivors or their communities for the violence endured in those institutions. We can be critical of rape culture without blaming rape victims for the violence committed against them. And in the same way, we can and should be critical of the system of prostitution, and we do that without criticizing women and girls harmed by that system. The sex industry has no interest in challenging patriarchy, racism, colonialism, or capitalism. We need to remember that men, both as individuals and collectively, control and benefit from a billion dollar sex industry that negatively impacts all women and girls.
Meghan Murphy has been a long-time ally to myself and to the group I am a part of, Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI). We are a group of Aboriginal women, some formerly prostituted, that advocate for the abolition of prostitution. Meghan has listened to our analysis, asked questions, and done her research. Our criticism of prostitution as a system of colonialism and male violence against Aboriginal women and girls has helped to inform Meghan’s thinking and writing on the issue. Meghan doesn’t agree with everything I say simply because I am an Aboriginal woman; rather, she thinks critically about my arguments and engages with me respectfully and honestly, and I do the same. We arrive at the same or similar analysis of many issues because we are sharing, teaching, listening, and challenging each other. This is how the movement grows and analyses sharpen. This is the behaviour I expect from women who consider me to be their equal.
Meghan uses her white privilege to share her writing publicly and has received vicious and disgusting woman-hating backlash as a result. I can honestly say that I’m nervous even writing this piece after witnessing the verbal abuse and threats Meghan has received on Twitter and elsewhere, simply for sharing a feminist critique. Feminism has never advocated for violence or abuse — feminism has always advocated for the end of these behaviours so often aimed at women and girls for “stepping out of line.” Perhaps it’s time for more of us to think critically and step bravely out of line.
Meghan, in her thoughtful analysis of popular culture, accepts the responsibility to speak out in the interest of all women and girls. She is one voice that represents the voices of many individual feminists and feminist groups that share and inform her analysis. Prostitution and pornography influences men and boys, and negatively impacts women and girls; the sex industry reflects and shapes how men and boys see women and girls, and affects how we, as women and girls, view ourselves, whether we are in the sex industry or not. We are all directly or indirectly affected by this billion dollar industry, and we all have a responsibility to think critically about the impacts of this industry on popular culture and in our daily lives.
Feminists have long critiqued the patriarchal focus on the bodies of women and girls and the limited and unrealistic expectations “beauty” has placed on us. To say that women and girls are expected to buy and use a range of products to make ourselves visually appealing to men and are pressured to engage in dangerous surgeries to meet male-defined beauty standards is not criticizing women and girls; it is naming and rightfully critiquing the harmful focus and pressure and we all feel as women and girls to become the “ideal” thin, white body. This focus on our bodies as existing for male pleasure ignores all other aspects of ourselves (what we think, feel, and do) and goes hand-in-hand with the pornification of popular culture. The effect this is having on our young girls is undeniable. In fact, we are now beginning to see organizations speak about “youth sex workers” as, “…making a consensual decision [to sell sex] based on the socio-political and economic climate combined with personal life circumstances.” Instead of taking a stance that adult men should not desire to or be allowed to sexually abuse or rape girls, the message is being sent to boys, men, and to our society that this behaviour is acceptable. Whether it is girls or women in prostitution, we have a collective responsibility to speak up against this injustice.
Being a warrior woman means standing up when those with power are telling you to sit down and shut up. Meghan Murphy is a warrior woman in a long line of warrior women who have insisted on standing tall and speaking up. We need her, and we need to defend space for feminism that is fearless and unafraid to critique and confront the systems that are so viciously harming all women and girls.
Thank you to Meghan Murphy, to all those who came before her, and to all those who stand with her.
Cherry Smiley is a Nlaka’pamux/Thompson and Dine’/Navajo feminist activist, artist, and founding member of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI).