#FTF: Amnesty International’s convenient amnesia on the colonial roots of sexual exploitation

Today’s Feminist Theory Friday (the last in the series) is perhaps more a matter of history than it is of theory. It is a history we need to center when exploring how prostitution impacts Indigenous women, in particular, and therefore, while addressing the issue of prostitution in general.

With Amnesty International’s decision to support the full decriminalization of prostitution still fresh and warm out the oven of disregard for women’s humanity, it’s worth exploring how the sex industry’s roots took hold in the land we now call Canada.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the radical feminist approach to prostitution has, at its foundation, the understanding that prostitution is a system of exploitation that takes up residence around the intersections of other forms of oppression like sex, race, class, disability, and — as we’ll discuss today  — colonialism.

Jackie Lynne, co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI), puts it this way in her paper, “Colonialism and the Sexual Exploitation of Canada’s First Nations Women:”

“First Nations women who have been prostituted are graphic examples of how deeply patriarchy wounds. When sexual oppression is intersected by racism, and capitalism, the wounding worsens — this compounded wounding for First Nations women has occurred for over 500 hundred years” (since European “explorers” like Christopher Columbus and John Cabot made contact in the late 1400’s).

Prostitution took hold (or at least became more prolific), Lynne explains, during the Hudson’s Bay Company’s involvement in the fur trade.

“In the first century of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), European women were not allowed to travel or to live in Canada (known as Rupert’s Land at that time). Neither were mixed family formations allowed in or around the fur trade posts (Bourgeault, 1989). This further encouraged relations of domination as European males used First Nations women for sex.”

As European colonizers introduced capitalism in their relations with Indigenous peoples, Lynne notes, they also began to introduce the commodification of women’s bodies, trading goods and alcohol for women, who would then be used in brothels set up by fur traders, or as “country wives.”

As the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) argues, prostitution is not a traditional practice of Aboriginal people:

“The state has tried to disconnect Aboriginal women from our communities, our children, our families, our traditional roles, our language, and our culture. These incidents all contribute to the disconnection Aboriginal women experience from their own bodies and sexuality that is inflicted on them through prostitution.”

Why, then, are contemporary (liberal) feminists so invested in connecting the abolitionist position  — supported by groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Indigenous Women against the Sex Industry, and the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN)  — with “white feminism” or a non-intersectional practice?

It’s because mainstream liberal feminism is completely disconnected from any cultural practice that values women as a collective, rather than treating them like sexy, autonomous orbs that navigate the world completely independently of cultural, racial, and sex-based oppression. It’s Sex in the City feminism. It’s Cosmo feminism. It’s Twitter feminism. It’s the kind of feminism that wouldn’t hesitate to call Indigenous women like those in IWASI, AWAN, and NWAC “white feminists.”

I’m reminded of an interview I once did with Aboriginal activist Cherry Smiley — I asked her what needed to change in order to better combat racist sexual exploitation. She said:

“The work that I’m doing is obviously to abolish prostitution but it’s bigger than that at the same time. It’s really trying to restore traditional Indigenous ideologies,” she said and then yawned. “And I think, I don’t know, some people think that I want to go back to a time when there’s […] none of the modern conveniences that we have now but that’s obviously not what I’m saying. It’s the ideology [not the lifestyle] that translates.”

I asked her what a traditional ideology looks like. She brought her hand up to her chin as she hesitated to think. The word HEAL, tattooed in western font on the back of her fingers, flashed across my Skype screen.

“We need to restore more collective values and start to value women and girls.”

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.