#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

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.

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  • I like Feminist Theory Fridays. Why is this the last one?

    • Meghan Murphy

      I like it too! WHY JESS WHYYYY? 🙁

  • LuckPushedMeFirst

    It’s fascinating and encouraging that prostitution did not exist in aboriginal culture. A brief google on US Native Americans points in the same direction. So does anyone know why prostitution flourished in some cultures and not others?

    • OldPolarBear

      Sooner or later, mostly sooner, capitalism turns everything into commodities. Everything. Including sex and people, but most especially women. Hence, the marketing of sex, women and children in prostitution. Many other reasons probably also, but I think that’s one.

    • My guess would be the size and sophistication of communities. If you live in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, there is no room for impersonal exploitation. (Though I suppose you could have slaves from other communities to exploit.) My guess is you need larger communities where people don’t all know each other in order for it to work. I could be wrong.

      • Cass

        I agree that size and sophistication are factors, but I think it also has to do with the way the society is structured, its economics and gender roles. In many Native American cultures, women are valued for their work, work that is crucial to the functioning and survival of the group. The same can be said about the (US) western frontier. In communities that grew up around small family farms, a wife was often more of a necessity than a luxury. She was important to the household’s economy, her work overlapped and complemented her husband’s, and she might even have some control over some of the finances. There is little evidence of prostitution in these places.

        On the other hand, prostitutes were more numerous and more visible in places with large populations of single, wage-earning, often transient men such as mining towns, cattle towns and ports. Women are sidelined in this economy, and they become valued as accessories, as a form of leisure and conspicuous consumption.

    • OldPolarBear

      Yesterday I listened to an interesting podcast interview that connected to the why of this topic on Derrick Jensen’s Resistance Radio program. The guest was Robert A. Williams Jr., a member of the Lumbee tribe and an attorney who has worked on indigenous rights issues. He says that “civilized” people of Western Civilization, back at least to the ancient Greeks, have used the concept of “savages” to justify the conquest and enslavement and the use of them, especially indigenous women, as “exotic” sexual objects. Here is Jensen’s introduction of Williams:

      Robert A. Williams Jr. is a member of the Lumbee Indian tribe and a professor of law at the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law Program. He is the author of numerous books and articles on indigenous peoples’ human rights, including The American Indian in Western Legal Thought and Like a Loaded Weapon. Today we talk about his book Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization.

      P.S. Jensen also recently did an interview with Julie Bindel

  • The idea that oppressing sex liberalism is “white feminism” is just bizaar to me. I must admit I know little about Native Americans, but I do know that certain Australian Aboriginals had very strict rules governing sexual activity. People were assigned to kinship groups based on skin tone and could only marry people of other specified kinship groups These rules were not about repressing sex for the sake of power (which is the origin of all rules related to sex, according to liberals) but about preventing incest. The rules were strict, but necessary, and probably contributed to these cultures surviving for tens of thousands of years.

    Contrary to liberal belief, rules governing sex are not necessary oppressive to women or generally authoritarian. The important thing is that there be justifications for the rules and that rules be decided on and agreed to by the community as a whole, for the benefit of the community as a whole.

    On a related note, there is this idea that alcoholism is a huge problem among Australian Aboriginals, but I have actually read somewhere that Aboriginals are less likely to consume alcohol than White Australians. I think what is happening is that traditional Aboriginal culture is far more opposed to alcohol consumption than Western culture is, so if an Aboriginal person drinks alcohol it becomes a big deal within that community and the community’s concerns end up reaching the mainstream media, while white, university students consume huge amounts of alcohol regularly and it is seen as no big deal.

    This makes it especially ironic that liberals (as blind endorsers of the hedonistic elements of Western culture, such as excessive alcohol consumption, pornography use and sexual promiscuity) are claiming to be supporters of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal rights. Do they know anything about the cultures they claim to be supporting (beyond the fact that such cultures are “diverse” and diversity is supposedly always good) or did they watch a bunch of mainstream news shows and decide that Aboriginals needs to be given the “freedom” to drink, use drugs and consume pornography, which they are so obviously begging for (*sarcasm*).

    While I think there is some merit to restoring traditional indigenous culture, I would not take a completely uncritical attitude towards any culture. I think we (as political radicals) need to analyse every culture that exists (including Western culture) to determine which elements of them we wish to endorse and which we wish to do away with. All cultures have things to learn from one another. I, for example, support the use of the scientific method to understand reality (an idea developed not only by the West, but also by Asian and Arabic cultures, which are conveniently ignored by liberals in order to push the “Western science” narrative), but I also favour the collectivist (the idea that humans should act in the interests of their community and/or humanity as a whole) thinking of non-Western (including indigenous) cultures over the individualism of the modern day, capitalist West.

    I think that encouraging people of different cultures to learn from and critique each other is a far more beneficial and intellectually stimulating way to combat racism and (unjustified) racial conflict, than the relativistic, blind “acceptance” approach, encouraged by liberals.

    On that note, I will say that I am sad that this is the last FTF. I didn’t always agree with what was said, but it sure did encourage me to think and that is what matters.

    • Lulemore

      Without claiming a political affiliation, I would like to ask you to simply consider placing economic political ideology on one axis and social political ideology on another. Please see, no, visualize, how people may agree about the preferred approach to economic systems and disagree about preferred social rules or contextually meaningful trends. If four quandrants exist… Well, hypocracy does also exist, but it is not always the explanation for seeming inconsistencies.

  • Lucia Lolita

    I wish more people would take off their blinders. Great article.

  • Sam

    (Sorry if i’ve made mistakes, my english is not that good. My comment is long but i DO hope you’ll take time to read it, thanks)

    This is amazing, because I’ve sent to Meghan Murphy a message about THIS particular point : about intersectionality & how most self-appointed intersec feminists are fighting so violently against abolition of prostitution. As if abolitionist feminists were the main oppressor of women in prostitution. And I think this truly is the most intellectual defeat of contemporary feminism.

    Abolitionist feminists have been facing a challenge : we must deconstruct the argument that we infantilize prostitutes and are paternalistic with them. Pro-sex feminists have been working so hard to convince that abolitionists have a non-intersectional approach. Which is so wrong. But in France, pro-sex have won, especially because abolitionist organizations gave them an opportunity…

    Indeed, even though this article is really interesting to understand the context in Canada, in my “french feminist” view, I have to say that some arguments from pro-sex feminists against abolitionists are -unfortunately!- relevant, they actually made a point : in France, abolitionist feminist organizations have sunk into ordinary racism and Islamophobia. We need to talk about that and don’t deny it.

    In the early 2000s, the media assault against hijab contributed to vote & promulgate racist and discriminating laws, forbidding the access to the most elementary public services (public school) to women and teenagers wearing hijab, presumed forced to wear it.

    At that time, different feminist movements fought violently. It’s striking to notice that only white women had been expressing themselves in that topic. The only women from Maghreb to express themselves delivered an interiorized racist speech. No veiled woman had a stand during these stormy debates. Or, they were presented just as anonymous fanatic oppressed women.
    Like, you know, THOSE women are alienated, but “we” white women with high heels and make up are free.

    Most of mediatized feminists were in favour of those laws (Elizabeth Badinter, Caroline Fourest for instance), in a hardly hidden neocolonialist will to emancipate – by force – and to assimilate a population – not to a french culture, but by whitewashing them. All this, without asking themselves on their own alienations, and about the profoundly patriarchal structures of “the whitest” France.
    French of North African origin face a particular racism bound to the colonial history of France.

    Today, islamophobia, which affects mainly women, expanded considerably. In France, wearing a “too” long skirt can get you expelled from high school. http://www.leparisien.fr/societe/jupe-trop-longue-la-mere-de-la-collegienne-souhaite-l-apaisement-29-04-2015-4734703.php And wearing hijab can close you the doors of a supermarket. http://www.islamophobie.net/articles/actualite/femme-voilee-interdite-entree-supermarche It is where we are there in France: being repulsed from a supermarket in the name of a led astray secularism… it is well known: supermarket is a symbol of the French Republic (sic)!

    This oppression which affects veiled women is at the intersection of racism, sexism and islamophobia and last but not least colonialism. It’s very important because Muslim men in France don’t undergo discriminations of such magnitude, even though they suffer as well from oppression.

    If I insist on this point, it is because there is a link mattering with prostitution afterward !

    Let’s return now past few years : about 2007 (during the President’s term of N. Sarkozy), the conservative government, always against the backdrop of racist/islamophobic/xenophobic speech, established the offence of -PASSIVE- soliciting. Several medias took the defense of prostitutes, and denounced the inconsistent and liberticidal definition of passive soliciting. Would a short skirt be an invitation to commercial sex?!

    At this moment there, labor unions of the “sex workers” seized a great opportunity. A huge one. They seized the hijab question, to create a narrow but artificial link between islamophobia and whorephobia. They strongly denounced racist and islamophobic laws, as well as the offence of passive soliciting.
    It was so clever from them, to seize these two questions to denounce the myth of the prudish and the whore.

    In France, feminism were split around the hijab question, and THEN prostitution “was transplanted” by sex industry around this first cleavage. So that today, feminist movements handle equally the question of the veil and the prostitution. On one hand there are abolitionist and for prohibition of headscarf feminists. On the other hand pro-sex & headscarf femininsts.

    “We are all veiled whores ” is one of the slogans of the STRASS (labor unions of “sex workers”). They misappropriated an intersectional approach of feminism. Which is very hypocritical, because they claim they are “veiled whores” whereas you don’t find any non-White woman OR a veiled woman in their protests.

    This is ironical as well, because most of prostitutes in France are non-White women : mostly from China (organized by themselves : surprisingly most of them aren’t under the cup of a pimp. Their self-management serves moreover as pledge to pro-sex feminists : “listen to them…!” blabla), and from subsaharian Africa (victims of human trafficking but none pro-sex feminist wants to listen to them !).

    Sex industry lobby appropriated the justifiable and necessary fight against racism and islamophobia, to seduce better a sensitive population about intersectionnality. I think it was risky because actually the whole country was against veiled woman. But pointing out racism was a way to get attention from leftists and stir up a long-term support. It worked so well.

    Most abolitionist organizations, such as “Osez le féminisme” (litterally “Dare feminism”) or “sisyphe.org” have IRREPROACHABLE positions on prostitution: they cannot be blamed for not integrating intersectionality into their approach of prostitution.

    But, on the other side, these organizations are too silent towards oppression undergone by veiled women (“Osez le féminisme”, & the magazine “Causette” for instance)… when they don’t feed islamophobia (sisyphe.org)… I have to admit it : this is white feminism. Clearly.

    Mediatized french radical feminists who make the distinction between a f*cking toxic activity and a simple garment are rare. So rare that we count them on the fingers of one hand : Christine Delphy (radfem sister whom you doubtless know) and Mona Chollet (journalist in the ‘Monde diplomatique’). They condemn the racist turn of feminism.

    These two questions split French feminism. This explains partially the intellectual wreck of feminism in France – in my opinion.


    However, the question evoked in your article: necessity of a more collective – rather than individual/liberal approach is also very important. I believe that the ‘Twitter feminism’, only/mostly based on individual experiences of oppressed people rather than as a collective, also explain this convergence between left and neoliberal right-wing.

    Personal is political, that’s absolutly true but it doesn’t mean that personal stuff isn’t connected to the group we belong to. I mean: define yourself as a feminist doesn’t mean that’s okay, you’re empowered, it’s finished. It absolutly doesn’t erase years and years of socialization. We, as individual, belonged to an oppressed group, and perpetuate oppressive behaviours.

    Being a feminist doesn’t mean we escape from a feminist critique. It actually is quite the opposite : because we are feminists, we have to criticize/question all the time our own behaviours constructed in patriarchy.

    And i just want to make a detour with the hijab: i don’t even want to essentialize it ’cause i think it depends on the context. Ex: My grandma is veiled – in France, where she isn’t forced to – she doesn’t seem to be more oppressed than any other french woman to me.

    Even though hijab would be oppressive to women, isn’t it the same for make up ? we aren’t forced to wear make up, any more than french woman is forced to wear hijab. It’s not by force, it’s coercition by social constructs. I never see any feminists propose prohibition of make up. So i think the prohibition of hijab has little to do with feminism. It has more to do with racism and french colonial root.

    Sorry if I was too talkative, all these questions tourmented me for a long time, I needed to share these thoughts. Don’t hesitate to tell me what you think about it, even if you think i said shitty stuff. 🙂

    Your young feminist sister,


  • Anon

    “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

    I have the answer. They do these things because they are shameless liars. They are intentionally disingenuous. They would rather be “right” and win the argument than be accurate, so they make themselves selectively blind to anything that would contradict their position. Meanwhile, they seek out only opinions confirming their preconceived notions. This logical fallacy is known as confirmation bias. Some people are born blind, but others choose not to see.

    • There are indeed, a notable portion of “intersectional” white, middle class men (and women), waving the banner for the pro-legalisation lobby. Although many of these neoliberals seem to be being wilfully dishonest in their ignorance of the realities in this debate – a sprinkling of them seem like they are genuinely being mislead by amnesty’s conflation between “direct decriminalisation” (decriminalisation of the “seller”) and “indirect decriminalisation” (decriminalisation of the pimp, brothel owner, buyer etc). There is also an element of social/professional pressure in certain fields which adopt a “sex positive” stance as policy, to be aware of…