Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Feminists fighting fairly fairly.

Wow. Slutwalk & Feminist Futures Conference on the one weekend. What a wonderful, giddy-making time it has been here in Melbourne.
For so long there has seemed to be an apathy around activism in this city and feminism in particular & I've been just wishing women would get angry, get out there & get fighting.
Then suddenly, in the past few weeks, it's been ON.

We've been getting passionate, & vocal, & active &, for the most part, despite the emergence of disparate views, we've been interacting in a strident but respectful manner. & THAT IS FUCKING AWESOME. Feminism being torn apart from within is as useless as feminism which doesn't peek out of the shadows in the first place.

There is no referee in feminist debate, that's the whole point of feminism - we want to be autonomous, to be able to govern our own lives and determine our own paths free from oppression. Therein lies the challenge, we need to all be able to band together and support each other as feminists in order to overcome the patriarchal system, regardless of our differences.

Massive props to the Feminist Futures crew who made a concerted effort to include a wide range of feminist voices (including inviting me to give a workshop so obviously I'm predisposed to thinking they're pretty ace & inclusive...). It certainly wasn't perfect, the lack of childcare facilities seemed to be a glaring oversight but they acknowledged this, made efforts to accomodate parents such as offering to fund babysitters, & I'd be very suprised if they didn't make this a priority for future events. They also listened to complaints that the proposed conference did not have enough gender diversity by altering the original line-up of their panels to include a member of the transgender community. It was inevitable that they'd receive flack from people who opposed individual speakers but even so, I've seen copies of some of the letters & facebook posts they received & some of them were incredibly aggressive.

The means don't justify the ends, the means are the ends. The shape of our struggle will determine the shape of our future.

The final panel included Kathleen Maltzahn, a greens candidate and anti-trafficking campaigner. Fliers were left on the seats of the auditorium saying 'Kathleen Maltzahn supports legislation which harms sex-workers' (from memory) & during her presentation several audience members stood & turned their backs. So far so good, all strong, non-aggressive voicing of opposition.

One protester, however, used an umbrella to block the view of other members of the audience & during the question time a couple of the protesters interrupted with heckles from the crowd.

The organisers managed to save the proceedings from descending into chaos by moving to the microphone when things started to look a bit dicey & reminding the room of basic house rules so the event ended on a calmer, more positive & optimistic note.

Censorship & oppression are what we're fighting against. Censorship & oppression should never be part of our fight.

When the audience member raised an umbrella to block others' view - that was censorship & oppression.

When another audience member interrupted with heckles from the crowd - that was censorship & oppression.

& to try to introduce legislation to ban sex work (which protesters claimed was Kathleen Maltzhan's aim though she didn't state that during the conference, has actually said in the past that she wants to decriminalise sex work & has advocated workplace reform rather than elimination of the sex industry) if she, or anyone else did move to ban sex work, that would be censorship & oppression.

Here's hoping we can can continue to band together as feminists against censorship & oppression.

*(If Kathleen Maltzhan has stated somewhere that she'd like sex work made illegal & I've missed it, please do let me know)


Anonymous said...

I was also at the final panel, and just wanted to offer a slightly different perspective...

The organisers knew this was going to be a contentious issue - indeed, anyone following the Facebook page knew that! So maybe they should have moved this panel, so that the final conference event was more focused on a broad future than on specific issues. (I actually thought, aside from the trans* speaker, that this panel was the weakest of the conference - I mean, wtf was the guy going on about saying we should ban AFL to ensure a feminist future?! Um, no, we should strip the sexism and bad attitude out of the sport, banning something hardly solves the problem!)

I agree that the tactics used to oppose Kathleen were respectful and non-agressive, but see the hecklers in a different way.

Kathleen is a politician and an awesome public speaker - that much was clearly evident. What I heard the heckler saying is that some of the things she was saying were distortions of the truth. We all know that politicans are really good at putting their own spin on things, and as such there was a massive power imbalance in the room. She had the power of legitimacy behind her, whilst anyone who disagreed looked like a trouble-maker. Perhaps the organisers should have had the sex-worker speaker and Kathleen on the same panel so that there was a level playing field and both had the same rights of reply.

People were angry that this issue hijacked the final panel, but I guess it's not going to go away and as such we, as feminists should give it the space to be debated and thrased out. My understanding of Kathleen's position (and I may be wrong, but have looked it up a bit), is that she supports the Swedish Model of legislation, which means the clients of sex workers are targetted rather than the workers themselves. But the opposite argument is this will not stop sex work, it will just make it harder for sex workers to interact with clients and to spend some time assessing whether or not they are dodgy for example. There's a Swedish woman - Petra Ostergren who has written a bit on this and whose website links to research done into the area: http://www.petraostergren.com/pages.aspx?r_id=86847
Also, I think the organisation Kathleen founded, Project Respect, says in its aims and vision that it is fighting for a world where there is no prostitution... so I'm guessing she is abolitionist. As a health worker, I have to say that the harm minimisation path has been shown (at least in the drug and alcohol sector) time and time again to have more sucess. Even if you are theoretically opposed to sex work, banning the workers or the clients is just going to make it more dangerous...

Anyway, that's just my thoughts on the matter! But I agree that it's great that feminism has exploded back into the public consciousness, and as a 30-something mother, I feel reinvigorated and ready to take up the fight again :-)

Casey said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, I really appreciate it & think I pretty much agree.

In hindsight (& perhaps, as you say, with better pre-judgement) there are obviously several people who are so strongly opposed to Kathleen on issues of sex work that it was bound to be a focus of post-panel discussion, even if it wasn't what she attempted to address during the panel. With this knowledge I agree it would have been better if the panel she sat on had been held at a different time, the panel discussion had been specifically about sex work & a feminist with an opposing point of view had also spoken. It was no doubt sheer frustration with the power imbalance which led to the heckling which I found counter-productive.
Organising a conference like this must be so bloody hard though, trying to be inclusive & think of all contingencies & to know which issues will require the most focus. They devoted two workshops to discussing sex work which I suppose they thought was sufficient, apparently not. I do hope the crew who put it together can be forgiven for any imperfections & that they're hardy enough to give it another bash.

Yup, that Swedish model does sound like a crock. I don't know that I understood Kathleen to say she supported it though, but rather that she was interested in looking at it, which is in itself troubling.
I looked up the charter of the Project Respect too. In my mind their stated aim, as a self-proclaimed feminist organisation, of "A world where there is no longer demand for prostitution and trafficking in persons" is every bit as misguided as the dude saying he wanted a future without AFL. Not exactly advocating abolition though but perhaps I'm quibbling because they're certainly working towards discrediting sex work to the point where it would be easy for abolition laws to be introduced.

Interesting stuff! Thanks again, reckon I'll write a blog post on it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts... I had a look at on-line posts and Kathleen does state she supports the Swedish Model. I also found a quote by the researcher (Petra) which says the Swedish evaluators of the laws said this in response to sex workers saying the laws had negatively impacted their safety...'A few 100 sex workers sacrificed on the alter of gender equality...must be unstood as a success'. Sad stuff!

Anonymous said...

I am a hetreosexual woman and not a sex worker who has a commitment to finding a lasting relationship and so has spent a lot of time with men. (Because I refuse to stop looking, and hope always triumphs over experience lol.) I am also a heart-felt Christian. During the pillow talk that occurs during a happy relationship, most of the men I have been involved with have stated that they have had an encounter at some time or other with a woman sex-working. They are all men who have gone through a period of loneliness and sadness,(which occurs in everyone's life at some time) and the comfort of another was important to them. I am a sexually enthusiastic woman, but still I see the depth of importance of sex to men is something even I don't really understand. To prohibit paid sex work would just mean that men without other options would end up with no options. And it would leave women vulnerable, because it would be a cottage industry completely without structure or regulation. That is all that would happen. No other good outcome would occur.

nada said...

Kathleen advocates for Swedish model . If you look at Project Respect(org she founded), it clearly states this in several places. An org the disguises itself as HELPING sex workers but really advocating for rehabilitation and criminalization . Of course sex workers are going to be very angry with her and her tactics. Orgs such as this takes funding away from peer based sex work orgs to fund their own radical feminist abolitionist agendas.

Casey said...

Thank you all for your comments. At the time of the conference I didn't know Kathleen's position on sex work (I do recall her saying some iffy things in response to questions though such as that she had formed her opinion on sex work as a whole after visiting those working in dire conditions in South East Asia. Bizarre). I think if I had known her position I would have understood better that it was really inexcusable to not have a sex-worker on the panel and I would have better understood the extreme frustration of the protesters. I guess I felt that the protesters were not fully respecting my & the audience's abilities to form our own opinions rather than blindly follow the rhetoric of the speakers. The irony is that, as there was not a sex worker on the panel, without the protesters & the disruption I would not now know about her position. So. I've learnt a lot about giving time & space to voices that are angry & frustrated & hearing them out & I'm super thankful the protesters were there & wish that I'd understood/appreciated/expressed gratitude at the time.