In late July, local Radical Feminist group RFU held a mini-conference in downtown Toronto to examine various topics related to women’s rights and the feminist movement. Several talks were presented, including one on the concept of gender and one on pornography and its impact on women. Guest speaker Bridget Perrier, an exited survivor of the sex industry, told her personal story of childhood trauma, years in prostitution in Canada and the US, and her eventual exit and founding of SexTrade 101, a sex trade survivors and abolitionist organization in Toronto.
Women came from within Toronto and from out of town to take part in the conference.
The first presentation, on the concept of gender, discussed the difference between sex and gender, critically examined the tenets of queer theory, and made a case for a more radical feminist analysis. One takeaway point is that, contrary to popular belief, queer theory relies on upholding more rigid gender systems in order for its adherents to be able to ‘transgress’ these systems—in effect, queer activism is mainly performative and does little to reject or transform the patriarchal establishment or to improve women’s lives.
The presentation on pornography gave an overview of the increased depictions of violence against women in porn and how normalized these images have become, and their impact on women (and men). Questions about pornography as it relates to public health and women’s sexuality were addressed, by the speaker and the audience, in a dynamic discussion. Pornography’s sexualization of objectively cruel acts, like choking and abusing racist power dynamics, was criticized. One particularly elucidating slide displayed quotations from men in the porn industry that showcased their hatred of women. One example:
“I’d like to really show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women. I firmly believe that we [pornographers] serve a purpose by showing that. The most violent we can get is the cum shot in the face. Men get off behind that, because they get even with the women they can’t have. We try to inundate the world with orgasms in the face.” – Bill Margold, porn industry veteran, quoted in Robert J. Stoller and I. S. Levine, Coming Attractions: The Making of an X-rated video; 1993.
Panel discussions on the presentation topics were thoughtful and lively. There was debate over how to deal with the public health crisis that excessive unregulated pornography has created—some felt a concerted educational campaign and content warnings before all porn videos would have a large impact, while others thought this approach would be meaningless unless something more fundamental changed within men who view porn. Most women agreed that in our current patriarchal establishment, there cannot be such a thing as ‘ethical’ porn, though some women extended this further, to include all heterosexual sex as well.
Bridget Perrier’s highly anticipated talk was revealing and emotional. Her raw recounting painted a disturbing picture of men (especially men of money and power) in Canada. Abused by parental figures, men in law enforcement, men in the criminal justice system and an array of pimps, Bridget was trafficked throughout Canada and occasionally south of the border for seven years before successfully exiting the industry. Her story, like many others’, begins with a difficult childhood peppered by acts of abuse from adult caregivers. Today Bridget works with SexTrade 101, and she discussed some of their activism with regards to enforcement of Canada’s prostitution legislation (i.e., arresting and charging johns) and supporting women in prostitution who desire to exit the industry. Learn more about SexTrade 101 here.
Overall, the first RFU mini-conference was a wild success, and there are already two presenters signed up for the next iteration—date TBA. If you are a Toronto-based feminist interested in joining RFU, please get in touch.
In response to the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, a Women’s March on Washington was held in the U.S. capital and sister marches were held in many cities across the world. The purpose of these marches was to protest the type of right-wing political sentiment that has increased across our continent as a result of Trump’s election, which has caused an increase in racist, misogynist and anti-immigrant attitudes, behaviors, and hate crimes in the United States as well as in Canada.
The mission of the Women’s March on Washington, from their web page, is the following:
“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.
In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.
We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society. We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”
In Toronto, a women’s march also took place, and was attended by members of Radical Feminists Unite. We agree with many aspects of the march’s vision, such as the need to end racism, violence against women, and homophobia, and the need to protect worker’s rights. As radical feminists, we are against capitalist patriarchy and want justice for all people currently oppressed by systems of power.
We have some criticisms to make, however, of the neoliberal nature of the march which seeks to be so “inclusive” of various identities that it fails to name women as a distinct class of people and refuses to name exactly where our oppression is coming from. The paragraph from the march’s Guiding Vision, available in their PDF statement, demonstrates this problem:
“We believe in Gender Justice. We must have the power to control our bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations and stereotypes. We must free ourselves and our society from the institution of awarding power, agency and resources disproportionately to masculinity to the exclusion of others.”
This statement about “gender justice” confuses what gender is and hides the reality of sex-based oppression in order to align itself with transgender politics. Women are oppressed because of our sex— that is, our female biology. The reason we are targeted for such hate crimes as rape, incest, sexual assault, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, and sexual slavery is because we are members of the class of people who can become pregnant and the system of patriarchy gives men power over us and the use of our female bodies. Women are not oppressed on the basis of our identities as women. Male abusers do not check to find out what a woman’s identity is before abusing her—if they did, they wouldn’t abuse any of us, because all of us identify as human beings deserving of rights and none of us identify in such a way as to invite male violence against us. Male abusers target women because they can identify that we are female and our patriarchal society gives them the power to harm females.
The paragraph above claims that power is given to “masculinity,” but this is not true—power is given to males. Women who display masculinity are not given any power; in fact, they are ostracized and they are targets for sexism due to the fact that they deviate from the social norms placed on women. It is males, as a class, who have power over females, as a class, and masculinity is a part of the social manifestation of that power.
It is terrible that a Women’s March would cater to a set of politics that erases the existence of the class of people who experience sex-based oppression, women. The politics and activism being put forward by the transgender community is in direct opposition to women’s rights, since it imagines women to be in a position of privilege over men who feel they have a gender identity, and seeks to eliminate sex-segregated spaces for women in order to include such men in women’s spaces. A Women’s March should recognize what women are (human females), should name sex-based oppression and should name the perpetrators and beneficiaries of patriarchy: men.
The March on Washington also claims to support ‘the sex workers’ rights movement.’ The ‘sex workers rights’ movement is a movement of people who support the sexual exploitation of women and girls, rebranding it as a woman’s choice. The term ‘sex worker’ can include anyone in the sex trade, including the perpetrators of crimes against women, such as pimps, procurers and profiteers, who obviously do not have the best interest of women in mind. The rebranding of prostitution as ‘sex work’ is a deliberate attempt to hide the violence inherent in prostitution and silence the voices of prostitution survivors. A march that was truly for women would take a position against the crime of prostitution, elevate the voices of the survivors who speak out, and demand that male abusers of women (pimps and johns) be held accountable for their violence.
Here in Toronto, survivors Natasha Falle and Bridget Perrier of the group SexTrade101 issued a statement to the local women’s march, after they attempted to use their photos on their page:
“As a prostitution survivor coalition (SexTrade101), we do not agree with your use of terminology (sex-work-er) when referring to the sexual exploitation and abuse of women in the sex trade. Your decision to legitimize this form of violence against women is both appalling and offensive to our survivor sisters (and bros). We do not wish to be affiliated with your March, as it excludes a countless number of voices who tell the truth about prostitution violence, and using terminology as such, discredits our traumatic experiences with pimps; escort owners/mgt, strip club owners/mgt, massage parlour owners/mgt, street level pimps, drug dealer pimps, etc, and buyers of sex.”
Natasha Falle & Bridget Perrier
Survivors of Prostitution
We believe in supporting the most marginalized women, not the most privileged. The majority of women in the sex trade are there due to lack of other options and wish to get out. It is those women who should be prioritized, not the vocal minority of women who claim empowerment through ‘sex work.’
Despite our differences with the stated mission of the march and some of their neoliberal politics, we found it necessary to attend the march, to show our solidarity with progressive values, to oppose the inauguration of Donald Trump and to bring with us a radical feminist message. We were pleased to see lots of signs that clearly focused on women’s rights and that contained images of female biology. Clearly, there is a large mass of women who still know who feminism is for. Although several of us noted that we felt it was dangerous to put explicitly radical feminist slogans on our signs, for fear of harassment, we did name male violence against women and misogyny on our signs. We felt that it was necessary to be clearly feminist in our messaging.
Two days after the march, we have seen the photos pouring in on social media and we’ve witnessed how large and widespread the women’s march has been. We’ve also seen the backlash coming from trans activists who complain the march focused too much on female biology. It is our hope that this event, and the reason behind it (Trump taking away women’s rights and a rise in misogyny in the country in general) will galvanize more women into feminist organizing. Our rights are always under attack, and over the next few years there will be lots of work to do.
The conversation around basic income has been gaining traction in Ontario, with the provincial government releasing a pilot program survey that will be open until January 31st. The gist of a basic income program is to grant everyone a base ‘livable’ amount of money per month on a sliding scale that decreases the amount a person gets depending on how much they make from work or other sources. Unlike some other forms of income assistance, basic income is a safety net that isn’t dependent upon working, looking for work, having to stop working in order to qualify, or proving disability. (A full report on the project from the Ministry of Community and Social Services is available here.) We at RFU support the concept of basic income because, if implemented properly, it would make a considerable material difference to countless women.
The Feminization of Poverty:Women have higher rates of poverty than men virtually everywhere. Women as a class also have more burden of responsibility for others in terms of money, time, and energy. Poverty is, of course, also correlated to race and immigrant status: women of colour, First Nations women, and immigrant women make up a high percentage of low-paying, difficult, and insecure jobs like Personal Support Workers. Women and girls living in poverty are at high risk of entering prostitution in order to survive.
Abuse and toxic relationships:Financial dependence is the primary factor that forces women to stay in abusive or otherwise toxic relationships. In addition to women’s higher rates of poverty in general, abusers usually isolate women from other sources of support in order to cultivate their dependence and destroy their sense of functionality. Making rent alone can be extremely difficult, especially in a place like Toronto, so many women feel forced to move in with partners or parents even though the power imbalance in the arrangement can be detrimental to their well-being.
Mental and physical health: People with invisible or high-functioning health problems–mental and physical–can have a difficult time getting income assistance for their disabilities and may refuse assistance due to stigma against ‘welfare.’ Women suffer from high levels of health problems including anxiety, depression, PTSD, PCOS, and untreated pain. Those who can work are still at the mercy of employers who are not particularly sympathetic to any need for reduced hours, flex time, or other accommodations.
It’s no exaggeration to say that basic income could mean the difference between life and death for millions of women and girls in the province. Although basic income isn’t inherently radical, it does have the potential to give workers some leverage against exploitation under capitalism by giving them leeway to reject jobs with poor working conditions, low pay, and excessive hours.
Basic income is a good idea simply because no one should live in poverty. No one should become homeless and starve to death because they don’t make good fodder for capitalist exploitation. No one who can work should have to choose between exploitation and poverty. We don’t exist to be exploited for fun or profit.
RFU has sent an abridged version of this post as a joint statement in support of the Basic Income Pilot to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. We hope that eligible readers will take the survey, and we welcome women to comment with what basic income would mean for them and what material effects it would have on their lives.
The annual International Women’s Day march was held yesterday here in Toronto, drawing a turnout of around 3,000, according to CityNews. Two of our members attended part of the rally and the march from OISE at the University of Toronto to the Student Campus Centre at Ryerson University. Following are the impressions of one member speaking as a radical/socialist feminist, and not claiming to speak for every member of RFU. These impressions come with the caveat that, due to the adventure of commuting by TTC on weekends, I missed most of the rally (up to the point of the final set of speakers) and did not visit every table at the fair.
The proletarian history of IWD was highly visible with various socialist/Marxist/communist groups present, and working class issues made central. Many union and industry worker groups were behind banners, as well as 15 & Fairness, which aims to raise the minimum wage to $15 and create better conditions for low-income workers (we were near a Chinese contingent of this group that increased access to their message by carrying Chinese language signs).
The international intent of the day was not just lip service. Groups representing workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Latin America, etc. were in the march. (We were behind the Communist Party of Iraq, whose slogans included “No to Discriminating [Against] Women in Iraq,” “No to Iraqi Personal Code, which is inspired by Sharia,” and “Separation of Religion is the demand of Iraqi mass.”) Canadian First Nations women were at the forefront with Idle No More and demands for the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
After a great disappointment with Take Back the Night 2014 being used as a pulpit for the prostitution lobby, I had low expectations for acceptance of the sex commodification industry in large mainstream ‘feminist’ demonstrations like this one. However, I did not personally see this happening at IWD.
IWD hasn’t been taken over by corporate interests like Pride unfortunately has (I say that as someone who marched in World Pride 2014).
There was some opportunity to carry forward with activism (more about my issues with this subject below). The most concrete example of one organization giving women the means to do something tangible was the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. They handed out stickers to put on TTC and street ads for crisis pregnancy centres in order to warn women that these organizations are anti-choice.
The march generated a lot of interest (and surprise) from people on the street. I only heard one person yelling at us that we’re slaves and should go to hell or something.
The Not So Good:
As a proletarian event, I felt that the focus on women and the roots of our oppression was sometimes lost. Women’s lived realities are of course inseparable from our class, race, immigration status, and so on, but women’s activism is uniquely expected to cater to every other issue, even if it means putting our oppression as women last on our list of concerns.
There was not as much female-erasing / trans-centric language as I feared, but there was a general lack of identifying the source of women’s oppression: patriarchy and men as a class. What appeared to be the overarching theme of “No More Violence, No More Hate” does not name the perpetrator and holds no one accountable for misogyny. The (hundreds) of men who attended got to pat themselves on the back for their participation without having to consider–much less change–their own misogynistic thoughts and behaviour. In fact, there was so much focus on labour issues that it would be easy to march without having to think about women much at all.
Though I didn’t see pro-prostitution and porn messages at the march, I also didn’t see anything calling them out as violence against women. (Please comment below if you saw messages about the ‘sex’ industry in either direction!)
This may be an inherent challenge for rallies and demonstrations like this, but I left with little sense of what we can do going forward other than “donate money” and the questionably effective “sign this petition.” Consciousness-raising has long been a central component of radical feminism, so I respect that it’s necessary, but we can’t stop there.
Overall, it was encouraging to see everyone coming together in good spirits with some class consciousness and the desire to amplify the voices of marginalized women, but I left ambivalent about the effectiveness of the day. To elaborate on my last point, as a radical/socialist feminist, I want to leave an event with the feeling that something has been accomplished, or the sense of a concrete plan going forward. I didn’t leave feeling this way, but I hope that other women did. I hope that they discovered new groups and women to build community with. I hope that they find a way to engage with feminist activism that doesn’t set women back with empowerful pole dancing and Slutwalking. I hope that the events of the day will inspire women to actually get involved with feminism, and not just stick on the label because the label is all the rage these days.
If you attended (or if you didn’t) and this post has clicked with you, please feel free to contact us via comment or email. Let’s get together and plan the smashing of patriarchy!