Do Something Amazing.
copyright Clara Vaz 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi, Consent and Things We've Known For A Very Long Time

I have written before on how sexual violence is a normalized part of many (if not, to some degree, all) women's lives. I have written before on the pervasive nature of violence against women and it's daily expressions: the little indignities that pierce like sharp pins - from friends to strangers, co-workers to the media, advertisements and seemingly sweet passerby's, who 'just want to chat.'

In light of everything Jian Ghomeshi-related, it's difficult not to pipe up and pile on. But I think feminists worldwide are rolling their eyes, tired at the so-called revelations. Things we've known for far too long. Of course we live in a culture where skewed power relations and visions of dominant male identities allow men to use abuse in their intimate relationships. Intimate partner violence is the main scourge of abuse against women worldwide - and yes, we've been raising our voices for a while now. Of course sexual harassment in the workplace is a real and daily experience, and no, it's not a so-called 'benefit' of being a woman. That Parliament Hill is undergoing it's own scandal comes as little surprise.

Of course women who have experienced sexual violence don't come forward to report the acts of violence committed against them, because of a number of reasons, all of which are valid - and a major part of it is that access to justice is not a guarantee, and the experience can be disappointing and more emotionally scarring than the incident itself. Of course there is shame, there is shock, and there are women who would rather stay anonymous then ever have their names tied to a crime that places far too heavy a burden on the victim's shoulders. It's not easy being known as the woman who was raped. Or the woman who stayed in an abusive relationship for years. Or the woman who kept dating someone who hit her.

And there it is. The undercurrent through some of this recent news, remains, as always, the same tired victim-blaming. She was power-hungry, she was attracted to the fame, she went back out with him, she never said no, she made him think it was okay...

Welcome to a woman's life. Would you like to join me on this tightrope?

So, no, this Jian Ghomeshi-inspired frenzy is not a new movement. It's difficult not to accept everyone into the conversation, because we've been wanting it to be had for so long. But every time there is another gruesome act committed against women, we hope that perhaps this will be the moment. I guess we stopped hoping a long time ago, because now, I think we're a little tired. Of course, we will stand. Of course, we will make our voices heard. And of course, I want more than anything for young boys and men to be a part of the cause, because I believe only by helping each other and working together can we get anywhere closer to equality - but... I'm a little tired.

Moving on.

Consent is an interesting concept. In business deals, a handshake can be the bare minimum to tie two parties to a commitment to act, or not, in a certain way in future dealings. Fortunately, not so when it comes to our persons, our bodies, and our sexual selves. In R. v. J.A. [2011] the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that consent must be enabled on an ongoing basis throughout any sexual activity. I.e. sexual intercourse with a person while they are unconscious no matter what they may have agreed to, is not consensual. Because consent is ongoing. Consent is informed. And for those two measures to be fulfilled, the person must be, at the very least, able to give consent. As the Supreme Court stated, there must be an active mind.

The Supreme Court has also stated, in R. v. Jobiden [1991] that someone cannot consent to violence done against them. This runs counter to the BDSM community, where violence can be part of a wide array of sexual and emotional that are used in such interactions. A very detailed and insightful article, however, points (as did the Supreme Court) to the ways in which consent is also tiered: just because someone said 'yes' to a sexual activity a few minutes ago, does not mean that a few minutes later, they feel the same way. This can be demonstrated through body language, 'safe-words,' (no works too), and also puts the onus on all parties to be aware of these forms of communication.

"She didn't say no" is not, at the very basic level, the kind of sex I want to have, nor should anyone be submitted to. However, consent in all its necessary forms: informed, ongoing, tiered also needs another one: affirmative. A sexual act is composed of intimate actions, potentially enjoyable, potentially harmful, being done to the mind and to the body. The responsibility lies in both partners to ensure that these acts are being well-received. Luckily, the Supreme Court has upheld this as well: In R. v. Ewanchuk [1999] the Court stated there is no implied consent in the Criminal Code of Canada. "She didn't say no" is not a defence.

Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal society where power is male. The imbalance in power relations does not magically appear when men and women are adults, in the workplace, sitting as CEO and hitting glass ceilings, respectively. It is bred from an early age where young girls learn very quickly that their bodies and looks must be manipulated and contorted to suit the male gaze. The translation of this realization, and all the shameful social inequalities of being a woman, into the bedroom are incomprehensibly heavy. Girls and women worry more about their hair, their bodies, their faces and if they are pleasing the man than they do thinking about their own sexual pleasure or if the partnership feels good for them both.

Just as there are a million reasons why women don't report the sexual violence against them, there are a million reasons why women don't actively say no during a sexual act. There is fear of violence - to themselves, to children. There is knowledge that saying no before has amounted to nothing. There is inability to express sentiments to a partner who has created such a stifling environment that dissent is impossible. There are power imbalances at play. There is fear of their partner leaving them, not loving them, cheating on them. There is the simple reason of not wanting to have to say no, of wanting your partner to see, as plain as day, that you do not want to be treated as such. And that they shouldn't believe they can do whatever they want in the bedroom. There are repercussions.

Communication is difficult in all arenas. We struggle with it daily. In sex, we wish communication weren't necessary, we hope that things will click and be perfect. But we can't remove the shames and burdens from our public lives and hope these will dissipate in our private bedrooms. We have wants, needs and desires, just as we have dislikes and categorical off-limits, and never happenings. We have a right to it all, if we're alone, on a desert island. But when another person is involved, consent - informed, ongoing, tired and affirmative consent dives deep into the picture. Better learn to swim.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New Brunswick Denies Women's Rights as Morgentaler Clinic Prepares to Close

Women’s reproductive control is still a highly contentious issue in many parts of the world, and as we have seen through recent Supreme Court decisions in the United States, the divisive issue is not solely one for developing nations. 

As women are painted as second-class citizens, subject to prejudice and sexual harassment, unable to access consistent and affordable birth control and with their bodies seen as familial or spousal property, the consequences are often that unplanned pregnancies are high and unsafe abortions prevail. India is a prime example: although the country allows for abortion on broad grounds, it still accounts for exorbitantly high numbers of deaths and complications due to unsafe procedures, with accounts of one woman dying every two hours as a result. 

That couldn't possibly happen in Canada. Unless you've been reading the news lately and discovered that when it comes to the Maritimes region, women are relegated to second-class when it comes to their reproductive rights and access to health services.

Although abortion in Canada has been legal since the Supreme Court decision in R v. Morgentaler in 1988, New Brunswick, with a population of just under 800 000 (2011), has refused to abide by provisions in the Canada Health Act of 1985, stating that medically necessary services provided by a physician must be provincially funded. The province has enacted Regulation 84-20, Schedule 2(a.1) into its Medical Service Payment Act, which reads as follows:

“unless the abortion is performed by a specialist in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology in a hospital facility approved by the jurisdiction in which the hospital facility is located and two medical practitioners certify in writing that the abortion was medically required”.

The Morgentaler clinic, run previously by the eponymous doctor until his death last year, provided abortions free of charge for women who could not afford them for the past 20 to 40 years, depending on the clinic's location. The office in Fredericton, New Brunswick has been offering women's health care for twenty years - this has included counselling, consulting on STI's and abortions - not only to women in the region but also to those from Prince Edward Island, where abortion services are also notoriously difficult to come by.  Having provided services to over 100 000 women, it is the only private clinic in New Brunswick and the only one east of Montreal. Due to the restrictive nature of the Medical Services Act and the New Brunswick's Department of Health refusing to subsidize women's care, the clinic has been acting on the late Dr. Morgentaler's edict, that no woman needing an abortion should be turned away, and has been providing funding through its own means. In the past ten years, the clinic has contributed over $105 000 to subsidize abortions for women unable to pay the $700-$900 financial burden. 

New Brunswick's Regulation 84-20 inarguably violates women's constitutional rights as cemented in R v. Morgentaler in 1988, when the Supreme Court unanimously decided that to require a woman to seek approval from an abortion committee was a direct violation of the security of her person and created too deep of an interference to her bodily integrity. The same remains true for Regulation 84-20, which when requiring the approval of two doctors to confirm the 'medical necessity' of an abortion, places serious impediments on a woman's free right to choose, her reproductive rights and seriously hinders her bodily integrity. Moreover it creates an increased unnecessary burden to low-income women and women who live in geographically sparse areas, where access to both consistent and quality reproductive services is scarce. 

In a province where more than 60 000 people are without a family physician, approval from two doctors is an impediment to access. In a province where only two hospitals perform abortions, if women travel out of province for abortive services, none of those expenses are refunded as the province does not provide reciprocal reimbursements for abortions. A different take on this would be to imagine an Ontario student at the University of New Brunswick who needed an abortion: she would have to pay $1800 at one of the two hospitals in the province - or go to the Morgentaler clinic. The last option is soon to be off the table.

This is further burden for poor women - women who can't afford to travel out of province, can't afford to take time away from their jobs or their families, don't have the means to travel to different hospitals to secure different signatures - while first finding a doctor who is pro-choice and willing to give his/her signature, only to be placed on a waiting list for the only two gynaecologists who currently perform abortions in the province. When women can't access the reproductive services they need, the number of women undergoing unsafe procedures or taking unsafe medications rises. Indeed, banning or restricting abortions has no affect on the number of women who will attempt it - and in areas across the world where abortion is illegal, unsafe abortions rates surge even higher.

Often what sets apart the rich from the poor is access. In India, like in Canada, federal laws have given broad grounds for a woman to have the complete control over her body and her reproductive rights. Just like in India, however, access remains hindered. Access, in the case of New Brunswick, is both political and geographical - and the latter is greatly influenced by economic status. The province is riddled with a gendered type of poverty: in 2011, 14.5% of women and 10.7% of men ages 18-64 were living in poverty - highest levels were among single mothers and their children: 28.9% of which are poor. Women without partners are the worst off, having an almost five times more likely to be poor factor than their male counterparts. While male poverty is linked to unemployment and labor, female poverty is more complex, involving a persistent wage gap (women earned 88.6% of what men did in 2013 in comparable jobs and hours), a large burden of unpaid work including childcare, eldercare, housework (meals, cleaning) then compounded by lack of affordable childcare and family-friendly workplace policies. Women can also be predominantly found within 'female job' clusters that are even further affected by pay inequity, and by consequence, 6.5% of women compared to 4.4% of men hold two jobs or more.

Creating laws that uphold women's rights to control their bodies and reproduction is only the first step. The second is ensuring access, not further measures of restriction, to those services that comply with the law. That New Brunswick has chosen to so blatantly disregard these legally protected rights and enact regulations that further bar access to basic services has severe consequences to a population that is already riddled with the feminization of poverty, and, it would seem, would only worsen the economic disparities that women currently face. 

New Brunswick must repeal Regulation 84-20 and abide by the Canada Health Act. Abortion services and reproductive rights will be front and centre at the upcoming elections in September, and hopefully women's rights will be updated to the rest of the Canadian provinces in 2014. 

There is a FundRazr campaign currently ongoing where I urge you to donate to keep the Morgentaler clinic open. With a goal of $100 000, this money will last only a short time, so any extra donations will help immensely. 

You can also read more at Reproductive Justice NB, where the very brilliant Kathleen Pye is heading a campaign to save the Morgentaler clinic. 

Its the very least we can do for women in Canada, where rights, access and health should be equal among us all. 

Clara Vaz

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Religious Fervour: Birth Control is Now Your Boss's Business

I was not going to comment on the recent US Supreme Court's deeply disappointing decision in the Hobby Lobby case. But then I read Penelope's piece, and rethought - because she argues what I've been thinking: People who don't actually experience what you're experiencing should refrain from giving set-in-stone decrees on how to manage your experience. So, in short,  desist with the judgement or commandments.

Certainly no legal rulings with far-reaching negative effects.

Which brings me to the US Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision. Is it justly conceivable that five male Justices weighed the balance accepting corporate entities to deny coverage of all forms of birth control - a ruling that will affect women?

The Hobby Lobby case is the first time that a Court has allowed a corporate entity to deny employees a federal benefit, entitled to by law, (birth control - in all its forms) because of its owner's religious beliefs, embodying corporations with personhood. The ruling is steeped in a gendered outcome: negatively affecting mainly women (with men being a secondary casualty, and economic progression and access a viable third) and, as usual, will most severely affect poor and minority women. Women, who, it is widely argued, need the easiest access to consistent birth control if they are to enjoy the very basics of our first world society: access to the workplace and reproductive control. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote exactly this, powerful dissenting to a ruling she viewed as denying women their reproductive freedom and allowing commercial enterprises to "opt out of laws (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." A capitalist marketplace consisting of workplaces where people exchange time and work for pay has now become a place where cultural wars are fought: where the United States is allowing religious faith to supersede, if not at the very least, meddle in an employee's benefits. Since work (re: economic survival) and health benefits are intrinsically linked, placing religious beliefs as a star player in the mix sets a dangerous precedent.

The decision is further disappointing in that the group Hobby Lobby objected to birth control based on views that certain substances in birth control induce abortion - a belief that has been disproved, time and again, in that birth control acts on preventing conception before it takes place, not aborting it afterwards. Even emergency birth control does not abort fetuses but rather, delays ovulation. In Canada, pharmacists clearly indicate that Plan B won't work if successful implantation of a fertilized egg has already occurred. The Supreme Court has now given worrisome legal weight to these unsubstantiated claims, weighing in on a medical issue in terms heavily steeped in moral and religious beliefs, denying factual evidence to the contrary. That Hobby Lobby invests more than 73 million dollars in the very same companies that make the reproductive products they are objecting to on religious grounds seems sacrilegious, if not farcical, at best.

A compilation of many recent research studies on the availability of birth control is available here by the NYTimes, demonstrating the already dangerous scarcity of birth control, the inaccurate information provided to women by the very people they entrust their health to, the exorbitant costs of both contraception and emergency birth control and the high percentage of pharmacists and doctors who already sway their patients differently based on their own religious beliefs. The misinformation and deception is disheartening.

A careful reading of both the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010 does not bring to light persuasive evidence either that corporate entities cannot worship freely or advocate against birth control, nor that women must use the insurance to cover their reproductive rights. Indeed, corporations pay into general health insurance and this provides coverage for a breadth of medical services. What a woman does or does not choose is between herself and her physician - not her bosses's beliefs and her physician. The Justice's interpretation of 'substantial burden' (as in the government cannot substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion) seems to disregard the affecting clause: unless the burden is necessary for a 'compelling government interest' and in achieving it by the 'least restrictive means.' This disregard fails also to note that religious faiths must be accommodating so as not to burden others as well. Such a narrow interpretation and the Court's finding that the Federal Care Act tells corporations that 'their beliefs are flawed' is beyond far-reaching. To this, it would be remiss of me to not let Justice Ginsburg's words speak with precision and clarity:

“The Court levels a criticism that is as wrongheaded as can be. In no way does the dissent ‘tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed,” she wrote. “Right or wrong in this domain is a judgment no Member of this Court, or any civil court, is authorized or equipped to make. What the Court must decide is not ‘the plausibility of a religious claim…’ but whether accommodating that claim risks depriving others of rights accorded them by the laws of the United States.”

Read more:

Finally, the Hobby Lobby decision lays the very unsettling groundwork for other corporate entities to reduce or hinder benefits based on religious beliefs (an exemption previously only given to religious not for profit entities, ie, churches), in a form of religious and gender-based discrimination with widespread consequences. Not only does the ruling disregard both the fundamental health needs and the 'sincerely held beliefs' of the employees, it also presumes that women's interests or public health are not compelling interests.

The government already 'forces' corporations to abide by many substantially burdenful federal laws to prevent them from acting in manners harmful to their employees and to abide by federal regulations that serve a greater public good. This was precisely the reasoning for the Federal Care Act covering birth control, as it was deemed to be of compelling interest to public health, social stability and optimal reproductive choices as well as to a woman's well-being. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, unfortunately doesn't agree, as both gender equality and public health are, in his view, too broad of terms to be 'compelling interests.' While gender equality might not be something that everyone agrees is desirable, the public health benefits of birth control are undeniable - not to mention the vast economic benefits. The government has already allowed corporations to 'opt out' from health insurance (meaning they wouldn't have to cover birth control at all) - reducing Hobby Lobby's argument to faith-based claims on right and wrong, something that, as Justice Ginsburg states, is not a matter that the Court can or should decide.

For that matter, can we touch briefly on the supposed religious grounds that Hobby Lobby claims influence their right not to cover birth control? In a way, this case can be boiled down to a far more base but prevailing concern among religious men (and some women): Should women be allowed to freely have sex before marriage for reasons other than procreation? And if they do, does that mean they are enjoying sex? Does that mean they are not as chaste as we want our women to be? Who decides a woman's supposed purity? Should women have sex the way men can? If we allow for women's reproductive rights to stand, will we be encouraging promiscuity?

Shouldn't women have a say in their own lives?

This brings me back to my initial point. The Supreme Court's five right-leaning male justices have ruled on a decision that will immediately affect 14 000 female employees of the Hobby Lobby corporation. Should we not have demanded that this ruling be supported by at least one of the female justices of the Court? When the US House holds a committee session on birth control, should we not have demanded that at least one member of the panel be a woman? When the 2014 Global Summit on Women was recently held in Paris, shouldn't we have gawked at not a single woman being up on stage?

The Hobby Lobby case will severely impact the lives of women and men  and paves the way for the hundreds more cases awaiting the same rulings on religion v. birth control. It's startling and indicative of changing times when a government and its Supreme Court so greatly disagree, and those responsible for the decision-making on both sides deserve to have both their records and motives dissected for better understanding. That five right-leaning male Justices decided this case does not only a disservice to the women the case will affect, but also for equality and to the trust and faith of the people in the Court itself.

A lot of decisions affecting women aren't made by women, and that is a very dangerous trend to keep upholding.

Clara Vaz

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Working Women: The Gendered Nature of Time Poverty

Poverty, as we are discovering, is far more complex than simply being about financial scarcity. It is a multi-dimensional structure with cross-cutting issues that affect every facet of a person's life: from their employment benefits and likelihood of upward mobility to their health and trust in doctors, from their parenting skills to their children's language skills, from their ability to process information to their ability to make good decisions. Poverty is the overall blanket that smothers a person's life in a self-perpetuating and compounding way.

Development workers have long known of 'time poverty,' a concept only now being understood in a Western poverty context. Poor people live on borrowed time that they will never, if rarely, be able to make up: the more problems happening in the moment, the less I can concentrate on the future, and the more pressing the issues (bills, food, health), the more time and concentration I give to them, resulting in bad long terms decisions in order to fulfill the immediate need. This is the 'bandwidth' part of time poverty. The second, physical, is measured in hours: poverty compounds activity: not only is my mind taken up with pressing issues of survival, but my body is taken up with working, overworking and the inability to come in some way to relieve the pressures of never being able to stop working. Relaxation, vacations, time off, these are luxuries of the rich - time that is too costly to waste for the poor.

Research has shown that living in poverty only reinforces the vicious mind/body cycle: even when shown opportunities for betterment, poor people will often not know they can take advantage of those opportunities, or not be able to see them because they are so habituated to living under the pressures of scarcity. Poverty drastically impairs people's ability to spot opportunity or take advantage of the ones presented to them.* And so the poor borrow not only money from banks at high rates, from friends and family at rates of loss of friendship and trust, but also time at rates that can never be repaid. Time from tomorrow, time from next week, time that is such a costly commodity with a sky high tax: poor people have less attention spans, less energy, less apt cognitive functioning, all due to the borrowed time. The poor can't take time off being poor to make up for the stress in their current moment.

Time poverty in the physical sense is also be seen and measured: the rich afford time savers: nannies, drivers, helpers, gardeners, cleaners, assistants. This begins to point to the extreme gendered nature of time poverty: much of the help that the rich can afford relates to traditional female roles and activities around the family and home. The current research has concentrated on developing nation women who often not only take care of the cooking, cleaning, child, sick and elderly care, but also the gardening, much of the field work, grocery and water gathering, while also tending to their husbands and fulfilling cultural duties of sexual acts when the man demands it, carrying unplanned pregnancies and taking part in any matriarchal duties in the community.

Just as in the Western worlds, however, this burden and duty of care is barely recognized by states (save for some progressive European nations) and is certainly not economically rewarded. Equally as important, the perception of this work is always less than the perception of waged work - our economic value system rewards paid work in the public sphere far more than work in the private domain. Perception matters: where a woman's work and time is considered of lesser value, her worth as a person diminishes as well, as does the value of her girl children who will grow into the same moulds as their mothers.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that the gendered nature of time poverty does not affect so-called developed nations. Indeed, the advent of women in the workplace has not been coupled with a diminution of work at home or a shared burden of household and family care by their partners and women are finding themselves fulfilling more roles now than in the past. Is it any wonder than women view their homes as sources of high stress while men view them as spaces of relaxation? Although there is a physical separation between their workplace and their home, women often finish a day's work to return to a home where they must now cook, clean and take care of children and tend to their partners, while men return home to relax and enjoy their evening. This despite research that suggests men who help around the house also have more sex with their partners, are less likely to divorce, and report higher overall happiness within their partnerships.

For women who work from home or who are stay at home mothers, time poverty remains a constant, and in this occasion with no physical separation between work and home. They move from home care to more home care, or work to more work, without any leisure time, a concept that, worldwide, is largely owned by men. In many developing countries, women do not factor in leisure into their day at all, not even seeing it as a possible activity in which they could partake. Men, however, see leisure time as a right, part of the daily reward for their (more valued) work. This only serves to increase the difference in value placed on men and women: women must continue to work because their time, energy, and the work they do is of less value - men are allowed leisure, because their time has been spent more valuably, and so they are considered to have more value overall. In the developed world it is no less true: the OECD reports men spending more time for leisure than women on a daily basis.

Is it any wonder that global poverty has also been largely defined as gendered: women are more susceptible to poverty and with what we are not discovering about the many adverse affects of poverty, it could be suggested that women bear more of the brunt of these cognitive, confidence, and bandwidth affects as well. While in developing nations, fundamental changes to the root causes of gender inequality are needed, developed nations must reconfigure their notions of success and work to include family-friendly workplace policies and governments that place more value on the work done within the private sphere. Where developing nations must redefine their value systems and prioritize women's education, time, health and economic opportunities, developed nations must work to remove second-generation gender barriers from the workplace and promote women's confidence through empowerment and more women in power with decision-making abilities.

Neither world has got it right and each can learn from the other. Moreover, the rich and the poor have such widening gaps between them that they barely understand the other's experience, resulting in a lack of empathy and co-operation which looks to be increasingly impossible. In a world where gender issues and women's rights are more and more at the forefront of economic development and social well-being, it would seem pressing that governments must incorporate the varied nuances that gender represents within their wide reaching policies. Moreover, men and women must work together for better unity in the long term. Women's issues are men's issues too, and the way in which we spend our time and the value we place on it is an important part of the attitudes we have toward each other. 


*This was exposed to me in a brilliant This American Life podcast last year on the hidden failures of the job market in the US, concentrating on disabilities numbers. In many of the interviews, when people who had been jobless or underemployed for a lengthy period of time or who were on disability were asked what they aspired to, their aspirations dropped significantly to match their current situation. When presented with alternatives, they responded that they did not even imagine such a job, or that such a lifestyle could be available to them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bill C-36 and Prostitution in Canada: Moral Criminalization of Sex Workers

The Canadian government established The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in 1889 to face the growing criticism on security in the labour force. Too many workers were being hurt, too many oppressive working conditions were still in place, but the federal government refused to act, saying it would overstep into provincial jurisdiction.

In 1914, Ontario is the first province to institute the Workmen's Compensation Act for workers injured on the job. In 1972, Saskatchewan follows with a first of its kind Occupational Health Act, which makes both health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982, but following mass protests around the country over the next decades, the Supreme Court, in 2007, overturned more than twenty years of Charter of workplace jurisprudence by allowing for unionized healthcare and social services for workers.

Then, in December of 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down Canada's major prostitution laws, stating unequivocally that Parliament's restrictive measures had infringed on the constitutional rights and security of prostitutes. Ruling on the Bedford Case, the Court gave the Minister of Justice Peter MacKay one year to revise the laws in favour of more protective measures.

In early June 2014, MacKay did just that, unveiling a prostitution bill based on the Nordic model, calling it a Canadian version that criminalized the purchase of sex and scoffed in the face of what the Supreme Court had requested.

The Nordic model has been condemned worldwide, and the Canadian version appears far worse. The Bill intensely persecutes clients, criminalizing the use of sex services with five years in prison, while also targeting anyone who receives material benefits from prostitution. It bans the advertisement of prostitution, even in the online marketplace, and places restrictions on where and how prostitutes can practise their trade. Undeniably, it paints prostitutes as the immoral decay in society and their clients as sexually unhinged.

Bill C-36, ironically entitled The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, believes paid sex is a form of violence against women, heavily steeped in inequalities between the sexes and the moral preservation of the purity of female sexuality. Under this bill, sex for money is inherently undignified and impure, and women who choose this line of work are whores to be castigated in the public eye - but most are undoubtedly victims, and the proprietary and paternalistic nature that C-36 holds towards women emboldens it to 'save' women from their bad choices.

The Bill is lax on defining terms, which are intrinsic to law, security and criminalization. 'Public space', 'avails', 'where children are expected to be present' - all these terms would be up for varying definition by the courts. Does not benefiting from avails mean that prostitutes could not hire drivers, body guards, screeners to improve their security? If public space is widely defined, will prostitutes be forced to work indoors but not tell anyone for fear of losing clients? Does public space include the internet? Defining terms is the basic structure of any law, and MacKay fails miserably in this, aiming to leave definitions open in the hopes of stricter legal interpretation.

As is, Bill C-36 would be struck down by the Supreme Court as it does nothing to improve the safety of sex workers. In their 2013 decision, the Court stated: "It is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money," and nor is it a crime to buy it. MacKay changed that with the tabling of Bill C-36, defying new Canadian polls that suggest "more canadians favour decriminalization than cracking down on prostitutes and clients."

Criminalizing the use of sex services would only increase the security risks for sex workers, male, female and trans. Clients who fear severe repercussion in the form of hefty fines and five years of jail time would demand heightened anonymity, refusing to give their name or phone numbers, refusing screening or public exchanges. The more shadowy the transaction and with fewer people involved (re: security or drivers) the less security there is for the sex worker. The Bill also allows all the same search and seize measures for police, doing nothing to curtail police brutality nor educate and train forces on protection and the very measures of equality the Bill pretends to uphold. The preamble speaks of 'human dignity' and 'equality', encouraging the reporting of incidents and compelling prostitutes to leave sex work, but nowhere is there mention of support lines or groups, secure and affordable housing, alternative income sources, or, and why not, a bill to fight poverty instead of prostitution. Instead the Bill imposes dangerous working conditions on sex workers, defying the Supreme Court ruling in a desperate attempt to morally quell a trade that has been defying law (and prideful patriarchy) since the dawn of time.

That women could possibly use their sexuality for trade is daunting to the stronghold of patriarchy. Intrinsically, it removes men from the biological imperative: they are no longer providers, having been completely left out of the equation. That a woman's sexuality has always been under a man's control is nothing new - indeed I've often written how a culture's purity and a family's pride and moral standing is written on the woman's body - so it only reasons that when women step outside of this traditional sexual role, they would be labeled as immoral for doing so. Traditionally, prostitutes are either whores or victims, immoral sluts or victims of circumstance. For the Harper conservative government to have chosen the latter is, again, no surprise, such parental views of women follow a long line of women never being considered as full persons endowed with the same inalienable rights and abilities as men: we are less than, we are other, and constantly need male guidance with our choices, lest we choose wrong. Decriminalizing prostitution, however, need not fall under such traditionally patriarchal terms. New Zealand has done it, where prostitution operates under employment and public health laws, treating women as full human beings, able to make their own choices with their bodies.

Sex, historically from church to marriage, was either for procreation or pleasure - certainly not for capitalism. But, undeniably, it has always been so - in times of richness and poverty, women have used their bodies for gainful means. Indeed, prostitution epitomizes the use of capitalist forces to trade a service within a high market demand. Dangers lie also in the way we speak of women, and of prostitutes: are they victims? Are they poor innocent girls, forced into a trade unbeknownst to them? And why is sex for money more importantly valued than other jobs? We all must make a living, and while some are CEOs, others collect trash, wash toilets, clean sewer tanks or work night shifts and day shifts and back to back shifts for less than the minimum wage. Yet the uproar against these jobs is minimal: we are not concerned with bettering our economy and providing better resources to these workers, we are not looking to save them, nor are we victimizing their condition, yet it could be argued that capitalism is structured in a way that forces underemployment and overworking, pushing down whole segments of the population into slave-like conditions, for the benefit of the very few. If women are choosing to work in the sex industry and make more than working at Starbucks, pay their taxes and are fine with it, what government could not admit that this is exactly how capitalism is supposed to work?

Peter MacKay has called prostitutes 'degrading' and their clients 'perverts' - stating that "no one chooses this, it is inherently degrading and inherently violent." For one man and one party's moral agenda to so taint such a wide-reaching law is unconscionable, and may even turn the law into a form of gender-based violence, as it imposes conditions harmful to a large group based primarily on gender.* Luckily the Supreme Court will send it back for revision, and hopefully with a slap on the proverbial wrist.

Canadian women, and all sex workers, deserve better.


*Trans and male sex workers are also heavily stigmatized, and while statistics on sex workers in Canada vary greatly and are generally heavily influenced by their source, it is generally thought that most sex workers are women. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women in the Workplace, the Gender Confidence Gap and #YesAllWomen

Last week, four important studies brought conclusions relating to women in the workplace. These were not about editors Jill Abramson unceremoniously fired from the NYTimes nor Natalie Nougayr├Ęde forced out of her position at Le Monde, although they provide a perfect backdrop. Two of the studies demonstrate how, at either end of the corporate ladder, women are subjected to gender-based inequalities and punishments, these then intersect with a prevalent and detrimental gender confidence gap, and, finally, come to rest in the US government's medical research agency's (NIH) decision to erase sex bias from their biomedical studies.

The first study, from the University of Victoria and the Canadian Intern Association shows that the majority of interns in Canada are young women, who are unpaid or are making less than the minimum wage. Around 300 000 young Canadians work unpaid, and the vast majority are women - 49% in the private sector and 25/26% between the public and not for profit sector. While the Conservative government has provided funding towards "high-demand" internships in the fields of sciences, maths and computers, it has given nothing to more 'traditionally female' fields of nutritional sciences, teaching or social work.

The second study, by Strategy&, concretizes what we have all known and felt for quite some time: female CEO's are fired more often than men after a shorter amount of time, are viewed as outsiders by a company's board and managerial structure and are made to walk the fine line between being good at their job (often entailing traditionally male attributes of power, aggressiveness, ambition and risk taking) and conforming to conventional female gender norms (being kind and caring, understanding and willing to let men take the lead).

These studies fit together perfectly: young women begin the journey up the corporate ladder in already disadvantaged fields, having not been encouraged, sponsored or motivated (by parents, teachers or the media) to participate in the maths and sciences at a young age. That the confidence gap has developed so early is only reinforced by the workplace setting; women spend more time in unpaid or minimally earning support roles and when they are moved to managerial positions are often viewed with suspicion as they step outside of the 'carer' and 'supporter' roles they previously occupied and that are conventionally female based.

The gender confidence gap research was presented in the brilliant study by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, documenting how a lack of confidence, the result of upbringing and biology and everything in between, can hinder women in all areas of her life - especially in relation to success in the workplace. Research from the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK has shown that female managers doubt themselves far more than their male colleagues; the Manchester Business School showed that women business graduates expect $64 000 a year while their male counterparts expect $80 000 - and they don't negotiate salaries as much or as well as the men. Cornell and Washington State Universities have shown that men overestimate their abilities and performances and women underestimate themselves - and while both perform equally when forced to - women do not force themselves, preferring to not answer or answer 'I don't know' while men will choose randomly on tests, confident in their abilities to choose at all.

While the study clearly demonstrates that men do, of course, doubt themselves, they do not, as women do, let that doubt hold them back: they apply to more jobs that they are not qualified for, they speak more in meetings when they aren't sure of the topics, they present more ideas that fail, they assert their confidence in ways that are seen as the norm. Women, on the other hand, will rarely speak unless they are certain of what they are saying, or how it will be received, will rarely apply to jobs for which they are not fully qualified and will rarely present ideas that are not foolproof.

Within this tenuous confidence, women tread the line between success and likeability - while men need only a heavy dose of the first and not much of the second. Indeed, as new research from the Harvard Business School shows, likeability and success for women correlate negatively. The more a woman succeeds, the more she is disliked because she is playing with role congruity: the notion that each sex has specific gender roles they must not discard, lest they disrupt social norms.

This confidence gap is reinforced by female CEO's losing their jobs in public and unceremonious terms. It is not only men that see women as outsiders in positions of power; women are equally affected by the dearth of female representation in power. The reaction sway two ways: the first is that these leaders are seen as magical unicorns: a once in a lifetime position, obtained only through great personal sacrifice, harder work than their male counterparts, and unattainable to the vast majority of women. Even the thought is unbelievable: who could possibly be a Hilary Clinton? She is one in a million in a sea of men.

The second is equally as detrimental: women are often the foot soldiers of the patriarchal structures that keep women out of positions of power - they too see women as needing to maintain feminine attributes, and will punish their female co-workers for acting out of gender lines - either in being too 'pushy,' or 'abrasive,'  The Harvard Business Review summarizes thus:

"Scientific research also tells us that male and female leaders are liked equally when behaving participatively (i.e. including subordinates in decision making). But when acting authoritatively, women leaders are disliked much more than men. To be clear, it is not that women are always disliked more than men when they are successful, but that they are often penalized when they behave in ways that violate gender stereotypes."

In a structure where, as a woman, it is already more than difficult to get to such powerful positions (men get bigger assignments with bigger budgets leading to bigger rewards than women, high achieving women do not leave the workplace by choice after having children, women are far less likely to sacrifice ethical values for status and money and therefore are less rewarded than men for their part in a corporation's growth, although women declare themselves more willing than men to make personal sacrifices to climb the corporate ladder, they are less likely to receive promotions or attain even middle-management - and this is not to mention all the unseen barriers and second-generation gender biases), it is devastating to know that, once there, more gender-based punishments await.

This brings us to the NIH finally deciding that biomedical studies should be equal in sexes: that women should no longer be seen as the variant to men. It was always assumed that, in science, female menstrual cycles would skew viable results. But viable for whom? Instead, outcomes over the years have shown that illnesses/tests and results differ between the sexes, and should be applied differently, so that both men and women benefit equally from science and medicine.

In short, women are not other to the norm.

Being seen as a constant variant to the male norm makes women inherently less than, with strange attributes that are feared and doubted, especially if they move 'up' into fields traditionally reserved for men: politics, CEO positions, maths, sciences, finance.

As Delphyne Platner said: "If women's stories were viewed as worthy of record, how might this have altered the course of history?"

Consistently being placed as other to the norm is a defining reason for the confidence gap. It is the reason women are expected to work for little to no money. It is the reason we let our doubts hold us back, that we never think we're good enough, that we don't speak up, that we don't lean is as easily as Sheryl Sandberg would like. Being other makes it difficult to have our voices heard and makes it easy for men to dismiss our experiences as less than valid to their own. Being seen as a variant allows women to be treated as objects, their voices silenced and their bodies up for grabs and had as rewards.

Men's rights to women's affection and sexuality take precedence, and seeing women as less than is the basis of misogyny and sexism, leading to, in its extremes, the horrific rants of Eliot Rodger and the aftermath of shooting rampage. It is the reason why women, all over the world, responded with the social media outcry: #YesAllWomen, and why moderate men still have not joined in support and denounced the actions of the misogynists in their midsts.

It is the reason that not three hours after the UCSB rampage, a California man shot at three women who refused to have sex with him.

Once we begin to see women as beings in their own right, owing nothing to men, endowed with rights and power and meaning, not only as mothers, sisters and daughters, once we see them as human beings in their own right - perhaps we will see changes in the gender confidence gap. We will see changes in treatment of women in the workplace. In politics. In positions of power. Men will stop feeling they are owed. And women will stop experiencing the diminishment of self at some point in their lives, by a man.

The importance of #YesAllWomen cannot be diminished.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Street Harassment: Women and the Dangers of Public Spaces

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? If we are dealt a set of experiences and characteristics shaped by our formative childhood years, are our adult choices not a series of actions pre-determined by those characteristics or influenced by them in some way?

The problems arise when actions affects other people - and societal norms demand laws and social conduct that respects and protects the safety, both physical and mental, of each of its citizens. So although we may have impulses, desires and thoughts that would lead us to act in aggressive manners, for the social cohesion and growth, we cannot allow those actions to run amuck.

Except, it seems, when it comes to violence against women. Half of Canadian women will report being physically or sexually abused after the age of 16. On average, every six days a woman is murdered by her partner. Yearly, 40 000 arrests are made due to domestic violence, about 12% of all violent crime - but since only 22% of incidents are reported - the cases of abuse are much higher. These atrocities are publicized and not to be taken lightly. But abuse begins much earlier, much more acceptably, much more prevalently, right outside our front door.

For women (and members of the LGBTQ community), stepping outside sometimes feels like walking into a soft war zone, an incessant battlefield.
Welcome to street harassment.

Take last week. The sun has now been shining in still freezing Toronto for all of two days, and already:

"Hey sweetheart, how you doing? You're looking good today."
"Hey girl, you look good. Come on, give me a smile."
And then:
"You don't want to say hi? Fine, keep walking bitch."

To those among you that don't believe me, turn to the woman on your left and ask her. Turn to the woman on your right, and ask her. Still, in your privilege, you will feel that we are lying. That it can't possibly be at every turn, every step of the way, that it can't possibly be that bad. 

That maybe, we should be flattered. 

There are plenty of definitions of street harassment widely available on the net. My preferred is from Micaela di Leonardo, author of 'Political Economy of Street Harassment' (1981):

“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women… in a public place which is not the women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures, the man asserts his right to intrude on the women’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.”

I hear someone now: "Well, what were you wearing?"

We must move beyond my clothes. We must move beyond the blame being placed on me. We must move beyond believing this his harmless 'flirting'. To even ask this question is a remarkable example of male privilege and expectations on how women should dress and act. And if your so-called flirting scares people, then that is the problem, not the other person.

I was wearing my long canada goose coat, jeans, winter boots, thick scarf, big sunglasses. Women all bundled up or women wearing shorts and a t-shirt all experience harassment. And these 'innocent and harmless' interactions quickly devolve into more dangerous behaviour - as many of the links and examples below will demonstrate.

This fantastic site has research done from Istanbul, Poland, Boston, Canada, the UK, New York and India where extensive surveys of young girls through to older women demonstrate that street harassment occurs to every class, shape, age and look of women. I hope this puts to rest the (very male) notion that 'only pretty women' get harassed (therefore its really not his fault; she was so pretty).

The New York Times recently conducted a survey in which women - all respondents, all 200 of them - said that they had been harassed too many times to count and that it was consistently "brushed off, like a fact of life." Since the survey went out in the beginning of April 2014, 200 more women have come forward to voice their experiences, and this website has many statistics on the high percentage of women experiencing harassment. It was quite clear:

"The stories had a common theme: a sense that street harassment is not considered a legitimate safety concern. Readers told stories of harassment in all neighborhoods and of all kinds, including frequent catcalling — unprompted passing comments like “Hey, beautiful” or “Hi, sexy” — but also of being followed, stalked and groped in public places."

I've written before on the extreme negative impact this has on women. The access to public spaces is predominantly a male privilege. Street harassment further entrenches the reality that women are not welcome in public spaces and the consequences are clear: women fear going into public spaces and therefore cannot participate actively in what public spaces provide: participation in a political forum and access to economic activity.

For these reasons, the United Nations has made street harassment a human rights issue, has included it in the 2013 UN Commission on Women and has launched a global defence program called the Safe Cities initiative that has expanded from five pilot cities, including Cairo, Quito in Ecuador and New Delhi and has since expanded to 20 more cities. The project had created community collectives that work with authorities, provided trainings and workshops, and worked on developing and implementing new policies for urban areas and public spaces to be safer for women and girls.

The unrelenting nature of street harassment causes women to do many of the following: constantly being on guard and aware of their surroundings, crossing the street when men are coming in the opposite direction, wearing more clothing than they'd like, avoiding eye contact, being out alone or being out at night, pretending to talk on a cellphone to avoid interactions. I've done all these things, and more: always restricting actions or movements and being aware of your body due to the harm, the stares, the words that may come to or at it.

Women and girls must be allowed to safely enter into public spaces without fear to do the most mundane of things, but street harassment impacts a woman's entire life: where she goes when she leaves the house, her routes to work or to the gym, whether she participates in outdoor events, protests, marches. Whether she feels comfortable, whether she feels normal and like she is a part of her social surroundings.

More insidiously, street harassment is a constant attack on a woman's body, defining her first and foremost as a sexual object available for male amusement and dissection. It affects confidence and self-worth, as unwanted critiques are lobbed on women on a daily basis. It causes discomfort and fear that results in an anxiety that can have competing outcomes: from women who withdraw out of fear, to those who attempt to take back control over their space and bodies and may, in this way, be seen as aggressive or 'asking for' violent repercussions.

In August 2012, 11 women kept track of their experiences for 2 weeks in New York city. Their stories are troubling and point to the helpless rage that comes after all the feminist theories and analysis. The constant nature of these gestures, these words, these looks, this abuse makes women feel vulnerable. Disrespected. Devalued. Not only do men not seem to notice, they think we're exaggerating, and they just don't care.*

And for those of you who still think, its just a few words, let me give you numerous examples of how quickly those words devolve. In fact, let's not link them. The ever impressive and implacable Soraya Chemaly recently asked: "Is a man running over a 14 year old girl for refusing him sex serious enough?" Let's put them in bold typeface right here:

  • In San Francisco last year, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she didn't respond positively to his sexually harassing her on the street.

  • In Bradenton, Fla., a man shot a high school senior to death after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex at his request. I

  • In Chicago, a scared 15-year-old was hit by a car and died after she tried escaping from harassers on a bus.

  • Again, in Chicago, a man grabbed a 19-year-old walking on a public thoroughfare, pulled her onto a gangway and assaulted her.

  • In Savannah, Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her.  She ignored them, but they pushed her to the ground and sexually assaulted her

  • In Manhattan, a 29-year-old pregnant woman was killed when men catcalling from a van drove onto the sidewalk and hit her and her friend.

  • Last week, a runner in California -- a woman -- was stopped and asked, by a strange man in a car, if she wanted a ride. When she declined he ran her over twice.

This must be, I imagine, the way the first decriers of domestic violence felt, back when the home was still locked in the private sphere and police and neighbours turned a blind eye. Not our business. Not really happening. Nothing we can do. That's just the way it is.

Of course this is not true, and what a failure to ourselves and humanity would it be if we simply shrugged our shoulders and let the the abuse continue. There's a great poem on this by Martin Niemoller entitled 'First They Came...' about turning a blind eye to abuse until it happens to you... I'm applauding the growing number of male allies and organizations aimed at educating young men about pride, ego and confidence, and promoting truth, friendship, collaboration and support among men and women. No gendered problem is ever resolved through a one sided approach. We need you to come on board.

You can practise restraint. You can see women not as sexual objects but as persons just wanting to go about their day. You can tell your friend to stop thinking its cool to catcall to women, or make vulgar remarks on their bodies. You can call out bad behaviour. And if you do want to approach someone, sign up to a dating site. And if you absolutely can't help yourself (no seriously, help yourself), approach with only nice, polite things to say and with the full knowledge that you will probably be refused. And if you are, thank her and walk away. She is not destroying your ego just as you are not destroying her self worth. A little more kindness is good for all of us.

The pictures throughout this post are from the brilliant Stop Telling Women to Smile street campaign, and you can buy the tshirt here. The artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, has a write up in the New York Times along with more academic and legal research weighing in on the negative effects of street harassment.

Here's to an easier commute, wherever you might be going.

*Sometimes, researching these issues makes me feel the way many of the women who wrote in about their experiences feel too: Exhausted. Disappointed. Helpless. Angry. Its a difficult thing to experience on such a daily basis, then to read through, over and over again, reliving every point... and then to be told that it just can't be that bad. If women's issues are men's issues too, the very starting point is to validate each other's concerns and to respect and believe the truth behind every person's experience - especially ones as widespread and devastating as these.
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