Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Guess It Skips A Generation

by Giselle Renarde

I took my mother for a walk a few weeks ago.  She won't go on her own.

We walked through the neighbourhood where I grew up.  It's not the ritziest area.  According to the Rap Dictionary, it has "the dubious distinction of having the highest concentration of subsidized housing in all of Ontario."  Lots of gang violence--the kind that's not widely reported because, hell, it's just black people shooting each other so who really cares?

When I was growing up in the 80s, the community had its sights set on cleaning up one particularly noticeable aspect of my neighbourhood: the rampant street prostitution.

I was young back then, and my family had problems of its own, so I'm not sure street prostitution was something I really noticed.  Actually, I remember seeing many more anti-prostitution signs than actual prostitutes.

But, as I said, I was a kid.  Sometimes kids take things at face value because, if you see something every day, it seems normal.

Although, realistically, of everything that goes on in this world, I'd say prostitution is right up there with falling in love on the normalcy scale. It's always existed, and it always will.

When my mother and I were out for our recent walk, the topic of prostitution came up--kind of weird, in a family that NEVER talks about sex.  And it was my mother who brought it up, too.  We were talking about the controversial proposal of building a casino here in Toronto.  My mom was against the idea because "people get addicted to gambling, and a casino would probably attract prostitutes."

Huh.  Is that what casinos do?

Anyway, my mother's general opposition to prostitution surprised me, and not just because I believe so strongly that sex work is real work and should be widely recognized at such.  My maternal grandmother and I have talked at length about sex work and we're 100% on the same page:

We believe that sex work is a valid career choice.  It existed long before we did, and it's not going away any time soon.  We recognize that some people are forced into the trade or enter it for reasons related to poverty and systemic oppression, but we have hopes that decriminalizing prostitution would ease many of the dangers faced by sex workers by allowing them easier access to protection from the forces that now tyrannize and harrass them.  That said, the biggest shift is never a legal one.  Stigma and sin are so deeply attached to sex work that very little can be gained until those perceptions are dealth with.

My grandmother and I have spoken at length about sex work.  For her, it's a feminist issue.  She's been my feminist inspiration for as long as I can remember.  That's why it always boggled my mind that my mom, wedged between her own mother and me, held such brazenly different opinions.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised.  After all, isn't it normal for a kid to rebel against her mother's ways and beliefs?  My grandmother was (and is) an unapologetically strong woman.  I now realize my mother's got more strength than I gave her credit for when I was younger, but she's rather more on the Marge Simpson side of the scale.  And then along came me, and I rebelled again, swinging back in my grandmother's direction.

Prostitution, like pretty much everything else, is a divisive issue among feminists.  I'm starting to think there are as many feminisms as there are individuals.  But my grandmother laid a path for me, and I walk it whether I'm in my cozy neighbourhood or the rough but familiar one in which I grew up. 

I'll mention one more thing--a bit of a tangent to the conversation I had with my mother that day.  I'm not sure why, but I asked what her favourite song was.

She said, "These Boots Are Made For Walking."

"Really?"  I wondered if maybe she didn't understand the song.  I asked, "Why do you like it so much?"

She said, "It's about being a strong woman and standing on your own two feet."

Oh, mom.  I'd never have guessed.


  1. Great finale, Giselle! Funny how one's parents, whom you think you know so well, can still surprise.

    As for sex workers, well, it's clearly a hard life for most, but attitudes make it much more difficult. What's criminal is to punish the poor women (and men) who are just trying to make a living - and then let their customers get off scot free.

  2. i enjoyed reading your post, Giselle. i've seen these kind of paradoxes with my family too. a writer i know, Amber Dawn, has just written a great book about her time as a sex worker in Vancouver called "How Poetry Saved My Life." she's an advocate for sex workers. we need more of those. thanks for your post.

  3. Interesting post, Giselle. And oh yes, the forces of anti-prostitution believe that Old Testament-style punishment would be appropriate for everyone involved in the trade. We could have a whole thread here about the archaic Canadian laws against "soliciting," "living off the avails" and "keeping a common bawdy house" that were struck down in November 2010 as unconstitutional, and none too soon. As far as I know, no serious federal laws have replaced the old ones, so this would be the time to push for decriminalization of the sex trade in Canada. (I've posted here on OGG about this.) Amanda (& everyone else here), did you read Amber Dawn's fantasy novel Sub Rosa? It's brilliant.

  4. Humans are still WAY too weird about sex as opposed to, say, eating food, which is an appetite which we celebrate satisfying, by going out to pricy dinners and writing reviews about the purveyors that gave us pleasure! And drinking? Try reading a wine review sometime with a straight face..."hints of leather and tobacco" a drink? Someone soaked his shoes then put out a cigarette in it? EW!

    So yes, the sex trade is debased because we still try to pretend that we don't do it/think about it/obsess about it. Because we are "better" than that. Ri-ight. Tell that to the 3 women kept hostage by a man and his brothers for 10 years! I'll bet he thought he was better than a "john" because he wasn't paying for it...sigh.

    We will know that we, as a race, have evolved to true civilization when sex is just another appetite to be ignore/satisfied/satiated, as the personality desires.

    1. Fiona! I'm always so glad when you pop in. "Someone soaked his shoes then put out a cigarette in it..." !!

      Of course, it's not really any laughing matter. But I really appreciate your point of view as well as your mode of expression.

  5. And then there's the mayor of a town in Japan who has said recently that the enslaved Korean and Chinese women forced to be sex workers during WWII were "necessary" for the Japanese war campaign. Nothing to apologize or be punished for; just necessary tools.

    But then he said that the US troops stationed in Japan should take more advantage of the legal prostitutes available near their army bases, in order to reduce the problem of sexual assaults within the troops. He may have had a point. Maybe it's time to bring back the ancient tradition of "camp followers." Or maybe not.

  6. What contradictory vessels human beings are. We hold views that can span a 360 degree spectrum of what is right and what proves wrong. I've tended bar in North Beach, SF and in a tough place in another part of the SF Bay area where illegal prostitution was something that happened on the street every day, every night. Often the women were quite intelligent, (and of course, others not so much) but by circumstances had chosen (or not) to support themselves by the "oldest profession". Their customers were largely Latino day workers, mostly lonely, decent guys, just out for the cheapest behind-the-dumpster quickie they could afford. Others were Johns from the well-to do areas of Marin. The women were usually decent people when they first arrived on the street, and often quite attractive and catered to the former. The problems rose to epic proportions during the eighties as the crack scene unfolded with a vengeance. Soon, sixteen year-old girls would be out there, hooking and looking forty within six months. Usually, there was a pimp, either male or female taking advantage of the situation, manipulating the young women with hard drugs and fear. In a perfect world, which would facilitated greatly by legalization, I don't think this kind of scene would be as prevalent. Certainly not so easily, not so callously. I once saw a girl I knew to be underage, pregnant, standing on the corner. When I expressed my concern to a cop, he as much as said "Fuck her, the slut. We can't protect her. Let her kill herself; she'll do it anyway."

    I will say that the women who managed to keep themselves independent fared much better than the rest. They tended to stay off hard drugs and were happier with their lives.

  7. Ghaaah! I meant the 'latter' in my post rather than 'former'.

    Getting; old.

  8. Your comments are always better than my posts here. I LOVE that. :-)


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