Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hexy Takes It Beyond “The Click Moment”

Hexy is a queer, non-neurotypical, Indigenous Australian, sex working woman who blogs at Hexpletive on the various things that get her ranting, and contributes to several blog projects scattered throughout the variously themed quadrants of the blogosphere. She's currently battling the dreaded lurgy, and apologises if this means her penchant for run-on sentences has gotten the better of her.

1) Okay I have to start with the standard. It is my understanding that you identify as a feminist.  What would you say was your click moment?

I had a weird division in my mind growing up. Although I'd experienced a range of things that I could identify as "unfairly biased against girls" or, later, "sexist", I still remained one of those irritating teenage girls who are convinced that feminism is an outdated concept. I suppose I viewed these things as "leftovers" from a previous age that would gradually resolve themselves, now that the work of feminism was done and equality was somehow in place without actually being in place. Trying to get my head around it now confuses the hell out of me!

Even experiencing rape at a young age didn't lead me to correct my thinking on that one. It wasn't until I married an abusive man and experienced the "classic" domestic violence situation, complete with disbelief from outsiders and a total lack of resources or structured assistance to fall back on, that my brain finally "clicked". It was painfully, painfully obvious to me from that moment that this world we are living in is not edging towards equality of its own accord, and that feminism is still vitally needed. While I'd had fairly progressive ideas about gender roles and such from an early age thanks to my parents, it was that experience and the trauma of the following few years that made me a feminist.

2) Residing in Australia and interacting in the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that an American perspective is the default position.  Even as a Canadian, I have found that my ignorance of the daily lived experience of women in Britain or Australia colours my understanding of specific events. What steps do you think we can take as feminists to ensure that conversations are more open to considering the realities of different cultural identities?

The internet is so, so American, even more so than the teevee programs that have been lambasted as "too American" in influence since before I was born. Getting online these days does mean stepping into a world where the American perspective is the default, and that can be frustrating. Double so as an Indigenous Australian, as our voices are under-represented even within the sphere of our own nation.

I think the Brits are ahead of the Aussies in this sense, as there are just so few of us. The moment that really made the population difference sink in for me was when I realised that more people cast votes in one single episode of American Idol than live in my entire country!

All that can be done is for American feminists to expand their perspectives outside the US, and for all feminists from Western countries to expand their perspectives outside the West. We all need to stop privileging voices that are comfortable in their familiarity, which is something I think most people engaged in the blogosphere do. I've gotten the impression that Americans in particular seem to be actively encouraged to privilege American voices.

I do think language is one of the subtle factors encouraging this. For example, I've pointed out before that "Woman/Person of Colour" is a very North American term, and people are often surprised to hear it. "Sex worker/Prostituted person" is another example of very specific language divide along often ideological lines, and the non-neurotypical segment of disability blogging has some of the most diverse labelling I've encountered. One of the problems with the internet is that you can only find people if you already know how they're referring to themselves!

3) How do you apply feminism to your work in advocating for rights for sex trade workers?  I would also like to know what we can do to combat the constant slut shaming that women are subject to?

These are really two very different questions.

First and foremost, I don't see advocacy for sex workers rights as being something that one "applies" feminism to, so much as something that should be a focus of feminism itself. The vast majority of sex workers worldwide are women, and I cannot think of a single country that has completely succeeded in establishing and enforcing true sex workers rights. When that many women are being denied full human and industrial rights every single day, how can this not be a fundamental feminist issue?

It is a feminist concern that all women should have agency over their lives, that all women should be able to work and live free from violence and coercion regardless of the nature of that work. It is a feminist concern that no woman should land in jail, or be subjected to physical punishments, or have her children taken away from her, or be shamed and deprived of social status because of her sexual activity or because of what she does with her body.

As for slut shaming... gods, I wish I had an easy answer to that one! I do think a huge part of the stigma surrounding female sex workers reflects this general phobia surrounding sex and sexuality in so many cultures. I believe firmly that as long as there are "some women" who remain acceptable targets for mockery and shaming, any attempts to combat the attitudes behind sexual mockery and shaming in general will fail. Personally, I have been horrified at some of the things I've read coming from some feminists, who claim to be against woman shaming of any kind, aimed at sex workers, porn actresses, women with alternative sexualities, and so on. There can be no exceptions: either all women deserve to live shame-free, or the message we send is that none of us do.

4) Even though feminism speaks a lot about intersectionality, many women routinely find themselves ignored by what is deemed mainstream feminism.  What parts of your identity have you been asked to privilege for the “sisterhood” and what methods have you used to force others to recognize all aspects of your being?

I have certainly encountered the attitude that my racial identity should be secondary to my gender in terms of political importance, or more commonly that the oppression experienced by non-white women is "mostly" sexism. I have found that my disability is even more invisible in many discussions about sexism and gender, and the pervasive attitudes about hyper/hypo-sexualised people with disabilities are sadly prevalent amongst many able-bodied and neurotypical progressive activists. In a recent thread on one of the major feminist blogs, I noticed that people with disabilities are absolutely still one of the groups where representatives of the demographic are not considered the authorities. It still baffles me that some people can assert this as an obvious truth when it comes to some demographics, yet fail to follow through and establish this as an obvious truth for certain others.

Finally, my identity as a sex worker is something I'm often accused of "bringing in" to conversations, as though it's something that wasn't present in the discussion the moment I became involved in it. On top of that, it is frequently demanded by some feminists that I and other sex workers acknowledge the authority of women who have never been sex workers, but who claim to know more about our lives than we do. In certain circles, questioning inaccuracies in the work of these great non-sex working academics is paramount to blasphemy.

5)  What role does blogging play in your activism and ultimately what do you believe that blogging can be used for by feminism to affect change?

I was remarkably slow in coming around to the idea of blogging as activism, which is surprising considering that I've used it for so many other purposes. I've had several online journals, and I still use my livejournal as a social tool to communicate largely with people I have met IRL. I have been a contributor over the years to a variety of blogs on a vast array of topics, and even maintain a blog that functions as sex work advertising. Yet it wasn't until I set up hexpletive a few years back as a purposefully separate outlet for my political rants that I realised people were looking for, and responding to, a voice that was like mine at least in some ways. That blog was formed, incidentally, after a post about feminism on my LJ degenerated into a 300+ comment flame war, and I decided that my need to post about such things required a fresh audience if I wanted to keep my blood pressure at a healthy level.

On the simplest level, the blogosphere is a platform that allows people to get their voices out to a large international audience who would previously have had no means to reach such an audience. It allows people to express themselves and record their stories, and through links and blogrolls to emphasise other people's words that they see as relevant. Women sharing their voices and their stories, and encouraging others to read the stories of other women, is such a basic yet powerful tool in the push for equality. The more of us there are speaking, the harder it becomes to ignore us. Of course, the challenge then becomes ensuring we're listening to each other!

6) Do you find that there is a conversation that occurs between feminism, gay rights, anti racism and sex trade workers rights?  What can we do create a stronger ally base in the recognition that all of the isms are interconnected?

There's certainly a conversation, although at times it's far from civil!

To be honest, I've been stuck on this question for quite some time, to the point of completing all the other questions and coming back to stare at it some more. Much as happens in the conversations referred to in the question, I feel uncomfortable as someone who is (or should be) represented in each of those groups. I cannot objectively analyse the discourse

This confusion is what makes intersectionalism such a difficult topic for me to discuss analytically. When such topics arise and people want to know why intersectionality should matter so much, all I can really do is point wordlessly at myself. I really wish I knew how to answer the part about creating a stronger ally base, as I have trouble even explaining the concept to those who don't understand immediately that a mixed-race, queer, female sex worker doesn't experience those four forms of oppression as separate and distinct.

I do see greater dialogue occurring between advocates for GLBTQ rights and sex worker rights, most likely because of the overlap of gay males between those two demographics.

7) Many rad fems see sex trade workers as betraying women by playing to the patriarchal lens. To what degree do you assert the belief that there is at times an element of choice and what can we do to provide opportunities for those that are seeking a different form of work, or escaping from sex slavery?

Honestly, I find the "choice" argument to be a conversation stopper. Many of those who have never been a part of the sex industry seem to have a perception of that choice as being a binary: on one side you have the women with "no choice", who are victims suffering horribly horrible experiences, and on the other you have the women with "all the choice", and their experience is that of the privileged, problem-free elite. It's a false dichotomy, and it bogs down discussions of what sex workers actually want and need DONE about establishing our human and industrial rights.

Whatever degree of choice a sex worker has exerted on her current situation, there are things that will harm and things that will help her. Being arrested for prostitution, for example? Generally not helping anyone, whether they wish to continue in the sex industry or want nothing more than to get out. Lack of free sexual health resources, or resources only accessible to those who permanently and officially out themselves? Harmful to anyone in the sex industry, regardless of how they got there. And having people who are not in the sex industry and never have been pitting us against each other, or using their own privilege to attempt to define which of the various groups of women they've never been part of gets to speak? Not helpful in the slightest.

People certainly make assumptions about me and my experiences as a "sex worker who chose", and the vast majority of them are wrong. It's a tough position to be in, because I refuse to "correct" these people by spending all of my time talking about the shitty experiences I've had, only to then have my words used against me. Having to fight for my right to define my own experiences has never been something I can do without subjecting myself to blinding rage.

Looking at what can be done to help those looking to leave the sex industry, or trying to escape from a coercive situation, the first response is the big one: decriminalisation, including the decriminalisation of street based sex work. Decriminalising sex work doesn't just help those who wish to continue making their living selling sexual services. A criminal record for prostitution is a significant handicap for those wishing to leave the sex industry and establish a new life, and can make finding non-sex work employment near impossible.
Outside of that, there's little I can say in a few brief paragraphs about the issue. It's an extremely complex one, and even those who enter sex work against their and/or who would prefer to exit the industry immediately usually have a vast range of reasons for not doing so.

 8) There seems to be a big push in feminism to force people to identify in smaller sub groups.  Do you find that this causes splinters within the movement, and how can we remain cohesive while still dealing with the myriad of experiences of women?

The example of this I've observed most closely is the division between those who call themselves "radical feminists" online and those who call themselves "sex positive feminists" online. While it seems to have calmed down recently, there was for a while an insistence that everyone must select one of those two labels, or "choose a side". I found it faintly ridiculous, to be perfectly honest.

While I completely understand the need of some women to clarify with sub-labels their feminism, particularly if this is due to feeling unrepresented by feminism as a general movement, I personally feel that for feminism to be any good at all it must represent ALL women. All of those sub-labels much be represented within larger feminism, or feminism is failing. We need sex positive feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists, second- and third- wave feminists, socialist feminists, womanists... and so on. All of these groups have formed from women feeling dissatisfied with greater feminism. Feminism as a whole must respond to them by hearing their complaints and incorporating their needs.

All of that said, I quite happily admit that being a young women who accessed the internet at an early age has influenced my perspective on this. It's an incredibly natural thing for me to have encountered and researched so many variants on the theme of "feminism" as I was building my own political positions, and it's also natural for me to look at the idea of such diverse demographics of women and see ultimate co-operation and discussion as being feasible, although not easy or simple. Many woman with differing experiences, especially those for whom early exposure to such a wide range of feminist theories was not possible, may disagree.

9) How would you say you practice your feminism in your daily lived experience?

It's hard to say where I don't. I feel that being vocally out about areas of hidden oppression is an activist action that forces people to confront their preconceptions, and I am visibly and vocally out about many of the areas in which I experience discrimination: I'm out (online and IRL) about my sexuality, my experiences as a rape and domestic violence survivor, my job, my feminism, and my disability. I consider the ticks in the "doing OK on that front" boxes to be the times other people who have experienced such things feel safe approaching me and talking to me about their experiences.

The organised activism I've been involved in (working for a sex workers rights organisation, helping to run a struggling local queer space, etc) often feels secondary to the simple acts of living my life openly, proudly and without bowing to shame.

There are also little areas where I contribute to my own activist momentum, something I consider important even if it achieves little outside the sphere of Me. While I'm sure the feminist angle would be disagreed with by many, little things like engaging in sex work as a plus size mixed race woman give me a buzz inside. In a world so rabidly anti-fat and anti-diversity in appearance, it feels good to be paid to be sexy when I don't fit the boxes of the "typical" thin and blonde 2009 sex symbol. It may not be moving feminism forward in great leaps and bounds, but it invigorates me a great deal when it comes to championing fat acceptance and HAES.

10) What do you feel are the most important things necessary for feminism to achieve in the next few years and how can we go about meeting these goals.

With that in mind, and bringing things back to an Australian perspective, I'll answer based on what I see going on around me in my country. Over the next few years, I would like to see each State follow Victoria's lead in officially legalising abortion, replacing the archaic system many States have now. I would like to see each State follow NSW's lead in decriminalising all sex work, and pushing to match the health benefits for sex workers that have come out of the NSW model. I would like to see the Rudd government impose a nation-wide paid maternity and paternity leave system which would allow parents to choose how to best look after their children without the stress of reduced income in uncertain economic times. I would like to see further work towards true Reconciliation, with the Rudd government doing more than paying lip service to the idea of Indigenous Health and Welfare, including working to address the abysmal infant mortality rate of Indigenous children and the fact that Indigenous women experience domestic violence at a rate six times the average of non-Indigenous women.

How do we achieve these goals? First and foremost, education, and a firm attempt to battle the stigma residing in the average Australian's mind. They need these concepts and causes attached to real people, living real and actual lives, rather than a vague "Other" they can easily avoid empathising with. From a larger perspective, we need to work damn hard to elect politicians who support these goals, to vocally oppose those who don't, and to lobby the ones we have to represent all Australians. How can we expect Indigenous Australians to be represented fairly in a political system where no Indigenous Australian has ever been a member of Federal Parliament?