Monthly Archives: April 2015

Policy as Prevention?: The Political Science Student Association Anti-Sexual Harassment Proposal

Trigger warning: This article discusses victim blaming, rape culture, misogyny, and sexual violence.

From highly publicized events such as the Dalhousie dentistry scandal, to the wave of unsolved assaults at UBC in the fall of 2013, to Emma Sulkowicz’ anti-rape mattress carrying activism, discussions surrounding rape culture, gender-based violence, and sexism on campuses across Turtle Island reveal how students are mobilizing to combat an atmosphere of simmering anxiety and fear. Spearheaded by outgoing VP Academic Sydney Snape, the UBC Political Science Student Association (PSSA) is using their influence as an elected student body to address issues of gender-based violence and sexism within the Political Science department. The PSSA is working with faculty on a proposal to implement an anti-sexual harassment policy within the department. While a lack of outright institutional commitment to change signals a tacit approval of the assumption that gendered violence is inevitable, students and community members are leading protests, direct actions, and consciousness-raising efforts to broaden the conversation about what consent is and what constitutes harassment.

While UBC does have equity policies regarding discrimination, there is no university-wide policy that explicitly deals with issues of sexual harassment or consent. The PSSA’s proposal is a collaborative effort to address UBC’s lack of pragmatic improvements. Snape says that the more she talked to her fellow students – who she is quick to say are a particularly conscious and critical group – the more it became apparent that there was a serious gap in the system; while many students expressed concern that issues of gender based harassment and discrimination were not being recognized or prioritized, a lack of clarity and consensus left many feeling ill-equipped to broach the matter. In order to foster a common base of understanding on issues of consent, sexism, and harassment, Snape’s proposal addresses a wide variety of student backgrounds.

The proposal consists of a variety of initiatives: changes to course syllabi, increased awareness of pre-existing resources, and voluntary workshop attendance. Overall, the PSSA aims to be an educational tool, with the recognition that many students are well intentioned but unaware of the resources that already exist. They hope that their proposal will result in a statement of unacceptable behavior and department policy being included on the front of every course syllabus. Syllabi would also include links to campus resources, such as the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) and Access and Diversity, in what newly elected PSSA President Parmida Esmaeilpour calls an effort to familiarize, normalize, and destigmatize access to support. They also want to increase the availability of printed pamphlets and posters by having them in the department office. Additionally, the proposal includes workshops that cover department power dynamics, consent, and rape myths. While voluntary, the hope is that a community of accountability is created where students and faculty want to participate in these events to address gaps in their knowledge. Essentially, the proposal is about crafting a direct policy and funneling increased access to pre-existing campus resources. Snape commented that “the more awareness around it and the more media attention around it, the more people start to see it as an issue, because it’s in their everyday lives. People don’t see it as an issue unless they’re confronted with it themselves.”

Acknowledging that there are limitations to the proposal, Snape affirmed that the central purpose of this initiative is to start a dialogue. The PSSA hopes their example will prompt other faculties and departments in the university to look inward and see how they may go about implementing similar policies to address sexual harassment and sexism. Snape says that it’s important to keep in mind that “it’s not a department issue; it’s a university culture issue”.

The tone of the proposal is not accusatory in design, but one rooted in a proactive and preventative accountability. Esmaelipour attributes the positive reactions to the proposal thus far to a receptive and responsive department. While one may argue that a proposal of this nature is neither radical nor swift enough change, Snape and Esmaelipour maintain that strategizing to go through institutional avenues where their voices will be most effectively heard is but one method to address sexual harassment on campus. They envision that by getting a foothold in the bureaucratic process, they are opening doors for future students to openly critique the university. When asked if their efforts will attempt to tackle more insidious forms of sexism, such as the unchecked male dominance of many curricula in their department, they were optimistic that any contradictions between official policy and disingenuous actions will check themselves over time. They felt that students would notice a lack of compliance to policy and would work to keep their peers and instructors accountable. At the end of the day, Snape remarks “we don’t want to talk down to you, we don’t want to talk at you, we want to talk with you… so starting that conversation and bringing that awareness to it is all beneficial.”

These types of conversations are by no means new to the political science department. Unbeknownst to most current undergrads, the department was rocked by massive allegations of discrimination in the mid-90s, in what is now referred to as the “Political Science Affair.” In 1995, a group of graduate students made allegations of rampant racism and sexism in the department. The subsequent maelstrom of events divided the department, made national headlines, and culminated in a costly legal report that was later dismissed. While the Political Science Affair wasn’t the inspiration for the PSSA’s current proposal, it gives important context to the pervasive issues and recurring conversations of sexism on campus as well of questions of institutional accountability. Professor Krause recently wrote an article for the Talon that delved further into UBC’s history of silencing and erasing instances of sexual assault.


Snape feels that the Political Science Affair would have been handled differently today, but concedes that “in twenty years we’ve come so far and yet we haven’t got anywhere. Taking it into perspective, what we can do now is address issues that were a concern back then and are still a concern now.” Snape and the PSSA are fully aware of the necessity of looking inward to enact positive steps to address where the university is lacking. Snape reflects that UBC can feel like a bubble at times. “When you’re not self critiquing and looking at your own backyard and your own self, then that becomes a problem.”

This initiative speaks to broader anxieties about how to mobilize student voices, demand institutional accountability, and create a safer campus. Snape says that some of the challenges they have faced have been more indirect instances of people not knowing about the severity of gender-based violence at UBC, or having no interest in being fully informed. That ignorance is in itself a political choice is very apparent when it comes to issues where neutrality and passivity perpetuate social dynamics that allow sexism and gendered violence to continue. It is an immense challenge to see patience as a virtue or give people the benefit of the doubt when one encounters the suffocating results of sexism, sexual harassment, and rape culture on a daily basis.

It is difficult to know how policies like those proposed by the PSSA will look in practice. Having resources available does not necessitate change, yet it does provide a gateway to acknowledge that these issues actually exist. Gendered violence does not take place in a vacuum and must be put into discussion with the trajectory of violent colonization and the fact that UBC is on unceded Musqueam territory. It is vital to address how the intersections of racialization and colonial dispossession contribute to the increased marginalization of some students. Additionally, the simultaneous erasure and hyper-visibility of queer and trans folk must be understood in order to address whose bodies are subject to heightened levels of violence. Perhaps instances of sexual assault and harassment can be mitigated if people understand what harassment entails and seek to unpack what it means to live in a rape culture. The throws of neoliberalism means it is difficult to ascertain when a powerful institution is protecting itself or seriously trying to champion the safety and concerns of its students. The lack of specific university-wide policy on sexual assault and harassment contributes to an incessant apologism, that when left unchecked contributes to the myth that gender-based violence is inevitable and inescapable. The PSSA’s initiative and the myriad of other instances of student resistance to rape culture showcase the ability of students to stand up to unacceptable attitudes and mobilize to enact change. One thing is certain: Snape is sincere in her hard work to create accountability and compassion within the student body. The challenges of grappling with oft unwieldy institutional bureaucracy has been an exhausting process, yet Snape remains optimistic, committed to the process, and willing to prioritize her proposal with the knowledge it that it is an indispensable, and enduring contribution to campus life.

Social Justice Synonyms #22: “Gypped/Gypsy”

“We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started, but we got gyped [sic] out of it all in two days.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Welcome to the 22nd segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column featured at The Talon that discusses harmful and oppressive language and what we can do to avoid using it.

This week’s words are “Gypped” and “Gypsy.” The first is a word used to describe being the victim of scam or fraud; the second is a derogatory moniker frequently used to describe the Romani people.

Like the revolting term “Jewed,” to be “Gypped” is be to cheated or scammed. Unlike the term “Jewed,” however, “Gypped” has become such an internalized part of our lexicon that it is usually uttered without ill-intent or sensitivity for its etymology. A friend of mine once remarked that, having never seen the word appear in print, its relation to the word “Gypsy” had never occurred to him. Bestselling author Carol Higgins Clark cannot employ the same excuse.

Because the word “Gypped” has been distanced from its history and its parent word “Gypsy” is so normalized, its use remains ubiquitous. I hear it in casual conversation with alarming frequency. To be sure, the derogatory nature of the word “Gypped” is not a case of insisting upon an etymological connection that doesn’t exist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is “perhaps short for GIPSY n.” The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (in less speculative language) notes that “Gypped” is “probably derived from the colloquial shortening of Gypsy.” We should assume that the word errs on the side of racist, not least because etymological tracing seems to suggest this, but also because the term is used to describe being the victim of behaviour continually attributed to the Romanies in racist stereotypes.

Even worse than the verb “Gypped,” however, is “Gypsy,” and not just because this is the word from which “Gypped” is probably derived. The word “Gypsy” is the misnomer that subsumes all harmful stereotypes of the Romani people, one that has long connoted illegality and irregularity. What’s more, the term is an exonym – imposed by outside groups.

The Romani people migrated west from India approximately 1,000 years ago in response to the rise of Islam, settling in cities throughout Europe and, eventually, North and South America. Many Europeans mistakenly believed that the Romani had migrated from Egypt, and so called them “Gypsies,”an abbreviation of “Egyptians.” To refer to the Romani people as “Gypsies” is both false and to invoke a term imbued with hostility and ignorance (white Europeans believed that the Romani constituted part of the “Islamic threat”). Further, the term “Gypsy” is often spelled with both a capital and lower case ‘g.’ As linguist and UN Ambassador Ian Hancock notes, “This is especially significant in English, which writes proper nouns with capital initial letters, and writing ‘Gypsy’ as ‘gypsy’ has only reinforced the common idea that we are a people defined by our behaviour rather than by ethnicity.” 1

Being a “Gypsy” is to belong to a group defined by xenophobic myths that have persisted for centuries. Being a “Gypsy” in Romania, where discrimination against the Romani is widespread and extreme, harbours one of the worst social stigmas in Europe. Zsolt Bayer, a journalist and founding member of Hungary’s Fidesz Party (by far and away the most popular political party in the country), had the following to say about the Romani people:

A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to  live among people. These Roma  are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the ‘achievements’ of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved – immediately and regardless of the method.

Bayer is likely well aware that over 70% of Nazi-occupied Europe’s Romani were exterminated. And like many bigoted European elites, Bayer invokes “Gypsy” as a slur.

The common tropes that characterize the Gypsy are well-known: vibrantly-dressed, musical, barefooted, nomadic, and, often, cunning and wily. These literary concoctions are deeply-embedded in the popular cultures of both Europe and North America. The category of the “Gypsy” substitutes an understanding of Romani culture and history with romantic myths that have  long-served as the basis for socioeconomic discrimination and a politics of othering. The Romani have never been permitted to speak for themselves. That a “name” assigned to them out of fear and ignorance over 1,000 years ago continues to see popular colloquial use is proof of this deplorable fact.

Like “playing Indian,” “playing Gypsy” (most commonly manifesting as donning “boho-esque” clothing while resolving to be free-spirited for the summer) is an essentializing and harmful caricature that reproduces negative stereotypes of Romanies as chronically itinerant, forever on the move – a representation that effaces the historical cause for this movement. It is not an inborn wanderlust but forced expulsion and violent discrimination that have been responsible for Romani migration. Similarly, the Gypsy variant of  boho-chic fashion portrays the Romani as lighthearted and aloof, unconcerned with contributing to society. These ostensibly “positive” stereotypes have been weaponized for centuries to relegate the Romani to the margins of European society.

Perceived as abject others and squatting outcasts, the Romani people, who make up Europe’s largest ethnic minority, have and continue to be the victims of severe marginalization. In a survey of 11 EU member states, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights found that 1 in 3 Romani were unemployed and 90% lived below the poverty line. In 2014, the Government of France evicted over 13,000 Romanies from 138 locations – approximately 3 settlements per week.

Using the words “Gypsy,” “Gypped,” and “Gyp” normalizes a racist discourse that has continued apace for centuries. These terms are harmful signifiers that deny the Romani the right to self-identify and to have these identities recognized. They perpetuate false and stigmatizing narratives of Romani culture that have formed the basis for dehumanizing and exclusionary practices for more than a millennium.

Use/Context Alternatives
“Gypsy,” “Gypsies,” “Romani,” “Romanies” –  “Roma” is occasionally used
“Gypped” “Scammed,” “Defrauded,” “Cheated,” etc.
“Gypsy boho” and other derivatives of “playing Gypsy” Just don’t.

Remembering the Purple Thistle


I’m chatting with Aliza Bosa in the Purple Thistle Centre. The 2,500-square foot arts and activism space in East Vancouver feels remarkably spacious with only the two of us here, but signs of the centre’s visitors and their creative endeavors linger all around us—things like screen printing tools, paints, books, computers, a bike-repair station, and a large collection of sewing supplies that includes two mannequins, all jumbled together in the pleasant clutter of productivity. As a Thistle collective member, Aliza is one of the youth responsible for running the centre. There are directors to handle the grant writing, fundraising and paperwork that pay for rent and art supplies while keeping everything completely free for visitors. But the real decisions about what projects the centre focuses on and how they’re organized are up to the collective members.

That’s how it’s worked for the past fourteen years, anyway. Now the centre is in the process of closing, after the government funding that the center had relied on was discontinued and alternate sources of funding failed to materialize.

Though I hadn’t visited the Thistle in years and was never a frequent visitor, I’d attended several free workshops and events in the Thistle and had my own fond memories of the space. From the outside, the centre blends into the industrial buildings that surround the area near Clark and Venables, as though it’s just another warehouse. It’s only inside that the Thistle’s cozy studio interior reveals itself. I’d taken for granted that it would always be there for me if I needed it. The news that it would be shutting down came as a shock, and I wanted to catch up on recent happenings at the Thistle and learn what comes next.

I get the sense that it’s still a difficult topic for many of the community members who were involved; the first collective member I approached for an interview declined the request, saying that they were still processing their feelings about it. Aliza said that hearing the news for the first time at the weekly collective meeting was very hard; she’d assumed, like me, that the Thistle would be here forever.

Aliza’s first visit to the centre was around five years ago, when a friend invited her to a sewing workshop and clothing swap event. She recalls arriving to find a group of ten people sitting and mending clothes or sewing patches in a circle. Separate areas were set up for the clothing swap and snacks; though she didn’t end up doing any sewing, she did hang out and chat with a bunch of people.

Aliza describes herself as being ecstatic with her early experiences in the space. “I couldn’t even comprehend the existence of a space like the Thistle. A place that youth could access where everything is free sounds pretty unbelievable at first.”

Her excitement only increased when she realized she could join the collective and hang out in the place. “It became a kind of home,” Aliza explains. “I started getting involved, started going to the collective meetings. I was living in Fort Langley still, so it was really hard to bus out here every Monday night. I did it anyway because it was so much fun.”

For the past few years, she’s been busiest in the time leading up the annual East Side Culture Crawl in November—a four-day visual arts festival in November where artist studios, including the Thistle, are opened to the public. The festival attracts an audience of over twenty thousand, and preparing for it is always a big deal. In past years she remembers coming in to do art all night—sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend—and sitting on the couch as the sun rose, exhausted from lack of sleep but feeling great about the night’s artistic productivity.

The volume of Aliza’s painting often made it difficult to find places to let the art dry where there wasn’t a risk of someone else putting something on top of it. That’s happened quite a lot, messing up the intended look for a piece and coating the unfortunate object with glitter, sparkles, and colour. ”I always find a place to put it, but it’s hard,” she says. “You have to be really, really creative.”

Looking around us at the clutter, it’s easy to see the difficulty.

“Hang it from the ceiling?” I suggest, glancing at the exposed rafters.

“You could,” Aliza says; clearly, she’s already thought of this. “But then things would drip.”

As great as the Thistle is as a place to make art in, I sense it’s the community it creates that really makes it unique. Aliza remembers laughing with friends at the collective meetings, enjoying the food at various potlucks and parties held over the years, and attending the monthly cabarets featuring performances by community members that were organized at one point. “I have so many good memories of watching the performances there,” she says.

Perhaps part of the reason for the success of the Thistle’s community was the agency given to the youth there, the fact that everyone was in it together and everyone had an equal say—because even though everyone was working on their own projects, everyone was working together, too. Aliza is quick to emphasize this agency in helping people realize their dreams. At the weekly collective meetings, which ran on a consensus model, members would talk about the ideas and projects they were passionate about—what they wanted to do as collective members—and everyone would do their best to bring those ideas to life. If someone wanted to host a workshop or event, the collective helped make that happen however they could: providing the space, promoting it, buying the necessary supplies with collective money.

That’s what Aliza did with the free All Night Tie Dye workshop she put on last year. She tells me she’d been interested in tie-dye since she got the chance to try it at a summer camp in 2011, and she decided she wanted to do it again. So she did. “Those events were really cool, because I got to facilitate them, and I got to do it all on my own,” she explains. “I went and bought the supplies with support from the collective, and then I invited a ton of people, made the poster.”

“So you actually did it all night?” I ask, wanting to be sure I understood.

“Yeah, actually.”

Aliza explains that she’d been thinking of how cool it was to have a space that’s accessible any time—something that made the Thistle unique. She wanted to take advantage of that, so she decided to hold it literally all night—from 6pm to 6am. “I was super excited and nervous,” Aliza says, describing her feelings leading up to the workshop. “I had no idea how many people would show up.”

In the end there was a turnout of over thirty people. Aliza describes a crowded, festive atmosphere. Young kids ran around with dyed hands, since one participant brought along their siblings and cousins, and many guests brought snacks to share while making art. Some brought pajamas or pillows.

“Then it started snowing,” Aliza remembers with a smile.  She and the rest of the participants stayed up doing art and tie-dye all night, pushing away the sleep. By six o’clock it was snowing outside, which made leaving difficult for those who had to travel. Many of the guests were happy about Canada winning a medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics; Aliza just wanted to go home and sleep. “But it was so much fun,” she adds.

Fun enough, apparently, for her to host two additional Tie Dye workshops in the space later that year.

It’s hard to estimate the number of young artists who have used the space for their own projects since it opened its doors fourteen years ago, but Aliza estimates the number must be in the hundreds. She’s always surprised by how many acquaintances have been involved at one point or another, even if temporarily, and the presence of past artists lingers even after they move on, in art left behind or in the hundreds of messages and doodles scrawled on the walls. On one occasion, Aliza stumbled onto a friend’s four-year-old art piece with their name on the back, a bit of the past stretching phantomlike into the present. One line scrawled on the wall in sharpie reads, simply, “I left my mark.”

Aliza isn’t sure what’s next for her art without the physical location. “I would really love to have a space to create art,” she says. “That would mean the world to me. But I guess I’m just going to have to use what I’ve got.” Finding housing in Vancouver that’s suitable for messy art making can be a real challenge, but she already has ideas about getting around that, like making a table and painting outside when it’s sunny.

Despite losing the studio space, though, Aliza seems uncomfortable with giving this story a tragic narrative. Instead, she talks about the collective’s decision to focus on the friendships, community, and projects that will continue to grow beyond the physical space. Plus, other cool things are continuing to happen in the city: Aliza points to the Surrey Youth Space, a similar project being organized by several people involved with the Thistle, as one exciting example. And the Windsor House School is moving into the Thistle’s old location, meaning that it will still be used for youth art-related projects, even if it isn’t the same.

“I think it’s really exciting to have been involved with such an amazing project, and I’m really grateful,” Aliza says. “I’ve made so many friends. I built connections. I still have those connections. That’s how I build my own community.”

Aliza begins to work on a multimedia art piece that uses dyes after our conversation comes to an end, using the Thistle’s resources to the very end. It’s a beautifully blended rainbow canvas, and she’s in the process of pouring globs of glue onto the brilliant colours; Aliza assures me that the bright white of it will dry clear, adding texture to the piece. I have a hard time imagining it, but if the completed pieces of hers leaning against the walls are any indication, she knows what she’s doing.

As she works, I walk around for the last look at the space and to say my own goodbyes. I linger over the screen-printing supplies that I’d once used in a workshop I’d attended, the sewing machines and piles of cloth that I’d never used but would have liked to. I think about the freeing, participant-focused approach that made all this possible. It feels empty with just the two of us here, but I’m reminded that it will soon be emptier still, and I can only hope that Aliza is right about the spirit of the Thistle outliving its physical presence.

IMG_0110 IMG_0049  IMG_0033-2IMG_0040

The Problem with Social Work

My name is Morgan Yee, a name that is representative of both my Chinese and Caucasian ancestry. I am in my last term of my Bachelors of Social Work at UBC, and am specializing in child welfare. I grew up in the small, primarily First Nations community of Hazelton, British Columbia, on the traditional lands of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations. Hazelton is a collection of three townships and seven reserves, and was an amazing place to grow up. First Nations culture was a huge part of my childhood, and revitalization efforts are ongoing; we had Cultural Awareness classes all through elementary school, which explored Gitxsan worldviews, practices, and language skills. The strength and pride associated with being First Nations was and is emphasized throughout the community, and I am so grateful I was raised in that environment. However, life in Hazelton is also challenging for a lot of people – high levels of poverty and addiction are very serious concerns throughout the region. I think that I understand the issues facing these communities very well – from the outside. My lived experiences have been very much shaped by my position as a “middle-class,” Chinese-Caucasian woman; my life has not been directly impacted by either poverty or addiction.

I come from a family of social workers – my mother was, and my father still is, a child protection worker in Hazelton. I grew up really respecting social work as a profession, and I still do – I don’t think I could be in this line of work if I didn’t – but as I learned more over the years about the colonial roots of social work, I have had to think more and more about how I want to practice. The system currently in place still favours white conceptions of family values, familial roles, community, and success; most social workers are white women.

Social work1 has a long history in Canada. Western child welfare practices have traditionally been used as a colonial tool to control Aboriginal peoples, beginning with the institution of mandatory residential school attendance for all children under the age of 16 in 1884. For more than 100 years, government, church and social work officials were involved in removing children from their homes to place them in residential schools. The last residential school closed it’s doors in 1996, which is frighteningly recent. Although residential schools had become less common by 1969 (due in part to their clear ineffectiveness at assimilating Aboriginal children into White Canadian society, as well as protests from Aboriginal communities) Aboriginal children and youth continued to be removed from their homes in vast numbers during a period known as the 60’s Scoop. During this period, social workers are estimated to have removed 11,000 status Indian children from their communities to be placed for adoption in mostly non-Aboriginal homes between 1960 and 1990. It should be noted that this statistic does not account for non-status Aboriginal children, so this number is certainly much higher. Aboriginal children still remain disproportionately represented within mainstream child welfare systems.

It’s hugely important to understand the relational context between social workers and Aboriginal communities; there is an enormous amount of mistrust between the two parties, making child welfare a difficult field to manoeuvre. This is probably one of the hardest aspects of social work for me to reconcile.

I’m almost finished my last practicum of my last term of my Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), at their Aboriginal Family and Child Services office, and even there most of the workers are non-Aboriginal. It’s a huge challenge facing social workers, trying to avoid falling into the same combative, paternalistic role we’ve traditionally had in Canada.

At my office, this effort is perhaps more conspicuous – Aboriginal art work hangs on the walls, Elders have permanent positions on staff to provide cultural support and conduct smudges, and we have a special department which focuses on connecting children and youth with their traditional Nations and family members.

All this goes a long way in helping people to feel more at ease when working with the Ministry and being physically in the office, but there’s so much more to social work than putting people at ease; to me at least, the overarching goal is to assist people in feeling that they are the agents of change in their lives. Strengths-based approaches to social work take this into consideration, focusing on the gifts that each individual brings to a situation, and exploring ways that they can use and build on their skills to reach their goals. This is a really broad explanation of a strengths approach, but I keep the definition broad because there is no single correct way to apply it. I am still developing my own understanding of how I can apply this approach in an Aboriginal context. During this period where self-government, land title, and Aboriginal rights are key political issues, it is particularly pertinent for social workers to consider the ways that they may inherently be contributing to the negative role child protection has played in Canada’s history for so long.

In an ideal world a social worker would have a caseload of around 20 cases (rather than upwards of 60 in some regions). You would always have time to see the people you’re working with, complete the paperwork within the allotted timelines, and consult to your heart’s content. Social workers would all be up on the latest evidence-based practice. But even an ideal social work world might not equal boom-wow-everything-is-great. How much is it going to matter that I complete a file review on time, if the case family is still dealing with problems like abuse, addiction and health issues? Likewise, it doesn’t do much good for there to be smaller caseloads, but a shortage of spaces in resources. A lot of kids miss out on opportunities for funding because of system backlogs at basically every agency.

To see ground-breaking, meaningful change, the whole social welfare system needs to improve. It doesn’t work like it’s intended to (and some would argue that even at it’s best, the system is broken) .The sense that I have gotten from my experience with the Ministry so far is that you need to get used to feeling perpetually behind, like you’re only doing a so-so job. The turnover rate is high for social workers – over 10% of full time child protection workers leave their positions each year. Vicarious trauma is a very real concern, and burnout often occurs within just a couple years of being in the field. For example, there is very little support for social workers in rural communities who are struggling to deal with caseload issues, social isolation, and the emotional toll of their work. Most social workers across the province are expected to find their own support networks outside of the Ministry.

This is a really grim picture of social work, I know. It’s not all terrible – relationship-building can be really fulfilling for all parties involved, and I’ve really enjoyed learning how to create professional relationships with people who realistically would rather you were never ever in their lives. It’s a bizarre way to interact, for sure, with the implicit understanding that once we no longer have to knock on their door, they’ve “made it.” Working with people to problem-solve is unbelievably inspiring, and even when it fucks up it’s like, “Well, that didn’t work, I guess we’ll try again.” Not everyone is resilient, but a lot of people are, and it’s one of the most rewarding things to see. Because in most of the cases a social worker will have, there won’t be a huge life-change during the time they’re receiving services. I think that as a social worker, you need to be hopeful that people can help themselves, that they can change, and that they won’t fall apart willy-nilly at the drop of a dime.

If I sound very pragmatic, I am. Social work requires you to be realistic, tough-skinned, and efficient. It also requires you to be optimistic, positive, empathetic. It’s a lot to try to leave at work, a big messy slough of emotions that are contradictory-but-not. Will I be able to do this work, when I have a caseload of 40 or 50 and I’m tired and want to tell everyone to just stop having crises? I think I can, or else I sure as heck would not have put up with some of the courses I had to take, but I won’t really find out until I’m in the field.

Social Justice Synonyms #21: “Prostitute”

On Sunday March 29th #facesofprostitution went viral.

The hashtag was a response from queer Australian sex worker Tilly Lawless to an article posted on the website Exodus Cry entitled “The Reality of Pretty Woman.” The article argued that Pretty Woman, the 1990 movie in which Julia Roberts plays a sex worker, romanticizes the realities of life in the sex work industry. The author writes, “Julia Roberts’ teethy smile is not the true face of prostitution.” To combat the representation of all sex workers as victims, sex workers from around the world proudly shared pictures of themselves with the hashtag ‘faces of prostitution.’ The deluge of photos shared on social media humanized the often technical, distant and derogatory term “prostitute.” Despite the fact that the term prostitute seems somewhat innocuous, technical even, the term has historically been used and is still used today as a slur.

This discussion of the term “prostitute” could not come at a better time. Sex work1 has never officially been illegal in Canada, but last December the Conservative government passed Bill C-36, a law that criminalized the purchase of sexual services and the profiting from the sales of sexual services. Many feminist organizations have condemned this law for putting sex workers in jeopardy of even more violence, increasing unsafe working environments, and adding to the stigma associated with sex work.

Sex work in Canada (especially on the unceded, ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people – aka Vancouver) takes place within settler-colonial patriarchal systems. Or, simply put, sex work isn’t just about the work itself – we also have to consider the cultural context. This context is one that systematically disadvantages certain groups – particularly Indigenous peoples, as well as people of colour, folks living with disabilities, and poor, queer, and non-binary folks. Identities are often intersecting; many sex workers stand at multiple experiences of these oppressions. Sex work also has a historical context – women of color and Indigenous women were often drawn into sex work because their bodies were exoticized and framed as ‘available’ for white men. A study in 2005 found that over half of women working in the lowest paying lines of sex work were Indigenous. Racialized (non-white) women, and especially Indigenous women, are often the sex workers that experience the most instances of rape and violence. They are also more likely to be working in dangerous environments. This can be seen in the tragic and horrifying story of Cree sex worker Cindy Gladue in 2011, who was brutally murdered by one of her clients. On March 18th of this year, her murderer was found not guilty to both first degree murder and manslaughter.

“Prostitute” is a term that is always gendered and often racialized. This word is used to demean  sex workers by those outside the sex work industry. It is constantly used as an insult, and links closely with the word “whore” to create a negative association attached to sex work. This stigmatizes sex work further, and labels those who participate in it as deviant. Stigmatizing sex workers is not only discriminatory, but only serves to reinforce systems of power in our society. Sex workers are often marginalized by legislature, police forces, and patrons. This often leads to violence against the bodies of sex workers, and the word “prostitute” furthers their dehumanization.

The gendered nature of “prostitute” is further limiting, as many sex workers identify as male, transgender, or agender. By gendering sex work, the term “prostitution” reinforces the trope that all sex workers are women and all patrons are men. This erases the experiences of queer sex workers as well as trans or non-binary sex workers.

Instead of “prostitute,” “whore,” and “prostitution,” we can use the phrases “sex worker” and “sex work industry.” According to the United Nations Population Fund, sex work is defined as “the exchange of money or goods for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally, involving female, male, and transgender adults, young people and children”.

The choice to enter the sex work industry is complex, and furthermore it is hard to define what a true choice is when settler-colonial patriarchal systems of power are in place. It is important to recognize that some sex workers make a conscious and empowered choice to enter the industry and have very positive experiences. Others are pushed into the industry through poverty, coercion, or other systemic disadvantages. Ultimately, all of these experiences are situated in a complex matrix of race, class, and gender identity.

It’s important to remember that if a sex worker self-identifies as a prostitute, and has adopted its meaning as one of identity and affirmation for themselves, we need to respect that. For those of us who are not involved in sex work, we must listen and support those who are. Sex workers’ experiences come in a vast range – from fulfilling and empowering, to exploitative and abusive.

Use/Context Alternatives
“Did you hear about that prostitution bill?” “Did you hear about that bill on sex work?”
“She is a prostitute” “She is a sex worker”
“I’m interested in researching prostitution” “I’m interested in doing research on the sex work industry”

Special thanks to to K. Ho especially for inviting me to write this column, and to Jane Shi, Evelyn Cranston, and Alex Mierke-Zatwarnicki for guiding me through the process of writing this piece so generously.