Since starting law school in 2014, I have had a range of experiences. These experiences have opened my eyes to how advocacy, especially from your own lived realities, can impact you personally. I never really understood this until I reflected on how my experiences with law school, feminism and sex work intersect.
For instance, following my testimony against the Conservative’s amended and enacted new Criminal Code provisions following Canada (AG) v Bedford (“Bedford”), I spent coming to terms about the environment I was in. Bedford is the decision which declared three prostitutions invalid for violating sex workers’ rights to security of person (a Charter right, as per section 7). The Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) suspended the declaration and gave Parliament one year to respond. Parliament introduced Bill C-36 in June 2014.
Another sex worker who went to law school called law school “an abusive relationship.” And, you know what, that is what law school is to people who are not supposed to be in law school–Indigenous women who do not support the criminalization of prostitution and who do not align with dominant or mainstream (i.e., white) feminism views on sex work. I didn’t realize the who’s who of anti-sex work feminists taught at my law school. I spent the majority (and still do) of my law school journey avoiding classes taught by these professors because I couldn’t even fathom the discussions that take place around the prostitution/sex work debate. So much for social justice, eh? (Note: My school advertises itself as a social justice school, however, my experiences tell me otherwise).
However, the anti-sex work sentiments go deeper than just discussions in classrooms.
On my first day in first year in my first class, I was late. Admittedly. I was at a protest against Bill C-36. I had my “Stop the Arrests!” (a shirt supporting the sex workers’ rights group in Sault Ste Marie ON which formed after several street-based sex workers were arrested and outed as sex workers with their full legal name published in the media). I also came into class with postcards. The postcards were created to have others send them to their MPs, encouraging them to oppose Bill C-36. I introduced myself in class that day, with pride, as someone who supports decriminalization of sex work and opposed Bill C-36 at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. I quickly learned that professor was also an abolitionist. I regretted such disclosure and I never went to see the professor in the professor’s office hours. And those postcards? I bought more than enough for my small class (less than twenty people). Yet, they never made it back to me. I am hoping (with the goodness of my heart) that whoever took them mailed the remaining postcards or shared them with their friends. I highly doubt it.
Then, as Bill C-36 was making it way through the legislative process, I continued to write and speak out about Bill C-36. I even brought Elizabeth May’s petition with me everywhere I went on campus, encouraging others to sign the petition. I approached via email two other first year professors who identified as feminists (and who allegedly support Indigenous students), and one who had written on sex work, because I thought I could receive their support. Both professors are white. I asked each professor if I could make an announcement in class regarding the petition. They both refused. One flat out said no and the other said I could write a note on the blackboard. I brought the petitions each day to class for a few months, and before and after class, I asked my peers to sign the petition. I cannot recall how many petitions I sent in but each time I acquired the required signatures for the petition, I mailed the petition(s) into Elizabeth May.
And, throughout the first few months of my law school journey, I started to believe I was being stalked in real life given the intensity of the online harassment I received for speaking out against Bill C-36. In my younger years, I did experience stalking from multiple individuals (mainly older white men). So, the very real threat of this happening remained entrenched in my mind. And, it was very hard for me to access the support I needed on campus becuause I didn’t know who I could turn to and who wouldn’t stigmatize or shame me for my experiences. I felt very alone and isolated.
This was only in first term of my first year.
Come the second term of first year, I experienced another kind of erasure. I was in a couple classes which provided ample opportunity to discuss the Cindy Gladue case, except nobody knew about the Cindy Gladue case. I also spent the majority of second term trying to determine who could assist me with navigating the law school environment. I couldn’t call home–nobody in my family would understand. The only thing I could do was ask my dad to say some prayers for me (my dad said a lot of prayers for me and I am certain my mom did too).
After I published my blog post on Cindy Gladue and the verdict from that trial, one professor replied to an email I sent to this professor. A fellow twitter-er recommended I email this professor. So, I did. This professor gave me some tips in the event I wanted to apply to the courses the anti-sex work professors taught. I never ended up mustering up the strength to apply (though I did want to apply). Because of the discussions that happened around Cindy Gladue in one class, I spent much of the last term of my first year walking around in haze. I didn’t realize how much such discussions impacted my ability to even go to school or engage in “classroom discussions” until I had one discussion with another professor about Cindy Gladue. This professor alleged Cindy Gladue would have never died if Cindy didn’t engage in prostitution (as if it was Cindy’s fault). However, I reminded the professor Cindy didn’t go there one time…she went there twice. This professor identified as a feminist (and again, this professor is white). This is the fact that usually throws people into a state of confusion. And, it was the second time that Cindy went there, that Cindy died. But, no, if Cindy wasn’t engaging in prostitution, Cindy would still be here. Nothing about all those other dead sex workers, indigenous or not, though, huh?
Second year, second term.
In my second year, I asked another professor for help regarding all this sex work “stuff.” I used to regard this professor as someone who could be supportive to sex work issues and Indigenous issues. However, the response to the request for help indicated differently. After requesting such assistance, I plainly and clearly remember the professor’s response: “I am trying to get tenure.” The professor complained about not being invited to dinner parties with the other professors. The professor also complained about being “silenced” after hosting a panel of sort on the discussion of sex work. As if the threat of losing your cushiony job, not being able to attend dinner parties or host panels is relatable to my experiences as Indigenous woman with sex working experience?!? (This professor is also white and like the others mentioned above, a self-identified feminist.)
When it came to applying to jobs, it appeared all my writing was a downfall. “How do you get so much time to write?” Uhhh, I don’t know, I just write. However, it’s my ability to adapt at a young age after acquiring a brain injury in a car accident–expressing myself via writing as opposed to oral word was a lot easier which was/is a side effect of my brain injury. Now, I have developed tricks to help with this side effect. In all my interviews, I was also open about my sex work in all my writings. So, my resume was more explicit about my sex work involvement than it probably should have been. Still, if someone who doesn’t want to hire me for my experiences in sex work and sex work advocacy, then I really don’t want to work for that same person. My resume acts as a good screening mechanism just as much as resumes acts a screening mechanism for potential employers (thanks sex work for those screening skills).
In one interview in my second term in second year, I was interviewed by a panel of counsel and Crown Attorneys interviewing for various departments in Ontario Ministries. I wanted to work in criminal division and nothing else. By the end of the interview, since it was clear I used to do sex work, one of the counsel for an Ontario Ministry asked me (to the tune of) “So, because of your experience in sex work, you realize you can’t have a criminal record.”Now, I can’t recall the question word for word but I remember thinking the counsel’s question laid bare the problems with criminalizing sex work: Impeding employment opportunities.
Now, I am in my third year in my second term. My final term.
Despite all these experiences, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful that people will one day understand the harms that criminalizing sex work creates, not just for current sex workers but for people who have left sex work, who still carry the stigma over their head, who speak out about it and who continue to advocate for the most marginalized–Indigenous women selling and trading sex, surviving the colonialism with all of its stigma, racism, patriarchy, and of course, its continued criminalization. Much remains to be said about law school especially when I had to craft my experiences to avoid certain classes in order to avoid the very people who wish sex work and as a natural consequence, sex workers themselves to disappear. So much for missing and murdered Indigenous women–I guess it really matters what kind of women.
In the end, all I know is this, we all have a long way to go.