Today I went to Voices for Women’s Health, a forum put on by the Aids Committee of Ottawa (ACO). It was an all-day event that included a number of short presentations (all of which dovetailed and linked up really well with each other) which were followed by discussion groups on similar topics.

Some things that I learned:
The HIV rate, across Canada, for trans women is ~27%[1], yet this population is largely invisible in, and left out of, the general conversation around HIV/AIDS in terms of both research and outreach.

On a related note, while there aren’t any statistics on this population for Canada (see above, re: research), the HIV rate for trans women who do street-based sex work is, in areas where research has been done (Rome, Italy; and Atlanta, USA), in the 65%-75% range.

This statistic is staggering on its own. However find it particularly interesting in light of something else that came up (in a different presentation):
In Ottawa, the combination of whore-stigma and active, constant street harassment by “neighbourhood associations” and, in particular, police[2] prevent many street-based workers from seeking help (such as health care, shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens), force them into remote (and, consequently, unsafe) working locations[3], and has led to many workers having (as in: currently having, at the time of this writing) suicidal thoughts and committing suicide.

I also find it interesting to learn (in one of the discussion groups) that what are currently the anti-sexwork laws (sections 210-213 of the criminal code[5]) were originally part of the Indian Act and were used to control and police aboriginal people.
I can’t help wondering how many ways this is connected to the assumptions that are made about how aboriginal women make their living (whether this is the TV stock character of the aboriginal hooker, or the dismissal of the missing and murdered (and overwhelmingly aboriginal) women in Vancouver as being “just hookers”).

A long time ago, on a different blog (now gone, otherwise I’d be reposting it here), I wrote about Jennifer Stewart, an Ottawa sex-worker who was murdered in 2010, and how all the different hardships she faced intersected in really unbearable ways.
Today’s forum reminded me a lot of the situation she faced, in that I find that the different topics spoken on today fit together along these intersecting lines of oppression and stigma.

Doing sex work
Dealing with substance abuse
Living with HIV/AIDS
Being a woman
Being trans
Being queer
Being poor, particularly being homeless or precariously housed
Being kinky, or otherwise “sexually deviant”
Being indigenous
Being an immigrant and/or a person of colour[6]

There’s an attitude held by The State – and, frequently, by people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo as laid out by The State – that people who fall into any of those categories don’t have a right to make decisions about what they/we do with their/our own bodies. Stigmas and oppressions around race, class, and gender, as well as the idea of “contagion[7]” work individually and in combination to lower a given person’s sense of self-worth – which, in turn, lowers the likelihood that that person will seek help form outside supports while, at the same time, raising the likelihood that they will engage in “risky” behaviour. More to the point, these stigmas and oppressions are used – by groups, systems and individuals seeking to control “deviant” populations – to both reinforce each other and to justify each other.

For example: One of the discussion groups today centered on BDSM and “full disclosure” in health care contexts, with regards to how perceptions of “sexual deviance” can affect the kind of care/treatment you receive (from doctors, from the legal system, etc) and how that, in turn, can affect whether or not a given person will seek help from those quarters.
Yes Means Yes has a series (There’s a War Onthis part goes to the bit dealing with the justice system (in the states, but it applies here as well) and how it tends to botch dealing with rape, let alone dealing with rape when there’s been kink involved) talking about rape and abuse in the pansexual BDSM scene. Some of the stuff that gets brought up in it is the same kind of stuff that I hear brought up in my own kinky community.
Contrasting the “You were doing kink, therefore you were asking for it” attitude[8] with, say, the Spanner Case – wherein a group of (gay, fyi) consenting tops and bottoms were charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm (in the case of the bottoms, they were charged with being accessories to the assault of their own bodies), and it very quickly becomes clear that, in both cases, the people involved were being punished by the legal system for being “sexually deviant” – in the case of women coming forward about being raped during a kink scene, for being kinky and for being sexual (slutty); in the case of the men for being kinky and for being gay.

The same attitude plays out every time the murder of a poor/brown/sex-working/trans/all-of-the-above woman is brushed off, or ignored, by law enforcement, the justice system, and/or the media.
There’s an attitude held by members of the Ottawa Police[9] – and, by the looks of things, that attitude extends far beyond OPS – that membership in “the community” stops when you step outside the bounds of “acceptable sexuality” and into “deviance”[10].
One of the discussion groups I attended – this one focussing on missing and murdered indigenous women and on the cuts to programs and services that were directly related to indigenous women’s health and well-being – wherein one of the participants brought up the possibility that, based on the actions (and inactions) of both the legal system and the federal government[11], these people – these people, these systems, that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – believe that only some lives are worth saving.

All lives are worth saving.
This nonsense has to stop.

- Food for thought,
– Ms S.

[1] This doesn’t include the trans women who get erroneously lumped in with the “men who sleep with men” population (who, for comparison, have an HIV rate of ~24%, in down town Toronto only).

[2] In the case of the police, this also includes the use of point-of-arrest “red zoning” that frequently leaves workers unable to return to their homes or to otherwise access basic living necessities such as food and shelter. See POWER’s Challenges Report for details. (Link goes to PDF).

[3] Which makes it much harder for outreach workers to connect with them and provide them with things like, say, safer sex supplies or safe-injection supplies[4].

[4] Which, if you’re taking hormones by injection, you need on a frequent and regular basis.

[5] Starts here, and continues onto the next page.

[6] Who, for example, is losing access to health care due to Bill C-31.

[7] The idea, rather significantly more than the reality. HIV is contagious, but there are heaps of ways to avoid infection. The idea of contagion, though, is far more powerful and much harder to work around, leading to attitudes like “how dare you come into my courtroom without a mask and gloves”. The idea of contagion also hits queer and trans people, poor people and, to a greater extent, sex workers – the idea that a poor person moving into a neighbourhood will bring everyone’s property values (everyone’s wealth/status) down; the idea that sex workers “infect” an area with drugs, theft, and violence. The idea that teaching kids about transexuality, gender independence, and sexual orientations will somehow “make” them gay or trans, as if queerness or transness were something you could contract through proximity or even just knowledge.

[8] See also: slut shaming. (My surprised face…)

[9] This comes from interviews done with the Ottawa Police, which were quoted in one of today’s presentations.

[10] Have you noticed how indigenous women and women of colour are hyper-sexualized – either as insatiable or obedient, but always available? Always “promiscuous”? Have you noticed how “classy” means “not slutty”, but also means “not poor”? “Acceptable sexuality” isn’t just monogamous, heterosexual and vanilla, it’s also white and moneyed.

[11] In Canada, health care, education, a lot of other things that, elsewhere, are the prevue of the Province, are under the jurisdiction of the Federal government when it comes to indigenous communities.