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Women's worlds collide.

Nearly 2,000 delegates from 92 countries convened in Ottawa from July 3 to 7 for Women's Worlds 2011--reportedly the largest gathering of feminists in Canada. But what could have been a landmark event has since been overshadowed by a problem that is all too familiar to many Canadian feminists.

Women's Worlds 2011 featured more than 300 workshops and panels on an astonishing range of topics, but in the aftermath of the conference, the media reporting and the discussion among Canadian feminists had a notably singular focus: a disagreement among women.

On July 5, while the conference was still underway, the Ottawa Citizen published an article headed "Women's Worlds summit focuses on abolition of prostitution." The gay newspaper Xtra West followed with "Hostile Clashes Dominate Women's Conference."

I felt a lot of sympathy for the Women's Worlds organizers when I read those articles. Conference organizing, even on a modest, local scale, was hands-down the most stressful and consuming job I have ever had. I could only imagine how deflating it might have been for the Women's Worlds organizers, who spent five years planning their conference, only to see the media focus so much on a single conflict.

I didn't attend Women's Worlds, but several people I talked with told me that delegates at Women's Worlds who supported the abolition position--the ending of prostitution--significantly outnumbered those who favour the decriminalization of sex work. This alone would have explained the isolation and discomfort sex workers and their advocates reported experiencing at the conference, but the verbal aggression seemed to push the situation over the edge.

According to those I spoke with, there was a confrontation where organizers of the Flesh Mapping Project (an abolitionist exhibit on global sex trafficking) berated a group of sex workers holding a demonstration outside the exhibit venue. Justine Little, who presented a workshop on sex work at Women's Worlds, told me the organizers of the exhibit "aggressively questioned the group whether any of us were 'prostituted women,' and were dismissive of one women's assertion that she was not a 'prostituted woman' but that she worked in the industry. Several members of the group were brought to tears by the encounter."

In response to criticisms about this incident, Lee Lakeman, one of the organizers of the exhibit, published a letter on Facebook in which she said opponents of prostitution at Women's Worlds were "bulging with supporters and participants," but she denied that any misconduct took place.

Abolitionist activists may have seen Women's Worlds as a triumph, but for conference participants hoping to find a better sense of solidarity among feminists, the clashes over sex work were a disappointment. That said, with over 300 workshops, speakers and panels at the conference, many participants did not experience the clashes over sex work as a dominant theme of the conference, and others have accused sex workers and decriminalization activists of exaggerating their experiences to elicit public sympathy.

Pam Kapoor, communications director of Women's Worlds 2011, offered a perspective on the controversy that I found very reasonable: "Even if only one person felt any of the things reported in the media of feeling attacked, or unsafe, or unwelcome at Women's Worlds, this is something that we have to take very seriously."

As Ontario courts continue to consider the constitutionality of Canada's prostitution law in the Bedford case, I am disturbed to hear how the relationship between prostitution abolitionists and decriminalization advocates increasingly resembles a relationship between enemies at war.

As someone who supports the decriminalization of sex work, I am guilty of resenting the views and tactics of some abolitionist feminists. While both sides tend to unfairly antagonize each other, I've felt frustrated at how some abolitionist feminists in Vancouver, where I live, seem to adopt more aggressive tactics in their activism. For example, I was shocked at a conference this year when I heard an abolitionist feminist say she does not feel obliged to respect the opinions of those with whom she disagrees. Rather, she said she expects other feminists to be tough enough to handle criticism.

As strong as many feminists are, the political beliefs they ascribe to should not justify any mistreatment or disrespect toward other feminists. While it may simply be impossible for feminists to see eye to eye on certain topics, we need to work harder to find common ground and engage in respectful dialogue.
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Title Annotation:Body Politic; Women's Worlds 2011
Author:Chiu, Joanna
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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