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Stop treating sexual health as [only] women’s responsibility

2016 February 12

This commentary first appeared in the Toronto Star (p.A21) on February 11, 2016.

Public health authorities have been asking a lot of women this past week.

Last Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an infographic which explained that any woman who drinks too much is at risk of violence, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. The solution: women should not drink too much, and their doctors should tell them so.

Last Wednesday, a report published by the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada stated in its key messages: “risky drinking can increase the risk for … rape.” Again, all of the report’s solutions are aimed squarely at reducing the amount people drink.

These reports also mention brain damage, traffic accidents, and cancer in the same breath as violence and rape, as though each of these dangers arises solely from the alcohol use itself, with no other factors being necessary.

Meanwhile, Zika virus has been in the global spotlight as a suspected cause of birth defects. The World Health Organization recently declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In several Central and South American countries where the virus has been spreading, health officials have advised women to avoid getting pregnant for the foreseeable future.

These advisories take pains to detail all of the dangers that might be faced by women and their potential offspring, but as a multitude of online commentators quickly pointed out, in other respects their perspectives are worryingly narrow.

Queer and transgender women are never mentioned, as though they do not exist. Such erasure can only reinforce their marginalization. The availability of family planning services, such as birth control and safe abortion, is also ignored. These services would be a lot more helpful than just dispensing advice.

Perhaps the most conspicuous blind spot, though, is the exclusive focus on women themselves. Who is getting women pregnant? Who is transmitting infections? Who is raping intoxicated women? In most cases, it’s men.

We know that sexual violence is extremely common: the CDC estimates that at least one in five women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Estimates are closer to one in two for bisexual women and transgender people. The assailant is typically an opportunistic acquaintance who’s found a way to exploit his social power, and not an unknown brute in a dark alley.

And our standard response as a society involves providing plenty of salt to rub into the wound: we instruct women to be afraid, and to protect themselves, and we leave it at that.

Many people think this is reasonable advice, but it assigns all of the responsibility for sexual assault prevention to the potential victim. None is assigned to the rapist, perhaps because we falsely imagine him to be a force of nature, unpredictable and unresponsive to social cues.

Whatever our rationale, the result is that when sexual assault does occur, survivors know they can expect skepticism and blame if they dare to reveal their stories. Many internalize this blame, and feel ashamed at having “failed” to prevent their own sexual assault. So they stay silent. Far from being unresponsive, the abuser knows he can use their fear to his advantage.

So instead of just addressing women, our public health organizations could exhort men to avoid getting anyone pregnant. We could instruct men not to rape. Such messages are currently so rare that they might be read as satire.

But when we address the drinker and not the abuser, and when we say that women but not men can prevent pregnancy, men learn that they can demand sex and they will not be held accountable. Such well-meaning but misguided advice is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a hazard to public health.

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Open letter to the UBC Development Office and Donors

2016 February 10

Originally posted at UBC Insiders on August 17, 2015.

Dear UBC Development Office and Donors,

I want to express my gratitude to the UBC Development Office. Recently, you sent me an unusually thought-provoking survey. It mentioned a scholarship I had been awarded as a second-year undergraduate student, way back in 2003.

You explained that you were hoping to encourage donors to keep donating, so you wanted to know a little bit about me. Why did I study what I studied? What had I been up to since then? And, most interestingly: what difference has this award made to me? I’m glad you asked. I never thought much about it before.

I looked up the award, to jog my memory. It was one of a number of scholarships I received as an undergraduate, which I mostly did not apply for and which more than covered my tuition. This one was awarded on the recommendation of my department, but had no further published selection criteria. I got good grades and was not in financial need, so I assume it was a merit-based scholarship.

I remember being pleased, briefly, to receive some money and recognition. It also contributed a line to my CV, but I can’t say whether that one line made any difference. I’m sure my parents also felt proud when they found out, but then they were already proud. And as for the money itself, well, my family has enough wealth that my tuition and living expenses would have been easily paid for regardless.

So what difference did that award really make? None whatsoever. It was totally unnecessary, now that I think about it.

I may have also thought about it in 2003, but I accepted the award anyway. It didn’t occur to me to do otherwise. Surely there was nothing wrong with me receiving an award. This, of course, was meritocracy in action. This was the world was working as it should. So I thought.

Incidentally, I recall that the students around me were protesting tuition hikes at about that time. This seemed somewhat selfish. Tuition is an investment in your future, I thought. You’ll get a better job with this degree and make the money back, I thought. And anyway, we can’t afford to just pay for everyone to stay in school as long as they want, as they would surely do if tuition was free, I thought.

Actually, I take it back. The award did make a difference. It reinforced my sense of entitlement.

Now it’s 2015. I’m 32, I’m still a student, and I’m still being given more money than I know what to do with. But I’ve learned a little more about the world. I’ve heard the stories of students who struggle to make ends meet, to eat and pay rent, to take care of their families, and to navigate a myriad of endemic hostilities against particular bodies, backgrounds, beliefs, or ways of being. The good grades that got me my scholarships were never simply the result of merit, or of good fortune. They were also the result of the unearned special treatment that had been lavished on me from birth, generally at someone else’s expense.

This new awareness didn’t much come from my classes, by the way. I’ve mostly studied technical subjects at university. So it’s taken me a while to learn to really listen to the voices of people with different life experiences from me. But I think I would have learned to listen a little earlier if many of these voices hadn’t also been unnecessarily excluded from the university by challenges that I didn’t face. As a result, I think the development of my own sense of empathy was delayed. So my concern is not just about fairness. These patterns of exclusion also impair the social and emotional education of all UBC students. We are not the “global citizens” we could be.

So, dear UBC Development Office, dear donors, thank you for asking me to think about the impact of your award. You couldn’t have picked a better time to ask. In return, I would like to ask you to think about this too.

I trust you want your scholarship money help promising students overcome challenges and succeed at university. If so, I hope my story will be illustrative. While many of my fellow students struggled, out beyond my awareness, you gave me award after award that did not motivate me, gave me no new opportunities, and eliminated no barriers. I always dutifully sent the enclosed thank-you letter to the donor, as UBC asked me to, but now that I’m being honest with myself and with you, those awards were drops in the bucket that I took for granted and barely noticed. And I was surely not the only one.

That may be disappointing to hear. I doubt this was what you set out to do. But, of course, you have an opportunity to improve this situation. If you want my opinion, as a UBC graduate and scholarship recipient, I suggest you stop giving out scholarships based simply on so-called “merit”, which I think usually means performance. Too much of that money is wasted on people like me. I could give the money away (and I have), but I would rather see the rules change.

The University’s Vision and Values would be much better served by transferring all merit-based scholarship money to the needs-based bursaries and support services that students really need. Affordable child care, food security initiatives, anti-violence initiatives, and the creation of safer and more accessible spaces come to mind, but I’m sure there are many capable student advocates at UBC today who have already articulated their collective needs far better than I can. I hope that you, too, will listen to their voices.

Letter to my MP on sex work

2014 March 15

[Adapted from my responses to the Justice Department’s public consultation on the criminalization of sex work.]

Dear Mr. Mulcair,

I am writing, as one of your constituents, to encourage you to come out in support of the decriminalization of sex work. The continued criminalization of sex work in this country is but one of many ways in which our legal system does more to foster injustice than to fight it. The Bedford decision has provided us with an historic opportunity to set things right, and I urge you to contribute to this effort.

People engage in sex work for a variety of reasons; for those people who are forced into sex work or who choose it only out of desperation, there are much better solutions than wholesale criminalization of the work, which further endangers people. If it is disproportionately (but by no means exclusively) the more vulnerable members of our society who choose it, it is because sex work has been made dangerous and shameful by our society – and this need not be so. There is no morally defensible reason to treat the purchase of a sexual service as different from the purchase of any other physical labour a person might provide (factory work, farming, massage therapy, hospital orderly, etc). Sex is only different to the extent that it is more stigmatized than these other forms of work; criminalization adds to that stigma.

Sex workers do not need protected from their source of income (as in the abolitionist Nordic model). They may need to be protected from violence, but any form of criminalization of their work only impairs their ability to access that protection. Sex workers themselves, who actually live with the reality of the risks they face, have a much better idea of how to solve these problems than politicians do, if only we would listen to them.

This country has also criminalized anyone who economically benefits from sex work, but it should be obvious that sex workers have dependents (children, partners, families) who benefit economically from sex work. Sex workers need to rent apartments, so their landlords benefit economically from sex work. As with any business, sex workers may need to pay third parties for services related to their work (security, accountants, lawyers, etc): these people also benefit economically from sex work. “Economic benefit” is not inherently exploitative, as any free market economist could tell you, so to criminalize it is absurd and counterproductive. Exploitation does occur in the sex trade, to be sure but this is true of literally every sector of the economy, and we normally don’t try to shut down the whole economy to stop exploitation. Driving an economy underground only makes the situation worse.

Instead, standard labour law protections should be extended to sex workers, to the extent that sex workers themselves desire those protections. Existing Canadian laws against violence, exploitation, and so on can be used to deal with specific abuses. No further restrictions on sex work as such are necessary or desirable, as these only marginalize and restrict people’s options and expose them to greater risks. Sex workers and their allies have gone to great lengths to describe and document these risks. (POWER in Ottawa and Stella in Montreal are two excellent places to start, if you are curious.) Will we continue to ignore them?

There is a reason men like Willy Pickton go after sex workers: they know society doesn’t listen to sex workers, and doesn’t care about them. We need to change this. The Bedford decision is a ray of hope from a legal system that too often is used as a tool to oppress groups with which dominant society is uncomfortable. The government must take this opportunity to create a more humane society, and not simply find a more superficially palatable way to control and endanger the lives of consenting adults (as the Nordic model would do). Anyone who claims that sex work is inherently violent is out of touch with reality. There are countless brave, outspoken sex workers who are providing eloquent public testimony to the contrary. One might as well say that all sex is inherently violent, or that all paid labour is inherently violent. This line of reasoning comes from an outdated, narrow, ostensibly “feminist” view that assumes women find sex humiliating unless it is with a loving romantic partner. I hope we are moving beyond such damaging assumptions.

Sex workers, like all Canadians, deserve the right to work in safety and dignity; not only that, they deserve to be recognized for the valuable labour that they provide and the role they play in the Canadian economy. It is not these sex worker organizations who are “brainwashed” into thinking that their work is legitimate: it is dominant Canadian society that has been “brainwashed” to think that sex is bad and that only the desperate would ever choose to sell it, or that only vile predators would ever choose to buy it. These are cruel, harmful stereotypes which should have no place in determining public policy.

Decriminalization is the only option that respects people’s economic and bodily freedom – freedoms I would have hoped that all political parties might be able to respect. It is also the only option that will improve safety and therefore save lives. I therefore urge you, as my elected representative and as the leader of the Official Opposition, to take a public stance in support of the rights and dignity of all members of our society, and thus in support of decriminalization of the sex industry.

Thank you for your time.

[If you are interested in writing to your Member of Parliament and/or contributing to the government consultation, I encourage you to draw inspiration from the Call to Action put together by POWER, an Ottawa/Gatineau-area sex workers’ rights organization.]

Oh, academia

2013 October 31

I recently went to a journal club where we discussed some recent commentaries on the future of social epidemiology. The articles, and my colleagues’ reactions to them, provoked me to try to summarize my frustrations with the academic world.

Though some disciplines are better than others, academia generally adheres implicitly to the positivist ideal of a universal body of knowledge which is always making progress, represented by the sum total of every peer-reviewed paper ever published, in which we talk about what “we” know and what “we” don’t know, “we” being a depersonalized, universalist abstraction that ignores questions about who exactly knows, and who gets to decide what counts as valid knowledge. When individuals can’t find an idea in the literature, they get to claim that “we” don’t know about it, i.e. that nobody knows about it. We consider ourselves as contributing to a collective resource for all humanity, “more” knowledge being an unquestionably good thing.

We might critique research for not being scientifically valid, or not being practically useful, but we rarely critique it as harmful: we fail to notice how this system* sidelines the perspectives of the already-marginalized, denies the validity of other forms of knowledge, and leaves all our privilege-derived assumptions and prejudices unchecked and propagating. It reinforces the power of the upper classes (the ones who have better access to graduate-level education) to frame the problems and solutions that are taken seriously by the rest of society, and is therefore one of the mechanisms that maintains inequality. I am not saying academic work is useless; indeed, I plan to spend most of my life doing academic work. I am saying it has major problems which are generally being ignored.

Many anthropologists seem to get this; most epidemiologists (in my admittedly limited experience) don’t. They may be very nice people who do useful work, but it is hard for me to feel like I can engage productively with them when they don’t share my anger about this. So far, going to journal clubs and critiquing articles from this perspective has not felt like a very productive strategy. I feel like I am seen as that angry, bitter guy who flings around wild accusations, my concerns falling on mostly deaf ears. So I’m open to suggestions!

*People working strictly within the natural sciences on the microscopic or cosmic scales can probably claim a relative distance from this problem, even though their work is also ultimately embedded in that same social system and still ultimately impacts people. But as soon as you are studying people directly, these concerns become paramount.

Colonialism withdrawal

2013 September 16

I’ve been reading Decolonizing Methodologies, the most astonishing and radical piece of text I’ve ever encountered. It is exposing as fictional colonial tools the very foundations of my understanding of the world, and with them the core of my identity and self-worth. I have often told myself that I love uncovering unexamined assumptions, but before when that’s happened I’ve always been able to incorporate that new knowledge and feel I can act constructively with it. Now I’ve lost my bearings.

I have been informed, and I can find no reason to disbelieve, that the West – that is, the total cultural archive of ideas that developed out of the European Enlightenment and that has been spread forcibly around the world – is a lot more insidiously arrogant and brutal than I had previously grasped. All the academic disciplines, some of which I have been cheerfully pursuing for 30 years now, are implicated in justifying and shaping everything else the West does, and all have been experienced by indigenous peoples as justifications and tools of control. Anthropology and history most obviously, but also right down to biology and math. We are obsessed with measurement, categorization, division, and assert constantly that our truth is universal, perhaps imperfect but obviously superior to the “superstition” of less evolved minds, of the perennially problematized Other. Our history and their pre-history, our knowledge and their beliefs, our progress and their deficiency. This is a fundamental tenet of the empirical scientific mindset which underlies our educational, technical and economic systems. I have increasingly sophisticated research skills, but why should I believe research helps anyone? The West says research is the path to truth and truth is the path to effective action, but indigenous people have seen research mostly used to steal and misrepresent their knowledge and lives, to sever connections, and used to justify continued Western imposition and destruction, well-meaning upper-middle-class White liberal researchers offering, I don’t know, clinical trials of purified extracts of native plants to treat depression, to prescribe the meaning of depression, to wring our hands about your persistent depression, to “do something!”, to erase your history and replace it with our own, preserve at least a few fragments of your sadly dying culture before its inevitable demise, while we help ourselves to your trees and rivers and minerals and ancestors and sacred practices. Land theft, residential schools, out-adoption, hospitalization for suicidality… because we need to eradicate—I mean civilize—I mean save—I mean help them, with “our” resources and our science, which is good for us so it’s good for you too, to kindly solve their problems which are what we say they are, just as they are who we say they are, so they can finally succeed on our terms. Their problems are due to their corruption, their genetics, their culture, their isolation, their ignorance, their helplessness, their laziness, their oversensitivity, their idealism, their unwillingness to assimilate, their living in the past. Those poor deprived people, however can we figure out more efficient ways to bring them our wisdom? Trust us, we’ve figured out the best way to use of your space and time and bodies. Oh yes, we were bad in the past, we admit it, but we stopped, so get over it please, because we never meant any harm. If you don’t like it, yes, fine, let’s settle the matter in our courts according to our laws and our rules of evidence and our economy and our worldview in our language. Why should I continue to spend my life refining my capacity to produce discourse according to the Western specifications that are implicated in all this? What has the West given the world? At best, comfort, security, and communication, at least for some; this at the expense of environmental, psychological, cultural, and spiritual destruction. We have spread more diseases than cures. The ancient wisdom of my people is wisdom about how to dominate and exploit, and about how to entertain and reassure ourselves as we do it. What is my ongoing participation in such epistemic systems but acquiescence to our ongoing claim to superiority?

Am I being unreasonable? How would I know? Even my mind, and especially some of my favourite parts of it, is one of the master’s tools. Oh Lorde, what should I do?

I have some ideas, I still have hope, but I had to get this cri de coeur out. It may not make sense to those unfamiliar with the ideas. I know there are Westerners who seem to be working as effective allies in decolonization, including using research. I thought I had a decent handle on that, but somehow it took me until yesterday to realize how deep our colonization problem goes. What to do next? How to decolonize? It’s not complicated: it starts with listening. I should probably start by reading past the first third of Decolonizing Methodologies.

Sweat and tears

2013 May 22

Last month, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s Quebec National Event in Montreal. The TRC was set up to publicly hear the stories of survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential School system (1876–1996), a cultural extermination project organized and enforced by Canada, whereby multiple generations of indigenous children were taken from their families and communities; forbidden to use their language or express their culture; medically neglected to the point of death; and emotionally, physically and sexually abused in vast numbers.

The pain of all those broken childhoods is still being felt by those who attended the schools, but also by their families, their children, their grandchildren: in varying degrees, it still pervades every indigenous nation in Canada. All this very recent abuse in the name of “solving the Indian problem” by reprogramming them to be good Christians, good Canadians.

All of this was absent from my history curriculum when I was in school, and probably yours too. And yet, Canada, this is our Holocaust. What would we think of Germany if they kept that out of their history books?

While the TRC will not be nearly enough to achieve the goals its name invokes, nor even the more modest goals it has actually set for itself, hearing these stories is vitally important: to restore some dignity to those effected, for Canadians and indigenous people alike to know our history, and ultimately to heal and forgive.

In what follows, I will include anonymous quotes from the brave people who spoke to a room of thousands of strangers, where I sat for three days.  Read more…

Refugee policy and my grandmother

2013 January 1

The Christmas season brings out family stories. At Christmas dinner this year, I heard from my Hungarian grandmother the story of her flight from Europe in the 1940’s. Her safe passage to Canada was delayed for years by our government’s categorical rejection of Jewish refugees. I had heard the story before, but this year it struck me with particular force: earlier this month, the Canadian government announced a list of so-called “safe” countries whose refugee claimants will automatically be treated with extreme skepticism. Hungary is on the list. One of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history is repeating itself.

Seventy-five years ago, extreme racist ideology took hold of governments across Europe, which would ultimately lead to some of the greatest atrocities in Western history. My grandmother’s family saw the early warning signs and prepared to leave. Her father, a lawyer, had willing sponsors in his former employers, who had themselves come to Canada at the onset of the war. The family was initially accepted, but they chose to stay just a little while longer, to care for her own grandfather, frail and unable to travel. Unfortunately, they missed their window: Canadian immigration officials soon famously declared of Jews that “none is too many”, and Canada’s borders were effectively closed. When her grandfather did pass away, the family was forced to follow a much more dangerous path, following mere rumours about border guards who might be susceptible to sympathy or bribery. My grandmother, then just nine years old, was lucky to make it to Palestine alive with her sister and parents; others in her family were not so fortunate. They then waited in hopeful limbo for Canada to reverse its decision. This limbo lasted six years.

Jews were the best-known victims of the Holocaust, but there were many other targets: the Roma people (“gypsies”, an outdated and offensive term) were also murdered by the millions. In Hungary today, Roma remain intensely persecuted, while the ascendant neo-Nazi party now controls more than 10% of parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, in its new refugee policy, Canada has declared this situation “safe” in the sense that we will manifest extreme skepticism towards any refugee claimant coming from Hungary or any other so-called “Designated Country of Origin”. Their refugee claim assessments will be accelerated and their right to appeal will be categorically denied. This prejudice is an affront to human decency and to the spirit of international law: the UN Convention on Refugees makes it abundantly clear that refugee claimants must be treated fairly as individuals, regardless of nationality.

Finally accepted by Canada, my grandmother went on to become a nurse, and a celebrated pioneer of breastfeeding promotion in Canada and overseas. She continues to volunteer even now, in her late 70’s. She married a banker, with whom she has four children and eleven grandchildren; all are thriving, and all are devoted to community service. We are parents, class presidents, engineers, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, stockbrokers, publishers, and doctors. Had Canada accepted more Jewish refugees during WWII, many lives might have been saved. If it had maintained its xenophobic position even longer, our family most likely would not exist. I therefore find it profoundly disturbing that Canada, once a welcoming haven to the most vulnerable, has now chosen to renew its suspicion of foreigners. This year, my Christmas wish is for our government to reverse the reprehensible Designated Countries of Origin refugee policy.

(Struck by my grandmother’s story and its close parallel with refugee issues today, I wrote this up as a Letter to the Editor, but the Globe and the Post didn’t publish it.)

Further reading: