Indigenous Peoples In the Sex Trade – Speaking For Ourselves

We as Indigenous peoples who have current and/or former life experience in the sex trade and sex industries met on unceeded Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver on Monday April 11th 2011. In a talking circle organized by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network we wish to share the following points about our collective discussion so that we may speak FOR ourselves and life experiences:

  • We recognize that many of us have multiple identities and communities that we belong to – some of us take up the title of “sex worker” while others do not see themselves this way.  We have a myriad of experiences in the sex trade, everything from violence, coercion, to survival, getting by, empowerment, and everything in between.   We want to give voice to these issues so that those who are CURRENTLY involved in sex work and the sex industries feel supported and are the primary place where decisions surrounding our lives are made.  We should not be made to feel judged, blamed, or shunned from ANY of the communities we belong to or are coming from. We are the best deciders of what we want our lives to be.
  • Despite the heightened statistics of the many realities we face as Indigenous peoples, we are not significantly represented in the leadership or decision making tables of sex work organizations and other social justice groups alike. By this we do not mean solely having one Indigenous coordinator or a few outreach workers – we mean meaningful, non-tokenizing, multiple positions and visible leadership roles across organizations, groups, collectives, and at any place where the sex trade is discussed. We are not interested in being included after the fact or having to continuously take a seat at a table we had to fight to be at in the first place – we want to be the center in which all decisions about our lives are coming from.
  • We collectively and steadfastly resist the so-called “rescuing” and “saving” approach to the issues going on in our lives that comes from the (in)justice system, social service agencies, prohibitionist groups, and many other areas. What we are asking for is not to be saved or rescued or consistently painted as victims – we come from generations of peoples who have resisted this approach for the last 500+ years so we could be here today. We are asking for support that is unconditional and meets us where we are at.
  • We are living through legacies of colonialism and genocide – which are extremely present today. When various individuals and organizations say things like “we are all oppressed in the same way” or refuse to take a stance on colonialism – this directly silences and further oppresses us. Just because we as Indigenous peoples may be involved in the sex trade as well does not mean that we are all oppressed in the same way as other peoples who are involved in the sex trade or even within our own communities. We demand the right to self-determination about what is specifically true for us as individuals and we refuse to be constantly grouped in “the other” or “unknown” categories – whether from well-intentioned allies or those who have never even considered our realities as Indigenous peoples.
  • We want to address the rampant amount of homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, and heteropatriarchy that we witness from Indigenous and allied people alike.  Many of us are proud to be Two Spirit, trans, gender non-conforming, and many other identities that the English language cannot contain.  We hold both our Indigenous community members and allies accountable to respect who we are and understand that these identities for many of us prior to colonization were honored and respected – and we take this seriously as we seek to reclaim who we are.
  • While it is true that we may experience violence on bad dates, on the street, and in other places where we are, we want to state that VIOLENCE SHOULD NOT INHERENTLY BE PART OF THE SEX TRADE. What remains unchallenged and inadequately criticized are the role and actions of the state, the police, and social service agencies that create and allow the conditions that create violent situations for us to begin with. The very creation of Canada and the United States is based off of the genocide and land theft of our peoples and fast forward to 2011 this is still happening. It is now sanctioned through the law, in the court system, and other organizations wishing to further control and exploit us by continuing to remove us from our homelands, or our communities of choice, or warehousing us in jails and prisons.
  • There is a severe lack of resources and support for those of us on reserves, in northern territories, and in rural and remote areas. So much of the dialogue about the sex trade is urban and metropolitan focused when so many of our rural and remote communities have the evidence to prove the urgency of shifting the dialogue to listen and support what is going on in the north and on the reserves.  Where can sex workers go when there are no supports in their own communities? Why should they always have to come to the city?
  • While the criminalization of the sex trade is indeed harmful to us and we consistently resist the regulations forced onto us by a colonial white law and order system, we want to move beyond just discussing criminalization and decriminalization. There are many other factors that contribute to the realities of our lives specifically as Indigenous peoples that are being largely ignored because of these kinds of debates constantly happening.
  • At public events or in the media, supposed ‘experts’ or ‘allies’ often focus exclusively on violence and victimization, over-representation and exiting strategies. While these issues are important, we want to move the dialogue beyond this focus on ‘being saved’ and instead to hear from sex workers themselves about all the complex realities and needs they face. Why is it that in public forums, the only voices we hear are those wanting to save sex workers from violence rather than from sex workers themselves? Sex workers should be invited to speak to their own issues, representing a diversity of perspectives and experiences. For example, sex work is often seen as an exclusively urban issue. In reality, lots of people in rural areas are trading sex for money, rides, clothes, and many other reasons – but because of shame and silence, this aspect of sex work remains invisible.  Expanding our understanding of Indigenous involvement in sex work will entail including a diversity of perspectives, allowing these voices to inform policy and programs.
  • Sex workers and those involved in the sex trade are part of our communities – all of the things we are advocating for in terms of Indigenous rights and land sovereignty sex workers need to be part of as well. Internationally sanctioned Indigenous rights are determined by states – so how do we see our own rights in our own territories within the sex trade? We aren’t going to have only one approach – Indigenous peoples have never only had one approach. There are multiple nations, multiple view points, and multiple ways of dealing with things – Indigenous peoples are not one homogenized group and we need to move forward being accountable to all of these differences.
  • There exists an extreme amount of stereotypes surrounding Indigenous sexuality and our bodies that have been used to legitimize violence against us and make the settlement of our territories by the colonizers possible. Distancing ourselves from stereotyping has in many cases also meant distancing ourselves from sexuality and ultimately from sex workers. This is just not about our own individual stories – we need to look at how are we treating all our relations and that especially means people who are most pushed aside by those in our communities.
  • We want to move forward to a place where we can discuss sex work and sex trade sovereignty – having autonomy of our bodies, our spaces, and the right to govern ourselves. We want to talk about our humanity instead of talking over people who are involved in the sex trade. We are more than just the numbers or statistics coming from the realities in our lives. We have voices, we are Indigenous peoples involved in the sex trade and sex industries, and we need to be heard.

Written by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and co-signed by:

Sarah Hunt, Kwakwaka’wakw

Bambie Tait, Gitxsan nation

Ivo Haggerty (Cargnelli)/Sta’xai’luum Blackstone

Lyn Highway