Sex work

Whose conference is this, anyway?

Chris Hedges' views on sex work take centre stage at event focused on resource extraction

The State of Extraction conference, held March 27 to 29 in Vancouver, gathered activists working to confront and oppose industrial mega-projects, including the Alberta tar sands and Canadian mining developments abroad. A public controversy that began in the weeks leading up to the event, which centred on writer and keynote speaker Chris Hedges and his views on sex work, continued to play out at the conference. Brad Hornick, a member of the conference organizing committee, shares his reflections below.

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My name is Brad Hornick. I am male, a student and settler on Coast Salish Territories. Like Chris Hedges, I have worked and travelled in war zones, and I am not an expert on issues of gender violence. I have lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, including working in a small capacity for one of the organizations mentioned below many years ago. The relevance of my response to Hedges is that I am on the State of Extraction organizing committee. All the views expressed within this article are mine alone.

“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Moby Dick, Herman Melville

What are the freedoms, rights and responsibilities of conference organizers, speakers and attendees? What are the boundaries each should respect in order to encourage greater public dialogue and safe and healthy patterns of communication? What private agendas should they pursue to exercise their freedoms? The following story is an attempt to add some clarity to recent explosive events concerning a celebrity conference speaker and the drama that unfolded around him.

The State of Extraction conference was recently held at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. It brought together Indigenous leadership, academics, artists and public intellectuals engaged in various struggles related to resource extraction. Chris Hedges was invited as one of three keynote speakers.

A month before his appearance at the State of Extraction conference, Hedges addressed an audience in Vancouver at the invitation of Professor Stephen Collis, who introduced Hedges to the crowd that evening. Hedges delivered a well-received oration on the necessity of civil disobedience to challenge multiple “evils” of our day.

Soon after the visit, Hedges wrote an article entitled “The Whoredom of the Left,” prompted by his brief visit to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. The article exposed several issues currently facing women in the DTES and linked larger issues of global capitalism to gender-based violence and abuse.

In the article, Hedges supports the position of those who advocate abolition, the idea that the sex trade should be eliminated through forms of criminalization. At the same time, he defames other activists who promote “whoredom,” describing them as “feckless liberals who think physical abuse of a woman is abhorrent if it occurs in a sweatshop but somehow is acceptable in a rented room, an alley, a brothel, a massage parlor or a car.”

Journalistic and polemical approaches can sensationalize issues, but are no substitute for social theory.

While laying claim to the “feminist” position, Hedges is critical of many other radical, feminist, inner-city, frontline activists and organizations working towards an agenda of harm reduction. This model strives to decrease the adverse health, social and economic consequences of sex work without necessarily requiring abstinence from such work. Serious harms associated with sex work include drug use, disease, violence, discrimination, debt, criminalization and exploitation.

In Hedges’ binary argument, there is no nuanced reflection on the latter’s advocacy for harm reduction that would temper his damning accusation above regarding the actual enabling of “physical abuse of a woman.”

Abolitionist and harm reduction approaches (and many variations in between) coexist in a country that has witnessed a deplorable and disproportionate number of recent disappearances and murders — approximately 1,200 — of Indigenous women and girls. That reality alone makes the important work of advocates who advance different measures to end violence against women, and who nevertheless share the same fundamental goals, valid and unassailable.

These respective positions have been represented for many years by various groups representing broad constituencies. They include Pivot Legal Society, Families of Sisters in Spirit, and PACE Society, as well as Asian Women Network Opposing Prostitution and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.

Differing positions on these issues within feminist circles are a reality in Vancouver, British Columbia and, indeed, nationally and internationally. Sincere activists who take these positions and who are intimately connected to the experiences of victimized women develop a deep loyalty to those for whom they advocate.

While promoting engagement with the issues, the State of Extraction organizing committee, and its main sponsor, the SFU Institute for the Humanities, has attempted to retain a historical position of neutrality on approaches to ending gender violence within the DTES. (It is important to note that SFU actually awarded Lee Lakeman of Vancouver Rape Relief, who supports the abolitionist position, with the Gandhi Award in 2013. Her speech was subsequently published.)

Nevertheless, Hedges’ comments, amplified by his considerable public reach, meant that the conference organizers needed to manage an arena of disagreement related to, but not central to, the main subject matter of the conference. The disagreements that occurred were not over the scope of the problem, or the urgent need to foreground the issue of gender violence and analyze it within the context of capitalism, colonialism, neoliberalism and extractivism.

Hedges de-platformed and re-platformed

Immediately after the “whoredom” article appeared, conference organizers received several complaints that Hedges was an inappropriate speaker. The complaints highlighted what they perceived as his uninformed support for one perspective over others and spoke specifically to the vitriolic nature of his article, which many considered unduly inflammatory.

Various emails accused Hedges of perpetuating the whore stigma and other stereotypes of the DTES community; failing to understand the negative consequences of forms of criminalizing prostitution, including endangerment of the lives of sex workers; and more personally, opportunistically encouraging the pitting of some activists against others to substantiate an ideological, puritanical and ad hominem campaign against the evils of neoliberalism.

Importantly, none of these complaints requested that Hedges not be allowed to speak at the conference.

At the time, conference planning and logistics were well underway, including the invitation of speakers, mostly Indigenous frontline activists. The goal was to create safe space for these voices to talk about extraction industries, and particularly Canadian corporate threats to communities, individuals and ecosystems. Some of the speakers would tie the issues of gender-based violence, including rape, to multinational mining interests globally. As conference videos show, great care was taken, guided by the integrity of the many First Nations speakers and attendees, to bring a high level of sensitivity, honour and respect to the contributions of participants.

An article that essentially labels those who adopt a harm reduction stance, or any stance contrary to Hedges’ own, as promoters of “whoredom” is not a good place to commence an open, safe and respectful dialogue. An inference reasonably drawn based on Hedges’ article was that the conference organizers, in their support of various harm reduction perspectives and groups in the DTES, were themselves those “feckless liberals” of whom Hedges had written.

With these and other tensions and antagonisms in the air, a decision was made to send a letter to Hedges expressing a clear intent to cancel his appearance. This move was not motivated by a desire to stifle “one side” of the debate, but centred on a desire to avoid Hedges’ substantial voice overshadowing others on a highly sensitive issue relevant to, but not central to, the main themes of the conference. Avoiding the potential victimization of important allies and guests who hold alternative positions on this issue was also a consideration.

This correspondence immediately found its way to sympathetic writers and activists who decried censorship, campaigned to get Hedges re-platformed and demanded that his contract be respected.

It quickly became apparent that a high-stakes game was being played that the conference wasn’t necessarily prepared or equipped to deal with. The decision to deny a platform to Hedges in an effort to take a principled stance was perceived as unprincipled. The hate email rolled in.

Throughout this process, I observed many of the overworked and well-intentioned organizers eager to build an effective conference become deflated. A notion developed that the letter to Hedges was precipitous and only aggravated a deteriorating situation. A “clarification” was then sent out, stating that Hedges would in fact speak at the conference, but that the organizing committee did not agree with his stance.

If Hedges had attended any of the conference workshops or roundtables, even he might have learned something.

Consequently, some of Hedges’ supporters came to the conference armed with the sense that the organizers had intentionally tried to shut them, and Hedges’ support for them, down. They may have attributed more negative intentions to the organizers than was warranted, but their perceptions were understandable. In reversing their previous action, the conference organizers had exposed themselves to further critique through the evident waffling.

Whatever explicit clarifications the organizing committee could have or should have made in the moment about the unfolding of events, or their principled support and respect for multiple perspectives on gender violence, were sidelined by the intensity of running a conference and the heaviness of the ensuing barrage of criticisms. The burden of dealing with the drama that had unfolded around the actions of one personality, and the reaction to these actions, now became not a minor feature of the conference, but a consuming one for some.

Hedges at the conference

As expected, Hedges came and delivered a typically powerful polemic on the ties between neoliberalism and the abuse of women’s bodies. The first part of Hedges’ talk was a critique of capitalism and the plunder of extractivism (with an opening based almost entirely on a previously published article on Truthdig.) He then targeted the objectification of women in society, and talked about pornography and the invariable intersection between war/conflict and sexual assault/ harassment/abuse of women and girls.

Hedges spoke very raw and evocative words about the need for men to speak out in support of women and against the sex industry. His words inspired and resonated with many in the audience, several of whom expressed a sense of vindication and agreement with his characterization of the issues and the targets of his attack. Indeed, men do need to speak out bravely and unapologetically (and morally) in support of women suffering from these systematic and egregious abuses. Here’s a sample of a defence of Hedges’ speech:

Hedge’s speech was thoughtful, pro-woman, and free of nonsensical appeals to “agency” and “choice” – so, predictably, a lot of male leftists are enraged. The Twitter feed for “#stateofex” is currently hosting more than a few tantrums by anarcho-dudes who have been driven apoplectic by what they call a “moralizing tone” on the part of Hedges.

A good way into the speech, Hedges turned the focus of his critique away from neoliberalism, and towards a direct and categorical attack on the legitimacy of alternative perspectives on these issues (as well as the university that invited him to speak), which he conflated with neoliberalism. He stated that he had authoritative legitimacy in making such harsh claims about the specificities of the DTES because of his global experience in war zones as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Hedges also launched into a discourse that included a liberal, raw and what some attendees described as “vulgar” use of expletives in the apparent service of viscerally advancing his arguments. Several people said they felt triggered and re-victimized by his language. A portion of the audience walked out and formed a growing circle outside the doors of the conference room, hugging and lending support to each other. An online discussion is reflective of some people’s views:

When a man gets shouty about the imminent collapse of civilization as signaled by society’s obsession with pleasure and carnal violence, and then goes on to detail actual episodes of sexual violence in incredibly graphic detail, and then demands that every woman in the audience imagine her various orifices being violated, again stated in very graphic detail….well, you might as well be listening to some right wing fundamentalist preacher getting off on the sins he loves to rail against. And saying no to that doesn’t make anyone an apologist, a bad feminist, or anything other than a person with the right to be dismayed by the gall of the shouty man on the podium. Any real substance to the issues was long gone by then.

At the end of the speech, several people rose to speak at the microphone, many praising Hedges. A First Nations leader who played a key moderating role throughout the conference spoke from her heart, exuding a deep spirituality in an environment filled with tension and raw emotion, and spoke some calming and reconciling words. Another prominent First Nations warrior, someone known to local activists and who is presently championing an important and respected land defence action in B.C., also rose to speak at the microphone.

He said he knew what violence was. In an act of personal vulnerability, he spoke of his own sexual abuse as a child and said that he was “re-traumatized” by Hedges’ use of “spiteful” attacks and “bad medicine.” “It really bothers me,” he said, “that people have to be subjected to emotional and verbal violence to get a point across. I feel re-traumatized. Violence against humans shouldn’t be exploited in any shape or form.” He asked the conference organizers to cleanse the room before it was used again for conference purposes.

In response, Hedges dismissed the contribution by noting his disagreement (and re-noting it in a subsequent article).

The room was cleansed the next day in accordance with Musqueam protocol.

The conference proceeded. While noting their criticisms to the conference organizers regarding the way the Hedges matter was handled, adherents of the abolitionist perspective participated constructively in individual workshops and plenaries, and they also tweeted congratulations to the conference organizers during the day.

As the conference continued on Saturday, participants enjoyed many powerful speeches, panels and discussion. Angelica Choc spoke during the Toxic Tour in the streets of downtown Vancouver and brought many to tears in describing her pain and pathos (see upcoming videos). Her husband was tortured and murdered at a Guatemalan mining site owned by Canadian company Hudbay Minerals. Freda Huson and Toghestiy described their epic challenge to Kinder Morgan, Enbridge and nine other companies in the form of a blockade against fracking gas, liquefied natural gas and tar sands oil.

We heard from Kanahus of the Secwpemc Nation about the tragedy of the Mount Polley tailings pond breach (the largest environmental catastrophe in B.C. history), which has destroyed pristine waterways. We discussed immigrant rights in the face of climate displacement; Burnaby Mountain and No Line 9 pipeline activist solidarity; Canadian mining interests polluting water and destroying communities in Africa, Ecuador, Philippines and Mexico; along with many other stories of individuals and communities fighting against Canadian imperialist monstrosities around the globe.

A well-defined analysis

Considering the stakes involved in terms of the individual lives of victims, it is crucial to have a well-defined analysis that accurately diagnoses the causes of and solutions to gender violence. Journalistic and polemical approaches can sensationalize issues, but are no substitute for social theory. Simply hammering home aggressive and gratuitous words and images to make a point may attract attention, but it does not add up to a theory of social change.

The conference was not about sex work in the DTES and should not have been used as a platform to make aggressive declaratory pronouncements in the hopes of slaying one’s personal Moby Dick.

No doubt, we want to eliminate (abolish) all oppression and harm against women. The struggle for women's equality and against gender violence is not an isolated struggle, however, and will not be resolved until many other structural features of present society, including capitalist social relations and other patriarchal forms are eliminated at the same time. Until then, we can only mitigate some of its worst consequences. This understanding provides at least some support to the harm reduction argument.

Hedges speaks evocatively of the many evils that beset present society. One of those evils he does not address is the culture of capitalism that divides forces of the Left — the people who are working against oppression and for liberation. In pointedly dividing the Left, Hedges’s approach smacks of reaction: it aggravates a neoliberalized culture full of fear, distrust, anxiety, duplicity and trauma. On the contrary, authentic solutions will come as activists ground themselves at a personal and theoretical level and allow each to maintain perspective while staying fixed on achieving collective goals.

This will require not solely a “moralistic” stand, but also one of compassion, mixed with serious efforts towards remobilizing the historical tradition of radical socialist theory and struggle with allies across sectors. Hedges, clearly, is no Marxist or socialist, although he may seem one by writing pithy slogans like “No One is Free Until All Are Free” in his latest flourish. It is a position that he seems to struggle with in practice, for it requires tolerance, support and forgiveness among those who approach issues from different angles, but nevertheless share the same fundamental aims.

Equally important is an anarchist sensibility that constantly challenges the exercise of power: the tendency among those with inordinate amounts of class, professional, gendered, or racial privilege (or cultural capital) to recklessly exercise their power in a way that excludes or endangers others. Hedges himself articulates this phenomenon with literary mastery in describing the “hubris” in his Moby Dick-as-metaphor speeches.

While speaking at the conference, if Hedges had attended any of the conference workshops or roundtables, even he may have learned something. He would have witnessed real people fighting real battles against the neoliberalism that he so forcefully speaks about: First Nation land defenders who build camps in the way of large multinational pipeline and mining projects, and women putting their bodies between destructive corporations and the fertile earth that gives us all life. If he had listened, he may have been moved by the grandeur of these people and humbled himself in the face of a much more ancient, powerful and abiding source of rebel energy.

Concluding thoughts

Throughout, the Institute for the Humanities played a commendable role in its sponsorship of the State of Extraction conference. Within an increasingly neoliberalized university system, and within the corporate-sponsored venues where the conference took place, the institute embarked on a steely attempt at the re-appropriation of commodified and colonized space.

The conference was explicitly designed to create a safe space to actively promote voices that are usually excluded from universities and that are decidedly critical of corporate interests and the associated narrowing range of public discourse. In this sense the conference represents not the forces of increasingly institutionalized neoliberalism as Hedges dramatically and erroneously asserts, but a unique, critical and counter-hegemonic presence within the larger institution.

The conference was not about sex work in the DTES and should not have been used as a platform to make aggressive declaratory pronouncements in the hopes of slaying one’s personal Moby Dick (whether that be neoliberalism, or any other abstract Leviathan). To adequately discuss the themes broached in Hedges’ articles and address, time, space and patience is needed that is inclusive of the divergent opinions of those victims, frontline activists, and other organic intellectuals and academics who are considered to be experts in these fields.

Because Hedges’ talk was substantively different than what he was invited to do, neither the organizers nor the audience was equipped to ensure they were adequately warned of this risk (and thus afforded the choice of not attending and exposing themselves to potential trauma). The talk that Hedges gave should have been prefaced with a trigger warning. It is deeply regrettable that conference attendees were placed in this position.

Hedges was respectfully invited by Stephen Collis, under the aegis of Simon Fraser University, twice within a month to speak because of his politics and perceived outstanding leadership in bringing to light important issues of the day. Collis has profound respect in this community for his track record of supporting important political work, particularly in his organizing of solidarity among First Nation and settler communities.

Instead of enjoying the fruits of their hard labour during and after the conference, many of those who helped organize and who attended the conference, the vast majority of whom are comrades in the struggle against numerous oppressions, had to face the ongoing and lingering dark negative energy of what seemed to be Hedges’ personal vendetta.

Numerous attendees had little problem with Hedges’ delivery and thought he spoke powerfully and appropriately, either missing or choosing to ignore the controversy and underlying drama, and to see only constructive messages. Some women vocalized their deep gratefulness for Hedges’ words. They expressed their support for Hedges’ calls on men to step up to support women. Critical voices within the conference in defence of Hedges signaled important issues for us all to reflect upon.

Men need to display the humility of a male ally in the presence of the varying concerns of women and inquire in good faith into the lived experiences of those with concerns. Settlers need to exhibit humility and respect when interacting with Indigenous Elders, and especially with tested warriors who put their bodies to the service of history, humanity and our Mother Earth.

Most important, of course, are the voices of women who continue to face violence in their daily lives (and the women who support them) as a result of male violence and structures of oppression, including patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism. My deep hope is that the overriding effect of the State of Extraction conference, including Hedges’ contributions, the discussions and networking in its aftermath and all we have collectively learned from it all, will uphold the voices of these women.

Most of the proceedings of the conference will be available in video form in the coming days on the State of Extraction website. All of the Chris Hedges drama has already been posted on the website transparently for all to see. The State of Extraction welcomes all views and all continuing participation in what has been widely acknowledged as an historic event.

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