Sex Work Activists History Project – Activist Storytelling series – Chanelle Gallant
With, Amy Lebovitch, Shawna Ferris, Danielle Allard
Amy: We are meeting Chanelle Gallant September 2022, as part of the sex work activist history’s project – the activist story telling the series. We are Amy and Shawna and Danielle, and we will ask you, Chanelle if you can please introduce yourself.
Chanelle: Hey! I am Chanelle Gallant. I use she/her pronouns. And I am doing this interview from Toronto.
Shawna: Okay. Oh, it looks like I’ve been assigned the first question, so I will kick it off to Chanelle. Thanks so much for meeting with us today. I’m super excited to be having this conversation with you, and honored that you were able to squeeze in the time for us.
Chanelle: Yah! I am super jazzed about this project. It’s so cool to see sex work activism documented. Yeah. If you guys weren’t doing it, nobody would. I think it’s really fabulous that you’re doing it. I’m really grateful to be part of it.
Shawna: We are super excited to be doing it because there is so much important work that’s been done. And on that note, here’s a nice deep question to begin the process. Chanelle, how do you want to be remembered?
Chanelle: Yeah, oh my god. Okay –
Shawna: Delving right in!
Chanelle: I know, just dive right in. Okay well, I think I mentioned this in a previous conversation, which is that I was really inspired by Leslie Fienberg’s final words, which were “remember me as a revolutionary communist”. And I really loved it and it really struck me when they passed away. Gosh that was just under a decade ago, and I think I want to be remembered as a revolutionary feminist.
Shawna: Fabulous. I think Danielle has a follow up for you.
Danielle: I am next, yes. I wanted to also express how grateful I am to be in this conversation today, and I was really struck by your comments last time about wanting to be remembered as a revolutionary feminist and I think the very logical next question is, tell us how you became a revolutionary.
Chanelle: *laughs* Yeah, what radicalized you, Chanelle!? I was really radicalized in the sex workers rights movement. But then also through anti-policing work which led me into anti-criminalization. Which led me into racial justice and prison abolition work. And then from there my experience and my political education, both in grassroots movements – in sex workers rights and anti-criminalization, really showed me that only radical change could improve the conditions for women, and for all living beings actually. That most of the reforms that we were aiming for, well many of them are incredibly important and lifesaving, wouldn’t actually get to the root of the problem and transform conditions for all living beings. The thing is about sex workers is that sex work includes the most marginalized people in every sector of society. So, to improve conditions for sex workers means changing every part of society. It means changing everything. At the root. That makes you a revolution then. To me anyways. Yah.
Danielle: Yeah, I really appreciate that perspective and It connects as well to the next question, which is that your sex work activism and indeed, all of your activisms, I would say, and you’ve just talked about all of their deep connections to each other, have taken many forms over the years you’ve done so many things and worn a lot of hats, in the movements that you’ve been a part of, and I wonder if you want to tell us any stories, or the story, if it’s only one story, of your sex work activism.
Chanelle: Yeah, I mean, have I worn many hats? I guess so. I guess I have. Yeah, because, you know, just to start out, I really see myself as a worker in grassroots movements. I’m a movement worker. I do a lot of different things because I try to apply my talents and grow personally in ways that will contribute to grassroots movements. So, I’ve done a lot of things, but I also feel like, in some ways, it’s not very exceptional. In some ways I’m just doing the work of activism, and you wear a lot of different hats when you do activism. *laughs* I have been a trainer, I’ve been a fundraiser, I’ve been an organizer, I’ve been a public speaker… I’ve done everything from write grants to train others in media and strategy. A lot of what I feel like I’ve done over the last 10 years has been to try to build relationships between sex workers rights movements and the broader left – racial, economic and gender justice movements. And I think that has been somewhat unique. I’m not the only one but I feel like that is definitely my lane, and that’s a pretty big lane, I mean sex workers rights with gender, racial and economic justice, and I’m trying to bring them together. And there’s many reasons for that and it goes both ways, it goes both ways, it’s because I believe that sex workers need gender, racial, and economic justice. Obviously, because sex workers are impacted by all of those systems of injustice, but also because I think the left really needs sex workers. And, in fact, the left is full of sex workers already but doesn’t incorporate in any way, doesn’t benefit from the particular analysis, strategy and experience of sex workers and sex worker movements and that’s a huge loss on the left’s part as well, and we’ll come back to this in terms of the work that I’m doing now and what I’m writing about because… just to give you one small example, everyone in society suffers when the police have more resources and more power. I mean everyone except for the very wealthy but everyone else suffers, when we don’t have real solutions to problems, and instead we put all of the energy, all of the money into policing, which doesn’t solve social problems, and in fact, causes a lot of them. So basically, what I’m saying is policing is bad. And one of the ways that the left really suffers is they allow a lot of police expansion and police power through not understanding what the anti-trafficking laws are. Because the left doesn’t really build with sex workers, they don’t understand how much policing they are actually supporting or complacent around and failed to resist, because of their lack of an analysis around anti-trafficking policing. So, that’s just one example of how I think obviously sex workers need broader leftist movements, because I don’t think sex workers can win on their own. They just can’t in terms of all of the things that they’re up against but secondly, I think the broader left desperately need sex workers and that’s just one small example.
Okay! So that’s kind of my bigger…that’s what I try to do and now, I want to actually just tell one story. Okay, and I’m going to tell the story of how I first started organizing in the sex worker movement. So, I was already a strong supporter of sex worker rights, years before I joined an organization. And that had come out of my queer feminism. So, I had been part of a human rights case against the police where we’d won a settlement, and we had donated a $100,000 of that settlement to Maggie’s the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, right, and our human rights case was not related to sex work directly, but we all felt an allyship with sex workers so that’s where we wanted the money to go. But my participation in the sex work movement, which I really date from the time I joined an organization, versus just being a supportive ally, really started with my finding out about the massacre of murdered, and missing women in the downtown east side of Vancouver. And I think that that massacre has inspired a lot of people to take action in different ways. And I’m one of them. So, I didn’t live in Vancouver at the time, but my family did, and in 2004 I was visiting my family, and I saw a poster on a telephone poll for missing women. And I noticed it because it had so many little pictures on it. And usually, missing person’s posters have one or two pictures on it, but this had what looked like dozens. So, I stopped and I looked more closely at the poster, and to my horror I saw that in fact dozens of women were missing from this one little neighborhood, the downtown east side of Vancouver. And so, I was immediately struck with horror, because three things kind of went through my mind at the same time, all very fast. First was that, so much death, that likely a serial killer was operating, and no one was stopping the predator or predators. The dates of the “last seen” went back to the eighties and nineties. So clearly nobody was stopping this. Second, each photo said something like ‘sex trade worker and drug user’ beneath it, and many of the photos were mugshots. So, it was clear that the predator or predators were targeting poor, street based, drug using sex workers. And the third thing that I realized, was that this was the first I was learning of it because clearly the national media did not think that these disappearances were worth writing about. And I was horrified. I was scared. Because my sister worked in that neighborhood, at a strip club. She worked in the downtown eastside as a dancer, and the fear that went through me was, what if some angry customer waited around for her until she got off her shift and attacked her in the parking lot. Would anyone help her if screamed? What would happen to her young son, if she went missing. So, out of that shock, and the horror and the anger and realization, it was really kind of an end of a certain type of naivety, about how bad things could get for poor women, to be honest. I had grown up in a poor family, but I think it was the moment that I realized that there was no net. No one was going to help women at a certain level of poverty except each other. And that in fact, if a predator wanted to come along and pick them off one by one, maybe no one was going to stop them, or at least the society around us was not going to stop them. And so, in that moment I decided that I was going to do something, and that I had to organize with sex workers. That’s what I decided.
So, I didn’t actually know who was doing that work in Toronto, where I was living. But shortly after I got back, I saw a little flyer for a demonstration outside of a government officials office. It was a federal government official, I forget who now, I could probably find that somewhere. I actually think I asked Valerie Scott about that, and she told me, I think she remembered or she knew whose office we were demonstrating at. So I saw this little flyer and it was being organized by SPOC, the Sex Professionals of Canada. (Amy notes: After this conversation was recorded, we found the name of the official Chanelle is speaking about, Bill Graham, and this is the poster Chanelle was speaking about seeing!)
And I went to the demonstration, and it was in the fall of 04, I believe, and I don’t remember much about it. I remember it was cold, and I met sex work activists. One of the SPOC members– I forget who it was now–lifted their hand over my head and said, “well, we are going to sprinkle honorary whore dust on you” and they let me join SPOC. So, *laughs* I became a member of the Sex Professionals of Canada. And that is how I joined the sex workers rights movement, was the fall of ’04.
Shawna: An inspiring and intense part, or way to get into it. Thanks, Chanelle. So, we have a question about some of the groups and folks that you worked with. So, you told us a little bit about SPOC, a little about how you got into the movement, what groups and people have you worked with since then and what have you learned from them?
Chanelle: Man…. I mean I really don’t know how I could…..I don’t feel like I could remember all of the lessons that I’ve learned because I’ve been completely transformed through my work. It’s been 18 years now since I first joined a sex workers rights organization…but I was enormously influenced through…even those first couple of years with the Sex Professionals of Canada, where I met you Amy, and Val and Wendy Babcock. And I went on to work with Empower in Thailand briefly, and then the Aboriginal Sex Workers Education and Outreach Project, which was at Maggie’s and ASWEOP was the first project in Canada that was by and for Indigenous sex workers. Tthere were projects for, but none that were also by, that actually had Indigenous sex work leadership. I learned enormous amount by working with Monica Forrester, a legend and pillar in sex work community and activism in Toronto. A little bit with Desiree Alliance in the United States. Got to know Carol Leigh, who is one of the grandmothers of the sex workers rights movement and coined the term sex work in the late seventies. Spent some time hanging around the folks at Scarlet Alliance in Australia. And the different state level sex work organizations in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria. Yeah, other states in Australia. And then, more recently, I spent a lot of time working with Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network. Me and Elene Lam and Tings Chak founded a project called The Migrant Sex Worker Project. And I’ve sort of just provided different kinds of support and worked alongside different sex work organizations across the country. Whether that’s just being a part of actions or trainings or gatherings. I also organized with a group of people, a national gathering that was, I believe it was sort of the maybe the first national gathering that was just street based and racialized sex workers…. back in I think 2015…And a lot of really important connections got made out of that meeting, between people who did then went on to continue working with each other. And in particular, there were really great and important conversations between Indigenous folks in the sex industry, migrant folks in the sex industry,….and that’s the sex work organizations, but then I also have a lot of connections to non sex work organizations.
Going back to an earlier question, where I really got radicalized around abolition was when I did a four month long political education training in San Francisco called the Anne Braden Anti-Racism Training for a white Social Justice Activists, I think is the name. And boy oh boy did they ever turn me into a radical, including that I spent five months volunteering for Critical Resistance, which is a prison and police abolition organization. And I went into that work, being anti-prison and anti-police and anti-criminalization, but feeling like they were sort of a necessary evil in society,that we had to do what we could to kind of rein in their power, but that we needed them. We just needed them to actually do their jobs. And then I came out of that process, thinking, “oh, they are doing their jobs, we’re just being lied to about what their actual jobs are”. So actually we don’t want them at all. None of it. Zero. But, all the prisons, all the police, all the border control. This is entirely the wrong system to produce safety or peace or justice, for anyone. So, I have a lot of relationships with organizations that are outside of the section there’s race movement because, like I said, I really see myself as working at the intersection between left movements for racial, economic and gender justice and sex workers rights. But more specifically really, I just turned into a big abolitionist, and that’s really the work that excites me the most is abolitionist feminism, and what that offers for…and when I say abolitionist, I actually mean prison, police and border abolitionism too and what that offers for sex workers.
Shawna: Woman…you have been all the places! *laughter*
Chanelle: Politically I have been to a lot of places! *laughter*
Shawna: Okay, So I’m always interested…. like I’m obviously interested in all the things that you’re telling so far, but I’m also interested in the people. Like, the story about the people…. We are hoping to talk to Monica Forrester at some point
Chanelle: Yah, great! Excellent!
Shawna: She’s very busy though. Like you, she is a hard person to get in touch with but we’re working on it! And so, I appreciate you pointing us in that direction again, but who is it that inspires you, or mentors you, or what are those moments where something sort of crystallized and it was because of a conversation or someone that you knew, or that you worked with.
Chanelle: OK! Let me just think about this… oh my goodness.
Shawna: Maybe I’m making it too dramatic, like maybe it doesn’t need to be a moment of crystallization….
Shawna: …maybe it can just be a moment of or a time when you felt really connected and the group was working well, and it was because of the people…
Shawna: …..maybe the moments of sex work activism aren’t those dramatic moments…
Shawna: maybe they are the relationships
Chanelle: Yeah, well, I’ll just start with a few and see where we get.
Chanelle: in one of those early SPOC meetings, I remember an Indigenous member, who I am not going to name. I would be happy to give her credit, but I don’t think she’d want to be named, saying to me, ‘you know, 60% of the women who were killed on that pig farm were Indigenous.’ And I didn’t know that. That was news to me. And that’s because, the way that that massacre was being understood at that time. was not being viewed through the lens of colonial violence against Indigenous women. And, of course that struck me, as it should! Because it introduced a whole different lens. If I was trying to understand the roots of violence against sex workers, because I wanted to stop it ultimately, I want to stop violence against sex workers, I want sex workers to be free and safe, to live their own lives. And to do that, you have to understand why it’s happening. Where is this coming from?! And, you know with that one comment from her, it just dropped in an extremely important lens on why this was happening, and where it was coming from. And, it tells me that if you don’t look at colonization, and if we don’t consider that part of our work in the sex workers rights movement, you’ve just missed 60 percent of what was happening there. And actually, not just 60 percent,, but at least you’re missing 60 percent. And that’s the minimum because the rest of it is still explained through colonization too. But just to say, that’s what it means for us, that’s how dangerous it is for us not to take an intersectional and broad lens…You miss the point of what’s happening! It’s not about trying to be PC, I think a lot of people misunderstand the reason for having an anti-oppression, justice lens and they think it’s about not offending people, or being polite or being politically correct. It’s not. It’s just that you literally are not getting it. You’re not actually going to change anything without that because that’s what explains why this is happening, and who’s doing it! Who’s propping it up, what are the systems keeping it in place. So that’s a comment, that’s an example of how just someone’s analysis in that room…that she knew that, and she saw that, because of her own experience as an Indigenous sex worker, then changed how I understood violence against sex workers, forever. So those are the kinds of moments that really inspire me. The moments that inspire me, a lot of it is really what I would call grassroots intellectualism. It’s the everyday people’s understanding of really how systems of power work, because that’s who understands it. People who are targeted by a system of power are the ones who have to understand it because they’re going to fucking die if they don’t. Of course, they understand it.
Shawna: So well said!
Chanelle: Thank you and that’s the knowledge that I really respect. I mean I’m a big theorist as well,, but I view those types of knowledge as being both…. Well, actually, I prioritize knowledge from the community and the best theorists, that’s where their knowledge is coming from. I consider myself a theorist as well and that theory comes out of me looking at the world and working with people and being on the front lines and trying to understand what is happening here. Yeah, so that’s one example…okay who else am I inspired by… Early on in my politicization around sex workers rights and abolition, I started to really learn as much as I could about people who are directly impacted by criminalization. Which, in the sex workers rights movement, is like trans women of colour, black trans women, migrant women. And so, I studied the histories, everything I could read about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. But I tracked down the memoirs of trans women of color sex workers, and read them, wherever I could find them. I learned about Georgina Beyer in New Zealand. The Lady Chablis, a black trans woman who wrote one of the first memoirs by a black trans woman sex worker. I made a point to really study the experiences of criminalization of sex work…people who were criminalized for all the different reasons, not just sex work. And I think that made me a community taught scholar of sex work. Which is how I ended up being a writer about it. And that’s intellectually, I will also say that emotionally, I’m really inspired by sex workers determination, their courage, and their support for each other. So, I love how migrant sex workers evade border control and the cops, to do what they need to do and go where they need to go. I’m inspired by poor sex workers, especially parents, who get themselves and their kids out of poverty, who get food on the table, in spite of the incredible risks they face around criminalization and stigma. I really feel, sex workers are fucking cool, and sex workers are the coolest people I have ever known, by a long shot because they refuse to accept the unfair place they have been given in life. Whether that’s being forcibly displaced from their homes, whether that’s being forced to stay somewhere they don’t want to stay, whether that’s being in poverty or an abusive relationship sex workers say fuck that, I’m going to use sex to get out of this. Good for you girl! Go get it! That’s what I say. Sex work is a refusal. It is a refusal to stay put and sex work is how people insist on and demand their own survival. And I love that. And I also really love the way that sex workers look out for each other, and have really inspiring ways of believing each other, which I think are incredibly advanced *laughter* compared to a lot of mainstream feminism. When sex workers share with each other that a customer was mean or cheap or abusive, they believe each other. Sex workers believe each other and sex workers also support each other with you know resources, safety, sending clients, or just directly giving money… They’ll walk each other out of the club at night, whatever it is… different ways of supporting each other and that is because they are each other’s only net. So that’s the other side of that, so that really inspires me.
Shawna: Beautiful said! Beautifully said! So, I have one more, but I feel like maybe you’ve already talked about this but if there’s more you want to say, I’ll ask the question, because we have it, and we co-developed our list, so…. what stands out for you, in the years that you’ve spent as a sex work activist. What actions or events have you been involved with that have stuck out for you.
Chanelle: Oh, geez…. let me think about this!
Shawna: We can circle back to it later.
Chanelle: Yeah…. I’ll do one… which is Sex Workers United Against Violence, when they were on the steps of the Supreme Court, in…. was that 2013 Amy? I feel like it was 2013.
Amy: Yeah, I think it was.
Shawna: Was that the Vancouver downtown sex workers group?
Shawna: Ok great, please, go ahead.
Chanelle: So that is a sex workers group from the downtown eastside, mostly Indigenous and they were on the steps of the Supreme Court and it was really beautiful and powerful because I had a sense of how… how important it was for them to be there. How much stigma and criminalization and personal risk they were taking to participate in this action. And again, that that insistence on survival, the demand to survive and to have the right to survive, with safety, really inspired me. And…which kind of leads me into another moment that was one of the most emotionally intense moments…which was the moment that I heard the Supreme Court Decision. Yeah, that was incredibly intense. Yeah. I was in a TV studio, I think, and I was waiting to go on air…I was going be interviewed by a national TV station and
Shawna: Like you were ready to be interviewed about the case?
Chanelle: Yeah. But I hadn’t heard word of the decision and
Shawna: Oh, wow! So, they just like, had you in waiting?
Chanelle: Yeah…the timing just happened to be that I was in the front, in the waiting area, in their offices….
Shawna: Oh wow!
Chanelle: …so I was about to be taken into the Green Room or whatever, so I was just in the entrance way, waiting, and another sex work activist called me……..and she was screaming and sobbing….“we won, we won, we won everything!” Told me that it was unanimous, and I let out a piercing scream. Okay, I don’t think I’ve ever spontaneously just screamed, and I fell to my knees screaming, and of course people rushed over to hush me because I was in a TV studio, and I was in shock, kind of like stumbling around, couldn’t really see through the tears, crying, we won, we won. And then I had to go on camera, then I had to get ready to be interviewed, and I was interviewed shortly after that. If it’s the interview I’m remembering, I was very composed and was like “It was a slam dunk for justice”. *laughing*. I had wrapped up all of my sentimentality… I think, because they put me opposite some Christian fundamentalists, and I was like, “fuck you!” And the reason it’s so emotional is because I knew how many women died because of those laws, you know. How many women had died, not just because they had been killed, but through suicide, as a result of medical neglect, because they haven’t been able to get the treatment, as a result of addictions that criminalization had led to…. how many women had been sexually assaulted, lost their children…. I mean the harm of those laws was so vicious. So, it was kind of devastating at the same time as it was joyous, because of how many people had died to get us to that point. that Terri-Jean, and Amy, and so many others, had had to fight so hard against a set of laws that were killing women, was so unfair…. the amount of work it took, and the obscene power in the government to make these laws, to defend these laws. And, I think also, the painful vulnerability that of over the years, watching sex workers have to fight for their lives in front of people who shouldn’t have ever had that power. Those judges should never have had that power to make decisions, life or death decisions, for poor and working class people in the sex industry. That’s wrong. That’s obscene. I wasn’t joyful, that the judges agreed with us. I think I was relieved that people who never should have had that kind of power, came down on our side. But it’s not right, that that was their decision to make. It’s never been right. So that was a moment that stands out.
Shawna: Yeah. Yeah, really does.
Danielle: I was just pausing in case there was anything that you wanted to add Chanelle, but I’m the asker of the next question.
Chanelle: Go for it.
Danielle: The next question is, what activist work are you doing now?
Chanelle: Well, I work…I really try to, as I mentioned before, keep my feet in two different movements that I try to bridge, which are racial justice and the sex workers rights movement. So, I organize with an organization called Showing Up for Racial Justice, which has a chapter here in Toronto that I helped co-found, back in 2016. But today I don’t work with that chapter, I just work with the national body in the United States, and that organization has hundreds of chapters. I don’t remember how many, hundreds of chapters, and over a quarter million members are involved in the US. So, I’m really interested in how we can break off, in particular, white working class support for the, where it is the strongest and most powerful, which is in the United States. So, because I see the influence of the racist right in the United States having a pull in Canada and everywhere else in the world.And because that racism is underneath so much of the support for the police and laws that are so dangerous to sex workers. So again, I wanted to go to the root!. I wanted to go to where it is coming from, and pull it out from the root–which is the authoritarian white supremacist right wing organizing, in poor and working class white communities, in the United States. So that’s my work with Showing Up for Racial Justice. And then my sex work activism and I would say I’m more of an activist than an organizer now. I distinguish between the two. It’s a nerdy point most people won’t care about, but….
Shawna: …. You got a nerdy audience here, if not on the wider……. I appreciate a good nerdy point!
Chanelle: Yeah! And most people don’t know what an organizer is, and that’s fine. But in terms of my sex work activism, I speak publicly and publish a lot around sex work and policing and police abolition. And some of that work I do with Elene Lam. I work a lot with Butterfly, doing political education, and so Elene Lam and I are co-authoring a book right now on sex work, migration, and the politics of human trafficking. And why the anti-trafficking industry actually needs to be abolished, because we’re going to the root guys! We are going to pull it out at the root. So yeah, those are I’d say the big sort of buckets of my areas of work.
Danielle: Thanks for that. Just for the nerds, how do you distinguish activism and organizing? How do you understand them differently?
Chanelle: Yeah, briefly, I would say that if you’re an organizer, you organize people. So there has to be a group of people that you are organizing towards action. So, for example, when I do my public speaking and publishing, that’s not organizing, because there isn’t a base of people who I am working with, collaborating with, towards a particular campaign. I’m doing political education, and I see that as activism versus organizing.when I went to that first demonstration with SPOC, that’s organizing cause that was a group of people, moving collectively towards some kind of common goal. Where’s anyone who has a public platform, can be engaging in activism…but there’s a lot of different ways of doing activism right, behind the scenes as well. That’s my brief take on it.
Danielle: That’s really helpful. I appreciated that because part of this project is to think about how to capture and reflect those knowledges and histories and yeah, the lessons learned around organizing and activism. So, having separate vocabularies to understand them helps us sort of think through how do we share and teach and learn about what’s needed to do that work.
Chanelle: Yeah. I mean I haven’t thought this through, so don’t put this in a curriculum, but I feel like I would say that, the Supreme Court challenging and court challenges are activism. But then, SWUAVS and all these different organizations coming to the Supreme Court in a show of solidarity, I would say that that’s organizing.
Danielle: Yeah, that’s helpful, thank you.
Chanelle: If you’re an organizer, you have a base.
Danielle: Yeah, so thinking about how do many generate that base, that’s an important organizing question…that’s important knowledge…
Chanelle: Yeah, that’s very complex. Organizing is very complex and very difficult and I have enormous respect for people who do it. And it’s one of the reasons I like to train and fundraise, is to support organizers. Yeah.
Danielle: Yeah, thank you. I also have the next question and I think you’ve talked about this, and I’m going to ask it again and maybe it’s a similar question from a different angle.
Danielle: But I was watching a video that you were in, with Monica, it was a series that was being organized by xtra,
Chanelle: Yeah, yeah, yeah! My Protest and Pleasure series.
Danielle: I loved it. And I’m one of the things that you said, when you were opening this stage for the conversation, was that “sex work activist movements have developed the most transformational politics of any social justice movement” and I was really moved by that statement. It’s really exciting and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you see the movement in this way.
Chanelle: Yeah, that is how I’ve come to understand what a meaningfully inclusive sex work politic means. I’m not saying this is how the sex workers rights movement always moves. But I am saying that if you create a movement, and if we are building a movement for all sex workers, then yes, I believe it is the most transformational politic of any social justice movement. And that’s because sex work is performed by the most marginalized women, and queer people in the world. Poor people, black, Indigenous people, people of color, people in prisons, people in refugee camps, undocumented people, queer and trans people, especially trans women, HIV positive people, unhoused people, disabled people. That’s who sex workers are. And when people think of the sex workers rights movement, unfortunately, they often have the image of a thin 21 year old woman spinning around a pole. That’s not what the sex industry is. The sex industry is, the average sex worker is likely to be a working class, racialized, migrant mother. That’s who needs the sex worker rights movement, and that’s who the sex worker rights movement needs to be working for. So, when we include all sex workers… our vision of social justice, then it necessarily requires a complete social and political transformation If we include everybody I just described, and why wouldn’t we, why wouldn’t we? Then justice for sex workers has to mean ending capitalism, and white supremacy, border imperialism and male supremacy. Because these are all systems of domination that are harming sex workers. The global sex workers rights movement has had to be incredibly intersectional in understanding the relationship between different forms of oppression because of who sells sex. So, that is where that perspective comes from.
Danielle: Thank you. Yeah. I love it.
Amy: Yes, thank you so much. I know, looking at the time, and we have a few more questions. Also, I will say, while you were talking, not wanting to interrupt you, right…. thinking through some of the things that you have talked about, there’s so many questions I have about those questions, that aren’t here – that I haven’t thought about but I’m just thinking about all the things you just shared…and to go on to the next question…which I am going to do but….
Chanelle: Ok, and I hope we get the chance to get into it, cause I would love to hear some of your questions too, but let’s just, we can stick with what we got –
Amy: I just wanted to recognize, like all the stuff that you shared is so big and there’s so much I want to know more about….
Chanelle: Thank you,
Amy: So, you’ve been talking about the sex workers rights movement and the ways in which you are, I forget how you phrase it, in between like the left organizing and I was wondering more about some of the things that maybe, if we’re talking about the sex workers rights movement the wider sex worker rights movement, and what it gets wrong or needs improvement on, or if you know what I mean…
Chanelle: Yeah…I think I would just answer this briefly by saying…. a few things are going through my mind. Cause there’s a couple of things, one where I think well, not having an analysis about the intersections between sex workers oppression and kind of broader global systems of domination and exploitation and oppression. And the way I came to that was because I was really trying to figure out how we could win decriminalization. And so, it was pragmatic. I wasn’t trying to be theoretical about this, I was really trying to figure out why can’t we win decrim?. And what I came to understand was how the criminalization of sex work is one part of a much broader system of criminalization, which is rooted in white supremacy and capitalism. And so no, we can’t win decrim because it’s only one part of a system that sex workers are just one piece of. It’s similar with drug criminalization. Anybody with eyes can see that it’s extremely harmful. All of the evidence is there, it’s undeniably harmful to criminalize drugs. Lethal. It should be criminal to criminalize drugs. You know what I mean.
Chanelle: But we can’t just pull out this one thread and win decriminalization, because the system is there for a bigger reason. It’s only one block in a wall that is protecting white wealth, so we have to deal with that, and so I feel like often the sex workers rights movement thinks of race and capitalism and class, as things that we need to kind of add in or add on, rather than understanding they’re already added in, it’s not about adding in race and class, it’s really about adding sex work in to an understanding of how we deal with white supremacy and capitalism. And then on a pragmatic sense, I think more people should be organizers. I think organizing is very difficult. it’s unsupported. I don’t think it’s a personal failing that we don’t have more organizing but from a strategic perspective I would say yes, I think we need more organizing, more community grassroots community based building and that’s difficult to do with sex workers but then that could be broader… I think I’ll just leave it there, so we can get through a couple more questions.
Amy: Yes, so when we were prepping for this interview, we were chatting you made a statement and comments around mainstream feminism and its support for white supremacy and the harm that does to sex workers, and that stood up to me and I wanted to ask you a question to talk more about that If you wanted.
Chanelle: Yeah, I mean, I think that the mainstream feminism, which is dominated by cisgender class privileged white women, actually works very hard to disenfranchise, exploit and harm sex workers. That’s not a liberation movement. That’s not left. That’s not social justice. That’s a right wing movement posing as feminism.
Chanelle: Those are enemies. And that’s the mainstream. Because there’s a long history around the racism and classism of mainstream feminism, that that is what it comes out of it. Mainstream feminism is really white feminism which really comes out of racist movements.
Racist white women’s movements, in the first wave, that continued a great deal in the second wave, and we can see this in both the first wave and the second wave of feminists redefining slavery, not as a function of white supremacy anymore, but that is perpetrated by white people against people of color, but really working to redefine slavery as connected to the sex industry, and to define sex work as a form of slavery, so that white people then become very innocent. innocent of committing labor exploitation, or coerced labor, enslaved labor, and, in fact, become both the victims and the liberators of the enslaved. This is just straight up, fucking white supremacy and it’s enrages me as a white woman and a feminist myself, to see class privileged white women turn what should be a global and incredibly powerful feminist movement against male supremacy and patriarchy into this mean spirited cruel hateful, movement against sex workers.
Shawna: Here here! So well said.
Chanelle: Thank you. I think we have no idea what feminism could be if it wasn’t infected by anti-sex work. and I’ll also add–because it’s very important and as we all know, very related–anti-trans sentiments. Cause anti- trans bigotry, similarly, is incredibly essentialist. It’s all the things we don’t want. It defines women by reproductive capacity. It’s so sexist. Patently! And I think mainstream white feminism can’t even get the feminism right. I don’t think they even like women. They’re not comfortable with women who are in any way sexually independent or kinky, or even into beauty, it’s not supposed to be feminist to want to feel beautiful or to like high heelsGet a real problem!. Deal with women’s poverty!. Why would feminists be opposed to the things that bring women joy?. Things like their own sexuality, their femininity, and their beauty. And there is the problem that I reference earlier which is that, often there’s a lot of internalized misogyny and a lot of internalized rape culture and a lot of non-sex working feminists who still don’t believe other women and really blame women for violence and think that if they behave, don’t dress like a slut, they won’t get raped, and if someone does get raped, it’s because they did something to attract it. That’s my total condemnation of white feminism.
Amy: Thank you for that! So, I guess this question sort of follows some of the other stuff you have talked about, which is what are some of the most important work still left to be done for the sex worker rights movement and how do we do that work, and what does a revolutionary future look like.
Chanelle: Well, I’ll try to answer this just briefly because I know we’re at time…. What does a revolutionary future look like…. I think all of the communities that sex workers come from are defining that. I think Indigenous women are telling us, what does the revolutionary future look like. I think undocumented migrants are telling us what a revolutionary feature looks like. I think the world’s poor and indentured workers are telling us what a revolutionary future looks like. I can’t wait! I want to know! I mean that inspires me. That’s who inspires me. What inspires me are movements, what inspires me is solidarity, and that’s part of survival I was talking about earlier too. I understand sex worker’s survival and a revolution for sex workers, as being much bigger, a part of these global communities that sex workers are drawn from. Because that is who sex workers are. That is where sex workers work– in the streets and fields and factories and back rooms of the world and man camps. and what that’s going to look like is being defined by movements. Because it’s being collectively defined, people are in conversation with their communities to figure out what do we actually need, and what is it going to take for us to get there.
Amy: Thank you so much Chanelle! I’m not sure we have time for the last question, which is what else do you want us to know? What else do you want us to know about who you are?
Chanelle: Let me think if there is anything that I want to…
Amy: Yes, please.
Chanelle: I mean the only thing I’ll say is I really didn’t expect this life for myself. This is not what I had planned, I mean, I didn’t have a plan, let me just be clear about that. It’s not that I had a plan, it’s just that I had no idea that 18 years after I went to my first sex workers rights demo, here I would be. I mean, I didn’t know that 22 years after I began activism, I would still be in it. And I think what has kept me in it, is that it is inspiring. That movements, I think, are the most exciting and inspiring places to be.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much!
Shawna: That was beautiful. Thank you so much Chanelle.
Chanelle: Thank you guys! This has been such a lovely opportunity to reflect and I am so excited about everyone else that you’re going to intervene too. Oh, wait, let me throw in one last thing, who I also wanted to mention, was Jamie Lee Hamilton for opening up Grandma’s house, while the massacre on the downtown eastside was underway. And I think she should get credit for that. I know she was also problematic cause I know she made some really shitty statements about migrants and Muslims, I believe. So, I hold both those things to be true about her.
Shawna: Thanks for that. I’m going to stop the recording now.
Chanelle: Yeah, great.