TEDxSFU The Red Umbrella: Sex Work, Stigma and the Law
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These two speeches can be adapted to work as keynotes or for breakout sessions.
1. The Red Umbrella: Sex Work, Stigma and the Law
My sister Sarah disappeared from Vancouver’s downtown eastside in 1998. Losing her set me on a challenging and painful course, but one worth sharing. Through Sarah’s writing, the story of my journey, stories and insights from sex workers working today all over the world, and a smattering of facts and figures, I explore the impact of our laws and attitudes on the lives of Canadian sex workers, and draw some conclusions about where we might go from here, and what parts each of us can play. This talk is an expanded version of the TEDxSFU talk I gave on November 1, 2014. The video is embedded above.
2. Grieving and Growing
My sister was a sex worker and my aunt was a nun. I continue to draw strength and wisdom from both these women, though Sarah died in 1998 and Aunt Minke died in 2013. In this talk, I explore how our greatest losses and our greatest gifts are often bound up together. Each of us has multiple sources of strength and wisdom within easy reach, if we only know where to look.
Note: Both of the above can be adapted to different lengths and for different settings. Each can accommodate Q and A, and form the backbone for a half-day writing or strategizing workshop. I also offer talks and workshops on writing, especially writing from life and healing through writing.
How I Got Into Speaking
I’ve been speaking at conferences and festivals and in schools (from kindergarten through to graduate school) ever since my first book came out in 1991.
A shift happened after my sister disappeared, and I found myself speaking to media and, as time went on, to groups of all kinds, about what I was learning as I searched for her. After my memoir, Missing Sarah, came out, I did still more speaking, often sharing Sarah’s journal writing and poetry, which I had incorporated into my book. My goal throughout was to give my sister a voice, to help undo some of the misinformation and stereotyping that makes women on society’s margins (particularly those who sell sex on the street and who use drugs) so vulnerable to violence.
In December 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s sex-work laws as unconstitutional, and I thought Canada was poised for change. It turns out that I was right, but not in the way I had hoped. In Bill C36, the current government is putting forth a new set of sex-work laws, even more problematic than those they replace. These new laws move us away from the Victorian notion that sex work is immoral and a nuisance; instead, Bill C36 characterizes all sex workers as victims. In response, I am listening to sex workers, and, I am eager to speak out, to be part of this country’s search for a better way.
My Speaking Experience
On various occasions, I have toured British Columbia, up through Prince George to Prince Rupert and up to Fort St. John; I’ve also toured Saskatchewan, southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and spoken in parts of the United States. I was Vancouver Public Library’s first writer in residence in 2005 and the University of Northern British Columbia’s first writer in residence in 2012. I have spoken at many writers’ festivals, and spoken and given workshops in prisons and juvenile detention centres.
I’ve addressed these groups, among others:
- Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (BC)
- Alternative Educators (Vancouver)
- Amnesty International (North Vancouver and Ottawa)
- Canadian Federation of University Women (Cambridge)
- Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers Conferences (CANSCAIP) (Toronto and Lumsden, SK)
- Canadian Victim Assistance (CAVA)
- CARP: A New Vision of Aging for Canada (Surrey)
- Chippewa Nation (Bruce Peninsula, Ontario)
- Fraser Valley Institution for Women (BC)
- Guelph Wellington Women in Crisis (ON)
- Orchard Rehabilitation Facility (Bowen Island, BC)
- Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) (Richmond)
- Parliamentary Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws (Ottawa)
- Surrey International Writers’ Conference (BC)
- Vancouver University Women’s Club
- Victims’ Services Volunteers (SK)
- West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) (Vancouver)
- WORD Vancouver
And I’ve spoken at the following events:
- Art against Brutality (Oppenheimer Park, Downtown Eastside, Vancouver)
- Forum to Stop Sexual Exploitation Week, The Justice Institute (Kamloops)
- Grand Mamas: Artists and Activists Talk About their Grandmothers, Mothers, Sisters, Daughter and Chosen Family (Vancouver)
- Heart of the City Festival, Carnegie Centre (Downtown Eastside, Vancouver)
- Highway of Tears art exhibit opening (Smithers)
- International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Wesley Urban Ministries (Hamilton)
- International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (St. Catherines)
- International Literacy Day, Carnegie Centre (Vancouver)
- International Women’s Week events (Kelowna, Pemberton and Vernon)
- Large high school audiences about Missing Sarah (across Canada)
- Roomful of Missing Women exhibit openings (Prince George and Kamloops)
- SFU Sex Week: Does society’s sexual philosophy play a role in biomedical Harm Reduction
- Women’s Memorial March (Vancouver)
- WomenSpeak Regional Women’s Conference, Douglas College (New Westminster)
- Writing for Children About War and Trauma with Joy Kogawa. Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable, Museum of Anthropology, UBC