Readers, I am so happy to be able to share this interview with you, courtesy of BlackCoffeePoet and Naomi Sayers! I met Naomi a year or two ago and have been following her writing on Indigenous feminism, sex work, the criminal legal system, racism and more ever since. Check out BCP’s work here. And Naomi’s here.
Interview with Naomi Sayers: Anishinaabe Academic, Activist, Blogger and Former Sex Worker + Photo Essay of “No More Silence” Rally, Toronto 2013
Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous Feminist from the Garden River First Nations, just east of Sault Ste Marie ON. Currently, she is in her third year of studies at Western University for the honors specialization in criminology program with a minor in women’s studies.
Her motto is: Tell me I can’t and I will show you I can.
All photos in the essay below taken by Jorge Antonio Vallejos aka Black Coffee Poet @ No More Silence Rally Toronto February 2013.
BCP: What does today, February 14th, the day to remember Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada, mean to you?
NS: For me, as a young Indigenous woman, it means many things. Namely, it means that we must continue to fight for the justice of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. This is something that can’t just be swept under the rug, so to speak.
BCP: Across the country there are rallies and vigils held followed by community potlatchs. Is there anything you would like to see happen on this day that has not occurred in previous years?
NS: Something that has not occurred in previous years is the acknowledgement of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women/girls by the larger Canadian society. While this issue has been acknowledged by international organizations like the United Nations or Amnesty International, the extent of this issue are largely ignored by Canadians and Canadian institutions. I think in the future, I would like for this day to be recognized as a national day of remembrance. With respect to the rest of Canada, I know that this will require more than just staking a claim on a specific calendar day. It will most certainly require RE-education on the issues that Aboriginal communities face and why these issues are endemic to Aboriginal peoples.
BCP: You are an Aboriginal academic who used to do sexwork. While thinking of these questions I wondered, “Will people listen to her more now that she is an academic? Would they take her thoughts into consideration if she was still doing sexwork?” I’m talking about all peoples: my regular readers, the larger public, Aboriginal peoples and their allies.
Do you think academia has given you a more ‘credible’ voice? Did people listen to you about political issues, in particular violence against women, when you were a sex worker?
NS: I don’t think academia has given me a more “credible” voice. I think academia has given me a different platform to speak about the issues that matter to me and to reach various types of audiences like my peers who may or may not have any knowledge about the issues that Aboriginal people, specifically Aboriginal women, experience. I think the questions that you have pondered while drumming up these questions are important to highlight because I don’t really subscribe to any one identity like “academic” or “sex worker.” I think my identity was and is as fluid as my lived experiences, just like how all sex workers or Aboriginal persons’ experiences are not static across identities. I also feel that my experiences and skills that I built upon as a sex worker, like dealing with different personality types, has made me more intuitive as a non-sex worker which helps me to navigate within the social realm of academia. One might also suggest that even being Aboriginal in academia is very political or that sex work, itself, is a job often situated at the center of politics or very politicized. When it comes to the discussion of credible voices in or around politics, I think it is all about perspective, self-reflexivity, and being critical of how you interpret your own location within the social (or political) world.
BCP: Violence against women and Aboriginal peoples also occurs in the academic world. Another thought that came to mind was, “She is Aboriginal and she is a former sexworker. That’s two strikes against her in the academic world.” Am I being paranoid?
NS: As a mental health advocate, I don’t like the word paranoid when used out of its context. I am sure you are not paranoid. Also, as an Aboriginal and former sex worker, I don’t think these are strikes against me. Rather, my identity as an Aboriginal woman allows me to better understand potential barriers that I may face simply for being who I am, Aboriginal and woman. By understanding these potential barriers, I am better prepared to plan to succeed not only as a woman but also an Aboriginal person!
BCP: I often hear and see non-sexworkers speaking for, and about, sexworkers and the violence they face. What do you notice is missing from the discussion?
NS: The obvious answer: the voice of sex-workers. Sex workers are a diverse group (just like any other social group). Not all sex workers identify as such and when it is suggested that more sex workers should just come out to help aid in the discussion (this happens by the way), that is violence in itself. In addition to this, sex workers may not be silenced because they are sex workers; rather, they may be silenced because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, level of education… just to name a few. It is important to include a spectrum of voices when addressing the issues a broad group like sex workers may face because all voices are necessary… not just the voices that are considered to be important by dominant discourses and discussions.
BCP: What will it take for sexworkers to be fully welcomed into the discourse and speak for themselves?
NS: Sex workers are already speaking for themselves! In order to be fully welcomed, the public needs to begin to address the stigmatization that sex workers face that imposed by the public themselves. There is a term for this: whorephobia which is simply defined of as the fear of sex workers (where fear often incites violence). By labeling the violence and stigmatization that sex workers face as such, we can address the violence and stigmatization as not being inherent in the work itself and we move away from the idea that sex workers “deserve” the harm done to them (which often, the public agrees with the whorephobes who inflict harm/violence on sex workers). Like I said before, being critical of how you interpret your own location within the social (or political) world. Non-sex workers especially need to be able to understand their own position and privilege in the social/political world.
BCP: Why is it important that former and current sex workers (with good politics) be welcomed into the discourse?
NS: Good politics? Is that an oxymoron? Joking! By limiting former or current sex workers who have “good politics” to be welcomed into the discourse, we may be limiting other voices that need to be heard. Like I said before, one might suggest that sex work, itself, is a job often situated at the center of politics or very politicized. By limiting ourselves to a certain type of politics in a very politicized career, we limit these very important voices that are often silenced.
BCP: The stigmatization of sexworkers in terms of the epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women has many sides to it. When the media writes of the epidemic they paint the women as sexwokers, and not in a positive way, it’s a non-pro sexwork view. Many Aboriginal community members are upset about the women being labelled sexworkers; again, resulting from a negative view of the trade. When I’m confronted with this I often say, “What difference does it make what work they did? These women were people first.” I use the word “work” and I emphasize the woman’s humanity.
Has this been your experience? If so, how do you deal with this stigma?
NS: I once had an RCMP officer come in and do a presentation on human trafficking in my class. He focused on northern reservations because the RCMP defined Aboriginal women/girls from northern reservations as most likely to be trafficked, work in escort agencies, and often unable to leave the agency. I pulled him aside after his lecture and I told him that I used to work with an escort agency up north. He asked where and I said near Sault Ste Marie ON which has THREE reservations near by. I also emphasized that I made the conscious decision to work with agency and also made the conscious decision to leave the agency. He dismissed my story and said that it was further up north than Sault Ste Marie ON. In other words, my story and I didn’t exist. This story is in relation to your question because it draws attention to the fact that when Aboriginal women/girls are often mentioned within the discourse of sex work, they rarely have agency. The definitions of human trafficking victims by the RCMP removes agency from Aboriginal women/girls. When Aboriginal women/girls are missing or murdered and then labeled as the “drug addicted hooker” (as the media often does), it removes the ability for Aboriginal families and communities to speak for their beloved family member. This effect of silencing Aboriginal families and Aboriginal communities is nothing new—this silencing of Aboriginal peoples is embedded in a colonial country, like Canada. It says, “we don’t matter” and that “we don’t exist.” I don’t think that me as an individual can answer definitely how I addressed the stigma I experienced. However, as citizens within our colonial country, we need to become address the effects of colonialism within Canada and not just the effects on Aboriginals. Colonialism affects everyone, including non-Aboriginals, and it affects our education systems, our justice systems, and affects how we frame issues like violence against women.
BCP: How much of a role does the stigma play in the epidemic?
NS: With respect to Aboriginal peoples, stigma is almost always at the center of any issue that we may experience. Often times the argument for the violence that Aboriginal women face is that it is because of our “culture” but violence never was and never has been a part of our culture. Some people blame alcoholism or drugs (which some people say it is our “culture” but that never was or never has been the case). Some people also blame Aboriginal men. This is all related to stigma. However, this is also related to colonialism. Aboriginal people did not experience these issues before colonization.
BCP: What can allies do to help stop the stigma?
NS: Educate, educate, and educate! The work of one ally or a hundred allies won’t help stop the stigma tomorrow but what will help in getting rid of the stigma is when allies use their position in a particular social/political class to educate non-Aboriginals on these issues. Education (formal/informal) lasts a lifetime and when you change one person’s perception on an issue, it has a domino effect across generations.
BCP: Do you do any activism around sexwork or the epidemic, or both?
NS: I would say that I do a bit of both. I try to use the spaces or conversations that mention sex work/Aboriginal women and girls/violence against women as opportunities for public education. I think that is just as important. I also do a lot of writing because I personally feel that writing things down is important. It says, “I was here and I matter.”
BCP: Many people believe that white men are the main perpetrators in this epidemic. Do you agree?
NS: I think this is a difficult question to answer because the violence I experienced has always been at the hands of a white man, and I don’t want to generalize. So while I can’t speak to every other Aboriginal women’s experience, I can say that perpetrators often hide behind their race as a privilege especially in avoiding blame and responsibility, and Aboriginal men (or other racialized/indigenized men) do not experience this same privilege as white men.
BCP: How much of a role do you think police play in the violence against Aboriginal sex workers? What were your relations with police like when doing sexwork, if any?
NS: Again, this is a hard question to answer because I don’t want to generalize. I think that Aboriginal police forces, like when reservations have their own police forces, the harm done to Aboriginal women, sex workers or not, is significantly minimalized. In terms of my involvement with the police, I cannot name one positive experience, sex worker or not. My identity as an Aboriginal is most often the identity that police see first, and when they see that first, they often make generalizations about me as an Aboriginal woman before anything else.
BCP: Does your academic work touch on the epidemic or sexwork, or both?
NS: Definitely both! I can say that I am more vocal today within classroom discussions about sex work(ers), Aboriginal women/girls, and violence against women. I used to care in my earlier years about what my peers may think of me or what other people might say but I quickly found out that just left me feeling tired and drained after lectures/discussions. Often I would bite my tongue when I would hear racist or stigmatizing remarks. Now I just say what ever comes to my mind. Sometimes it is beautiful and other times, I think to myself, “whoa, Naomi, breath!” LOL!
BCP: How can allies be supportive of sexworkers?
NS: As I mentioned before, it is all about perspective, self-reflexivity, and being critical of how you interpret your own location within the social (or political) world. Allies need to be critical of their own location and acknowledge that they need to use their (often) dominant positions of power and privilege to speak out against things like stigmatizing remarks about sex workers and/or whorephobic statements. It may create uneasy feelings for some allies, but allowing one self to experience those feelings helps an ally to potentially be more supportive and understanding of sex workers.
BCP: Can you recommend some reading material for readers (and me) to educate themselves on sexwork?
NS: My, yes. I really love the materials on these following sites:
powerottawa.ca (sex work activist organization)
maggiestoronto.ca (sex work activist organization)
http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Native-Youth-Sexual-Health-Network/154777717651?fref=ts (nativeyouthsexualhealth.com on Facebook)
http://www.msnikkithomas.com/sex-brains-money/ (online tv series)
http://www.mycuteblackdress.com/ (blog by a current sex worker)
http://bornwhore.com/ (my favorite sex worker blog)
BCP: Is there anything of importance that I’ve missed that you would like to add?
NS: I think you forgot to ask me about my blog Check it out www.kwetoday.com!
BCP: How will you spend this special and important day of remembrance?
NS: Unfortunately for me, I am spending it in class I will, however, try to see if there are any events on my campus in between my classes. On a more personal note, I will definitely be keeping the missing and murdered Indigenous women, along with their families/friends and the families/friends who continue to fight for their justice, in my thoughts and prayers.
BCP: Thank you for your words and your time
NS: Anytime! It was great to *virtual* meet you! We should have *real* coffee one day