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“we never gave up our power”: a conversation with Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist from the Garden River First Nations, just east of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, who has also worked as a sex worker in the north of Canada. Naomi shared with A Kiss for Gabriela that some of her current work advocating for the rights of Indigenous people in the sex trade springs from a 2012 workshop organized by the sex worker organization Maggie’s in Toronto on public education and challenging stigma. After attending the workshop, Naomi started telling her own story using her own words and sharing about her own experiences in sex work, challenging the messages she had heard for so many years from authority figures–counselors, doctors, nurses, and the justice system–that indigenous women are victims and incapable of deciding what is right for them. Below are some of her thoughts on deconstructing the stigma that comes with sex work or being a sex worker, especially being an Indigenous sex worker. Other resources, including Naomi’s historical analysis of the policing of Indigenous peoples in Canada via anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking legislation, are available here. Naomi blogs on many issues at Kwe Today (Kwe means woman in Anishinaabemowin, her indigenous language).

A Kiss For Gabriela: What are the key issues for the communities of Indigenous people in sex work?

Naomi: There are so many complex issues that surround the experiences of Indigenous sex workers. I can’t speak for all Indigenous sex workers, but I can speak on some issues such as racism, prejudice, and negative stereotypes. It is these issues that need to be addressed when talking about the rights of Indigenous people, and not just in the sex trade, but in any context. Once we address the racism that is almost inherent to some organizational values, practices, or policies, then we might be able to adequately address the rights, or lack thereof, of Indigenous people.

The major issue for the community of Indigenous people in sex work is, therefore, racism. At the root of this racism exists colonialism. Colonial systems and institutions penetrate Indigenous peoples lives on a daily basis and are still prevalent today. Colonialism is not a thing of the past. Resisting colonialism isn’t anything new either. Resistance against colonialism has been occurring since colonialism began. We don’t name racism for the sake of our own being because we already know it exists and it still occurs today, even among the most developed institutions or individuals. We call it out because it is a part of colonialism. You cannot have one without the other, and the two are still present today.

A Kiss For Gabriela: How are Indigenous sex workers organizing for their rights?

Naomi: Organizations that are doing work with respect to Indigenous sex workers’ rights include Maggie’s in Toronto, POWER in Ottawa, and a myriad of other sex work organizations in Canada. A couple of other organizations that come to mind are the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) and Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS). The work that they do around addressing colonialism is amazing! They have been actively involved in the recent Bedford case supporting sex workers through statements on the NYSHN site and FSIS has supported the decriminalization of the trade through their presence at protests and via presentations. NYSHN has been particularly proactive in deconstructing conservative anti-human trafficking discourses, prioritizing self-determination and that groups or individuals speak for themselves rather than being spoken for. All the organizations mentioned here have collaborated to create an excellent tool box  promoting “what works for sex workers” in terms of rights-based services, advocacy, and community building.

A Kiss For Gabriela: Are there any misconceptions about Indigenous sex workers that come up again and again? And how can these be de-constructed!

Naomi: We need to challenge this colonialist ideal is that Indigenous people, especially women and girls, are victims and that we need to be saved, not from society but from our own selves. Additionally, there is the whole image that we are alcoholics or substance abusers, and according to this stigmatizing portrayal, we are incapable of making life choices. These misconceptions are rampant within the media. Kristin Gilchrist, co-founder of FSIS, has explored the media representations of Indigenous women and concluded that, “ if a victim is judged to have deviated from patriarchal notions of appropriate feminine behavior by drinking/using drugs, dressing provocatively (or not conservatively), and especially if she engages in sex for money, she is likely to be constructed as, at least partially, responsible for violence against her” and that “Aboriginal, the women were labeled as “high‐risk,” implying that violence occurred because women put themselves at risk because of their bad choices.”  Again, at the heart of these images exist racism, prejudices, and negative stereotypes, and naming the misconceptions for what they are, racism, we can begin to deconstruct them. It is about turning the colonial lens and perspective back onto the colonizer. It is taking back the power of labeling and defining one’s experiences. Perhaps more accurately, it is about taking away the perceived power that the colonizer assumes for him/herself to accomplish his/her own individual/institutional goals. And, I emphasize perceived because we never gave up our power to begin with!

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