A snapshot of the New Zealand Left’s problem with gender and sex work

At the fourth Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change Conference in September 2017, many people talked about feeling ‘unsettled’ in a positive way; that is, challenged to step out of colonial and other dominant norms they have unconsciously absorbed. However, marginalised people live in a constant state of being unsettled and feeling out of place. For Māori, this includes literal alienation from their land, communities, culture, language, ways of being, and Te Ao Māori overall. It is hard to understand how deeply and intimately the roots of colonisation go, and the Social Movements Conference (SMC) 2017 tried to uncover some of them with the theme of “Beyond Capitalism – Beyond Colonisation”. In theory, leftist conferences provide these sorts of challenges, but also provide a place for minorities of all stripes to feel settled and at ease. It can be jarring to realise that a promised haven does not in fact offer a place to rest or stand, but will continue to pull the rug out from under your feet. In light of this, I’m writing to discuss the ongoing gender problem in the SMCs so far.

To give context to my piece, I will first discuss my experience of the 2016 SMC. Earlier that year, I moved to Wellington, my hometown, to heal from severe trauma from an ostensible leftist whose misogyny included virulent hatred of sex workers. A month or so afterwards, I heard that Pala Molisa, a man who has actively campaigned against sex workers’ rights and wants to incarcerate their clients (the ‘Nordic Model’ which harms sex workers directly), was still on the Counterfutures board and would be speaking at the SMC. This news left me huddled in a ball on the floor crying; I can only imagine how it felt for people not only who are sex workers, but have been directly abused by Molisa himself and/or his partner Renée Gerlich. Many of these people are Māori and trans people, and have also been victimised by the virulent transphobia and transmisogyny of Molisa and Gerlich, who remain a persistently boring thorn in the side of the Wellington Left and beyond. Many sex workers and their allies petititoned the conference organisers to drop Molisa from the conference, without success (his talk was cancelled due to a scheduling clash). After the event, the organisers posted on the event’s Facebook page that “we want to state clearly that we 100% support the rights of all workers, including sex workers”, but failed to provide any material examples for how this support would manifest in future, or to publicly acknowledge the controversy over Molisa.

In light of such an error, one might hope that the subsequent conference would include work on this topic. However, I would have been surprised if any sex workers submitted proposals to SMC 2017, given reasonable suspicion that their work would not be supported. Although popular culture portrays sex workers in particular as voiceless victims, the reality is that their voices are ignored and stigmatised. This dismissal not only contributes to the marginalisation of these working class people, but impoverishes our leftist politics overall. Sex worker rights advocates have done invaluable work on the intersections of race, class struggle, gender, sexuality, disability, migration, and a whole host of other topics; their work and overall class positions situate them at the margins of society, where they can see the centre a lot more clearly than many of us. (I will provide some great literature by sex workers and their allies, from Aotearoa and beyond, at the end of this article.)

Perhaps one of the reasons that sex workers are not included in conferences like these is because of an aversion to class politics that periodically emerged at SMC 2017. The sometimes-explicit dismissal of socialism in a conference titled “Beyond capitalism” was bewildering, manifesting most strongly in the rejection of Alex Birchall’s paper on ethnicity and class politics (which has been covered here). Although the discussion around decolonisation politics is for Māori to have amongst themselves, I would like to briefly promote the perspectives of young Māori leftists Emmy Rākete, Kendra Cox and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho on class struggle as a weapon against colonisation. Te Aho wrote: “The contribution Marxist theory makes to indigenous struggles for freedom is rooted in Marxist discourse on historical materialism and the ongoing contemporary effects of historically established economic and political systems which continue to feed inequities in all aspects of Māori lives today. It is the inevitability of the struggle for freedom from the shackles of the powerful that render Marx’s theory so powerful in indigenous human rights movements around the world.”

It would be one thing if sex workers’ voices were the only notable absence from the Social Movements conferences. However, I am concerned with an overall lack of discussion on gender politics. Although there were a few papers in 2017 that were centred around gender, and more that included it as a significant part of their theory, gender politics did not have as much space as one would expect for such a crucial issue. While I appreciate that organisers can only work with what submissions they receive, any lack of proposals explicitly on gender, sex work and/or trans rights issues represents an issue with the conference rather than the population. Many people in Aotearoa are bursting to discuss how their lives are affected by gender oppression and its various subsets, but without a forum that seeks out their input will once again be forced to sit silently in the corner and watch their oppression(s) get worse.

A lot of work by Māori women and other gender minorities suggests that a conference themed around decolonisation urgently needed to prioritise gender theory from people of colour. People like Ani Mikaere(*) and Kim McBreen have shown that institutions like patriarchy, queerphobia and transphobia/transmisogyny are the product of the violent Pakeha colonial system that insists on rigid binary gender roles, the inferiority of women, and mandatory heterosexuality. My critique here is not at all aimed at the women and other people of colour who were conference participants; these discourses were not absent from their panels. Rather, I question some of the conference organising that led to some of these perspectives being sidelined, or at least not given as much attention as they might. Most dismaying to me was the simultaneous scheduling of workshops on care and activism, prison abolition, and Māori constitutional change, leading to the PoC-led one on violence and abuse on the Left being cancelled. Although I appreciate that scheduling mixups are often inevitable, the fact that organisers doubled up these inter-related panels but not the seven animal rights talks (i.e. two panels) or lifestyle activism topics left me wondering exactly who these conferences are for.

So to Make Gender Great Again, where to from here? One of the solutions I propose to the Social Movements organisers is to theme their next conference around gender oppression in New Zealand. As the Māori theorists I have highlighted show, this work can easily build on from the decolonisation theme of 2017, as Māori women and gender minorities suffer from [trans]misogynist systems. Although much of the hatred of sex workers and trans women/people comes from within feminism itself, this could be averted by making it crystal clear that those who wish to deny or ‘critique’ the rights of these people are fundamentally not welcome at the conference. If organisers do not feel adequately prepared to filter these things out, perhaps they could seek the assistance of those who are experienced in these matters. In the interest of avoiding clumsy and under-developed gender politics, not every paper would have to explicitly focus on gender, but those that centre the topic(s) at work should be prioritised for next year.

I hope this piece will be received in good faith by the organisers of the SMCs, because I do mean it as such. There were many aspects of the conference I enjoyed; it was great to meet new people, learn new things (shout-out from me to the Matike Mai workshop and Brown Girls Speak: On Decolonising the Ivory Tower), and get the opportunity to speak on the Capitalism and Affect panel along with other great speakers and a room full of interesting people. Therefore I am not writing this to fully condemn SMC or its organisers; I appreciate that organising conferences is hard work. However, I wanted to raise my concerns publicly because private negotiations have only produced minimal changes so far, and I know that I and many others will not be attending next year’s conference if these issues aren’t dealt with. Raising them creates constant dilemmas; if we speak politely, will we be ignored? Should we shout more, or will we be aggressively chastised and shut down? Either way, women and other gender minorities are hurting, and we are sick of having both to speak quietly and to publicly bleed in order to (maybe) be taken seriously. Given how many of us are crucial in building and sustaining the Left, let it be a place for us to settle and feel at ease.


(*) Mikaere’s article “Māori women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality” has significantly informed my views on this, but sadly is now hard to find online. The full publication details are: Mikaere, Ani, “Māori women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality”, Waikato Law Review, Vol. 2, 1994, pp. 125-149

Resources on sex work (a very short list)