What Vancouver’s Sex-Positive Controversy Can Teach Us
On July 17, Trish Kelly, a prominent member of Vancouver activism and a self-described “sex-positive” and “queer” artist, resigned her nomination as a candidate for park board in the city’s upcoming municipal election because of the surfacing of a humorous and risqué Fringe Festival video she made about masturbation from way back in 2006.
Vancouver-based writer and Ricochet contributor Charles Demers vehemently criticized Vision Vancouver, the municipal political party that nominated Kelly, for not adequately backing their candidate. Vancouver Sun blogger Jeff Lee elevated the rightful backlash a step further by accusing Vision Vancouver for being more concerned about their own image than in preventing the video from distracting Kelly personally. (There does not appear to be any evidence that Vision Vancouver coerced Kelly into resigning, but Lee cites “several conversations” party brass had about the situation.)
But perhaps the most candid response came from Jarrah Hodge, founding editor of Gender Focus. As a build-up to her remarks on the “sexist double standard[s]” in our society, she opened her article with a list of embarrassing things in her own closet to conclude, regrettably, that as a woman, such confessions would likely disqualify her from running for political office again (Hodge was once a candidate for office at the provincial level in 2005).
What is fascinating is Hodge’s reluctance to direct her critique at any particular subject, including Vision Vancouver, nor Kelly herself for not riding out the storm under the banner of a sex-positive campaign, as Georgia Straight writer Miranda Nelson admirably called upon Kelly to do. Instead Hodge is more interested in universalizing subjective struggle, so to speak, to strike at the core of the issue, the more objective violence of underlying yet oppressive cultural attitudes towards women. Importantly, fighting these attitudes is a collective responsibility, as Hodge outlines, and that all of us, men and women, have to play an active role in both acknowledging our mutual vulnerabilities that belie these attitudes and our culpability in how we all at times perpetuate them, even if unintentionally.
Debates concerning identity politics, unfortunately, all too often fixate on the particular conditions of a subjective event, even at times segregating incidents via their particular circumstances, therefore inadvertently diluting the message against the larger issue at play, in this case, overarching attitudes towards women. But by conceptually placing them alongside each other, we can more efficaciously strike at these larger issues.
Hodge not only details other examples of double standards concerning politics and sex, but even goes as far as to list her own vulnerabilities, the very things that could be used against her if she were ever in Kelly’s shoes.
I feel inspired by Hodge’s bravery, and would like to suggest that such a “transversality,” as I propose to call it, of vulnerability is the key ingredient to fighting sexism. But as a male I struggle with the guilt that me confessing to, say, having once (okay, twice) in my life sought out a sexual encounter on Craigslist would not be nearly as damaging to my public figure, if at all, than it would be to a woman making the same admission.
Yet acknowledging vulnerability to address underlying oppressive attitudes remains a collective responsibility. As such, I think it could be appropriate for men to be honest and straightforward about other things that might make them feel vulnerable, such as the ways all of us contribute to such cultural attitudes.
- I have a loud voice and I am talkative. In group settings, I am rarely aware of how this makes women feel.
- I almost had a falling-out once with a platonic female friend when she accused me of unintentionally not respecting her physical space.
- I once made a joke, at the expense of sexual-rape victims in general, about Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “raping” the environment, and, as a gut reaction to being called out on it, I originally tried to defend the joke.
- Not too long ago, a bartender very kindly informed me that, while drunk, I came off as aggressive when talking to a woman at the bar, and I had no idea, yet alone any malicious intentions.
Now these are all isolated incidents for which I have apologized in the past, but they are nevertheless indicative of behaviours that to varying degrees are almost ubiquitous in our culture. I feel vulnerable for even listing them publicly, but definitely no more so than the vulnerability scores of women such as Hodge and Kelly expose regularly. Perhaps, for the sake of a better public conversation and a better politics, we all start acting more like them.
This article was published by Kevin Elliot on The Medium.