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nomorepotlucks » Speaking Truth and Power – Karen Herland and Susan G. Cole

Speaking Truth and Power – Karen Herland and Susan G. Cole

The 1980s represent a particular moment in feminist politics. Without a lengthy, easily contested, necessarily subjective attempt to synthesize the final years of second wave feminism, some things bear repeating in this context. That decade encompasses the bitterness of the feminist porn wars and a virulent mainstream backlash against feminist politics. It may be simplistic, but also useful, to suggest that the emphasis placed on identifying and responding to violence against women was a feminist strategy to underscore the urgency of a radical reconceptualization of gender roles and power.

Susan G. Cole and I had a fair bit in common the first time I interviewed her 24 years ago. Cole came to Montreal touring the anti-pornography position in a debate with Varda Burstyn, who had recently published the anthology Women Against Censorship. I was an active member of Concordia’s women’s collective, as a loud student journalist. Cole was even louder. She had been a member of Toronto’s first lesbian organization in the 70s and was writing for Broadside: A Feminist Review. I was frankly awestruck by Cole (rereading the interview I wrote then is embarrassing in the way that encountering your own supposedly clever, but transparently not, youthful self can be). I think I recognized in Cole a shared commitment to articulate (often very unpopular) opinions and challenge cherished assumptions.

Cole and I both became politicized during a period in the women’s movement when lesbianism was seen as essential to feminism, though she had to struggle with the suggestion that it was also detrimental to its progress; an argument I was spared a decade later. That moment in feminism proclaimed, ‘porn is the theory and rape is the practice’. We responded to that challenge in remarkably different ways. Cole has been a spokesperson for anti-pornography feminism for nearly three decades. Although I did participate in several Take Back the Night marches, I remember very clearly the year I was struck by how ridiculous it was to take back a single night in one lane along a designated route with police protection. My friends and I heckled the marchers and left, and I never went back. So I missed the later years when the route passed strip clubs where the marchers would shame the customers and deprive the women working inside of an evening’s income. Fifteen years ago, I became the first coordinator for Stella, a community development program in Montreal for sex workers working as women.

Flash forward to 2008, when I’m teaching a course at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute that seeks to unpack how the social construction of the figure of the prostitute transmitted through medical, social, cultural, criminal, legal and popular institutions and filters serves to marginalize and silence sex workers. A student mentioned Cole in the context of a CBC radio interview she’d heard. In class, I played the debate between Cole – who is Entertainment editor at Now magazine and continues to comment on gender, sexuality and pop culture – and syndicated sex columnist Sasha. Their discussion addressed the online campaign that a women’s studies graduate (using the name Natalie Dylan) had launched to auction off her virginity. The bids, then in the millions, were intended to finance her post-graduate studies. (According to Wikipedia, the multi-million dollar bidder eventually backed out, due to his wife’s “dissatisfaction”.)

I was struck by how much I disagreed with what Cole was saying. I was also curious about how we had started out with a similar impulse to challenge traditional notions of gender and sexuality, likely been exposed to the same books and arguments, been kidded, cajoled, dismissed and ignored by many of the same people and institutions, and yet had moved in such different directions.

In planning how to organize this interview, it seemed extremely unproductive to recreate the porn debates decades later. I was more interested in tracing Cole’s political path. I had hoped for a face-to-face conversation, but had to settle for a couple of phone conversations and a handful of email exchanges over about a month.

What follows is a capsule of, and reflection on, some of the turns and twists our discussion took, with digressions and interruptions edited for clarity. I tried to maintain context and tone despite these edits. Although our voices may not always be adequately captured, I hope the meaning is.

KH: Your bio refers to you as an author and an activist. The activist part has been true for almost three decades, a really long time for that kind of position. What is it that drew you in to that public role?

SGC: What I remember was that I was first involved in Women Against Violence Against Women in 1977…. I was the person that did all the media, like during the snuff demonstrations in Toronto[1] I remember I was doing an anti-pornography panel on City TV and the host outed me. It was 1980 and the host said that the reason I was so opposed to pornography was because it depicted men and women and I was a lesbian. …

My feminism took me to lesbianism. My political values and ethics took me to this place. It’s really different than the American position. They say ‘we were born that way, there’s nothing I can do, about it, you have to tolerate me.’ I hate ‘tolerance’. My politics are not about tolerance — they are about inclusion and diversity.

[Back then] This producer at CTV called me to speak about lesbian issues and I decided not to. I said I was not ready for that yet, I was not that out. But after I got off the phone I thought, ‘I’m not that out but a CTV producer knows to call me’. So there are lots of levels of out. I was already out to my family then. That kind of public exposure is the last step that we take. I was also aware of the relationship between feminism and lesbianism. I didn’t want to be seen as a liability for feminism.

KH: So there were ways that feminism and lesbianism connected in the 70s and 80s, and ways that they were seen as distinct. Your initial activism was around violence against women. Was that a particular focus at the time?

SGC: Violence was what most women were responding to. They were naming things and giving it a language. Now politics are more linked to identity and all our politics have changed dramatically…I’m really interested in fluidity of gender. The early days of gay liberation, in the Body Politic (precursor to the Xtra magazine franchise)[2], we were actively working to eliminate sex roles, to move away from the gender dyad. This is much more interesting to me now. Then, if someone called me sir, I’d given them the full-on rant “what’s the matter with you? Don’t you know what a woman looks like….?” Now I just think, “well that’s interesting….” I’m not all about ‘I’m a woman, hear me roar’ anymore.

[The conversation shifts to Cole’s role as a public speaker)

SGC: Mostly what I do is this thing with Ron Jeremy…this is a series of debates, mostly on American campuses. I’m really interested in continuing the discussion with young people.

KH: Isn’t the context really adversarial?

SGC: Mostly it’s adversarial with the audience, not with him. When I was doing those debates with [Screw magazine publisher] Al Goldstein, I didn’t have to tell women what was wrong with pornography. They understood. It. These young women have taken the language of empowerment (the language that we gave them) and use it totally differently.

The discussion is very polarized in the US. On the one side you have people like Ron Jeremy and on the other side you have the far right and the purity movement. Young women are told they have to be a whore or a virgin. If that were my choice I would probably choose the whore over the virgin. I tell them you need to look at authenticity and what works for you. I’m trying to get them to think instead of being passive receptors.

KH: And how is this different from the debates you had with Varda?

SGC: She was coming at it from a feminist perspective. She was supporting the pro-sex movement and thinking about censorship. That movement totally co-opted women. The young women interested in that position now, I think they’ll get over it. Ultimately, if you have to grow out of a position, it’s not very powerful.

KH: So here you are, decades later debating the same kinds of issues on campuses. Given that this issue’s theme is ‘crux’ what is it about this issue that remains so divisive between women in a way that other issues don’t?

SGC: People feel invested in sexuality. It is the one thing that everybody has. This is much more about how you reach a new generation. That’s why I went out again.

KH: Given that sexuality is so intensely personal, can you change someone’s mind about what turns them on?

SGC: I really just want to get them to think about it. …It’s been an education for me, no question. But I can raise some different ideas.

[conversation shifts to sex work]

SGC: I believe two things can be true at the same time: 1) Prostitution is an institution of male domination; and 2) prostitutes have the right to work in safety.

But to call prostitution an exercise in empowerment is factually ridiculous. I don’t understand how the violation of your own body can be compared to being a bank teller. I don’t understand how that argument gets any traction. Nobody grows up saying they want to be a prostitute.

Women are involved in prostitution because they are economically driven there or they are revictimized because of previous sexual violence. As a feminist I can make sure women are doing it safely and, at the same time, I can do everything I can to eradicate the conditions that allow it to happen.

KH: Do you have anything else to add…?

SGC: I think the really important thing to do as a lesbian or a feminist is to adapt and to change and to get your ideas out there. You can’t just look around and throw up your hands at where things are. Young women are coming out in a completely different environment…My partner works at Supporting our Youth, and at Pride I go to their Fruit Loopz fair. If that had been available for me at 15 I would have exploded, it’s incredible. I’m not bemoaning the lost generation.

KH: You’re talking about addressing a new context, but you also said that gender fluidity was an early concept in gay liberation, and you are still talking about pornography; how is it new?

SGC: The trans movement really influenced my thinking on gender. I have a problem with people thinking they have to cut off pieces of themselves. People shouldn’t have to cart themselves off to the hospital to be who they think they are. I want to create more room so that it doesn’t have to be limited to just this or that.

KH: But trans people choose to make that decision.

SGC: I understand why they’re making those choices but my project is to make gender less rigid. You have your body — it does what it does and it feels how it feels. Be with it.

[Two weeks later, we continued the conversation]

KH: The right for feminists to name experiences outside of society’s definitions was a hard-won battle. Which is why I am puzzled by your dismissal of certain experiences as co-opted, or temporary, or simply a reinscription of past victimization. Is there not any point at which a sex worker can positively describe her own experience and be heard? Is that not at odds not with a notion of ’empowerment’ but one of ‘self-determination’?

SGC: I honestly think it’s important to see real choice, considered choice, no choice and where there is the potential for real consent. If you have to fuck to eat, that’s not a choice. The question is the women who say they do it and they are absolutely fine. I believe women and what they say, and I don’t say they’re wrong. But that’s not a circumstance I want to push for, that’s not my activist project.

KH: You also suggested that sex work cannot be considered a valid choice since ‘no one grows up wanting to be a prostitute’. No one grows up wanting to get an abortion but that doesn’t mean they don’t value the option if necessary, nor that they should be made to feel illegitimate or irresponsible for taking it. Are you concerned your characterization of sex workers in those terms does, in fact, reinscribe the stigma they already face from the broader society?

SGC: I like your analogy to abortion, you’ve helped my argument. I can protect the right to make that choice. But once you’re already pregnant, it is the only choice, the only thing you can do… but you can’t pretend abortion is a piece of cake.

Sex workers are so afraid of being stigmatized they had to fashion a fake argument and say they love the work. I understand the political need to get credibility. Get them alone and most sex workers say they wish they didn’t have to do it. I want to talk about the reality, not the ideology. That’s why I think two things can be true at the same time. It’s hard work, and a violation of their bodies, but they have the right to do it in safety.

KH: I also realised that I didn’t address the question of gay and lesbian marriage or families. Odd since I know you made a decision to parent in the late 80s, when there was very little support for such a choice. You rooted the notion of gender fluidity in early manifestations of gay liberation, and you traced your anti-pornography position back several decades as well. Seventies-era gay liberation argued for definitions of family outside of traditional matrimony, like chosen families. How do you trace this trajectory in your thinking?

SGC: I’ve been with my partner for 25 years and we have no desire to get married. It’s about the institution, the power of the state to define a relationship. But if you deny me something, then I get interested, I’ll start liking it a lot. The right wing is denying it, even though it makes no sense given their belief in monogamy and the family.

SGC: I still feel like we have more to say about prostitution. It’s such a nuanced issue. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong. I mean, I’m pushing here, but it’s a little like women in abusive relationships. While they’re in it, they don’t see it, it’s only after that they really do. Wouldn’t you agree that they’d rather be doing something else?

KH: Depends on the individual’s decision, whether it’s systemic or personal. It’s one thing to be 15 and away from a horrible home and unable to get legitimate work or paperwork without parental approval, and you need a roof over your head. And it’s another thing to want to be able to control your work hours around your kids’ schedules or classes you might be taking.

SGC: I think it’s a bit of a reach to say it’s about controlling your own hours.

KH: Ok, setting aside the specious comparison to a bank teller, there are very few people that are racing to any job with absolute glee.

SGC: But there is a difference because of the value we put on our own bodies. I wouldn’t say that bodies are violated, but they are invaded.

KH: What about Fran Shaver’s research on hospital orderlies? They also work odd hours, at night, dealing intimately with strangers’ bodies.

SGC: But the difference is that this is gendered. It’s not like as many women are buying sex as men are.

KH: Ok, but is the reason for that power difference about who has money or how men and women are socialized or a culture that sets up expectations around sexual behaviour?

SGC: It’s all three. But that’s because women are valued for sex, body and beauty. I’m glad they’re making good money, but the reason for that doesn’t turn my crank…
Who is buying and who is selling is telling us everything we need to know about the power imbalance in the sex industry. I don’t think we’ve yet had an honest discussion about this because everyone is too busy trying to hold on to their own turf.

[The conversation ended via email]

KH: You have returned repeatedly to the question of authenticity and truth in your answers. One of the major lessons second wave feminism taught me was to value women’s own articulated experience in reaction to societally manufactured or approved definitions of ‘what women want’. The truth of any lived experience trumps what my personal understanding of it might be. I think that’s why I am uncomfortable with your suggestions that some women’s self-identity (pro-sex advocates, sex workers, etc.) is overly-determined by external factors, or a ‘phase’ or a misguided attempt to hold a rhetorical position.

SGC: I don’t stigmatize sex workers. I just want to have a direct conversation. Try as anyone might to find one, there is nothing that can compare to sex work. Actually, I volunteered a long time ago to help train medical students in how to do pelvic exams and pap tests. I had eight inexperienced med students rummaging around in my vagina throughout the day and I remember walking away feeling that that was the closest thing I’d ever get to doing sex work. There is nothing to compare to the physical experience. And from the young privileged med students, I did feel a whiff of contempt because I had agreed to do the work in the first place – even though I was the one grading them!

But I wasn’t doing something illegal in order to survive, I didn’t feel the need to do drugs so I could dissociate and I wasn’t being pimped out by an exploiter.

Of course many feminists behave badly, even when working inside feminist social services. But two things can be true at the same time. Prostitution is an institution of male dominance and it’s highly gendered. Men buy (they have the dough) women sell (they don’t). And the dynamic does act as a social construct. Sex workers fake their pleasure, johns can’t tell the difference, that makes them think the workers like it and that this population has “naturally” developed to meet their sexual needs. Everybody lives happily ever after.

Sex workers deserve to work in safety and with dignity. Personally, I don’t think we have to pretend that sex work is just another job in order for sex workers to be given those rights.

I had hoped to create a space for Cole to have the honest, authentic voice she referred to in our discussions, instead of forcing a rhetorical retrenchment of positions. But there was far too much ground to cover in a couple of hours spread over time and space. I felt haunted by the nagging feeling that if I could just clarify one more point I might understand how political values are shaped or how we construct our truths.

Looking back over this conversation, it seems like we used the terms sex work, violence against women, gender and sexuality while barely negotiating a much more complex discussion about context, power and epistemology. Our conversation can be read as a reflexive discourse on how society, movements and individuals attend to dissenting voices. How do you deal with information you don’t agree with? Is discrediting the opposition’s voice the best way to defuse the challenge? Can any challenge to existing values (be they individual or societal) be heard without being synthesized through the listeners’ own beliefs?

Cole’s criticism of the American arguments that align gay rights with racial rights as an accident of biology resonates with me, maybe because of my early understanding of feminism and lesbianism as being essentially combined. But I was frustrated by the facile equation between victimization and powerlessness that characterized so much of feminist discourse in the 80s. Although shifting the framework from morality to power was an important strategy, defining power as an imbalance of gender, money or status is limiting. Within that framework, sex workers can only ever be victimized because they fall on the wrong side of that equation. There is absolutely no acknowledgment that power can be reclaimed, shared, shifted, redefined or enjoyed depending on point of view. There is no possibility for the power of imagination or the potential for change. In a context where power is exclusively understood to be financial or systematic, the power each of us has to deny voice, credibility and agency can be too easily, and I believe erroneously, dismissed.

At some point, I realized that publishing truth to power doesn’t automatically change the world. This is especially true in an online context where any perspective or position can be sought out, and other opinions ignored. Given the complex way we filter information, it no longer makes sense to suggest that ‘porn is the theory, rape is the practice’.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snuff_%28film%29

[2] http://www.rbebout.com/oldbeep/beepint.htm

Karen Herland can not imagine that there is anything else you would possibly want to know about her that has not already been revealed in this essay. Except maybe that she really was born with this name.

Susan G. Cole is an author, editor and feminist activist. She has been a political force since participating in the Broadside collective, producing a monthly magazine from 1978 to 1988, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto in 1976 and Women Against Violence Against Women in 1978. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women, Pornography and The Sex Crisis and Power Surge and the groundbreaking play A Fertile Imagination. She can be heard every Thursday morning on Radio 640’s Media and the Message Panel and is currently the entertainment and books editor at NOW Magazine in Toronto.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/16/2009 – 00:02.

I agree with Nico – this is a very thought-provoking interview. Herland has an incredible talent for drawing out very in-depth answers and Cole did not seem to hesitate in giving her honest opinions. Creating a context for this kind of exchange (especially when both parties seem to have such different views) is hard to do. Congrats to both Herland and Cole for their commitment to having this conversation. I hope I can read more interviews like this one in NMP.

The timing of it is a shame though – The media is currently giving so much attention to the abolitionist feminists and their harmful and patronizing views on sex work and the lives of sex workers.

This Thursday, December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Violence – in ALL forms – against sex workers had got to end. To support sex workers and their demands for respect and decriminalization, see some of the following links and media reports:

1. http://www.swopusa.org/dec17/


wo groups of female sex workers from British Columbia and Ontario are launching legal challenges. They’re pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution and that’s re-igniting the debate about whether prostitution should be decriminalized. Marc Montgomery gets the pros and cons, first from Anna-Louise Crago, interim director of Stella, a Montreal organization run by and for current and former sex workers and then from author and CTV investigative journalist Victor Malarek whose books “The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade” and “The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It” explore prostitution issues.


3. Sex workers are entitled to the same human rights standards that are afforded to other members of Canadian society.

However, as a result of the current criminal laws relating to adult prostitution, sex workers are forced to live and work in conditions where they experience systemic discrimination, exploitation and violence, and where their constitutional rights are infringed.


4. Superior Court of Ontario – Why Stella supports the constitutional challenge to the laws against sex work. Montreal, October 9th, 2009


5. Sex workers gear up for Dec 17
SEX WORK / Montreal’s Stella pushes for decriminalization


6. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in its seventh year
SEX WORK / Events planned around the world for Dec 17


International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
Because why wouldn’t you want to walk beside a bunch of fabulous whores?

Thursday, December 17, 2009
4:00pm – 10:00pm
Metro Papineau
Montreal, QC.


Le 17 décembre prochain est la Journée Internationale pour Mettre Fin à la Violence Envers les Travailleuses et Travailleurs de l’Industrie du Sexe. Cet événement fut créé afin de porter à l’attention de tous les crimes de haine qui sont commis envers les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe à travers le monde. Cette journée redistribue le pouvoir aux travailleuses et travailleurs de différentes villes d’un bout à l’autre de la planète les unissant et les mobilisant contre la violence et la discrimination. C’est aussi une occassion de se souvenir de celles et ceux que nous avons perdu à la violence.

L’agression, le viol et le meurtre des travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe doit prendre fin. Les lois existantes ne protègent aucunement les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe; la violence est perpétuée par la criminalisation de notre travail.

La stigmatisation et la discrimination envers les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe a mené à l’acceptance sociale de la violence à notre égard. Stella organise La Manifestation du Parapluie Rouge afin de porter à l’attention de tous cette importante journée. S.V.P. Joignez- vous à nous et aux travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe à travers le monde afin de prendre position contre la criminalisation et la violence envers les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe.

4pm La Manifestation du Parapluie Rouge commence au métro Papineau.
6pm Panel de discussion sur la violence envers les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe au Café Cleopatra.

Amenez un parapluie rouge (si vous le pouvez ou si vous en avez un), des souliers à talons haut d’enfer et votre fabuleuse personne. La manifestation de cette année est paticulièrement importante car le nombre d’actes de violence envers les travailleuses et travailleurs de l’industrie du sexe à Montréal a significativement augmenté. Nous comptons sur votre support, s.v.p. soyez nos alliés!



December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This event was created to call attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the globe. The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from various cities around the world to come together and mobilize against violence and discrimination and to remember those we have lost to violence.

The assault, battery, rape and murder of sex workers must end. Existing laws do not protect sex workers, violence is perpetuated by the the criminalization of our work Stigma and discrimination against sex workers has led to the societal acceptance of the violence we experience. Stella is organizing The Red Umbrella March to bring attention to this important day. Please join us and sex workers around the world to make a stand against criminalization and violence committed against sex workers.

4pm The Red Umbrella March begins at Papineau metro.
6pm Discussion Panel on violence against sex workers at Café Cleopatra.**

Bring a red umbrella (if you have one), the cuntiest pair of heels you own and your fabulous self. This years march is especially important as there has been a considerable rise in the amount of violence against sex workers in Montreal. We rely largely on the support of allies so please, please, please come!!!

In solidarity…

Submitted by Nico (not verified) on Tue, 12/01/2009 – 23:37.

This is a thought-provoking interview. I admire the interviewer for steering clear of a tit-for-tat debate and instead asking questions that allow the reader to get a better grasp on where the interviewee is coming from.

I was struck by two of the interviewee’s comments in particular:

1) “Who is buying and who is selling is telling us everything we need to know about the power imbalance in the sex industry.”

2) “Prostitution is an institution of male dominance and it’s highly gendered. Men buy (they have the dough) women sell (they don’t).”

In a 2008 description of the sex work industry in London, England, Scambler and Paoli (source cited below) state: “Unusually for an English city, an estimated 30–40% of sex workers in London are male.”

As a male sex worker, I am always curious 1) why the lives and work of male and transgender sex workers are never accounted for by anti-sex-work activists like Cole, and 2) whether Cole’s analysis would waver at all when applied to the London context, where “who is buying and who is selling” does *not* tell us “everything we need to know about the power imbalance in the sex industry” and where her claim that “men buy (they have the dough) women sell (they don’t)” is not at all an accurate depiction of the industry.

SOURCE: Scambler, G. & Paoli, F. (2008). Health work, female sex workers and HIV/AIDS: Global and local dimensions of stigma and deviance as barriers to effective interventions. Social Science and Medicine, 66(8), 1848-1862.

Submitted by Maxine Doogan (not verified) on Thu, 11/12/2009 – 07:55.

This is what’s wrong with feminist theory regarding prostitution or sex work,

The statement that ‘prostitution is male dominated’ is laughable. What occupation on this planet isn’t male dominated. We don’t criminalize and debase female news anchors, female lawyers, female medical personal, or female legislators because their occupation are constructs of male domination. We aren’t working to eradicate these constructs by arresting these worker and forcing them through a sex negative shame based social construct.

The state by the interviewee, ‘I just want to have a direct conversation,’ too is laughable.
A direct conversation won’t be possible until we’re equals. We can’t be equal until we sex industry workers have the right to negotiate our wages and our own safe work conditions like the rest of you slave laborers. Until we have the right to associate on our own terms and the right to define what violence is and have that information be received in a respectful manner, without being forced to give a personal accounting of ourselves, there’s no basis for a dialog.

Likewise the statement ‘I don’t think we’ve yet had an honest discussion about this because everyone is too busy trying to hold on to their own turf.’ Again, the fact is that we don’t have any turf to hold down and the consequences of this positionless state seems to lost on the interviewee.

Comparing the interviewee’s experience of training medical students to do pelvic exams to sex work is not a valid comparison. It assumes that men who have sex with prostitutes act like medical students being trained to detect pathology through internal digital vaginal exams. This statement assumes that payors of sex are primarily interested in this type of sexual contact.
This business of defining prostitution as a bodily invasion is merely a personal judgment of which the interviewee apparently takes no responsibility for making.

Our class of workers must have the ability to decide which rights are primary to our occupation as opposed to other feminist deciding for us what ‘safety’ means.
And finally, the statement, ‘But that’s because women are valued for sex, body and beauty,’ again functions to disassociate herself from taking responsibility for making these blanket statements about how women are valued and by whom.