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Addressing Craigslist’s “trafficking problem”

Date: June 26, 2010

This past week, someone from a national organization working to end violence against women contacted me and asked for my view about addressing the problem of sex trafficking on Craigslist. The inquiry is related to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s planned protest at the headquarters of Craigslist, which is calling for Craigslist to prohibit classified ads for adult services. Below is an excerpt from my response.

*****

I think I already wrote my basic thoughts about this topic in the previous email, but here are some details:

1. Craigslist is not the problem. It appears to be doing whatever it can do to fight trafficking on its site, such as

– requiring confirmation by phone before an ad is posted–this ensures that whoever posted the ad can be tracked down if needed
– requiring payment by credit card, which provides further mechanism to track down
– manually reviewing every single ad that is posted for signs of trafficking or child sexual exploitation
– providing a directory of agencies to report suspected trafficking to
– cooperating with the law enforcement, providing them with tools and information needed for conducting investigations

2. There are many alternatives to Craigslist where sex workers and their pimps/managers/traffickers can advertise. Because Craigslist is a company that does business with the general public, it is in their best interest to work with non-profit organizations and law enforcement to combat trafficking in order to protect its public image. Operators of websites that specifically cater to the sex industry do not have the same incentive.

3. Adult service ads are a big part of Craigslist’s bottom line, as they are to alternative weeklies and other traditional media. But they do not necessarily depend on human trafficking. There is no evidence that human trafficking is a substantial problem at Craigslist, or any more of a problem than in any other media outlets (and Craigslist does more to address the problem of trafficking than any other classified services).

4. Many women use Craigslist to advertise their services because it is a relatively safe and cheap way to do so without a pimp, management, or large start-up cost (e.g. advertising in alternative newspapers). Cracking down on Craigslist harms many of these women by taking away opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and autonomy.

5. I did a LexisNexis research for reports about trafficking on Craigslist, and I found that vast majority of examples involved minors being recruited into prostitution. I’m trying to figure out how these pimps got caught, because that might give us an idea about how to identify sexual exploitation of minors, but there isn’t enough information in most newspaper articles.

That said, some incidences were uncovered because the ads hinted at trafficking (e.g. an ad offering “sex slave” for sale–which should never have passed Craigslist’s manual review and should have been reported immediately); while some others appear to have been intervened because the girl pictured in the ad looked too young.

I think that we should work with Craigslist to improve mechanisms to identify ads that share characteristics similar to other ads that have been identified as involving child sexual exploitation or trafficking. Craigslist is a technology company, and I’m sure that they can do better in this regard, utilising data mining technologies to distinguish between a woman posting an ad for herself or someone posting an ad on her behalf with her consent, versus someone forcing her to work. (Other industries such as banking and airlines use similar technologies to identify potentially fraudulent financial transactions or suspected terrorist activities.)

6. I also would like Craigslist to cooperate with projects such as Portland Bad Date Line, with which I am tangentially involved. Portland Bad Date Line collects reports about “bad dates,” that are johns who act violently or abusively, or announcing being HIV+ after insisting on and having unprotected sex, or pimps who chase the women in an effort to get the women to work for them, etc. and distribute this information to women (and others) working in the sex industry so that they can take further precautions.

Craigslist could post this sort of information for each region prominently in adult services section, which would provide information women can use to be safer while working, while at the same time warning potential “bad dates” that their information would be shared if they act out. Craigslist should also post information for women seeking help more prominently, although it is questionable whether or not women who are trafficked would actually see the site.

Let’s get Craigslist involved. I have other ideas that I want to bring up with Craigslist if we can get their ears.

7. I feel that what I’ve written above makes sense, and it is the rational and sensible approach to addressing the problem of trafficking. But I do not feel that many U.S.-based “anti-trafficking” groups are serious: they are simply using it as a cover to attack prostitution and the sex industry, and have little regard for how their actions might impact the people they are claiming to protect.

Case in point: the campaign to “end the demand” is absurd. Economics 101 suggests that if the demand for sexual services were to decrease, it would push the price of such services down. But supply is downwardly inelastic, since many women work in the sex industry because they do not have other viable economic opportunities, and the price has to go down quite a bit before another option–such as working as janitors and maids–become more viable compared to prostitution. That is, supply will not go down as much as demand does, and the end result is that more workers would be competing for fewer johns. It would not only mean less income for the women and their families, but it would also force women to make more risky choices–such as having unprotected sex.

Further, not all johns are equally predatory or unsafe to the women. Campaign to “end the demand” would mostly drive away johns who are risk-averse (i.e. those who do not like to take risks), while it would not affect thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive johns. But these thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive types are the ones that present more health and physical risks to those working in the sex industry. In other words, such campaign directly and indirectly harm the women working in the sex industry.

Here, the intentional conflation of trafficking and prostitution by the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement constitutes a real problem: trafficking involves force, deception, or threats, which should be immediately intervened and victims rescued; advocating for the women working in the sex industry requires a much more nuanced and multi-faceted approach (such as creating viable economic opportunities and promoting economic and social justice). The campaigns to “end the demand” or to shut down Craigslist’s adult services section are most likely ineffective at actually addressing the issue of trafficking, and extremely harmful to the women who are working in the sex industry. And yet, by conflating the two, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement hijacks the discourse surrounding the sex industry, making it difficult for those of us working to advocate for women who are working in it.

Another example of irrationality: reports after reports claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is around age 13, usually citing Department of Justice or FBI as the source. If average is 13, that would suggest that there are equal number of 6-year olds and 20-year olds entering prostitution (assuming normal distribution), and that is obviously untrue. It is shocking to encounter someone who had become involved in prostitution at age 13 or younger, but this is definitely an exception, not the norm.

The “statistics” actually comes from a survey of minors who had an encounter with social services, and as such does not include any adults. If you only study minors who are in prostitution, of course the average age of entry is below 18–but it has nothing to do with the average age of entry in general. Consider this: if you only studied people who died as a minor, the average age of death would be something like 13–but that doesn’t mean that the average life expectancy is 13.

So is 13 the typical age of entry for those who became involved in prostitution as a minor? The answer is no. Because the research cuts off at age 18, someone who started at 13 has five times more chance to be included in the study compared to someone who barely started at 17, making the early starters five times more represented in the study. I don’t have access to the original data sets to figure out the actual average, but I suspect that it is closer to 17–and this is only the average for those who were involved as a minor.

The truth is that none of us know the actual average age of entry, but I feel that the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement is cynically publicising the demonstrably false claim (“the average age of entry is 13”) in order to equate prostitution with trafficking of minors, distorting the public perception of the issue and harming many women who are impacted by the anti-prostitution measures they promote.

I would also add a historical observation: in the past, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement have come and gone along with the anti-immigration sentiment in the nation, as exemplified by the “white slavery” panic that coincided with the historical period between Chinese Exclusion Act and Alien and Sedition Acts. The “white slavery” panic did not improve lives of women (including many immigrant women) who were working in the sex industry, but instead functioned as a springboard for repressive policies that target marginalized communities. I fear that the current “anti-trafficking” fervour, coinciding perfectly with the heightened anti-immigration sentiment, is moving along the similar trajectory, and I hope that we can redirect the movement so that it can actually offer safety and freedom for victims without causing harms on others.

How I am excited to receive merit-based scholarship to attend a diverse conference. Not.

Date: May 27, 2010

Several months ago, I sent in an application for “diversity scholarship” to attend this year’s Desiree Alliance conference for activists, scholars, and social workers involved in advocating for sex workers. The conference will take place in Las Vegas late July.

Since I have recently become unemployed, and my grass-roots organizing in the sex worker’s rights movement does not bring me any income, I cannot afford to attend the conference without the scholarship. I estimated that I’d need about $400 for lodging and transportation, plus there is this $150-250 registration fee that the conference expects participants to pay.

I was prepared to spend perhaps $200 of my own money, and use frequent flier miles to get me there, but needed the scholarship to pay for the rest–or at least have the registration fee waived. I told them: “If I do not receive any scholarship, I will not attend the conference. If the registration is waived, there is a small chance I might be able to attend, depending on what deals I find on travel and lodging, and also on whether or not I can use my friend’s frequent flier miles.”

The scholarship application was in depth: it asked about my race/sexuality/disability/etc., communities that I come from, my relationship to sex work and sex worker community, and references. Some of what I wrote in the application was deeply personal, because I felt that they’d had to know me to understand why I would benefit the conference with my participation.

I wasn’t upset that Desiree Alliance did not award me the scholarship to help me with the travel and lodging expenses. But I was offended by the cheerful tone of the email that informed me that I did not make the cut.

The Desiree Alliance Diversity Scholarship Selection Committee has reviewed your application. We are awarding you a Merit Scholarship, which is a partial scholarship for registration to attend the Desiree Alliance Conference, “Working Sex: Power, Practice, and Politics.” In Las Vegas from July 25-30 2010. We appreciate your interest in this conference!

We will be providing you with a partial registration scholarship of $100 of the $250 registration fee. We hope that you will be able to secure the remaining resources to attend!

In other words: not only did they not offer me any scholarship, they didn’t even waive the registration. They are basically just giving me the early registration discount which I would have received if I had just registered several months ago instead of responding to invasive questions in hope that they would at least waive my registration.

I do realize that they probably have very limited funds, and I don’t claim to be more worthy of scholarship than those who received it (if any, that is). But why did they have to be all cheerful about “awarding” partial scholarship, which in reality is no different from early registration fee? I just wish they had simply told me that, unfortunately, they were unable to fund my expenses, and then offered the reduced registration–not as a “scholarship,” but in order to compensate for the fact that I missed the opportunity to register early because of the scholarship application process.

Rejected workshop proposal for Oregon Disability Megaconference

Date: April 29, 2010

It’s a shame that they didn’t think this was important enough to include in this huge annual conference.

Title: Organizing Support and Social Group for LGBTQ People with Developmental Disabilities within and beyond the Staley/Brokerage System

Description:

In January 2010, Bridges to Independence hosted a historic drag show featuring performers with and without developmental disabilities to kick off its LGBTQ Group, a new program consisting of support groups, relationship and safer sex education, community outings, and public events, for LGBTQ individuals with developmental disabilities.

The goal of the program is to support LGBTQ people with developmental disabilities become integrated into the community, especially within the local LGBTQ communities, while providing support and education needed to build and maintain health, safety, and self-esteem.

We also hope to challenge the local LGBTQ communities to become more inclusive of all members of sexual and gender minorities. In this presentation, we hope to discuss our experiences of organizing the group, difficulties we have faced, and how we addressed them.

A special attention is given to how we are funding the program: Bridges to Independence generally works within the Medicaid/Brokerage system of funding social inclusion supports, which we found to be inadequate to support ambitious projects such as this, partly because of the Medicaid’s increasingly narrow definition of what constitutes “disability-related support” (i.e. something related to someone’s disability and not to his or her poverty or sexual and gender identities, even though these things might be intimately linked to their disabilities), but also because many LGBTQ individuals are not enrolled in the brokerage system, and it would be difficult for someone who is not “out” to his or her family members or workers to sign up to receive services through the brokerage system. This realization forced us to seek non-traditional funding sources, such as LGBTQ foundations and LGBTQ community specific fundraisers.

We will also show a short video recording from our drag show, which demonstrates both the need for and the value of this program.

Best. Fortune. Cookie. Ever.

Date: March 20, 2010

I’m so relying on this in my criminal trial.

Fortune: For a good cause, wrongdoing may be virtuous.

ALSO: my second-best ever.

Fortune: Now is a great time to broaden your scope of influence.

Dismissive use of “postmodern” label harms social change movements

Date: March 19, 2010

Alice Dreger, Ellen Feder and Hilde Lindemann have published an update to their article, “Fetal Cosmetology,” in Bioethics Forum that comment on the “responses” to that article, including to my own contribution to the conversation. I am generally in agreement with Dreger et al., but I want to comment on how they respond to my concerns. In the article, “Prenatal Dex: Update and Omnibus Reply,” they state:

In the first published response to our Bioethics Forum essay, Emi Koyama castigated bioethicists in general for not acting to defend the rights of vulnerable persons, leaving us to wonder why our sustained and substantial action was seized as an opportunity to complain about non-action. While we share Ms. Koyama’s concerns about the medical-industrial complex’s take-over of women’s bodies, we rather doubt her postmodern feminist language would have moved the feds the way we have moved the feds. Pardon our pragmatism.

First of all, my essay was not a response to their piece in Bioethics Forum; it was a response to the “letter of concern from bioethicists” posted on Dreger’s site. In fact, I was not even aware of their Bioethics Forum piece until after I submitted the first draft of the essay, and reference to their article was added by the editor of Bioethics Forum to give readers further context.

I am castigating not just bioethicists’ inaction on behalf of vulnerable populations, but also the limitations bioethics as a field has imposed on itself on the scope of their philosophical and ethical inquiry, obsessing over policies and procedures rather than sociopolitical implication of the increasing role and authority of medicine. I did express my appreciation for the “action” of the bioethicists and other scholars responsible for the “letter of concern,” and at the same time I explained why it had the danger of backfiring, like it did on the controversy surrounding growth attenuation, because they continue to operate within the confines of the field of bioethics as it is today.

Further, I resent their dismissive characterisation of my essay as written in “postmodern feminist language” and the patronising statement, “Pardon our pragmatism.” I would concede that voices of concern from among disability rights and women’s health movements are often ineffective at changing the problematic medical practices by themselves, and we often need certain spokespersons and “experts” that transform these voices into pragmatic strategies, these spokespersons and “experts” must be held accountable to the movements which they represent. Thus, the need for pragmatic strategies is in no way an excuse for dismissing activists’ and impacted communities’ concerns as mere “postmodern” intellectual exercise.

Dreger herself has been labeled “postmodernist” by the critics of her work, and she resists this. On her website, she wrote: “Although I sometimes get labeled a ‘postmodernist’ because I write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, in fact I would have to label myself a raving modernist. I really believe in the power of science to improve our knowledge and our lives.” I also write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, including the field of bioethics, and somehow she finds it convenient to label me “postmodernist” in a dismissive way.

Finally, I find the suggestion that my “postmodern feminist language” is what prevents me from being able to “move the feds the way [Dreger et al.] have moved, as if we live in a society in which everyone’s opinions are equally respected and judged solely by their content, offensive. There is no question that their success (so far) has been made possible by the number of Ph.Ds and MDs on the “letter of concern” as well as by Dreger’s and others’ officially sanctioned academic and medical authority and connections that arose from these positions, which have been heavily influenced by their class backgrounds, educational and professional opportunities, and other social conditions. These factors inform our political sensibilities and sometimes open or close certain venues of social change.

I am a pragmatic person, and a pragmatic activist. As a pragmatist, I really don’t see any benefit from Dreger et al. and I continuing to communicate this way publicly. But I reject the idea that pragmatism is a justification for dismissing the sometimes inflexible and unpragmatic but principled work of the disability rights and women’s health movements; in fact, pragmatism and idealism are both essential elements of a successful social change movements, and even that of a successful activist.

Presenting at elite universities: a guilty pleasure? And introduction to my next piece on borderlands of gender

Date: March 18, 2010

I just came home from my trip to Providence to speak at Brown University for the second time. My last visit there was in April 2007, which you can read about here.

The title of my presentation (workshop) was “Transgender Inclusion, or Demilitarizing the Borderlands of Binary Gender System.” It is a critique of “inclusion” model of transgender activism, which promotes individuals’ rights to self-define who they are while leaving the larger structure of binary gender system mostly intact, only creating rooms for minor “exceptions.” While self-determination is an important goal, the promotion of individual choice and responsibility in the absence of justice and equity is the hallmark of the neoliberal ideology and needs to be challenged.

As the title suggests, the workshop also introduced the concept of borderlands, which Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” In the book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa presents a parallel view of borderlands in the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the borderlands created by the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. I’ve been using the metaphor of borderlands to talk about transgender issues for a long time, but I have not been able to present it in a way that was easy for people to understand, but preparing for this workshop helped me to think through how to go about writing a piece that centers on this idea. In other words: stay tuned.

I actually did this workshop at the National MEChA conference at University of Oregon a while back, but that was an audience that was already familiar with issues around borders, borderlands, and immigration. But the highly privileged Brown University crowd would have a very different backgrounds, and I worried that I might not be able to convey my ideas very well.

To my surprise, though, everything went fine. In fact, it turned out great. I have given workshops and lectures at many universities around the country, but speaking at an elite school like Brown (other schools in this category that I’ve visited include University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale) is actually very enjoyable and stimulating for me. Students are bright, of course, but they also possess the cultural capital that affords them the luxury of abstract critical thinking and complexity. And at the same time, I feel certain level of resentment at their highly privileged existence and prospect–these are the people who would join companies like Goldman Sachs and get huge bonuses while the rest of us suffer from unemployment and increasingly hostile labour market.

When talking about the binary gender system, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that we should simply “deconstruct” genders so that everyone is free to be who they are. I’ve been told over and over (by bunch of graduate students, scholars, and some highly educated trans activists) that the intersex movement should work on challenging the binary gender system because that is where the oppression of intersex people stem from. I have nothing against that proposal, except for the fact that intersex children are being harmed by the society’s intolerance of their variance every day and need more immediate, practical help now.

I did not want Brown students to go home only with the critique of identity-based argument for transgender “inclusion,” or with a simple understanding that “deconstructing” binary gender system (however long it would take, and however many trans and intersex people would continue to suffer until that magical day) was the way to go. My call for “demilitarizing the borderlands of binary gender system” is distinct from simply “deconstructing” the binary: it starts with an acknowledgement that trans and intersex people live in the borderlands, and take concrete steps to demilitarise their environment that is the consequences of the society’s attempt to draw a clear and unambiguous boundaries where none naturally exists.

More on that coming soon…

By the way, out of 16-18 students who came to my presentation, not one of them has ever read anything by Gloria Anzaldúa! WTF!?

Delightful dinner conversation at the Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College

Date: March 16, 2010

This past week, I attended the 29th Annual Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College. Since I am local and available, I seem to get invited just about every single year on various panels, but this year I was invited to speak on the topic of disability and sexuality.

There is also a dinner reception on the first day of this conference for organizers, college staff, and presenters each year. I’ve never actually attended the dinner in all those years I’ve been part of the conference, but this year I thought I’d check it out. So I walked into a room full of people I didn’t recognize, and picked a table to join.

It turned out that all four people sitting at the table I picked were administrators at Lewis & Clark who had something to do with the conference. After a quick introduction, they went back to the conversation they were having before I joined the table, which was about the small swastika drawing inside men’s bathroom at the said campus.

To summarize their conversation, they were talking about how students initially did not take the issue seriously, dismissing the drawing as an isolated incident that didn’t mean anything. But the school took time holding campus-wide conversations about the incident and how it might affect Jewish students, students of color and others targeted by the Neo-Nazis and other white supremacy groups, and many white non-Jewish students began to understand that it meant something to some students and should not be tolerated.

“Can I ask a question?” I asked. “Well I was reading the program for this year’s conference, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that all main speakers and performers seem to be white this year. I don’t think this conference was like that in other years I came. Has there been any conversations about that?”

Immediately, a couple of the administrators started stressing, “it was not intentional!” “We noticed that after we planned all the main speakers, but we didn’t do that on purpose. We picked our speakers according to their expertise in this year’s theme, and it was a coincidence that they were all white.”

It wasn’t on purpose? Of course it wasn’t! If I thought it was on purpose, there is no way I would step a foot on this campus ever again (and while this isn’t the main point of this blog post, WTF is up with the name of this school anyway?). And am I supposed to feel comforted because even though all of the main speakers and performers in this conference are white, it was not intentional?

The problem, of course, is not the presence of malicious intent, but the absence of anti-white supremacy intent to create a conference whose speakers and performers are not just competent, but also diverse. It is about the lack of willingness on the part of organizers to go a little bit deeper to find and invite researchers and speakers of color with equal level of expertise and knowledge who are not receiving fair share of attention or status either because of their background or because of the focus of research that white academia deems unimportant.

And if the college is not interested in making an effort to not let very predictable “coincidence” after “coincidence” take place not just in terms of the racial breakdown of the main speakers, but in other aspects as well, what’s the point of hosting Gender Studies Symposium anyway? Besides, how did the administrators fail to see the parallel between the defensiveness of Lewis & Clark College students over the swastika drawing on the urinal and their own defensiveness in response to my query?

This is precisely what I was worried about the field of bioethics

Date: March 15, 2010

After a month or two of scholars and intersex activists challenging the prenatal dexamethasone treatment on fetuses suspected of having congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) designed to prevent the virilization of clitoris, the pro-dex doctors are starting to publicly defend the controversial treatment.

In Bioethics Forum, a blog published by Hastings Center and where Hilde Lindenmann, Ellen Feder, and Alice Dreger have previously published a piece criticizing the treatment, two articles defending the treatment have been published.

In addition, there is a research review paper in the current issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology Survey which apparently suggests that the dexamethasone treatment has benefits (But what is the “benefit” they are talking about? Not being born intersex?).

I had also written my own response, which was posted on Bioethics Forum, to the scholars’ letter of concern about dexamethasone treatment (“letter of concern from bioethicists”) to express my broader concern about the field of bioethics and role it plays in legitimizing ethically troubling medical treatments designed to address social problems.

While I haven’t been able to read the Obstetrics and Gynecology Survey piece yet (although it seems to be a straightforward review paper), both of the responses in Bioethics Forum seem to be exactly the examples of the problems with the field of bioethics that I was trying to address in my own piece.

Lantos epitomizes the tendency for pediatric bioethicists to endorse “let the parents decide” model whenever an ethical question is raised about any particular treatment, rather than seriously considering social and ethical implications of such treatment. It’s interesting that he calls for the “marketplace of ideas and marketplace of medical treatment” to sort it out, as it apparently would mean that bioethicists should have an opinion one way or another only when evidence is completely on one side of the debate, a scenario that does not require bioethicists in the first place. Who needs bioethicists if marketplace is competently guided by the invisible hands of God?

Diamond et al. (I only recognize the names of Diamond and Spack among them) embodies another problem with the bioethics, that is the main concern of my essay: bioethics’ obsession with regulatory mechanisms and procedures rather than the actual ethical considerations. I feared that Alice Dreger’s and others’ critique of Maria New’s practice as an un-authorized, un-supervised human subject research involving off-lable medication would only lead to a kinder, gentler version of the same practice under full IRB review, and that appears to be precisely what Diamond et al. are calling for. That is definitely an improvement over the current situation, and perhaps it’s a step we must go through, but I really don’t want to wait for ten or more years before the registry begins to produce useful information.

I want to write more, but I have to finish writing grant proposal to get a new group for queer people with developmental disabilities funded due Monday (and it’s 12:30am on Monday) and get ready to fly out to the East Coast in less than 24 hours…

By the way, if you happen to be near Providence, I’m presenting a workshop at Brown University on Wednesday, March 17th as part of Brown’s Pride Series 2010. The workshop is titled “Transgender inclusion, or Demilitarizing the Borderlands of Binary Gender System.” See their site for more info.

On Being Suspicious of Bioethics, or Reflections on the Profession In Search of Kinder, Gentler Protocol for Everything

Date: February 19, 2010

I have to get busy packing, since I’m heading to the airport very soon (off to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend/present at Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Trangender Ally College Conference), but I want to announce that my article, “Why I am Suspicious of Bioethics,” was published in Bioethics Forum, an online publication of Hastings Center (title was decided by the editor, not me).

It’s partly about the prenatal administration of off-label medication intended solely to prevent genital virilization (clitoral enlargement in this case) in female fetuses, and also about the controversial “growth attenuation” treatment for children with severe developmental disabilities but it’s also about something larger: how bioethicists are becoming enforcers of established procedures and protocols (which are, after all, determined by the medical community) rather than instigators against injustices in medicine whether or not specifically prohibited by existing policies.

Anyway, I don’t have the time to discuss the article further, so go ahead and read on…

To Portland State University Women’s Studies Governing Board re Proposed Name Change

Date: January 24, 2010

January 23, 2010

PSU Women’s Studies Governing Board members,

I am writing you as a former student, instructor, and frequent guest lecturer of Women’s Studies Program at Portland State University regarding the public discussion I attended this past Thursday about the potential change of the Department name.

At the public meeting last Thursday, it became clear from early on that there were two main concerns/interests that the group was trying to balance: first, there was a strong sense among some outspoken participants that the word “women” should remain, in order to honour the Department’s legacy and to resist erasure of women in the rest of academia; second, there was an even stronger feeling among others that the name should be expanded to include gender and sexuality, in order to more fully represent the content of the program as well as to appeal to a broader audience. Both groups quickly acknowledged each other’s arguments, which made the conjuncture, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, a popular alternative.

And then, several women of colour brought up a concern that highly abstract terms like “gender and sexuality studies” alienate members of their families and communities, making it more difficult to recruit and retain women of colour within our program. I felt that their concerns were very relevant and valid, but I did not hear any other people acknowledge them or to offer compromises to address them. I requested a five-minute caucus time for the women of colour in the group because I felt that the “public” in this public meeting ignored and dismissed the real concerns of women of colour who spoke up, and I wanted to hear them better and to strategies how women of colour can have real impact in the process.

The voting took place immediately after the caucus time, and “Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies” was the most popular name, as I had expected. It received many more votes than the second choice, which was to retain “Women’s Studies.” I do understand that there is a need to change the name if only to reflect the presence of sexualities studies curriculum, and suspect that many people expect the Governing Board to go along with the popular will. But given the fact that the split between WGS and “Women’s Studies” went almost along the racial line, with most people in the white majority preferring WGS and most women of colour preferring “Women’s Studies,” I caution against the use of simple majority rule.

At the same time, I do not expect the Governing Board to throw out the most popular choice entirely, along with two years of internal discussions, simply because most women of colour voted against the change. I suggest that the Governing Board adopt the new name: Department of Women’s Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies. This is longer than even the longest proposal that was on the table this past Thursday, but it is the natural compromise between the two top picks from the community, and has the advantages of both: it is inclusive of scholarly explorations into gender and sexuality issues outside of the traditional “women’s studies” framework, while at the same time allowing people to continue to refer to the program casually as “Department of Women’s Studies” as a shorthand.

To be honest, I did not walk into the meeting thinking that I would be sympathetic to the argument for status quo. I am very excited about the expansion of the program into areas of gender, sexuality, and queer theory, and I would have picked something more along the line of WGS if I were to decide it by myself. But after hearing voices of other women of colour, and seeing how the process failed to include and address their concerns, I felt that it was more important for me to stand in solidarity with them than to promote the name that I personally like most. I urge members of the Governing Board to take their/our concerns seriously, and come up with a solution that satisfies their/our needs, possibly but not necessarily along the line of my suggestion.

Sincerely,

Emi Koyama

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