A couple weeks ago I went to a prostitution awareness event put together by Sextrade 101 and Sheatre. As I drove to Toronto I wondered what the evening would hold. All I knew was that some kind of interactive theatre was involved, and I felt a mixture of eager anticipation, nervous reservation, and peaked curiosity. What does interactive theatre look like? Would I find myself standing up in front of a full room, forced to participate or answer some kind of difficult question I lacked the answer for? What misconceptions would the event shatter and what lessons was I about to learn?
I walked into a packed room with tables and caught the eye and beautiful smile of Natasha Falle, the amazing woman who started Sextrade 101. “Good, I’m in the right place,” I thought. I sat down at a table with the Free-them crew and some others, and immediately had a roast beef dinner set before me. It was awesome to catch up with some blog readers as I ate (you know who you are!).
The event began with a keynote by Victor Malarek, the host of CTV’s W5 and author of The Natashas: The New Global Sextrade and The Johns: Sex For Sale and the Men Who Buy It. He talked about how before he started investigating sex trafficking for The Natashas, he probably would have supported legalization of prostitution. But after being held at gunpoint when taking girls out of a brothel in Kosovo, speaking with sex trafficking victims and hearing their stories, and researching what johns think about women, he has drawn his line in the sand as an abolitionist, a total abolitionist. Prostitution is violence against women, because it is not about choice but about survival. I am grateful for men like him who take a stand.
The play was about to begin. A group of young women and one man took the stage and introduced themselves. In this moment I realized the profound significance of the play…these young women were survivors of prostitution and would be acting out scenarios based on realities of the sex trade. I held my breath as they began, acknowledging their courage to share with us experiences they’d probably rather forget.
One scene depicted what it is like for someone trying to leave the trade to be in a classroom, where classmates made fun of her for not having a computer. Another showed the girls getting ready for ‘customers,’ and another revealed the violence they experience. The one that haunted me most was the part in which the main character is talking/fighting with her boyfriend/pimp. The invisible chains that hold these young women in the trade may as well be physical – that’s how strong they can be. Finally, there is a scene of vulnerability and recruitment.
The first time through we watched it like a normal play. Following this, the audience was asked to participate. The team went through each scene again, but this time we had to yell “STOP” if there was some way to intervene. The audience member would have to replace someone on stage and act out what the right course of action would be.
As you can probably imagine, this was challenging and uncomfortable for many who chose to propose a new course of action. I often find myself sitting at events or reading books thinking, “well clearly I would do this in their situation.” But when a complex scenario laid before me with room full of people looking on (including those who had experienced the horrors of exploitation), all of a sudden I found my heroic ideas melt into a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Would I actually care enough about fellow classmates to hear their real stories? If one of my classmates in university had been trying to get out of the trade and was struggling, would I have ever even noticed? If others stigmatized them, would I do something about it? If they needed some extra help to find resources, would I be willing to sacrifice my time?
If I was a bystander and saw a man push a woman down on the street, would I interfere? Should I? Would that just make her receive punishment later because her pimp is threatened by ‘outsiders’ getting involved? Would calling the police make her situation better or worse? What if she didn’t want my help? What if he had a gun?
The crowd got into some lively conversation about these scenarios, and not everyone agreed as to what was the right thing to do in each one. As I wrestled with the jumble of complexity in my mind, one of the actors said this:
“We can avoid having to make these difficult decisions on how to react if we prevent this situation from happening in the first place.”
Prevention. There it is again. The word that drives me and bothers me, motivates me and frustrates me. Prevention is difficult to measure. It does not seem glorious. It is hard to show numbers on a progress report. But as an abolitionist, I strive to be a preventionist. One of the young women on the stage asked, “where was all the help when I was a child? If someone had intervened then, I would not have gotten into this mess.”
Healthy, loving adoptive families. Compassionate, intentional teachers. Patient, devoted mentors. Brave, fully-present parents. Caring, hospitable neighbours. We all have a role to play in preventing these messy, uncomfortable, exploitative, harmful situations from ever happening in the first place.
The evening ended with a story from Angel, a daughter of one of the women who was murdered by Robert Pickton. You could have heard a pin drop. I was so grateful for her beautiful honesty and her willingness to share how she is finding healing step by step. Natasha Falle, who herself left the sex trade a number of years ago with the help of someone who believed in her, gave all the women who performed the play a rose at the end of the night. There were hugs, and tears, and laughter.
THIS is what redemption looks like.
To Natasha Falle and everyone who put this event together, THANK YOU! It was truly one of the best awareness events I have ever been to. To the brave young women who took the stage, thank you for allowing me to learn and be challenged. This evening is forever etched in my mind.