Monthly Archives: January 2011

Amber Dean on Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group

I conducted this interview on 15th November 2010. It was published by The Ally on 24th January  2011.

An exhibition held at the end of summer in 2009 at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton sparked controversy and gave birth to Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group when it showed photographs of street based sex workers taken with surveillance cameras. Amber Dean, founding member of Big Susie, explains further about the exhibit that sparked the idea for the group, “The owner of [The] Pearl Company… put together an art show that exhibited photographs and surveillance images that he had taken of women doing street sex work outside of his gallery and theatre. And, he exhibited these [photographs] without their knowledge and… consent”.

The artist in question is Gary Santucci, whose exhibition was described on the You Me Gallery website as “turn[ing his] lenses on the city’s underbelly and [his] mind to the immense question of how we can make positive social change”. Dean, who has done academic work in the area with her PhD on representations of women doing sex work in inter-city neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country, considers that Santucci could have been “well intentioned but he ha[s] absolutely no analysis about sex work”. He had “no concern for the kinds of risks that he was exposing these women to when he… put up these pictures”. 

The uglier picture behind Santucci’s “well intentioned” art exhibit lies in his personal agenda to secure zoning permits for his art gallery and theatre. Santucci wants to be seen as a “moral crusader… who wanted to shine a bright light in the dark corner of Hamilton that nobody wanted to look at”, but either fails or refuses to take into account the consequences of his art show. According to Dean, “[t]here has been a real increase in hostility towards these people who do street based sex work in Hamilton, especially in the last year that started with [Santucci’s] art show, but has mobilised with some neighbourhood groups that have gotten involved organizing with the police out of a desire to just displace street based sex workers to push them out of residential areas into somewhere else”. Big Susie aims to counteract the negative attitude that has been in place since Santucci’s exhibition. Dean contends that “there… was nothing in Hamilton that was specifically doing advocacy for sex workers on a sex positive basis and was advocating decriminalizing”. As recently as last fall, Big Susie came into being with their five board members and a mailing list of a large number of supporters drawn through their past two events, and through support and funding from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

But coming about even as a small collaborative group wasn’t easy: “We received some positive… and negative press. Some of that negative press suggest[ed] that by promoting sex work, [we] are also promoting violence against women”. However, after having received funding from CUPE  and overwhelming turnouts at their last two public events, Big Susie has been optimistic about their growth. Currently, the group hopes to have new people join their board and help build the organization, as well as, hold workshops specifically for street based sex workers on “harm reduction” and “basic safety and first aid”. 

To know more about Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group, or to get involved, email bigsusies@live.ca.

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“Hello, I am a Missionary. I am here to convert You.”

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 29th January 2011

It’s a quiet lazy Sunday morning. You are sleeping in on that one day of the week you can call your own. You are wearing your teddy bear t-shirt that you won’t be caught dead in when you are outside, but you keep it anyway because it’s comfortable and you can wear it on Sundays. Then the bell rings and shatters your temporary calm existence. 

You wait for a bit. You hope someone else will get it. But since they are also hoping for the same, there is no movement within the house. The bell rings again and you stumble groggily to open the door. Its cold and you are blind without your glasses. So, when you see two well-dressed strangers smiling widely at you, you smile back uncertainly, wishing that you had grabbed your glasses when you had woken up.

“Hello! How are you this morning?”

“Good, thanks.”

 You are secretly wishing that they would just come to the point instead of starting with pleasantries so that you can go back to your warm bed and maybe go back to that incredible dream you were having.

“Can we have a moment of your time?”

 Umm, no. Because you clearly woke me up and all I want to do is sleep!

“Yeah, sure” you say, because you have been brought up to be polite to perfect strangers.

 “We would like to invite you to our meeting this afternoon,” and they hand you a pamphlet with the word “God” on it.

Suddenly, you snap awake. You are faintly annoyed at being woken up to be invited to a religious meeting.

 “I am not really interested. I have my own faith,” you try to wriggle out of the situation without being rude.

“We understand, but why don’t you keep this and take a look?”

And, you take the pamphlet and throw it in the garbage right after you close the door.

Sound like a familiar Sunday morning scenario? See, I am not one to write about religion. To me, religion is too private to have any kind of conversation on. In fact, when there was a huge global debate going on about whether there should be a mosque on the former World Trade Center site, I kept my nose completely clean of the issue. If anyone asked me what my opinion was, I just smiled weakly and changed the topic.

So, when you come to my house and wake me up in the hopes of having me come to your meetings and in the faint anticipation that maybe you will be able to convert me to your religion, well, I don’t appreciate it. I am happy with my faith and if I needed to change my religion, I would come find you.

I understand that you get some kind of brownie points from God or something if you can convert one person in your lifetime, but I am sure God would not want people to go around disturbing the peace and quiet of people’s off days sending out invitations like pushy salesmen. To me, God is like a Tantra t-shirt I once saw that read: God is too big to fit into one religion. In fact, I am sure God is too busy with important matters to bother about keeping track of your supposed brownie points. But then again, this is one conversation I will not be having with you.

I would not even have written this blog post if it wasn’t for the incident that happened yesterday. There I was. Walking down the snow covered pavement, ignoring the world in order to catch a Go Bus to come home for the weekend, when I was accosted by a smiling undergrad with a holy book.

 “Hello!” he said, grinning at me.

I racked my brain hard, wondering if he was one of my students and I was somehow forgetting a face. And, if he was, how awful! Then, I noticed a name tag and a bunch of “God” pamphlets.

 “Uh… I am not interested,” I said and kept on walking.

“Do you know anyone who is?” he wondered aloud after me.

“No, I am sorry,” was my response. But perhaps what I should have said was, don’t you think if I knew someone I would have directed you to them to deflect attention from myself? Also, don’t you think it’s rude to accost people on a cold winter Friday afternoon in the hopes of garnering attention for whatever religious group you seem to be representing? And, don’t you think if grown up people that litter this university campus were interested in looking for God, they would come find you?

So, hello Missionary, I am not interested. And, please leave me alone.

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