This year marks the 50th anniversary of Xtra’s publisher, Pink Triangle Press, which was established in 1971 in Toronto, Canada. The aim of the press’ founding collective was to give a voice to the political and social concerns of gay men and lesbians and to advance the cause of sexual liberation. In November 1971, they launched the influential (and occasionally infamous) gay liberation newspaper, The Body Politic. Fifty years later, Xtra is exploring what sexual liberation means in the 21st century through the six-part series Protest and Pleasure by activist and writer Chanelle Gallant.
Remember last summer when the world went wild over the playfully filthy song WAP? In it, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion celebrate sex for their own pleasure and profit (“Pay my tuition just to kiss me / On this wet-ass pussy”). Fans loved it and conservatives did not, loudly complaining that the song was “too graphic” and “ruining America.” One Republican politician tweeted, “Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion are what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure.” Some literally cried over it.
Interesting. Because you know what’s not considered too graphic for America? Actual violence. From news reports to popular entertainment, media is filled with stories and images of sexual assault and sexualized violence against women. One example: HBO’s hugely popular series Game of Thrones, which drew as many as 44 million viewers per episode, featured over 50 rape scenes and a survivor who falls in love with her rapist. But, still, when another TV show depicted a woman masturbating (her boyfriend dumps her as a result), it made headlines. To some, women’s consensual pleasure is more scandalous than sexual abuse.
We live in a rape culture: We hear daily of child abuse and sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, date rape and intimate partner violence, street harassment and threats of sexual violence in online spaces. Sexual harm is so pervasive that most of us will experience it in our lifetimes.
While sexual violence is commonly directed at women and girls, rates of sexual harm against marginalized boys and men is overlooked and minimized. It’s estimated, for example, that over half of all Deaf boys experience childhood sexual abuse. LGBTQ2S+ people are also significantly more likely to be assaulted than straight and cisgender people. Seventy-five percent of bisexual women experience sexual violence, one of the highest rates of any community.
I think we can all agree that sexual liberation and freedom depend on, at minimum, the absence of coercion and violence. And we have made efforts over the years to reckon with this, including survivor organizing like Take Back the Night, the cataclysmic #MeToo movement that brought down many prominent abusers and the establishment of services and supports for survivors, including LGBTQ2S+ ones.
But for the most part, survivors are told that the best (or only) way to deter sexual assault and achieve justice is through the police and the courts: We should report our assaults, demand a police investigation, hope for a conviction and push for the longest possible prison sentence to send a strong message that sexual assault won’t be tolerated.
The problem is, policing doesn’t deter sexual violence and it never has.
The overwhelming majority of sexual assault cases are not reported to police. Survivors know that the police have the discretion to decide if they believe (or care about) the survivor—and most of those who’ve been harmed don’t turn to cops for help. Only a tiny fraction of sexual assault reports result in charges, a prosecution and a conviction. Even in the “best case scenario” of a prosecution, the survivor is dragged through hell by the court system.
In some cases, police might blame—or even arrest—the survivor, which is what happened in the case of Moka Dawkins. Dawkins is a Black trans woman in Toronto who was violently attacked by a sex work client in 2015 and, terrified for her life, fought back. After making a panicked 911 call, police arrived, maced her in the face then arrested her. She was convicted of manslaughter and served prison time.
So many communities—racialized people, poor people, sex workers, drug users, queer and trans people—can’t even count on the police to stop a serial killer targeting their communities, as we saw in Toronto, Vancouver and so many other places all over the U.S. Yet the police criminalize consensual interactions like sex work, having sex while HIV-positive, public cruising and sex in bathhouses.
The police do not keep us safe—and, as a survivor, this reality is very uncomfortable. This is why when the conversation about defunding police made its way from activist movements into mainstream conversation this past year, a lot of people who are sympathetic to the issue of defunding police paused at the question of sexual assault: If we defund police and abolish prisons, who will protect us from sexual assault? If we defund police, what about the rapists?
Good question: What about the rapists?
Syrus Marcus Ware, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives and Woods Ervin, a director at the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance are three queer Black leaders whose work has deeply informed my thinking about policing and its impact on sexual freedom. One of the questions I asked them: Why do we only have these limited—and tragically ineffective—ways of addressing sexual violence?
A common thread in their responses was that our culture is profoundly shaped by what American scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery”: Racist violence that lives with us today through institutions that grew out of slavery, like the police.
The early policing bodies in the U.S. and Canada were hired by governments to catch enslaved people who had escaped and help European settlers steal Indigenous people’s land and violently quash resistance. “The institution of trans-Atlantic slavery treated Black bodies of all genders as property and it poisoned everyone’s relationship to our bodies,” Ware says. “That legacy continues today through policing, which is based on ideas from that era that some people are entitled to own and violate the bodies and sexualities of others.”
The foundational design of policing was to control, contain and punish Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour, and to maintain the power of wealthy white people. To do this, they over-protect the latter and under-protect everyone else. And if racism is job number one, then everything else has to come second.
When you understand policing in this way, it makes perfect sense that the system fails to protect or support survivors. Our sexual safety (let alone liberation) is just not a priority. Relying on police as our “protection” against sexual assault means literally nothing. Some police don’t even understand consent laws; some police are perpetrators of sexual violence themselves.
In its pursuit of the anti-Black agenda, policing has compromised everyone’s freedom—including sexual freedom—because we’re funding police forces and prisons instead of investing in community safety, sexual harm prevention and meaningful healing and accountability when prevention has failed. Guns, cops, jail—none of this deters sexual assault. Not even the death penalty (which can backfire and create more violence).
That’s not because sexual assault is inevitable, it’s because we’ve been doing—and investing in—the wrong things to both prevent sexual violence and find meaningful justice and care for survivors.
The movement to abolish the police and prisons was built by Black women and women of colour survivors—people who were at risk of experiencing violence and yet knew that police and prisons weren’t there to protect them or defend their consent. They knew that to end violence, we had to break our dependence on punishment and address its real causes. Ending our reliance on policing as our main avenue for safety is just one element of shifting our thinking beyond punishment and freeing up the resources and imagination that we need to build a world where we have agency over our sexualities, and where consent is sacred.
“Taking the cops and courts off the table is scary at first,” Ervin says, “but it compels us to come up with sophisticated, creative and robust ways to prevent harm and interrupt harm.”
Like so much: Ervin, Ware and Maynard point to myriad strategies and programs that would legitimately increase safety. There’s broad-scale sex education aimed at teaching healthy relationship and communication skills, changing behaviour around consent and emphasizing pleasure, empathy and mutual care. There could be teams of people trained to provide sexual violence prevention for all ages. There could be emergency housing for survivors fleeing their abusers and hotlines in a hundred languages to provide counselling. There could be “bad date lists,” like the kind that sex workers use, where survivors provide reports about abusers that aren’t tied to the courts. There could be teams of counsellors skilled in helping abusers to stop their violent behaviour, learn to be accountable and make amends.
Then there’s the structural interventions that aren’t directly related to sex but definitely reduce sexual violence, like ending poverty, funding reliable public transit and investing in affordable housing. All of these initiatives would increase the agency and safety of people most targeted for violence.
Now, before you say “nice idea Chanelle, but we can’t afford all of that,” I have good and bad news for you. In Canada and the U.S., police services gobble up anywhere from 20 to 55 percent of our cities’ entire budgets. Defunding the police—even by half—would free up billions of dollars that could go into sexual violence prevention, healing and accountability services.
“We need new ways to approach issues of justice and safety, based on care and not violence,” Ware says, “because there is still so much violence against people who call themselves gay or trans. We’re not flourishing sexually.”
Police budgets have been growing for decades, but this has not reduced sexual violence. “Policing isn’t preventative,” Maynard says, “it’s responsive—and not even very good at that.”
We can only call the police when it’s too late to prevent the incident or its long-lasting traumatic effects. And the police are often the cause of violence: Maynard pointed to research that sexual assault is the second most commonly reported form of police misconduct.
And, crucially, there’s no version of policing that doesn’t include the harassment, terror and death of Black and Indigenous people. There never has been. If we want to end that violence and create a world of sexual liberation and justice, we’ve got to support Black and Indigenous activists, thinkers and creators who are working to end these systems. We can start with investing in community supports that actually prevent sexual violence, heal survivors and create meaningful accountability on the part of abusers.
Ervin says that this is the most misunderstood aspect of the call to defund police: The goal is not to end policing, it’s to build a new world. “Abolition is a movement to create a fundamentally just society that distributes resources to meet the people’s needs and shares power. It’s about a transfer of power, wealth, resources and respect to poor and working class Black people—and to everyone locked out of power.”
Here’s some of what you can do to get started:
- Join a group. Maynard advises looking for what’s happening in your area on the issues of defunding the police or stopping the expansion of a jail or detention centre. She says that people are always already doing the work, and it is often led by Black women, queer and trans survivors. Find out how you can support them by volunteering, donating, contacting local representatives and so on.
- Learn about the long fight to defund and abolish the police and about alternatives to policing, sign up for a training on transformative justice, learn how to intervene in harm and how to provide survivor support.
A world where our sexualities are free is a world without cops. And we can “live abolition now,” Maynard says. “It is not a distant fanciful goal, it is an approach and a set of skills that you can develop and sharpen today.”