Prostitution of Indigenous Women: Not Our Shame, Not Our Burden to Carry

My mom grew up in the middle of the Prairies in the middle of The Great Depression. She was a child of want, on every level imagineable. Her mom and her step-dad drank and fought all the time. Adults, in drunken stupors, had sex right in front of my mom. My mom saw what no child should ever see. She was subjected to cruelties; she was shamed and humiliated beyond the reach of care. She told me when she was six years old, she was admitted to The Grey Nuns’ Hospital emergency room in Regina, Saskatchewan, diagnosed with gonorrhea. When I asked her how could a child of six get a venereal disease, she replied, “I must’ve got it from a toilet seat.” When I heard those words, my heart broke for my mom and my heart broke for me, too. I realized we had both been raped as children in our homes. As the years unfolded, more painful truths were revealed—we both had been sexually abused by multiple offenders. Our sexual abuse had spilled out of our homes and into our communities. We were safe NOWHERE. Unfortunately, this painful reality is all too common for Indigenous women here in Canada, and throughout the rest of the world. Little did either my mom or I know, as girls, that we were being “set up”—we were being “groomed” for prostitution….and this horrific “grooming continues today…unabated.

My mom and her younger sister were pubescent when my grandma married her second husband. He tried to rape both my mom and my aunt. My mom went to my grandma and told her what her new step-dad was trying to do to her and to her sister. My grandma did not believe my mom. Instead, she abandoned both daughters. She sacrificed them to the residential school system. My grandma ran away from her girls—put provinces between them. She took off to Ontario, taking her guilt and her pedophile husband with her. In 1965, my grandma died of spinal cancer. By this time, my mom had been prostituted for 20 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I was being sexually abused in my home. My mom flew to Ontario to be with her dying mom on the money my brother made by being prostituted, as well. That’s another cultural/family tragedy to be told at another time. Inter-generational rape and prostitution is all too common for Indigenous women, and our children.

Decades later, I crawled out of prostitution, myself. I got sober which meant I’d taken my first healing step. When I was two years sober, I took another healing step…I read feminists’ writings on the topic of childhood sexual abuse. Second-wave feminism had broken not only my silence, but the world’s. I learned that my private pain which I thought had only happened to me was happening to girls all over the world. I heard for the very first time the word, “patriarchy”, and I came to understand it as the pandemic abuse of power by men. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was building myself sane by gaining a political analysis of what had happened to me in my home and why it had happened. I learned I was not at fault for the crimes which had been committed against me. I was re-constructing a new and healing identity.

Regarding prostitution, one feminist work, in particular, shed light. In Kathleen Barry’s work, “Female Sexual Slavery”, she writes that prostitution requires a devalued class of women (supply side) to meet male sexual needs (demand side), and that it is the male “demand side” which drives prostitution. I knew this to be true from my own experiences of being prostituted, and from my mother’s years of being prostituted, as well. I took another healing step when I returned to school. During my academic years, I learned of the plight of my people throughout Canadian history. And, I learned another word: colonization. I perceived that patriarchy formed its backbone. I learned of what colonization had done to Indigenous people, but especially what it had inflicted upon our women. Through institutional atrocities such as the state, the church, and nascent capitalism our women were subjugated: a “devalued class of women” had been created. The institution of prostitution came over with the European male. Every fort, and every trading post was surrounded by brothels. Did white women come over with their men? No, not for 100 years. Who filled these rape chambers? Indigenous women, what’s who! Did we go willingly? Did we choose these rapes? I don’t think so! Instead, we were kidnapped, and against our will, we were forced into European brothels. The same colonial forces which subjugated our women historically are still at work today. I don’t know why the term “neo-colonial”–there is nothing new in these practices. It is poor women the world over who are prostituted. In my own family, sexual abuse and prostitution have been inter-generational. This holds true for Indigenous peoples throughout colonized time and space. My own mom, after 25 years of being sexually assaulted by men who justified their assaults with sexist, racist, and classist money, died with only enough money in her bank account for her own cremation. Unfortunately, this impoverished reality is all too common, especially for Indigenous women who are prostituted the world over.

My mom only went to grade three, but she held a doctorate from “the school of hard knocks”. She was very proud of me for getting sober, and for going back to school. I’ll never forget when it came time for my defense. I returned home one night to a voice message from her saying, “Hi Honey, I’m coming to your class. What time’s your sentencing?” I still laugh when I remember that message. My mom knew I was researching prostitution. I asked her if I could talk about her life in my work. Without hesitation, she said, “Sure Honey, I got nothing to be ashamed about. If you think it will help other women, go right ahead!”. Even in her final years, my mom continued to extend her heart to men. She showed them kindness, generosity, and love despite their inflicted cruelties. She stubbornly refused to harden her heart. Some would call her foolish. I call her amazing.

I’ve recently begun to speak very publicly about the inter-related private pains of sexual abuse and prostitution in my life, and how it holds true for so many other Indigenous women. Others’ words have helped me heal. Now, my own words are healing me. I hope they help others, too. I will spend the rest of my life healing. Such is the living consequence of rape in women’s lives.

17 Responses to Prostitution of Indigenous Women: Not Our Shame, Not Our Burden to Carry

  1. Thank you so much for writing this terrific post. Your mother was an amazing woman, and the fact that she stubbornly refused to harden her heart brought me to tears. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and prostitution, and I will spend the rest of my life healing, one day at a time. The beautiful thing about healing is that as it happens within us, the healing ripples out to others and becomes a force of nature. Again, thank you for sharing your healing words.

    • Hi Marti,

      Thanks for reading my post, and for leaving your heartfelt comment. Yes, I do know what you mean about spending the rest of our lives healing O.D.A.T. I am grateful that I’ve lived long enough to become part of that force of nature you speak of. Little did I know that the very worst part of my life could be used to help others heal. Again, Marti, thank you for your most welcome comment. In sisterhood, survivorhoood, and solidarity, Jackie

  2. How much suffering can be packed into a lifetime? It is amazing that women like Jackie and her mother lived to tell their stories at all considering Canadian and American decimation and disregard for Indigenous peoples that are driven simultaneously by male contempt and hatred for women that could go under their banner that “all women are whores.” And yet you survived and spirited yourself into this eloquent and powerful revelation that joins with that of so many other indigenous women. I am honored to know you through your work and that you have read mine, and more deeply honored that it was useful to you. No book review could mean as much as this piece to me. You are doing so much more than surviving and healing. You’ve claimed your own life against incredible odds.

    • Hi Kathleen,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’ve taken your words to heart, and it will take some time for their importance to sink in–overwhelm is like that for me! Mutual respect and admiration–nothing more nurturing for the soul. We have met one another by our words, and it is my hope that one day we might have the opportunity and privilege of meeting one another in person. In sisterhood, Jackie Lynne

    • Hi Hilla, Thanks so much for posting your comment, and please accept my long-delayed thank-you. It feels good to write, and I’m heartened to know my words benefit others, as well. In sisterhood, Jackie

    • Hi Sangita,

      I wish you could’ve met my mom–she had such spunk, such humour. And she loved me so much! I think others meet my mom when they meet me. I’m a lot like her. She always had the courage to tell it like it was. Before my mom passed away, she gave me permission to tell her story to help others. So, thank you for your comments about the both of us. Please accept my belated reply. Jackie

  3. Extremely well written,Jackie. It still amazes me that you can document the circumstances of such pain,as articulately as you do.
    I applaud your courage and willingness to put your life story out there to be a beacon of hope for so many others.
    It is those who have been lost and then found, that can truly hold out hope to their sisters who are crying on the inside. I pray that this action by you and others will succeed where so many others feared to go.

  4. People keep telling me that I should not be advocating for abolition of prostitution (Nordic model) because some women want the freedom to prostitute themselves… I doubt it’s true but I question myself… Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry for the pain, but I love that we can be brave and shout out the truth and the hope we have. Keep being a truth-teller, hope-spreader!

  5. I am so glad to see you are writing about this. Thank you for this powerful essay. I just incorporated a quotation from it in a presentation I am giving which includes the history of Indigenous women being used in prostitution.

    Miigwetch Jackie!

  6. Hi Jackie,
    Other people have commented on your relationship with your mom which is intriguing.

    But on the topic of prostitution: In the way I do not know how to think about slavery, starvation, torture…. I also do not know how to think about prostitution. The idea of people taking advantage of you specifically, and of many others I know and don’t know makes me want to step sideways away from the world as it is and into a world as it ought to be. But this thinking, for me, brings hopelessness. We are, in so many ways, slaves to our bodies especially when we are young and understand less. This does not make injury any less severe.

    But this is your life, and it has been an exceedingly remarkable life that you are able to share. It is not the life you may have chosen, but it is extraordinary.

    adel

  7. My Eastern Shawnee Native, wonderful grandparents who loved me, and raised me right, and in our Native ways, were killed for their hard earned money. Then I was kidnapped, to steal mine, and traffick me for even more.

    One of my own family members did all of it, along with others, but I never considered them family and never will. They stole my identity, loved ones, and destroyed my life, and I too will spend my glorious life healing, but fortunately I am a Holistic Health Master and have my PhD in the Healing Arts, and can and do, heal myself and many others.

    Much Love, Respect, Light, Prayers, and Many Blessings!

    ~Shawnee

  8. I have finally connected with my true tribe and family again, as of only a year and a half ago. We stay in touch and chat a little everyday. I can’t hardly wait to reunite in person, and be living back near them again. Love and True Family is Everything! I rescue people and have for many years. My husband was killed also. He was a wonderful man. I believe in love. I also hope to adopt a child or more as well. In the right way only of course. Because it’s Meant to be. Namaste

    ~Shawnee

  9. Shawnee thank you’ reading about a piece of your life and your memories through your own and mother eyes, has quenched my thirst to full satisfaction, that I am on the right pathway! This violating sin has been around since and before the days of Noah. My wife and I are of Maori decent, we have a small understanding about colonization and it self wantonness to live in and under darkness in the falseness of pure light. To name and shame is alright and necessary, I have found that exposing sin in any form has to be done in love’ with the aim to forgive’ no matter how ugly the situation was or is! My reason being is’ by doing it this way,it destroy the regrowth of that particular root. If we give in to our human nature for revenge we may cut off the head of that particular problem, but we then add fertilizer to the root because of the very nature of our attack, has the same power source. which allows that root sprouts again in the next generation, with more power behind it. Excuse me in no way I’m I saying you are doing any of what I have said! But to smash it to pieces we have to do it the way that kills it whole, which is with a pure and righteous love against evil. Revenge is mine says Yahuah. You have a powerful soul and your spirit is refined to do the work that is close to your and many others hearts. So let our spirit hands touch in prayer and lets go smashing. For our battle is not against flesh and blood but all the evil spirits that reign in power and principalities of darkness! KIa Kaha E Wahine Toa O Whakapono. H.O.S John Nepia

  10. Hi Jackie,

    I was incredibly moved by your story. The spirit and strength you and your mother exude, despite all you’ve endured, are so inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

    I was wondering if you might be willing offer your guidance further. I am an architecture student in Vancouver and am concerned with the safety of the workers on the street, particularly with the increasing number of youth that are getting involved. I know that reasons for entering and leaving the trade are complex and out of my control, and as much as I wish for the violence to be eradicated, it’s unfortunately not that simple. It’s also fairly clear that no matter what laws are in place, someone is always getting hurt. We can’t wait for legislation to fix everything. Change must start in our own communities.

    I am interested in designing a project that can aid in the safety of the women and children working on the street and would really appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I have listed some questions below, and welcome any feedback you or others want to share.

    — Was there any place for you to go if you felt unsafe? What was it like? What kind of support was offered?

    — How does safety differ working indoors or outdoors? What about in the core of a city or on the outskirts? Where do you think workers would have the most power over abusers? Ie. lighting, location, etc.

    — What do workers need? Do you think it would be helpful to have emergency safety shelters scattered around the city, or is it more important to have a home base, or both? Is there something else that would be more helpful?

    Thank you

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