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.