[Content Note: Racism, misogyny, harassment, bullying, silencing, gaslighting.]
Last week I attended the Forging Justice conference in Detroit, which was jointly sponsored by National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and HAVEN, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency in Oakland County, Michigan.
I was initially confused to be invited to a conference that was also called "38th National Conference on Men & Masculinities" since my activist and professional work have always centered on women, but I accepted the invitation to participate in the opening plenary on intersectionality and feminism after finding out that HAVEN handled the bulk of programming, while NOMAS took care of the bulk of fundraising. It helped that one of my friends knew Cristy Cardinal, who was HAVEN's conference programming chair. The other panelists for the opening plenary were Kristie Dotson of Michigan State University and Jessica Luther of Flyover Feminism.
I started my presentation by quoting Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashina: "Fuck that word 'intersectionality,' but, you know, be it." I felt that this quote was very apt for this panel, because "intersectionality" has become a fancy buzzword among rather privileged academic feminists and others, eclipsing the fact that intersectionality is and has always been a lived reality of many people who struggle against multiple oppressions whether or not they use or even know the term.
My presentation, which along with other highlights from the conference is now available on HAVEN's Ustream channel, focused on how the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse promotes further surveillance and criminalization of already marginalized communities as the primary and often only solution to the problem of violence and exploitation experienced by youth and adults in the sex trade. I argued how such an approach ignores realities of people who are actually in the sex trade (due to any combination of choice, circumstances, or coercion), and harm the very people they are intended to help. At minimum, I believe, an intersectional analysis would require us to start from the acknowledgement that the state is a problematic institution, a source of violence against women of color and many others, that cannot be intrinsically relied on.
After the panel was over, Cristy from HAVEN came up to me and told me something shocking: minutes if not seconds before the panel was to begin, two white male co-chairs of NOMAS told her that the live-streaming of the panel would be turned off for my presentation after two other panelists spoke. She also told me that the men had indicated that, depending on what I say, they were prepared to step in and interrupt my presentation on the spot. Cristy said, "I'm sorry. I want to be transparent about what happened and accountable to you as a white feminist and a host of the conference. I wish I could do something different, but we didn't even have the time to have a discussion about this." Meanwhile on Twitter, people watching the live-streaming were confused as to what had just happened, because the streaming was abruptly terminated without any explanation.
News of what happened had spread by the next morning, and most of the women participating in the conference (and at least one man, the youngest and newest national council member of NOMAS) were furious about the censorship and threat. We were told that NOMAS would hold a "listening session" to hear community voices about the incident after the evening panel by the members of NOMAS national council. "They don't seem to think there was anything wrong with the decision," I was told by some of the women who spoke with the NOMAS leadership. "I don't know if you want to be there or say anything, but let us know how we can support you."
I did go to the panel, as did seven or eight women who showed up in solidarity. The panel of NOMAS national council members went on for almost two hours, each of them congratulating how they are so grateful for such a wonderful and supportive pro-feminist men's community that holds itself and other men accountable, while the women sat there quietly waiting for our chance to actually hold them accountable.
The last speaker was NOMAS co-founder Robert Brannon, who currently heads Pornography, Prostitution and Trafficking task group of NOMAS. During his speech about the harms of pornography and prostitution on women and children, he angrily began ranting about me--not using my name, but clearly referring to me and my writings, which I was distributing at the conference:
I deeply regret that at this conference, printed materials have been distributed stating that this average entry age of fourteen is just a "myth," and also stating that pimps are not controlling abusers, but friends, mentors, partners, and protectors. As a social scientist well-versed in both survey and experimental methodology, who has read empirical studies in details, I can assure you that the early entry age of fourteen is no myth at all.Contrary to what Brannon said, responsible social scientists understand that "good estimates are hard to find, and good data are harder yet" in areas such as this, though the average age of 12-14 (as anti-prostitution activists often claim) is almost certainly "statistically impossible." And Brannon clearly distorted my argument when he claimed that I consider pimps "friends, mentors, partners, and protectors": what I have actually written was that friends and others close to people who trade sex are often targeted by the law enforcement as "pimps," leading to further isolation, which of course make us more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Worst of all, Brannon and other members of NOMAS did not bother to ask any questions at my presentation, or approach me privately to discuss their concerns or disagreements; they just censored my presentation, threatened to interrupt and shut it down, and talked disparagingly about me, not with me, as if I did not belong in the feminist conversations over issues that directly affect me and my community.
After Brannon finished his talk, NOMAS national co-chair Moshe Rozdzial concluded the panel:
...No conference on issues of oppression is without bumps. Anytime you have an intersection, there is a possibility of accidents and mistakes. There have been few issues and concerns that have been brought to our attention and we want to address those... So, um, we would like to invite anybody who would like to communicate with us and process with us any concerns to join us immediately after this panel to do so. Otherwise, we'll see you at the evening program tonight.With this, several NOMAS council members stood up and began walking toward the door, as did some of the men in the audience, but women started shouting at the panel, questioning what happened to the "listening session." Still, NOMAS chairs continued to feign ignorance: "Um, sure, some folks have walked out already, but if you've got some questions or discussion points, sure, I'd love to do that now." NOMAS panel did not even acknowledge what the issue was until Jessica Luther finally screamed, "WHY DID YOU CENSOR EMI???" despite the fact we had all waited in our seats for two hours for an opportunity to address the problem, as we had been promised.
Finally confronted by a group of women, Rozdzial gave this explanation:
So I just want to give a little history right now. We have never streamed any of our sessions before, ever. All of our conferences are in-house. Everything we do is essentially under our vetting and our approval. So we have no history of what happens to our materials that go out of our sessions, our conferences, and what that would look like in the world. We have a certain analysis, feminist analysis you have heard today, and so we became concerned that there was information that was possibly going to give very different analysis to what we believe in that may be harmful. [...]Where do we even start? Rozdzial seems to think that he and other men of NOMAS get to define what feminism is, and censor women--in this instance, a survivor and a woman of color with first-hand experiences in the sex trade--because, apparently, women who disagree with NOMAS are not feminists. He also fabricates mutuality and consent where none existed, like any rapist who is confronted about violating another person without their consent, while blaming Cristy in the process.
So do you want to know exactly how the situation happened? Allen [Corben] and I, as co-chairs of NOMAS, when we saw the materials that disturbed not just us, but other people came to us about it, we went to Cristy who told us that Emi was concerned about having her information be livecast. So it was kind of like mutual place where we can, if Emi was concerned about being livecast, and we have concerns about it being livecast, we asked Cristy to not broadcast this.
Jessica, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, and other fierce women kept pushing NOMAS leadership on and on until NOMAS co-chairs (but not Brannon) were forced to apologize for how their actions were harmful not just to me, but to other women who still had to present at the conference knowing that they could be targeted the same way, as well as to women of HAVEN who had worked hard to put on this conference without receiving the respect and deference they deserved.
After the panel, Rozdzial and Corben came over to personally apologize to me. But when I heard them say "We are sorry about what happened; we should have thought about how it makes us look bad," indicating that they were more concerned about damages to the credibility of their organization than about the pain and suffering they caused to me and other women participating in the conference, I did not want to talk to them any more. So I asked for their business cards, and promised to get in touch at a later date.
Meanwhile, Brannon, clearly angry from all the women challenging him and his colleagues, rushed toward the only other (as far as I know) woman of color in the room, activist Lauren Chief Elk of Save Wįyąbi Project, who had given a wonderful keynote speech in the morning. Standing extremely close to her with his hands raised, violating her personal space, he kept telling her that she was wrong to criticize racism within first-wave feminism and suggesting that he knew more about her people and culture than she did because he has read history books, much the same way he acted as if his "social science" background made him an expert about sex trade over someone who has actual lived experiences in it.
When those of us still in the room realized Brannon's menacing behavior toward Lauren, we stepped in and had him escorted out of the room. Jessica and Melissa demanded that Brannon not be allowed to return to the conference, to which a national council member of NOMAS replied, "I can make that happen."
Yet on the final day of the three-day conference, Brannon showed up at the conference, and was promptly escorted back to his room by NOMAS members upon HAVEN's request. Cristy, sitting at the registration table across from the main elevator, promised to keep a close eye on the elevator so that he wouldn't be able to come to the conference again (the entire conference was held in a small area on the basement level of the hotel).
But of course he came yet another time, after being escorted out twice by other men of NOMAS. I first noticed Brannon walking out of the big room that was set up for massages and other healing practices. The room had doors at each end of the room, which allowed someone to bypass the area monitored by Cristy and other women at the registration desk. He walked directly toward me, and began speaking to me, smirking, "so it looks like I caused some trouble." "CRISTY!!!" I screamed for help. Cristy and others rushed over, and NOMAS members once again ejected him.
As a survivor, I experience triggers frequently. I know that, most of the time, I feel scared about the situation or people because of something that has happened in the past, and that there usually is not an actual danger to myself. So for the last two days, despite the fact I felt scared and could not stop feeling shaky or sleep for more than two or three hours each night, I kept trying to tell myself that nobody was going to actually harm me.
After the third time Brannon violated boundaries of women like me, Lauren, and others, however, I was no longer certain that my scared feelings were just feelings: women know that someone that angry and out of control is capable of doing the unthinkable. So I decided to pack up and leave the conference hours before I had originally planned to do so. I had a NOMAS volunteer escort me for my safety until the hotel shuttle came to pick me up—I've been to many conferences where my opinions were not necessarily popular, but this was the first time I required a bodyguard.
To be honest, I never expected this conference to be that great. I have had enough unpleasant interactions with "feminist men" in the past, especially cis white men (which NOMAS mostly, although not exclusively, is), and never trusted them as a group. But I did not expect my experience at the conference to be this horrible: is this really what feminist and pro-feminist men do in the name of feminism? But once I disregarded their self-identification as feminists or pro-feminists, all the irony was lost: they are just bunch of racist, sexist, white men.
On the other hand, I met many wonderful women who truly had my back. We recognized racism, misogyny, and manipulative, controlling, or gaslighting/crazymaking behaviors for what they were, and understood that it was not just an attack on me, or on Lauren, but an attack on all of us as well as on the entire movement. I am truly grateful for how Cristy and other members of HAVEN brought together so many wonderful women to present, and stood up with us.
After leaving the conference earlier than I had planned, I took Amtrak to Chicago to attend the closing ceremony of Young Women's Empowerment Project (YWEP), a grass-roots peer-led organization by and for girls and young women (mostly women of color, with a substantial proportion of trans women of color among them) in the street economies, particularly in the sex trade. The organization had announced its closure earlier this year after twelve years of empowering street youth, under an increasingly hostile environment that reduced its ability to raise funds and to support youth being targeted by the mainstream anti-trafficking policies that rely on surveillance and criminalization.
For me, this past week has been such an emotional roller-coaster: I went through fear from being targeted, silenced, and menaced by white male "feminist allies" of NOMAS, excitement at finding solidarity with other wonderful women at the conference, absolute sense of acceptance and community with YWEP members and its adult allies, and deep and overwhelming sadness that set in as I reflected on the demise of a community that had been, for the past twelve years, the only family that many street youth ever had.
I believe that the two events I witnessed are related, not just in the sense men like Brannon supports policies that lead to further targeting of YWEP youth. The link is that men who view themselves as feminists or pro-feminists but treat women in controlling, manipulative, and paternalistic ways are just like many "anti-trafficking" activists that want to "rescue" youth in the sex trade by arresting them and institutionalizing them involuntarily. It almost seems that they want to regard the targets of their "rescue"--be it abused women or street youth or whatever--to be voiceless, so that they can speak over us; they want to infantilize us as innocent and incapacitated or brainwashed victims so that they can ignore our autonomy.
I am home now, and Brannon and others cannot hurt me anymore. But I don't know where the YWEP youth will go to now, and worry that they will experience more violence and exploitation in part because of the policies that he and other anti-prostitution activists promote. Brannon, whose pattern of abusive behaviors have been documented since at least 1992, continues to serve not just as the Pornography, Prostitution and Trafficking task group leader of NOMAS, but also as a co-chair of National Organization for Women, New York State chapter's Task Force on Trafficking, Pornography and Prostitution.
I am beyond furious that people who claim to be allies to women and to people in the sex trade continue to act this way, or implicitly endorse them by passively tolerating others who act this way. Like "intersectionality," "accountability" should not be just a buzzword people utter for brownie points: indeed, fuck that word "accountability," but, you know, be it.
(Please read the list of demands to NOMAS that women who attended Forging Justice came up with, and support our effort. Please also support Young Women's Empowerment Project raise money to help its youth leadership move on to next chapters of their lives.)
Emi Koyama is a multi-issue social justice activist and writer synthesizing feminist, Asian, survivor, dyke, queer, sex worker, intersex, genderqueer, and crip politics, as these factors, while not a complete descriptor of who she is, all impacted her life. She puts "emi" back in feminism at www.eminism.org.