ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 2

If there’s a theme that could sum up my experiences of day 2 of #recon2019, it’s that of personal stories, which end up making political statements. Not that day 1 didn’t have this, but what stood out most for me were the stories that people kindly shared, on stage, in conversation with a group or personally. Here’s some of:

1. BDSM and power dynamics: at a fundamental level, I have been able to understand the role of power in BDSM to be able to explain why it’s not (only/always) an exploitative type of sexual behaviour. In trainings that TARSHI conducts, we emphasize how BDSM often is far more mindful of consent than other socially legitimised relationships. Tshegofatso Senne from South Africa highlighted the levels of information and self-awareness that BDSM entails. Parties involved get into it fully knowing the risks of behaviour they’re about to engage in. What was mind-blowing was the dynamics between a dom and a sub that the speaker explained. One would assume that the dom is in power, but in reality is the sub – because the sub gives instructions, sets the tone for what can happen and when it should stop. Whoa!

2. Age of working and sex work: Jules Kim from Scarlet Alliance, Australia, raised the question of why, if sex work is work, the age of when a young person can legally start working is different from the age they can get into sex work. Clearly shows morality creeping into anything to do with sex and bodies – as if other forms of labour aren’t exploitative! If anything, sex workers around the world have been able to build powerful unions to make sure clients who don’t follow rules are pushed straight out. I know for a fact that most “white collar” jobs don’t give us such opportunities to out an abusive co-worker (ref: #metoo!) Jules Kim also shared the repercussions of this idea: organisations don’t get funding if they work with underage sex workers, so these young people slip between the cracks.

3. Science knows who is a woman: a powerful personal learning over the last few years has been to question the efficacy of science in explaining gender or sexuality, and learning to build the language to counter such claims at professional and personal spaces. This came back to me in the second plenary of the morning, where athletes, and sports and gender rights activists and professionals discussed how being “too fast” has brought them under intense, violating scrutiny. Katrina Karkazis is a cultural anthropologist who’s written an “unauthorised biography” of testosterone, and shared how when “testing” whether female athletes are “women enough”, we are under the assumption that a higher level of testosterone translates directly into better performance. Human bodies don’t work that way!

Seeing videos of Caster Semanya and Dutee Chand and hearing Pinki Pramanik live formed the most humbling, powerful and hard hitting moments of the day for me. I was awed by their grit and passion, outraged at the levels of despair they were pushed into (and having to justify their gender over and over) and above all, deeply touched by just how much they simply wanted to run. Repeatedly, the idea coming up in their words was that they hoped they aren’t barred from running due to this. Katrina Karkazis talked of a regulation (upcoming? Proposed? Wasn’t sure) that sought to conduct a “health exam” on every female athlete where the clitoris will be examined as it’s an indicator of how much testosterone the body can process. How can men be allowed to run with any level of testosterone and why do we believe that testosterone is a uniquely “male hormone”? Will men be tested for levels of “female hormones” in their body to decide whether they will be competing “wrongly” with other men in a race they will surely lose because of high levels of the wrong hormone? *smh*

4. Pushing for inclusion in spaces that are keeping you out: The facilitator of the curated session on disability (I missed their name) wrapped up the session (where participants, many of them people with disabilities) discussed personal experiences and how their countries approached disability. Janet Price asked why, world over, women’s movements weren’t inclusive (enough) of disability, and participants again shared their difficulties in accessing some of these women’s movements spaces. The facilitator ended by encouraging disability rights activists to go there and be part of these movements even if they weren’t invited. I hope I understood the line and context right, but this left me wondering whose “responsibility” inclusion is. Can one movement know enough about including the other without ever interacting with each other? In addition to the many fights that especially non male disability rights activists have to do to be heard within disability rights movements, should we expect them to also take up educating others? This feeds into a larger, fundamental question I have about whether as an activist, I have the responsibility to educate more people, or I can take a step back to safeguard my mental health when it makes sense to do so.

5. Tradition is for everybody? Kawira Mwiricha (who’s made the sexting sticker app I mentioned yesterday) also has a wonderful installation of kangas, traditional wear of the Swahili people, which has bright and colourful designs with a line on them. Kawira explained the this is likely the only type of clothing in the world the has to have words on it, an idea that appeals to me immensely. The installation has 21 kangas, each representing a “different type of relationship” (non heteronormative) from a different country. The words on each kanga are different, as is the design, closely connected to lgbtqia+ movements in the country. I was stunned at the amount of research that has gone into each kanga as Kawira explained how designs represent organisations, movements and motifs related to the country. As a bonus, Kawira also showed a video of how the kangas are used in a ritual to take a bride from her maternal home to the church to get married, and told us that this is one of the most legitimised use of kangas that is unfortunately not sanctioned for women who are queer. Kawira’s 21 kangas subvert the use of these cloths in a marriage setup.

I don’t want to miss out on the sex workers’ opera, which had sex workers performing song and dance and talking about their right to consent, busting ideas about sex workers always being forced into the occupation and of them as those who break marriages! The performance was powerful, fun and most importantly, was about sex workers telling their own stories.

Heading into day 3 with the hope of catching up on the installations that I’ve missed out so far. There’s been a lot to process from the last two days, but writing this has helped!

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