Being a part of the Museum Queeries cluster of the Thinking Through the Museum project has been an exciting and rewarding experience. Thinking Through the Museum has allowed me the opportunity to experience far-reaching discussions around contemporary issues within museums around the world. In Museum Queeries, as a Research Assistant for Drs. Angela Failler and Heather Milne, I was immersed in deeper readings of queer pasts, presents, and futurities. As the world grapples with the global Covid-19 pandemic, Thinking Through The Museum and Museum Queeries provided me with access to engaging conferences, research talks, and meetings through electronic platforms that sustained my academic morale. These events complemented and enhanced my journey through an MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
One particular event of note that I attended through this Research Assistantship was on Building the Hamilton 2SLGBTQ+ Community Archive. Held October 19-21, 2021, this event consisted of two virtual roundtable critical discussions on how to archive queer material in Hamilton. Speakers on the tables included artists, curators, community members, and academics such as Syrus Marcus Ware, Pamila Matharu, Sheri Osden Nault, Rebecka Sheffield, Richard Douglas-Chin, Walka Geeshy Meegqun, Pauline Kajiura, and Cole Gately. The event taught me that creating an archive, in essence, creates a legacy for future generations to have access to history left out of main narratives. These archives also potentially provide material for museums to work with in memory production. Additionally, the importance that counter-archiving has in the process of creating archives that are publicly driven was discussed in detail. There was an abundance of storytelling within the discussions, which in their own way were a counter-archive in creation. Chatting amongst friends, colleagues, and community forms a counter-archival space that has living voices animating the information as memories. In this era of pandemic Zoom meetings, I think a positive result has been communication across countries and regions creating beautiful moments of counter-archiving such as this roundtable.
Another example of an event I was able to attend by way of my research assistantship was the Exhibitionism: Sexuality at the Museum Conference held from December 9-11, 2021. This was a 3-day online conference that spanned across countries and created opportunities for LGBTQ2IA+ people, people of colour, sex workers, kink collectives, women, and other groups to engage audiences in programming that explored a variety of topics related to human sexuality and display. The conference was organized by Melissa Blundell-Osorio, Director of Education at the Wilzig Erotic Museum, Rebecca Fasman, Curator at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, and Hannes Hacke, Research Associate and Curator at the Research Centre for Cultural History of Sexuality at Humbolt University, with keynote speakers such as Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. This conference brought together scholars and speakers from across the globe to discuss what to do with all the sexuality (or its repression) in museums, how to create sex museums, how to conquer taboo, and how to create safe pedagogical experiences about sex. It was also a large-scale networking adventure of like-minded scholars, thinkers, and activists to engage with each other’s research and work. The event allowed not only for discussions from various places around the world, but also for artistic expression and modes of presentation regarding sexuality in a museum setting; there were even a few on-camera performances. One of the most powerful of these was done by Robert Andy Coombs and Vicente Ugartechea, who used an art performance to weave the experience of disability, gender, desire, and kink into a powerful educational tool about people who live their queer lives at these intersections. I think the conference as a whole displayed the level of care and respect needed in Cultural Studies as it evolves in the future.
Lastly, I want to mention the opportunity Museum Queeries provided for me to attend the Canadian Museum for Human Rights here in Winnipeg. I visited the museum with a question in mind about how queerness and disability might be displayed and articulated within spaces of public memory. Monumental structures of display such as the CMHR project outwardly narratives of progress and accomplishments of the State, but looking for intersectionalities such as queerness and disability within them reveal gaps in the narrative structure. Often museums and institutions work hard to check as many boxes as possible without realizing these boxes can overlap each other in multitudes of different ways. One of my primary directives when attending the museum was to explore the widely touted progressive accessibility features implemented within it. I did find that the museum offered a well-thought-out experience for a blind person such as myself. It is not often that I have attended a Canadian museum or institution and found that all the didactic information is accessible through not only braille but also raised numerical codes to access via smart devices or audio descriptions of what is being looked at. This reminded me that though we may go on research endeavours to critique, we can be surprised by the positive accomplishments within structures.
These are just a few experiences that being a part of the Museum Queeries research cluster has allowed me to take part in. Being in discussions and dialogue with Drs. Failler and Milne, as well as the many great Research Assistants and team members in the project, has given me much to take forward as I finish my MA at the University of Winnipeg and into the future. I have learned that immersing oneself within as many conversations as possible, and exploring institutions inside and out, is a productive pathway through the interdisciplinary fields of Cultural Studies.
The perimeter of Canadian Journeys, a gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is lined with story booths that name “steps and missteps on the road to greater rights for everyone in Canada” (wall text). In the centre of the gallery are touchscreen digital memory banks (basically, computers) where visitors can scroll through stories based on topic and time period. These banks provide a wealth of information beyond the story booths, but their subtle stature and placement against other, more sensory-stimulating installations draw visitors away from them, leaving them largely untouched. Right to Safety, the only representation and story of sex work in the Museum, is nestled into one of these digital memory banks, effectively hidden from view.
In the broader public imaginary, sex work tends to be constructed within simplistic dichotomies of violence/pleasure and victimization/agency, obscuring the complex forms of labour and experience it involves. Extremes of violence and victimization have been mobilized to argue that sex work itself is something inherently violent and harmful. In this way, violence enacted upon sex workers becomes an expected and justified experience. To counter this harmful understanding, activists like COYOTE have talked about sex work as a liberatory and progressive labour, one that may push against sexual politics bound to marriage and monogamy. As sex work scholar Elizabeth Bernstein has suggested, however, this kind of celebratory politics has come primarily from sex workers with white and class privilege (77). What these extremities lack then is attention to how structural inequalities inform experiences within the sex trade. Through this lack, intersections of white supremacy, colonialism, and transphobia are seen as irrelevant to understanding sex work. This neglects the lived experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are racialized, Indigenous, and genderqueer. While neither entirely violent nor entirely celebratory sentiments prove useful in capturing the realities of sex work, they comprise how sex work is publicly imagined and in turn, regulated.
In using the exhibited story Right to Safety as a starting point, I consider how the Museum’s representation of sex work contributes to the sex work imaginary. While this particular “exhibit” is small and not very visible, especially when compared to the scale of the Museum’s permanent installations, I see value in holding national representations of sex work accountable as they inform how non-sex working publics and allies are able to talk about and support sex workers.
Right to Safety outlines a court case initiated by Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott in 2007. This case argued that Canada’s existing laws regulating the sex trade violated the right to security of the person, protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms . The digitized story also references the introduction of The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36), which was implemented seven years following the success of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada. For context, Bill C-36 criminalizes the act of purchasing sex and negotiating the selling of sex in public. The bill also restricts the ways that sex workers are able to advertise their services online. While selling sex is legal under Bill C-36, it criminalizes crucial components of how sex workers generate income, which makes it very difficult to work legally as a sex worker in Canada (Winnipeg Working Group). Three photos accompany the textual portion of Right to Safety, one featuring Bedford holding up her leather riding crop in prideful celebration alongside Scott and lawyer Nikki Thomas.
The criticality of Right to Safety took me by surprise, naming that prior to 2007, “sex workers in Canada have worked without human rights protection” and that Bill C-36 has “further criminalized prostitution,” forcing workers “to operate alone in isolated areas” (Right to Safety). Considering the Museum’s national status, I had expected that they would side with the state’s understanding of Bill C-36 – that the bill better protects workers from the exploitation of sex work (Department of Justice Canada). Instead, the Museum positions Bill C-36 as worsening conditions for sex workers, something the state has not yet admitted to. By naming that Canadian law contributes to harmful working environments for sex workers, the Museum disrupts the common understanding that sex workers experience harm because of their profession alone. While this is a move toward a critical assessment of sex work in Canada, the conversation stops there.
Right to Safety leaves racism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy in relation to sex work entirely unaddressed. This is a significant silence, which allows the Museum to speak about sex work as if removed from the legacies that the Canadian state is built upon. As queer sex worker and theorist Zahra Stardust argues, refusing to name systemic inequalities constructs an illusion that sex workers are unaffected by privileges and marginalization (68). Right to Safety’s narrative exists within this illusion, upholding an imaginary that suggests institutionalized racism has nothing to do with sex work in Canada. To the Museum, naming the structural, social, and legal inequalities within the sex trade is seemingly too much, too disruptive, and as education scholars Alice Pitt and Deborah Britzman might pose, too “difficult.” Pitt and Britzman write about “difficult knowledge” as content that asks viewers to interrogate their own understanding of, and relationship to, the world (756). By refusing to tackle representation that asks viewers to engage in questions about race, privilege, marginalization, and sex work in Canada, the Museum opts to maintain a simplistic and imagined illusion of sex work.
This refusal continues, showing itself in a much more visible way than the hidden location of Right to Safety. Above the story booths in the Canadian Journeys gallery is a large digital collection of images. These images feature the faces of those represented throughout the gallery, including Bedford (second from the left, top row, in the image above). While Bedford is seen with her whip in full view in the digital banks (see Fig. #2), the same photo has been carefully cropped here for the border, rendering the whip invisible. As queer theorist and museum scholar Jennifer Tyburczy writes about other instances where a whip has appeared in museum contexts, the whip in public view evokes an excited curiosity and, perhaps, an unsettling association with enslavement, discipline, and BDSM communities. While white slave owners have used the whip to carry out non-consensual torture on Black subjects, the whip has too been adapted as a device to engage with consensual erotics of pain, pleasure, domination, and submission. The whip then, is not simply an object, but a symbol of two inseparable histories: the transatlantic slave trade and kink/BDSM cultures. Tyburczy argues that because of these interimplications, the whip can be used as a “tool for examining sexual values,” namely the “fears, anxieties, and affections regarding race and sex” (193). In this way, the cropping of the whip can be read as an intentional choice, one that refuses to acknowledge the importance of discussing whips and their ongoing relationships to white supremacy and kinky sex. These discussions are, however, imperative to unpacking the complexities of race, sex (work), and systemic oppression in Canada. So it seems to me that the whip and all it evokes could act precisely as a tool for the Museum to further its conversation on sex work, which, as it is, stops short of unsettling assumptions about race and systemic oppressions. If the whip remained alongside Bedford, would difficult conversations about race and sex work be supported in the Museum? In other words, could the Museum bring the whip into clearer focus (rather than cropping it out of the frame) as a method to turn towards difficult knowledge about sex work in Canada?
As a continuance of this “turning toward,” in my research with Museum Queeries, I have sought out histories of sex work in Canada that move beyond the silences of Right to Safety. I engage with these histories by beginning to understand them as bound to the land that the Museum, and I myself, occupy. Therefore, I have looked to sources that account for histories of sex work in Winnipeg, such as, the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives and Amy Catherine Wilkinson’s “Sex work and the Social-Spatial Order of Boomtown.” Rather than shy away from examining how systemic inequalities and race emerge within these histories, I have turned directly to them. This has allowed me to carry out my research in a way that is attuned to difficult histories of sex work in Winnipeg. These histories matter, and they deserve space and critical attention. As Indigenous scholar Sarah Hunt writes, “remembering and naming histories of violence and inequality in the sex trade” must not simply be viewed “as injustices of the past, but rather structures of the present” (98). In other words, histories of sex work that account for intersections of systemic oppressions help to understand the contemporary socio-legal contexts that sex workers navigate today. This work complicates the simplicities of the sex work imaginary to ask critical questions about race, privilege, and marginalization within or around sex work in Canada.
Protected under section s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
You can access the full decision of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada here.Pivot Legal offers a summarized version of the proceedings, available here.
Due to how close Bedford is holding her whip in the digital memory bank photo, including this image without the whip would require close editing. The other images on the digital photo border appear to have wide framing, often exposing the background behind the person featured. Bedford’s picture does not include any background. Because a wider frame would expose the whip, I speculate that the close cropping of Bedford’s image was intentional.
BDSM defines a community who engages in consensual acts of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism.
Bedford v. Canada (Attorney General). Supreme Court of Canada. 2014.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, s. 7.
Hunt, Sarah. “Decolonizing Sex Work: Developing an Intersectional Indigenous Approach.” Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, edited by Emily van der Meulen et al., University of British Columbia Press, 2013, pp. 82- 100.
*Dallas Cant is currently working towards completing a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. They are interested in exploring queer embodiments, curatorial methodologies, and queer cultural production in relation to sex work. Dallas recognizes the creative form as medium of resistance and incorporates digital photography, poetry, and hand stitching into their research-creation methodology. Currently, they are developing an undergraduate course in sexuality and online communities alongside Dr. Fiona J. Green (University of Winnipeg). Dallas also works as a research assistant with the Greenhouse Artlab to explore and think queerly in relation to bee eco-cultures. In the future, Dallas intends to pursue an M.A. in sexuality studies.