Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dangerous Ideas from Fascinating Women

The 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas was held on 30-31 August 2014 at the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, due to work, I was only able to attend one day of the Festival so missed a handful of sessions I would have liked. But I made the most of the day I had, attending three excellent sessions on a beautiful sunny Sunday with a very dear friend.

At last year's festival I attended many sessions looking at crime and justice. This year the sessions I went to were also looking at these issues, but much more, and from a feminist perspective. I also threw in a more light-hearted session on the new age of television.

We started the day at 'Slavery is Big Business' presented by tenatious Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho. She exposed the international sex trade in a remarkable way. She began in her homeland by investigating and revealing a tycoon businessman (Jean Succar Kuri) who ran a pedophilia ring with politicians, judges and others among Mexico's elite, all supported and facilitated by corrupt police.  The publication of these crimes resulted in Cacho being kidnapped and imprisoned on defamation charges, as well as numerous attempts on her life.

Cacho's presentation described the conditions that permit the international sex trade to thrive, and the businesses that are linked to it - tourism, drugs and arms dealing, money laundering, organ sales, pornography, terrorism and sweat shops. Despite the horrific subject matter of her talk, I went away feeling inspired. Cacho provided practical, tangible suggestions about what needs to be done to stop this trade and what steps each of us can take. I purchased her book Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (2010) and was fortunate enough to meet Lydia and have her sign it for me.

Next up we went to a panel discussion called 'Television has replaced the Novel' featuring Emily Nussbaum (TV critic for The New Yorker) and author Salman Rushdie. Both love television and essentially agreed that TV has not replaced the novel. They highlighted the similarities between the novels of the 18th century which were released in serialised form, and the modern TV show which is incrementally aired.

They talked about groundbreaking shows (like Seinfeld, Sopranos, Deadwood, Sex and the City) and how they changed the way audiences relate to characters. They also talked about shows which blur the lines between genres and also those which have micro audiences. Critical of studios which find a success and repeat it ad nauseam, Rushdie described his experiences writing a show for Showtime which never got off the ground. It was a very interesting discussion, talking about many of the shows I love.

We took a break for lunch and returned for our final session - a panel titled 'Women for Sale'. On the panel were Lydia Cacho, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Pisani. The subject was supposed to be about everything from pay equity to surrogacy, but it ended up being almost entirely about prostitution. Elizabeth Pisani started her segment by giving up her seat to a prostitute Jules Kim from the Scarlet Alliance (an association for sex workers). While I agree it made sense to have someone representing prostitutes on the panel, the way it was done was deceitful and resulted in the presentation steering away from its original intent, which was disappointing.

I really enjoyed hearing from Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman. She articulated her concerns about agency and issues of race, sex and class which are crucial in discussions of prostitution and surrogacy. She talks about how Sweden changed laws relating to prostitution to make the buying, not the selling, a crime. I purchased her book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) and after the session my friend and I had a brief chat with her when she signed our copies. I have already started reading it and really admire her work.

Another panellist, American author Alissa Nutting, I knew very little about. I had heard of the controversy surrounding her novel Tampa (2013) which looks at a female sexual predator. Based on real life examples of women teachers seducing their young students, this novel was removed from some bookstores. Nutting made some interesting comments about double standards and perceived gender roles. I have not read her book, and I am not really sure that I want to. But I do think Nutting is quite an interesting woman.

Elizabeth Pisani is an American epidemiologist who has done a lot of work on HIV/AIDS. The author of The Wisdom of Whores - Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS (2008), Pisani has a lot to say about the sex industry and how HIV can be stopped. Unfortunately however, Pisani decided to hand over her seat and we never got to hear much from her. Having said that, the things Pisani did say were unhelpful - e.g. describing sex as 'putting out'. I did not particularly like Pisani and won't be reading her book.

As always, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas leaves me refreshed, excited and keen to read more. My friend and I look forward to FODI 2015.

You can also read a summary of my experiences at the 2013 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on this blog.