Terri-Jean Bedford

dominatrix-terri-jean-bedford

[A fantastic photograph of Terri-Jean Bedford with her iconic black riding crop, retrieved from her personal website www.http://terrijeanbedford.com/%5D

Terri-Jean Bedford is a name that many in Canada might recognize, and whom many might question as to whether or not she might count as an “historical hottie” or a contemporary one. We here at Historical Hotties hope to constantly push the boundaries of what constitutes “history” – and that includes forcing us to rethink the lines between past and present, historical and contemporary.

Bedford was born in October 1959, and has spent a large portion of her life working in the sex work industry, most notably as “Canada’s most famous” (in her words) dominatrix and as the former owner/operator of Madame de Sade’s House of Erotica in the Thornhill neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario. In 1994, fifteen police officers stormed Madame de Sade’s, arresting Bedford (along with several other women) while committing acts of police violence including “pushing and shoving the female dominants, demanding that the accused call them ‘master,’ asking for a demonstration of boot licking, […] ridiculing the sadomasochistic props and clothes” and strip-searching the employees of Madame de Sade’s (Khan, 168). The arrests led to charges of keeping a bawdy house for Bedford. As defined by the Criminal Code, a bawdy house is “a place that is (a) kept or occupied, or (b) resorted to by one or more persons for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency.” However, Bedford and the accused insisted that the legal definitions of prostitution in Canada did not apply, as Bedford specifically mandated that no vaginal or oral sex could take place on the premises (in order to adhere to the law!). During the several trials that resulted from the 1994 arrests made in relation to Madame de Sade’s, Bedford only made legal appearances with her black riding crop in tow, dressed in black leather (like the total boss dom she is).

Bedford has gone on to become prominent in sex work advocacy in Canada and,along with Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, was involved as an applicant in the high profile case Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. In Canada (AG) v Bedford, Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down, with bawdy house provisions being deemed unconstitutional.

Bedford is known in Canada as a vocal advocate for the rights of sex workers, working tirelessly to ensure that sex workers are treated with dignity and respect both in the proverbial eyes of the law and amongst the general public. Terri-Jean Bedford challenges us to reevaluate how we define whether someone is an historical personage or a contemporary one, and whether or not this distinction even matters. Furthermore, her work and the way she has been treated by the law and broader Canadian society forces us as historians to confront how we deal with questions surrounding desire, sexuality, consent, and sex work that bleed from the past into the present day. Bedford is most definitely a Historical Hottie, and one that makes us especially aware of the role “hotness” plays in different historical contexts of desire and (supposedly) deviant sexualities.

~ M

Bibliography

Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101.

Khan, Ummni. “‘Putting a Dominatrix in Her Place’ The Representation and Regulation of Female Dom/Male Sub Sexuality.” The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 21 (2009):  143-177.

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Terri-Jean Bedford

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy