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TORONTO—With the rise of modern technologies, most of us are at least peripherally aware that our lives are becoming increasingly monitored. We casually brush away the uncanny feelings conjured by Google ads culling search terms from our emails, and gently ignore the bubble cameras that watch the perimeters of offices, schools and public spaces in metropolitan areas. But state surveillance penetrates even more intimate aspects of life than your email inbox and your child’s schoolyard.
The use of sexual deception in intelligence gathering is neither new nor uncommon, said Gary T. Marx, professor emeritus from MIT, Harvard University and University of Colorado, and author of Protest and Prejudice and Undercover: Police Surveillance in America.
While agencies generally have rules against sexual deception in intelligence gathering, and will be careful not to document instances of it, supervisors will imply that agents should use sex in order to gain intelligence. The secretive nature of undercover operations presents a roadblock to any kind of future accountability, he said.
“What's the difference between having sex through threat or coercion and having sex through lies?”
Recent stories of police infiltration appearing in the news have drawn this scenario out of the realm of James Bond fantasies and into public discourse.
Eight women in the United Kingdom are currently pursuing a human rights lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police, after they discovered that five of their former romantic partners were undercover agents. These cops were assigned to spy on environmental activists starting in the mid-1980's. At least two of these police spies have fathered children with an activist while undercover, and one of them, Jim Boyling, even married the mother, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
In Canada, allegations have arisen against a police officer who had sexual relations with women in the community he infiltrated during the lead-up to the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, activists in southern Ontario told The Dominion.
Shailagh Keaney, an activist and independent journalist in Ontario who knew the G20 infiltrators, said that gendered biases were at play in the tactics used by infiltrators, as well as in the actions of uniformed police during the protests.
“Women's bodies are perceived as less violent but more violate-able," she said. "Men were generally beaten more brutally [during the G20] but women were routinely strip searched without even having their pockets checked.”
For marginalized women whose communities have historically been harmed by governmental powers, the thought of having been intimate with someone who represents state authority is profoundly violating, said Jen Meunier, who identifies as Algonquin and a womyn of mixed descents. “Sexual consent means being fully aware of the circumstances, being aware of everything that is necessary for your safety.”
Indigenous communities in Canada have understood surveillance and infiltration to be a concrete reality for many decades now, Meunier said.
Rachelle Sauve, a cook and community organizer in Peterborough, Ontario, who knew people who were affected by direct interactions with infiltrators, believes undercover agents strategically take advantage of characteristics that are traditionally stereotyped as being feminine, such as compassion, nurturing and emotional receptivity.
“That, in itself, is gendered violence,” she said. “This is coercion, this is manipulation, and this is rape—the criminalization of dissent is the only reason it is seen as acceptable.”
Like in any war, the women of subordinate groups—such as Muslims, Arabs, activists and Indigenous peoples—find the oppression they already face on the basis of gender exacerbated by their status as targets of state repression.
Sauve views the use of sex in intelligence gathering as part of the broader historical picture of gender violence, often used as a tool of control and domination.
“This contains a certain depth of psychological warfare that is particularly pernicious,” she said. “You can destroy an entire culture by raping its women.”
According to Professor Marx, the role of secrecy is the key structural enabler of sexual misconduct in undercover operations. In addition, cases of infiltration are rarely made public if they do not succeed in gaining grounds for arrests. Most of the people who have had interactions with infiltrators may never find out the individual's true identity.
The best devices for preventing sexual misconduct by police are transparency, pluralism of powers in the state and continual institutional review, Professor Marx said.
Human rights law may be an excellent emerging tool for seeking redress in cases like these, which have no clear precedent. Judiciary law also contains tools for pursuing accountability, such as suing perpetrators for mental harm.
For Meunier and Sauve, the solution for activist communities involves a stronger acknowledgement of the gendered aspects of state repression.
“We need to collectively address gender issues and heal our vulnerabilities all the time—not just when something bad happens."
Kelly Pflug-Back is a poet, writer, student and activist. You can find her newest stuff in upcoming issues of Goblin Fruit, Ideomancer Speculative Fiction and Iconoclast.
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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.