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12 min

Eight ways to revolutionize the sex industry

Sex workers have been left out in the cold

WORKING ON IT. Sex work activists Valerie Scott, Keisha Scott, Chanelle Gallant and Wendy Babcock. Credit: Paula Wilson

Regulation of sex has been at the heart of many queer struggles. From the decriminalization of gay sex to age of consent laws to policing of bathhouses we’ve fought for the right to fuck who we want, when we want and where we want. At various points in the sexual liberation movement sex workers were seen as natural allies to queers, folks who were also fighting against moralizing conservatives who tried to tell them what they were and weren’t allowed to do with their bodies. But while homos have made huge gains in the last few decades sex workers have been left out in the cold.

“Where sex work is today in Canada reminds me of where gay and lesbian rights were here in Canada circa 1965 when it was illegal to be gay or lesbian,” says Valerie Scott, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC).

“If a person was gaybashed in 1965 they weren’t going to go to the police. They weren’t going to risk trying to take someone to court for it. If someone was denied employment or housing there was nothing they could do. If they were ostracized by their families there were no supports in place.

“People did form relationships but they lived together very carefully and in constant fear of being found out. That’s where sex workers are today.”

Although prostitution is not illegal in Canada many sex workers don’t report crimes against them for fear of being charged under laws that criminalize the business of prostitution, some of the same laws that have been used in the past to target gay bathhouses.

So what will it take to get sex workers to a place where they are no longer the targets of violence, discrimination and contempt, but rather workers offering a valued service? Here are eight ways activists are working to promote the rights of sex workers and what you can do to help.

RETHINK SEX

What separates sex work from other types of work is morality.

“We pay for everything else,” says Toronto sex work activist Wendy Babcock. “We pay for people to talk to us, we pay for people to touch us, like massage therapists, but as soon as you get to this one area it’s illegal. It’s so ridiculous. Add sex and it’s exploitation and abuse.”

“Everyone knows that sex is a commodity but people can’t seem to admit it,” says Scott, adding that accepting prostitution won’t lead to the collapse of society any more than legalizing same-sex marriage did. “Nothing bad will happen to civilization, to society. Lightning bolts won’t strike the sidewalk, earthquakes won’t happen. We won’t have a plague of locusts.

“Commercial sex will do nothing to erode love. It’ll do nothing to erode any kind of relationship. It hasn’t since the dawn of humanity and it won’t if we just admit that sex is a commodity.”

And before we queers get too smug it isn’t just straight prudes who get squeamish about sex work.

“Queers are more likely to question dominant norms around sexuality,” says Chanelle Gallant, sex work activist and former manager of sex shop Good for Her, “but queers often give lip service to sex workers and that support basically ends at the bedroom. People are willing to politically support sex work but they may be uncomfortable when it comes to dating or sleeping with someone who’s a sex worker.”

“I don’t think the majority of mainstream gay guys look fondly on sex work,” says former sex worker and Goodhandy’s coowner Todd Klinck. “These are guys who openly or with some sense of shame go to bathhouses regularly and do all sorts of sexual things that mainstream society would frown upon but I still think they’d look down on sex workers. There’s a weird double standard about it and I think it’s just basic socialization. It’s just that they haven’t thought about it yet.”

Action: Think about your own attitudes toward sex work.

STRIKE THE LAWS

Having sex for money in Canada isn’t illegal, nor is paying someone for sex. Yet there are laws that make it near impossible to engage in sex work both safely and legally (see sidebar).

“The thing that would have the biggest effect on sex work in Canada probably would be a change in the laws,” says sex worker and Pink Triangle Press board member Gerald Hannon. “Attitudes are important but they would follow if we as a community decided to change the laws.”

“Sex workers are caught in these terrible contradictions as a result of these laws,” says NDP MP Libby Davies. “It’s just such a hypocritical situation and it creates a very dangerous situation…. You can’t be above board. You’re always at risk of facing persecution and violence.

“It’s society’s denial that sex work exists and that we have these archaic laws that don’t work. Not only do they not work, they’re harmful.”

So how do we repeal the laws? Like changing the laws around queer rights there are two options: the government or the courts. There are currently two constitutional challenges of the sex work laws working their way through the courts. As for changing the laws through an act of parliament there’s not a lot of optimism.

“People realize the status quo is a complete failure and are looking for a different approach,” says Davies, “but you won’t get many elected representatives who want to take this on. It’s not seen as the most electable issue.”

Action: Make sure MPs in your riding know that you want to see the laws repealed. Donate to organizations challenging the sex work laws (SPOC in Ontario; Sex Workers United Against Violence in BC).

TREAT SEX WORK AS WORK

While sex workers’ organizations across the country are campaigning to see sex work decriminalized, some states have gone the route of legalization instead. Legalizing sex work means instituting regulations that treat prostitution as a vice, as opposed to decriminalization which treats it like work.

“Legalization views prostitution as a vice that needs to be heavily contained and controlled,” says Scott, adding that under legalization systems sex workers are registered, subject to exorbitant licensing fees, vice taxes and mandatory health checks and may be told where, when and how to work.

“You ask yourself who in their right mind would work under those circumstances?” asks Scott.

Under decriminalization sex workers are allowed all the labour-related rights and freedoms as any other worker. At present only New Zealand and the state of New South Wales in Australia have decriminalized sex work.

“A decriminalization position emphasizes the labour rights, health and safety rights, and human rights of sex workers,” says York sociology professor Deborah Brock who has published extensively on sex work. “It recognizes their ability to implement standards for the self-regulation of their trade, including forming professional associations governed by codes of conduct, rights and responsibilities, and to form or join trade unions so that they may collectively bargain the conditions under which they are prepared to work.”

In other words it takes the stigma out of sex work.

“If I declare $200 because I consulted with a hair salon owner about how she should develop her website I didn’t have to give that kind of detail to the government, it’s just $200 income. I’m a self-employed person,” says Klinck. “If someone paid me $200 to beat them it’s the same thing.”

There are many other employment-related issues that present problems for sex workers, including paying taxes and writing resumés.

“We should be able to pay taxes, to be able to put money into retirement funds without having to hide it,” says SPOC’s Amy Lebovitch. “To be able to get benefits, to be able to organize a union if that’s what people would like.”

Action: Support the decriminalization of sex work over legalization.

STOP POLICING SEX WORK

With the current court challenges expected to take at least four years to wend their ways through the legal system it’s up to local police forces to stop laying sex work-related charges in the interim.

“People can appeal to the police boards because they do have discretion,” says Tamara O’Doherty, a member of First, a BC-based feminist organization created to support the decriminalization of sex work.

In Vancouver, where the public is still reeling from the realization that at least one serial killer had been murdering sex workers unchallenged for so long, there are several initiatives underway to keep sex workers safe _ initiatives that include selective policing.

“Vancouver is setting up a safe house that would be run by sex workers themselves,” says Davies, comparing the project to marijuana compassion clubs or Vancouver’s safe injection site where “police know it’s there but don’t rush in and shut it down because they see it as preferable. That’s a way to get around laws as they are now.”

The would-be safe house, or cooperative brothel, is a project of Vancouver’s Prostitutes Alternatives Counselling and Education Society.

“What we have to do is go to the federal government and apply for amnesty from the Criminal Code,” says Susan Davis, a spokesperson for the society, adding that a member of parliament will need to bring the bill forward.

Vancouver is in a unique situation. “We’ve just had a trial here, we’ve got the Olympics coming,” says Davis. “There’s a lot of pressure for gentrification of the downtown east side.” But she adds that cooperative brothels could work all over the country.

“This isn’t a localized problem,” she says. “It just seems like Vancouver is the place where they try new things. I’m in contact with sex workers across the country and the situation is no better.”

There is also a push in Vancouver for a moratorium on charges related to the communicating law, which makes it illegal for sex workers or their clients to discuss a transaction in public.

“Obviously the RCMP isn’t going to jump on board with that but local agencies might be able to,” says O’Doherty.

Action: Demand that your local police stop laying charges for sex-work related infractions or any other morality-based crimes.

END VIOLENCE AGAINST SEX WORKERS

Like queers who pick up strangers for sex, prostitutes are often blamed for the violence that is perpetrated against them. This is compounded by the fact that sex workers can be charged if they report having been assaulted or robbed while engaging in prostitution.

“Right now with a woman working alone out of her apartment if she gets a bad client she’s terrified to report that to the police for fear that she’s the one that will be arrested and charged with keeping a common bawdy house,” says Scott.

“No other woman has to worry about being charged for reporting a rape,” says Babcock.

But in Toronto there is a way for sex workers to report crimes against them without being charged. Since January 2007 the special victims section within the sex crimes unit has worked exclusively on assaults against sex workers.

“There’s the belief that if you call the cops we’re going to do you for bawdy-house [charges],” says Det Wendy Leaver of the special victims section. “That’s not our mandate.”

The section has its own 24-hour number as well as an anonymous bad date hotline, which has seen nine convictions so far.

“I think the courts in Toronto and the judges that we deal with so far do not seem to differentiate that the person is a sex worker,” says Leaver. “That seems to have no effect on the decisions as maybe you’d think that it would and that maybe it has in the past.”

Weaver says investigating crimes against sex workers stops them from being quite so marginalized.

“People say, ‘Why bother? They’re putting themselves in harm’s way,'” says Leaver. “I say don’t be ridiculous. They’re selling a service. They’re not selling their bodies. My idea is that sexual assault is not an occupational health and safety hazarard. It isn’t. It’s a violent crime punishable by law.

“If we could get police services across this country to give more man power and resources and education, to invest and dedicate to these services against assault against sex workers we wouldn’t have to devote so much to homicide.”

Action: Report crimes against sex workers. If you’re a sex worker and not in an emergency situation call the special victims section at (416) 456-7259 (Toronto). The section’s anonymous bad date line is at (416) 808-0000. (Toronto)

OFFER OUTS

Many people, men and women, choose to become sex workers. Others fall into it out of necessity or are forced into it. Not everyone recognizes the difference.

“I would say the conflation of sex work with human trafficking or sex trafficking is a huge barrier to talks around supporting sex workers,” says Keisha Scott, administrative coordinator at Maggie’s, a community service project for sex workers in Toronto. “I’ve found many times in different talks what happens is the conversation moves into the area of human trafficking or child prostitution which takes away from what we’re talking about which is adult sex workers, those who are in the trade consensually.”

Helping those who want to get out of sex work without stigmatizing those who want to stay means offering nonjudgmental support services and employment programs.

“There are women in this business that are not here willingly and I think that retraining programs help with finding other meaningful employment, meaningful underlined, should be in place,” says Valerie Scott. “It shouldn’t be about what an abused and morally bankrupt person you are. If you want to work in another line of work it should be, ‘Let’s help you train for that other line of work.'”

“The fact that they’re getting into it not out of choice is bad enough,” says Klinck. “Doing any job that you really don’t want to do is not good. But when you have the weight of society saying it’s illegal and you’re dirty and awful and depraved and you’re going to get diseases and die it adds to people’s lack of self-worth and that’s really not going to help people.”

In addition to programs to get unwilling workers out of the sex trade it’s necessary to provide services to stop people from getting there in the first place.

“Until poverty is eradicated we’re always going to have this situation arising,” says Davis. “As a society our decision is whether we choose to allow people to die or work with dignity and safety.”

“I really think the government needs to step up and take care of these kids if they really want to reduce child prostitution,” says Babcock. “People used to come up to me when I was 15 and say, ‘You’ve got to get out of prostitution,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, are you gonna take care of me? Are you gonna provide me with shelter?’

“Prostitution is not the issue. The issue is what got these kids on the street in the first case. These things often get overlooked.”

Action: Demand that politicians implement nonjudgmental employment programs and support antipoverty initiatives in general.

COME OUT AS A SEX WORKER

Although street sex work is the most visible the majority of sex work takes place indoors, out of the public eye.

“People have to realize that right now there probably is a brothel on their block they just don’t know it,” says Valerie Scott. “Practically every street in Toronto has at least one woman or every apartment building has one woman working alone out of her apartment discreetly.”

Sex workers are everywhere and chances are you know a sex worker, whether you realize it or not.

“I’d like to see sex work come out of the closet,” says Babcock. “For people to be able to say, ‘I’m a sex worker,’ and not be ashamed of it. I’d like people to be able to say it and it not be such a big deal or have it looked down upon.”

“I think sex workers coming out is necessary,” says Klinck. “The mass media stuff and the sitcoms puts it on an understandable social context but once you have mothers saying, ‘Yes, my daughter’s an escort’ or ‘My daughter’s a prostitute’ that’s a lot more grassroots and that’ll affect other people.”

“I think it would go a long way also to educating people in general,” says Valerie Scott. “[Coming out as a sex worker] is something that a lot of people could and should do but I think they’re terrified. There’s the fear of losing their family, being ostracized. It takes a lot of guts to do it.

“Anyone that wants to, if they want to be able to talk circles around the arguments that their families want to throw at them, give SPOC a call and we’ll help you.”

Action: Think about what you can do to make it easier for the sex workers in your life to come out to you. If you’re a sex worker, consider coming out to friends and family.

PAY FOR SEX

It’s impossible to value sex work without letting go of assumptions and judgments about people who pay for sex.

“Some of it has to do with ego,” says Klinck. “The sort of thing where guys say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have to pay for it,’ so they’ve got that attitude that those who pay for it are doing it because they have no choice, because they’re undesirable, whereas that’s not always the case.”

People pay for sex for many reasons and under many circumstances. For some it’s an easy outlet, one that, like the bathhouses, allows for sex without strings attached. For others it’s a way to satisfy sexual desires that they might be hesitant to explore with a partner or where their partner just isn’t interested.

“Everyone’s got their own value on sex and their own needs for sex and a lot of times long-term partners aren’t going to be in synch,” says Klinck. “It’s probably more rare for them to be in synch in a long-term relationship.

“Seeing sex workers could be seen as therapeutic in those cases. Wives and husbands will support each other for seeing massage therapists or for seeing a chiropractor but they will ignore the benefits they might get from seeing a sex worker.”

While there are problem clients who try to take advantage of sex workers’ marginalization, anecdotally they are the minority.

“Ninety nine point nine percent of clients are good men,” says Valerie Scott. “These guys don’t come from a shuttle from Mars every night and leave before sunrise. They’re your fathers, they’re your brothers, your physician, the guy that owns the grocery store.

They are everyone and they’re fine people and they shouldn’t be stigmatized for buying sex.”

Recognizing the clients as part of the solution to the stigma against sex work is key to change.

“If we had people saying, ‘I feel I have a right to purchase sexual services,’ my God that would help because lord knows thousands of them are doing it,” says Gallant. “It would be lovely to see clients participating in the decriminalization movement. It would be so thrilling.”

Action: Pay for sex and become involved with the decriminalization movement as a client.