“Stop the wars on the whores,” read a complimentary sticker handed out to audience members at $ex for $ale, an academic conference on prostitution, held on Mar 6 and 7 at the University of Toronto.
The conference, organized by U of T’s Sexual Diversity Studies Students’ Union, featured speakers and panellists who spoke on the government’s role in regulating sex work.
“It’s a chance for the community to learn things about the sex trade that don’t necessarily show up in textbooks,” said presenter and conference organizer Nikki Stratigacos, a student in sexual diversity studies at U of T.
Keynote speaker Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, an activist and proud prostitute from San Francisco, emphasized the importance of viewing sex work as a legitimate occupation.
“Prostitution is a survival strategy for so many,” she said to a mixed audience of about 200 tattooed hipsters, emo boys, clean-cut academics and even high-school students at the Mar 6 discussion at Hart House.
Leigh, who is credited with coining the term “sex work,” said granting sex workers basic labour rights, like the rights to healthcare and clean work spaces, is key to ensuring the safety of prostitutes, who are sometimes most vulnerable.
“We need to treat prostitution the same way we would treat any profession,” said Leigh.
Also on the Mar 6 panel was writer Gerald Hannon, a “semi-retired” sex worker and board member of Pink Triangle Press (which publishes Xtra), who spoke of his experience in the trade.
“It’s a great way to make extra income,” said Hannon, who started hustling in 1987. “I’ll be collecting my old age pension in August, and I’m still doing it.”
Hannon was a journalism instructor at Ryerson University until 1995 when a story in the Toronto Sun identified him as a part-time “hooker.” Hannon’s teaching contract was not renewed.
“I was known as the prof-titute,” said Hannon, rousing chuckles in the audience.
Hannon’s experience is one example of how sex workers are discriminated against.
Valerie Scott of Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), a group dedicated to the decriminalization of sex work, compares the sex workers’ movement to the gay rights movement.
“Where gay and lesbian people were in the 1960s is where sex workers are today,” said Scott.
Some audience members at the Mar 6 conference became testy during a question period and they weren’t only grilling the panel and speakers.
It was a public event but some objected to Xtra making a video report. Specifically they didn’t think video ought to be taken of audience members asking questions.
“How can people expect to be heard if they censor the media?” asked one audience member, who later asked not to be named in this report.
Others scoffed at the conference organizers for inviting Det Wendy Leaver, head of the Special Victims Section of Toronto Police Services Sex Crimes Unit, to speak.
“There’s no room for police at a conference on sex work!” shouted a young woman sitting in the back.
Leaver says The Toronto Police Services Sex Crimes Unit specializes in protecting sex workers by investigating sex offences committed against them.
Leaver was not present Friday night because she wasn’t scheduled to speak until the following Saturday afternoon.
“I’m not concerned with the profession [of sex work],” said Leaver, standing at a podium in the Macleod Auditorium at U of T’s Medical Sciences Building on Mar 7. “Sexual assault is not a workplace injury. It’s a sexual offence.”
Still, Kara Gillies of Maggie’s, a safer sex project for prostitutes, remained skeptical, reaffirming her organization’s decision to not work with police.
“The police holds incredible power against marginalized people like sex workers,” she said.
Leaver said most victims she sees are street prostitutes — sex workers who have, for example, been threatened, robbed, beaten or raped by clients.
Leaver said police don’t investigate cases of unpaid fees for sexual services.
“We’re not a collection agency,” said Leaver.
Todd Klinck, Xtra.ca columnist and coowner of Goodhandy’s nightclub in Toronto, who also spoke Saturday, publicly commended Leaver for “working from within” to help improve the relationship between police and sex workers.
“She’s a cop,” said Klinck. “She’s the type of ally you want.”
After the conference, organizers presented Leaver with a gift — play handcuffs from sex shop Seductions, which Leaver gladly accepted.