“Sex work is real work,” says Nikki Stratigacos, one of the organizers of $ex for $ale, an academic conference on the regulation of prostitution taking place at the University of Toronto starting Fri, Mar 6.
The two-day conference, organized by U of T’s Sexual Diversity Studies Students’ Union, will host a variety of speakers and panellists, from sex workers to a police officer, each of whom will address the government’s implicit and explicit roles in the sex trade.
Each day of the conference will feature a panel discussion moderated by Scott Rayter, acting director of U of T’s Sexual Diversity Studies Program, where audience members will have the opportunity to ask questions about how, where and why sex is sold.
“It’s a chance for the community to learn things about the sex trade that don’t necessarily show up in textbooks,” says Stratigacos, a student in sexual diversity studies at U of T.
And all the best teachers will be there.
Keynote speakers at the conference include San Francisco’s proud prostitute Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, who is credited with coining the term “sex work;” activist Valerie Scott of Sex Professionals Canada and Mariana Valverde, professor of criminology and sexual diversity studies at U of T.
Guest panellists will include writer Gerald Hannon, board member of Pink Triangle Press (which publishes Xtra) and former Ryerson University professor who was fired for being a sex worker. Also on the panel will be Todd Klinck, Xtra.ca columnist and coowner of Goodhandy’s nightclub in Toronto; Kara Gillies of Maggie’s, a safer sex project for prostitutes and Det Wendy Lever, head of the Special Victims Section of Toronto Police Services Sex Crimes Unit.
Conference organizers say the mixed bag of guests was critical, even if it meant creating a little drama. Inviting Lever, for one, has ruffled the feathers of some who believe police have no place at a conference on prostitution.
Stratigacos doesn’t deny that sex workers have enemies in the police department but she says there are some allies too.
“Det Wendy Lever is the strongest supporter we’ve ever had,” says Stratigacos. “She deserves a chance to speak [at this conference] as much as anyone else.”
Stratigacos, who is also speaking at the conference, hopes the differing viewpoints from each guest will make audience members think, “Hey, I never looked at [sex work] that way before.”
“The most common portrayals of prostitution usually show either the highly successful escort or the disenfranchised and drug-addicted street worker,” she says.
Stratigacos says those portraits may exist but believes there is a middle ground to sex work that is generally overlooked.
“We want to further the idea that sex workers are real people. That sex work is real work, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it in community or academic settings,” she says.
The Mar 7 conference of $ex for $ale was moved to a bigger building because it “completely sold out one week before the conference date.”
Evidently people are ready to talk.