I was in the green room waiting to go onto the set of Jawbreaker, a talk show hosted by Brad Fraser back around 2002. The topic of the day was sex work. I was working as a professional dominant at the time, and I had just been introduced to the other two guests: one, a young twink webcam model, and the other, Valerie Scott, a noted Canadian sex worker activist. Like any well-meaning, socially conscious individual, I stated that “prostitution should be legalized.” Valerie gave me a three-minute speech that quickly straightened me out — it is decriminalization that we are after, not legalization. This might sound like a case of semantics, but as Valerie taught me, it’s very important to differentiate between the two terms.
I have always looked at prostitution in the same way I look at computer consulting, tarot card readings or counselling. The client comes to your home office, or you visit them in their home or hotel room, you engage in a service-minded encounter, and you get paid for your time. When tax season comes, you declare your self-employment income, and after expenses and other things are taken into consideration, you send the government their cut or you get a refund. It is totally standard practice. There are tons of people who have self-employment income and for the most part, there is little reason for the government to get involved with the intricacies of whatever their chosen trade or service is. Income is income.
The notion that prostitution should be “legalized” suggests that there is something intrinsically wrong with the exchange of sex for money, that it is a vice that should be controlled by the state. Well-meaning people have often come up to me and made conversation at various events, with statements like, “I support legalization of sex work…. the workers should have mandatory health check-ups of course, and they should be issued licences, but there is nothing wrong with prostitution.”
There are problems with the notion that we need a separate government body created to issue licences to hookers, and that the hookers should be forced to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). How would the government licence sex workers? What would the criteria be? Would they require blowjob training?
Testing for STIs is also problematic. The straight porn industry learned this in 2004 when a mini-HIV outbreak caused the industry to be shut down for 30 days. Giving clients of sex workers any sort of false sense of security, perhaps in the form of certificates stating that a sex worker has tested negative for STIs, will just encourage the clients to coerce the workers into unsafe sex encounters. You cannot effectively guarantee that someone is free of sexually transmitted infections with even weekly testing, when they are having sex with multiple partners on a daily basis. So let’s just forget about this whole notion that sex workers should be forced to be tested, and instead continue to educate people about safer sex practices.
The formal movement towards decriminalizing sex work in Canada involves eliminating three provisions of the Criminal Code: section 210, which forbids the keeping of a bawdy house, section 212 1j which makes living off the avails of prostitution a crime and section 213 1c, which bans communication for the purposes of prostitution. Prostitution itself is legal — I have personally claimed income related to sex work and paid taxes on it. But according to the law, I was running a bawdy house, I communicated for the purposes of prostitution, and my roommate was my pimp and could have been arrested.
There is a constitutional challenge currently underway to fight to remove these three sections of the code, but one person involved has privately expressed doubt to me that they will achieve their goal of full decriminalization without a visionary prime minister or prominent cabinet minister joining the fight. So we might continue living in this period of a fucked up Criminal Code — a period where at least there is discussion going on, and awareness of the issues. Helping to create a normalcy to the fact that sex work is legitimate work is important grass roots action. The University of Toronto organized a massive academic conference in March called Sex for Sale. I spoke at this conference and it was refreshing to see students of all orientations engaged in the process of understanding, debating and supporting the decriminalization movement.
So I’m writing this column to accomplish one small thing — to point out to the average reader that there really is no point in talking about legalizing or licensing prostitutes — rather, we should aim for decriminalization. The sex worker cause parallels the queer cause: freedom to engage in sexual relationships that stray from the norm, recognition that not all relationships survive with a monogamous, two-partner formula, and understanding of negotiated sexual encounters. These are all strong themes from queer history. Even if some of the sections of the Criminal Code take a long time to eliminate, awareness of the issues can help make sex work safer for those involved in it.