Maybe it was her blue dreadlocks that caught my attention. Standing in a park in Montreal’s Plateau district in 1998, I was struck by how my first Take Back the Night march had veered off in a direction I had never expected. On a damp night in November, I had run to catch up with a group of 100 women who tromped around the streets of Montreal that night, pointing out the dark corners where women had been raped or assaulted.
It filled me with a sense of foreboding, but also a feeling of incredible power and sisterhood. And then we reached the park where the speeches took place and Anna-Louise Crago took the stage. Decked out in leggings and combat boots, her long hair a mess of the afore-mentioned dreadlocks, she looked like many of the activist kids I’d met in my first few weeks of school. But as soon as she opened her mouth, I was hooked.
She spit fire at the assembled group of women, railing against them for having jeered at the strip clubs on St Catherine St in the midst of their march. A member of the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, Anna was the first self-acknowledged sex worker I ever met, and she forever changed my view of women in the trade.
Since then I have met lots of sex workers, and count several among my closest friends. So that’s why it’s been so infuriating to see the misinformation being spread in the media by Ottawa city councillors and the chief of police.
Dozens of arrests have been made since November as part of a city-wide crackdown on street level prostitution and drug use. Police have begun sending letters to the owners of vehicles suspected of idling in areas populated by sex workers. The letters make false statements about sex workers, claiming that they are all drug users responsible for spreading HIV/AIDS. And this is not to mention the obvious civil liberties violations associated with this type of surveillance tactic.
The struggle for sex workers’ rights is our struggle. Here’s why.
One. The state has no place in our bedrooms. Neither do city councillors or police officers or vigilante neighbourhood associations. Any attempt to regulate or criminalize consensual sexual activity between adults is an affront to all of our rights and freedoms.
Two. Lots of queers work in the sex trade. I know at least three gay male escorts who work in the trade to supplement their salaries and pay off debt. A dyke friend sleeps with men for money and with women for pleasure, paying for her university education in the process. And a few of my trans woman friends sold sex to pay for sex re-assignment surgery, which was de-funded by the Ontario government in 1998. There are scores of stories like this in our community. And guess what? You probably know someone who’s turned a trick too.
Three. Queers use the services of sex workers. Whether we’re talking about the closeted men from the suburbs who “pay for play,” gay men who stuff wads of bills down strippers’ g-strings, or kinky couples who pay a dominatrix to administer a good flogging, queers exchange money for sexual services on a regular basis. We just don’t talk about it. But seeing as we live in a city that seems intent on portraying all customers as predators, it’s about time that our community “came out” and admitted that purchasing sex is not tantamount to exploiting women.
Four. Queers are taking over neighbourhoods. Whether we like it or not, our community has become a gentrifying force. Gays and lesbians are known to move into previously neglected inner city neighbourhoods and transform them into artsy queer-friendly centres. This has already happened in Toronto’s Parkdale and in the Centre Sud district of Montreal. Hintonburg, my neighbourhood in Ottawa, is another gay magnet. But by increasing the property values and the livability of our neighbourhoods, we often push sex workers off the streets and into the margins.
While this might help protect our real estate investments, it puts sex workers in grave danger, as they are forced to work in poorly-lit industrial areas. It’s our responsibility as citizens to be a positive force for change in this regard. Let’s use the same collective voice that won us the decriminalization of homosexuality. We can push for the adoption of sane, harm-reduction approaches to policing and crime prevention, with the eventual goal of decriminalizing prostitution.
It should go without saying that sex workers’ rights are human rights. And the way that the laws function right now only serve to encourage exploitation by aggressors and the police. Unfortunately, the neighbourhood associations, some funded by Crime Prevention Ottawa, continue to support regressive police measures.
As Jenn Clamen from Montreal sex workers’ advocacy group Stella recently remarked, we need to take a “good, close backseat” to the sex workers who are leading the fight for change, and support them in their effort to improve their working protections and stand up for their rights. After all, sex workers are us.