What I think about the new sex work laws


I’m sitting in a king sized bed in a four-star hotel in Toronto reading the decision made by the Ontario Court of Appeals regarding Canadian sex work laws.

I’m waiting for room service to bring up my coffee. I decided to spend the night here after my three-hour appointment yesterday evening.

Another client may text me to say he would like to see me before checkout and it would be nice to make 400 bucks before I leave and go back to my apartment. That would certainly help with that electricity bill that’s been lurking and twitching on the pile.

Reflecting on the proposed changes in the criminal code, ones that have some folks elated and others predicting the Apocalypse (the Mormons believe that hell will be heralded by a whore riding a multi-headed beast. I’m sure they’re out of their fucking minds with panic and excitement today) I have to tell you that as someone who has worked in the sex industry on and off for 20 years, I’m disappointed. As I look down on the street below my suite, I can see the construction on yet more condos, some of it nearly right beside me. I can also see one of the most active strolls for outdoor workers in our city.

I’m thinking about the fact that the women, men and transsexual people most affected by the criminalization of sex work are the ones who will continue to be criminalized. And now, in effect, they’re the only ones. I’m really angry about this – that the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers in the skin trade will be the ones who will benefit the least from these changes. In fact, they will barely benefit at all.

Optimists say the new laws will give them an opportunity to go indoors, to work legally and safely in groups to avoid predators and the law. Some yes, but the majority will not access this opportunity. Indoor sex work involves having access to the indoors. Do we not remember that this is an enormous privilege?

Women, men and transsexuals who are migrating, who are doing sex work not just for money but for clothes, food, rides and drugs don’t always have the time or inclination to find an indoor space in which to negotiate their business. Many of them don’t want to. I think about what these new laws must say to them: just in case you forgot that you don’t matter, well you don’t.

Do not think for one moment that I’m ungrateful. I stand in awe of the women who put their asses, quite literally, on the line to make sex work more safe in Canada. As I watched Valerie Scott speak slowly and sweetly about her future plans to open a brothel, I know what she’s been through and I want all the best for her as she enters her autumn as a sex worker.

I even understand to some degree the abolitionists who show up screaming about the children and what are we saying when we decriminalize sex work. They’ve been hurt very badly and they express this through rage. (Though I don’t understand, nor have I ever understood, what wanting to prevent the abuse and death of thousands of sex workers has to do with children being kidnapped and raped. I also want proof that decriminalization leads to more trafficked workers both underage and not. But I’m afraid to engage with them because they scream and cry and call you a pedophile when you don’t agree with them.) This has been part of my personal landscape for 20 years. I have fought too. I have fought for sex worker rights, I have fought with my colleagues about approach, attitude and well, just things like hourly rates and not getting all snotty with girls who charge less. Bitch, please. Etc.

It is a bittersweet victory. It is hard to call it a victory. Why?

Because this is my body and I have never believed that anyone had the right to tell me what to do with it. Actually, that’s wrong.

I grew up having everyone tell me what I could do with my body and that by doing certain things with it I was compromising my value as a woman. So that still lingers. It probably always will. I have been able to go head-to-head with many undesirable emotions but shame, that’s a tough one. It really sticks.

But when I imagine being busted for doing sex work, for doing something that involves using my body to generate income, when I imagine the possibility of three or four cops 20 years younger than me bursting into my room telling me what I can do with any part of my body, I just get angry. I look down at my vagina and wonder what she ever did to merit the kind of disapproval that allows so many people, from lawmakers to religious organizations to the media, to tell me what I can and cannot do with her. So to call it a victory also means acknowledging that I am so lucky that people can no longer criminalize me for using just another one of my body parts to make a living. Wow. Thanks guys, but you’ll excuse me if I really don’t feel like celebrating your graciousness.

When I lost a job several years ago and also had a health crisis, my first thought was not to go back into the sex trade, but I still entertained the possibility. That possibility filled me not with dread, but with relief, though it was muddled with a bit of fear.

Would I have any value as an older woman?

Still, I knew I had an option. I would not go hungry or homeless.

I can still support myself as I adjust to changes in my life, in my health and in my financial situation. Decriminalization won’t change the way that I work: carefully screening clients, asking my colleagues for references and working indoors. The onus of criminality has always been on my outdoor colleagues. The biggest danger has always been to them. Our lawmakers know this. There couldn’t be more proof of this. As Judge Susan Himmel wrote:

“Finally s. 213(1)(c) prohibits street prostitutes, who are largely the most vulnerable prostitutes and face an alarming amount of violence, from screening clients at an early, and crucial stage of a potential transaction, thereby putting them at an increased risk of violence. In conclusion, these three provisions prevent prostitutes from taking precautions, some extremely rudimentary, that can decrease the risk of violence towards them. Prostitutes are faced with deciding between their liberty and their security of the person.

Thus, while it is ultimately the client who inflicts violence upon a prostitute, in my view the law plays a sufficient contributory role in preventing a prostitute from taking steps that could reduce the risk of such violence.”

In response, the Ontario Court of Appeals wrote this:

“The evidence suggests – and the submission of many of the intervenors reinforce – that poverty, addiction, gender, race and age are the primary sources of survival workers’ marginalization.

With that marginalization comes much of the risk associated with street prostitution. For the reasons we have given, we are not persuaded that the communicating provision is a dominant, or even a significant, factor among the many social, economic, personal and cultural factors that combine to place survival sex workers at significant risk on the streets. This is not to say that the communicating provision does not contribute to some degree of harm.

As we have explained, we are satisfied that it has enough of an impact on prostitutes to engage their s. 7 rights to liberty and security of the person. We are also satisfied that the vulnerability of street prostitutes, and especially survival sex workers who may be unable to move indoors regardless of the fate of the bawdy-house provisions, increases the negative impact of the communicating laws on their s. 7 rights.

However, when the weight of the legislative objective is balanced against the weight of the impact properly attributed to the legislation and not to a myriad of other factors, we cannot say that the scale drops to the range of gross disproportionality.”

I stop reading after “as we have explained…”. All I can hear is the construction on the condos outside my four star hotel. I know whose rights matter more. I know whose comfort matters more.