Make caressing a crime it's a steamy summer night in the ballroom of the Gladstone Hotel. Stunning black-clad Mirha-Soleil Ross straddles a chair, leans toward the audience and describes her favourite johns: widowers not ready to love again but needing comfort after their loss; and a man in a years-long struggle to bring his wife to Canada who told her, "If I couldn't be with someone nice every few months, I'd kill myself."
Welcome to the Bawdyhouse Burlesque, hosted by Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC). A few men dressed to the nines wander wistful as urchins in a toy store.
But love isn't for sale tonight. The goal is to raise money for SPOC, whose main objective is to organize toward the decriminalization of sex work through political activism, community building and public awareness.
Prostitution isn't illegal in Canada, but communicating for its purposes is. Living off the proceeds is, too. All of which makes it a high-risk lifestyle. "We are dying here," says Valerie Scott, SPOC's current head.
Women who make their living at the edge of the law are vulnerable to both law-breakers and enforcers. The laws against communication prevent them from working in groups. Laws that force prostitutes and their clients into hiding also hide the abusers. SPOC says its members have been threatened for spreading descriptions of bad johns.
This funder features cancan dancers and poetry and song from rap to grunge. But the highlight of the night is the moving spoken-word performances about their encounters on the street by women who work or have worked in the sex industry.
Ross's monologue, Dearest John, demonstrates that most johns don't deserve the humiliation of prosecution under current john laws.
To deconstruct the "pimp law" against living off the avails of prostitution, Scott distributes little favours to the audience a shiny nickel in a tiny plastic bag. "Congratulations," she announces. "You're all my pimps!"
"This law criminalizes all of our relationships," Scott explains. "A roommate, girlfriend or boyfriend, anyone who lives with us or with whom we share can be charged. Charge pimps when they do wrong, for what they do wrong. Charge them with confinement, abuse whatever. Don't charge my parents because I sent them a Christmas present."
Wendy Babcock, statuesque in black with red feathers, has been resisting the aforementioned wistful dudes' pleas made aloud to come out of retirement. She makes the point that sex work in Canada and globally is often the only work that pays a woman a living wage.
"If I feel exploited at $150 an hour, I need a serious reality check," adds Mirha-Soleil Ross.
But SPOC's big target in an evening that celebrates lust, love and the body is society's willingness to, in her words, "condemn and even jail us for the crime of caressing and holding each other."