Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford was in court last week fighting for an end to unsafe prostitution laws. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim / CP Photo
There I was with my roommate last week, travelling all the way from our little dungeon in Toronto to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa.
That's where federal prosecutors are appealing a lower court ruling that struck down three anti-prostitution laws for violating the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.
When Terri-Jean Bedford, one of three women fighting to get rid of laws endangering sex workers, was arrested in 1994, the media called her home the "Bondage Bungalow." My parents were scandalized - they couldn't believe something like that was going on in a nice neighbourhood like Thornhill. But I was fascinated; my teenage mind was blown away that a woman could make a living this way.
I was just discovering BDSM for myself and was a little naive. I still thought sex work involved only hookers on the street. I had no idea it took other forms. These were lessons I would learn over the next 20 years. Little did I know back then that I'd become a professional dominatrix like Bedford, a job I would love that would give me my life back.
It all started seven years ago when I was injured at work; faulty equipment led to an injury that should have been simple enough to fix. I spent a year waiting for surgery, and then I should have had a year of intensive therapy to get my body back to where it was. Things didn't quite work out that way, and I developed a rare pain condition that left me unable to do a regular job.
I turned to Craigslist looking for acting gigs, modelling jobs - pretty much anything my body would allow me to do. I'd discovered that I couldn't manage regular work hours; I needed to take a lot of time to rest.
One day I came across an ad looking for dominants. Skeptical, I sent an email response and was called to an interview. I was assured there was no sex involved. (I think I asked about this about a million times, before and during the interview.)
I learned the rules. The girls worked on call at that dungeon, not shifts, so I could set my own hours. The pay was pretty good, so I wouldn't have to work a lot, which is exactly what I needed for my health.
I would only be expected to engage in activities I was comfortable with. We set a time for me to get some pictures done, I gave my availability and it was official: I was a pro-domme.
My first session was with the owner of the dungeon and a client. While I was confident in my own skills, I'd only used them in the context of a relationship before. The session went well, I was only a little awkward (so I'm told) and - best of all - I enjoyed it. I learned new talents, both kinky and business. I learned how to use social media to promote myself, how and where to advertise and how to screen potential clients to keep myself safe.
As time passed, I started thinking about going independent. It meant more work - doing my own advertising, answering calls and screening clients - as well as providing a space to work in and specialized equipment. It was a big, scary next step. Luckily for me, I needed a new roommate and found one who was also a pro-domme.
So here I am, three and a half years later. Make no mistake - although I don't have sex with my clients, professional domination falls under the umbrella of sex work as much as exotic dancing or phone sex. I'm doing well and I love my job.
However, things are not perfect. Far from it. I live knowing I could face legal trouble, depending on how police and governments decide to interpret the laws surrounding sex work. I also know that if I were to be assaulted while working, the police would be little help.
If I hire someone to act as security, to prevent that potential assault, that person could be charged. I also live with the knowledge that other sex workers of all kinds are facing the same problems and often greater threats of violence. This is why I'm taking time off to go to Ottawa.
The current laws are unconstitutional; this has been decided by two lower courts. The laws against communicating for the purposes of prostitution prevent proper screening of clients, negotiation of activities, discussions of rates and practices.
I have clients who think my no-sex rule is just something I say. They show up at my dungeon expecting a service I don't offer, which makes for some very dangerous working conditions - one example of how this law makes things more dangerous.
The "living on the avails" portion of the law already prohibits me from hiring security but would also prevent me from hiring someone to answer my phone and take bookings. It prevents workers from hiring a driver to take them to out-calls. The provision against bawdy houses criminalizes working from a space that I control, be it home or dungeon.
So many of the dangers of sex work come from the laws and stigma surrounding it. Sex workers do not deserve violence or rape; these are not inherent dangers of the job. They're things that happen because society chooses to demonize sex workers, to erase our value.
I keep hearing about the "Nordic model" of sex work laws, also known as abolition. This approach criminalizes the clients of sex workers and declares us victims. I find this approach distasteful and offensive. I acknowledge that some are forced into this work and are desperate for a way out. Those people deserve all the help they need. Just remember, many of us are here by choice. Don't erase our experience to accommodate dated thinking based on stereotypes.
Finally, talk to us. Sex workers can tell you what we need. We have a slogan: "No decisions about us without us." It means we need to be included in the next steps. We aren't going away, so it's best if we can all learn together how to make the future better for everyone.
Morgan Thorne is the author's professional name.