Sex work’s real risks

When we focus on the act of prostitution as the source of all problems in sex workers' lives, we find victims where there are none – and ignore the state's role in creating unnecessary dangers

I am an indigenous woman, a domestic violence survivor and a sexual assault survivor. I am also a former sex worker.

An Anishnaabe-kwe, I am originally from northern Ontario, where I first started working as an escort. Eventually I moved to southwestern Ontario in search of more opportunities, and I did so in the context of sex work.

I am not a victim of human trafficking.

But because the definition of a human trafficking victim is so broad, I would be considered a victim: young, indigenous, female, travelling from the north to the south in search of more job opportunities, and working in the sex industry.

Under the federal government’s prostitution bill, C-36, all sex workers are considered victims even if no exploitative or coercive situation is involved.

Bill C-36 fails to differentiate between exploitative and non-exploitative situations. Diverting resources toward anti-prostitution campaigns, as Bill C-36 proposes, does an injustice to those individuals who do experience exploitation and coercion.

When I first moved to southwestern Ontario, I had no friends or family in the area, only a few bags of clothing and a job at a local club. I drifted in and out of various forms of sex work, including exotic dancing.

Exotic dancing is not criminal. Before last June’s Supreme Court decision ruling Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional (Bedford v. the Attorney General of Canada), accepting payment for sexual services wasn’t a criminal offence either.

What had been considered criminal was a nexus of behaviours surrounding the selling of sexual services, similar to the behaviours that will be criminalized in Bill C-36 – like working indoors or working in groups or pairs.

If Bill C-36 is enacted, it will make all sex work criminal, because it does not define what is meant by sexual services. And with criminalization comes stigmatization.

After living, working and going to school in southwestern Ontario, I became very aware of the isolation and alienation that criminalization of the trade creates in the lives of sex workers.

Tricia Boisvert was an indigenous woman, an aunt, a sister and a daughter, who was found murdered in a remote area in Quebec. When the media initially reported on her murder, they focused on her sex work. Yet she had just graduated from a college program and worked as palliative care nurse.

Michelle Rancourt, who worked in the industry in London, was found dead in her boyfriend’s home. Her death was ruled a suicide by the police after only two days of investigation. An anti-human-trafficking organization said she killed herself because she was trafficked. Michelle was my best friend. She was not trafficked.

After experiencing domestic violence myself, I sought out counselling.

The organization’s counsellor thought the source of all my problems was my work, even though the violence was completely unrelated to it. Because of where I worked, the organization could not believe that I wasn’t being trafficked, no matter what I told them.

The same thing happened when I was sexually assaulted.

I quickly learned that I could not go to the police for protection. The investigating officer blamed my work. It’s a common theme for sex workers.

When I asked my doctor to refer me to mental health counselling because of what had happened, the office refused until I lied about not doing sex work any more.

I left frustrated at having to lie about who I was and what I did for a living. I ended up not receiving the help I needed. I’d never felt more isolated.

Those who support Bill C-36 in whole or in part argue that all prostitution is male violence against women. This argument, however, fails to acknowledge the real violence that a woman may experience outside the context of sex work.

Following my experiences, the only people I knew I could count on for a sense of security and safety were other sex workers. Under Bill C-36, these relationships could be considered criminal.

If Bill C-36 were to become law tomorrow, sex workers would be forced to work alone to avoid the threat of arrest, creating more risk and harm.

Supporters of the bill argue that only the buyers are criminalized. This is a fallacy multiple sections implicate sex workers’ personal and professional relationships.

The idea that all prostitution is violence against women ignores the fact that sex workers can experience institutional and systemic violence. Denial of services is re-traumatizing in itself.

When we criminalize prostitution, either the buying or selling of it, and focus on the act of prostitution as the source of all problems in sex workers’ lives, we create victims where there are none. We also ignore the state’s role in creating more risks for sex workers.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay asserts that Canada needs to listen to the stories of victims. But we need to question why the stories of sex workers are being left out. They matter, too.

Sex work may be one part of an identity, but it is not our only identity. | @nowtoronto

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