So. Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

I just got back from Parliament Hill where – possibly because I was one of the few people actually carrying a red umbrella – I ended up getting interviewed by a local news network.


What they asked me was:
(a) What brought me out to the rally
(b) Did I worry about my friends in the business[1]
(c) Is there anything that can be done to stop the violence that [predominantly street-based] sexworkers face

The gist of what I answered was:

(a) I think it’s important to draw attention to the situation faced by sexworkers, particularly street-based sexworkers[2], as a result of the laws[3] that make safely doing sexwork illegal.

(b) I don’t worry about my friends who are strippers, in-call escorts, and massage-providers[4], because they work indoors. It’s much, MUCH safer to work indoors because you’re effectively invisible (unless you have very nosy neighbours) and, thus, have a much greater opportunity to take your time and evaluate your prospective clients before deciding to take them on.
Sexwork is not inherently dangerous. No more than running a physiotherapy clinic or a life-coaching business out of your granny suite is dangerous. What makes it dangerous is the laws that criminalize adequate safety measures[5].

(c) Decriminalization.

In the interview, “C” was literally a one-word answer. So I’m going to elaborate on it a little bit here.

Why Decriminalization?

There are a couple of things that need to be looked at here.

First of all: Decriminalization vs Legalization.
Now, I’m talking about Canada and, specifically, Ontario here. So YMMV. However.
When you decriminalize something, it means that it’s no-longer subject to persecution by law enforcement. In the case of decriminalizing homosexuality (this example will come up again later), it means that the state – neither law enforcement nor governing bodies – can put you in jail for being gay. There’s still stigma to deal with BUT The State is officially staying out of your bedroom. In the case of decriminalizing a profession, it just means that you are now legally free to do your job like any other freelancer and no-one can charge you with illegal activity for doing so.
Legalization is a different story.
On the surface, you would think that legalizing something was the most positive thing you could do. I mean, when something’s legal it isn’t just “not a criminal offense” it’s supported by the law. Right?
You’d think so.
However if you look at some sectors of the sex industry –ones that are legal AND non-criminalized (as opposed to “technically legal, but rendered criminal due to the laws surrounding them”), you’ll see that the sale of sex[6] is treated a lot like the sale of alcohol or tobacco – I.E.: it’s seen as a controlled substance by the governing body.

So, for example, if you work as a stripper in Toronto you are required by law to have a license. This is kind of like being a licensed electrician in that you pay a fee every year to have your license renewed and you’re required to follow certain rules while you’re conducting your profession (if you work on a construction site, you have to wear a hard-hat. If you work on a strip-club stage, you aren’t allowed to touch, or be touched by, a client ANYWHERE). The difference is that, at least in theory, if the electrician is working in unsafe conditions or her boss is skimping on the pay cheques, she has access to legal recourse. Whereas, if you’re stripping and the stage is badly held together or your boss is charging exorbitant house fees and telling you to go somewhere else if you don’t like it… you’re not going to get much help from the governing body through-which you obtained your license.

As a second example: Erotic massage parlours are totally legal in Ontario. As long as you can afford the parlour license AND the attendant/operator license, you can provide erotic massage in a completely legal context. The trick is that the annual licensing fees for “Adult Entertainment Parlours” or “Body Rub Parlours” are ten times and more what it costs to license a comparable establishment (E.G.: Banquet hall = $380.00, Billiard hall = $220.00, Adult Entertainment Parlour = $4,890.00).

Legalizing other sectors of the sex industry would likely follow this pattern (if you’re in the states, have a look at Nevada’s laws around brothels and brothel-workers for a further look into where this road could go).

As such, I’m heavily in favour of decriminalization over legalization because it allows sexwork, all kinds of sexwork, to exist as “just another freelance job” rather than be treated as a dangerous, controlled – and therefore consistently Othered – industry.

I think that decriminalization would result in better working conditions for sexworkers[7], and an easier road out of the business for those who want it[8]. I also think it would be a big step towards ending the stigma that surrounds sexwork/ing as it would allow people to come out as sexworkers – as active sexworkers – without it being a legal risk to do so. I believe that, as with homosexuality, people would become far less hostile towards, and ignorant about, sexworkers and sexwork once they learn that, actually, their son/mother-in-law/co-worker/neighbour is, or has been, a sexworker. Understanding that engaging in sexwork doesn’t turn you into an addict, a home-wrecker, or a helpless victim who can’t make hir own decisions is a lot easier when you’re aware that you already know one or more sexworkers. Take away the idea that it’s “never anyone you know” and you take away a lot of the power the Cardboard Cutout media-image (short skirt, tall boots, crack addiction) has over how we think about, and talk about, sexwork/ers.

So. That’s where I am on that.

Ms Syren.

[1] I told them I had friends who do sex-work. I did this because (a) I do, (b) I wanted to situate sex workers as People With Lives and Relationships rather than as cardboard cut-outs, and (c) so that I would be able to bring up some of the many, many forms of non-street-based sexwork that are out there.

[2] Who are typically (though not 100% of the time) dealing with multiple intersecting points of maginalization – poverty, racism, drug-addiction, mental/psychological health issues, abuse-survival/escape, and a slew of other stuff.

[3] Laws which were struck down by Justice Himmel on September 28th, 2010 – although her decision has been appealed by the Harper Conservatives, meaning that the laws are still in effect, despite having been ruled as doing waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more harm than good, while the decision is in appeal. We’re so not out of the woods yet, folks.

[4] Also porn actors, cam workers, phone sex operators, and pro-dommes, but I left those professions out of the interview because I was thinking on my feet – which I’m not great at. One other thing I wish I’d mentioned is that the cardboard cutout image of “sex worker” as tall boots, short skirt, drug-addled woman isn’t just inaccurate because most sex workers aren’t street-based. It’s also inaccurate because there are a significant number of men doing sexwork, too – a reality that turns a lot of the “saviour complex” theories about sexwork on their heads and, thus, a reality that largely goes unspoken.

[5] Both in the sense of “It’s illegal to run a common bawdy house” (meaning that working indoors is illegal) and in the sense of, say, the carrying of condoms being used as “evidence” that someone was engaged in solicitation.

[6] Or eroticism/titillation, as the case may be.

[7] Because they would now be legally free to do their jobs indoors, in groups, in well-lit areas, and would have the option of hiring security guards, drivers, and the like. Because they would now be legally free to take the time to assess a potential client and negotiate fees and services before going somewhere that fit the legal definition of “non-public” with them.

[8] Specifically because they wouldn’t face criminal charges for doing sexwork, which means they would be far less likely to have criminal records that would prevent them from doing other kinds of work.
Also: A note about “human trafficking”. First of all, it happens in construction, large-scale farming, child-care, and inordinate other industries that have nothing to do with sex. Sexual trafficking gets the news stories because it lines up *really* well with our cultural narratives about women and sexuality and “damsels in distress” and “saving those poor victims who have no agency” and, as such, is also titillating as all-get-out. Everyone else gets ignored because gods forbid that anyone get a fair wage for looking after other people’s kids and/or picking peaches. I find that people who wring their hands about “human trafficking” tend to do so in a context where they are speaking for people they haven’t met, let alone listened to, and on subjects that they know little or nothing about, instead resorting to reiterating cultural narratives about women, men, sexuality, passivity, aggression, brown people, children/innocence, purity, power, danger, and dirt.
However, if we want to look at sexual trafficking: Decriminalizing sexwork would – I think – help sexually trafficked people, too, as they would no-longer risk criminal charges if they came forward about the work they were being forced to do. Decriminalization would remove one of the barriers to their escape.