Sex workers speak out

Bill collectors or personal safety? A sex worker’s dilemma

Part 3 of a series
Photo: Jeff Wallace

The desire for safe working conditions can clash with the need to earn a living for sex workers living under Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws. This is the third installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers.

Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member

Betty Lynd, Edmonton, Alberta

I live and work in Edmonton, where for almost 30 years the city licensed “bawdy houses” with an arms-length approach and viewed licensed body rub parlours as one of the safest places for sex work to take place.

Sex work after Harper For two years, sex workers have faced tough laws, implemented by the Harper Conservatives in defiance of a Supreme Court directive not to impose dangerous conditions on prostitution. The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the legislation.

Before Bill C-36 became law in 2014, my city took the position that indoor sex work was safer than street work and that body rub parlours were safer than outcall escort work (where the worker goes to the client’s home or hotel room). Edmonton body rub parlours could rent rooms to independent contractors such as sex workers, and the municipality encouraged this by charging sex workers in body rub parlours $225 a year for a business licence, compared to $1,400 annually for an outcall escort license. And since the “state has no business in the nation’s bedrooms,” what occurred behind closed doors was deemed private.

Edmonton currently has about 500 licensed body rub practitioners and fewer than 50 licensed escorts.

With Bill C-36 now law, sex workers are struggling in the body rub industry. Fearful of the new law criminalizing the purchase of sex, customers are pushing for more incall services at more private locations to avoid police detection. More than 75 per cent of the inquiries I now receive want to meet at my home.

Security is limited when I am alone with a client, so this change definitely makes me feel less safe in my work. Our municipal bylaw states that at least two staff in a body rub parlour must be on site at all times during opening hours, or the parlour risks a $2,000 fine. In my home, I have no one watching my back.

Add a recession into the mix, and I find myself thinking about whether to see more clients at my home even though it’s a more dangerous option. I’m considering forsaking my safety in order to pay the bills. In recent months I’ve broken my own rule about never meeting a client in an 18-wheeler truck. It’s a terrible thing when bill collectors become a bigger concern than my personal safety.

Workers face the frightening prospect of having to open our personal residences to strangers.

The rationale behind the criminalization of clients seems to be that causing clients to feel bad about purchasing sex will deter their desires and end sex work. It doesn’t work that way. It only makes sex workers and clients more creative as we both try to find ways to not get caught. It puts us workers in more precarious situations.

I know the City of Edmonton has been progressive in its harm reduction model. Much of the concern for our safety was a response to serial killers Thomas Svekla and Joseph Laboucan and others, who were collectively responsible for the murders of 27 sex workers in Edmonton.

So here we are, 500 of us in an industry in which the owners of body rub parlours risk potential criminal charges while the workers face the frightening prospect of having to open our personal residences to strangers in order to pay our bills.

I urge the federal government to revoke these “new” laws, which are mirror images of those that the Supreme Court of Canada struck down in the landmark 2013 Bedford ruling. The laws are not only contrary to Canada’s Charter values but are making work more dangerous for the very people they are supposed to be protecting.

Trish Fisher, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

I’m a small business owner in Saskatoon. I opened my studio in 2012 and retired from active sex work for a variety of reasons, including a desire to focus full-time on advocacy. I felt confident that the Canadian sex industry would be decriminalized when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the Bedford case.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things have worked out. And as a business owner who is also a sex worker, I face very large penalties and criminalization.

I’ve now returned to sex work full-time and am trying to carry both myself and the business through this difficult period. A year ago, I was making a comfortable living. Now I wake up each day wondering if I’ll make enough to eat or pay my bills. For the first time, I now know what it means to have to do things you don’t want to do in order to survive. And I’m still among the more fortunate, as I have a roof over my head (for now) and am able to be resourceful enough.

My small business is professional and provides an essential service to the community. It’s a safe place for the people who work there and operates within the bylaws established by the Saskatoon Police Service and Saskatoon City Council for these kinds of businesses.

After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the country’s main prostitution laws were unconstitutional in 2013, the Conservative federal government re-created the same dangerous conditions that existed under the previous laws. They chose to emulate a model of law (Nordic regime) that was ​not designed​ to create better or safer working conditions but rather to abolish the industry, ignoring the fact that similar laws in Sweden haven’t succeeded in doing that.

I’m working twice as hard to continue to provide a safe location for workers to conduct business.

It is with no small degree of anger and frustration that I reflect on the negative impact these new laws have had on my life, despite the fact that I operate in a municipality in which the sex industry is licensed and legitimized.

All business owners and independent contractors know it generally takes three to five years to begin to build name recognition for a new business. By prohibiting my ability to advertise, the new laws essentially killed my business before it had barely gotten started. No business survives without advertising, an industry I have worked in for radio and print. No other businesses, professions or industries risk Criminal Code sanctions just for advertising their services.

This has resulted in a loss of business that has left workers to resort to outcalls — going to the home or hotel room of their clients — a practice that many workers had given up due to feeling much safer in an indoor venue.

I understand why workers continue to do the work even in dangerous conditions. More than ever, I feel the full weight of the stigma associated with this industry, and see that the new laws that were supposedly designed to keep me safer have instead made me less protected and more vulnerable than I’ve ever been.

In the past year and a half, I’ve heard many stories of increased violence and robberies among workers and clients. There is an air of desperation to many transactions, causing workers to accept less than ideal terms for services. Many of us are putting ourselves at greater risk to be able to take what business we can find.

Although I could close up shop and worry only about myself, I’m working twice as hard to continue to provide a safe location for workers to conduct business. I don’t know if I’ll make it another month, but I will do everything in my power to try to continue.

I am a person, not a product of what I do for a living.

Recent support for the decriminalization of prostitution from international organizations including Amnesty International, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Organization and the Canadian Public Health Association should make clear that Canada’s laws are based on ideology and not evidence.

Our lives are not better under these laws. The industry has not shown any signs of going away. Violations of our rights are rampant. How many lives need to be sacrificed to be heard? When will we have passed the test that confirms us as human beings entitled to the same rights and protections as everyone else in this country? What do I have to lose in order to gain compassion and respect?

Repeal the laws and decriminalize the sex industry. Stop the anti­-prostitution crusades. Do not allow the fear and moral judgement of a few to dictate the rights of so many others.

The evidence speaks loudly. Please listen to us: the current approach is not working! Decriminalization would acknowledge that I am entitled to the same rights and protections as every other Canadian citizen. I am a person, not a product of what I do for a living.

You might also be interested in...
Notes on the 0.2% Economy
Mercenary colonialism: Third-party management
Shiri Pasternak
October 25, 2017
A reactionary's CV
Playwright Brad Fraser reviews Jason Kenney's career
André Goulet
November 8, 2017
Unfair questions
Media attacks on Jagmeet Singh remind us of the right-wing forces he’s up against
Gurpreet Singh
October 18, 2017