Sasha: On the decriminalization of sex work in Ontario

So... that happened.

Alec Baldwin uttered these unforgettable words after emerging from a car crash unscathed in David Mamet's film State And Main.

I must say I feel just about the same way. After bitching (and this would be an appropriate word, because I have been a fucking bitch about this a lot of the time) for the past 16 years about decriminalizing sex work, something wholly unexpected happened on Tuesday afternoon.

Sex work was decriminalized in Ontario.

I was picking up some groceries at Fiesta Farms when I got the news on my BlackBerry. A flurry of emails and texts from colleagues at Maggie's and other sex worker rights organizations (mostly, "WTF? Is this really happening?") proved that, yes, this was really happening.

I ran through the isles to find my girlfriend, and after a victory hug, we roared over to the 519 for the press conference. The mood was one of exhilaration and disbelief. As I looked around the room at my colleagues, it was clear that we were all in a state of shock.

This was -- I will be perfectly honest -- the last thing many of us expected. When you've been waving lethal hypocrisies in your government's face for decades, when religious groups are granted intervener status in a case that has nothing to do with morality, when you read nothing but misguided, hysterical information about trafficking, when you realize that most people conflate trafficking with decriminalization and decriminalization with legalization, when it takes dozens of predominantly indigenous women to be murdered for anyone to even take notice, when you have to fight to get a place at a table where your human rights are being chewed over by suspicious outsiders, well, you just shrug your shoulders and accept that obviously everyone is taking crazy pills.

We all got that.

And we got that because the double standards we face are not only in our laws, but in our personal exchanges with clients who make the laws and enforce them; the same men who make fatal decisions about our bodies secretly pay for them. Do I need to trot out the half-dozen Republicans in the United States who have publicly attacked sex work and homosexuality only to be revealed as enthusiastic clients and homosexuals themselves?

So you'll excuse my astonishment that suddenly somebody not only listened, not only made cowardly recommendations (as often happens when the effects of these laws are brought forward, as in The Challenge Of Change: A Study Of Canada's Criminal Prostitution Laws), but actually made real change seem possible.

Susan G. Cole, my colleague at NOW, writes of our movement, "I'm hoping they won't leave their disadvantaged sisters behind. In order to make the case for decriminalization, organized sex workers have claimed that prostitution was a legitimate choice for women -- a position reiterated effectively in the documentary Client 9, about New York governor Eliot Spitzer's downfall -- and that sex work's not really that much different from being a bank teller. They've also argued that sex work can be an empowering career for women and that moralists, and feminists like me, should leave them alone." (Read the full post.)

Susan, I hear you. At present, many in our community trumpeting whore power withdraw when things become personally inconvenient. Their polished politics make compelling blog and thesis fodder, but they leave these well-articulated concerns behind in practice. They speak eloquently about discrimination and labour issues, but their actions belie their words. I've seen them scramble to align themselves with the most disadvantaged sex workers publicly (it's kind of like watching celebrities lining up to hang with the Dalai Lama), but they think nothing of stepping on others professionally. They make fine activists, but they are crappy whores.

It's one thing to be vocal about massively underrepresented issues in sex work; it's another when someone calls you to go with them to the hospital at 5 a.m..

Despite my kvetching, I want us all at this table: survival workers, academics, hobby whores, high-track, low-track. Whatever our reasons for fighting this fight, our goals remain the same: we want the laws around sex work to reflect our Charter. They didn't before; now they do. We want this because we'd all like it if it weren't so easy to rape, murder, harass, torture, malign, profile and disenfranchise us.

There are many professions I find objectionable, but for the most part, I don't want to see people killed because they're doing them. I don't think it's too much to ask that sex workers have the same rights.

For now, I'd like to draw people's attention to the media storm that's already begun swirling around the ruling. Polls done by the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star seem to indicate that a big majority of people support decriminalization. This is good news, but I want us all to keep our eyes and minds open and be prepared for:

• An onslaught of articles and opinions on trafficking. I'd like to draw your attention to New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized. This video shows Tim Barnett, a former MP who helped push decriminalization in his country there. Studies done by New Zealand's immigration department state there have been no cases of trafficked workers since decriminalization was enacted. The number of sex workers has also not increased, for those of you worried that Toronto will turn into a giant red light district.

• A lot of articles either conflating legalization with decriminalization or not really distinguishing the differences. Please know that legalization is the last thing sex workers want. Find a very comprehensive account of decriminalization versus legalization here.

• References to the Swedish model, which criminalizes clients, not workers. Read a critique of it here. Read the full Ontario Superior Court ruling at this link. Let's stay on point with this, people. Lives are at stake.

This column was originally published in NOW Magazine. Ask Sasha:

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