When a young and timid journalist attended a recent national sex workers’ conference in Las Vegas, she expected to find trafficking victims and sob stories. Instead, she found an atmosphere of happiness and empowerment.
That’s what I found too, but I already knew what to expect after attending the last such conference in 2010. Organized by Desiree Alliance (a coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, educators and allies), their 5th national conference took place July 14-19 around the theme “The Audacity of Health: Sex Work, Health and Politics.”
The conference was a blast. Sex workers know how to have fun — but they also know how to soak up and share knowledge, forge valuable relationships, and support and respect each other. In between the pool parties, the sunbathing, the networking and socializing, and the entertainment attractions of Las Vegas itself, the organizers managed to fit in frequent yoga and spa breaks, a screening of the moving documentary The American Courtesans, a sex worker rights march along the casino Strip, and a wild after-party that got moved to the hotel next door after the conference hotel would not allow nudity.
At least a dozen Canadians attended the conference (out of about 250 participants) and a few gave presentations, including Maggie’s from Toronto, FIRST from Vancouver, and The Vivian Women’s Transitional House, a home for sex workers run by Raincity Housing in Vancouver. A diverse cross-section of the sex work industry was also represented at the conference — in part thanks to subsidies and donations — including street workers, transsexual workers, queer and intersex workers, male workers, independent escorts, dominatrices, erotic healers, dancers, adult performers, and more. A minority of the attendees were academics, lawyers, writers, health-care workers, and activists, although many were current or former sex workers.
The differences between Canadian and American laws and politics around sex work are significant. Sex work is completely illegal in the U.S. except in some Nevada counties that allow brothels, but prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas and Reno. In Canada, sex work itself is legal, but many activities surrounding it are criminalized, including communicating publicly with clients, working indoors at one location (a “bawdy house”), and living off the avails (income) of sex workers. In both countries, sex workers are targeted, arrested, stigmatized, and subjected to high levels of harassment and violence (often by police), but these abuses are arguably less severe in Canada overall.
Many Americans I spoke to at the conference were quite envious of Canada’s situation, especially in regards to our recent Supreme Court challenge, which may result in Canada’s prostitution laws being struck down as unconstitutional (more on that later). Another difference is that Canada’s sex worker movement enjoys the public support of social service and health agencies to a greater degree than in the U.S., in particular HIV/AIDS groups. Such alliances are critical for gaining broader public support and reducing stigma.
The sessions I attended were on topics such as “Whorephobia and Transphobia,” the usefulness of Bad Date Lists as a tool to keep sex workers safe, the damage of anti-trafficking campaigns to sex workers, the relationship between legal policy and violence against sex workers, harm reduction programs in New York City, the origins of “sacred whore” mythology, and more. However, my choices may have been more boring than what sex workers might have chosen, such as how to incorporate kinky play, promotional photography for sex workers, Tantra 101, a guide to female ejaculation, how to provide amazing experiences for couples, and creating a dungeon on a budget.
I was honoured to be asked to co-panel a session chaired by Maggie’s of Toronto, after a couple of their speakers were unable to come. Activists Morgan M. Page and Chanelle Gallant described Maggie’s services and history and their new resource booklet on safer sex practices, while I presented the new book Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, edited by three Maggie’s members. This anthology features chapters by sex workers, academics, and advocates (including one co-authored by myself) on the common theme of sex work as work, meaning that sex workers deserve equal labour rights, dignity and respect. Happily, Maggie’s sold all the books they had brought with them to Vegas.
I led a separate session on the recent court challenges to Canada’s prostitution laws, and next steps for sex workers if the laws that criminalize and endanger them are struck down. It was a great opportunity to share our excitement — tinged with trepidation — at the prospect of imminent decriminalization in Canada, after the Supreme Court hearing on the Bedford case in Ottawa on June 13. My presentation offered numerous quotes from sex workers I had interviewed. For example, Kerry Porth is a former sex worker from Vancouver and co-founder of Triple X (a professional group for indoor workers) who travelled to Ottawa for the big day. She is cautious but optimistic about the court striking down the laws:
“I did feel that the judges asked difficult questions from the government lawyers and beat the shit out of them. The lawyer for the Catholic Civil Rights League [was making a moral argument], and one of the female judges stopped her and said ‘I feel like we’re in a time warp and you’re talking to me from 100 years ago.’ The evidence presented from the government’s side and from the interveners’ side wasn’t appropriate evidence. They were trying to drag trafficking into the discussion, and bring in nuisance issues when we’re talking about peoples’ lives at stake! So the questions they got were more difficult and they were struggling to answer the questions, while the lawyers arguing for decrim were better prepared.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs (former sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovich) did a fantastic job by all accounts. Alan Young is an associate professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, and Marlys Edwardh is one of Canada’s most prominent civil rights lawyers. Young argued against the living off the avails and bawdy house laws, while Edwardh argued the cross-appeal for the communicating law (which the Ontario Court of Appeal had unfortunately upheld in 2012). Plaintiff Valerie Scott said:
“Having Alan and Marlys on the case is like having the best Lear jet with the finest Rolls Royce engines. We are fortunate because about a year ago, she agreed to come on our case, to work with Alan. She’s considered one of Canada’s top constitutional lawyers. She only does constitutional cases, difficult stuff like Maher Arar’s case. She feels our case is winnable.”
Several intervener groups testified in support of the plaintiffs’ case, including the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. They all did a great job, but one standout intervener was Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal Society, legal counsel for sex worker groups SWUAV and PACE Society in Vancouver. Pacey explained the realities of street-based sex work for the judges, and how the communicating law puts them in danger because they don’t have enough time to screen clients. She showed judges a Bad Date Sheet that sex workers need time to check.
Kerry Porth watched the hearing from a nearby hotel in Ottawa (seating is very limited at the court), along with a group of Aboriginal and street sex workers from Vancouver:
“It was such an amazing moment when Katrina got up to speak. We were all on the edges of our seats, starting to tear up, hanging on her every word, clapping for her. But it was really interesting to be with members of SWUAV, who also felt a palpable sense of history being made. And particularly the evidence that Katrina presented, and the reading of the bad date sheets. To get the court to understand that it’s a matter of life and death for street-based sex workers, and to be there with other women from that neighbourhood, was really powerful. They’re experiencing a great deal of marginalization, racism, poverty, and they really understood that this was their moment to have their voices heard at Canada’s top court.”
Even if the laws are struck down, decriminalization is only the beginning. The marginalization and stigmatization of sex workers will take many years if not generations to undo. A previous column of mine detailed the various measures that sex workers want and need in a post-decrim world, such as meaningful input into any new regulations, labour law protections, better access to social and health services, and an end to repressive police enforcement and social stigma. What they don’t want are things like mandatory registration and health checks, confinement to red light districts, and exorbitant licensing fees for businesses that employ sex workers.
The challenges will be immense, because a strong sex worker movement exists in only a few cities in Canada, and it will be local and provincial governments that sex workers will likely need to work with the most. However, my experience at the Desiree Alliance conference deepened my respect and admiration for sex workers, which has been growing since I first began advocating for their rights six years ago in Canada. Sex workers are among the most gutsy, confident, resilient, smart, principled and well-informed people I’ve ever met. Oh, and did I mention they know how to have fun?
Joyce Arthur is a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada. She works as a technical writer and pro-choice activist.
Photo: PJ Starr/flickr