Who’s Your Man

I gave this speech at last years Dec 17th Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers event hosted by Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. The event, entitle “State of Disrepair” highlighted the violence that sex workers systematically experience at the hands of the state and often in the name of protecting us. I also used this venue as an opportunity to break down some of the myths as to what most of society see as violence against us.

I would like to recognize that my social location in the world and the industry allows me to be here talking to you about this topic. I say this because, like me at one point in my life, many sex workers do not have a voice. Im also recognizing I  talk about sex work in a very gendered way. This is because I am female identified and I speak from my experiences which informs my perspective and knowledge around sex work.

When we talk about state institutions, their policies and their laws, essentially what we are talking about is harm and violence that is disguised as measures taken to protect us. CAS is a perfect examples of this in that it uses its polices to begin to institutionalize us as young people and to separate and conquer our families when all we want to do is support and provide for them. But, Before I speak specifically about CAS I want to take a moment to talk about what often gets perceived to be our main source of violence. Clients, Sex Work its self and “Pimps” First, while bad dates do happen, ‘clients’ are not abusers. If you are going to abuse or be violent to a a sex worker you never had any intention of being a client and are just perpetrator. In addition it is the criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers that allows perpetrators to think sex workers are disposable and easy targets.

Second, is the “pimp”.  At Maggie’s we don’t use the word “pimp” as it carriers serious negative connotations about race and its just not a word that most people in the industry use. For many the word manger is used and when I worked the street most people used the term  “Man” to describe any third party individual who we worked with. We would say, thats my man or people would ask us who’s your “Man’. The word “Man” is used even if there is no intimate or sexual relationship. – For example, when my first man went to jail he told me go to stay with so and so now, and tell people he’s your man. It has more to do with what I call “your face value/ your respect” then it does with you relationship status and the reality for many workers is that it is necessary.

Like the whole of society, we as women gain status from the men we are associated and connected with or our lies are controlled or defined by individuals who hold power. In society, It is common that the majority of women rely on and need a “man” to get by in life and the street is no different. Actually, its very much a reflection of main stream society and how it is controlled by the patriarch. Before I go any further, I want to point out that many workers choose to work with or for someone else because it suits their life style. Many workers do not want to handle the business side of things and find it easier when someone else manages that part of their work.

But in addition to that that , there are two ways in which the patriarch influences the reasons sex workers decide to work for someone else – one is pretty universal across all sectors of the industry and that is access to information and the ways the patriarch limits our ability to work independently by limiting our access to the tools we need to do so. I wont spend much time on this today but using my self as an example, I never knew until recently that I could work on my own. I always thought I needed someone to post my ads or find clients for me. It sounds silly but not only did I not have the information to be able to work independently, I didn’t think I was supposed to. And that is because as women or other groups who are in a position where individuals hold power or privilege over us, we are raised to think we need to look to men for these things or that we do not have the means to take control of our own situations.

The second way, which mostly applies to street based work, but does and can play out in strip clubs, is how we rely on men for status – or what I call face value. On the street your man essentially defines your status. Many times it can determine where you can work, which people you can hang around with and whether you are going to get robbed and beaten up every time you go to a certain area or to a certain safe house. Not all workers have a “man” and some maintain status on their own but in most cases, especially when you are new to working a man is necessary.

I went out not last summer but the summer before for the first time in a few years to work the stroll and as soon as I set foot on Jarvis I was approached by another worker who wanted to know who my man was. The funny thing was that she said “who’s your people” not who’s your man – I had never herd that before but it makes sense in that your “man” is not always a man, it can be a group of people, a network, or a woman – when it comes to these complex networks your “peoples” are your power and define what you can do and where you do it. This again is a reflection of the mainstream and a response to how other oppressive systems such as capitalism and colonialism. By creating and participating in these street based networks we are creating our own systems where we are better able to hold power.

Anyways, so I ended getting kicked off stroll the that night because I didn’t have any “peoples”  – having these status symbols is a big deal  and it may sound horrible to the average person but for those who are living it , its life and life can be ugly. The only way to fix that is by focusing on the larger systems that oppress us and create the very conditions where we have to deal with the ugly. Some people might not like that and think that they are going to save us by criminalizing us and blaming the violence we face on the people in our live s that actually help us, but  all that does is further limit our options. The only thing that will help us is to change how the patriarch limits our ability to be independent or how it creates a world where women have to rely on men or other individuals who hold power.

Working with a third party is not always a bad situation. Like any industry, especially industries where radicalized, indigenous, trans , and migrant workers make up the majority of workers, there can be riff and exploitative conditions. That said, it is State institutions their laws and their policies that limit our options and push us into those conditions. For example, if a worker is under age there is only going to be a few options for her when it comes to finding employment in the industry, which in turn limits her options and her ability to make choices about where she will work and the kind of work she wants to do. Basically she will be more likely to stay in the bad situation because there are no other options and no other ways for her to make money. In addition, if a worker does not have a visa or a license and has to work illegally her options will be limited and she may have to work for someone she does not want to who does not treat her fairly – And as many of you know this is not just the case for the sex industry but also for other industries who employ migrant workers.

Improving conditions is about opening up options and giving workers more power over their work. What it comes down to is making money to support ourselves and our family. If the only option to do that is to work illegally in riff conditions then we do it, and improving those condition can happen only by opening up our options and giving us more power over our work. By giving us the information and tools to work for ourselves we are less likely to rely on a “man”  or anyone else who may or may not treat us right.

Lastly, Sex work is not violence. It is something that has always been there to help me. One example is when I was 18 and homeless with my daughter. I was calling around trying to find a shelter and must have accidentally dialed the wrong number because I got the manger of a strip club. After I explained my situation, he offered me a job and offered to put me up in a hotel room till I got on my feet. I had already been working/hustling cash in a less structured way but I thought this would be a good way to make more money so I could save money and rent a place for me and my daughter.

So I focused , worked and saved money. Over the span of a three or four weeks I was able to save enough cash to rent an apartment but the only problem was that no one would rent to me because of my age. After trying and trying, with CAS breathing down my neck instead of helping me, I ended up having to send my daughter to live with a family member who then decided to sue me for custody. When I lost custody of my daughter it felt like my life was over, but what I learned is that sex work was there to help me it is. For me and many others, sex worker is an accessible way to make money and support our selves –  thats it – its not violence. What is violence is the fact that even though I busted my ass to make money for me and my daughter to get a place, I could not find housing, what is violence is that instead of helping me CAS would take my child away from me because I couldn’t find housing and what is violence is that in that situation the only way I could make good money was to work for someone else. That is just one example of how these systems target and harm us, there are many more and the children’s aid Society as long been the source of sorrow for many women.

CAS has many messed up policies that target us as women, parents and sex workers but Im going to briefly talk about the one that offends me the most as a sex worker. CAS workers will often remove or not return children to their mothers if there is any element of violence or perceived violence in the home. What this means is if a parent is in an abusive or perceived abusive relationship and does not leave or returns to her partner after leaving then she is said to be not protecting her child. Women stay in compromised relationships for many reasons including financial support and many women leave and use sex work to support themselves and their children. However, what is messed up is that when it comes to sex workers and CAS that violence or that abuse that I mentioned is presumed.

Basically, if you are a sex worker there is an assumption that you will face violence and so your children are at risk from simply being in your care. Even if your partner is not abusing you or  if you are single or working working independently CAS will remove your child and tell you that occupation puts you at risk of facing violence or becoming a drug addict which puts your children at risk. This assumption is just ridiculous, and while CAS workers have some level of discretion, essentially they are taking two of the biggest stereo types that exist about sex workers (that we are all problem drug users and that we are all forced or in violent situations) and using them as the basis of removing children from our care.

If you ask any sex worker what the biggest problem in her life is, I guarantee you is probably going to be finding housing, facing bull shit from the police or CAS, or the need to make more money, but it wont be her occupation. 

 All of these things I have mentioned : our reliance on men, our inability to gain access to the information we need to work independently, our limited options to many things we need to stay safe and care for our families are the way they are because of the misogynist, patriarchal colonial society we live in not because of sex work – actually, if you take sex work out of the equation then the situation gets worse. Without being able to make money we have no way to pay rent our bills or feed our kids. And when the state continues to limit our supports and attack us with their policies we need to make it clear that our occupation is not the problem but actually the solution.

Sex Worker Skolaz

Last weekend I attended a writing workshop put on by Maggies the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project and Poor Magazine.

“At Poor Magazine we have a very different notion of scholarship, who deserves it, how it is attained, and how it is used. We have establihed a new kind of scholarship. The scholorship of poverty. This scholarship has a new canon with new designations for gretaness. Survival itself, through extream poverty and crisis, houselesness, racism, disability,and welfare to name a few are what you need to qualify for poverty scholarship. Conversely, a person who is formally educated with a masters degree and no poverty scholarship would be considered inexperienced and therfore should not be writing, lecturing, or legislating on issuesthat impact communities in poverty.” 

The work shop was facilitated by a woman named Tiny who graduated from the school of hard knocks with a PHD in poverty. The work shop its self, although emotional for me, was amazing. Everyone there was asked to produce a piece to be submitted and published by the magazine. Tiny asked me to write about the first time I was arrested and pull in some of the issues that come to mind when I think about my experiences in juvie. You can find the piece published on the Poor Magazine Website.

Tap tap….. I didn’t hear the door as my mind was swimming in some deep stinky muck that made my thoughts stick to the walls. Quickly trying to peel them off and shove them back into my head, all I could think of was: where I was gunna go, what was going to happen to me and the events that had transpired a week before. I was a stone statue eating a BLT sandwich sitting on my friend Derick’s couch while his mom vacuumed around me. Tap tap… Derick must have answered the door because he was calling me to the front hall way. As I turned the corner I saw two stuck up bananas standing in the hall outside of Derick’s apartment. Both tall, one female and they were both wearing ugly grey suits. As naive as it sounds, especially knowing all of my friends had already been arrested, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who they could be. That is, until they identified them selves as detectives from 23 devision. My heart fell into my stomach, the room began to spin and my head floated away from my body as if it were full of air or something. I thought really? After all that…. After all the hiding, all the running, after everything, this is how it was going to end – and I wasn’t even gunna to get to finish my BLT sandwich. I felt like running, but where? Derick lived on the 14th floor and it was a long way to the ground. “Can you come outside so we can arrest you?” the female banana said.” I felt like saying why, why would I allow you to arrest me, but being 14, and never having a police woman ask me if they could arrest me before, I didn’t know that I could refuse and demand they bring a warrant, so I complied. Yes, I stepped outside. Outside of the last place I had to hide, outside of the the refuge I sought for myself after franticly running and hiding in parks for 7 days, and outside away from my freedom so that two over dressed bananas could cuff me and drag me away to the next year and a half cycle of bullshit that I was about to face….

Everyday young people are harassed, profiled, arrested and thrown in jail. Specifically young black and indigenous youth, youth who trade sex for money, panhandlers, ones that ran away from bullshit homes or foster care, and youth just trying to survive. Many of which are young parents and when there is no other family to care for their children, or the courts decide their family is unfit, their children are placed in the care of the Children’s Aids Society. It is clear how being poor , indigenous, a person of color and criminalized means that you and anyone that comes after you will continue to be sucked into the prison system where it is almost impossible to get out and get a head. Many of the young women I met in Juvie where charged and held in custody for what they called an “AWOL” or A wall as we used to call it for jumping over the wall.. What this means is that they had run away – “A walled” – from their foster care home or group home. So to be clear, first your parent(s) are thrown in jail, then you are taken from the only family/community you know and forced into a bullshit home (if you can call it that), then you are criminalized and thrown in jail your self for choosing to leave and live independently, however that may look for you at the current moment.

Criminalized, labeled and thrown in cold cells that would make anyones skin crawl for wanting to be free and define your own life. For wanting to leave an abusive and oppressive place. For wanting to go off into the world and figure out who you really are, create your own home, and choose your own family. This is not a crime its a right. Why does society, our government, and the court want to continue this cycle or institutionalization and criminalization of young people instead of providing the supports young people need to live independently and care for their children.

Right now in Canada, the Federal Government is putting billions of dollars into building more prisons at the same time that the Provincial Government is deciding to cut needed supports such as the community start up which helps young people, women fleeing violence or people getting out of jail get set up in the community with a place to live. In addition, legislation has passed that will create stricter conditions for youth entering the legal system. This new legislation will keep youth in custody longer while waiting for trial and force Judges to sentence more youth to adult facilities. So, again, to be clear, we will be locking up more young people for longer times in shittier conditions and then not even affording them the financial support then need to get a place to live when they get out.

As I look back and remember my experiences with jail and at the same time knowing how things are changing for youth who face the same bullshit Iworry. I worry about the youth that I am close to and I worry about the all the young people who will have to deal with increased surveillance and profiling from police, longer time in custody and being sentenced as adults to serve their time in adult facilities. I worry when I hear that there are more indigenous children in Children’s Aid then there was decades ago and I worry when I hear of young black males and people seen as having mental health issues being beaten and killed by police. But most of all, I worry because while it has always been clear how the system sucks us in its getting worse and most of the mainstream think these changes are good thing.

Prisoners Justice Day 2010

In 2002 I was incarcerated for approximately 12 months. I was incarcerated during the Ontario prison strike which made all, already slow, bureaucratic methods and procedures slower. While incarcerated I met an amazing woman in the paddy wagon. Her name I can’t remember, but she was very sweet and involved with various anti-poverty and harm reduction programs in the community. While being processed into the jail, she mentioned several times that she had medication in her purse that she needed to take. The volunteer staff refused to administer it. They stated that she would need to have a confirmation letter faxed in from her family doctor.

Two weeks later I returned to court. While sitting in the court house bull pen, I could hear horrific screams from one of the other cells. I asked one of the court officers what was happening and was basically told there was a nut job down the hall. It did not click in my head that the screams could be coming from the same sweet woman I had met two weeks earlier, and while I was being led from the bull pen to the court room, the screams got louder. The second I recognized her sitting on the floor of the cell, my heart fell into the pit of my stomach. It’s hard for me to explain the conditions I found her in. All I can say is that I have never seen anything like that before or since, and I work in centres that assist individuals who experience various mental health issues. I tried to speak to her and received no response. The guard pulled me past her cell, and I noticed a small group of male guards standing around making fun of her. My court appearance was a blur, and all I could think about was how I was going to help her.

Once I returned to my cell from the court room. I yelled and pleaded with the guards to give her meds. They told me it wasn’t there job. When I returned to the jail, I was furious and confused. I demanded her medication. I was told it was none of my concern. What I really don’t understand is how they could justify segregating her from the bulk of the jail population due to a mental illness, but couldn’t justify giving her medication for the same reason.

I am not a supporter of many psychiatric methods including the over medication of many people. However, for someone to make a conscious decision to take medication everyday in order to comfortably function, and then have that choice taken away from them by people who have absolutely no idea what they go through on a daily basis is horribly wrong. I can’t even find words to describe how I have felt every time I remember her, or what she was feeling during her incarceration. I don’t even know if she was ever allowed to take her meds because I never saw her again. They took away her meds and they took away her dignity. They took away her voice and her ability to understand her choices while incarcerated. She was forced into a vulnerable state and I can’t even imagine what it was like for her in there.

Tomorrow I will be in solidarity with her, all of the woman I met in jail, and everyone who has been or is affected by our prison systems. I will protest against all deaths in custody, the inhumane use of solitary confinement, racist policing, the detention and deportation of immigrants and refugees, the taking of land through colonization and the criminalization of First Nations defence of their territories, the denial of justice for Aboriginal women and trans people, the destructive effects of prison, poverty and homelessness, the separation of families, security certificates, tasers for prison guards and cops, the over-incarceration for people who use drugs or are involved in sex work, and the over incarceration of people with disabilities in provincial institutions, nursing homes, psychiatric facilitates and other abusive institutions.

Prisoners Justice Day 2012

I worte this speech for PJD and it actually means a lot to me as the past little while I have not been able to write with confidence. Call it writers block, call it being lazy, but whatever it is, it took a hike the second someone asked me to write a speech for PJD. I guess writing about the things you really care about makes it that much easier.

Prisoners Justice day began several decades ago to remember those who have lost their live due to un just treatment and lack of care with in the prison system. Today, It has become much more. It is a day to speak out against the building of new prisons, the over representation of indigenous and racialized people with in it, the detainment of new immigrants and refugees, and the creation of new “law and order” legislation that will only increase the rates in which our family members, friends, community members, sons and daughters are locked away. It is a day to call out the blatant racism, abelism, sexism, transphobia and hate that our criminal injustice system spews from every angle and it is a day to raise awareness about over crowded cells, human rights violations, and the barriers those, who once released from prison, face in society.

There are so many things that I can say about our prison system but today I am here today to speak on behalf of Maggies the Toronto Sex Workers action project. At Maggies we believe that no one should face violence or repression from the state, the police or the prison system. For 25 years Maggies has been actively involved with anti legislation efforts, speaking out against prisons, police and supporting workers in toronto – and although I can speak to my own experiences of incarceration – I can not speak for the thousands of trans, street based, migrant and workers of colour who on a weekly basis are funnelled through the prison system like a revolving door.

For many workers, having their occupation criminalized means being picked up and re arrested days after their release for trying to re establish themselves in order to pay rent, get a new place, or feed their families. At the same time being in constant in fear of police harassment and violence from the public. In addition, being incarcerated removes workers from their families, communities and takes them away from any programs or treatment they may currently be engaged in. And as many of you know, this is not just the reality for sex workers but for drug users, those living in poverty, for the youth, and those with out status.

As we stand here today it is clear that the harper government will continue to manipulate the publics view on crime and violence against women in order to further monopolize on the prison industry. Not only by Pushing through bullshit law and order legislation based on imaginary crime rates, such as Bill c10, but also by conflating the idea of trafficking with all sex work.

Over the past year the use of the word trafficking to describe sex work has risen and the media and our government has been using it to portray every instance where a worker is involved with a third party manager, in any instance where a worker relocates, and in any instance where there is any element of control, which often relates to a workers partner.

This is being done to create a moral panic within society and use the publics views to stop the fight for Sex Workers rights and limit the movement of women in the global south.

Are we saying that sexual exploitation does not happen? No…

But when we speak about trafficking we need to not only speak about instances of sexual exploitation but also the decades of exploitation and trafficking of persons into the hospitality, agriculture, garment, and domestic industries. Ask your selves why it is that when sex, women, and money are involved our government would like you to believe that all sex workers are victims in need of saving, when they do nothing to help or support migrant workers from other industries and in fact allow and help to create the rife and un fair conditions that many find themselves in.

The definition of trafficking is very skewed and does not apply to all sex workers and does not apply to all migrant workers. Many migrant workers travel here to work with out cohersion and many do not work in exploitative environments. Criminalizing the very industry in which they work and rely on to support themselves only drives workers further underground and limits available options for making money. Sex workers from across the world are very vocal about what we need to live in safety yet our voices are silenced while the government continues to conflate our work with trafficking to further their anti sex work anti immigrant agenda.

Protecting workers does not happen by continuing to criminalize the industry that we utilized in order to feed our families and pay our rent, but rather by giving us the power to define our working conditions, by providing better opportunities, and by granting workers status.

So today while we remember those who have fallen victim to the prison system lets also remember how they got there. Resisting legislation is preventing and protecting our loved ones from being consumed by the prison machine. By supporting the full decriminalization of sex work we are saying no to the incarceration of workers, we are saying no to meaningless bullshit legislation and we are saying no to the targeting of migrant workers.

Thank You.

Letter to Shameless

Dear Shameless,

Recently you published a piece I wrote entitled “Smashing the Stigma around Sex Work: One Woman Shares her Story” (issue 19) and I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to share my experience and speak about my work. I am especially grateful to have had the chance to speak about my experience around being a youth who made money having sex, and to raise the issue during a time when it could and can be so easy to ignore who decriminalization, legislation, and our movements will affect or benefit. I like to be as real as possible and it is important to be aware that even if sex work is decriminalized, the voices of youth who hustle or trade sex for money will still be silenced, they will still face apprehension by children’s aid, mothers/parents will lose their children based on their occupation, and street-based workers will still face harassment and violence from the public and the police.

When I was a youth I did not identify as a “sex worker.” What I did was mostly about getting paid and making money, and while sexual liberation is important and can be a big part of how we identify with our work, for many, trading sex is about making cash and getting by. By no means am I a “happy hooker.” I come from a poor/working-class family that presents as white, and doing sex work has always been a step up for me, and that’s not to say it is always great. Like many others, I have had to deal with a lot of bullshit. In addition, our experiences are defined by race, class, gender, immigration status and age. This is the reality for all of society, and youth, adult, trans, migrant, and sex workers of colour know what they need to create safety. We demand respect and the power to define our working conditions and support each other. Decriminalization is not the golden ticket to free us from oppression but it’s a good start. Beyond that, there is the task of decolonizing our work and our lives, fighting against the criminal legal system, racism, abelism, and patriarchy. These are the true oppressions we face, but for now validating our line of work and affording us human rights and labour rights will allow us some of the freedom we need to do that work.

I want to thank Shameless and everyone who read my piece with an open mind and heart. I am new to writing and having people listen to me, and while it is exciting, its sometimes hard for me to put what I think or feel into words. I also feel a huge responsibility to everyone I have known in my life to bring light to our struggles and to continuously fight to have our voices herd and respected. Thank you for listening.

Sex Work is Real Work

I recently wrote this article for Shameless Magazine (issue 19)

I am a sex worker, and I have been for 15 years. Each sex worker has his/her own story to tell, and mine started when I was 14. I was poor, young and had very few options. I did what I had to do, and honestly, it worked for my situation. I was already having sex with older guys and figured I should get paid for it. Sex work can be defined as trading sex or sexual performance (for example, stripping or webcam broadcasting) for any kind of compensation—money, a place to stay, food, gifts, or other things. As youth, our options can be quite limited, so we have figure out what is best for us. Doing sex work can be a hard decision, but for some youth, it is the only option available at the time. Either way, youth who do decide to do sex work deserve to be respected and protected.

In Canada, child prostitution is illegal and includes youth who are 18 or younger. The age of consent in Canada is 16. There are several laws outlined in the criminal code around child prostitution. This includes Section 212 (2)—procuring (living off of or benefiting from the money obtained through child prostitution), and Section 212 (2.1)—aggravated procuring (using threat, influencing, or coercing a child/youth to engage in prostitution). Canadian law considers child prostitution a form of child abuse, and the most common risk faced by youth who decide to engage in sex work is being apprehended and placed in Child Protective Services. Most provinces have granted child welfare agencies the ability to remove a youth from their homes if they are perceived at risk of engaging in prostitution. This means, even if a youth is only considering sex work or someone in their family is a sex worker, it is possible for Child Protective Services to remove them from their home. Youth who are 14 and 15 can only consent to having sex with individuals who are less than five years older than them. This puts the adult who is buying sexual services from a youth at risk of being charged with sexual interference or sexual assault.. The age of consent laws pose a risk to the safety of youth aged 14 and 15 who decide to engage in sex work. If sex work is the only option for some youth, having to be honest about their age puts them at greater risk of violence or exploitation since younger sex workers are often perceived as more vulnerable.

When I was a youth, I did not have anyone to talk to about doing sex work. Sex work is not easy work, and many sex workers, especially young ones, have to deal with isolation, stigma, and discrimination. Laws that require social workers and doctors to report child prostitution make it hard for youth sex workers to access services while being honest about their occupation. The inability for youth to talk about sex work can mean not accessing sex work-specific information or the knowledge required to feel in control and to set healthy boundaries during a sex work call. This can lead to an uncomfortable and unsafe interaction while working. I know this because I have had some difficult experiences, which is why I believe having access to a supportive and knowledgeable network is so important. Spaces and services for young people often neglect the needs of youth doing sex work, rarely offering support and a safe space for workers to skill-share and discuss practical ways of doing sex work that will minimize risk.

One idea put forth in the prostitution debate is decriminalizing sex work, but it is a subject of great debate. Some argue that sex work is inherently exploitative and dangerous, while others, including myself, argue that criminalization hurts the most oppressed and exploited workers. Criminalizing sex workers limits our access to safety by preventing us from seeking help (if needed) because we are in constant fear of being arrested or outed to our families. When anything is deemed illegal, there is an assumption that it is bad. With sex work, anything in close proximity to it—workers, our managers, even family—become demonized resulting in discriminatory attitudes towards them. Decriminalizing sex work will open the door for many workers to gain rights and to work freely; however, it may be a long time before society sees sex work as a valid or appropriate form of work. This means sex work will continue to be viewed as a degrading occupation and sex workers will continue to be portrayed as victims of exploitation, which is not necessarily the case for all sex workers. Until these beliefs and perceptions of sex work no longer exist, youth involved in sex work will continue to struggle for workers’ rights, access to services and power over their own lives. Even if it is decriminalized, the beliefs surrounding sex work may take a long time to dispel.

There are many obstacles that stand in the way of sex workers fighting for the right to safety and self-determination. This includes, but is not limited to: the legal system, the state, religious groups and anti-sex work feminists. Anti-sex work feminists hold an extremist perspective arguing that sex work is violence against women, and anyone who purchases sex from a woman is committing violence against her. Some feminists in the anti-sex work movement call themselves “abolitionists,” including professor and activist Donna Hughes in the United States, and feminist Sheila Jeffreys in Australia. Their answer to keeping women safe is implementing laws that resemble the Swedish Model of Criminalization. The Swedish Model was developed by anti-sex work feminists who wanted to stop arresting sex workers but continue criminalizing aspects of sex work such as targeting clients. They say this reduces prostitution but in reality, it doesn’t. All it does is make it illegal for anyone to hire sex workers and continues to make it illegal for us to hire security, drivers, or managers. This forces us to work even harder to find clients and work safely. Because it is illegal to hire sex workers, our clients are at a greater risk of being arrested. Anyone looking to purchase our services will be reluctant to negotiate with us directly thereby making it harder for sex workers to work independently, and increasing the likelihood we will need to work for someone else. Working with/for someone often means we will have less control over our work and our money putting us at a higher risk of facing abuse or exploitation. For some sex workers, working with/for someone (i.e. manager, agency, pimp) can sometimes be necessary and preferred, but for those who wish to work independently it is not always an ideal situation.For street based workers, many of the good/safe clients will stop seeking them out on the street, and workers will be forced to meet clients in secluded and isolated areas putting them at greater risk of violence.

Unfortunately the anti-sex work movement in Canada is gaining popularity. Recently Conservative MP Joy Smith proposed a new bill based on the Swedish Model. As sex workers and allies, it is important to resist this form of legislation. We already have laws on the books that protect women and youth from violence and exploitation. We don’t need more laws that will only make our lives more dangerous. Sex workers have been speaking out against the Swedish model long before it was implemented in 1999. In a paper titled, “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects,” researchers Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren demonstrated how Swedish laws have made doing sex work more dangerous. The study argues that many of the negative effects resulting from the Swedish Model could have been avoided if sex workers had been consulted in creating safety measures for sex workers. For years, sex workers around the world—from India and Brazil to South Africa and Hong Kong—have been working together to try to build a strong sex workers’ rights movement that loudly expresses what we need to be safe, yet our voices are continually silenced, our perspectives are disregarded and our experiences and struggles are dismissed simply because of our line of work.

In Canada, youth who trade sex for the necessities of life are viewed and labelled as exploited individuals, lacking the ability to make conscious choices. In most cities, sex work-positive services and spaces for youth are minimal, if not completely absent, and most services exists to lead youth out of sex work instead of supporting them or helping them gain access to labour and human rights protection. It is important to support sex workers, especially youth, who want to leave sex work by offering them non-judgemental support, services, and education. Even if they return to sex work for various reasons (i.e. to pay for school), it is not practical to judge, shame and ban them from social services. We all want to keep youth safe, but our ideas on how differ greatly. I am the one speaking from experience, and it is frustrating to not have that be taken into account. Everybody changes jobs as they move through life. Some workers will leave sex work, others won’t, and some will use it to pay for school. What needs to change is the condemning, controlling, and shaming of youth who do sex work, whether it is by choice or because of poverty/ necessity.

In Winnipeg, Sage House is the only social service agency available to sex workers, and it holds a mandate that states all sex workers under the age of 18 are exploited. Its definition of exploitation is the exchange of sex for money, drugs, a place to live, or recognition/status. This definition implies that any involvement in sex work is exploitative and not a viable, and sometimes necessary form of work. Their mandate is influenced by the child prostitution laws in Winnipeg, and Sage House does not offer harm reduction information or materials, such as safer drug-use equipment or condoms to youth. Youth who are doing sex work are immediately handed over to Child Protection Services, therefore continuing the cycle of institutionalization and criminalization. This approach limits younger sex workers from being able to access materials that make our line of work safer, and can often lead to homelessness from fear of returning home to their family or foster care. In my experience, returning home or going to foster care was not an option, and if youth are not in a position to return home, nor do they want to, knowing that an agency will force them to likely means they will not attempt to access services from that agency. This means the youth who do need help will have nowhere to turn. Winnipeg is just one of many examples. Often, youth are not included in any conversations about safety or improving the services available to sex workers. Our knowledge and struggles are almost completely absent from conversations about sex work, labour rights, and safer sex work practices. By neglecting the needs of youth sex workers, agencies and advocates are putting youth at risk.

Many non-sex working feminists believe sex work equals violence, but they are not necessarily speaking from experience. There should be more dialogue and a willingness to listening to those with first-hand experience, instead of telling us what they think we need. Not only is such a stance insulting, it is condescending and disrespectful. Whether it is a youth who wants to stop doing sex work or someone like me, who is thankful that it helped me out in my life, critics should understand that we are the experts on sex work, our safety, and our sexualities.

Youth deserve to have a say and not be dismissed. Growing up, I believed what I thought didn’t matter and that liking sex work, or even sex, was bad. This was because my family, social workers, and other women told me I was a whore for doing this line of work. After constantly being told this, I carried a lot of shame and internalized hatred for myself and my sexuality. It was not until I met other sex workers and began to access sex worker-run organizations such as Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project that I was able to overcome the shame and hatred I felt for myself. Organizations such as Maggie’s are extremely important because they offer services, support and harm reduction materials, (such as condoms) to everyone who needs it, including youth. Maggie’s and the amazing sex workers involved helped me.. I am empowered to be a sex worker and I am proud of the life I have lived. All the work I do as a sex-work activist, through sharing my experiences and helping other workers advance and stay safe, gives me strength. I am surrounded by a community of amazing sex worker friends who all feed me emotionally. This helps me fight the stigma I face and no one, especially an anti-sex work feminist, has the right to dismiss my experience and impose her beliefs on me.

Sex work is work, and youth sex workers deserve to be protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is extremely important for youth sex workers to organize for labour and human rights and access education so they can make the right choices for themselves. Society, anti-sex work feminists, and the government continue to tell us that our lives are not valued. The only way youth sex workers are going to improve working conditions is by fighting to have their voices heard and pushing for the regulations and resources they need to create safer working conditions. I have begun to create a youth resource guide for doing sex work and organizing for rights. Youth sex workers may contact me in order to contribute to the resource. The aim is to bring youth sex workers together to demand safer working conditions, provide access to harm reduction materials, and to advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work, including the youth sector. Those interested in contributing can contact Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Worker Project at lipsmackin@maggiestoronto.ca. Together, we can change the stigma around sex work.
Things that could help a youth sex worker stay safe :

  • Safe sex work-positive spaces
  • Access to experienced and supportive sex work networks
  • Access to harm reduction materials and practices (such as safer drug use equipment and condoms)
  • Knowledge on how to complete a sex work call quickly and safely
  • Social services that empower rather than label and disempower workers
  • The right to define our own working conditions
  • Solidarity and support from fellow activists and feminists
  • The end to rape culture

As a youth sex worker ally you can:

  • Discuss sex work in ways that minimize stigma rather than create or further perpetuate it
  • Provide nonjudgmental and unconditional support to sex workers, especially youth, with whatever decision they need to make (this can include making sure youth area ware of the risk without placing your basis and judgment on the situation
  • Find ways to talk about sex work and contribute to the movement that does not dismiss our struggles, silence or appropriate our voices
  • Advocate for sex workers’ voices to be heard within academia
  • Educate yourself with pro-sex work materials
  • Protest anti-sex work panels/forums/conferences and challenge anti-sex work movements
  • Don’t make sex work the issue if it isn’t one for us. Help us with what we ask for like finding a straight job or housing. Often other life issues are what need to be addressed not our current occupation.
  • Most importantly, listen and learn from those who have life experience as sex workers

The Door

She is falling in and out of sleepless, senseless comas, induced by the toxic misery that seeps out of the lives of small little laughing men and flying singing ladies. Reaching into the belly of the cat to find nothing but prickly needles that poke holes in her hands, and the dust, the dust the wind blows through her hair, is nothing but sand, and salt. This only makes the journey seem longer. Chased by all things dark while arguing with the light, she is tired, she can’t seem to fight.

Hanging over there in the tree is a door, if only it were real. There is no key, no lock, and no entry. It shines in the sunlight and fades with the moon. No one can see her standing on one side; only the voice knows she is there. It speaks slowly, and loudly, only the words you cannot hear. It can tell them to accept her, but does not share. It leaves room for hate and anger, it never cares.

They bang on it, tearing open a small space for her glare. Watch as the light slides through, sliding past her, unfair. The steam of her breath becoming the spirit once spared. Stop stealing it, stop stealing it; the person I have inside, bottled away hiding, is secret, and she’s scared.

Handfuls of lost empty souls hiding in the bushes; Gasping and sucking back the air trying to fill the pit of their stomachs. Holding her breath she desperately tries’s to grip the light, to hold it, as it slides past her. She sits on a large mushy stone, shedding tears of fear and confusion. A hand reaches out to her, a hand that appears to be her own. Its takes hold of her. A strong and silky hand offers a way through to the other side of the door. It pulls her summarily through the little crack only big enough for her glare. She feels herself sliding, sliding like the light, sliding past it; her body changing, and becoming full of might.

Beautiful rays of sunlight dancing on her body; the toxic stench of lonely misery lifted from her. She crushes the darkness sending it far away, and out of her mind. No need to question the light, for it accepts him for her and she for he. Tall pleasant smiling mice lead the way through the bushes onto a path that is long and gleaming with gold sparkling beads left by the others to mark the way. The journey, although long, seems full of hope and purpose. There are no road blocks, no judgment, and no shame. She can be who she wants to, who she was always meant to be. She lets go of her secret releasing the person hiding deep within her; this is what we call pride. They walk together side by side, and forever the same. This journey is ours to conquer, and we are not afraid.