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.