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Canada’s Doomed Compromise On Prostitution Laws

Sex worker activist Velvet Steele at a June 14th Red Umbrella rally in Vancouver. All photos courtesy of the author.
Sex worker activist Velvet Steele speaks at a June 14th Red Umbrella rally in Vancouver. All photos courtesy of the author.

On June 4, Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-36. According to the Pivot Legal Society, this legislation will, if passed, criminalize “the purchase of sex, communicating for the purpose of selling sex, gaining material benefit from sex work, and advertising sexual services.” It would be functionally impossible to establish brothels, agencies, and sex worker collectives legally under the proposed legislation. This legislation is markedly different from the existing prostitution laws, as buying or selling sexual services has never been a crime in Canada. The Conservative government is adamant that this situation should change. According to MacKay, prostitution is inherently harmful and passing Bill C-36 will provide law enforcement the tools they need to go after “the perpetrators, the perverts, those who are consumers of this degrading practice.”

Bill C-36 comes on the heels of the Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous decision which struck down Canada’s existing prostitution laws last December in the Bedford case (after Terri-Jean Bedford, one of three sex workers who brought the case before the courts). The laws the Court struck down were: communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution, and keeping a common bawdy house (which is legalese for brothel, in this context). In their ruling, the judges declared that the laws were unconstitutional because they interfered with sex workers’ ability to take steps to keep themselves safe. The right to life, liberty and security of the person is guaranteed under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the prostitution laws were found to violate sex workers’ ability to exercise these rights. In their ruling, the judges explicitly state that “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes.” They also maintain that “a law that prevents street prostitutes from resorting to a safe haven”—an indoor work space—“is a law that has lost sight of its purpose.”

Blood Money

Oh yeah—we're going there. (Image of menstrual blood by Petra Paul)

I lean in to Dana and whisper, “I’m scared.” She is affectionately studying the Walgreens display of sex stuff. I pick out a sex sponge with innocuous packaging. Its white printing across a pale blue background and scientific language reaches its target population: overly educated hookers. I toss some tampons, makeup applicators, and condoms into my plastic basket.

“I really don’t understand,” Dana whispers back, cradling assorted vaginal cargo. “With all that shit up your, uh, pussy, how are you going to put a dick in there?”

Like many best friends, mine are easily prevailed on to indulge my wiliest adventures. Take Dana, for example. We’ve been known to enable one another; everything from breaking and entering, drug use, marriage, and other terrible ideas.

We stand side by side as the grisly Walgreens checkout clerk waves my incriminating purchases across the barcode scanner. Ignoring the multifarious ways in which we, together, develop bad, bad ideas, Dana and I determine that that the most steadfast way to mask my period while providing my weekend long Girlfriend Experience, or GFE, is to stick as many things up my vagina as possible.

I am preparing to fly across the country to see Greg, my John. I made the mistake of greedily accepting his lucrative business proposal before considering the time of the month. This is my first time selling sex while on my period. Although a somewhat devoted feminist, a few thousand dollars is enough to persuade me, although begrudgingly, to shave my legs and use feminine hygiene products.

On Hobbyists and Reviews: Providers Sound Off

sexcriticReview boards aren’t for us. They’re for sad, sad clients to commiserate with each other and get back some of the power they feel they’ve lost by having to pay for sex in the first place. But I didn’t always know that. Once upon a time, I was a review board junkie. That only lasted until I forgot the reason I was there in the first place (to make money,) forgot that everything you post is essentially an advertisement, and started being a little too vocal about my opinions.

I complained about a thread entitled “Best Asses On [That Particular Board],” writing that it was problematic for these clients to post photos of escorts without their permission—taken from their websites or from their photo albums on the board—and that reducing us to bits and pieces was dehumanizing. I was met with many defensive responses from clients claiming that this thread (and others like it) were simply celebrating the female body. I replied, “I’ll believe you when you start posting some fat asses.” (Because believe me, you are never going to see a BBW escort in any of these stupid threads.) A few of us started trolling the thread by posting male asses and monkey butts. That’s when some of the so-called “elite” members—they have more than 1000 posts—started to complain that the site “wasn’t what it used to be” and boo-hoo, the women are talking when they should be sucking cock. (Ok, they didn’t literally say that, but that was the message they conveyed.) One day, I logged on to discover I had been suspended without warning for six months.

On Backpage

At this point in the SESTApocalypse, as I finally emerge from the paralyzing fog of wtf-wtf-wtf around the death of our business model, we’re all sick of thinking and talking about it. We’re sick of wondering how the hell we’re going to manage, sick of watching high-end workers become paranoiac internet security experts, sick of low-end workers being driven back to the streets. We’re sick unto death of the media requests, media requests in our inboxes but no money, media requests just as blithely uncaring about outing us as always, media requests which cheerfully expect a response that night before the news cycle stops giving a shit about hookers. (Oh, but could you connect us to someone even more abjectly fucked than you? Could they talk to us in between dodging assault as they re-acclimate themselves to the shittiest and most dangerous sort of desperate street-based work? How do you feel about your imminent impoverishment, the obsolescence of your only survival mechanism, and your bleak and possibly nonexistent future?) And when we do accept these media requests and bravely strive to make ourselves understood—when they don’t just quote our snarky emails refusing the most ignorant ones without our permission—we’re sick of the coverage that results, always appearing underneath that sickeningly familiar synecdoche for us, those disembodied legs in thigh high boots leaning over a car under a streetlight.

We’re understandably sick of it all as we attempt to keep body and soul together in this new landscape, but I feel I have to write a eulogy for Backpage.

Alas, poor fucking Backpage. I’m not crying any crocodile tears on your grave—your owners can sit and stew in the hundred charges in their indictments and take that instead of true justice for cynically profiting off a criminalized population—but I will lament what you meant for us.

We’ve lived with you under threat for so long, your demise hardly feels real. From innumerable lawsuits to credit card companies cutting ties with you to Senate hearings to your flagrant strikes for free speech, it seems like something has always been promising to put an end to you. But you persisted.

Personally, I was with Backpage from its murky beginnings to the end of the line. I advertised in a print ad in the back of an alternative weekly back in the aughts when Backpage founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin’s company, Village Voice Media, owned a large swathe of those weeklies. I paid $200 every two weeks for that ad, $160 for a week if I couldn’t manage to put together that $200. $200 for 100 characters, briefer than a tweet—no pictures. I had to walk into that newspaper office personally to deliver the cash, forget any concerns about outing (oh, yes, kids, and I walked uphill in the snow, both ways).

It was this crude newspaper model, these back pages only a few escorts could advertise on, which would eventually become the much more accessible Backpage. (Larkin in an internal company document, as quoted in the unsealed Backpage indictments: “We have with the Village Voice probably the longest run of adult content advertising in the United States and it is, like it or not, in our DNA.”) In fact, Lacey and Larkin initially used Backpage’s revenue stream to keep those alternative weeklies alive in a newspaper industry that was failing even then, in the late aughts and early tens. Though, as anti-trafficking discourse intensified nationally, Village Voice Media came under new ownership which denied any connection, financial or otherwise, between their high-minded journalism and Backpage’s taint.

(Though now both independent print journalism and online escort advertisement are dying models, so we have something in common again.)

On Surviving Sex Work

This post was removed at the author’s request.