“I speak here today as a family member of a murdered sex worker, a family member who supports full decriminalization of sex work in Canada,” I said.
I’ve seen the recording and my voice rings out strong.
Such were my opening remarks, as I prepared to read to a full house at Vancouver’s Gallery Gachet, to start the second event in this summer’s “Community Conversations with Sex Workers” series.
I read from my new novel, Rabbit Ears, and from my memoir, Missing Sarah, concentrating through those readings on the line between sexual exploitation and sex work and acknowledging that street-level sex workers like my sister do experience violence in their work. I was making the point that neither the existence of exploitation nor the fact of violence are reasons to try to legislate sex work out of existence.
“Sarah had the right to sell sex whether she loved it or she hated it,” I read later, and paused to tell the audience that that was likely the most difficult sentence I ever wrote. Difficult because for years I felt that it was my responsibility to save my sister; difficult because I can’t bear to think of what she went through; difficult because she wrote about how hard it was; difficult because I recently learned that throughout her childhood Sarah was sexually abused by a neighbour.
Difficult or not, I think the statement is true.
Violence is illegal.
Coercion is illegal.
Sexual exploitation of minors is illegal.
Let’s concentrate on being available as a society to protect sex workers from these crimes just as we do our best to protect everyone else. By criminalizing sex work itself, we drive sex workers straight into the arms of organized crime, where violence, coercion and exploitation are commonplace, far from the protections that most of us take for granted. This is the point that Antoinette Rae drove home at last Friday’s event, and from which I drew the title of this piece. She and others said that the government doesn’t care. Well, I care, and I believe Canada should care too.
Some years ago, I came upon a person involved in sex work, who was in tears because some members of an organized crime faction had been arrested that day. I was baffled until it dawned on me that members of this group were her protectors. She could not safely access the same protectors I do: police and the justice system. So, she turned to those who were all too happy to protect her. A threat to them was a threat to her.
Let’s change that.
After my reading, two women formed the panel for the conversation portion of the evening. The first, “Kamala Mara,” told us that she came to sex work several years ago as a client, and she was so transformed by the experience that she decided to become a sex worker herself; specializing in Tantric sex. The second, “Jessica Rabbit”, is a semi-retired exotic dancer, and she enjoys the connection she has with other dancers and many other elements of the work.
“STIGMA!” both said, when asked what was the worst part of their jobs.
It’s not the work itself that these two women struggle with, it’s the attitudes, it’s the fact that they are forced to lie about what they do. Jessica talked about how frustrating it is for her not to be able to reference her past work when she is applying for jobs.
Both women inspired me. Both were completely comfortable with themselves, their work and with sharing their experiences with the public. I believe that we gain nothing by constraining them, by criminalizing their clients, by inhibiting their freedom to advertise and limiting the ways in which they can spend their money. Along with a host of other harms, Bill C36 will increase the stigma that people like Kamala and Jessica face.
Stigma creates danger—it forces sex workers to isolate and it allows the rest of the community to continue to eat their toast and drink their coffee* as if sex workers don’t exist.
* The toast and coffee comes from one of my sister’s poems, which I will share and discuss in a later post.