Sex Workers Speak Out

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Under the Red Umbrella

Several women inspired me last night. And made me laugh. And cry.

Scarlett Lake and Velvet Steele have made their living from sex work for decades. Last night, for over an hour, they answered questions from a supportive audience about their lives, their work, their purpose, their challenges. Both talked about caring for others as a guiding principle. Velvet said, “I’m validating people on a daily basis.” And Scarlett said, “Sex work really is a form of caregiving. It is a privilege to be allowed to be that close to somebody, to delve into their physical and emotional needs.” She used the word “calling” to describe what draws some sex workers into their line of work. Both were flummoxed and frustrated by BillC36 and the ways in which it will criminalize more of what they do. Both were absolutely comfortable in their own skin.

Even though I have been arguing for the decriminalization of sex work for almost twenty years, and in that time I have met many sex workers who seem completely comfortable with what they do, I was, in some part of myself, surprised by their general tenor of their comments. And that surprise interests me. I think it’s important, because I think that experiences like Scarlett’s and Velvet’s are invisible to most of us. As the sister of a murdered street-level sex worker, I know of the violence, the suffering, the desperation, the addiction and the limits to freedom that my sister wrote about in her journals. It meant a lot to me to hear women talk about sex work as potentially meaningful. And it moved me to hear their stories.

One story, in particular, I will never forget.

Years ago, in another city, Velvet saw a man on the street in her neighbourhood. He stuck in her mind because he had a large growth on the side of his head; she was moved by his courage, and saddened because he was always alone. She felt the urge to reach out to this person, to know him better. Then, one day, he showed up at her door. The first thing he did was hand her a doctor’s letter, showing that his condition was not contagious. To her, that act underscored his isolation. This man came to Velvet for a number of years, seeking, and receiving, human connection. At a certain point, he stopped coming, and she never heard from him again, but he has stayed with her all these years, and, if he is still living out there somewhere, I am certain that she has stayed with him.

As I listened to her story, I heard nothing that indicated exploitation. I imagined one person desperate for intimacy and another person willing to make contact. Nothing about the exchange of money for services in this instance seems problematic to me. Velvet presents herself as a skilled professional with a valuable skill set, including a wide-ranging interest in people, strong intuition and a caring nature (not to mention a sense of humour).

Over the years, I have been struck by the invisibility of the men who buy sex. The group must be vast, and I know they come from all parts of society, but I have only met two men who admitted to being clients, two men who knew my sister (murdered sex worker, Sarah de Vries) and spoke to me when I was working on my memoir (Missing Sarah: a Memoir of Loss). We know the identities of some men who hurt sex workers, but those men are not clients, they are predators, pretending to be clients to gain access to the person they wish to hurt. We see prominent men on television who have paid for sex, politicians, for example, who are exposed, who stand in front of a sea of microphones while their wives stand by, stone-faced. And we see fictional men in stories of all kinds, who buy sex for various reasons and with various attitudes toward the act. But we don’t hear the stories of real men (or real couples or real women; couples and women buy sex too) who buy sex from real sex workers. I think that that needs to change. I know that research is being done, that stories are being gathered. But if the general public doesn’t hear those stories, we are left to imagine, and our imaginings will tend to mirror what we see on TV and in the movies, almost all of which is is drawn from the more sordid side of the experience.

I told my husband about this need to hear clients’ stories, and he reminded me that in the past I would have been quick to judge any man of my acquaintance who admitted to buying sex. Even as he was speaking, I felt my gut clench, because he is right. This is tricky stuff… And I still have work to do. Then I checked my gut more carefully and discovered that it clenches because of my assumptions about the attitudes of men who buy sex. My gut also clenches when men on sitcoms joke about getting women drunk to get them into bed. It clenches at anything that suggests coercion or the absence of consent. As I say, it’s not the exchange of money that bothers me; it’s the attitude. Which is precisely why we need those stories.

By the way, the event last night was the first of a series of “Community Conversations with Sex Workers” put on by the feminist organization First: Decriminalize Sex Work along with several other sex (work) positive groups. This series is happening in response to Bill C36, which will impose a set of laws even more dangerous than those that the Supreme Court struck down in December 2013.

Kerry Porth, who moderated the event, gave us some small bits of good news. The Shame the Johns movement, she said, is a thing of the past, and sex workers on the street are experiencing less abuse from people passing by. For a model for the future, she referred us to New Zealand where sex work was decriminalized in 2003, an unqualified success. On the other hand, she reminded us, no effort to abolish sex work has ever worked anywhere.

I will finish by mentioning Antoinette Rae, a local poet and former sex worker, who took us right into some of the tough stuff she endured on the streets of Vancouver as a transgender sex worker. I was affected by the strength and beauty of her poetry, and by her insights and her humour.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hear all four women, grateful for all the work they are doing. I find myself hungry for knowledge, eager to reconnect, to get back out there, to listen, and to speak out as an ally. Over the coming weeks and months, I will attend and write about more events and I also hope to interview local people involved in this struggle.