April 28 is a day not only to remember and honor those lost or injured in workplace “accidents” but also a day to renew out commitment to improving health and safety. The so-called “sex industry” is an extremely dangerous activity for women. Although it is a stretch to call their exploitation “work,” we must be open to ways of reducing harm and death. The simplest answer is to reduce demand.
For the past two months I have been enrolled in an online writing class called “Writing on Purpose” – thanks Mike Cameron – with the intent of publishing a collaborative expose of the controversies surrounding the sex trade and legislation. Please stay tuned. Target launch date is this fall.
What I will share, as a preview, is an exercise completed a couple weeks ago as a way of anticipating the reading audience. We were to envision a cocktail party where various interest groups occupied different tables and to imagine where we felt most engaged. Here are my initial reflections.
What a Party!
“Sex Work Reform” the invitation said, so I dressed in one of my memorial outfits, casual but conservative basic black, complete with an Indigenous scarf and my gifted red dress earrings. Cara’s “wet T-shirt prize” diamond ring, recovered from the pawn shop and uncharacteristically elegant on my right hand, reminds me all things may not be as they appear. Still, I am sure there will be people here I know, so I brace myself and open the door to what looks like many tables.
At the first table are the intellectuals, those who write about “prostitutes” as if they were some some of life form divorced from social context. I’ve had issues with some before, for example further labelling children already described as abused. Alberta’s solution in 2007 was renaming legislation the “protection of sexually exploited children.” I helped introduce the concept of “commercial sexual exploitation” into academic literature. Small steps. Smile and nod. Catch you later.
Next are the journalists. Now there’s an interesting bunch. I spent years lobbying newspapers to refrain from horrific stigmatizing labels when reporting the many bodies found in and around Edmonton the last few decades. “At-risk lifestyle” was a compromise; it seemed media still wanted readers to believe that young women who disappeared somehow contributed to the own demise. Sometimes the possibility of a “serial killer” is mentioned as if that were a more frightening anomaly than a sub-species of murderers. Now the media is focused on “sex trafficking” and Paul Brandt’s “Not in My City” movement. That’s fine except that it creates the misconception that trafficking happens mainly in airports. Again, smile and nod. Keep the door open.
Omg, there’s a players table, guys looking to score, maybe even convince some sweet young thing she is fortunate to have been selected. Who let them in? One of them probably thought reform meant free sex and they are looking for action. Nobody is paying attention so they will soon be slinking off to one of their darker worlds. Barely contained look of disdain. Pass.
Then we have the new age politicians, those who claim to be feminist and righteously defend women’s right to include sex as “work.” They are blind to the perils of history and documented trauma. The females, a minority even here, gush over the bravery and courage of working women who are fighting stigma. A few of the men are simply bright-faced and believe they are enlightened. Some others, already suspect, are probably cheering for legitimacy in their own mind although they will not admit publicly to being consumers. Try not to gag. Carry on.
Thank goodness there is another political table, hosted by Alberta’s own Arnold Viersen. He calls human trafficking “modern day slavery” and led an all-party committee to declare Feb 22 as “National Human Trafficking Day” across Canada. A few loyal parliamentarians have shown up. Absent is Peter McKay who drafted the Protection of Communities & Exploited Persons Act in 2014. Many saw that as ground-breaking, others as antagonist. Unfortunately, the government changed shortly after, the Liberals dismissed the legislation as partisan, and so it remains an empty promise. I hoped to see Peter return as leader of the Conservative party; with his beautiful Human Rights Advocate wife, it would have been a two-for-one leadership victory. But that did not happen. I stop and exchange pleasantries, congratulations for superficial achievements that will hopefully ignite collective consciousness. I appreciate that they acknowledge me and return the compliment.
The survivor table is happy and cheerful, except for occasional hurtful glances toward the new age politicians. Here are women who have lived in the trenches , endured humiliations most cannot even imagine, and are sustained by their drive to create awareness of sexual exploitation. They are joined by community service people who share their cause. Both groups are connected in ideology and celebration. The community service people are buoyed by success stories of exited women, while those previously traumatized and exploited appreciate an accepting community and common purpose. I stop to visit. We have shared many challenges and triumphs over the years through education, fundraising, and memorial events.
The City administration table, so-called Citizens Services, is empty although a few members have joined the new age politicians. So much for impartiality. Any talk of a bigger picture is silenced by defense of their singular, alleged “harm reduction,” strategy.
My goodness. Who is the table of rather humble looking gentlemen, dressed for anonymity? They are the “johns,” graduates of STOP, the Sex Trade Offender Program, representatives of the over 3000 who have participated the last 25 years. It has been heartening to see these guys, who usually shuffle in annoyed and resentful, actually transform during the course of the day. Most apologize at the end of the program, admit they were thinking with the wrong head, and promise to never again participate in what they now see as harmful behavior. Still, I was not expecting that a few would show up again is a non-mandatory setting. I stop and say hello and thank them for coming. Most remember me. Men willing to talk to other men is what it’s all about. I am confident they will be conscientious whatever next steps they take.
Whoa, what is this chill at the next table? Here are who survivors call the “vocal minority,” darlings of the media and new age politicians. They are the women who claim to choose sex as “work” and demand their rights as “workers” be recognized. Even though they gained immunity from prosecution with PCEPA, they resent being classified as “victims” and want all criminality removed from buying sex. Their stance feels uncomfortably individualistic as evidence from around the world indicates trafficking increases with decriminalization. I would say hello except that I have been branded the enemy because of my association with abolitionist survivors who want to end the sex trade.
The non-militant independents, who ignore the City’s mandate for “licensing” as part of harm reduction, did not even register. They know they can manage their own affairs, screen their own customers, and arrange their own protections as required. They shrug off the patriarchy of management, knowing the provisions of PSEPA can work in their favor. Can’t chat with them because they are not here. Unfortunately, also absent are the desperate, addicted, and controlled, probably most in danger but not eligible for “licensed” protection. I wonder if they were even invited.
The law enforcement table is keen to learn how best to perform their duties, caught between federal legislation and a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Mayor to avoid stings and arrests in “licensed” facilities. They are able to save face by focusing on “sex trafficking” because at least everybody agrees that is a bad thing. Not much to add here.
One final table is sparsely occupied with quiet receptive people waiting to see what will happen. They are citizens, simply wanting what is best for their families and communities – and peace and harmony in the world. “Hi,” I say, “thank you for coming. I’m not sure who organized this party but I’m happy to respond to any questions.”