'It is not a shameful profession'

Former sex worker says the provincial decision to legalize brothels will make sex work safer

The Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG) is based out of HIV/AIDS Regional Services on Princess Street.
The Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG) is based out of HIV/AIDS Regional Services on Princess Street.

Sex work in Kingston will be safer thanks to new provincial legislation, says a former Kingston sex worker.

On Monday, the Ontario Court of Appeal legalized brothels — allowing sex workers to operate in indoor facilities, which can effectively function as small businesses.

Sex workers can also hire bodyguards or drivers for protection but a ban on communicating publicly for the purpose of soliciting sex for money was upheld.

The former sex worker, who asked not to be identified, said her previous experiences demonstrate the negative effects of banning prostitution.

“I worked in the strip clubs most of the time and I ran a brothel. When I ran this brothel the police came in and … the women were taken in,” she said. “Criminal records ruin peoples lives and if you’re caught in a place where sex work is performed you’re going to get a criminal record.”

She said she wants to break down the assumption that all sex workers are vulnerable.

“People seem to think that it’s just forced but there is a choice of whom you want to work with and that can be empowering,” she said. “When I worked with a client I always decided which ones I wanted to do additional things with.”

Contrary to common stereotypes, the former sex worker says her times in the industry weren’t about poverty or desperation. She said there are many reasons why women enter sex work, but it’s not always a last resort.

“Not by any means do I think I have the truth about sex work or all sex workers. I went into it because of greed. I came from a family that had quite a bit of money but I was an unreasonable girl,” she said. “When I was 17 or 18 I wanted a $200 bag and expensive things. I was a very loud person and I was a star in my own world.”

When she enrolled in university, she slowly moved away from sex work.

“I left because it was difficult to make money during the day,” she said. “I liked to work at night because the day wasn’t part of the excitement and when I went to university it was difficult to balance my life with work.”

While it wasn’t traditional work, she said it was work that she was happy doing.

“I chose other things, like university, that interfered with my work,” she said.

The woman now has an 11 year-old son.

“If I was not in a committed relationship and if I could negotiate a good contract, I don’t see why I wouldn’t do sex work again.”

Deb Kinder, women and HIV/AIDS community development co-ordinator at HIV/AIDS Regional Services said the decision has real impacts.

“In Kingston about 10 per cent of sex work is street-based and the majority of the violence is against street-based workers,” Kinder said. “Now they have the option to work inside and it is safer because sex workers can hire body guards or drivers and someone will know where they are.”

Kinder said she’s disappointed the courts didn’t also strike down the solicitation law, which would allow sex workers to discuss their services without fear of arrest.

“This legislation leaves street-based workers behind,” she said. “They are the most vulnerable. Now we’ve made them vulnerable again.”

Though Kinder considers this ruling a breakthrough, she thinks Kingston’s attitude towards sex workers needs to change. “In all small communities, like Kingston, there is a huge climate of shame that is associated with sex work,” she said. “We need to get the message that it is not a shameful profession.”

Critics of the new legislation claim the ruling goes too far because it victimizes women, according to Jackie Davies, a gender studies professor.

“There are two sides. People who oppose the decision speak of prostituted women, they speak of people who are involved in sex work as victims who are oppressed,” Davies said. “The people who agree with the decision consider this to be a labour issue and the discrimination of a workforce.”

While both sides want to make sex workers less vulnerable, stakeholders disagree about what makes them vulnerable, Davies said.

“Critics of the decision say it’s the activity that makes sex workers vulnerable,” Davies said. “The sex workers say it’s the people who want to control sexuality.”

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