Pillow Talk: On The Front Line of the Sex Work Battle
The dangers of sex work, and the right of sex workers to ply their trade safely, is currently in the headlines. One group that is ‘fighting the good fight’ is Ottawa sex worker’s advocacy group POWER. Sexlife Canada recently spoke to Lindsay, an Ottawa area sex worker who is working with POWER.
SLC: What is POWER?
Lindsay: POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist) is a non-profit, voluntary organization founded on February 17th, 2008. Membership is open to individuals of all genders who self-identify as former or current sex workers, regardless of the industry sector in which they work(ed) (i.e. dancers, street level workers, in- and outcall workers, phone sex, etc.) and to allies who share our vision.
SLC: What is your role in POWER, and why did you join?
Lindsay: I am currently a member of the Board of Directors and I deal mainly with media and public education. In the beginning, I joined in order to meet other sex workers. Sex work can be very isolating due to the nature of our work—we don't have a workplace where we might meet colleagues for example—so I really wanted to meet up with other people who felt the same way I did, that sex work is a valuable occupation.
SLC: The biggest news about prostitution these days is the ongoing court case. What are your views on the case, and how do you think it will play out?
Lindsay: I was unable to make it to the appeal that happened in Toronto the week of June 16th. POWER, along with Maggie's of Toronto, were interveners in the Bedford case. This case is incredibly important for the future of sex worker rights in Canada. From what I read of the updates being posted by sex workers who were in attendance, the appeal judges were surprisingly tough on the Crown and seemed to side with sex workers. The case will ultimately end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.
SLC: The fundamental argument of anti-prostitution advocates is that sex work demeans/dehumanizes women. Yet there are many sex workers who see their job as positive and empowering. Is there a solution to prostitution law that respects the rights of sex workers while protecting women from being coerced into the trade?
Lindsay: There is, and it's called decriminalization. Decriminalization would allow workers to take further measures to protect themselves such as hiring bodyguards, working from home, or working with colleagues in order to pool resources. If violence did occur, sex workers would be able to go to police without fear of arrest/eviction. What the prohibitionists refuse to point out is that there are already laws on the books regarding force and coercion (see section 279 of the CCC), not to mention the fact that sex trafficking statistics are largely exaggerated.
SLC: Looking at your own life experience, what is it like being a sex worker in Ottawa; what are the pros and cons?
Lindsay: On the pro side, I provide a safe space for people (both men and women) to live out their fantasies. Society has plenty of taboos regarding certain sex acts or acts deemed outside the "norm" and a lot of clients come to me feeling like freaks or weirdos because they have a particular fetish that isn't deemed "normal" (e.g. foot fetishes). For many, years of rejection and ridicule have made them insecure and shy about sharing their fantasies and for them to even reach the point where they are asking me, a complete stranger, is a huge step. I've had many tell me that just being able to experience their fantasies with someone who didn't judge them did wonders for their self-esteem. While sex is usually the intended goal of a session, it is also very much about intimacy and friendship. Just being able to feel close to someone. One of my clients' wife had recently passed and he didn't want to sleep alone. All we did was lay in bed together and talk. For others, seeing a sex worker is their only means of experiencing sexual pleasure. They may suffer from various disabilities/illnesses (such as cerebral palsy, MS, amputations) which make it nearly impossible for them to get themselves off. Sex is not just about pleasure, it's also about feeling wanted. People with disabilities are often seen as asexual; I have a close friend with cerebral palsy who was a virgin until he saw a sex worker at 28. I don't see how you can fault people for doing what is in their nature, for wanting to experience pleasure and be close to someone. We're sexual beings, no matter how some of us try to repress it.
Now, the cons: Due to the current laws, I cannot work out of my home, I am forced to work in unfamiliar territory (either the client's home or hotel room). My partner could be charged under the so-called pimping law, living off the avails. I deal with the stigma of being a sex worker every day. This ranges from offensive questions, comments to the outright denial of my existence and choices. The stigma is the result of criminalization—when you are a criminal, people stop caring. The laws as they are allow people to take advantage of the marginalization/criminalization of sex workers in order to assault and murder them. This is why men like Robert Pickton were able to kill so many women before anything was done. He saw the sex workers from Vancouver's downtown east side as disposable, as did many others.
SLC: Realistically, what sort of personal interaction should your customers expect with you? In other words, how should they understand your psychological stance in providing sexual services to them?
Lindsay: I am friendly, warm and talkative. I am providing an intimate service. While genuine, clients must understand that the nature of our relationship is purely professional; despite what I may or may not feel for them.
SLC: Speaking personally, is the remuneration worth the hassle?
Lindsay: First, I don't consider my work a "hassle." Second, every sex worker charges what she/he feels she is worth and what the market will bear.
SLC: Where do you hope to go from here, professionally speaking?
Lindsay: I plan to continue to work as a sex worker for as long as I can. Next year, I am applying to graduate school (I am primarily interested in identity politics and sex work theory). Eventually, I'd like to become a professor and do my own research.