Reconsidering sex work

Photo: Shaun Simpson
What will Halifax look like without the three laws against sex work? Some fear it will lead to red-light districts and a sex worker on every corner, but advocates argue it could reduce violence and bring a shady industry into the light. Selling sex is legal, but until recently you couldn’t live on the avails of prostitution, keep a “common bawdy house” or communicate for the purpose of prostitution. Canada’s Supreme Court struck down all three laws on December 20, giving Parliament a year to create new ones, if it so chooses.

How will the ruling striking affect Halifax? Sex workers and their advocates have long argued that the current rules create conditions that lead to violence against women, especially street-level sex workers. A woman this reporter interviewed for a similar article in 2008 was since murdered.

A Halifax Magazine cover story in May 2010 reported on the still-unsolved 2009 murder of Tanya Brooks, who had been a sex worker. In April 2013, Steven Laffin was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Nadine Taylor, also a Halifax sex worker. He was also convicted of kidnapping and assaulting another sex worker.

Some estimate as many as 20 sex workers have been killed or gone missing in Halifax since 1985. Advocates note that if sex work is decriminalized, human trafficking, drug use and underage sex would all remain illegal. Stepping Stone, the Halifax organization for sex workers, has long called for community discussion about the future of sex work, with sex workers at the table.

To get a glimpse of a possible future, Halifax can look to Vancouver. Susan Davis has been in the sex industry for decades, working everywhere from the street to massage parlors to escort agencies. She worked in Halifax in the 1980s and now operates from her Vancouver home.

She looks to the past for a potential future. From the 1920s until the 1970s, Vancouver’s sex work was accepted under the guise of “Supper Clubs” where men would go for dinner, drinks and the company of an escort. “Everybody was under one roof and it was far safer. There were no murders of sex workers in Vancouver,” she says.

She’d like to return to that model. Davis is a member of the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals. It’s is inspired by the Nobel-winning economist Mohammad Yunnus, who designed micro-lending coops to help businesses in the developing world. His ideas were adapted by sex workers in India, who formed a credit union so workers could borrow to build better working conditions.

Davis is trying to establish that in Canada. It could let independent sex workers like her pool resources to open a brothel and rent the rooms to other workers. That would make life safer for sex workers and clients, get workers off the street and give older workers a way to fund retirement. It could also create a scholarship for the children of the sex workers who have been killed. “I tried to apply for funding a couple of times, but it was just too depressing and a bunch of the women are dead now. It’s hard to keep going with it. It’s upsetting,” she says.

A “trades secrets guide” would help workers identify good and bad employers, and facilitate workers sharing which clients are dangerous. Davis notes this would benefit the hidden half of the sex trade—the clients. She points to the John’s Voice research that found 42 per cent of men attempting to purchase sex had experienced violence. Decriminalizing the trade would put things above board and clients could expect a safer experience and “ethical” consumption, knowing the sex workers were adults and being fairly compensated.

“The only way to bring safety and stability to the sex industry is to shine a light in every single dark corner. You can’t do that if you deepen criminalization—you only increase the number of places you’re going to have to look,” Davis says. “The sex industry is already operating all around you. I don’t think anything much will change [if the laws fall], except for hopefully there will be more jobs created indoors and we will return to the stability of the past, where there were no sex workers on the street because they could find jobs indoors.”

She says community fears about drug dens and criminal activity are based on a small portion of the sex trade. About 10 to 20 per cent of the trade is street-based. Street workers, like other people who live on the streets, often have a host of problems from mental health issues to drug addiction. And, they sell sex.

But 80 to 90 per cent of the trade is women and men serving clients who have no desire to go to a drug house. “My customer base are not criminals. For the most part, they’re vulnerable and lonely men,” Davis says. “They’re embarrassed and don’t want to be seen. I would say that, in the Canadianest of ways, it would be private and non-intrusive, because that’s the kind of people we are.”

Sex workers like Davis buy cars and homes, meaning they declare their income and pay taxes so they can get loans. “When you’re talking about the 80 to 90 per cent of workers indoors, the majority of them are like every other Canadian, paying in—except that we don’t enjoy the same protections as other Canadians.”

She says other concerns could be dealt with by licensing establishments and adapting zoning laws that currently handle businesses like strip clubs and sex shops.


This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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