RENEE WILLMON

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Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Centering the Voices of Sex Workers in Social Justice Movements

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A Guest post by Claire Venet-Rogers

The TCAK Squad’s investigation into the unsolved murder of Nadine Gurczenski revealed troubling trends in the lack of reporting on acts of violence towards women involved in the adult entertainment and sex work industries. In addition to the personal tragedy experienced by her daughter and ex-husband, Nadine’s case reveals how the stigmatization that accompanies employment in adult entertainment and sex work perpetuates the violence committed against victims by blaming them for living risky lifestyles, and structurally hinders progress in the search for their killers by muffling their stories. I am pleased to invite my colleague Claire Venet-Rogers to discuss some of these broader issues in the stigmatization and criminalization of sex work, and provide a constructive starting point to humanize sex workers and their role in our communities.
Claire Venet-Rogers

Claire Venet-Rogers

Claire is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Anthropology program at the University of Western Ontario. As a graduate student, Claire founded The Committee for Women in Anthropology with the goal of spreading awareness of the discrimination faced by women anthropologists on campus, in their community, work places and during fieldwork, and creating a safe supportive space for students to discuss their own experiences of oppression. The committee was Claire’s first foray into feminism, from which she developed her model of feminism that strives to be anti-colonial, sex-positive, and focused on the intersectionality of oppression. Her approach to advocacy focuses on centering the voices of the most vulnerable within social justice movements, discouraging victim-blaming and shaming, and encouraging consensus and non-hierarchical models of activism.

A woman’s value should not be tied to her sexual activities, and her death should incite shock and outrage rather than the often-common response of victim-blaming and shaming. We need to start putting sex workers at the center of our movements and give them the independence and agency they deserve.

                                                – Claire Venet-Rogers

The stigmatization of women working within the adult entertainment and sex work industries is prevalent in Canada and has been for decades. Why, when sex workers go missing or are murdered, does the general public not take to the streets in outrage? Why are people murdering women, trans, and queer sex workers and getting away with it? Why are people too uncomfortable to talk about it? It seems, unless it is to advocate for more institutionalized state intervention and stricter policies around sex work, many people are too uncomfortable to talk about the experiences of sex workers in Canada. With the recent publicity Nadine Gurczenski’s story has received after the airing of To Catch A Killer, hopefully the struggles that adult entertainers and sex workers face are more welcome topics of conversation in living rooms across Canada. That said, however, I want to take this opportunity to stress that while we do need to address the identity and agency of adult entertainers and sex workers, they do not need to be “saved” from themselves or their professions. Many of the issues that face adult entertainment professionals and sex workers stem from the criminalization of their work, and the stigmatization associated with their role in society. Beyond a complete overhaul of not only laws and policies, we need to reform the way we think about sex work if sex workers are to be safe doing their jobs. The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision to decriminalize sex work can be viewed as an opportunity to provide a safer environment for sex workers, yet there is concern that resulting new policies will further harm sex workers, despite their good intentions. This post will highlight some of the problematic assumptions that are inherent to reactionary suggestions for new policies and laws.

While many sex workers and sex work activists rejoiced at the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to decriminalize sex work, many abolitionist (anti-prostitution) groups were dismayed, and are encouraging the Supreme Court of Canada to rule in favour of the “Nordic Model”, which is an “end demand” approach to prostitution. Many within this abolitionist movement define prostitution as a violent act done to a woman, but also recognize that penalizing a sex worker is further marginalizing an already vulnerable person. Instead, they support an “end demand” approach that targets johns by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services. This approach is appealing to many for obvious reasons. Firstly, many people understand that women who are in the sex trade usually, though not always, have very few other options presented to them (Sayers , December 2013). At the same time, few people sympathize with the johns, and so it would seem to make sense not to punish already marginalized sex workers and go after the purchasers instead. This approach usually advocates for harsher consequences such as longer jail time or higher fines, public humiliation (usually either the publication of the picture and name of the john in the newspaper, cable television, internet, or even billboards), and for “john schools” to teach men the harms of prostitution (Koyama 2011). Advocates for the “end demand” approach have been growing in strength, despite the voices of many sex workers stating that this approach is not only unrealistic but unsafe.

The “end demand” advocates usually explain their approach in economic terms:  by eliminating the demand for sex, then the supply will diminish. Such advocates fail to understand that a reduction in demand does not lead to women opting out of sex work. Even if demand should decrease, where are the sex workers supposed to go? Sex workers usually, though not always, enter the sex industry because of limited economic options. With a decrease in demand, sex workers would then have to lower their prices as an economic model would predict. But the suppliers cannot simply close down shop and move on to another job. Many women work in the sex trade because they would not be able to provide the energy and care for their children and other family members if they worked in another field. Many more cannot get or keep jobs because of mental health issues, addictions, criminal records, immigration status, discrimination, and a lack of social services to adequately address these issues (Koyama 2011). These women, therefore, cannot simply leave the sex industry, and it is unrealistic and oppressive of us to expect them to do so.

The criminalization of johns and decreasing demand proposed by “end demand” proponents would also reduce the personal safety and bargaining power of sex workers. Should demand for sex go down, sex workers would have to compete between one another for a smaller pool of johns, forcing them to do more for less money, at the risk of the john taking their business to someone else who would be willing. It would also displace sex workers to less populated or traveled areas where johns would be less likely to get caught and arrested. Sex workers would have to work in an environment that is unfamiliar to them, with no one nearby to call for help should they feel endangered (Koyama 2011). Lastly, the “end demand” approach would likely discourage more “sensible” or “rational” men to purchase sex, given that they would be able to better understand the risks associated with their actions, leaving the more dangerous men, the ones more likely and willing to take risks for sex and more likely to be violent. Combine this with working in a potentially isolated or unfamiliar environment, and you have a sex worker’s worst nightmare.

We cannot criminalize any aspect of sex work without it affecting the sex worker, it is simply impossible to do so. Whichever way you have it, criminalizing either the john or the sex worker just increases their exposure to harmful situations. We cannot use criminality to get ourselves out of the situation we have gotten ourselves into, which would only feed the prison-industrial complex that Canada is so immersed in. We can, however, begin by funding affordable housing, childcare, on-demand treatment programs, and education and job training programs, rather than putting more money into jail beds or police cars.

A woman holds a sign during a rally at Allan Gardens park to support Toronto sex workers and their rights in Toronto, Friday December 20, 2013. (Mark Blinch / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There is evidence that the Nordic model has failed in places it was implemented. In fact, many of the successes associated with this model have been rebuffed as myths by May Len-Skillbrei, (an Associate Professor at the University of Olso) and Charlotta Holmstrom (Assistant Professor at Malmo University) who have outlined in their research the myths associated to this model in their large comparative study in 2007-2008. In their research, they “examined how Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have approached prostitution through criminal justice and welfare policies, and reviewed the evidence for how these policies impact Nordic prostitution markets and the people who work within them” (Source: http://theconversation.com/the-nordic-model-of-prostitution-law-is-a-myth-21351).  In their conclusions, they summarize how their findings led to a bleak picture, one which suggests that referring to one model to address the needs of various and very diverse countries is impossible. They found that this model, all in all, seems to have produced negative impacts and outcomes for people in prostitution, despite claiming it would do the very opposite by targeting only the johns. The specific negative impacts are outlined in their study (linked above).

Hunt (2013), an Indigenous supporter of decriminalization, reminds us that we should not trap ourselves within a “Savior Complex”, or the need we seem to have to go out and avenge the “weak”. Despite this perceived “need”, history has proven time and time again that the government will not “save” the most marginalized in our society. Many sex workers have realized this, and instead of advocating for protective policies that criminalize either end of the pipeline of sex work, many advocate taking control of their own lives, work, and cultivating support for their right to self determination. Hunt also reminds us that sex workers are a diverse group of people and peoples, belonging to equally diverse communities. Rather than advocating for continued legal intervention in the lives of people at risk, we should instead come up with various solutions that reflect the diversity among sex workers in Canada, creating community-specific organizations and projects to increase the choices available to local sex workers.

Advocates of “end demand” often adopt a narrative of prostitutes lacking agency, stating that it our job, the people with little-to-no understanding of the feelings, circumstances, or wishes of sex workers, to swoop in and save them. We need to change that mentality, and reign in this Saviour Complex of ours. We must work towards actions that reduce harm and support choice. We must move forward to reducing economic desperation in the hopes that women, queer people, immigrants, homeless youths, and others, have more options available to them. We can do this not by pouring more money into the police force and prisons, but rather by supporting programs that ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, creating a wider and more accessible range of job and education programs, and by making sure that sex workers can safely report violent johns without facing any scorn, discrimination, or judgment. For many sex workers, sex work was the least harmful option available to them, and by taking sex work away from them we are further oppressing an already disadvantaged group of people.

I have never been a sex worker. All the information written in this piece is the result of the hard work of many sex workers and sex work activists who have taken the time to painstakingly and patiently teach me how best to support them. It is clear that the deaths of adult entertainment professionals and sex workers such as Nadine Gurzenski are the result of deeply engrained prejudices against their professions. That Nadine’s case is being re-examined and gaining more public attention could be a reflection that maybe, just maybe, we are coming to see that sex workers and those working in adult entertainment do not deserve to be murdered any more than victims we more readily identify as “innocents”, and their cases should be solved and their legacies respected.

While something must be done to address our perception and treatment of women like her, Nadine’s death does not mean we should rush in and “save” sex workers. Listen to sex workers. None of them deny the inherent dangers in their jobs, but neither do they wish to be seen as victims needing saving. Sex work does not equal subordination. Sex work is a combination of both agency and subordination (as with other types of jobs) and the sooner we realize there is nothing inherently degrading about sex work and eliminate “whorephobia”, as many sex work activists call it, the sooner we can open our minds and make some meaningful changes in our country. A woman’s value should not be tied to her sexual activities, and her death should incite shock and outrage rather than the often-common response of victim-blaming and shaming. We need to start putting sex workers at the center of our movements and give them the independence and agency they deserve.

To reach Claire with any questions, concerns or feedback, please contact her at cvenetrogers [at] gmail [dot] com.

References Cited:

Hunt, Sarah. Sex Work and Self-Determination: in solidarity with the Bedford Case“In: The Becoming Collective. Published: June 12, 2013

Koyama, Emi. The War on Terror and the War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activists Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement.” In: Eminism.org. Published in 2011

Sayers, Naomi. Social Spaces and Sex Work: An Essay.” In: Kwe Today. Published: December 18, 2013

Skillbrei, M-L., Holmstrom, C. The ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution law is a myth.” In: The Conversation. Published: December 16, 2013.

Additional links and resources:

Sex Professionals of Canada

Andrew Lawton Show – Friday Faceoff: Megan Walker vs. Naomi Sayers

Born Whore blog

East Village Arts Collective, London, Ontario

Janelle Flemming, blog: Big, Bold, Bossy, and Beautiful

Pivot Legal Society:

Pivot Legal Society 2

Remembering the Living: Monica Forrester on Sister in Spirit and Indigenous Sex Workers:

Sayers, Naomi. Kwe Today.

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