Five Things You Need to Know about Sex Workers – Leslie Ann Jeffrey and Gayle MacDonald

Leslie Jeffery

Some years ago we decided to embark on a study of sex work and sex workers in the Maritimes. Leslie had been working on sex work research in Thailand (where sex workers were challenging the way the work and the women are viewed through colonial lenses) and Gayle had been researching gender and legal issues in Canada. We realized that many of the things we had learned about resistance by marginalized peoples applied just as much to the Maritimes – traditionally viewed as a backwater of economically marginalized and traditionalist people – as to those in the global south or other marginalized groups. It was time to “bring our studies home”. The result of our collaboration was “Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back” published by UBC press in 2006. The material below is drawn from that book.

The Maritimes project was about asking sex workers themselves what they felt the important issues were and what they wanted to say and have other people hear, rather than assuming that “we” knew what was important to know about sex work. We didn’t want to focus on why women, or men, enter the trade – which assumes that there is something problematic or wrong about the work – but to hear sex workers “talk back” to those who assume they know what sex work is about. And talk back they did. We spoke with over 50 sex workers in the trade in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The men and women we spoke with were generous, interesting, insightful and funny. We learned important and interesting things not just about sex work, but about ourselves as a society, about the world we live in and about money, politics, law, gender, sexuality, the media, health care, parenting and a whole host of other issues. Most of the workers we spoke with were working on the street, so they over-represent street-based workers, who a small minority – estimated to be around 10-20% – of sex workers in Canada, but even here, or perhaps especially here, we found the “spirit of a fighter” that characterizes sex workers around the world. Sex workers in the Maritimes challenged not only the way sex work and sex workers were viewed but how “straight” society views itself. But here at least is a sampling of some of the important things we learned from and about sex workers, particularly those who live on the margins, which challenge the stigmatising lens through which they are traditionally viewed …

Five Things You need to Know about Sex Workers

1. Sex workers are financial wizards and clear-eyed economic analysts.

“You work your butt off for minimum wage…. you know what I mean? That’s crazy.” (Kendra, Saint John).

One of the great joys of talking with sex workers was the way in which they often laid out the craziness of how the world works with dazzling clarity and simplicity and often in ways that challenged prevailing notions of what is “normal” and “acceptable”. Concepts that we as academics often struggle to explain in theoretical terms, such as “exploitation of the working class” were laid bare by our interviewees. Sweating it out at a job you may hate for a pittance of a wage is crazy and it’s a craziness that is forced upon a lot of people. A number of the street-based sex workers we spoke with had experienced that minimum wage world of service work and part-time, dead-end jobs and found sex work – with its often better income and flexibility of hours that so many of us hope for but often can’t find in our work – a preferable option. (Others had worked at worked at “middle-class” jobs and still found sex work a better option for a variety of reasons, including flexibility.)

In addition, because many of our interviewees were street-based workers and therefore overrepresented those who were economically marginalized, a number had also experienced the trials and tribulations of social assistance. For those on or potentially on social assistance, sex work was a better option than the “system” which was not only “never enough” but often also demeaning and controlling. But none of our respondents took the demeaning attitudes that social assistance often brings with it, sitting down. When Social Assistance finally accepted one woman, she refused their offer of $415 a month. “Who’s gonna live off that? My cat wouldn’t live off that.” (Alexis, Moncton). Their stories of refusal and fighting back the system are hilarious and heartening – the woman who argued for weeks with the government over covering the health costs for her son by laying out for them in painful detail the mad illogic of their demands; the woman who threatened to bring in news cameras if a slum landlord continued to insist on rents far out of whack with what assistance could cover, the woman who told a food bank to keep their “little bag”: “Dear you keep that for somebody else ‘cause they’re gonna need it. I don’t need one can of tomato soup from whatever you got, no thank you…. I’ll take my chances on fish and chips. Fuck that. Lord.”

If you want to know how the system works (or doesn’t) – ask a street-based sex worker.

2. Sex workers are brave.

“We put our lives on the line the moment we step out the door.” (Kelly, Halifax)

Sex workers know a lot about the underbelly of life and can teach us a lot about male behaviour, sexuality and violence. If money and flexibility were the upsides of sex work, for those on the street, violence and the threat of violence were definitely the downsides. As many pointed out however, there are plenty of good clients, men who paid up front, respected the terms of the transaction, clients who became friends. Workers talked about the sometimes weird and wonderful relationships with clients: the client who just wanted home-baked pies; the client who needed help arranging a funeral; the “older gentlemen” who “just wanted to cuddle”; clients who actually just wanted someone there while they did drugs. There was often empathy and caring particularly for the regular clients that workers saw. But many sex workers admitted that because of the way the law has turned them into “non-citizens” and social attitudes have, in the words of John Lowman, turned them into “disposable people”, they live every day not only with the threat of violence but the knowledge that little or nothing will be done to protect or defend them. Many would have preferred to work in the much safer world of indoor sex work, but because the illicit nature of that work allows for unscrupulous bosses to demand large chunks of a workers’ income — even if they fail to provide the workplace benefits that legal work would require — a number of our interviewees continued to brave the much more dangerous streets with its greater flexibility and freedom. Many had a harrowing story (or several) of near escapes and violent run-ins with clients. Again, many did not think this was a result of the violent nature of clients rather that a small minority could get away with violence because of the commonly adopted social attitudes towards sex workers. But sex workers also refused to accept this violence as just a “job hazard” nor did they accept the continuing denial of justice to sex workers who were victims of violence. And they fought back. One worker took her attacker to court and lost, but noted he’d had to shell out for his defence to the tune of thousands. With devastating wit, she loudly observed as they were leaving court “that’s one $10,000 blow job you didn’t get buddy. Next time just pay the forty bucks.” (Dana, Halifax) Sex workers always get their own back.

3. Sex workers aren’t afraid to “talk back”.

Sex workers do not appreciate being talked down to or being silenced. They want their voices heard – but often find it very difficult to be heard, since people’s preconceived notions and their condescending attitudes often get in the way of their ability to truly listen to sex workers. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the media portrayal of sex worker and sex workers. Sex workers pointed squarely at media representations of sex workers as deserving of violence, as “risk takers” and “addicts” who courted their own demise, as contributing to the violence they face. As one long-time worker aptly pointed out “the reason I feel that [clients have become more violent’ is because the media portrays us as non-people….They’ve made [the sex-worker] a disposable person and the more that the media continues to do that, the more the tricks feel that they are allowed to be violent.” (Dana, Halifax)

Sex workers face stigma daily in other quarters, but rather than “internalizing self-hatred” as some analyses would have us believe, they talked back, refusing the negative imagery of “whores” “junkies” and “victims”. “I’m just saying that you should put yourself in my shoes. Do not talk to me about something you don’t know nothing about.” (Katrina, Halifax). They wondered in exasperation at the people who find the time and make the effort to harass workers on the street. “Why do you do that? I don’t understand that? [I’d think] I’ve got more better things to do than borrow Mom’s car and go down every weekend and…like hello. I don’t understand them.” (Kisha, Halifax). The workers we talked with made short shrift of those who would look down their noses at sex workers, turning the tables on those who think sex workers are “behaving badly.”

The absence of sex worker voices in the media is a huge loss, not only because they could counter the public stigma that makes their lives so difficult but because they could teach us so much about the way they world really works. One young former worker angrily stated “If I had a chance to tell the media so that they…so the world would hear what I had to say, something I’d tell them [is,] ‘Don’t speak. You want to know about a whore, you get to know a whore and you’ll see that’ she’s just like you.’ (Alexis, Halifax)

Sex workers are talking, but are we listening?

4. Sex workers don’t take the law lying down.

In the face of myriad attempts to control, discipline and punish sex workers, they continue to flaunt the law and “talk back” to the powers that be. “We are citizens too. You know, give us a little bit more respect and dignity, you know.” (Valerie, 135) Maritime sex workers delighted in teasing police officers and giving them a hard time, even as the workers admitted they felt some sympathy for police who were “just trying to do their job.” “I think it was the first, no second, time I got arrested. The cop says to me… ‘Listen, you’re so young, so pretty. Why don’t you get real job, like work in Tim Hortons or something?’ I turned to him and said, ‘Listen, you work in Tim Hortons… the way I look at it, we’re not hurting anybody…why don’t you guys go after the killers and shit like that and leave us girls alone?” (Alison, Halifax)

The sex workers we spoke with pilloried police who overstepped their bounds; they ridiculed the laws that made them both victims and perpetrators and boxed them into impossible situations – like “boundaries” and “conditions” of bail that put services and outreach organizations out of bounds for them. Faced with threats of sometimes extreme violence, and yet unprotected by the law, workers laid bare the reality of who the “brave men and women” of the streets really are: “You never see a cop out there without a gun and a billy [club] and driving in cars. Can you imagine them being on the street? I mean, where we are with nothing, I don’t think they would have the nerve like that. So it does take a certain amount of courage.” (Valerie, Halifax).

5. Sex workers make great policy-makers.

Canadian policy-makers have consistently failed to make policy that works in governing sex work. The current system makes sex work next to impossible to carry out legally even though the actual selling of sex is not itself illegal – just all the activities surrounding it. Sex workers, academics, activists and parliament’s own inquiries have proven over and over that the current law makes sex work dangerous and difficult. Sex workers have to hide from the law, even as their lives are livelihood are threatened. Safe working conditions are difficult to create when “owning, keeping” or “being found in” a bawdy house are outlawed. The biggest flaw in Canadian policy-making so far is that sex-workers are rarely at the table, and if they are at the table they are allowed there only as “witnesses” not active participants in formulating the law. But the workers we talked to had lots to say about how the law could and should work and how it’s not working now for anyone: workers, residents, police, and government. They all wanted a “warm, safe place to work” but they also recognized that policy-making would mean taking into account a variety of interests. As residents themselves they discussed ways to make the street trade less of a “nuisance,” as parents they were concerned over keeping the business out of sight of the kids, as workers they laid out the parameters of better working conditions, as activists they argued for ways to better support sex worker organizations – all of these suggestions hinged on moving sex work out of the criminal zone to which it has been confined. But Canadian politicians have been notoriously reluctant to take this important step. [Indeed just this summer the government by-passed Parliament and quietly put through a change to the Criminal Code upping the punishment for owning a sex-work establishment (where sex workers feel the safest) by making it a “serious” crime.] Sex workers in BC however have forged ahead in designing a co-op brothel that works to empower sex workers and in both BC and Ontario they are challenging the retrograde prostitution laws in the courts. Time for all of us to join in and follow the leaders.

Sex workers have proven themselves brave, forward thinking, economically realistic and politically savvy – now if only the rest of us could do that too.

This is printed with permission of the Publisher from Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back by Leslie Ann Jeffrey and Gayle MacDonald © University of British Columbia Press 2006. All rights reserved by the Publisher. For more information visit http://www.ubcpress.ca/search/title_book.asp?BookID=4585

Leslie Ann Jeffrey is Professor of Politics in the Department of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. She is the author of Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity and Prostitution Policy in Thailand (UBC Press) and writes and does research on prostitution policy in Canada and abroad and the negative impact of anti-trafficking efforts.

Gayle MacDonald is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Dean of Research at St. Thomas University, Fredericton. She is the editor of Social Context and Social Location in the Sociology of Law and co-editor of
Feminism, Law, Inclusion: Intersectionality in Action; and of Victim No More: Women’s Resistance to Law, Culture and Power.

Both Gayle and Leslie are proud members of FIRST – an organization dedicated to lobbying for decriminalization of sex work in Canada.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Captain Lee (not verified) on Sun, 10/03/2010 – 16:17.

Brilliant piece of journalism. The quality of nmp’s editorial content keeps improving steadily, but the above is by far one of the best article I’ve ever read on this subject. Hats off, everyone.