“Safety, not Morality”: An Interview with Jenn Clamen – Mél Hogan & M-C MacPhee

On September 28, the Ontario Superior Court struck down three federal prostitution laws as unconstitutional. This ruling removes some of the criminal sanction from an occupation that is not in itself illegal in Canada, but that is heavily criminalized.

Justice Susan Himel ruled in favour of three sex-trade workers who argued that laws prohibiting them from communicating for the purpose of prostitution (solicitation), running a bawdy house, and living off the avails of prostitution put the lives of sex workers at risk.

We asked Jenn Clamen to talk to us about the impact and implications of these laws. Clamen has been working with NMP for over a year now as an editor and consultant for all sex-worker related submissions to the journal. Working with Stella for years, Clamen is a staunch activist for human rights. She is also a dear friend of ours.

NMP: Can you explain the implications that these laws (210, 212, 213) have on the lives and the work conditions of sex workers in Canada?

Jenn Clamen: First, it’s important to situate and name the impact of criminalization. As many other criminalized communities understand, being targeted by the law means you are not guaranteed protection of the law without discrimination. This often makes you a target of hate crimes, as we have seen in the increasing instances of violence against sex workers. Prostitution laws function in the same way; they limit sex workers’ options in seeking safety and protection, as they are constantly avoiding legal persecution.

Section 210, commonly known as the “bawdy house” law, prevents sex workers from working indoors or using an indoor site more than once for the purposes of prostitution. Without a permitted workspace, sex workers are relegated to hotels, other peoples’ homes, and the street—none of which offer the protection of knowing your own workspace, the exits, or the phone, for example. It also prevents sex workers from using their own homes or familiar work environments as workspaces.

Section 212 is known as the “pimping”, or procuring law. It prevents individuals from living on the avails of their earnings, as a prostitute. This section prevents sex workers from hiring or working with third parties like receptionists, managers, drivers, and other workers—all of whom can provide protection. It criminalizes sex workers’ personal and working relationships.

Finally, Section 213 is the communicating law, which prevents sex workers from communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution. This is the law that is applied with the most vigour, and the most disproportionately, against the most marginalized and visible sex workers; typically Aboriginal street workers. It also prevents all workers from negotiating and talking with clients about their work in public. Imagine having to negotiate a contract with a client but not being able to discuss what that contract looks like? The prohibition of all of these activities means that sex workers are constantly dodging police—which often means they are out of sight and at more risk.

NMP: Judge Himel ruled that the laws 210, 212 & 213 infringed on and violated Section 1 and 7 of the Charter and are therefore unconstitutional. What are the implications of citing these sections of the Charter in this ruling?

JC: The Charter states that every citizen of Canada is entitled to certain rights and freedoms. If a law infringes on those freedoms, the government must be able to justify this. These Charter sections were used to test the limits of prostitution laws and whether they did or did not infringe on sex workers’ Charter rights.

Section 1 of the Charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in the Charter subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Himel acknowledged in her ruling, “that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public”. She acknowledged not only the danger of prostitution law on sex workers’ lives, but emphasized and weighed this harm with public harm. In this sense, sex workers’ safety is seen to outweigh any danger that prostitution may have on the public. Justice Himel said something to this extent as well.

Section 7 of the Charter guarantees the right to “life, liberty and security of the person”. Judge Himel stated that “[Prostitution] laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” She acknowledged that sex workers have the right to security and liberty, and that the laws, and the enforcement that comes with them, infringe on those rights.

Barbara Kay’s coverage of the trial in the National Post included hate slurring that “we should not have respect for these people,” known as sex workers, and that Himel’s decision is “like putting lipstick on a pig.” For her ilk and for a society that has barely acknowledged sex workers as human beings, the recognition of these Charter rights is invaluable.

NMP: What is Himel’s ruling going to change for sex workers in Ontario? In what ways will their work and their lives be made safer and what risks will they still face?

JC: Just to be clear, Himel did not strike down the laws in their entirety: she only struck down the laws that were being challenged, which left quite a few standing that still maintain the risk and impact of criminalization.

Section 211, transporting to a bawdy house, was not struck down so we have yet to see what the implications of this is, though people rarely get charged under this law. Section 212(1)(j), living on the avails, and Section 213(1)(c), communicating for the purposes of prostitution, were struck down—but other provisions in 212 around procuring and coercion and in 213 around blocking circulation of traffic, for example, still remain (for a full reading see your friendly Criminal Code). This may mean that if the ruling sticks, it will be much safer for sex workers to work indoors, but that sex workers who are not indoors may still be prosecuted, depending on the strategies for law enforcement. It’s a huge victory; however, there is still a lot of work to do to protect and fulfil the rights of the most marginalized sex workers who remain at great risk of police repression and violence.

The ruling itself is inspiring for sex workers and our communities on many levels. The ruling is recognition of the violence that sex workers experience as a result of the barriers that these laws pose to access and protection. Sex workers’ safety, in relation to prostitution law, was acknowledged as primordial. This is unprecedented. More specifically, many sex workers in Ontario will now have access to safer working conditions. Sex worker activists who have been bringing the message of the need for safer working conditions, and an end to the violence against sex workers, have finally received recognition—which goes a long way and has definitely shifted the battleground, if only slightly. It’s historical.

We do expect there to be federal, provincial and municipal backlash, which may imply that municipalities will swoop in with a form of regulation. But we will continue to press that this regulation needs to be shaped by sex workers, who live with and have experienced stigma and discrimination, and as a result can name the priorities for safety in the sex industry.

NMP: The sex workers’ rights movement has spent many years of struggling for this kind of recognition and repeatedly having it denied; why do you think this groundbreaking ruling happened now?

JC: It takes an entire community to put these messages forward—and the sex worker rights movement has been struggling tirelessly for over three decades to try and stop the violence in our communities. Even though sex work has become fashionable, sex workers are labeled “happy hookers” by people missing the mark around our message of safety, and much of the anti-prostitution movement has glorified prostitution in doing so, it has not stopped us from being clear about the impacts of prostitution law. It’s only so long before communities start to recognize that the images they have of prostitution are constructed—they are not “Pretty Woman”, or “crack-hos” or even “Belle de Jours.” The media and anti-prostitution movements that glorify our message have refused to give way or to see the actual realities of sex workers that have been made invisible. Why now? Because there are more sex workers who are willing to risk their lives, their work, and their freedom by being visible to show that sex workers are diverse, that sex workers are in danger, that we need to stop making laws founded in moral crusades. This could not have happened without the years of work that people put into this. And part of this work has been educating judges, shifting discourse, and educating the masses about sex workers’ realities. Besides, we were damn due!

NMP: While this recent charter challenge was of course part of an ongoing struggle for sex workers rights, the ruling seemed—in some ways—to come out of nowhere. Did it seem like an isolated effort?

JC: I can’t count the number of times that the words “crap shoot” have come out of my mouth in the past few weeks. Sometimes you just get lucky that you find yourself in front of a feminist, clear-minded, responsible, accountable, and like-minded judge—rarely though. In New Zealand they happened to have a transsexual sex worker as an MP when prostitution was decriminalized. While on the one hand, Judge Himel and her ruling came out of nowhere, on the other, sex workers and activists have been struggling for years and putting out the same clear and tangible message: prostitution laws contribute to the physical, verbal, and mental harm that sex workers experience. It took one person to recognize this officially, but it took an entire movement to shift people and communities, lawyers and witnesses, and community organizations into an understanding of this.

NMP: What does this ruling mean for the sex workers’ rights movement across the country? Could you explain the recent approval to challenge criminal laws against prostitution in BC? Are we going to see these kinds of challenges happening across Canada?

JC: As if life after September 28th could get any more exciting, one week later the congratulatory rose I gave my girlfriend was still bright, intact and standing strong, as if expecting this next victory and recognition for sex workers. The BC courts that had previously denied the application for a group of sex workers known as SWUAV (Sex Workers United Against Violence) and a sex worker named Sheri Kiselbach to challenge the constitutionality of prostitution laws, overturned their decision. Katrina Pacey, a lawyer from PIVOT Legal Society, along with Joe Arvay, presented their case to challenge most of the prostitution laws in 2008. Their case was denied—the judge ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing, meaning, he didn’t feel that a group of sex workers was affected by the laws (as opposed to the individuals of the group), and didn’t feel that Sheri, who had worked 30 years in the industry both on the street and indoors, was currently affected since she was no longer working (its important to add that Sheri testified that she would be working if it weren’t for the dangers that prostitution law created along with the evident lack of police protection for sex workers in Vancouver). But PIVOT won the appeal, which means that their case will most likely make it to court (barring an appeal on the appeal, argh). The case that PIVOT has put together makes different arguments than the Ontario case, and challenges more of the prostitution laws, which is important, since issues across Canada vary greatly, across culture and region. The sex workers who are taking these cases forward have risked their lives and work, which is one of the reasons that SWUAV went forward as a group—to protect anonymity. That the courts finally recognized why this is important is huge, and that they recognized that someone who has worked for 30 years in the industry can testify to the violence and danger of prostitution law is important. Other challenges across Canada? Who knows? These cases are hard to mount—they take a lot of person power, a lot of goodwill on behalf of lawyers and people willing to testify, and above all, they require the bravery and self-sacrifice of sex workers willing to take the cases forward.

NMP: What are some of the reactions to the rulings? Who has been most vocal and what kinds of arguments are being presented?

JC: The typical antis have reared their heads, and swiftly, after the ruling was announced on September 28th. To name a few, many abolitionist organizations across Canada—and particularly the Conseil statut de la femme—sent out a press release denouncing the ruling. What is particularly annoying about this position is that many abolitionists and so-called feminist groups are positioning themselves as the “feminist position”—which obviously renders invisible many sex workers and activists in the sex worker rights movement who are fundamentally feminist. Their arguments have done little to advance the discussion around the safety for sex workers; they have reverted to old theoretical discourses of prostitution itself as the oldest form of violence, while completely ignoring the actual lived violence that sex workers experience. The arguments they are presenting are not factual arguments, but moral rhetoric that is so far removed from any reality that sex workers experience in life and work. Most importantly, they don’t address how striking down the laws could be more dangerous for sex workers. Aside from the expected backlash of anti-prostitution zealots, there has been an interesting mix of public opinion responses—a lot of which supports the safety of sex workers regardless of whether they support the idea and reality of sex work itself. The ruling has definitely shifted popular discourse, or at least allowed the question to be based in an understanding of safety, rather than morality. There has always been support for the decriminalization (misunderstood and conflated with legalization) of prostitution, but it has been couched within a moral debate and as a result has not recognized the safety of sex workers. Public opinion remains the same, but when it is framed within a safety argument, obviously lends more support to the ruling. The trick here is keeping the discussion on the real issue for sex workers: safety, not morality.

NMP: Can you explain the original and extended 30-day stay of Himel’s decision and what this means practically for the current state of the laws cited above (in Ontario)?

JC: To start, sex workers in Ontario still technically face the same dangers they did before the ruling, since there is now a 60-day stay on the ruling (extended from the original 30 days), and within that time, the Federal government can appeal, which they have already announced they will do. This means that Justice Himel struck down the laws cited above, but her decision will not be active until 60 days after the ruling itself. So sex workers may not see a day of a new legislative regime—between the duration of the stay of the ruling and the appeal, the ruling may not actually take effect. When the appeal actually begins, the laws remain in their original state until the end of the case. It may mean that jurisdictions in Ontario will engage differently with prostitution law until the case is closed, but based on recent reports of raids in Toronto brothels, this does not look like it will be the case.

NMP: Can you outline briefly Harper’s announcement to appeal the ruling?

JC: Harper, as expected, did not take the decision lying down (ahem). He, too, was quick to announce that he would contest the decision. Within the last year he has been burning the midnight oil to reconstruct crime prevention in our country and develop a more ‘tough on crime’ approach. In August, he announced his change to the definition of “Organized Crime”, which includes brothel-keeping and a sentence of up to 5 years. That brothel-keeping charges were increased was highly disconcerting. Many MPs could not fight him on this because: 1) he presented it and it was passed as an Order-in-Council (i.e. through the backdoor); and 2) because he was framing it within ‘crime prevention’, so any argument against that would not likely win in the polls. All of this is to say that his response was not a surprise. And essentially, his Crown is busy writing their appeal.

NMP: Decriminalization and legalization are very different scenarios—can you explain each of them and discuss what you think is an ideal situation for sex workers in Canada? Can this scenario extend to all sex workers?

JC: Prostitution has never been illegal, but everything that a sex worker has to do to keep safe and work with freedom, is. On the most general and defining level, decriminalization means a repeal of all Criminal laws that sanction prostitution. Legalization implies that the state determines the where, when and how of prostitution, which typically means that the most marginalized sex work, and those who experience the greatest intersections of oppressive environments, are even further criminalized.

For example: in countries where prostitution is legalized and licenses are required by law to run a prostitution business, sex workers with criminal records, those on the street, and those generally of a lower socio-economic background who cannot afford the licenses, are criminalized. The stigmatic assumptions that drive prostitution law do not disappear with the removal of the laws; so the assumptions that sex workers on the street are using drugs, are not able to hold down a job, and are vectors of disease, continue to drive policy around prostitution.

Decriminalization—the removal of prostitution laws from the Criminal Code—is a first step. The next step is for sex workers in provinces and municipalities across the country to define the terms of what decriminalization looks like, which is inevitably a form of regulation. However, that regulation needs to be shaped and adapted to the realities for sex workers, which means it takes the impact of continued criminalization, stigmatization and discrimination into account when designing a new legislative regime.

For example: if sex workers are not used to receiving paychecks and paystubs and paying taxes in a way where they can claim their actual job, time needs to be allotted for sex workers to adapt to this “mainstream” regime. Another example is if sex workers are not used to being able to talk about their work and have hidden their work out of imposed shame, stigma, and discrimination, a regime needs to account for the shock of transforming from that. I believe that our society, in general, takes stigma and discrimination for granted in terms of their impact on an individual’s life. For sex workers to wake up one morning and expect to work within a decriminalized system with no hassles, and to know the legal framework for permitted businesses, is unrealistic—there needs to be education and capacity and skill building. The industry will look different depending on where you work; dancer needs are different from massage workers’ needs, are different from street workers’ needs, are different from escorts’ needs…

NMP: So is the umbrella term “sex work” useful as a united front, or does it risk not adequately answering to anyone’s needs?

JC: This is a really great question. The term “sex work” was created by a long-time sex worker and activist Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, in the United States in 1970s as a way of uniting sex workers for a common cause: workers’ rights (sex work as work), decriminalization of that work, and anti-violence. For the purposes of a movement, the term is very useful—we just have to be really cognizant of the fact that there are a gazillion differences between sectors and individuals within sectors. So it does unite sex workers when necessary, but also means that people will repel the term because they don’t feel recognized—which usually means that people within the movement are compelled (at least should be) to push a discourse and discussion around inclusion and representation and learn more about how to do both better. It’s not that different from the term “feminism”—as we know, over the years, there has been an onslaught of backlash and solidarity within feminist movements as we try to unite, create space for, and adequately encourage independence of different feminists. We are lucky within the sex worker rights movement that our communities are so strong and have so much vitality, that when people and issues are not represented under this umbrella, you can bet your arse that you’ll hear about them, and fast—which gives us reason to respond and become more accountable.

Ideally, the ruling in Ontario will trickle down to all provinces in Canada. If it doesn’t, then sex worker activists in other provinces will surely fight until that’s the case.

NMP: Can you talk a bit about your role as an activist—what your activism looks like and what you hope to personally and/or collectively achieve? In keeping with the theme of the issue, can you talk about the place of “rage” in your activism?

JC: My immediate reaction to the decision was shock. That shock lasted a while, until a deep rage and sadness (which to me are completely interlinked) unveiled themselves. Some of my mentors and colleagues reacted the same way, and it became clear that even though this decision is a historical move, a huge step in a direction that most of us didn’t think we would see in our lifetimes, this decision didn’t heal the pain of being made invisible for years, or recognize the struggle that we still have to fight to ensure sex workers’ rights are fulfilled, protected and respected. Nor did it grant the right to access police protection or health care without discrimination, or allow sex workers to freely cross borders, or bring back the hundreds of sex workers who have been murdered at work. As someone who has been engaged in the fight for decriminalization for 10 years, and been mentored for years by people who have fought for 10+ years longer than I have, I believe we will keep fighting until we can undo all of the damage that has been done from years of the stigma, discrimination and harm that criminalization and societal expectations have had—which should take some time. But it is my sincere belief that we should be working to make ourselves redundant, in the sense that sex workers will one day be able to have the same access and protection granted to and expected by other groups in society. Our movement is guided by principles of solidarity, human and labour rights, and non-violence—most of this is laden with anger, frustration, pain and the constant disappointment and lived consequences of invisibility. I believe right now our communities are experiencing a range of emotions—all that comes as a result of social change. Social change is scary; it vibrates in our community with its own life force and has given us the space to celebrate, while at the same time holding our years of anger and pain with the world’s response to prostitution. It’s these same emotions that will drive us to continue the uphill battle for sex workers’ recognition.

NMP: The Conservative Government has rushed to appeal this ruling and its reasons for doing so do not seem grounded in the rationale of Himel’s decision—in what ways do you think issues are being conflated by opposition and in the media?

JC: The difference between this court decision and parliamentary decisions around prostitution is that Himel based her ruling in safety and the impact of the laws. Both took into account sex workers’ perspectives, though neither saw sex workers’ testimonies as the expert witnesses. Contrary to this, parliamentary discussions of prostitution, though couched in the language of safety, are about morality and public opinion: if safety was at the core, they would take seriously the testimonies from people who are doing sex work that say they feel unsafe because of the laws. But I digress. Justice Himel makes an interesting point in her ruling on p26: she makes the distinction between an “expert” of the court and an advocate—the former being someone who is presenting evidence and the latter someone who is preaching and advocating on behalf of an opinion. Many of the abolitionists that she cites to be advocating are part of an opposition to decriminalization, who are preaching their values rather than looking at the actual harms of prostitution law, as Justice Himel did and as sex workers have been doing for over 30 years. The media has been a mixed bag—the day of the ruling saw more coverage of dancing and celebrating sex workers than we had ever seen. The context changed: we could cite Himel pointing to the dangers of prostitution laws, we could use the precedent that she set for us. The days to follow, of course, were the typical backlash, and the media has been engaging in typical “debates” around prostitution—the majority of people have yet to recognize that debating women’s realities often neglects the actual realities of the women, and focuses instead on the lives and morals of the people engaged in that debate.

NMP: The NDP’s Jack Layton said in Xtra that “Violence against women is a moral issue, so that’s going to have to be discussed as a part of this.” Do you have any thoughts on this quote and on the fact that this ruling—despite being made on the grounds of safety—continues to be discussed in relation to morality?[1]

JC: I think the idea that violence is a moral issue is rooted in the oldest of misogynist attitudes—violence against women is a human rights issue. Claiming anything to be a moral issue is claiming that there is a discussion to be had—that there is a “side” to pick, that there is an opinion other than one that recognizes violence is abuse. But I won’t get pedantic, I understand him as saying that we need to address the morality of prostitution—and if you believe that laws should based within morality, knowing that morality is guided predominantly by a paternalistic and racist (I can go on) discourse, then sure, lets chat morality! But it’s important to be clear that we would be talking about Jack Layton’s morality, not about sex workers’ morality.

This is not the first time that parliament has taken a close look at prostitution or prostitution law. The last attempt was in 2003, initiated by Libby Davies with a private members’ bill (she is the NDP representative, her constituency is the Downtown East Side Riding of Vancouver). She proposed that parliament look at prostitution law to see how it could be made safer for prostitutes—of course the discussion, in the end, was based on morality and rarely begged the question of how to improve safety. The reason a court challenge is so effective is because it attempts to answer the question that is asked (while it is not totally free of morality discussions). Justice Himel looks at the impact of the laws and the degree of harm that they cause for sex workers—something we can only wish Parliament would take up. It is important to keep in mind that other parties are following in the Conservatives’ footsteps, planning to “get tough on crime.” Balance that against the fact that 3 out of 4 of the major political parties in Canada voted in favour of decriminalization of prostitution in the 2006 Parliamentary Committee SSLR Subcommittee Report, and we’ve got a very confused group of law makers.

NMP: How and with what organizations or groups is your activism for sex workers rights concentrated?

JC: I began organizing in 2000 with the International Union of Sex Workers. Labour organizing with sex workers is probably some of the most empowering work that we can do for our community, since unions typically bypass issues of morality when it comes to which jobs people choose. The openness to workers’ issues really touched me. In 2002 I joined the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, a Montreal-based group of sex workers and allies. I arrived just in time to join the organizational team for our first Turn Up the Heat Festival! The Coalition has a history of colourful activity and action for sex workers’ rights. As a grassroots non-funded group, the Coalition has served as a wonderful platform for action and demand.

I soon after joined Stella and worked there with a fantastic community of vibrant, diverse, and empowered female-identified sex workers. Stella is Montreal’s only funded group run for and by sex workers, with a human rights approach. For all of the hooplah from antis around what some believe is a “happy hooker movement”, Stella is home to some of the most profound and colourful actions around violence and respect for sex workers’ human and labour rights. In 2003 I co-founded an organization with Kara Gillies called the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour—it didn’t go as far as we had intended, but sent a really important message to labour unions around the importance of solidarity work with sex workers. Hopefully we will be able to pick it up again one day. I continue to be implicated at Stella and within the Network of Sex Work Projects, which is a global network and movement for sex work projects in North America and the Caribbean, Eastern and Central Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Africa.

NMP: How do you keep informed on these issues? How important to your activism is access to information and/or personal experience?

JC: It is really important that sex workers around the globe are in contact with one another—that has obviously become easier as activism has gone viral. This has some perks and some problems as well, but generally, it ensures that our sisters in Thailand know when something is going on in Montreal, and that we can learn and share skills and information with our communities in Australia, in Nigeria, in Kyrgyzstan, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, for example. Different listservs and conferences help us keep in touch. Our movement is strong, and extremely diverse. Most of the tools and actions around the world are inspired by each other, so we ensure regular contact with groups outside of Quebec and Canada.

NMP: What about the International Sex Workers Rights movement—is the political activity happening in Quebec, Ontario and the rest of Canada part of an international movement? Where do these movements collide and how do they differ?

JC: The call for decriminalization, safer working conditions, an end to violence, and respect for sex workers that is not limited to sex workers in Quebec—in fact, some of our older community members and groups around the world have helped to educate us and inform us in our activism. When sex work was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003, it gave sex workers around the world hope. When sex workers in Brazil worked with their government to combat discriminatory US HIV policy, it inspired sex workers around the world. When a sex worker in South Africa was able to gain labour recognition and compensation through the courts for being fired, it was a victory internationally for sex workers. Our actions across the world join us together. Of course we have different issues—sex workers in Eastern Europe who live and work in a non-regulated regime may deal with more police corruption and severe violence from police, sex workers in Sweden may experience more violence and police harassment because of the laws that criminalize their clients, and sex workers of colour in the US may suffer an entirely different level of police repression and oppression, but these are issues that are not unique to sex workers in one area of the world. When we fight for freedom in Quebec, we are fighting for freedom for sex workers across the world.

NMP: Sex work activism seems to have been brought into the realm of queer politics in recent years. What are some of the consequences (positive, negative or both) of this association, perceived or real?

JC: Movement building and coalition building are really important to any social movement. The sex worker rights movement is very well supported by the AIDS movement, the queer movement, and other movements with intersecting issues. The relationship between the queer movement and the sex worker rights movement has been created on many principles, one being the principle of sexuality, sexual minorities, and bodily autonomy—there are many similarities between sex work and queer identities in this sense. This has been positive in the sense that many sex workers, who identify as a sex worker, and experience sex work as a subversive identity, feel very supported. The connections don’t stop there, queer movements and sex worker rights movements both understand the realities of protectionist and moralistic policies that aim to suppress and repress a diversity of sexual identities and sexual practices. Yet one of the challenges of this marriage of movements, if you will, is that many people who do sex work relate to it as work rather than as an identity. They may not relate to challenges for diverse sexual identities. Also, while sex work has become thought of as “subversive” by some, for others it may not be subversive at all, and while the act of sex work is subversive in a legal sense, a sex workers’ personal life may work to promote and uphold the patriarchal norms that we find in many heteronormative relationships. So some elements of these movements collide, while others do not. Some sex workers prefer to ally with the labour movement, where their sexuality may not be respected, but their labour as a worker is recognized. Others feel comfortable allying with AIDS movements who understand the criminalization of an identity, but not necessarily in that their work is criminalized. The issues are complex and interrelated with many movements and there are many points of solidarity. The challenges for activism lie in the challenges I have pointed out here—depending on how deeply these intersections and points of difference are negotiated and explored will depend on how successful people will be at learning and adapting to the diversity of messages and realities we have in the sex worker rights movement.

NMP: You are involved in the struggle for sex workers’ rights as an activist and on an academic level. What benefits do you see from bringing these issues into the academy? Do you find contradictions in doing so?

JC: One of the challenges of teaching around sex workers’ rights is that there is a misconception that sex workers’ realities are up for debate. In this sense, the realities of all sex workers are important—those who have experienced exploitation, those who have experienced discrimination, and those who live with the stigma of being a sex workers. While there is a diversity of experience to know, no sex worker is immune to stigma and discrimination. As a teacher, you are meant to leave room for the development of discussion and differing opinions. And people have a lot of opinions on sex work, particularly people who have never or never plan to do it! As an activist, I strongly believe that sex workers’ lives are not up for debate: if one woman alone has died because of the danger that current paternalistic prostitution laws have created, then that is one too many, and the only important thing is this lived experience and safety, regardless of whether one “agrees” with prostitution or not. Again, we need to recognize that there is no actual “debate” around prostitution—sex workers are fighting to end the real violence they experience. Anti-prostitution movements are working to end the violence they see as prostitution (read: if prostitution exists, and prostitution is violence, then we need to get rid of prostitution). Thus they are further repressing a community of sex workers based on a correlation they assume to exist but cannot support; they don’t put their energies into stopping the actual violence that is happening, they simply spew rhetoric. And unfortunately, in the academy, much of the discussion is rhetoric, where I believe it should be a place to make visible realities and knowledges that people within academies would not typically be exposed to.

Abolitionists have not elaborated on how it would be more dangerous to remove prostitution laws—they cannot explain how less police repression would be detrimental to sex workers. Most of these debates happen in a vacuum: We can theorize around the relationship between pornography and violence, but there is actual violence that sex workers are experiencing! If sex workers are testifying that prostitution laws are what are preventing them from reporting violence to police, that the stigma around sex work prevents people from talking about their work, and that the harm caused to sex workers is a result of the moral panic around prostitution, then there is no reason why people should be debating about how they feel about prostitution, without some serious reflection about who their influences are. In this sense prostitution should not be a debate amongst students who are not doing prostitution! Why is it that we allow academic spaces where realities are debated? Why would students’ and academics’ perspectives on prostitution trump prostitutes’ actual experience? The academy doesn’t necessarily leave room for experiential knowledge as expertise. But I believe some universities are changing to privilege reality over theoretical pontification.

References

[1] http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Conservatives_will_appeal_Ontario_sex…


Jenn Clamen has been active in the Canadian and global sex worker rights movements since 2000. She began her work with the International Union of Sex Workers in London (UK) and in 2003, with Kara Gillies, founded the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour. Clamen worked as a Mobilization and Communications Coordiantor at Stella, and is an active member of the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers. In 2005 she co-coordinated Stella’s Forum XXX: A gathering of over 250 sex workers and allies from around the world. She is currently a board member of Montreal’s group for and by sex workers, Stella, and a North American representative on the Board of Directors of the Global Network for Sex Work Projects.