Sex workers Push for Decriminalization and Freedom from Violence

Sunday 2 March 2003, by Sara COLLIN

"Society needs to accept sex work as work and just move on from there," said Jenn Clamen, organizer of the Festival for the Rights of Sex Workers, which took place in Montreal during the third week of February.

"Decriminalization is the end result that most sex work advocacy groups are working towards," said Clamen. Currently working with the Montreal Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, used to work with sex workers in London, England in a two-year union organizing effort. After that success, she has come to Montreal to attempt the same. She said there are already six or seven sex worker unions around the world.

Karina Bravo was invited to the festival from Ecuador to serve as an inspiration. Bravo has been working to fight against government discrimination and police repression of sex workers in her country since 1982. Her work has finally paid off, and she is now negotiating with her government to change the country’s constitution. If the negotiations are successful, the government would pass a bill recognizing sex work as legitimate and apply its labour codes to sex work.

What Bravo has accomplished in her country is what many sex workers in Canada hope for. Here, sex work itself is not criminal. Rather, it is communicating for the purpose of buying and selling sex, being found in a brothel, and owning a brothel that are deemed illegal in the criminal code. However, most sex workers experience police repression through tickets for things like loitering, crossing the street at a red light, and other minor infractions. "Everybody has the same rights," said Valérie Bouchard, another festival organiser. "But the application of the law by police is different for sex workers and others." Clamen holds that "your rights as citizens should extend to sex workers. Some people in Montreal don’t consider sex workers as citizens, people don’t grant rights to sex workers to be on our streets, to sell sex."

Sex workers and violence

Mirha-Soleil Ross, a male-to-female transsexual videomaker, performer, and activist who lives in Toronto, thinks that the problem of violence in the sex trade should be seen in a larger context of living in a violent society. In a discussion at the Festival, she refused to accept that violence is an inherent part of sex work. "Why is violence connected to sex when there’s an exchange of money?" she asked. Ross did not deny that there is violence in sex work, even citing some of her experiences as proof that there is, but refused to accept it as endemic to sex work. In fact, she believes, the violence that prostitutes often experience is due to other factors such as racism, xenophobia and homophobia.

Ross also raised the point that prostitutes and sex workers are continually portrayed as abused and impoverished women who are forced into a line of work they don’t want. This unfair portrayal of the workers in the sex trade denies the fact, she said, that some sex workers actually want to work in the industry. "So even though feminists and social workers say they want to help prostitutes, their ultimate goal is to eliminate any form of sex work." This attitude, she said, promots the misconception that sex work is not a legitimate form of work.

The majority of women’s rights groups in Quebec are strongly in favour of the decriminalization of prostitution, though not necessarily to defend it, and certainly not to sweep it under the rug. They do not always agree with Ross’ point of view, but they do agree that the rights of prostitutes must be protected under the law just like those of other citizens.

Sara Collin, special collaboration


PHOTO: Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Jenn Clamen, member of the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, at the "History of the Red Light" event that took place during the Festival.

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