You cannot really understand another person’s experience until you have walked a mile in their shoes – this wise saying resonated with many of the 43 participants who attended “Starting The Conversation: Exploring the Diverse Experiences & Issues Among London’s Sex Trade”, held on April 19th at North London Optimist Centre.
Organized and facilitated by grassroots collective, Northeast Community Conversations Group [NECC], the evening’s dialogue and discussion involved a panel of speakers: Dr. Treena Orchard, Associate Professor at Western’s School of Health Studies; Nathan Dawthorne, Western PhD candidate whose thesis is on “Male Sex Work in London Ontario: Everyday Narratives and Gendered Representations”; Jennifer Vale, Intake and Support Facilitator at Canadian Mental Health Association-Middlesex; and Aura Burditt, Outreach Worker with The Salvation Army Correctional & Justice Services.
Orchard, author of several papers on sex trade workers, has been a long-time advocate for the rights of people in sex work, one of many marginalized populations that make up the fabric of our nation. After all, sex work has never been illegal in Canada. Most recently, Orchard has been advocating with other organizations like Safe Space and Homes 4 Women, for the City of London to have a 24-hour confidential phone line established as an important harm reduction strategy, so street-level sex workers can report on bad clients, or check-in as a safety service.
Stereotypes inundate the portrayals of sex work. Mainstream messages position people in sex work as victims, but exclude people who willingly choose to engage in sex work. Many people think that individuals who engage in sex work, whether by choice, profession or for survival, are only women. In his research, Dawthorne noted, “The recent legal challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws; and the criminalization of the purchase and advertisement of sexual services, has generated increased government debate and public media attention to sex work. This heightened discussion largely paints sex workers as a homogenous group of victimized women, ignoring and distorting the voices of male sex workers, who are also part of the sex work trade.” Dawthorne pointed out that women also utilize the sex services of men; in fact, his research brought to light that there are couples engaged in sex work too. Hence, Dawthorne wants people to educate themselves on preferred language, for example, using the term “client” instead of “John” to be genderless.
Four personal testimonials, collected through the panelists’ research on people in the sex trade, were read by NECC members. The stories highlighted public opinion, misperceptions, and prejudice against sex work. One story described how a man was fired from his job for being an after-hours sex worker. Having been an escort on and off for about 5 years, this individual was also holding down a steady job where he was well-respected, allowed to shine and worked hard everyday to achieve the organization’s core mission. Unfortunately, the man was terminated immediately when his supervisor found out and saw the websites; threatened legal action if he spoke about the situation with anyone; banned from the building and from contacting current and former staff members, all of which sent him into a state of shock and despair. “Not only was it the first job I’d been fired from, but it was the first time where I felt almost violated for being in the sex industry,” he noted.
Attending the event was London Police Board Chair, Jeanette Eberhard, who shared during the breakout group discussions that the London Police are pro-active and more ready to engage with women in sex work, compared to 11 years ago, especially since the 2007 Robert Pickton serial killings of 49 women, many of whom were prostitutes, on Pickton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Eberhard spoke about how she experienced a paradigm shift in her personal perceptions of street level women at risk, after riding along in a police cruiser and going into the areas where people in sex work live and work.
Participant Elizabeth Sullivan, who loves to write about people on the outskirts of society, wishes that people would stop treating people in sex work like garbage. Every life matters – these individuals deserve dignity, respect and a sense of safety. We need to complexify representations and expand our understanding of people engaged in sex work.
Dawthorne explained, “The C-36 Bill, the federal anti-prostitution law which passed in December 2014, targets advertisement sites and criminalizes the client, which unfortunately, is where most of the male sex workers he has interviewed draw on for their clients.” Although the Bill reinforces and protects the rights of sex workers, it will drive pimps and clients underground, making it more dangerous for sex workers. This, in turn, makes it more challenging for sex workers and pimps as they cannot screen their clients as well, because of the fear of being caught. Such a Bill only further increases the vulnerability of people in sex work.
Some participants also wondered about the rights of clients. For instance, what about those individuals who, for any number of reasons, may be unable to enjoy a physical relationship with another person, and turn to purchasing sex as their only alternative.
The event was well received with interesting, respectful and candid discussion. A request was made for Northeast Community Conversations to continue this dialogue and to host a follow-up conversation to take a deeper look at human/sex/labour trafficking.