Chanelle Gallant (left) and Monica Forrester are organizing a radical sex worker justice gathering this fall. Here they pose with some of the original (not-yet-demolished) buildings in Regent Park. This story is in our brand new issue of dandyhorse.
Revolutions in Sex Work
Legislating safety: something cyclists can understand
Story by Tammy Thorne, Photos by Claire McFarlane
"How many sex workers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Monica Forrester and Chanelle Gallant look at each other and reply cheerfully in unison: “Depends how much money you have!”
But here’s the thing: sex workers don’t only want to get paid, they want to do the job in safe conditions, with insurance, health benefits and more control over the way they work. Cyclists Monica Forrester and Chanelle Gallant are among the thousands of people who may be affected by a proposed change to Canada’s prostitution laws. As cyclists understand, the quality of legislation can make a big difference in one’s day-to-day safety.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal anti-prostitution laws, calling them unconstitutional. On June 4, the Harper government announced a new set of laws very similar to the Nordic model, which makes the purchase, but not the selling, of sex illegal. It also makes advertising sex for sale illegal.
Sex workers don’t like it. Most prefer decriminalization, which regulates sex work as a form of labour and allows workers to “work together, organize and make safer decisions,” says Gallant, an advocate and organizer for sex workers rights. “People who would otherwise take advantage of sex workers would have to be way more accountable,” she says, whereas under the Nordic model, sex workers must hide in the shadows.
In places with legalized prostitution, the government issues licenses to sex workers, who are required to meet certain conditions, such as prescribed health checks. Decriminalization removes all laws against prostitution, while the Nordic model “is a reformulation of the laws that have already been proved widely and decisively to have killed hundreds of women,” Gallant adds. “We can’t support this. It is actually just moralism. It is moral opposition to sex work and shows a complete indifference to the lives of sex workers,” she says. Sweden has not seen a decline in sex work since the law came into effect in 1999, just more negative consequences for sex workers. “Of course I don’t support [the new proposed laws], because I value the lives of sex workers.”
She points to New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized since 2003, as an example that Canada should follow, adding there have been zero incidences of trafficking and no increase in the number of sex workers since the laws changed.
“Anyone with a conscience who wants this violence to end would support decriminalization,” says Forrester, a trans woman who has been active in the sex worker and trans activist communities for over 20 years. She points out that by targetting the customers, as the Nordic model does, sex workers will continue facing the same risks that have put them in danger in the past.
“[Dominatrix and sex worker advocate] Terri-Jean Bedford calls it the “Pickton model” – that’s not a joke, it’s a reality,” says Gallant, referring to the murder by Robert Pickton of as many as 49 women on Vancouver’s Lower East Side. “The laws we have now facilitated an absolutely unbelievably atrocious serial killer – a slaughter of dozens of women from one area, which was tolerated for decades. And let’s remember not just the women he killed, but the women he raped who survived,” say says, adding that the Nordic model would make it even easier for predators.
“Part of the reason violence against sex workers is acceptable is because it is largely affecting highly marginalized women and their lives are simply not considered valuable. Look at the epidemic of missing aboriginal and indigenous women that the RCMP is only now finally acknowledging,” Gallant continues. “Why isn’t this a national emergency?” She points to a new study by PhD candidate Maryanne Pearce that details the cases of over 4,000 missing women – a disproportionate number (over 20%) of whom are aboriginal and sex workers. Carolyn Bennett, Federal Member of Parliament and Liberal critic for Aboriginal Affairs said, “We’re very concerned that [the Nordic model] may not meet the test that the Supreme Court put forward in terms of the health and safety of women.”
Forrester says many in the trans community get into sex work through circumstance. “When I started it was for survival. My instinct to survive led me to working the streets. In the 80s there was so much trans phobia. A lot of trans people were under-housed and under-employed. There was a lot of stigma. I felt gratification through sex work and a sense of community. When society is telling you that your body is abnormal and ugly and then you do sex work and people are saying your body is beautiful: that is validating. It’s hard for some people to connect sex work with empowerment,” she says.
Both Gallant and Forrester are femmes of honour at this year’s Dyke March as part of World Pride and, Forrester is the Grand Marshall for the Trans Pride March on June 27. Both enjoy unwinding on their bikes.
“When I feel really stressed I jump on my bike. After 20 minutes I feel so different. I love riding my bike,” says Forrester, adding she was one of the first in Toronto to ride a bike to meet with her clients. But, she adds, the potholes in the lane ways and side streets are terrible.
Gallant agrees: “Improve the roads; they are so bad. Obviously, more bike lanes would be great too. I’d like to learn more about cycling politics too because to be honest, I think it’s the most dangerous thing that I do: ride my bike in Toronto.
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