Sex Work and the State: An Interview with Kara Gillies

Emily van der Meulen

Kara Gillies is a sex worker and activist who has been advocating for sex workers’ rights and well-being for the past two decades. She co-founded both the Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour and the former Toronto Migrant Sex Workers Advocacy Group. Gillies hosted a sex worker rights radio show on CIUT 89.5 FM called The Shady Lady and was a health worker at Hassle Free Clinic. She has been involved with Maggie’s (www.maggiestoronto.ca), a Toronto-based sex worker-run organization, for 18 years and currently coordinates its education program. Gillies is also the Executive Director of Voices of Positive Women (www.vopw.org). Emily van der Meulen interviewed her in September 2008.

Please tell us a bit about Maggie’s.

Maggie’s is a sex worker-run organization dedicated to promoting the safety and dignity of women, men and trans people working in the sex trade. Maggie’s was formed in 1986 by a small group of Toronto-based sex workers who chose to fight against the social and legal injustices that sex workers face. Over the years, Maggie’s has taken a stand against the criminalization of prostitution and fought for the recognition of the labour and human rights of sex workers. Of course, these are long-term struggles, so the early organizers recognized the necessity of providing basic, ongoing support to fellow sex workers while the systemic battle was being fought. In addition to meeting immediate needs, this approach allowed us to build a community base and to facilitate sex workers’ capacity to mobilize for change. Maggie’s offers a range of practical support to sex workers, including workshops, health information, and advice on workplace health and safety.

You speak about the sex trade and sex workers. What industries and which workers are included in these terms?

Good question. I have to say that there is no universal agreement about these terms. It is certainly the case that many people, especially those in social services and the media, use the term sex work as a synonym (some would say euphemism) for prostitution. At Maggie’s, we use the term sex work as an umbrella term that encompasses a full range of erotic labour. This includes prostitution in all its forms, such as street-based prostitution and escorting, for example. We also include exotic/erotic dancing, pornography, phone sex, erotic massage, professional domination/submission and other erotic work. In my opinion, one of the organization’s key strengths is our ability and willingness to bring together a diverse group of workers across a spectrum of sectors. We aim to recognize the shared challenges, oppressions and even joys we may share, while acknowledging the very real differences in the work and work conditions among sex trade sectors. Most media and pop culture attention to the sex trade focuses on street-based work, with an occasional nod to exotic dancing. In fact, street-based workers make up about five percent of the sex trade in Toronto, and up to 10 to 15 percent of the business across Canada. The public focus on street-based sex work is often fueled by exaggerated fears and inflammatory notions of street-based sex workers as vectors of disease and a public nuisance who bring down property values in newly-gentrified neighbourhoods. The resulting targeting of street-based sex workers by police, organized residents groups and business associations increases their vulnerability to violence and incarceration. Street-based workers are the most marginalized of all sex workers and bear the brunt of the stigma, criminalization and violence that stems from these oppressions.

It is interesting that you mention criminalization. Tell me about the legal status of sex work in Canada and how it impacts sex workers.

Because sex work involves a range of activities and sectors, there are many laws that can be invoked, including laws against indecent theatrical performances, for example. For now, I will limit myself to addressing the legal status of prostitution, as that is the activity subjected to the strongest negative sanctions. Most people assume that prostitution in itself is illegal in this country. That is not true. Prostitution itself, the exchange of sex for money or other direct compensation, is not illegal in Canada and never has been. However, most of the activities integral to prostitution are considered offences under criminal law. Specifically, it is illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution in places that are public or open to public viewing. This includes parked or moving cars, hotel bars and so forth. This law makes it impossible for sex workers to properly negotiate the terms and conditions of their services before they end up one-on-one with a potential client in a private place. This means, especially for workers soliciting business on the street, that if they want to obey the law, they cannot agree upon the type of service, the pay, or condom use before being alone with a client in a potentially volatile situation.

Upon hearing this, many people wonder, “Well, why not work in private then?” One response is that many street-based workers are under-housed or homeless, living in poverty and sometimes dependent on substance use. Street-based sex work becomes a viable way for them to support themselves. Off-street, self-employed work involves overhead that can be prohibitively expensive (advertising, transportation to clients’ places or rent for your own workplace). There is the popular option of avoiding overhead by working for an employer such as an escort agency. However, the instability of many street-involved workers’ lives renders this option unviable for most of them. There are some street-based workers who could or even do work off-street but report that there are elements of street-based sex work that they like. For some workers, there is a particular sense of community with other street-active people (including non-sex workers), as well as what can be described as a subculture.

Another reason not to work in private is the bawdy-house law. The term bawdy-house often conjures images of swanky brothels brimming with lingerie-clad ladies reclining on velvet settees. In reality, however, a bawdy-house is any place used regularly for prostitution or “acts of indecency.” This includes a sex worker using her own home or renting a separate work space, even if it is just for her own use. It also covers massage parlours, professional dungeons, and other venues.

So on the one hand, the state criminalizes public communication for prostitution and on the other hand it criminalizes the use of private spaces.

Exactly. The internal contradiction is clear. Unfortunately, so are the consequences. Criminalizing work sites through the bawdy-house law makes it impossible for the industry to develop and enforce occupational health and safety guidelines because the work space itself is illegal. It also means that workers and management can lose everything they have if they get busted on bawdy-house charges, because their earnings and assets can be seized. This seriously impedes sex workers’ economic security. Physical security is compromised as well, because many sex workers do not want to report an assault or robbery because they do not want to attract police attention.

I have talked about the criminal laws against communicating and bawdy-houses. The third big criminal law around prostitution makes it illegal to participate in someone else’s prostitution activities, whether or not you make money from this engagement. This is the procuring law. Again, many people think of “pimp” when they hear about procuring. However, the law in Canada is extremely broad and captures any sort of third-party involvement in prostitution, regardless of the nature or conditions of that involvement. So a completely ethical escort agency owner who pays really well and provides excellent services such as advertising and security is subject to the same sanction as an asshole boss who exploits or even violates workers. It is ironic because the law against procuring is the one anti-prostitution law that people assume is there to protect sex workers. However, the opposite is true.

This law means that managers and employers of prostitution workers need to distance themselves from the sexual component of the work. This is why services are referred to as “escorting” or “companionship” services instead of sex work services. Unfortunately, this imposed lack of clarity means that workers are not advised of job expectations, safer sex practices, or what they can or should charge for particular services. This makes workers vulnerable because when they encounter a client who has been booked by an agency, no proper negotiation has taken place. What services are included in the fee? Are there services the worker chooses not to provide? What are the safer sex practices? As with the communicating law, the state places workers in a volatile and even dangerous situation. Another harmful consequence of the procuring law is that the criminalization of the labour management relationship precludes the application of labour and employment law protections to sex workers. So workers who happen to be employed in the prostitution sector are denied access to basic labour rights such as minimum wage, employment benefits, restrictions on work hours, conditions of fair termination, and so forth. The procuring law has particularly severe implications for racialized women and women living with disabilities because it prevents them from seeking redress for discriminatory employment practices through human rights commissions.

There is such a deep mythology of the “pimp” in our culture. How do you respond to people who ask, “But what about the actual pimps? Don’t we need the procuring law to protect workers – especially women – from these violent predators?”

I totally understand this concern – nobody wants women to be subjected to violence and exploitation. What I need to explain is that the stereotypical street pimp is a rarity in Canada. The coat hanger wielding, fedora-wearing man with a stable of girls is not a reality. Unfortunately, this very class-biased and typically racist construct of the “pimp” misinforms most people’s understanding of the sex trade. That said, it is certainly true that abuses do occur in the sex trade, just like labour abuses occur in other sectors and gendered physical/psychological abuses are perpetrated against women throughout all of society. The answer is to make sure that sex workers are afforded equal protection against labour violations under labour and employment laws, as well as equal protection against violence under general criminal laws. We already have strict criminal sanctions against assault, kidnapping, and robbery. We do not need the procuring law, especially given the harm it causes. When we talk about criminalization, we need to remember that criminal law is by far the strictest and most severe form of negative state sanction. It really needs to be reserved for instances of demonstrable and serious harm.

To sum up the legal status of prostitution in Canada, the only way to work within the bounds of the law is to work by yourself, go to the client’s home or hotel (not your own place), never go to the same place twice and never negotiate the conditions of your services unless you are in a private, isolated location. This is clearly a recipe for disaster. Not only is it blatantly unsafe, it makes no business sense. Imagine working as a hair stylist but not being able to open your own salon, rent a chair, or advertise your services. Imagine working as an auto mechanic and being criminalized for stating your rates in public or working out of an auto shop. The absurdity of the situation is clear.

What would Maggie’s like to see instead?

Maggie’s and other sex workers’ organizations across the globe believe that the decriminalization of prostitution is a necessary step toward realizing sex workers’ rights and well-being. Decriminalization would involve repealing all of the criminal code sanctions specific to prostitution and allowing the sex trade to be governed as an industry or business. I want to stress that this is an entirely different approach from legalization. Legalized prostitution is a model that, like criminalization, continues to view sex work as a social evil to be contained and controlled. As a result, sex workers labouring under legalized prostitution systems are subjected to oppressive regulations that are far more onerous than those placed on other working people. For example, counties in Nevada that legalize prostitution impose regulations such as identity cards and curfews on sex workers employed in legalized brothels. Needless to say, these extreme forms of regulation seriously curtail workers’ civil rights. Another negative outcome of legalization is that the strict regulations and conditions exclude many workers, typically those who are marginalized through such things as criminal records, substance use, immigration status and racialization. This exclusion leads to a two-tiered system that forces the most vulnerable workers back into the illegal underground.

Is decriminalization a panacea? No, it’s not. Stigma and social discrimination would undoubtedly continue to plague sex workers for some time after legal reform. However, stigma does not exist in a vacuum. The labelling and treatment of sex workers as criminals sends the unambiguous message that the Canadian state views sex-working people as aberrant and harmful to the broader community. This gives permission and indeed ammunition to those who discriminate against sex workers. Even more seriously, violent predators receive the message that sex workers cause social harm and as such are legitimate targets of violence and aggression.

What would decriminalization look like in Canada?

If the federal criminal laws were repealed, it would be up to the provinces and, by extension, municipalities to determine their own regulatory systems. This could be very good or very bad. It is important that sex workers collaborate with legal experts, community members, labour activists, politicians and others to develop consistent, fair and viable alternatives. The basic tenets, however, would involve the extension (and, if necessary, adaptation) of existing human rights, employment, labour, business, and zoning laws to sex trade businesses. Most sex workers oppose the licensing of individual workers because of the stigma and residual police harassment that this would entail. However, the licensing of owner/operators or establishments would not pose as severe a threat.

New Zealand recently decriminalized prostitution activities and now regulates the sex trade through a series of reasonable local laws that respect the rights and well being of workers, management, and the broader community. In Canada, the Pivot Legal Society has published a report analyzing various regulatory frameworks that could be developed if prostitution were decriminalized (Beyond Decriminalization: Sex Work, Human Rights and a New Framework for Law Reform, available at www.pivotlegal.org).

How do we get to decriminalization?

That is a tougher question. There are really two methods of law reform. One is for Parliament to change legislation on its own, the other is for the courts to impose reform on constitutional grounds. Over the past 20-odd years, various parliamentary and inter-governmental committees have examined Canada’s prostitution laws with an eye to potential change. Although the predominant analysis stemming from these reviews has been that the current laws serve neither the community nor sex workers, Parliament has not moved forward with positive change. The reality is that prostitution is still seen as a moral issue and one that politicians don’t want to touch for fear of offending their constituents. Until there is a groundswell of support for legal reform from the public or a significant portion of the social justice movement, politicians are not going to risk taking a stand.

This leaves the courts as an avenue for change. There are two challenges of the prostitution laws under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms currently before the courts, one in Ontario and one in British Columbia. The basic argument is that prostitution laws violate workers’ security of person, freedom of expression and, in the BC case, equality rights. Both challenges are in their early stages, so it is too early to speculate on the outcome. Maggie’s is supportive of both challenges and the sex workers who launched them.

What sort of support is Maggie’s getting for sex workers’ rights and decriminalization and from whom?

Over the years, we have had sporadic support from various individuals and social justice movements. There have been parts of the queer, migrant workers’ rights, feminist, anti-poverty, and civil rights movements that have incorporated elements of a sex workers’ rights position. Unfortunately, there have typically been divisions within these movements over sex work and as a consequence, support has stalled.

Over the past five years, we have seen some limited interest in sex workers’ rights from organized labour. Most notably, CUPE National passed a resolution supporting decriminalization a few years back. Again, however, the momentum has stalled.

What’s the main barrier?

In the most general terms, I think that the whole concept of sex work as labour requires a paradigm shift. The popular constructs of sex work – especially prostitution – view sex work as negative on a number of levels: as a moral offence, a crime, an individual pathology, and/or a reflection of social inequality. These are long-standing and deeply embedded social perceptions and ideologies that are difficult to change. In addition to these social constructs, many of us as individuals are deeply invested in certain codes of behaviour, especially when they involve the value-laden arenas of sex and money. The dichotomies of “good girls” versus “bad girls” and socially “legitimate” jobs versus “illegitimate” jobs give us the tools to defend or even applaud our individual behaviours by allowing us to say, “At least I am not like that other person over there.” If someone breaks down those dichotomies – say by normalizing the bad-girl sex worker; we are forced to examine our own behaviours and assumptions in a whole new light. That can be very threatening.

At this stage, some of the most fierce opposition to sex workers’ rights comes from individuals and organizations that have adopted what is referred to as a radical feminist perspective. To put it simply, this philosophy sees all sex work as inherently degrading and damaging to women – not just to sex-working women, but to women in general. Many feminists who subscribe to this viewpoint maintain that prostitution is in fact a form of violence against women. From this perspective, they do not want to see sex work reforms, social or legal, but rather the elimination of sex work. This is by no means the majority feminist voice, but it is definitely the most vocal. It is this lobby that frequently deters policy makers, labour organizations, and other potential rights supporters from adopting a sex workers’ rights position as they do not want to be seen to be supporting the oppression of women. The unfortunate irony is that through their attempt to help women in the sex trade, abolitionist feminists actually contribute to the harm that sex-working women experience.

Are there other ways that abolitionist and radical feminist conceptualizations of prostitution impact sex worker organizing?

What is most troubling about the abolitionist perspective is that it contradicts and frequently silences the voices of sex workers not just in Canada, but worldwide. Sex workers in the global south have been particularly hard hit by abolitionist feminist ideologies that counter workers’ organizing efforts. Most sex workers’ groups across the globe believe sex work to be a legitimate economic option for many people, especially women. Based on experience, they view sex work as part of the solution to systemic challenges such as poverty and globalization, not part of the problem. This does not mean that sex work is universally glamorous work or a fabulous choice for all who engage in it. Like any job or life experience, it is different for everyone. It is great for some people, horrific for others, and simply okay for what is probably the majority. Ultimately, however, one does not have to take a position on the value of sex work in order to support sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of prostitution. Regardless of whether you think sex work is good, bad, or are ambivalent, the reality is that people – predominantly women – are harmed by oppressive laws and a lack of social status. Racialized women and migrant workers are the most severely impacted. In fact, I would argue that it is the most marginalized and oppressed of sex workers who stand to gain the most from social and legal change.

There are a lot of misunderstandings about sex work in international contexts. What do you say when people ask you about the impacts of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism on sex workers in the global south world? How should sex worker organizations like Maggie’s respond to these kinds of questions?

First, I have to state that neither I as an individual nor Maggie’s as an organization are the ones who should be asked or who can legitimately answer these questions. Sex workers in the global south are highly organized at the local, national and regional levels and they are the best positioned, both practically and politically, to identify and address concerns about colonialism, imperialism and capitalism in their contexts. I feel it is imperative that I stress this point as I find the silencing of sex workers’ who live in the global south, especially by academics in the global north, extremely offensive. In fact, I need to correct my last statement: sex workers in the global south are not so much silenced as they are completely unrecognized, despite the fact that sex workers in many regions of the global south are far better organized and engage in more productive program development and political activism than most of the sex workers’ groups in the global north. There is a sad and poignant irony to the fact that many academics and activists who bring an essential anti-colonial and anti-imperialist analysis to their critique of sex work actually reproduce those very oppressions by failing to consider (never mind centre) the experiences and analyses of sex workers in the global south.

That said, sex workers and sex workers’ organizations in the global north have a responsibility to recognize our privileged location and it is incumbent on us to take the lead from our colleagues in the global south and incorporate an anti-colonial and anti-imperial position into our analysis and actions. For many years, the international sex workers’ movement was not truly global and, like other movements, was dominated by European and North American individuals and groups. There has been a lot of positive change in the last decade and the international movement is a lot more balanced. Unfortunately, sex workers groups in the north continue to have more money, access, and, hence, power than groups in the south.

Perhaps one of the most problematic anti-colonial and anti-imperial analyses of the global sex trade plays out in the often inflammatory critiques of what is referred to as “sex tourism.” It is undeniable that negative factors such as globalization, the economic disparity between the south and the north, and the ongoing exoticization of racialized women all contribute to patterns of white men from the north incorporating sexual and companionship services provided by sex workers in the global south into their leisure and business trips. I need to add, however, that these factors also contribute to a scenerio in which women in the global south provide professional sexual and companionship services to white men from abroad. I am compelled to spell out the reciprocity of this arrangement because the agency of sex working women is typically ignored in examinations of “sex tourism.” Sex workers in the global south are commonly portrayed as unequivocal victims of global economic disparity who are mere pawns in the hands of their state and white males as sexual predators, or at least exploiters. While the power differentials are clearly present, they do not automatically render women helpless or inherently victimized. Women are able to negotiate and navigate the challenges and opportunities presented to them, and in fact create their own opportunities out of adversity. I in no way mean to glamorize or romanticize sex working women’s experiences, but I feel it is necessary to counter the prevailing image of sex workers in the global south as passive victims. In fact, that particular construct of sex workers as passive victims has strong racist and sexist implications.

Why do you use quotation marks when you say “sex tourism”? How is that significant?

I do this because I find the term extremely loaded and because it conjures the stereotypical images I mentioned earlier. I also question the underlying assumptions about sex work that underpin the desire to distinguish tourism that involves sex work from tourism that involves other labour sectors or entertainment experiences. Tourism from the global north to the global south is commonly imbued with a problematic exoticization of the other and takes advantage of global economic disparities. This is true regardless of whether the privileged tourist is seeking to sample “exotic” food, “exotic” architecture, “exotic” entertainment, “exotic” sex, or “exotic” culture in general. To separate sexual services from the myriad other services and attractions that make up the tourist trade is to reveal a bias against sex work in general. From that perspective, sex work is perceived as more exploitative and more degrading than any other type of work. Again, this is a social construct and not a universal lived reality.

If people are interested in hearing more from sex workers in the global south, how would you recommend they do so?

There are a number of international sex workers’ rights organizations around the world that have easily accessible websites. To begin with, I would recommend people read some of the publications and reports on the Network of Sex Work Projects site (www.nswp.org) or the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (www.apnsw.org). If they are interested in a particular region or country they could look more specifically at Thailand’s EMPOWER (www.empowerfoundation.org), Hong Kong’s Zi Teng (www.ziteng.org.hk), South Africa’s SWEAT (www.sweat.org.za), Brazil’s Davida (www.davida.org.br), or Guatemala’s MuJER (www.mujer.cfsites.org).

Some readers might have seen the documentary film Born into Brothels. I mention this because it was well received in North America and the filmmakers were praised for their “empowering work” with Calcutta’s sex workers. What viewers were not told was that Calcutta is home to the world’s largest sex worker organization, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (www.durbar.org). The DMSC has over 65,000 members and offers a host of organizing activities and community supports including health and education programs for sex workers and their families, a micro-credit loan program, literacy classes, and vocational training for older sex workers and sex workers’ children. This vibrant organization was not only completely absent from the award-winning documentary, but the documentary itself portrayed Calcutta’s sex workers in such a disempowering and negative light that the DMSC called for a boycott of the film. Yet how many North American viewers were even aware of this protest? If readers are interested in seeing a documentary that honours the amazing work done by Calcutta’s sex working community, I recommend Tales of the Night Fairies by director Shohini Ghosh.

All of the organizations I referenced are organized by and for sex workers and have their own perspectives on imperialism, trafficking, colonialism, and sex tourism. I strongly encourage readers who are concerned about these issues to listen to the voices of sex workers who are working in international and regional contexts and to hear what they have to say.