I entered the “sex trade” at the ripe old age of 18. I don’t want to say that I was basically a child but, when when I look back it feels like it was a life time ago. I was so young! I’m sure that, if I’m lucky, in 5 years I’ll look back and think the same thing but, nonetheless, it needs to be said. I started stripping in a crappy little bar far from the beaten path. It was a family owned place where the bouncers were the dealers and it wasn’t uncommon for bikers to drive right in to the bar or punches to be thrown. I mean it wasn’t roadhouse or anything but it wasn’t the classiest place either. Although I’ve since changed career paths (that’s a liberal way of putting it) the same question comes up almost every time I work – “how did you start?” With all the publicity surrounding bill c36 and with it the talk of trafficking, exploitation and survival sex, I feel compelled to finally put it on (digital) paper.
I’d like to say I’m not the average sex worker but the more I look in to this the more I have to admit that there is no “average” sex worker. I came from a single parent household in the suburbs. My mother had me when she was only 18 and my father passed away when I was 5 years old. My mom did really well for me. Well, apart from the physical abuse that ended in my getting removed from the home when I was 14. I was returned at 15 without any support and ended up back in care shortly after. I was the stereotypical 16 year old girl so naturally I knew everything. Consequentially, I left on my birthday to go back home. My mom kicked me out within a week and I was brought to a homeless shelter downtown in the back of a cruiser.
I know that, so far, this post doesn’t seem like a positive one. C36 is doing a good job of bringing our stories up in a certain light. They are making us all out to be weak and scared and hopeless. They are saying that all sex work is survival based. The first part of my story is sad. It isn’t a great tale of empowerment and choice and self worth. It is a story of failure – mine for the way I made rash decisions, my mother’s for giving up but also the government’s for lack of support when my mother needed it or when I ended up in that homeless shelter a scared, vulnerable 16 year old from the ‘burbs. I needed real help but instead I learned a valuable lesson – nobody cares. I mean that in the best possible way. Everyone is so entitled in this day and age but, guess what? In the real world nobody owes any more than anyone else. I remember calling everyone from old social workers to my high school vice principal and all I got was sympathy. So, within a few hours I hit the streets looking for my own solutions.
Did I find them? Well, kind of. I ran in to a man almost four times my age who used to date my mother. Shock factor. He offered me a place to crash that was safer than the shelter and I jumped at the opportunity. We never discussed any form of payment but I went on to date him for 2.5 years (from the time I was 16 until I was 18 and he was 40 until 42). He was a low level drug dealer and didn’t have much but he offered a roof over my head and food in my stomach while I went to school. What did I offer? Sex. I can sugarcoat it with delusions of love and labels like “relationship” but let’s be honest – we had a mutually beneficial relationship. He had always been very controlling. I wasn’t allowed to work, I had few friends and he was jealous. “Unhappy” doesn’t cover it. I was weak and scared and hopeless. I was surviving but at the cost of my emotional well being and sanity. On my 18th birthday I stared in my bathroom mirror in tears, frantically arranging my hair over bald spots. It was falling out in clumps due to stress. I was prescribed sleeping pills shortly after and frequently popped them in an attempt to sleep through the more volatile arguments that erupted daily. I was never faithful to that man. I was never attracted to him sexually. I can say a lot of negative things about that point in my life but it was also probably my most influential period. It opened my mind sexually, I forged strong beliefs on sex and love and learned to fuck with a smile on my face while questioning every single decision I had ever made in my life. I had sex with him daily as I fell in love with someone else but I stayed with him because I felt I had no other choice. When C36 talks about survival sex work do they realize it happens outside of prostitution? What I was doing was survival sex work, the only difference is that I only had one client who had some very pimp like qualities. I understand that these victims need help. In many ways I was lucky; however flawed and abusive my relationship was, I was at least protected by the law. I did what I did to survive as best as I could but, had I been brave enough, I could have relied on police support when he started leaving bruises. The only person to blame for not doing so is me. I did things I regret to keep myself above water but I had protection if I needed it.
Eventually, things got to be too much. I should have left him so many times but he knew I didn’t have any options and he capitalized on that fact. I had no job, no money, no chance. He had spent years making me feel worthless. My confidence was so low that he had me convinced that I was unlovable and he was doing me a favor by being with me. I had an amazing friend that never gave up on me. Eventually, I was ready to leave. I still didn’t have money or a job but I was determined when I told him this was the end. “What will you do?” he asked. Million dollar question. We had been going to strip clubs often since I turned of age and it was obvious that there was quick money to be made so I told him I would dance. Part of me hoped that he would promise to change and save me from having to. But, he didn’t even bother to lie. As he drove me in for my first shift I was so scared. He told me he’d be there when I failed. I felt a switch flip. I couldn’t live like this anymore, I wouldn’t.
In a few weeks I was able to move out. Sex work saved me. Sex work was a major component in turning my life around in a positive way. In that dingy bar where rough looking men paid to get lap dances I met some of the kindest and most understanding people. I formed relationships with the girls that continue to inspire me with their resilience and hard work. Some of them came from scary and dangerous places, some of them didn’t. Like all sex workers that I have met, they did their job. We have our good days and our bad days just like anybody else but the rent gets paid and food gets put on the table. Yes, I took my clothes off for 20$ a song back then but I got so much more than that. C36 fails to realize is that sex work can save people. Those who don’t want to do it need help and support, we all know that. However, most of the people affected by the proposed law are consenting adults. This may or may not be their dream job but it is their choice. How many people love their jobs every single day? Who dreams of being a garbage man for example? Or a statistician? Or any number of other things? That doesn’t mean sex work isn’t work. We are adults. Trust us to make out own choices. Trust that we don’t need or want your handouts, we don’t need to be saved. We need what everyone, in every job and life situation needs – support. We need to feel safe. We need to know that law enforcement will be on the case when we need them. It is said that sex work can never be made safe so it is better to attempt to stop it. That’s an excuse. You can make us safe by giving us safe access to the law. When clients know that abuse and harassment will not be tolerated, when we can get personal details from them such as their names without losing them, when we know we can come to you without being stigmatized – then we will be safe. 20 million dollars can do a lot of good for people who feel trapped. We already have laws to fight exploitation, trafficking and underage sex. We are already in a position to help victims that are present in this work (another symptom of forcing anything underground where the criminal element preys). By lumping consenting adults in with people who legitimately need help you are only making things worse. You are putting us in danger. You are risking our very lives by forcing us deeper underground and dancing around the issue that, even though what I’m doing isn’t illegal, everything surrounding it including my clients is criminal. Sex work will never go away. Even with this bill, survival based sex work will continue. The only thing that politicians are going to be successful in eliminating is our hope. They will push us in to danger and we will die. C36, “the protection if communities and exploited persons act”, isn’t dealing with any of the tough truths about why men and women feel the need to turn to this line of work. It is ignoring those of us who are not exploited because we are not considered to be moral, upstanding citizens although so many of us are. It is brushing the fact that the most vulnerable of those targeted (street level workers) will end up in jail, deeper in poverty or six feet under. It will turn clients in to criminals and they will no longer be valuable sets of eyes and ears. If they fear going to prison or being outed they will not come to you with fears of trafficking or under aged victims. Those of us who are happy in our jobs risk being forced to find new work where we will make less money, work more hours and accumulate more debt instead of stimulating the economy. Some will be forced on to welfare while others will no longer have the flexibility to raise families or go to school. I have never claimed to have all the answers because, I don’t. I do know that this bill is nowhere near being ready and rushing it through to help a political agenda is putting us all at risk. Let’s hope that there are major changes before it passes.