Sarah: What do you know about sex work in Canada? Did you know that it’s totally legal to be a sex worker, but that it’s illegal to actually buy sex? And did you know that while you can be a sex worker, you can’t hire security for yourself or work out of any establishment that advertises selling sex? Did you also know that sex work is employment taken on by choice. Meeting clients, getting paid, putting food on the table, and plenty of cases, sex workers become sex workers because it will pay them more than working in retail or let them work one job instead of four. Maybe they have kids back home and need money for food. Why do any of us have jobs anyway? But the stigma against it is strong, so strong that it was the overwhelming sentiment behind a recent comment in the House of Commons that made headlines, and stoked outrage.
News Clip: I would just respond to that by asking them all to remember across the way. If it’s a. Area of work that she is considered and a gift that is an appropriate–
Sarah: Conservative MP Arnold Viersen then went on to say, women in Canada are trafficked into sex work and that ending human trafficking should be the priority. He was responding to a question from NDP MP Laurel Collins. About the criminalization around sex work raised after Marylene Levesque was found dead in a Quebec city hotel room late last month. She had been meeting with a client who was facing a life sentence for killing his partner, but had been out on parole, allowed to meet women to meet his sexual needs. Confusion around sex work and sex trafficking raise some alarm bells for me. How are we ever going to keep people safe and alive if we can’t look closely enough to understand the experience that doing this work as work versus being exploited and coerced? I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. To help with all of this, I’m joined by Chanelle Gallant, a feminist, sex worker activists for the past 20 years, and director of the Migrant Sex Workers Project. Welcome Chanelle.
Chanelle: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Sarah.
Sarah: So tell me what went through your mind when you saw the coverage about the murder of Quebec city sex worker, Marylene Levesque.
Chanelle: Um, you know, to be honest, I avoided reading about it for a few days. Um, I knew that it was going to be painful to engage with. And so I took a couple of days to just ready myself, um, to read the coverage. Um, and then when I did, of course it was, it was, I was very upset. I was upset at such disregard for sex workers lives and just the incredibly gross incompetence that went into her murder, like all of the different factors that played into that. Yeah. It was really painful.
Sarah: Yeah. The idea that his, they were like, we’re going to allow him to meet his sexual needs after like killing his partner, you know? So brutally and, in terms of like the media reaction and the response to it. You know, you’ve been, you’ve been, you have a really interesting history of activism. You cofounded the migrant sex worker project, sex workers project. I mean, you’ve done a lot of harm reduction work too. Like what did you see sort of missing from the conversations around sex worker safety that kind of sprung out of this murder and the way that people responded to it?
Chanelle: Yeah. I mean, one of the wild things for me is that, you know, the government in 2014 under Harper introduced a series of anti-sex work legislation, and one of the things they did was they criminalize the sharing of information between sex workers. You know what the criminalization of sex work does, is it basically prevents sex workers from sharing information, including about men who’ve been harassing, abusive, or even violent. And so they criminalize that information, but then they, it was unbelievable to me that they would prevent sex workers from sharing information with each other, but then they wouldn’t even give sex workers the information they have, that they had sent a killer to them.
Sarah: Yeah. So they could have been notified them and said–
Chanelle: They could look like, first of all, it never should have happened in the first place. I mean, there were so many steps at which this tragedy could have been prevented. And I think that’s one of the reasons it is a tragedy, is how completely preventable it was at so many different stages. But to send a killer out into the community to access the community of sex workers without notifying them, and then that means that no sex workers were given informed consent so they could make their own decision about whether they would want to see a killer and no doubt Marylene Levesque would not have wanted to had she known that about him, but she was not given that opportunity to make a decision for herself.
Sarah: And let’s, let’s back up a little bit since you brought up the, the changes in 2014, you know, um, so essentially the, Stephen Harper’s conservative government said, huh, let’s like not allow, let’s make it illegal to advertise and to buy sex. Where does that leave a sex worker? You know, like how are you, like, would they do that to any other economic business? You know, we’re not going to let you advertise and we’re not gonna actually let anyone buy from you. So what does that do? How does that, how does that impact a sex worker safety?
Chanelle: Well, you know. What happens with the sex worker laws that were introduced in 2014 is that they’re similar to, but slightly worse than the laws that had been in place before.
Sarah: What were those essentially?
Chanelle: Those laws were introduced under Mulroney in the 80s and those criminalized essentially everything around the sex industry. So you know, it criminalizes sex workers working together, criminalize the sex workers advertising and criminalize the sex workers, the ability to screen clients. It criminalizes their ability to hire anyone to work with them, um, as safety as security or any other form of support, it criminalizes even housing sex workers. Uh, because then if you take, you know, rent money from a sex worker, that scene is materially benefiting from sex work. So it basically just creates a situation of total structural isolation for sex workers. And that is the most dangerous thing for any, any community. Isolation is always tied to threats to people’s human rights, to violence. Um, and so the impact on sex workers is just that they’re not able to work under conditions that they choose. They’re not able to decide how they work. They have to be always working to evade law enforcement.
Sarah: Yeah, and I mean, working with migrant sex workers must be really interesting. And a compounding issue on this front, right? You know, you’re already isolated if you come from somewhere else and you’re really just trying to make money to maybe send home or, and also like in the media coverage too, this is a beautiful white woman who was murdered as well. You know, like that’s a factor, right? That like, I dunno, bill Blair, you know, who’s the minister of safety, community safety. Like would he be at the mic, you know, with such aggressive questions too, if it wasn’t migrant worker necessarily. And I mean, these are what, if questions–
Chanelle: No, they’re not. Because we have the answer to that, which is that migrant sex workers have died since the introduction of the act, the protection of communities and exploited persons act, or PCEPA. So Evelyn Bumatay Castillo was murdered in Southern Ontario. Tammy Le was murdered in Southern Ontario, and no, none of these politicians were anywhere to be seen. And we issued press releases. And you know, I’m a part of a coalition that is fighting continually for the rights of migrant sex workers. And we don’t see any of this concern for their deaths. And there should be an inquiry into all of the violence that has occurred to sex workers after the introduction of a law that the Harper government claimed would protect them.
Sarah: And so now I’m going to ask you about a moment in the House of Commons that kind of conflates some of these issues, right? So we had a Conservative MP named Arnold Viersen respond to a question in the House of Commons from NDP MP Laurel Collins.
News Clip: I also asked the Honorable Member if he considers the Harper government’s decision to implement bill 36 which criminalized the work environments, the establishment that sex workers go to to feel safe, that criminalized their ability to hire security, if he acknowledges that this is a factor in this death and many others?
Sarah: And he said,
News Clip: I would just respond to that by asking them honourable member across the way if it’s a, uh, area of work that she is considered. And, uh, if that is an appropriate, uh–
Sarah: You know, with a certain tone, I mean, and I’m, I’m sort of, you know, everyone has their own perceptions and listen to, you know, hear things a certain way. But it was a bit of, in that adversarial environment of the house of comments like, Oh, I would like to ask the member if she’s ever considered sex work. And then launching into kind of a, um, you know, we, you know, women do not want to choose this work.
News Clip: This is something that they are trafficked into, this is something that we have to work hard to, and in Canada, prostitution in Canada is inherently–
Sarah: What did you think when you heard those comments? Knowing some of these complexities, but also these very different things that are going on with this type of work and this kind of exploitation?
Chanelle: I think you’re hitting at something when, um, you mentioned that there was something about the tone, um, because, you know, I was shocked when I saw the comments. I thought he was incredibly disrespectful, but what I think we all picked up was that he came across like a man who was being challenged by an intelligent and capable woman and who panicked and responded with cheap sexism. And I think that’s actually a very familiar feeling. Like a lot of women saw that and were like, wait a second. And then he followed that up with the conflation of sex work and trafficking. But just to slow that down and look at the first part of that. Um, MP Collins was doing her job by asking the Conservatives a good question. Did they consult with sex workers when they drafted the legislation that re criminalized sex work in 2014? We should all be asking that question, but instead of answering honestly, Viersen dodges the question by essentially trying to slut shame MP Collins and asking if she’s ever done sex work. The problem I see is that isn’t that it’s shameful to do sex work. It’s that he’s asking the question to try to embarrass her and to not challenging him or his party. So he’s actually trying to use sexism to embarrass her in public. There’s nothing shameful about being a sex worker, but he’s trying to weaponize that, right? Um, and a lot of women will recognize that tactic in the workplace, and we’ll have experienced that. And then he goes on to make this claim that no woman chooses sex work, and then it’s all trafficking. Um, and this isn’t true. You know, we have very extensive research on this, but also I’ve been work, you know, I’ve worked with sex workers in Canada, the US Australia and Thailand, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The vast majority of sex workers are not trafficked. Sex workers have been sharing the reasons for entering the sex industry for decades, including sex workers in the global South, who are often, a lot of really patronizing and racist stereotypes are applied to them, that they’re too passive and docile and, uh, to make the decision to cross the border and do sex work. But this is a claim that’s actually pretty easily disproven through Google search or by reading any of the good social science research done in Canada on sex work and including on migrant sex work. But you know, we should just expect people who make policy to have basic information about this issue. And he showed that he doesn’t.
Sarah: I want to talk about the policy too, but can we like pause, press pause for a minute? Because I think, um, you know, certainly on Twitter and like lots of places where people were reacting to this, there were some people saying like, well, yeah, like sex work is exploitative and, and, and, and kind of seemed to blur the lines on, on trafficking and sex work. Can you talk about how those two things are very different things? And I mean, when you talk about the, the populations you’ve worked with and some of the problematic misconceptions about their views, you know, or about their experiences. What is the difference?
Chanelle: Okay, so, good question. So there’s been an intentional conflation of sex work and trafficking, and that’s ideological. So trafficking, you know, sometimes you see these very inflated numbers around trafficking. And that’s because some researchers, again, for political reasons, define all sex work as trafficking. They, you know, they claim that no one can consent to sex work or no migrants can consent to sex work. And then we ended up with these very inaccurate, a very inaccurate picture of trafficking because–
Sarah: What’s the political reason then? I mean, if you could kind of explain the ideological difference, right? There’s some roots to this.
Chanelle: Let me come back to that in a sec. So, the way the UN defines trafficking is that it has to involve force, fraud, or coercion. Okay. And this is true for any labor sector, so factory work, restaurant work, domestic work, where we see, um, trafficking is more common than in the sex industry. So sex work does not involve force, fraud or coercion–
Sarah: Like they’re making the money for themselves–
Chanelle: No, we all work for a boss, though. That’s not necessarily true.
Sarah: I mean, most of us do.
Chanelle: Yeah. And so sometimes, uh, what gets conflated with trafficking too is like average or bad working conditions. And that’s not trafficking. There’s not forced fraud or coercion. You have, you have a bad job. But that’s different than trafficking. So for example, someone working at a massage parlor, I saw a case where, again, it was immigrants. They were raided on an anti-trafficking raid. This was in Ottawa, and the owners were charged with trafficking because they kept 50% of the fees that the sex workers charge for their services. Almost nobody working in the service sector keeps 50% of the profit for the products they sell or the services that they provide.
Sarah: Or a large corporation.
Chanelle: Or a large corporation. So 50% is actually, a um, generous share of the profits of a business. But when it comes to sex work, everyone’s a Marxist. When it comes to sex work, everyone thinks, Oh, you made any profit. That’s exploitation. Which is funny because that’s actually quite a communist idea that any form of profit is exploitation. Well, if you think that, then explain to me any business. All businesses, if they’re not cooperatives, if they’re, if they’re for profit, involve the owners making more of a profit than the value of their workers’ labor.
Chanelle: Yeah. So the, you know, sex work average working conditions or sometimes decent working conditions can even be conflated with trafficking.
Sarah: Okay. So the difference being when you’re a sex worker, you can have a bad job, but you’re still willing. You’re your, you know, your, you know, your know your clients. You kind of have expectations. I mean, not know your clients, like you know, their names or anything like that. That’s not what I mean. But just like, there’s so much more awareness and control, there’s more control that you might have.
Chanelle: Yeah. There’s a lack of force, or fraud, or coercion. There is the decision to go to a job, whether that’s kind of a crappy job or kind of a great job. Trafficking is often presented in the, the sensationalist way of presenting trafficking is extremely unrealistic, which is that, you know, someone’s going to be, um, you know, kidnapped out of a parking lot, thrown in a truck. That is, that’s exceedingly unlikely because the conditions that lead to trafficking are things like homelessness, poverty, racism, you know, a lack of labor rights for migrants, that kind of thing. So if, you know, if you’re in that situation, of course you’re a lot more vulnerable to very bad work and in fact to being trafficked and forced into work. So that’s why the trafficking we see is more likely to be people who lack other forms of social and economic power. But then it’s described, the way it’s described to us as more like individual bad guys.
Sarah: Right. Which I think for– certainly like ideologically, it’s like, you know, as, as a Conservative party, they’re very much interested in public protection and crime and punishment. And so if you have a bad guy that you can put in jail, you know, the public is therefore safer. Yeah. Like, along those lines then?
Chanelle: This is exactly why I wanted to wait before I answered that question on what are the roots of this misinformation about trafficking. Because now we’ve tied, we’ve gotten to, what are the, what’s the political benefit of this conflation of sex work and trafficking, and the benefit is you don’t have to take on poverty. You don’t have to take on the exploitation of immigrants. You don’t have to transform our society. You just need more police, more prisons, tighter borders, send women back home, deport them. It’s actually a very conservative agenda that is being Trojan horsed in to look like it’s good for women.
Sarah: And one of the real costs of that?
Chanelle: Oh, I mean, women’s lives. You know, there’s a body count to this, and there has been since 1985 when these laws came into force. Over 300 sex workers have been killed since those laws were introduced. You know, we have evidence internationally, that decriminalizing sex work dramatically reduces violence against sex workers. You know, we have the example of New Zealand, which decriminalized sex work in 2003 so there’s quite a lot of evidence now.
Sarah: And what have they seen in terms of a change?
Chanelle: They’ve had, there have been four sex workers killed since–
Sarah: As opposed to like–
Chanelle: Over 300.
Chanelle: There’s been, you know, a very dramatic difference. Now, I will also say New Zealand did not decriminalize sex work for migrants, and nowhere in the world is migrant sex work legal.
Sarah: So tell me a bit about like, why go into sex work, like as a, as a choice, given that that is, that is the very definition of what sex work is, is, you know, it’s like a choice you can make.
Chanelle: Yeah. And I mean, I have been doing this work for a very long time, and the most common question I get is, Why do people become sex workers? And there are multiple reasons that people go into any type of work. So, you know, I can’t generalize, but having worked with thousands of sex workers, done research on sex work, been a sex work advocate and being a former sex worker myself, here is a little bit about what I’ve found. And you know, the first is that it’s economic, right? People choose sex work because they need a job or because they want a better job. So when I began sex work, I at the time was managing a small retail business. And after four years there, and in a management position. I earned $17 whole dollars an hour.
Sarah: You’re a manager at this job. Yeah.
Chanelle: It was– there was literally nowhere else to go up, and I was earning $17 an hour and trying to pay rent in Toronto. You know, that was not a living wage. And so I had three jobs. And now the week that I began sex work, my hourly pay was over 10 times my retail wage.
Chanelle: Yeah. And I could earn in a day what I’d been earning in a week.
Sarah: And can I ask generally how this came up as an idea of something you could do?
Chanelle: Oh, I dunno. It’s a good question when it first occurred to me. Probably many years earlier. But that at that point I was actually already working with sex workers. I organized with sex workers. I was inspired to start organizing with sex workers when I found out about the massacre. On the downtown East side of Vancouver. I was very moved by that. I was terrified by that. I grew up in a poor family, and what I saw on those posters of the missing women was that all of them were in the sex trade. They were all street-based. They were all drug users, and I really understood in a moment that if we as a community didn’t come together collectively to fight and protect ourselves, nobody was going to save us. And it was horrifying to me because, you know, at the time, my sister was a dancer. She was a stripper in the downtown East side. And you know, it’s very different than–
Sarah: So she lived there. She was vulnerable.
Chanelle: She lived in this community. Yeah. Well, she lived in the community. I mean, I think, you know, indoor stripping is different than street based sex work. However, not different enough for my comfort level. Because what if something went wrong? You know what if, what if her mental health or substance abuse spiraled for some reason and she did become a street based sex worker. You know that massacre just taught me that nobody was gonna stop it. Nobody was going to protect us. We were going to need to protect ourselves. And you know, she had started dancing, you know, um, because she was 19, she was a single mother and you know, her, the father and the government were not helping her. She could not get a job that supported her and her son. So she was very poor on welfare and she started stripping. And within a few months, she could afford safe housing for them. She could afford to feed them. She could, she had the time to spend, um, her job was flexible enough. She could spend time with him. So I really honoured and respected her decision to do that. You know, for me, that’s having the courage to live your own life and to save your own life, you know, to get out of poverty. And we should really admire women who society has done so little for and has put so much on their shoulders to raise children on their own with so little support and through sheer willpower, you know, they do a difficult job, sex work is a difficult job, and pull themselves out of poverty and we should all, be so thankful and be so impressed and provide them with as much support and respect as we can. Because if you don’t have other alternatives for poor women and poor single mothers, then back off of the sex industry and let women do what they need to do in order to get out of poverty and respect them for it.
Sarah: And so economic being like a massive example of why you would do it. I mean, and you were making 10 times, did you say?
Chanelle: I made 10 times my income, my wage, my hourly wage. Now it’s not like I was working all day, but I didn’t have to. Yeah. Because my hourly wage was, you know, a lot more than $17 an hour. And a lot of people would say, okay, yes, sure. I can see the economic advantages, but it’s so dangerous. Why would you do it if it’s so dangerous?
Sarah: How did you feel about the safety situation or the feelings around it?
Chanelle: You know, I went through this really, this real emotional process around that when I became a worker, when I became a sex worker, and suddenly everyone was so concerned with my safety. And what I realized to my shock was that nobody had noticed that my life was not safer outside of the sex industry. I had been in an abusive partnership. I am a rape survivor. You know, I was dealing with the kind of every day threats to my safety that pretty much every woman deals with, you know, watch your drinks every time you go out. Be careful where you walk at night. Um, you know, hope you don’t go on a date with a guy who turns out to be a stalker. And so I was already continually navigating violence against women. Research out of the U S you know, there’s been a real increased awareness about sexual violence on campus and the research out, coming out of the U S now is that somewhere between 33% to 45% of all women going into undergraduate programs in the US will be sexually assaulted. Will experience some form of sexual harm. I can’t remember if it’s that was assault.
Sarah: That is way too close to 50% for my liking.
Chanelle: I know! And so how could you tell me that making the best economic decision for myself is quote unquote, putting myself in danger by going into the sex industry. Where am I not putting myself in danger?
Sarah: Did you learn anything about yourself or find some growth from, from being a sex worker?
Chanelle: Oh yeah, tons.
Sarah: Tell me about that.
Chanelle: You know, I think that some of the things that really jump out for me are, I really fell in love with sex workers. I fell in love with a group of women who just didn’t seem to care what anybody thought about them. Like, wow. You know? I was like, you are a group of women who have the courage to live your own lives. No matter what anybody says, the rest of the world wants you to shut up and be a good girl and–
Sarah: Close your legs.
Chanelle: Close your legs.
Sarah: Don’t make any money.
Chanelle: Yeah. Don’t make any money. Be poor. Stay home. Stay in that crappy marriage and sex workers are like, Nope. I’m not doing that.
Sarah: And that was you too, after that point.
Chanelle: I guess it was me too, yeah, I guess so.
Sarah: You can carry that into, you know, your work and your life–
Chanelle: It’s true. Yeah. And so I dumped the boyfriend and, uh, became a sex worker, and then, I mean, to be honest, then I ended up meeting the love of my life and here we are and I’m still happily partnered and yeah.
Sarah: And now you’re talking about this issue. And you know, and I want to just kind of end the conversation asking you about what, you know, what can change in terms of how we talk about policy, but also talk about this work in social conversations.
Chanelle: Well I think compassion is a great place to start. I mean, what I would say is that I start from a commitment to women’s lives. And so even though, you know, I didn’t know her, I believe that women like Marylene Levesque was worthy of protection, respect, and care. And I want all of us to take that into our work. So how would that change how we are with sex workers? Right. And some of the things that I would suggest are, first we have to push back on the whole idea that the criminal legal system is a solution to this problem.
Sarah: Like that it’s a crime and punishment issue.
Chanelle: Yeah. We have it completely backwards. The criminal legal system is making everything worse. In particular for the most marginalized women. Indigenous women, migrant women, trans women.
Sarah: So what policy could you, would you see, like if you could name one, you know, like a place to start.
Chanelle: So a place to start would be, there’s no question to repeal PCEPA, to repeal the law, criminalizing the sex industry. That’s a place to start because then from there you can develop labor regulations. Right? That are led by sex workers.
Sarah: And is there any action in that direction yet? Like in the advocacy work, is there some promise?
Chanelle: What I would say is that there’s, there’s two things that are sort of more happening on the ground right now. One is that, um, I work with a coalition, butterfly and the migrant sex workers project work together to push back against the increase in anti-trafficking raids and inspections that the city of Toronto is doing.
Sarah: Okay, so pushing back, being like. I dunno. Are you in touch then with the, the police services then to say like–
Chanelle: More with, uh, the city of Toronto.
Sarah: Oh okay.
Chanelle: Yeah. So there’s campaigns going on that people can support and I recommend they go to the Butterfly website, Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network and check out that work. There’s a petition they can sign that’s the, you know, um, they can also make a financial contribution to Butterfly, uh, to support the work advocating– Butterfly’s doing incredible work. They’ve brought together over 300 migrant women in massage parlors to City Hall to advocate for their rights. So you can’t tell us anymore that migrant sex workers don’t have a voice and shouldn’t be in charge of making–
Sarah: They’re organized.
Chanelle: They’re organized. They’re out there. They know what they want. They’re making demands. We’d love your support. Um, the other thing I would love to see is if you’re a part of a, any kind of, um, feminist organization or an educational institution, to make a statement and support of decriminalization. If you’re part of a union to make a statement in support of sex workers’ labor rights. To honor, you know, to show respect for and care for sex workers, for their leadership, um, defending the rights of criminalized workers. Um, and I would love to see feminist organizations come out with not just the commitment to decriminalization, but gratitude to sex workers for their feminist leadership. Sex work can be terrible. It can be great. It can be terrible. It’s a business. It’s a sector, you know, it can be a lot of different things. It’s not good for everyone, but sex workers are amazing people who deserve our respect and gratitude. They deserve our love.
Sarah: Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us.
Chanelle: Thanks so much for having me, Sarah.
Sarah: Chanelle Gallant is a feminist sex worker, activist and director of the Migrant Sex Workers Project. That’s it for today’s Big Story. To hear more, go to thebigstorypodcasts.ca. You can also drop us a line on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn, and of course you can always find our episodes wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, please give us five stars. I’m Sarah Boesveld. Thanks so much for listening.
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