The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

$ex for $ale: prostitution, government and regulation

by Andrew Tibbetts

This past weekend the student union of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto presented it’s second annual conference, the theme being: Sex for Sale: prostitution, government and regulation. The two day event had a lively mix of speakers from the worlds of academia, journalism, law enforcement, sex work and advocacy.

The keynote speaker, Carole Leigh brought us up to speed on the fight for sex worker rights around the world in a lively and entertaining fashion, with bumper stickers, manifestos and music videos woven around her personal journey from red-diaper baby to “Scarlot Harlot”.

Next up was the utterly charming Valerie Scott, of Sex Professionals of Canada. She gave us the Canadian perspective, introducing us to the strange and tangled laws of our own country. The irony: prostitution itself is legal in Canada. It’s just that everything else around it—“living off the avails”, “communicating for the purposes of,” etc…—is criminalized. Valerie gave out some nickels at the start of her talk and later sweetly and calmly pointed out to the audience that we were now pimps (living off the avails of prostitution). And I didn’t even have to get a big purple hat!

Gerald Hannon joined the women for a panel discussion that closed the Friday evening portion of the conference. Hannon is famous in Toronto as the “profstitute,” a journalism professor at Ryerson whose teaching career ended after it was revealed that he supplemented his income with sex work.

The audience asked questions of the panel as SDS Professor, Dr. Scott Rayter, undoubtably a professor of hot-ology, moderated. It wouldn’t be a university event without outraged students finding fault. “Why does the event cost money?” I wondered how international guests could be brought in and halls rented, etc…, without charging a fee—a modest $40 for the two days. “Why aren’t there sex workers here?” I wondered how anyone could tell whether there were or not—fishnet stockings among the crowd? But then some folks like to use a Q and A to make speeches. "Why is someone filming this?" Xtra reporter, Michael Pihach, stepped up to answer some of the questions, since the moderator and panel seemed a little bewildered. Personally, I think we need more media attention, not less, on this topic. "Why are the police at this conference?" The fact that Detective Leaver was scheduled for the Saturday event didn't stop some folks from asking her questions. Conference organizers were forced to point out the obvious—come tomorrow and ask her yourself—but a little drama is always good, no?

Saturday opened with a succinct powerpoint presentation, courtesy of professor MarianaValverde, which outlined the history of efforts to define and “deal with” prostituion around the world. Prof. Valverde is the kind of prof I wish they all could be! Brilliant and engaging, she calmly made mincemeat out of oppressive forces’ “logic” and revealed the power dynamics beneath the surface of apparently reasonable endeavours to regulate the sex trade.

Next up, SDS student, conference co-organizer, and T-girl sex worker, Nikki Stratigacos, presented her fascinating personal story, while mining it for philosophical challenges to ideas of gender, sexuality and economics. If you are in charge of getting a speaker for an event in the upcoming year on any theme related to higher education, sex, gender or business, you should get Nikki. If only more people were so fearless and insightful about the realities of their experience!

The day continued to be lively as Todd Klink, long a hero of this blogger, told us about his journey from small-town Ontario farm boy to big-city prostitute/novelist/screenwriter/pornographer/entrepreneur. Todd’s no nonsense charm undercuts his deeply transgressive thought: “One day a six-year-old’ll be able to say he or she wants to be a sex worker when they grow up, and no one will freak.” The crowd all seemed to be fans of Todd’s club, Goodhandy’s—even Detective Leaver (see below)!

The audience was next treated with a passionate presentation by Kara Gillies, an active sex worker for the past twenty years and currently program development and education co-ordinator for Maggies, Canada’s first sex-worker-run education project. Kara took a critical look at some of the recent Canadian efforts to ‘protect’ sex workers, revealing them to be deeply invasive and disrespectful. A brave volunteer from the audience popped on-stage to submit herself to the kind of police ‘screening’ Halifax sex workers have been recently ‘protected’ with. Kudos to the U. of T. student volunteer who helped make the topic so real for us.

The afternoon ended with a presentation by Det. Wendy Leaver, on the work of Toronto Police Services’s Special Victims Section of the Sex Crimes Unit. Facing a tough crowd, Leaver was passionate and honest and skilfully won folks over. She readily admitted that it would be great if Toronto didn’t need a special unit to investigate sex assaults on sex workers, if only all the regular officers could be counted on to take these crimes seriously and treat these victims respectfully. If we got to vote for Police Chief in this great city—and wouldn’t THAT be something!—Detective Leaver would get my vote. Leaver and her team are different kinds of cops than the ones we’ve heard about whom’ve harassed and assaulted instead of served and protected certain citizens. Until the day when the wider force, and indeed the wider society (because the police are only reflective of our own deeply conflicted ideas about sex work and sex workers), are able to treat these crimes as they deserve to be treated, it’s good to have Det. Leaver and her team at work. (You might notice SPOC’s website’s plea for her not to retire!)

I doubt any academic conference has been so interesting, certainly none I’ve attended. Kudos to the students who organized and ran the event! The study of sexuality is in fine hands and minds. (Last year's conference was on kink. I wonder what they'll bring us next!)


Anonymous Shaula said...

Wow, Andrew. I wish I'd been there. This sounds amazing.

So if I'm understanding correctly, the gist of the sex trade laws in Canada is that sex workers are criminals but customers aren't? Holy flying poo.

(I hope you took notes for opening your gay socialist bible-burning eco-brothel.)

Wed Mar 11, 06:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Very interesting, Andrew. Thanks. Here in Victoria, journalist Jody Patterson has raised the profile on sex work and the need to make it safer. Maybe someday we'll get over our aversion to people choosing sex work as a career and begin to treat sex workers with respect. The key to this is ensuring free choice. Being forced into the profession for whatever reason is no good.

Thu Mar 12, 01:04:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Sounds fascinating. I wonder if prostitution will ever get the marijuana treatment in Canada?

Fri Mar 13, 02:24:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Nikki said...

First off, thanks so much for the amazing review. We put a lot of effort into this conference, and we're pleased that it was so well-received.

I'd like to make a small correction, if I may. Tickets were actually free for U of T students - those who were complaining about the price seemed to misunderstand that it was an academic conference, rather than a community event for sex workers. Given that six of our eight presenters were current or former sex workers, I can see where the misunderstanding occured, but our goal from the start was to provide U of T students with a chance to learn about a topic that isn't taught in class.

The feedback from students was fantastic, and the only disagreements came from other members of the audience, some of whom chose to identify themselves as sex workers.

Nonetheless, thank you very much for the positive review, and we're going to make sure that next year's conference is even better.

~Nikki Stratigacos, Conference Coordinator & Presenter

Wed Mar 18, 12:59:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Thanks, Nikki, for the correction, and for dropping in to comment! Great review in Xtra as well. Best wishes, Andrew

Wed Mar 18, 01:42:00 pm GMT-4  

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