Saturday, August 25, 2007

Co-op brothel long overdue
Aug. 24 2007

I’ve been trying to pin down the moment when I got so caught up in the issues of the sex trade.
The kick in the butt that got me moving was an interview 10 years ago with former sex worker Cherry Kingsley, when I was working full-time at the Times-Colonist. She blew me away with stories from her tough, sad life.
But even in my fledgling newspaper days I was prowling the streets of Kamloops trying to find sex workers to talk to. So maybe it’s just always been my particular fascination.
In those days, I was adamantly against the sex trade, and for all the reasons you hear in any discussion of it – exploitation, victimization, terrible violence, suffering.
A lifetime of movies, news stories and documentaries about desperate, drugged-out women eking out a mean living on the streets had left their mark on me. I’d heard countless stories from women whose abusive childhoods had primed them to fall into the trade as adolescents, and assumed that all sex workers were victims in need of rescue.
But my views changed over my three years heading up Victoria’s Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society.
Given the rare opportunity to learn about the industry directly from women in the trade – including those who chose to work in it - I came to see that our need to take a moral position against prostitution is in fact a major reason for why aspects of the trade are so dangerous and exploitive.
And now I find myself launching into the planning of a co-op brothel. Who’d have thought?
I’m working on the social enterprise with another former director of PEERS, Lauren Casey. She and I made it relatively unscathed through our intense 15 minutes of fame this week after news broke of our plans.
I think the media were all a little disappointed to discover there’s nothing concrete to talk about yet, other than that the time has come. But planning for any successful business - let alone one centred on the rather incendiary proposition that there are happy, healthy, adult sex workers out there – simply has to proceed at a slow and painstaking pace.
What’s the dream? A terrific work place for sex workers who are in the industry by choice, in which all profits beyond the cost of running the business are mandated to go to social causes.
We want the money to help fund the work PEERS does supporting disadvantaged sex workers wanting to leave the street trade. Street prostitution makes up just 10 to 20 per cent of the total trade, but that group of people are in desperate need of housing, drug detox and treatment, mental-health support, and any number of other services.
What the work place will look like will depend on what we hear from sex workers when we get to that stage of the plan, but we’ve got a few ideas we’d like to test.
Like salaries instead of 100 per cent commission work. Vacation pay. Medical leave. Employment Insurance benefits. Workers’ compensation coverage. Fair shifts, and regular time off.
A letter in the TC this week from a woman I greatly admire condemned our plan as a dangerous “normalization” of prostitution that could attract even more people into the business. I understand that concern.
But sex is a legal commodity in Canada – and like it or not, the industry is thriving. We’ve done nothing to curb the demand that fuels the sex trade, and much to make it even more secretive, stigmatized and dangerous for the tens of thousands of Canadians who work in it. It’s the height of hypocrisy that we buy sex with alacrity but take no responsibility for ensuring workers are fairly paid and well-treated.
Hundreds of functioning brothels are operating discreetly across the country. Some already provide a safe, fair work environment. But it’s far from a given. Our need to deny the existence of the sex trade pushes workers into a twilight zone of wink-wink, nudge-nudge pretence that none of it is happening.
As for the money Lauren and I hope to make from our brothel project, even my younger, more black-and-white self couldn’t have quibbled with the concept of using profits from the customers of the sex trade to fund programs and services for disadvantaged workers wanting to change their lives.
My time at PEERS underlined for me how very difficult it is to find money for that work. A person can only rage for so long at public and government indifference before looking for new ways around the problem. If you knew what I know about the great tragedies unfolding out there, you’d do the same.
I don’t know how we’ll make this brothel happen. But Lauren and I are both of a type to just keep slogging until things work out.
I think we’ll find good people to help us. Work is already underway on similar fronts: planning a co-op brothel in Vancouver; legal challenges going forward both nationally and in B.C. around the lack of safe, legal work places for sex workers.
So we’ll begin, and see what happens. This country’s done nothing for long enough.


Anonymous said...

Well Jody, you have some folks commenting on stories in the Globe Saturday 01 Sept.,sort of frothing at the mouth. They of course know more about any subject than folks who have worked with "Working Women" and the sex trade. Keep writing and more folks will start listening to your sensible position on the subject Many years ago we lived in the downtown east side. Each year DEYUS and others used to have a Christmas event for street workers. Both my wife and I attended as food handers and such, as we knew John Turvey quite well. So many of the folks were just kids and thrilled to death to get a present from somebody not trying to use them. At our last one, some young woman got her present, went out the door and within 10 minutes, the police Inspector who was doing the dishes with me got called over to the door. She had been badly beaten. They didn't find the guy who did it . These women need protection. There are lots of brothels in any town, call them different things but that's what they are. No customers would mean no street workers but that's not about to happen anytime soon.
One character in the Globe replies has it all figured out. Patterson is a big NDP supporter which I guess was supposed to mean he could say what he wished, no mattewr how dumb his response. Keep after the project Jody. We need more Jody Pattersons in this world. DL

Anonymous said...

Jody, I wish you all the best in your endeavour. Sex trade workers have been around for centuries under all classifications of names. Everyone, whether rich or poor is involved in this whether they choose to sweep it under the rug or not. I have never been in the business but my heart goes out to the girls who are and I wish they could find another way to earn a living without putting their lives at risk. However, the sex trade has always been around and will be around for centuries to come so why not make it a legal job with benefits. These girls deserve something like this to help them for the times they can't work or they need medical or dental treatments.

Sex will always be around and there's nothing that anyone can do to stop it. I am the mother of three grown children and even I have worked albeit in the home party business selling 'adult toys'. It's a lucrative business that's very 'hush, hush'. So, instead of ignoring the problem and pretending it doesn't exist, I think your idea is admirable and I hope you manage to convince the city that it's a viable business and it'll get the girls off the street and into a safer environment.

Good luck - I know you can do it!

Anonymous said...

Jodie I think you do great work and although a known brothel is not acceptable to any of my clients who require absolute discretion the idea is intriguing for those of the agency workers. However, I have only one concern is that it really changes nothing as far as legal safety as working from the same location is still illegal under the "comnmon bawdy house law". We should focus on ammending that law as it is simple enough to do in words but needs the people who can step forward to make it happen. I have tried with PIVOT, SFU, Fed Justice Minister et al. The law reform needs someone like you to AMEND the law - not to strike it out. I'm in your files if you ever would like to talk. Susanne

Joy Nelson said...

Wow, I heard about this the other day when someone said "I heard a brothel started in Victoria, do you have anything to do with that?". I am not a sex worker, but I am a healer working with sexuality and a Tantric Practitioner...

Some of the women I do healing sessions with are "sex workers". Through listening to their stories, I too changed my views on the industry and also believe that it is vital to the health of the women in the industry that there are healthier working conditions.

I was reading today that, in legal brothels in Nevada, stds are practically non existent because of the strict guidelines around condom use and std testing. I have worked extensively in the non profit sector and have helped successfully amend Health Canada's handling of lead poisoning issues in Ontario.

If you are interested in having another empowered woman involved in your endeavor, I would love to be involved on whatever level is needed. I believe that I have a lot to offer and would be honoured to be involved in any capacity. I have some tall boots to fill as my direct ancestor was Elizabeth Fry...I am always looking for a cause:-)

In Community, Joy Nelson