Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lessons learned from the brothel project
July 25, 2008

It’s been close to a year since I started talking publicly about wanting to open a brothel. And let me tell you, it’s been one of the most fascinating and surprising years of my life.
Brothels and escort agencies flourish in our region and right across the country, so I and my good pal Lauren Casey weren’t breaking new ground on that front with our little plan to start an escort agency with a difference. Our aim was to develop a fair and benevolent workplace for adult sex workers that also donated a share of profits to services and supports for disadvantaged workers.
As you might expect of a volunteer project taken on by two very busy women, our plans poked along at a snail’s pace for months. But in the spring we quite accidentally connected with a human dynamo of a sex worker here in Victoria, who in turn connected us with a human dynamo of an entrepreneur with experience running a Vancouver escort agency noted for being a fair and friendly place to work.
Next thing you know, things were happening - at warp speed, of course, which I’ve learned is the standard operating speed for those working in the industry.
By June, the two young women had the licensing and business requirements in hand for a Victoria agency. By July, the Web site was up and eight independent workers had signed on give the new model a try. My head’s still spinning at how quickly things came together.
Like any fledgling business, it’s still very much a work in progress. The indoor sex industry has much in common with any industry, but some significant differences as well, including finding investors willing to put their money into an enterprise that at best can be categorized as “kind of legal.”
Developing workplace policy also isn’t as simple as just following standard business practice. As just a small for-instance, consider the delicacies of a workplace drug and alcohol policy when having a drink or two with a customer is often part of the job. Given the nature of the work, it’s a fine line as well that has to be walked to ensure that no worker ever feels exploited or forced to work, yet at the same time can be counted on to show up for her shifts.
Nor is our little business donating any profits yet, or firm on when the point will come when that’s financially possible. We’re not yet a brothel, either, as that really requires either buying a place or having an open-minded landlord in terms of maintaining the discretion required to operate in the land of the quasi-legal. Independent workers generally work out of their homes anyway, and that might work better with the coalition of independents with a centralized administrative core that’s taking shape.
I could fill a book with what I’ve learned about the sex industry in recent years, and in fact think I’ll do that one day soon. Perhaps the most surprising thing has been my own shift in thinking in the past decade - from a decidedly anti-industry position to someone helping to launch a new escort service. Much to my amazement, I’m even starting to understand why men buy sex.
I know I’ve baffled some people with my newfound embrace of the industry, a position that has cost me two friends in the past year alone due to irreconcilable differences in our opinions. I’m uncomfortable and sad to find myself pitted in the media against dedicated, caring feminists for whom I’m now the enemy. Sex work is almost as notable as abortion as a polarizing issue among people who thought they knew each other.
But at the same time, I cherish the memory of a former Catholic nun who took my hand and told me that if I was taking this brothel project on, then she had to presume it was worthy. I’ve been deeply touched by the support of people from all walks of life who, regardless of whether they like that the sex industry exists, share my view that as long as it does, we might as well try to make it as safe and healthy as possible for the tens of thousands of Canadian adults who work in it.
Lauren and I have had a documentary crew following us for a year now as we worked on our project (watch for us on Global TV’s Global Currents show sometime in the spring of 2009). We’re leaving Monday to tour the brothels of New Zealand with documentary director April Parry and the Force Four production crew to see how that country is coping since legalizing brothels five years ago.
Stay tuned for my updates from afar over the next couple Fridays. I’m counting on a very interesting experience.

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