Turn up the Heat: Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers demands healthy and safe working environments

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If you walked into a Montreal sex bar this past June, you would have found more than the typical assortment of sex workers, johns and cigarette smoke.

From June 14th to 19th (2004), sex work bars in Montreal also played host to panel discussions about everything from the politics to the practicalities of being a sex worker. Sponsored by the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, these panels were part of the second Festival for the Rights of Sex Workers, called “Turn Up The Heat 2.” The conference included a film festival, strategic planning workshop and a benefit party, all to raise awareness about issues and concerns for sex workers.

Jenn Clamen, a member of the Coalition, as well as the Canadian representative of the International Union of Sex Workers, and one of the organizers of this event, spoke with Network's Julia Allen about the festival.

Network: Tell me a little bit about the Festival for the Rights of Sex Workers and how it got started.

Jenn Clamen (Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers): This was our second festival. Basically, it's a chance for sex workers and allies to get together and talk about the issues that are most important to us. So often the issues are clouded by people who aren't sex workers -- how they feel about it and how they see it. You rarely get to hear from the people that the laws are actually affecting: the sex workers.

So we take the week to do that. It includes a bit of art and culture, a bit of political debate, and a bit of hands-on “where do we go from here” kind of thing. It was fantastic this year. We saw almost twice the number of people that we saw last year.

Network: Before we go any further, I have a question for you about the language the Coalition uses. I noticed that you're using the terms “sex work” and “sex workers.” Is this deliberate?

JC: Absolutely. “Sex work” is a discourse made and created by sex workers to describe their work. It is partly because the word “prostitution” has so many negative connotations. But the phrase “sex work” also brings all the different kinds of work into the same category. It lets us say “we have something in common; we are fighting for the same thing, and it is work.” We want to promote that sex work is work.

Network: Are there any specific changes you hope to accomplish by emphasizing the “work” part of “sex work”?

JC: Unless we see sex work as work, people are going to keep on trying to “save” the sex workers. But in “saving” the sex workers, what happens is a lot of really harmful policies are put in place. For instance, when people say “we need to save these women -- we're going to go after the johns,” they don't realize that going after the johns drives sex workers into a darker corner, because the women have to go where the johns are going. Those johns are their means for a living.

So the policies that come out of seeing sex work as a negative thing are really harmful to sex workers. When we start to see it as work, then we can talk about labour rights, we can talk about occupational health and safety standards, we can talk about human rights. We can say “ok fine, yes there is exploitation in the industry; let's go back to the labour code and see where we can counteract that.”

Network: I read the Coalition's mandate on your website, and the part that said “to decriminalize our lives and our work” caught my eye. Can you talk a bit about the effect that criminalization has on the lives of sex workers?

JC: When you're criminalized, you don't have access to the world. For example, people who aren't criminalized take for granted that if you're applying for a loan, you can say who you are, what you are, give your social insurance number, and all of your information, no problem.

But if you're doing something that could possibly implicate you in terms of the law, and you could possibly be arrested, or investigated, it's really difficult to provide that kind of information; or to put your child in daycare or say what you do for a living. You can't just come out and say, “Oh, I'm an erotic dancer” or, “I'm a stripper,” “I'm an escort” --because there's a lot of stigma, so you have to make something up. And a lot of people live these double lives, and people don't realize how harmful that can be.

Network: Can you tell me more about your experiences with the International Union of Sex Workers?

JC: Yeah, it was founded by a woman named Ana Lopes in London (UK) in 2002, when a group of sex workers came together in the hopes of unionizing. Basically every union they approached kind of laughed in their face, like “yeah, right.” Like sex work isn't work. “What are you talking about -- we're not going to unionize prostitution.”

But one of the unions, called the GMB—it stands for the General Municipal Boilermakers—is particularly known for organizing marginalized workers, which I guess were boilermakers a long time ago, said yes. Anybody in the UK can actually join a union as an autonomous worker, so this branch was set up and sex workers could just join. There are also other unions for sex workers in the world, with one in Argentina (called AMMAR) and one in the Netherlands (called Rode Draad or “Red Thread”).

Network: So what was the goal of unionizing?

JC: When you talk to people about labour rights, and workers rights, nobody's going to say, “no, sex workers -- they don't have rights.” They do have rights!

So it's something that's easier for people to follow. Like for me personally, I got involved with the International Union of Sex Workers because I appreciated skipping over the moral debate. I was tired of hearing: “sex work is wrong, sex work is right.” I was tired of watching the moral debate around sex work when those typically engaged in the debate are anti-prostitution and not sex-working themselves.

It needs to be safe for everybody who's going to see a sex worker, and for the sex workers themselves.

Network: So the union is a way of using labour codes to protect the sex workers rather than using the law.

JC: Right. But we have to change the law to consider sex work as work -- that's a problem too. Because sex workers are criminalized, you can't necessarily create better labour conditions because you can't necessarily come out and say you're a sex worker.

You can't pay your taxes safely because you can't say you're a sex worker. You can't claim certain benefits. You can't necessarily go into a health clinic and say “I'm a sex worker, by the way” without getting this sort of regard that's really bad. So we need to make it so that sex workers aren't treated like criminals anymore.

There are laws that exist against slavery, and against forced labour, there are laws for child protection, there are laws that exist for labour protection -- we just need to apply those existing laws to sex workers and make sure that sex workers aren't criminalized at the same time.

Make sure that sex workers can go to the police if something happens, if their boss doesn't pay them, if they've been beaten on the job. If someone runs out without paying them, what can sex workers do right now? Not much. If you're criminalized, it's really hard to access anything, much less labour rights.

Network: What about health concerns related to sex work?

JC: We have to remember that sex workers want to take care of themselves. And sex workers are sex professionals; if anybody knows how to use a condom, if anybody knows how to have safe sex, it's sex workers, because it's the job.

Sometimes sex workers need to learn to negotiate how to do that, and there are organizations that exist to help, and there are tools that are created to help them. Like Stella, here in Montreal, has the XXX Guide which is essentially a tool for sex workers that explains how to work, how to deal with bad clients, how to put a condom on, what are STIs [sexually trasmitted infections], what to do when a client doesn't want to use a condom, how to make it sexy or how to put the condom on when the client's not looking.

Most of the time, when sex workers do contract STIs it's because they've contracted them with their partners, because of the separation they make between their personal life and work life—like, “I use a condom at work and not at home.”

So where does the education need to be done? Does it need to be thrust upon sex workers, or thrust upon the general society?

Amongst themselves, there's a lot of peer education. Here's how to use a condom, here's what an STI is -- a lot of education about the business.

Sex workers are also educating their clients. “Wait a second, what do you mean you don't want to use a condom -- don't you know that a, b, and c can happen?” It's definitely gendered in the sense that men aren't necessarily in the habit of taking responsibility for their sexual health.

Network: Tell me more about the festival. It sounds like you had some really interesting panel discussions.

JC: We did! We held a panel on prison and sex work, called “Sex Work and Prison: Behind Bars and Borders.” There was also a panel on the struggle for transsexual sex workers' rights. Camille Cabral, who we had invited from France, spoke on that panel.

We also had a panel called “When Sex Work Hits Close To Home.” That was a chance for us to talk about sex workers who are mothers, and what happens when sex workers come out to their families, or why they can't come out to their families, and the stigma associated with sex work.

We also had a workshop called “Sex Work: Building a Movement” to talk about where we can go from here. It was open only to sex workers, and we basically sat around and we talked about what the issues are, where we want to go, what kind of actions we want to see, etc. That was nice, too, because we rarely get a chance to do that.

Network: Where did the idea for this festival come from?

JC: We thought the festival idea was really great because it's a chance for us to look at how far we've come, and a chance to see where we're going to go.

When you say “festival,” it sounds sort of positive, but you're still being political because the issues are political. It's still very emotional, but it's also saying “we're celebrating these experiences.”

We decided to hold the festival every year, that way we're putting sex workers' issues on the agenda every year; it gives us a chance to really speak our minds about what's going on.

But we also decided we can't just be present at that one time of the year, so we do things throughout the year as well.

We did a vigil in December with other sex worker groups internationally to stand in solidarity against violence against sex workers; this was initiated by a group called SWOP-USA in response to the recent murders of sex workers by Gary Ridgeway in Seattle, WA. We'll do it again next year. Also, March 3rd is International Sex Workers' Day, so we do something on that day.

Network: That's interesting. Right before International Women's Day.

JC: Yeah! It was actually a group in India who decided March 3rd is going to be International Sex Work Day for sex workers' rights, and so we decided in the name of international solidarity that we would stand and do something with them.

Network: So the festival is really building a sense of community?

JC: That's it. And so that's what we try to do with it. It happens really slowly because when you're talking about any marginalized or stigmatized population, it's really hard to build community.

It's difficult sometimes to mobilize sex workers because of that. But you learn, and you try to find different ways to get people interested. People want to know “why does this affect me?” People who are escorting independently, for example, won't necessarily understand why sex work in prison is an important topic because most of the sex workers who are going into prison are women working on the street -- so the escorts won't necessarily see why that's relevant.

But once you explain that we're talking about the laws, we're talking about the discrimination, it makes a little bit more sense. Because it is such a varied trade-- there's people working on the street, there's people working in maison close—in brothels, people working in massage parlours, working on the phone lines, working on the internet—it is so hard to sometimes find a commonality. But it works.

And once people come together, they find issues that are similar. And one of the main issues that we can all agree on is that the laws need to change. And that's why we do this -- to put forward the idea that we need to decriminalize the industry.

For more information on health and safety issues, and other concerns for sex workers, visit:

La coalition pour les droits des travailleuses et travailleurs du sexe/ The Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers (Montreal): www.lacoalitionmontreal.com/
(514) 859-9009

Stella: By and for sex workers (Montreal): www.chezstella.org/
(514) 285-1599

Commercial Sex Information Service (Vancouver): www.walnet.org/csis/
(604) 488-0710

International Union of Sex Workers (London, UK): www.iusw.org/

Exotic Dancers Alliance (San Francisco): www.eda-sf.org/ Peer Research in the Sex Trade, interview with Frances Shaver of the National Network on Women's Health and the Environment, Toronto:

Safework Magazine: a special issue about the sex industry (Australia): www.walnet.org/csis/safety/SAFEWORK.PDF