Sex and (the) Games

Recently I was asked to do an interview for CBC French television on sexual activity during the Pan Am games.  Perhaps they thought I would be prescient about any increase.  The reporter was also planning to interview someone from a local sex workers’ support and advocacy group.  As we were chatting, I thought back to a blog I had written about the proposed law ( and how its implementation might change as the games approached.

“Let the games begin” is the slogan of this year’s Toronto condom campaign, coinciding with Pan Am activities.  Toronto Public Health recognizes, of course, that there will be fun with those games.  People like to party and they want to remind both Torontonians and visitors to party safely.  But the games also mean increased job opportunities, even for me and the two bands I play with.  So one might think the same would hold true for sex workers.

Because if we start from the premise that sex work is work, then their working conditions need to be taken into consideration.  Unfortunately, sex work has not officially been deemed as such because prostitution has not been decriminalized.

So this is where it becomes tricky.  The new law is no better – and even somewhat worse – than the old one.  The Supreme Court ruling was meant to protect sex workers; but they are, in fact more vulnerable than ever.  In terms of implementation, the Ontario Premier said, “The position we’re taking is that we’ll follow the rule of law, the law that’s in place… but I have asked the attorney general to look at the potential of unconstitutionality and to give us some options in terms of what we might do going forward.”

One would have to be privy to the word on the street to find out if, indeed, Toronto police are currently implementing the new law; and whether or not they are planning sweeps to coincide with the games.  This is a real concern.  I remember the sweeps that took my clients off the streets when I was doing the condom distribution rounds for Public Health.  Some of them would go through the jails’ revolving doors.  Eventually they would all drift back to the same turf.

According to a Canadian Press story (

“Police in Vancouver made some efforts to curb street prostitution and petty crime before the Winter Games two years earlier.  The executive director of Maggie’s, a Toronto organization run by and for sex workers, says fears over potential trafficking during sports competitions are typically overblown and sometimes serve as excuses to round up local and foreign sex workers.”

A study ( examining the impact of the Vancouver Olympics suggests there was no significant influx of sex workers or reports of a spike in trafficking there.  There was less demand for their services, possibly due to the difficulty in meeting clients.

Regarding the trafficking issue, Butterfly, ( an organization supporting migrant sex workers, insists that racialized and migrant sex workers are especially vulnerable because of their immigration status, language barriers and race.  They blame the federal government’s change of immigration policy in recent years, which restricts some of the migrant work that can be done legally in Canada.  The end result is they sometimes look for work underground – like sex work.  The organization insists that one should not assume that all migrant sex workers are being trafficked.

So will there be increased sexual activity during the games?  Most likely, but it may not be increased paid activity.  Some visitors may hook up with people they meet at events, clubs and bars; and some may attempt to avoid being charged for purchasing sexual services in the street by hastily negotiating their hook-up, putting sex workers at increased risk.

In the meantime, the relationship between sex workers and the local police will certainly be put to the test.  Let the games begin.

Further reading:

The Canadian law:

Migrant sex workers and trafficking:


Sex work – March 3, 2014

On December 20, 2013, the morning the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three aspects of the prostitution law, my phone started ringing off the hook. Three Radio Canada programs were asking for interviews. Luckily, I had recently given a talk to a francophone agency arguing (unsuccessfully) in favour of decriminalization and had a file full of information in French. Some interviews were wide ranging discussions—from the specifics of the decision (solicitation, “living off the avails” and keeping a bawdy house) to my opinion on what the new and improved law should look like.

These 2013 interviews had nothing in common with what I would have said 40 years earlier.

In 1968, I had clear (and rigid) views about both prostitution and pornography. I have written in this space about my evolution regarding the latter. Like pornography, for me prostitution was rooted in sexism and therefore exploitative. End of story.

As prostitutes’ rights groups began to form in the mid-70s, they changed the language of the discussion. The term “sex work” required us to consider prostitution as work. I eventually came to accept the term and all that it implied, but was still unable to accept the notion that some people chose to do this kind of work.

Part of my assignment for a while at a local public health agency was teaming up with a community centre to do the rounds of places where local street-level workers hung out. We discreetly distributed condoms and information, while on the lookout for the police. These tours did little to disabuse me of the notion that there was “choice” involved in the trade. Most of the women we encountered had personal stories of abuse and subsequent addiction to crack cocaine. We got to know some of the women, like Debbie.

Debbie was in her 40s but looked 60. One day, she came into our public health office to have our friendly clerk dye her long, gray hair. Because she had lost her “coke bottle” glasses after being beaten by a john, one of the nurses took her to get another pair. Her history of sexual abuse was no surprise to me. Over the years, Debbie had given up more than one child to Children’s Aid.

Every now and again, the women would all disappear from the neighbourhood after the police had done a sweep. They would always drift back and the merry-go-round of doing tricks, getting arrested and getting spit back out into the street would resume. It was not just a frustrating way to earn a living, it was a dangerous one.

The Canadian Medical Association lists premature death as the primary risk of prostitution; and street-level prostitution is the most dangerous way to work. Before the Supreme Court decision, solicitation was considered illegal. If you are always looking out for the police, there is no time to check out the john or have a friend take down the licence plate before stepping inside his car. Although we now know that not all the missing Aboriginal women in British Columbia did sex work, according to the RCMP, more than 400 Aboriginal women either disappeared or were killed.

Other risks associated with street-level work are physical and sexual assault and STI infection. Moreover, there is little access to non-judgmental health, police or judiciary services.

The notion of harm reduction, which first emerged in 1990, was another stepping stone in my understanding of why the law and our attitudes to sex work had to change. Harm reduction regarding substance use (or risk reduction in the case of sexual activity) works by reducing the negative consequences of what is usually a dangerous activity.

One day I was preparing a young woman for an HIV test at the sexual health clinic where I worked. When I asked about the number of partners she had, she had to break it down by the month. She disclosed that she was exchanging sex for crack. When I asked whether she used condoms, she told me that johns would pay her double not to.

Similarly, teenagers fleeing abuse and exchanging sexual services for shelter; young, gay men who sell sex to survive after being forced to leave home; or trans women who need to buy their hormone treatments are all at risk.

My attitude towards the relationship between sex work, choice and the law changed dramatically a few years ago.

I came across a link in a sex columnist’s article on prostitution which clearly outlined the three possible options for a country’s legislation on prostitution: abolition, legalization or decriminalization. At that point I turned a philosophical corner and entered the decriminalization camp.

Abolition was what I had naively and fervently believed in before actually meeting and talking with sex workers. But in order to abolish prostitution, we would have to eliminate sexism leading to economic inequities, sexual abuse and addiction.

Legalization means using criminal laws to regulate and control the conditions under which sex work would function. This is the Reno, Nevada and “red light district” solution.

Decriminalization acts like the decriminalization of abortion. It creates a private arrangement between consenting adults. People could exchange sexual services for money under conditions that they freely negotiated. People would be able to work collectively, hire security, have access to health care and pay taxes, no matter where they worked or with whom.

Counter arguments have centered around trafficking and the potential for organized crime to take over sex work. They also cite fears about exploiting children and those under 18 years old. Papers have been written; laws have been passed. Yet, implementing those laws is the issue.

What have other countries decided? The Nordic model is rejected by many sex workers’ organizations and their allies like the HIV/AIDS Legal Network primarily because sex workers were not at the table when the model was developed. Australia, New Zealand and Germany have opted for decriminalization. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be on their societies. On another note, Spain has now established the first sex workers’ union in Ibiza.

Terry Bedford, one of the interveners in the Supreme Court case publicly asked the Prime Minister six questions including “what is a sex act?” She makes the familiar point that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

Not all sex workers are on board with decriminalization and certainly not all feminists. Where does that leave me? Firmly on the side of decriminalization. At the same time, the day may come when people no longer want to do sex work. To be honest, a big part of me looks forward to that possibility.

For more on this subject, check out the podcast debate on the recent legal ruling.