Sex work is legal in Canada, but the purchase of the service is not. Confusing? Maybe. And maybe this confusion is a contributing factor as to why people are still misinformed and continue to feed the stigma around this profession.
Lyra McKee, Co-Executive Director of Pace Society – an organization that promotes safer working conditions for sex workers, through education and support -, spoke to Milénio Stadium about her own experience and helped us understand the urge for the decriminalization of sex work.
“I respectfully acknowledge that my work takes place on the stolen lands of the Coast Salish Peoples, specifically the shared territories of the SKwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Selílweta (Tsleil-Waututh), and xwmo0kwyweyem (Musqueam) First Nations.”
Milénio Stadium: When and how did you get started as a sex worker?
Lyra McKee: I started learning about sex work within my first year of coming to Coast Salish Territories after arriving in September 2015 to pursue my Master’s degree at UBC. I had met an older Indigenous trans woman who had approached me on Davie street and with whom I developed a close friendship. She introduced me to her life, which had long included sex work to provide much-needed income. My friend helped me learn how to do my own makeup and socialize as a woman. We would often get dressed up and go to the Downtown Eastside stroll, where she would pick up clients. For the most part, I kept her company, as she was very protective of me considering my ignorance of sex work customs and safety measures. However, I did do some street-based sex work with her. After a falling out between us, I largely stopped doing sex work until about two years ago, after I had graduated from UBC and started working on a restaurant job that wasn’t covering my rent and living expenses. My involvement in sex work since that time has consisted mostly of online advertising and in-person dates.
MS: A sex worker is, as the name suggests, a worker—in fact, a service provider. Do you believe that the government (federal and provincial) properly recognizes your profession?
LM: The issue is not as simple or benign as the Canadian federal government failing to properly recognize sex work as a valid profession; sex work is actively criminalized at the federal level through the Protection of Communities and Endangered Persons Act. This criminalization follows the Nordic model, which means that it attempts to end the demand for sex work by making it illegal to pay a sex worker. While selling or trading sexual services is technically legal for sex workers ourselves, it is with a great many restricting stipulations that rely on and continue to reinforce social stigma against sex workers. Provincial and municipal governments play a central role in enforcing this asymmetrical criminalization. Immigration and citizenship also forbid work or study permit holders from engaging in work “related to the sex-trade” and uses this rule to victimize and deport racialized immigrants who engage in sex work.
MS: Professionally, what are some of the problems you have struggled with?
LM: I have struggled with personal and professional isolation related to sex work as well as a lack of viable professional development resources, workplace rights, or opportunities for unionization. The criminalization of sex work in Canada directly harms its most marginalized communities, including Indigenous people, trans people (especially trans women), racialized people, and immigrants by making our clients criminals according to the Criminal Code and thus preventing us from properly screening clients for safety reasons and making the market more competitive among sex workers. If I were supported in advertising my services and selecting my clientele, I would enjoy a great deal more professional safety and security. Because sex workers often hold dates in our own living spaces (called an incall), the professional endangerment bleeds into our personal lives and makes a healthy work-life balance or any separation between the two impossible. I have had clients steal from my home or finagle their way out of paying for service. Because I am an immigrant, I have no legal recourse to pursue for these infringements on my rights.
MS: Do you feel or have you ever felt discriminated against by society for being a sex worker?
LM: I have experienced direct discrimination from clients, governments, civil society more generally, friends, family, and neighbours. This discrimination is fueled by the same social structures of criminalization and stigma faced by sex workers in most countries of the world; while the laws may be different country to country, the underlying dehumanizing stigma is largely the same and is made stronger by other intersecting systems of oppression.
MS: There are many cases of violence and abuse against sex workers by sexual procurers, much of which goes unreported. To what extent do sex workers feel protected? Who defends them?
LM: From my position as a member of the sex work community and a professional who leads a non-profit for sex workers, I would assert that sex workers have always had to take matters of safety into our own hands and communities. Many of us feel much more protected by our fellow sex workers than the police or government, who actively criminalize our profession and our clients. The burden of protecting sex workers from harm largely falls upon sex workers ourselves and frontline service providers, who are often underpaid and overworked.
MS: Sex work is legal in Canada, although the purchase of the service is not. But many people are still unaware that this is a legal profession in Canada. Does this result from the prejudice that society still has?
LM: I would not quite say that the profession of sex work is legal in Canada, because the actual transaction between worker and client is asymmetrically criminalized through the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). While governmental criminalization relies upon and reinforces social stigma and prejudice, it is not the only cause. Anti-sex work stigma is tied to transphobia, racism, colonialism, sexism ableism, classism, and really any structural oppression that exists and marginalizes affected individuals and communities. From a young age, most families teach their young ones that sex work is morally reprehensible, that girls should not become sex workers and that boys should never consider hiring a sex worker lest they become morally filthy.
An example of the prejudice and ignorance around sex work occurred in my personal life just a few days ago. After accosting my friend with benefits, who was leaving my small apartment building, my neighbour threatened to call the police on me when I defended his presence because I “engage in prostitution” in my apartment. This threat revealed that she is still under the impression that sex work is illegal. Decriminalization (rather than legalization) of sex work at the federal level is a necessary step toward recognizing sex workers’ rights, but the social stigma at the root of this prejudice and ignorance must also be addressed.
MS: The need that many sex workers have to protect their clients’ identities is a factor that has prevented them from making their business legitimate. How can this problem be solved?
LM: Decriminalization of sex work and an end to the archaic and ineffective Nordic model would be a good start to allowing sex workers to feel a sense of professional legitimacy. Legalization of sex work is an insufficient solution because by its framework it necessarily stipulates what kinds of sex work are legal and illegal and regulates the ways sex workers pursue and control their business. Sex workers and their clients will not be able to feel unashamed of their participation in the sex economy until sex work as a profession is decriminalized and the pervasive social stigma targeting sex work is eliminated.
MS: There are those who defend the creation of the so-called “red-light district” in large cities (similar to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands), where all the companies that dedicate themselves to this type of work would be concentrated. Do you think that this idea makes sense or do you think that this would increase prejudice and discrimination?
LM: This model provides spatial stipulations on where sex work is or is not legal, thus criminalizing sex work outside of the district. It could also lead to gentrification and racialized displacement depending on where the district was located and how it was planned. Sex workers who hold more privilege in relation to class and socioeconomic status would have greater access to legalized working spaces and thus control the market at the expense of more marginalized workers. Any proposed solution to the criminalization of sex work and its effects in communities that sets up legal stipulations about what kind of sex work is and isn’t illegal, including spatial regulations, will inevitably continue to criminalize and endanger certain segments of the sex work community and reinforce the social stigma that sex workers face.
MS: What final message would you like to leave for our readers?
LM: I hope I have made more clear some of the reasons that decriminalization and not legalization is necessary and urgent in the fight for sex workers’ rights. You don’t have to ever engage in sex work to affirm the humanity of sex workers and actively fight for our unrecognized human rights. Please be critical in your thinking, assertive in your allyship and activism, and caring in the ways you talk about and interact with all sex workers. We all have so much learning to do and so many changes to make, so let’s get going. Together.