Temas de Capa

The sex work stigma “Things are changing, but it’s not there yet”

The sex work stigma-canada-mileniostadium
Photo: Press Association


Susan Davis has been working in the sex industry for 45 years. She began this line of work on her own will. She was attracted at the time by the opportunities she realized she could have to create a better life. Susan sees her profession as any other, although acknowledges and regrets that society, in general, still has a prejudiced perception of sex workers.

During this conversation we realized that for Susan Davis it would be essential for the government to speak with professionals in the field to learn about their needs, problems and ambitions. There’s no better way to understand a profession than to hear it from an individual that works in the field, to know what is really at stake when talking about sex work in Canada.

Milénio Stadium: When and how did you get started as a sex worker?

Susan Davis: I was 18 years old; I didn’t have a job. Somebody offered me some money, which I needed, so I had my first date. I have met a woman who worked in massage and she had bought and built herself a Harley-Davidson piece by piece, so I was curious about sex work. From there I asked her what to do, you’re checking in for the safest and I started working for escort service in Halifax.

MS: A sex worker is, as the name suggests, a worker—in fact, a service provider. Do you believe that government properly recognizes your profession?

SD: Well… Federally no. We are waiting for the Federal government to do its job and review the current legal framework, which is oppressing sex workers in this country. They were supposed to review it after five years, it’s been more than six years now. So, it’s a little frustrating on the Federal level. The Liberals promised to do something about it when they were in the minority, but now it seems like they’re “too busy for that” or “no, we’re not doing that now, maybe later”. We always have to wait. Just wait, just wait… and while that’s happening, sex workers are being harmed all over the country.

MS: Do you feel, or have you ever felt, discriminated by society for being a sex worker?

SD: Of course. There’s this stigma attached to our work, but I think that is becoming less and less – simply because we’re included in a lot of things, so people are getting used to hear about sex workers. So, it’s not quite of a stigma as what it was. However, I’m out of the closet and my family knows, everyone in my community knows who I am, I’ve been in the media multiple times… So, for me it might be a little different, I may have some privileges in that sense. Stigma still plays its role with doctors, nurses, social services, police. Just as an example: recently there’s been an uptake harassment complaints from sex workers about clients who are harassing them, stalking them, things like that… The police just basically say “well there’s nothing we can do about that, unless they do something else” … If it was a lawyer or the pastor’s wife, and they were being stalked this way, the police would take it seriously. But it’s like sex workers have to “man up and take it”, like we don’t deserve the same type of protection. Things are changing, but it’s not there yet. And of course, we have social workers telling women “oh you’re pretty, go become an escort you don’t need welfare”, when people are trying to apply for crisis funds… That’s discrimination. They don’t treat doctors and nurses like that.

Also, if you are a sex worker with child and family developments, they immediately assume you’re addicted to drugs and uncapable of being a good parent, which is absolutely not true: 70% of the sex workers are single parents, so this is more you, as a parent, making choices for your children. It’s maybe not your dream job, you’re doing what you have to do for your children. That’s something we should really celebrate, honor these people, but instead they get threat with the loss of their children. There are criminals, pretending to be sex buyers, who escort you for free sex, threatening to tell the school where your child goes, threatening to tell the ministry of child and family development.

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?

SD: It’s not as white spread as we led to believe by organizations who make money on this notion that all sex workers are being victims of human trafficking or exploitation. A good example is the Olympics, where the police were called to respond to anti-trafficking references… They were looking for trafficking victims and they found zero. But deported hundreds of women – arrested and deported hundreds of women. This kind of assumption, that there’s lots of violence by the pimps or procurers, is absolutely false. I want to be clear though, I am not saying it doesn’t happen, because it does. It’s just that it does not happen in the majority of the cases. The majority really cares for their workers.

That idea comes from the anti-trafficking/prostitution “abolishes’ wish group”, who would have you believe that all sex workers are so victimize, like we don’t have a voice of our own, couldn’t possibly contribute to any policy, because we don’t know what’s best for us.

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?

SD: I don’t think it would work in Canada; we are private people. I would love a “red-light district”, because I’m kind of older, I would love to live in that type of neighbourhood. But I think here we are very private and some of the complaints non-sex workers Canadians have is about the overtness, they don’t want their children exposed to sex workers too young of an age, because they don’t want to explain it. I understand that.

I also think it would be disruptive to the way industry is operating now – it’s discrete, nobody notices it, it’s not really bothering anyone, and it’s spread out all over the place. I think that we have seen, through history, that generalize any community creates harm, because if you put everyone together, and then let’s say the law changes, immediately they’re available as a target. As well as for people who might hate sexual workers… If everyone is together in one area it would be really easy for a mass shooting to occur.

MS: What final message would you like to leave for our readers?

SD: Our industry really did our part during the lockdown. Sex workers have been as impacted, if not more impacted, as all Canadians who have lost their jobs during this time. Also, sex workers are better positioned than most people, to protect our health and to understand how to insure the safest possible way to do our job, for our health and for the health of our clients. With the opening guidelines, I would like people to think about sex workers, to include them. And before making decisions, it would be appreciated if people talk to us first – the best way to prevent the harm of sex workers is to include us in decisions that will impact our lives.

Catarina Balça/MS

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