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Free sex workers 

“Oh Christ. I worked in a bakery once,” says Belinda, a sex worker in Halifax. “I worked for minimum wage to be bossed around and in the end I said to her ...‘You’re paying me five something an hour to sit here and listen to your fucking ignorance.’” Those words are quoted in the 2006 book Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back. The authors, New Brunswick professors Leslie Ann Jeffrey and Gayle MacDonald, interviewed 60 sex workers about life on the streets of Halifax, Moncton and Saint John. The workers’ defiant voices can be heard on almost every page. Judging by what they say, they wouldn’t be surprised that last year, Halifax police stepped up their enforcement of our anti-prostitution laws. Recent figures show that the number of charges against street workers more than doubled last year, from 49 to 104. A police spokesman explains that in 2006, the vice squad was preoccupied with busting escort agencies, but since then has devoted more time to the street trade. Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, the sex workers’ support agency, sees it as part of an endless cycle. She says crackdowns on the street force sex workers out of one neighbourhood and into another; crackdowns against indoor sex work push escorts and home workers out on the streets. “I think what’s most frustrating to me is how people regard sex workers as trash,” Ross says. “Sex workers are not in conflict with the laws. The laws are in conflict with sex workers.”

Ross advocates full decriminalization of sex work, along the lines of the system in New Zealand. In 2003, New Zealand abandoned its criminal laws against soliciting, brothels and bawdy houses and implemented a harm reduction strategy instead. On the one hand, the new law toughened penalties against clients of sex workers under 18 and those who force people into the trade. On the other, it treated prostitution as a legitimate form of work with unemployment insurance benefits and the protections granted by occupational health and safety regulations. The law allows the country’s estimated 6,000 sex workers to choose where and when they ply their trade. About two-thirds work in brothels, and 10 percent in set locations on city streets, while one-quarter work from home or in small groups in rented premises. The new law frees police from their endless campaigns against sex workers and allows them to focus instead on the violent clients who are one of the trade’s main problems. “Citizens of HRM really have no concept of the level of violence that is happening against sex workers,” Ross says. She adds that the criminal laws drive sex work underground, making it needlessly unsafe. “The laws are putting people’s lives in danger,” she says, adding that sex workers routinely face beatings, sexual assault and murder. Not only that, but the laws are costly to enforce. “You know that a sex worker said to me yesterday ‘if people knew how much it was costing, we need to put a price tag on how much it costs to put me on house arrest, to monitor me, the court costs, the legal aid costs, you know, and for what?’”

It’s a good question. Professors Jeffrey and MacDonald argue that our laws reflect outdated stereotypes. Female sex workers are seen both as pathetic drug-addicted victims in need of protection, and as morally debauched hookers who should be punished. Jeffrey and MacDonald’s book gives them the rare chance to tell their own stories. The workers speak of social stigma, police harassment, violence and widespread public ignorance, but they also talk about the chance to escape from dead-end, minimum wage jobs or the enforced poverty of social assistance. “I’ve spent half my life out there,” says Katrina in Halifax, “ you ain’t lived it, you haven’t walked in my shoes. So you really can’t tell me something you know nothing about.”

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