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Ivory-Tower Sex-Work Activists Have Lost Touch with the Needs of Actual Sex Workers

It’s all rather ironic, since sex workers, of all people, should understand the need to protect contentious opinions. From time immemorial, we are the ones who often bore the brunt of attempts to censor sexual expression.

· 24 min read
Ivory-Tower Sex-Work Activists Have Lost Touch with the Needs of Actual Sex Workers
Featured image: Erospark brothel, Sindelfingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Earlier this month, a video emerged of Vancouver activist Amanda Jabbour protesting a Meghan Murphy-headlined speaking event entitled “How media bias shapes the gender identity debate.” In the video, Jabbour is seen harassing just about every person who passes by, blowing cigarette smoke into journalists’ faces, and blocking reporters from filming by attempting to lick their cameras. Most notably, she approaches a male attendee and, without provocation, accuses an Asian woman accompanying him of being a “mail-order bride”—and repeatedly jeers, “How much?” (all the while completely ignoring the Asian woman herself).

As was quickly noted by online critics, Jabbour was publicly listed as an Occupational Health and Safety Facilitator at the PACE Society, an advocacy group for Vancouver sex workers based out of the city’s troubled Downtown Eastside. PACE’s stated mission is to “promote safer working conditions by reducing harm and isolation through education and support.” It is ironic that someone who professes to speak for sex workers would stereotypically objectify an Asian woman as engaged in a quid pro quo with a Caucasian male partner—especially given that one of the challenges sex workers such as myself always faced was getting the public to recognize female sexual agency.

In media reports, Jabbour’s conduct was presented as an indicator of excessive antipathy toward Murphy, whose gender-critical views have been opposed by many trans activists. But there is also a larger story here, one that Jabbour herself symbolizes.

In recent years, I have watched sex-work activism of the type PACE practices become co-opted by social-justice ideology, whose elements include intersectional feminism, critical race theory and radical socialism. The same hypocrisy that was captured on video when Jabbour denigrated an Asian event attendee plays out, writ large, in the way some activists now regularly prioritize their own moral grandstanding over a reasoned and tempered approach to advocacy. While sex-worker activism once was its own unique activist subculture, deeply informed by women with real experience in the field, it now has become just another branch office of the generalized, Twitter-mediated progressive movement that has colonized liberal politics. And sex workers are suffering for it.

* * *

As an escort who worked in the Toronto sex-work industry for several years, I’ve had the chance to observe and engage with sex-work activist discourse both online and off. I’m now a criminal lawyer who’s familiar with the real-world effects of sex-work laws in Canada—including Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which came into force five years ago. I disagreed with the previous Conservative government’s rationale for enacting these laws, and I found then-Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s assurances that the new legislation would “abolish” prostitution, as well as the drafters’ claim regarding “the exploitation inherent in prostitution,” to be highly naïve. In expressing such concerns, I was hardly alone.

But even as a critic of the new law, I was alarmed by the way in which its negative effects were being exaggerated by activists. This was especially true of the university-trained academics and former academics who increasingly tend to dominate the field of sex-work advocacy, some of whom have gone so far as to claim the new law would cause sex workers to die.

This is a trend that has been building for some time: The field is now steeped in the belief that our entire legal system is fatally infected with bias toward sex workers, who (we are told) are constantly victimized and oppressed by the police and criminal-justice system. While that may have been the case historically, this view is becoming obsolete. In recent decades, public perception in Canada (and other Western countries) has shifted in favour of sex workers’ rights. And public officials have reacted accordingly. In fact, some Canadian police forces announced after Bill C-36’s passing that they would resist enforcing the new law. Yet such real-world details and nuances are lost on activists and their journalistic cheerleaders, who denounce the legal regime as “dangerous, racist and classist.”

PACE Society’s own response to Jabbour’s antics was predictably larded up with social-justice jargon. The group said it is setting up something called a “third party accountability pod” to manage the disciplinary process—which apparently will be “based on transformative and restorative justice practices.” I studied restorative justice in law school, so I know that it can be effective only insofar as victims are willing to participate in the process. Yet in its initial statement, PACE made no attempt to apologize directly to the man in the video, nor (more importantly) to his girlfriend, the two people most directly affected by Jabbour’s behaviour.

It wasn’t until 13 days later, after demands for an apology mounted in response to the first statement, that PACE issued a second statement—one similarly immersed in social-justice rhetoric, but now with a (nominal) apology to the couple buried in the middle. Yet even while admitting that one of its employees had acted like an obnoxious bigot, PACE took the opportunity to lecture everyone on “racism and white supremacy,” concluding with the declaration that, in dealing with the fallout from the incident, the organization would focus on “community members directly affected by oppression,” as opposed to “white supremacists.” Considering that Jabbour was the only person who exhibited behaviour remotely close to “white supremacy,” observers rightfully asked whether a formal apology from Jabbour herself would be forthcoming, along with questions about whether she would still be employed at PACE. (The organization has remained silent on this question. And the entire PACE “Teams” page was taken down following the incident.)

It’s unclear whether Jabbour attended the anti-Murphy protest in her own capacity, or as a representative of PACE. Some have noted that the group’s executive director and other staff also were present. And given the anti-sex-work editorial position of Murphy’s website, Feminist Current, it makes sense that PACE staff might be interested in attending, or even protesting. While Murphy often is called a TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist), she also is sometimes labelled a SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist).

Murphy, who has been described as a “radical feminist” and “anti-capitalist,” calls sex workers “prostituted women,” and does not believe they are capable of legitimately consenting to sell sex within a patriarchal society. While I disagree with many of her views, it’s interesting to note that a lot of the same activists who run PACE-style sex-work activist organizations also tend to be die-hard socialists and feminists who believe that patriarchal oppression and class struggle dictate the nature of power relations between men and women. And the only way they can reconcile this belief with their advocacy for sex workers is by arguing that selling sex under such conditions comprises an attempt to survive under capitalism and patriarchy—all of which actually sounds a lot closer to Murphy’s “radical feminist” critique of sex work than they’re willing to admit.

This is just one of several fundamental ideological contradictions embedded in the movement. Activists will tell you that sex workers live under constant threat of deadly violence—while also voicing suspicion of any contact with police officers or the prosecution of clients who commit that violence. They strike extreme socialist political postures, yet typically demand full decriminalization, a laissez-faire approach that aligns them with libertarians. These avowed socialists also ignore the fact that the average hourly wage of a sex worker far exceeds the minimum wage—which (to apply their own doctrines) arguably marks them with a sort of “privilege.”

These contradictions have created ideological dissonance within socialist organizations that include sex-work activists, such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as their advocacy runs up against Marx’s view that sex workers are victims of capitalism. A DSA activist who self-identifies as part of the “sex-worker resistance” under the Twitter handle @whoreganizer squares this ideological circle by describing sex work as “hustling cis men out of their money.” But not everyone is buying it. To quote one socialist sex worker, “the lack of solidarity with sex workers and persistent vilification of sex work from my fellow socialists and other leftists is one of the big reasons why I don’t engage with them anymore. Their bourgeoisie pearl clutching is so aggressive, as if [sex workers] torched their sacred cow.”

Many queer people are surviving via sex work, hustling cis men out of their money in despite of the violence that comes with working under capitalist patriarchy. But academics really want to focus on fucking cis men being ‘queered’ by paying for sex, sure yeah cool

— outlaw poverty not prostitution (@whoreganizer) August 21, 2019

Viewing sex work through this tortured ideological framework ignores individual sex worker agency, and continues to cast us all as victims—much in the same way Murphy does. When it comes to power dynamics in the sex-worker/client relationship, many of us, including myself, consider ourselves on an equal or even higher footing than our clients, who have been cast as predators not only by legislators, but by activists themselves. Their depiction of sex work presents a depressing and inaccurate portrayal of the mutually respectful and frequently sexually and mentally fulfilling experiences I’ve had with clients. The focus on socialism is especially incoherent: It is the very fruits of free-market enterprise that yield the disposable income our best clients earn to spend on high-valued luxuries like sex. Just as it is the libertarian principles of personal autonomy and consent that underlie the argument that women should be able to do whatever we want with our bodies.

Many sex workers have been able to prosper with little to no start-up costs (especially in the age of internet advertising and social media). This doesn’t mean that everyone who tries her hand at the sex trade is going to be able to live off of it full-time, nor does it mean that you’re being oppressed if you don’t do well at it. As with any other profession, no one has a right to be a successful sex worker, and your success is largely dependent on your ability to sexually attract men with disposable income. But the reality is that the opportunity is there for those who wish to pursue it. The trade requires no formal skills or credentials. Bonus if you enjoy sex with strangers.

* * *

There’s a self-interested reason why groups such as PACE smother real-life sex work under layers of ideological abstractions: If they didn’t pigeonhole sex workers as “oppressed” victims who require their white-knighting services, there would be shrinking justification for the existence of such advocacy groups in societies, such as Canada, where sex work is becoming more socially accepted. Moreover, by adopting the divisive logic of identity politics, these groups can mine the infinite sub-hierarchies of oppression, whereby certain groups like trans or non-white sex workers are cast as more oppressed than others (despite the fact that I’ve seen members of these groups do just as well as their peers). Wade into the discussions within activist spaces and you will find that this victim hierarchy has overtaken all other forms of sex-worker rights discourse.

Even if I disagree with Murphy’s views, the topics she’s discussed at her recent talks on gender identity are professionally relevant to me, as sex workers have a strong stake in the ongoing debate over the admission of male-bodied individuals into female spaces. Would sex workers now be seen as violating human-rights codes if they refuse to have sex with transgendered clients or co-workers whose biological sexes don’t match their own preferences? Should transgendered sex workers or clients be required to disclose their biological sex in advance? Should a refund be forthcoming if it becomes clear that a sex worker’s biology doesn’t match the advertised claims? Given what Canadians just witnessed during the Jessica Yaniv debacle, none of these questions seems farfetched. And notwithstanding the arguments made by trans activist groups, sexual orientation always will be defined by sex, not gender identity. Securing sexual consent without fraudulent representation should be the right of all contracting parties in the sex trade.

One of the tactics that activists sometimes use to encourage dependency on their own organizations is to drive a wedge between sex workers and police, insisting that sex workers cannot rely on law enforcement, and that they will be arrested if they try to report crimes. But in reality, Canada’s governing law in this area—the aforementioned Bill C-36—was written so as to specifically criminalize buyers of sexual services, not those who provide them, so as to encourage sex workers to report their abusers. This is the asymmetrical model that Sweden first implemented two decades ago.

As a Canadian Justice Department document explained in 2014, Bill C-36 criminalizes “commercial enterprises” that sell sex—“such as strip clubs, massage parlours and escort agencies.” But even in regard to these businesses, the law usually isn’t enforced. Businesses that were in operation before Bill C-36 passed into law generally are still around today. When law enforcement gets involved, I’ve observed, it’s usually because officers have been presented with evidence of either human trafficking or immigration violations.

In the Greater Toronto Area, police who investigate the sex trade are largely focused on sex-trafficking cases; and, to my knowledge, there have been no recent arrests of consensual sex-work clients. In 2017, police in Ontario’s York Region arrested over 100 men for attempting to solicit sex—but that’s because the men were allegedly soliciting minors. Toronto Police also recently busted a multi-provincial sex-trafficking operation.

Sex-work activists often promote the misleading narrative that police fail to differentiate between consensual sex workers, and trafficked women and children; even though, by my observation, the police have respected this distinction for years. Perversely, activists will even downplay the reality and prevalence of real sex trafficking, going so far as to demand “re-education” programs to “de-colonize” human-trafficking “narratives”—as if this international criminal scourge were just a figment of racist police officers’ imagination. Activists also tearfully portray attempts by police to search for kidnapped youth as the “harassment of sex workers.” (This includes a case in which police merely knocked on a sex-worker’s hotel-room door and then left after a brief, polite conversation.) This spirit of paranoia and hysteria, which has become pervasive in sex-work activism, not only leads sex workers to unreasonably fear police. It also spreads confusion about our actual legal rights.

Since Bill C-36 came into force in 2014, its materially-benefiting and procurement provisions have become useful tools for targeting abusive individuals who prey on impressionable young (usually) women and lure them to work in the sex industry in order to leech off their income. These parasitic relationships lie at the root of the numerous pimping cases that come before the courts (such as this one, or this one). The abusers typically will exert romantic, psychological, pharmacological and sometimes physical control over women and girls in order to lure them into sex work and prevent them from leaving. Even the research that activists themselves rely on indicates that boyfriend-pimps play a role in drug-using street-level sex workers’ inability to protect themselves from HIV infection. Ultimately, the specific offences in the Criminal Code that target the particular evils associated with sexual exploitation have served to protect sex workers far more than harm us—especially given the selective way the police and the Crown have enforced them. Groups such as the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR)—whose members include local sex-work activist organizations such as PACE—recommend completely repealing the laws that rightly criminalize these parasitic pimps.

PODCAST 87: Sex Worker and Lawyer Nadia Guo on the Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on the Sex trade
Sydney. London. Toronto.

It’s true that C-36 is overly broad in its theoretical application to third parties—such as legitimate managers who, while looking to profit off sex work commercially, may have (mostly) benevolent intentions. Yet activists typically do not advocate for replacement laws that would distinguish abusive pimps from their legitimate counterparts. They instead argue that existing generalized human-trafficking laws are sufficient for this purpose—despite the fact that successfully prosecuting such offenders is difficult under these laws given the unwillingness of some victims to testify in a public courtroom, as well as the need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the conduct in question was carried out with “the purpose to exploit.” Under the procuring laws, by contrast, the Crown merely has to prove that the offender intended to procure a person for the purpose of offering or providing their sexual services in exchange for money. This offence covers cases such as this one, where evidence of coercion may not be as obvious, but it is clear that the offender is inducing a more vulnerable person into the sex trade for the offender’s own benefit. Given the despicable nature of sexual exploitation of this kind, some kind of procuring offence should remain in the Criminal Code.

The city of London, Ontario, which has been battling human trafficking, offers the only recent local example I know of in which police officers actively sought to arrest the clients of consensual sex workers. They set up a sting on the website LeoList and took to naming and shaming those caught answering their ads—mostly first-time offenders with jobs and families who typically serve no time. One of the stings caught a local police officer, who turned up dead on a highway shortly thereafter, possibly as a result of suicide. The inevitable arrest of such men, with high-profile careers in our communities, helps explain police forces’ unwillingness to devote resources to arresting clients of consensual sex workers.

Clients I’ve engaged with in my time in the sex industry mostly just carry on as if sex work were legal. You can see them discussing the subject openly on review forums. The savvier clients who do their research and reach out to reputable escorts who have been reviewed favourably by others typically have no problem avoiding legal issues. And if this is the attitude among clients, who really do face the theoretical possibility of prosecution for buying sex services, there is even less to fear for sex workers, who have prosecutorial immunity under the law. This is why when PACE frames C-36 as causing drastic damage to sex workers, the group is forced to rely on social-science researchers who blame police and prosecutors for the dangers associated with street sex work, such as violence and high rates of HIV infection—even when the very authors they cite admit that police now show “increased concern” for the safety of sex workers. (In this regard, the CASWLR’s efforts to attribute blame builds on the reasoning embedded in R v Bedford, a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada case that struck down the former legal regime governing prostitution. However, this constitutional analysis may no longer be applicable given that Bill C-36 was enacted to eradicate prostitution and the exploitative elements of it, rather than to deter public nuisance, as was the purpose of the former prostitution laws addressed in Bedford.)

While those involved in street-based sex work often endure desperate circumstances, their plight is not representative of the majority of sex work today—nor should it be taken as a model of the sort of sex work that activists should be encouraging. The risks associated with street solicitation are high—and those risks, in turn, lead to workers’ reliance on exploitative pimps for protection.

It is true that, as CASWLR notes, clients soliciting sex in public, often from a car, invariably seek to hurry the screening process along and move to isolated areas. However, this is not merely because they fear arrest, but rather (as is more likely) because they do not want to be seen by others in the act of negotiating to buy sex, or engaging in public sex (which also is a crime). The reality is that even before C-36 became law, some clients refused to identify themselves at the outset of the booking process, often citing their fear of subsequent blackmail by sex workers. Such suspicions are fuelled by the stereotype of sex workers as untrustworthy or manipulative business partners operating in an anonymous black market. While this is an inaccurate generalization, I have heard real stories from some clients of sex workers or pimps who extorted or robbed them. This mutual distrust between sex workers and their clients can be dispelled only through increased accountability and transparency on both sides of the transaction.

Activists have argued against the current laws by promoting the idea that, notwithstanding the existence of abusive pimps, sex workers “need” third parties to stay safe while working, an argument applied in a recent constitutional challenge to existing laws on behalf of an escort agency. But escort agencies are themselves known to have lax screening policies, and some simply pass off one escort’s bad date to another, since their economic incentives align with prioritizing service volume and profit margins over worker safety.

It wasn’t until independent escorts such as myself began proliferating in recent years, thanks to our increased access to online marketing tools, that sex workers were able to exert more control over which clients we saw. We began making a point of refusing to compromise on safety, and started pushing for stricter screening.

When I first started in the industry, I would make every client show me a government-issued ID before any booking, and I was able to establish a relationship of trust with those who complied. Far from objecting, some clients began to see this as a sign of our commercial legitimacy. Our success helps explains why most escorts I know have been lucky enough to keep good clientele—despite claims by some that sex work is an inherently risky profession. Regardless of what legal regime a government imposes, if you are going to participate in work that requires you to be naked in a room alone with a man who is bigger and stronger than you, you need to be smart about your safety. It comes down to the choices and demands you make for yourself, not those others make on your behalf.

Jabbour’s own foray into sex-worker activism came via postgraduate experience in social work, which may help explain why she doesn’t seem to understand how sex workers actually make money on a day-to-day basis. In a television appearance, for instance, she has made the false claim that it’s illegal for sex workers to advertise. This simply isn’t true, as Canadian sex workers are indeed allowed to advertise our own services, and many of us do so. It is true C-36 is overbroad in that third parties are prohibited from advertising on our behalf. But as with most of the law’s provisions, these ones aren’t strictly enforced. Numerous online ad platforms remain eager to take our money, as evidenced by the way LeoList quickly came to fill the gap left by U.S.-based ad site Backpage after it was shut down by the FBI under anti-sex-trafficking legislation passed in 2018.

Farfetched hypotheticals invented by the CASWLR promote the idea that it is illegal for sex workers to pay a friend to record clients’ licence plates on their behalf as a safety measure. But the Criminal Code carves out specific exceptions for us to hire the assistants we need to help us do our work. And the Justice Department explicitly notes that the law does “not prevent those who sell their own sexual services from entering into legitimate family and business relationships, or otherwise interacting with others, on the same basis as anyone else.”

What is illegal is providing these third-party services when the third parties in question are counselling or encouraging others to provide sexual services, and the money paid is not proportionate to the value of the third-party service provided—which is simply a legalistic way of singling out exploitative pimps. It is also illegal if these services are being carried out in the context of a “commercial enterprise,” which is a broad term that is not fully defined in the legislation, but has been interpreted in some case law in relation to drug-trafficking cases. The Department of Justice has noted, however, that this phrase does not include “individuals who sell their own sexual services, whether independently or cooperatively, from a particular location or from different locations” (my emphasis), which puts to rest the claim from some activists that sex workers cannot work collectively under the current legal regime.

Though it’s common to conceive of sex work as taking place at the margins of society, and to stigmatize men who visit sex workers as incel types who can’t otherwise get laid, the reality is that many men at some point have paid for sex, or at least contemplated it. The majority of my own clients are middle- to upper-middle-class men with careers that include postal processing, mass transit, banking and finance, engineering, IT, law and medicine. Some are married with kids or have girlfriends, some bring their girlfriends to the booking, some have been sent by their girlfriends, some are single, some are in college. (One was a law student who paid me with his student line of credit, and I then used that money to pay down my own student line of credit, creating a sort of financial circle of life.) These are much the same type of men you probably see every day at work or in your neighbourhood.

My sense is that sex work will continue down the path of normalization as the internet makes it easier for clients to connect with sex workers, double standards imposed on female sexuality fall away (along with taboos on sex and polyamory in general), and a more diverse range of providers enters the trade. The visibility of sex workers in both social and mainstream media also has helped reshape cultural representations of sex workers. (Even Meghan Murphy has noticed this—and hates it.) Ten years ago, it would have been exceptional for sex workers to show their faces in promotional photos; nowadays, it is becoming increasingly frequent as these providers feel safe enough to be out and proud.

While I have criticized the manner in which activists misrepresent the reality of sex work in Canada, I also have echoed some of their criticisms of Canadian law. And I appreciate the hard work some of these same activists have performed in the past. I also agree that a stigma against sex workers still exists. I’ve dealt with it personally.

But then again, the stigma surrounding the profession is one of the reasons we get paid well, as it acts as a barrier to entry that reduces supply and so drives up price. For the most part, moreover, my friends and family—the people who matter most—have treated me with compassion. Even the police detectives to whom I’ve reported a crime in the context of my escort work have demonstrated fairness and respect.

* * *

Until this point, I have written mostly in generalities. But in this concluding section, I’ll address several specific ideas that have become popular with the activist groups I’ve critiqued. As a representative case study, I’ll take my examples from a 2017 CASWLR report entitled Safety, Dignity, Equality: Recommendations for Sex Work Law in Canada, which set out the group’s ambitions for a fully decriminalized, essentially unregulated sex trade (which, ironically, is fairly close to the legal situation we already have). In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll quote notable recommendations contained in the report (indicated in italics), followed by my own comments. These examples, I believe, serve to illustrate the growing gulf between activist demands and the reality of modern sex work.

Sex workers should not require regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and employers should be barred from disclosing this information to potential clients (Recommendations 25, 29, 30).

In a country where STD screening is covered by free, universal health insurance, a required testing regime should not be difficult to follow. And yet in its report, the CASWLR denounced such requirements as an affront to “human rights.”

Author Nadia Guo.

A study of female sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side found that 26 percent of the sampled group was HIV-positive. Another report indicated that the figure was above 30 percent, noting these infection rates are the highest in the Western hemisphere and on par with transmission rates in the poorest African nations. Nevertheless, it’s important to fight the stereotype of sex workers as universal vectors of sexual diseases, as most of us are highly vigilant about our sexual health. I myself had never practiced protected safe sex as uniformly as I did before I entered the sex industry, and can honestly say that to this date, I have never contracted an STD while working.

Though I’ve been condescendingly told to “check my privilege” when I make such arguments, most escorts I know from all backgrounds behave as I do, and voluntarily get tested for STDs as often as possible. It’s for the good of our own health and that of our clients. It also protects our colleagues, since we often share clients. (Responsible clients will themselves get tested regularly, for the same reason).

Sex work is an intimate form of work. And as with all service providers whose job requires such close connection between bodies, protecting the health of ourselves and our clients is a must. Restaurants can be shut down if they fail a single food-safety inspection. If the mantra “Sex work is real work” is to have any meaning, it must mean that sex work should be held to the same standard as other services when it comes to safety and professionalism.

I agree there should be no blanket prohibition on HIV-positive individuals being able to sell sexual services to clients willing to take such risks. But as a sex worker, I would expect HIV-positive clients to disclose their status to me—as condoms can break, and antiretroviral treatment can lapse—so I can make a fully informed decision. I see no problem with mandating tests indicating that an HIV-positive sex worker’s viral levels be undetectable before permitting her to sell sexual services, and having these tests made available to clients who ask. Similarly, sex workers should be allowed to request clients’ recent STD test results, if they choose to. These are common-sense measures necessary to protect the broader public when the profit motive comes up against public health and safety concerns.

When I saw Maggie’s, the Toronto-based sex-work activist group, undertaking activism on behalf of a sex worker who was arrested for not disclosing her positive HIV status to multiple clients, I questioned why we should be supporting a colleague who was giving a bad name to our industry through her irresponsible choices. I was immediately lectured by several activists regarding my “ignorance,” on the claim that a client’s decisions to have unprotected sex is his own responsibility. Would we say the same about customers eating at a restaurant that served contaminated food? If sex workers are going to exhibit such reckless disregard for our own client base, why would anyone else take seriously our claims to be legitimate service providers on par with other professionals?

Condom use should not be mandated in the provision of sexual services (Recommendation 12, 27).

Notwithstanding the vague CASWLR claim that mandatory condom usage is “cumbersome and dangerous” for sex workers, every escort I know has no problem demanding condom usage for intercourse and rejecting clients who disagree. Unfortunately, unprotected oral sex is the current industry standard, and it is difficult to challenge client expectations without a legal basis. In jurisdictions that have legalized sex work, such as New Zealand, condom use is mandated for all sexual acts, and such laws provide an extra level of safety for sex workers and clients alike. This would be a good model for Canada to follow.

The minimum age to participate in the sex trade should be in congruence with the [general] labour laws in a given jurisdiction. [In Ontario, this would correspond to 14.] Remove the authority of child-protection agencies to intervene and apprehend minors found selling sexual services to detain them in protective safe houses (Recommendations 20 and 33).

The CASWLR report states that “criminalizing clients and third parties of youth who sell or trade sex contributes to harms against those youth and facilitates exploitation. Age-of-consent laws can address certain situations involving minors, but law enforcement must recognize that not all incidents of youth selling or trading sex are experienced as exploitation.” I don’t think it takes any special kind of special professional insight to see how wrong this is. It is fine for your teens to work as caregivers or neighbourhood couriers. But no one could persuasively argue that a 14-year-old, grade 9 student selling sex isn’t a victim of exploitation.

Moreover, it is difficult to agree with the CASWLR recommendation that child-protection agencies should be stripped of the authority to apprehend minors found selling sexual services. The underlying belief—that an adolescent child would be better served by life in the sex trade than by life in a government-run safe house—betrays the extremist nature of these groups’ stance toward any form of governmental involvement in the lives of at-risk girls and women.

There should be no prohibitions on migrants working as sex workers in Canada (Recommendations 10, 21).

This is a hot topic issue for sex-worker activists, who often cross-check their ideology with open-border advocates who claim that “no one is illegal.” Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that in jurisdictions where sex work has been legalized, the incidence of sex trafficking has increased. In Spain, 90 percent of sex-trade workers now are immigrants, many under the control of Nigerian crime syndicates. Turning a blind eye to migrants who come to a new country to sell sex would only exacerbate the risks of impoverished women and children from poor countries being exploited by traffickers and purchasers alike.

* * *

Ordinary sex workers need to take back the narrative: The radicalized, divisive politics that now inform sex-worker advocacy not only serve to promote policies that harm us in a substantive way. They also tarnish our public image, as was demonstrated by Jabbour’s antics. Behind the scenes, I can attest, these activists have created a toxic “call-out-culture” atmosphere within the private channels that sex workers traditionally have used to communicate with one another. Instead of finding support and solidarity for women who sorely need it, one finds a minefield in which anyone who dares to challenge prevailing dogma is marked for re-education, and, like me, told to “check their privilege.”

It’s all rather ironic, since sex workers, of all people, should understand the need to protect contentious opinions. From time immemorial, we are the ones who often bore the brunt of attempts to censor sexual expression. And it is sad to see a new form of ideological puritanism rising up on the Left, just as we finally seem on the cusp of prevailing over the age-old forces of social conservatism.

Correction (December 8, 2019): The originally published version of this article indicated that when clients of consensual sex workers are arrested as part of Canadian police sting operations, these clients “typically serve no [jail] time nor receive permanent criminal records.” This has been corrected to reflect the fact that some clients do receive permanent criminal records, a policy the author opposes. Quillette regrets the error.

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