Sex Work Legislation is Failing Sex Workers: A Toronto Exhibition Digs Deep

Kristen Cochrane looks at whether various laws intended to “protect” sex workers can actually make conditions more dangerous, and a new Toronto art exhibition that focuses on sex work legalization and sport mega-events.

Emy Fem is soft-spoken and articulate. We’re talking on the phone, but I already know she’s the kind of person I would want to teach me about sex.

Based in Berlin, Emy is a sex worker who holds performances and workshops on sex and intimacy, both for individuals and couples. Emy is currently part of the summer exhibition at the Toronto contemporary gallery, The Power Plant. Titled (art)work(sport)work(sex)work, the exhibition seeks to reconcile different narratives and views on the multi-faceted relationship between sex work, sport mega-events, legislation on sex work, and art. And with the upcoming mega-sport events Pan Am and Parapan Am games in Toronto this summer, the exhibition couldn’t be more timely.

But this exhibition is also extremely relevant given the recent change in Canada’s prostitution laws. Bill C-36, which was passed here in Canada at the end of 2014, is a conservative bill aimed at restricting the sex trade. Basically, the new law doesn’t penalize the sex workers themselves, but it criminalizes the individuals buying sex (otherwise known as “johns”). The bill was based on the so-called Nordic Model (similar laws exist in Sweden, Iceland and Norway, where selling sex is legal but paying for it isn’t).

So what are this bill’s effects?

“When you criminalize our clients you put us in bad work conditions,” Emy told me. “We must work illegally and we are not able to have legal brothels, which means we must work in illegal brothels.” She added soberly, “It brings us into a really bad situation,”

The term “brothel” might bring up sordid images for some. But the word merely refers to a safe place where people who are providing a service can do so safely. Would you want to hide in a dark alley while providing manicures or pedicures? Obvs not. Well, the same goes for blow-jobs (unless you have a specific things for dark alleys, I guess). And also, sex work isn’t just a blow job or a quickie—it can also function as a lesson, like what Emy does, where she teaches couples how to get to know each other intimately in a way that is emotionally and sexually safe.

In Germany, where Emy works, sex work has been legalized. Or so I thought…

When researching the legality of sex work in various countries, it all appears to be black and white. I was surprised, then, when Emy told me that, in Germany, sex work is simultaneously legal and illegal. After some difficulty in finding information on Germany’s unclear sex work laws, I eventually found some comprehensive research on the smaller, feminist blog, Feministire (typical).

Apparently, sex work has been “legal” in Germany since 1927, and sex workers have had to pay taxes since 1964. The law that made a splash in the political press, The Prostitution Act of 2002, was simply an amendment to this established law. As a result, sex workers were entitled to sue clients who didn’t pay for the services rendered, and were thereby eligible for health insurance, among other things. But according to Feministire, what is “misleadingly referred to as ‘legalization’ of prostitution is actually the recognition of sex work as labor.” This is paltry compared to the rights and civil liberties that everyone else is entitled to by virtue of not being a sex worker. Emy concedes that “the situation in Germany is better, but we still have to fight for legalization.”

It gets even more complicated and convoluted.

In Germany, sex work is prohibited in spaces close to schools, churches, hospitals, and residential areas… so basically everywhere:

“[…] most [German] cities have defined restricted areas (Sperrbizerke) and times, where and when prostitution is not allowed. Some cities declare the whole city a restricted area, mostly with the exception of dark and dangerous outskirts, or allow prostitution only during the night. Furthermore, most states prohibit prostitution in cities with less than 30,000 inhabitants. This makes prostitution de facto illegal in most places and at most times, and sex workers receive fines or jail sentences if they violate the restrictions.” (via Feministire) .

When the debate on legislation on sex work arises, human trafficking is almost invariably brought up as a significant reason to criminalize or abolish sex work. This is because critics of the legalization of sex work cite legalization as consequential in the increase of human trafficking. As a counterpoint, the increase of human trafficking has been attributed to the European Union’s expansion into Eastern Europe, an argument that is problematic in itself due to the assumption that forced sex workers are often from Eastern Europe.

At The Power Plant, the summer exhibition (art)work(sport)work(sex)work will seek to address these intersecting arguments and assumptions. I reached out to the YES! Association/Föreningen JA!, the Swedish group who commissioned the exhibition. Part of their artistic ethos is a refusal of binary oppositions, such as man/woman, gay/straight, and more specifically to their current project at The Power Plant, the real/unreal dichotomy when it comes to art. Put differently, what makes art real or not? When is it performance and when is it “real”?

“This has been a binary we have been trying to escape from,” they told me. “It’s actually both. Not either or, but both.”

When the YES! Association/Föreningen JA! visited Toronto in December last year, Canada’s Bill C-36 had just been made into law. The timing proved interesting for the Swedish art collective. Since the bill was based on the Nordic model, it brought back a lot of memories of when the prostitution law in Sweden was implemented, and sparked questions about the significance of the bill here and now in Canada, compared to in Sweden.

To tackle these questions, the exhibition will be holding twelve bus rides around Toronto, exploring themes like sex work, sport mega-events, gentrification, migrant sex work, Aboriginal issues, and Trinidadian queers in Toronto.

While it was Canada’s Conservative Party that put forth the bill currently putting dangerous restrictions on sex work, anti-sex work advocates are not only conservatives—they come from all parts of the political and ideological spectrum. There are the Andrea Dworkin types, i.e.. radical feminists who believe that porn and sex work is fundamentally exploitative. Then there are the individualist feminists like Wendy McElroy who would argue that anything to do with an individual’s body is their choice.

When bringing up intersecting identities and experiences, it’s important to be a good ally. This means not speaking over people whose experiences do not match our own. I asked Emy what the ideal ally for sex workers can do.

“The important thing is to ask what our needs are, and to support us in the way we want to be supported. To listen to us, and act with us like you act with other people. We are mothers, we are friends, we are lovers, we are all the same as other people are.”

Get on Emy Fem’s bus ride on Saturday, June 27th, which is also the day of Pride Toronto’s Dyke March.

(art)work(sport)work(sex)work is open now and runs until September 7th, 2015.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “Why the Slut Always Dies” HERE :)



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