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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cue the triumphal chorus: Amnesty International passes policy supporting decriminalization of sex work

    This is an amazing day for the sex workers' rights movement with the news that Amnesty International has approved its draft policy supporting decriminalization of adult sex work.
     "What will it all mean?" asked one of my friends. I admit to not being sure what it will change in the immediate future. But as a symbol, it's significant when the world's most recognized human rights organization acknowledges that criminalizing sex work violates the rights (and threatens the lives) of sex workers.
    I've had the good fortune of getting to know a lot of sex workers over the last two decades, so for me it hasn't been a stretch to understand that criminalizing sex work increases the dangers, the sense of isolation and the stigma for those who work in the industry. It sorts sex workers into a different category of human - one who lives and works alongside the rest of us every day, providing us with services that we want, yet is denied the most basic rights that all of us enjoy.
    If this was a question of a particular race or economic class being discriminated against in our own countries, we'd have been all over it decades ago. But it's about sex workers, and that subject apparently really weirds us out. So we have shamefully let this disgrace continue much longer than a civilized society ought to permit.
    Criminalizing sex work shuts workers out of civil measures like employment tribunals and contract law. It relegates them to work in the shadows by denying them safe, legal places to work. It leaves them to the whims of police, who will be free to use their own discretion in deciding whether to treat the workers with respect or as lower life forms who they can feel free to abuse.
     In many countries, including Canada, criminalization denies sex workers the right to work together, and never mind that there's a mountain of evidence and a whole lot of logical thinking to tell us that isolating people in their work puts them at greater risk for all kinds of bad things.
     Around the world, major organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations have already endorsed decriminalization after their own careful investigations. Some might even argue that Amnesty International was late to the game, given all the research and reports that have stated over and over again that nothing is improved for sex workers or society by criminalizing the industry.
     Yet we were almost sidetracked by an open letter signed by anti-sex-work supporters in the runup to the Amnesty International vote, accusing the organization of betraying its principles and siding with "pimps." We were almost sidetracked by movie stars like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, who signed that petition and significantly added to the level of media hype and misinformation that followed.
     People actually gave credence to the uninformed musings of celebrities over two years of thoughtful investigation by Amnesty in drafting its policy. (Here's a great video from Amnesty on how that public battle all shook down, and that highlights the many ways that opponents used misinformation to try to create a backlash against Amnesty.)
    As the British might say,  I was gob-smacked by that turn of events. But I suppose I am grateful for it, too, because it reinforced that those who oppose sex work as morally wrong are fully prepared to sacrifice sex workers' safety and rights if that's what it takes to make their case.
      They believe that their need to hate sex work trumps workers' needs for safer workplaces, fair treatment by police and courts, and the basic human right to live equal among us. I've suspected that's what they believed for a while now, but their hysterical misinformation campaign against Amnesty was the confirmation.
      Will any of them rethink their positions now that one more respected organization has done its homework around sex work? I don't understand their way of thinking at all, so can't predict. There's something about the issue that seems to blind otherwise thoughtful people to common sense.
     And those who are still on the fence are legion. Many excuse themselves for not taking a position because the issue is "just too complex" and they don't have time to think about it. (What, people should die and suffer because you can't be bothered to learn enough to form an opinion?)
     But increasingly I am feeling the power of a global movement pushing for change. Maybe Amnesty's support will be a defining moment for busting through the general population's apathy on this issue.
     Anyway. My biggest hug to Amnesty. Stay strong, you guys. You're on the side of the angels on this one.

This good read on Vice summarizes much of the Amnesty battle. 

A good Q&A with Amnesty about its decision, particularly useful for its clarity around difference between decrim and legalization, and that you can support decriminalizing adult, consensual sex work while still being vehemently opposed to sex trafficking and exploitation. 

And if you're all cool on this subject and want a good belly laugh, check out this parody of the moment that "sexwork exclusionary radical feminists" - SWERFs - learn of Amnesty's decision.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The day I interviewed to be a sex worker

One summer day when I was a young reporter in Kamloops, my bosses at the newspaper sent me off to pretend I wanted to get hired as a lingerie model.
    The advertising department at the paper had been running classified ads seeking young women interested in working as lingerie models. The paper wanted the advertising revenue, but was worried the real nature of the business was prostitution. So they sent me off to pretend to be a job applicant so I could report back to them, a task that I accepted without hesitation.
     The interview was in a hotel room at The Dome, a fairly popular place in mid-1980s Kamloops. I can’t remember what I wore. An average man of average age – 35, maybe, with the everyman feel of someone who, like myself, had known life in a B.C. resource town – invited me to sit down. A few minutes later, a woman of about the same age joined us.
    My managers back at the paper had sent me to the job interview in the company of a male reporter, who was to park outside and be ready to save me from whatever darkness might lie within. This made me laugh then and now, although I do appreciate that my bosses at least wanted somebody to witness me disappearing behind the door where unnamed depravity was possibly lurking.
    In fact, the job interview was notable for its complete ordinariness. The man didn’t seem concerned that I had never worked as a lingerie model, and talked about how my job would be to go to private parties - some of them in hotel rooms - where I would model lingerie to potential buyers and be paid a commission.
    We got to the point where we had said pretty much all there is to say about lingerie modelling, but the feeling of an elephant in the room just kept getting bigger. I saw that it was going to be up to me to cut to the chase. I asked if there was an opportunity to make additional money selling something more than lingerie.
    The man and woman who were interviewing me both let out these huge sighs of relief, and instantly relaxed into  much more personable, jokey versions of their previous selves.  Yes, yes, exactly, the man enthused to me – I was welcome to sell much more than lingerie. Once that door shut between me and the lingerie enthusiast and the big wide world, he said, the two of us were free to explore any opportunities we wanted.
    The interview went on for probably an hour, and got a lot more comfortable for all concerned once we got past the lingerie cover story. As we wrapped up, the man told me I would have to come back the next day and take my clothes off in front of the woman, who would verify that I had no "huge scars" or obvious disfigurement. The man reassured me that as far as he could tell, I almost certainly would get the job. I left the hotel room feeling strangely exhilarated.
     I never returned for the second interview, although I’ve always liked to think that if I had, I could have had that job. My bosses were waiting for me the second I got back to the office, and I'll never forget the riveted looks on their faces as I recounted my interview. They hung on every word. I came to see that verifying the legitimacy of a lingerie seller might not have been their only motive for sending me on the assignment.
    I never went undercover again in my journalism career. It’s a fairly dishonest way to land a story, and I frown on it other than for the rare stories that simply can’t be told without subterfuge. 
    I suppose that might be why the story of my sex-work interview has gone unwritten until now. Or perhaps I simply had to grow old enough not to care that I might hurt my former bosses' feelings by revealing that what was most striking to me about that notable day was the hungry looks on their faces as they listened to me. I think I learned something new about men that day. 
    I trust no reader will take this anecdote of mine to mean that I “know what it’s like to be a sex worker” or something insane like that. There is much more to sex work than a job interview. I will leave it to my many brilliant and fascinating friends who really do work in the industry to tell those stories.
    All I'm saying is that one time maybe 30 years ago now, I did a job interview with a couple of people trying to set up an escort agency in Kamloops. And I’m still pleased that I nailed it. 

Catch the video on sex workers' rights that I put together in conjunction with Peers Victoria for the June 13 Day of Solidarity for sex workers. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Who you gonna call? Fact Checkers

The Washington Post is doing some great work these days with their Fact Checker feature, which is digging into all kinds of "statistics" being thrown around out there to see where the figures come from and whether there's any truth to them. Think of it as the rhetoric version of that TV show Mythbusters.

Today's myth-busting was around the "fact" that 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of sexual exploitation. Take a look at how they tested those figures and what they found out - fascinating stuff, and all of it underlining that we need to be very, very careful in deciding what to believe when topics are highly emotional and potentially divisive. That old adage about believing half of what you see and none of what you hear has never been truer.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Inflated human trafficking statistics serve nobody

     Found myself making a long, ranty comment on a Facebook thread this morning and realized, hey, that could be a blog post. Those of us who write for food appreciate writing that lends itself to more than one application. 
     So here's the article that started everything, a Washington Post piece on the vast and profoundly misleading inflation of human-trafficking figures around the world, and why that has happened. 
     Posting it on Facebook brought out some interesting comments from people I don't usually interact with, but in the end I feel like we had the chance for a good conversation, each of us writing in our little boxes one after the other. Here's the thread if you want to take a look at how it went. 
     Talk of human trafficking has become something of a flash point for me in the last couple of years, as it was wrongly used and amply abused to justify the terrible injustice enacted against adult sex workers last year in Canada when their customers were criminalized for the first time in the country's history. I am all about rights for sex workers, and it has been devastating to see the number of otherwise thoughtful Canadians who can't get beyond the word "trafficked" to consider the actual impact of our poorly considered laws on the lives of tens of thousands of rational, informed and unvictimized Canadian adults earning a living in the sex industry. 
     Somewhere around the 4th-comment mark in the Facebook thread, I weighed back in with these comments below. Would love to keep this conversation going, so I hope you'll share your own thoughts on this. 

Even when you look at what drives human trafficking, it's largely the demands of the developed world for cheap goods and services. You'll hear some people going on about the maquilas in Central America, for instance, but who do we think those internationally owned clothing factories are making clothes for?? In countries like Nicaragua and Honduras, where there are loads of maquilas, people there are actually forbidden from buying those clothes, made by them in their own country!
      Nobody can get snippety about issues like human trafficking without fully understanding that our easy way of life totally depends on the labour of poor people. Like everything else in this world, it's all about demand. As long as a market exists for something, there will be people somewhere who will have to do the work of that. We can't morally object to that fact while at the same time happily enjoy the products of that labour. 
     And we are way beyond boycotts of one product or another - the labour of poor people is completely integrated into the lifestyle of North Americans, from the clothing we wear to the vehicles we drive, food we eat, cost of our cellphone service. And that's not even counting the labours of poor people from other lands in our own countries - the farm workers, construction workers, nannies, etc, legal and illegal. The people who we have decided should live by different rules than the rest of us in the same country because we want to reap the benefits from cheaper labour right here at home. 
     Meanwhile, poor people of the world would be completely hooped if the developed world suddenly decided to quit exploiting them and close down all the international operations and genuinely crack down on illegal migration. 
     A fifth of the Honduran GDP is generated by migrant Hondurans working in the U.S., a vast number illegally, and sending money back home. When you leave home to do the long, hard and horribly dangerous scrabble from Honduras to the US, and pay money for somebody to get you through that final bit across the river, are you being trafficked or are you just trying to dig you and your family out of poverty by doing what you see as your only option? I mean, it is a COMPLEX subject. 
     But we do it a huge disservice when we try to make it about good and evil, heroes and villains. A whole lot of money gets thrown around on buzz about "human trafficking," and the fundamentals go untouched as always.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Cashew Girls of Guasaule

   I crossed back into Nicaragua from Honduras yesterday at dusty, dry Guasaule, on my way back home to Leon after a work trip. 
     Crossing a Central American border by bus is often a mysterious, confusing process that involves everyone getting out of the bus in a big herd and wandering to and from various unmarked buildings. So it was kind of nice to see the familiar face of Carmen the Cashew Girl as I descended the Tica Bus stairs yesterday.

     She was wearing the brilliantly coloured eye shadow and matching shirt that the Cashew Girls clearly favour as a strategy for getting groggy, overheated bus travellers to remember them. There is something of the sex worker in the visage of the brightly painted and sexily dressed Cashew Girl, who like a worker on stroll has only minutes to get you to take note of her and decide to buy her wares rather than those of her (friendly) rivals.
     Carmen and I had first met last Sunday, when I’d been a bus passenger heading into Honduras and had emerged from the bus into the stark, dry border zone for the first time. Carmen had blinked her vividly made-up eyes at me, touched my arm and called me amiga to be sure she had my attention, and urged me to buy some cashews from her.
     Marañónes, they’re called here. They’re sold unsalted and home-roasted in cheap cellophane bags at street intersections in Managua, but the Guasaule border crossing in northern Nicaragua appears to be a particularly popular place for hawking the nuts. Carmen says hers come from the Honduras side.
     The Cashew Girls come running when the buses arrive at the border, and there’s at least four waiting at the door by the time you get off the bus. Hence the eye shadow, layered on in stand-out hues of pink, purple and blue, the colours helping to distinguish one Cashew Girl from another in the minds of overwhelmed bus passengers (who descend into a clamorous crowd of money-changers, food vendors, cellphone chip sellers, and scruffy kids begging for money). 
     I don’t know if Carmen is particularly skilled or if her pitch simply works well with people like me; at any rate, I spent $5 last Sunday and again yesterday buying cashews from her.
     I resisted at first. “Not right now,” I told her that first time, distracted by the mysterious border crossing process I was about to undertake and unprepared to consider whether I felt like any cashews right now. “Me recuerde,” she told me as I made my way past all the other Cashew Girls vying for my attention – “Remember me.” The colourful eye shadow and matching shirt helped, I admit, and later I bought some cashews for the bus ride.
     Yesterday she was there again as I got off the bus. Once again, I wasn’t at all sure that I even wanted cashews. But she upped her game, guiding me from one building to another so that I always seemed to be at the front of the line for the bewildering process of crossing the border.
     What could I do? I bought some nuts.
     I would have liked to know more about her. How much money did she make in a typical day? Where did she live? Did she have children? Were the Cashew Girls an informal co-op that shared their profits, or was everybody in it for themselves?
     But just like any working girl, time is money for people like Carmen. She can’t afford to waste time chatting. Once she’d made her sale, she touched my arm one last time, told me to take care of myself, and started making her way toward an incoming mini-bus.