Valerie Scott has been apart of the sex work community for over three decades. All photos by the author.
There has been a lot to say about sex work in Canada this past year. There are ongoing debates about the criminalization of sex work after the monumental Supreme Court decision to strike down three major prostitution laws that were ruled as dangerous. And now a new structure called the Nordic model might be introduced which would criminalize pimps and johns, instead of the sex workers, and in many ways would erase a lot of the progress that has been made on behalf of advocates for sex workers, such as the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC).
It seems clear there are quite a few misunderstandings about who sex workers are, what they do, and how they operate. Even the clearest of debates seems to have two different conversations happening at the same time: It’s a service! It’s a sin! It’s a right! It’s a crime! We wanted to speak to a pro who has been at it for years who could help shed some light on this mostly foggy subject.
I sat down with Valerie Scott, a former prostitute who works as the legal coordinator at SPOC, at her apartment in Downtown, Toronto. She spoke candidly about her experience in the industry and what she thinks about today’s state of affairs.
VICE: How long have you been in the business for?
Valerie Scott: Decades. Since I was 24 and I’m 55 now.
How did this all start for you?
I used to be a dancer back in the days of burlesque, and that was fine… but I got tired of travelling from city to city every week. I would rarely see my apartment and after about six years of that…. the constant on the road… I knew of a relatively new way of working. I put a [sex work] ad in The Globe and Mail, I kept it in for seven days and I received 93 replies. They had to respond to P.O. box number at that time.
So people wrote letters to you?
Yes, and I discarded the ones with poor grammar unless it was obvious the person’s first language was not English, just general poor grammar ones—I would assume they didn’t have a good job. I would meet with them first in a restaurant or another pubic place and then we would go to a private location. I can’t tell you where, because that would be illegal for me to do so. And I got so many regulars from that and I would put an ad in maybe twice a year and just have my regulars. They would book you. Some would see you once a month, some twice a month, some once a week.
And what kind of men would typically respond to your ad?
Some really neat guys—you know, high-powered executives, regular working guys. About 60 percent were married; some confirmed bachelors—back then they would say, confirmed bachelors means gay. No, confirmed bachelors aren’t necessarily gay. And I met one disabled guy and I had no issue with that. He had to take off his leg before we had sex, big deal. But disabled people communicate with other disabled people, so he told his friends, and I had quite a clientele of differently abled men. I don’t find it repulsive or a problem at all.
Have you ever had wives come try and find you or men who have fallen in love?
I’ve had no wives, but I’ve had men fall in love with me and that can be a dangerous scenario. You don’t want that. There is something that happens when it is a service and I don’t know what it is to articulate it, but you can’t fall in love with your clients, it’s not possible.
So typically there is no real emotion involved?
Well, there is emotion, but it is friendly sex.
Is there anything about sex work, like say sleeping with a married man, that you think could be seen as unethical?
No, because, look, wives and girlfriends never need worry. For us it’s not an emotional falling in love with your husband kind of deal. It’s a service. It’s safer sex. Let’s face it: guys can’t always keep it in their pants; guys got to spread that sperm around. It’s innate and I’m not giving them a pass on that, but it is a fact, so I think it is more responsible for a guy to see a sex worker where it’s clean; there’s no muss there’s no fuss. Opposed to having an affair with an office colleague or someone they meet in a bar. I’m never going to call a client, period. I’m never going to call a client at home and cry, “You didn’t call me on my birthday,” that’s never going to happen.
So what was a turning point for you where you decided to start fighting for rights of other sex workers?
There was an election and Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister, and within six months, not even, he brought in the communication law which criminalized soliciting sex work] and I heard the justice minister at the time on the radio talking about how this law was going to cleanup the streets... I was cleaning my bathroom window at the moment and that was it. There was a woman who I would hear on the radio occasionally, Peggy Miller, she was of the same mind. She put together a group that was known at the time as The Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes. And she’d just begun to be in the media and they treated her like a clown. The idea of sex worker speaking was very odd and strange. So I got in touch with her.
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for sex-workers and for SPOC this past year. What bothers you most about how this is being handled?
Really the hypocrisy of politicians making laws about sex work. So they know sex work but they don’t know how it works. Like I don’t know how the reporting business works and I don’t know how to report. I would never presume to pass a law about reporters or any job I’m not part of. You have to bring people who are involved in the profession together in a meaningful way, none of this tokenism. I can’t tell you how many parliament subcommittees I’ve spoken at—it’s all for show. It means nothing to them.
What’s really the biggest thing SPOC wants to see changed?
We now have changed the ability to work with each other. We want to be able to operate small brothels. We don’t want mega brothels; five [women in a brothel] seems to be about the acceptable number that has been banding around sex workers rights groups. Five women could work together, rent a place, and share expenses. If [one woman is] with a client, someone else would be answering the phone.
What would the Nordic model do for this?
The Nordic model will only set up the same circumstances that the Supreme Court of Canada has just ruled are unacceptable. It makes no sense. It’s terrible.
Who do you find has the biggest problem with making sex work legal?
They tend to be religious fundamentalist and radical hardline feminist. I don’t worry about the hardline feminists, but I do worry with the radical religious fundamentalists.
But aside from religious fundamentalists, there are a lot of regular people too who don’t necessarily agree with what you do.
I don’t worry about them killing us; they just disagree with us. I just think it’s because sex means something different to every single person. With ordinary people I think they’re more concerned about things like, “Oh, will a brothel open next door to me.” They see the 10 percent of sex work, the visible minority of sex work, that takes place on the street—a lot of those women are drug-addicted, and not really very together. That’s what [the naysayers] think of as sex work.
What do you think people aren’t considering?
They don’t think about the other 90 percent of us who are indoors, who are ordinary people, who may even be members of their family that they just don’t know are sex workers. I have to laugh when I hear people say: “Oh, I’ve never met a sex-worker before” and I have to say, chances are you have, you just don’t know it. Chances are there is a sex worker in your family, you just don’t know it. Even if it was your great, great aunt Mable who always had lots of gentlemen friends, she may have been a sex worker.
Why do you think some people get so angry over these laws, and sex work in general?
Because it’s about sex and anything to do with sex riles people up, they lose their minds; they lose their ability to think logically.
Could you ever see brothels ending up in regular suburban neighbourhoods?
No. There are multiple by-laws that would prevent that. You can’t just go and open a brothel in any neighbourhood. And besides that, a lot of people have sex five or six times a week with different people and no one says anything. The fact that money is involved is the only problem.
Maybe sex and money don’t mix well?
Actually they mix very well [laughs].
What are some of the other misconceptions about sex workers?
That we live in penthouse apartments and that we’re walking around in ball gowns and dripping diamonds and speaking six different languages and that we have hot and cold running champagne and we make $5,000 a day, easy. Or, that we live in rat-infested hobbles with needles in our arms—with some big bad pimp telling us what to do [laughs]. The average Canadian sex worker earns around $40,000 a year.
What are some common myths about pimps?
Sure, some girls might have what you think of as a traditional pimp, but not the majority. Pimps don’t get you clients; they stay away from that. They are just there for emotional support. There are some drugs, but here’s the other thing: drugs are not cheap. It doesn’t make sense to get someone hooked on drugs on crack or any kind of drug and then expect there to be a lot of money leftover. So that doesn’t even really make sense.
What has changed the most about the industry from the early 80s to today?
A lot. What with the internet and cell phones. When I began there was no such thing as a cell phone and no such thing as the internet. And the thing about sex work is that sex work is so resilient and sex workers are so resilient. We can operate under just about any regime, any technological change throughout history.
Why do you think the sex industry is so resilient?
In order to stop sex work, you’d have to stop money, and you’d have to stop sex. No army, no government no religion in history has been able to eradicate sex workers. And if these prohibitionists think they are going to institutionalize the Nordic law, they are delusional.