Sex Workers Want Bill C-36 Gone, But Are the Liberals Listening?
After a date gone wrong, one sex worker is organizing her colleagues in hopes the government may change the controversial law.
Photos by Lindsay Irene
Last month, Miranda Thompson set up a rendezvous with a new client in Vancouver, where she was spending a few weeks visiting a friend, paying her way by working as an escort.
Thompson, a 32-year-old with a carny tattoo on her chest, put on a low-cut gothic minidress, a purple wig, black lipstick and flip flops and went to the client’s condo near the Olympic Village.
He invited her in, paid her, and opened a bottle of wine. They were having a nice time chatting so she stayed past the hour he had paid for. Eventually, though, she told him that if he wanted her to stay longer, he would have to pay her more money.
The session, which had been pleasant until that point, suddenly turned nasty.
“He started acting crazy,” she told me in an interview this week. “He was like: ‘Wow. I didn’t even think you were like that.’ ”
The client worked himself up into a state of rage, accusing Thompson of stealing a thousand dollars from him. She showed him her empty wallet but he wouldn’t believe her and tried to take her purse, preventing her from leaving.
“I was terrified.” She started to think he might want to kill her.
“Do you think I give a fuck if I go back to jail over you?” he said.
Thompson pushed away from him, grabbed the half-empty wine bottle and threatened him with it. But she didn’t hit him with it. Then she remembered there was a balcony, threw the bottle to distract him and made a run for it, and climbed down the side of the building.
Using window ledges as hand and footholds, Thompson climbed from the 11th floor to, she thinks, the sixth floor, knocking on balcony doors and windows without luck. She had to jump several times onto railings and ledges.
Finally, a shocked young woman let her into an apartment, where Thompson collapsed on the floor, sobbing and hyperventilating. The young woman got her a glass of water and called her a taxi. Thompson, still terrified, ran to the cab. As she drove off, she saw the client standing on the sidewalk with his hands in the pocket of his hoodie, watching her.
The experience motivated Thompson to start working as an activist, pushing for a change to Canada’s three-year-old anti-prostitution law, which sex workers and academics say makes the work more dangerous than it needs to be.
Thompson, who has been working in the sex business for seven years, would rather work in a brothel, both because it would be safer, but also because it would be a structured environment.
“If there was a brothel, we wouldn’t have to spend out of pocket on hotels and condos. It would be a better environment.”
Sex workers despise bill C-36, which was passed by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2014 after the Supreme Court struck down the existing prostitution laws. The new law, which was supported by social conservatives and feminists who oppose prostitution, is aimed at eliminating the sex trade by prosecuting clients.
But sex workers say it makes their work unsafe because they can’t work in brothels, can’t hire security and can’t properly screen clients, because they are afraid to provide their real contact information for fear of prosecution.
“It’s made it harder for people take this as a real profession,” Luxe Mulvari, an Ottawa escort with 11 years in the industry, told me in an interview. “Girls will say, I won’t screen you. I will do it for less money. Girls who want to keep it safe, and screen their clients, it’s been harder.”
Mulvari, who attended a rally organized by Thompson in Ottawa on Sunday, says sex work allowed her financial independence after a childhood spent in poverty.
“I want to pay my taxes like every other Canadian citizen, and I do, but I want the same rights as every other Canadian citizen. I want my industry protected. I want health and safety regulation.”
Catherine St. Clair, an Ottawa escort with 31 years in the business, wants decriminalization but a law against unprotected oral sex, known as bareback blowjobs, because without such a law, providers are under financial pressure to work without condoms.
“It’s criminal to offer unsafe service or receive them.”
Christine Bruckert, a University of Ottawa professor and former sex worker who has been researching the industry for 20 years, says that working as an escort isn’t more dangerous than working as a home care worker, but unlike home care workers, escorts can’t rely on police.
“(Home care workers) can call backup. They can call the police, someone to help them. Whereas, sex workers still don’t have access to police protection.”
Cecilia Benoit, a professor at University of Victoria, whose research helped win the legal argument that brought down the old law, says that research into C-36 is still incomplete, butit doesn’t seem to have helped sex workers.
“It’s difficult to estimate whether it’s made the situation worse,” she said. “Overall, the aim of it was actually to improve the health and safety of sex workers and I don’t think there’s any evidence that that’s been the case. But whether it’s made things worse, we don’t really know for sure but we definitely don’t see any improvement in people’s situation.”
Sex workers are pressing the government to repeal C-36, but the Liberals are not expected to do anything before the election in October 2019.
In a statement to VICE, David Taylor, director of communications to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, pointed to recent meetings with stakeholders and said the government is continuing to review the law.
“This issue is challenging, but it is incredibly important and as such, it is something our Government is committed to continue working on.”
The Liberals do not face political pressure to change the law. Neither the New Democrats nor Conservative Justice critics responded to requests for comment for this story.
Thompson says that’s unfortunate, because the industry has provided a way for people like her to be productive. She suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bad anxiety.
“In my whole life I’ve never been able to keep a job more than three months,” she said.
She has been happy in her work since she started the day she got fired as a bartender at a strip bar.
“I was terrible and they fired me and I came back that day and got naked, and I was really good at that.”
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