In the School of Human Rights, Amnesty International Gives Nordic Model Failing Grade

“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness” is the first thing to catch my eye when I visit the Amnesty International website.  Since it’s beginning in 1961, the organization has been bringing light to the darkest of places and actions around the world.  They now have more than 7 million people fighting to create a world where everyone will enjoy the human rights they are entitled to.  With no political agenda, religious affiliation or economic interests, they are able to look at evidence without bias and hold individuals as well as governments accountable for their actions.

It is hardly surprising then, that they have heard and rallied behind the global cry of sex workers to decriminalize all aspects of adult consensual sex work and uphold our entitlement to international human rights.  After more than two years of research and consultation they developed and publicized their policy to protect the human rights of sex workers which included this statement:  “Amnesty International believes the law should be used to tackle acts of exploitation, abuse and trafficking in sex work; but we do not believe that catch-all offenses that make sex workers’ lives less safe are the most effective way to do this.” Having said that, it made complete sense to me that they would not support the “Nordic” model of law developed in Sweden in 1999 which has been implemented in many other countries.  I applaud the announcement this week that they are calling for an end to using this model of law which only provides the illusion of upholding workers rights.

For many years governments around the world have been lamenting the difficulties of dealing with such a “complex issue” as the sex industry and it certainly is if the government is consistently making policy and law based on ideology rather than fact based evidence provided by credible research.  I witnessed this first hand throughout 2014 as the previous Canadian government used a flawed process to rewrite the laws surrounding prostitution resulting in more restrictions than have been present in Canada in more than 100 years.  The most disappointing aspect was the complete disregard shown to the highest court in our land who had stricken the remaining laws from the Canadian Criminal Code in 2013.  The Supreme Court, like Amnesty International, recognized that the current laws were not only violating workers rights, they were not effective in combating the criminal activity surrounding the work.

When the former Justice Minister first suggested implementing the “Nordic” model of law there was a collective groan and outcry from the industry and supporters around the country.  We all knew that this was about to recreate the dangerous conditions that we had been mostly freed from during the previous year.  He stated that the objective was to “reduce the demand for prostitution with a view towards discouraging entry into it, deterring participation in it and, ultimately, abolishing it to the greatest extent possible” then added that it would give sex workers the ability to create better working conditions.  Not only would those two goals be at odds with each other, it was apparent to me no one had noticed that after 16 years, Sweden had not been able to accomplish that goal.  In fact, Gunilla Ekberg, one of the architects of that strategy, testified to that before the Canadian House of Commons during a three day session of hearings on this subject.

In the report on the “Nordic” law, Catherine Murphy, policy adviser at Amnesty International said, “People say the Nordic model sends a message, but let’s deconstruct that message…Unfortunately, that message seems to be, the most important thing is the eradication of sex work, and the people caught up in crossfire and whose human rights are violated—that’s unfortunate, but it seems to be tolerated. We as Amnesty International don’t accept that. People’s human rights must be respected and protected regardless. Any approach that has to violate people’s rights to achieve an aim is not a legitimate approach.”

Chi Mgbako, clinical professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School in South Africa said this following the release of the report, “For decades sex workers around the world have been documenting how the criminalization of sex work leads to devastating human-rights abuses against their community. Far too often, their voices and inspiring activism are erased from discussions about sex work. I commend Amnesty for not only following the evidence but for refusing to ignore the voices of the people most affected—sex workers themselves.”

In their final evaluation in 2001, the authors of a study done by The National Police Board in Sweden noted that the results of the “Nordic” model were negative due to more difficult and stressful conditions for the most socially marginalized workers. All evaluations pointed to an increase in hidden prostitution where little is known about conditions and have documented the law’s negative impact on those still involved in street work. The government response has been to say that the law is not about improving conditions but is about ending prostitution and that ‘any negative impact’ on sex workers is outweighed by ‘the message’ conveyed by the law.

As I sit here tonight reflecting on the potential impact of Amnesty’s call to end use of the ‘Nordic’ model of law and the support from so many leading global organizations, I find myself feeling hopeful that we may see change ahead.  We were so close at one point and I can only hope that leaders, governments and individuals around the world don’t disregard this clear message from Amnesty International as the previous government in Canada ignored the same message from our Supreme Court.

To our new Prime Minister,  I’d like to remind you that on September 18, 2014 you tweeted the following: “The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone. Times have changed for the better. The Liberal Party defends rights.” Mr. Trudeau, with all due respect, that is exactly what happened with this bill and the resulting laws.  It’s time to revisit this issue and demonstrate your government’s willingness to defend our rights.  Let Canada be the first to heed this call which upholds our commitment to respecting international human rights and our Charter of Rights.







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Anti-Human Trafficking or Anti-Prostitution

Human trafficking is considered one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, described by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as the basest crime and one that shames us all.  In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and Canada was one of the first countries to participate. In 2010, UNODC was mandated to produce a report on the problem and presented their findings in 2014. The most glaring fact was that convictions are highly disproportionate to the growing awareness and extent of the problem with 40% of 128 countries reporting less than 10 convictions per year and 15% none while the numbers of detected victims continues to increase.

In Canada and the US I believe the disparity is in part due to anti-human trafficking campaigns really disguising anti-prostitution crusades despite overwhelming evidence proving that decriminalization of the sex industry helps the fight against human trafficking.


To understand my argument this is relevant information out of the UNODC report.  While the majority of victims are subjected to sexual exploitation, there are increasing numbers in forced labor which includes: manufacturing, cleaning, construction, catering, restaurants, domestic work and textile production. In Canada and the US between 2010-2012, trafficked victims were almost equally exploited in the sex trade and forced labor.  They also reported that children account for only 30% of victims (not to downplay the horror of that number) and 70% were adults and more than 1 in 4 were from East Asian countries.

One of the biggest challenges facing the anti-trafficking movement today is a consistent acceptance of baseless, inaccurate and excessively exaggerated misinformation.  One example is the claim that the Super Bowl will be a major human trafficking event. In 2012, the host city of Indianapolis passed harsher sex laws, trained 3400 people to recognize the signs of human trafficking and handed out 40,000 bars of soap to hotels in the area with the anti-trafficking hot-line number. Of 68 arrests of local sex workers only 2 qualified under Indianapolis law as trafficking victims.

So why do these false claims continue to gain traction?  A study conducted by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women puts forward a solid theory.  It argues that it is useful for anti-trafficking organizations because it offers a good fundraising strategy, gets media attention, is seen as taking action against trafficking and is a good cover for anti-prostitution efforts. There is not a huge appetite today for an anti-prostitution campaign so disguise it as anti-trafficking and the crusade is once again in full swing funded and supported by tax dollars.

There have been only 35 human trafficking convictions in Canada, according to Public Safety Canada’s latest report, since new laws came into effect in 2005 despite former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promised $25 million over 4 years to establish a national action plan.  In truth most “rescue operations” are law enforcement “raids,” which entrap consensual adult sex workers and often end with incarceration of the supposed victims.  Operation Northern Spotlight, which involved 180 police officers and other personnel in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador and New Brunswick rescued 20 underage victims yet violated the constitutional rights of 310 legal sex workers.  I don’t disregard the huge success of having rescued even one victim but suggest that the victory would be that much greater if it didn’t have to come at the cost of violating so many others in the process. Decriminalization will achieve that goal.

While some of those involved in the anti-trafficking movement say that more funding is needed, John Ferguson, a retired RCMP superintendent, says the lack of convictions around international sex trafficking in Canada may indicate that it is not that widespread. “After so many years, after a decade of enforcement when you have so few charges,” he said, “one can only surmise that the government’s enforcement efforts have been in the wrong direction.”  The disparity between spending and results has sex workers believing they have become targets of a War-on-Drugs-like crusade under the guise of trafficking-prevention.

There is also the intensive awareness campaigns which come with huge government funding.  Along with pamphlets, hot-line numbers and awareness stickers to be placed in “relevant” businesses, law enforcement is training employees of certain industries to recognize signs of trafficking such as the one launched in Halifax called “Say Something if you See Something”.  Hotel employees, for example, are to watch for things such as:  garbage cans containing many used condoms, frequent use of “Do Not Disturb” signs, excessive foot traffic in and out of a room, “excessive sex paraphernalia”, a guest who “averts eyes or does not make eye contact”, too many personal hygiene products, especially “lubrication, douches”, too few personal possessions or “individuals loitering or soliciting male customers”.  Despite being directly involved with workers for years, even I would have a hard time determining from those clues whether I am seeing a legal sex worker or a victim of trafficking.

As long as any part of selling commercial sex is criminalized, it will be extremely difficult to effectively tackle human trafficking within the industry and impossible without violating the constitutional rights of sex workers.  There is very little to distinguish the difference between victims and legal workers at a glance which is why decriminalization becomes the key.  When the industry is underground and workers fear the law, human traffickers have the perfect conditions to operate and grow.  Sex workers leaving due to fear of arrest create an opening for the trafficked victims to move in.  Workers will use cash, not produce identification, “avert their eyes or not make eye contact” and may appear anxious despite their not being forced into the work. Customers under threat of arrest will not report signs of a potential victim.  The best source of information for law enforcement is cut off, victims and workers are indistinguishable and traffickers are given the secrecy they need to operate. Bringing the industry into the open mitigates all of those factors making it much easier to identify and assist those who are in it unwillingly.

In  a statement explaining their endorsement of decriminalizing the sex industry, Amnesty International had this to say:  “…there is no evidence to suggest that decriminalization results in more trafficking.  We believe that decriminalization would help tackle trafficking. When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are better able work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it.”

My last point is that despite the huge budgets for anti-trafficking, very little is being put towards exit strategies.  Survivors have stated that what is urgently needed are more shelters and housing, job training and counseling to help in adjusting to a new life.  Imagine the devastation if a victim finally gets free only to find no room in a shelter forcing her to return rather than be on the streets?  That’s when we have truly failed.   If we can’t provide food, shelter and assistance in supporting themselves, why are we surprised with the difficulties they have in adjusting?  To abandon them at this point is another betrayal.

We must stop the anti-prostitution crusade! The laws are working in favor of the criminals, not those who need our help and protection.  Let’s not fail them as we have those who became collateral damage in the war on drugs. It didn’t work then and there is no reason to believe it will work now!


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Sex Work is NOT Permission for Rape!!!

Last week when I posted “I am a person…not what I do”, my goal was to share with you how the stigma of association with the sex industry created difficult situations in the daily lives of sex workers.  Two articles I saw recently have compelled me to tackle one of the most abhorrent and tragic impacts of the stigma which is the inhumane belief that because someone engages in sex work, they lose their right to consent and cannot be raped.

I pointed out in my paper “Decriminalizing Prostitution in Canada” that sex work is not intrinsically tied to violence and that most workers are not victims of crime but of moral judgement. To assume that the exchange of sex for money is primarily tied to violent, exploitative or harmful intentions is not based in fact. When we acknowledge the reality that this work can be a choice we must also uphold their right to say what is and is not violence.  For example, when a sex worker is engaged in a service that includes bondage or domination, while it may appear violent to others, the worker still determines the boundaries and decides what is or isn’t a violent experience for themselves.  To take that choice away from workers ultimately undermines consent and control over their own body, a hard-fought win for women in most regards.  Unless you are a sex worker. 

Some of you may recall the Steubenville High School rape from 2012 when a 16 year old girl was raped by a group of football players while she was drunk and not conscious so was unable to possibly give consent. The backlash from the community towards this young girl, so horribly wronged already, actually turned my stomach.  To hear reporters talking about how difficult it was to watch what happened to these two young men with such bright futures as their lives fell apart…wow!!!  Only two players went to jail, one for a year, the other for two.  After their release this headline appeared in the web based Slate Magazine: “It’s time to stop shaming the Steubenville Rapists” followed by a story on how hard this has been for them.  Where was the compassion for the actual victim?  Every action taken to cover up the crime, to drum up sympathy for the accused or to place blame on the young woman further victimized her and made me angrier.

She was not a sex worker.  My purpose for bringing it up is to ask you to now imagine how easy it would be for those same individuals (including many mainstream media personalities) to dismiss an accusation of rape from a sex worker if this is their attitude towards an innocent young girl.  Working in the sex trade does not remove a persons ability to determine what is and is not rape. We still retain the ability to clearly define and set boundaries with others and have the capacity to determine when we are being victimized.

It is the attitude or opinion that all prostitution is violence or rape that increases the stigma and creates damaging consequences for workers. In 2007 a Pennsylvania judge ruled that a worker gang-raped at gunpoint by a client was a victim of “theft of services” and later stated that “the incident minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped”.  In 2007 a worker in Texas was forced to pay for her own rape kit and hospital fees and said that she felt the detective that took her  statement ridiculed her. Excuse me??!  Any views questioning our ability to declare boundaries and maintain control over our own bodies must stop or we will find ourselves moving backwards in regards to women’s rights.

When we attempt to define what sexual assault is, we also make clear what is not sexual assault.  Sex workers are rarely included in discussions about violence against women because we are not seen as ‘normal’ women. For some it is still hard to accept that women  have sexual knowledge and appetites without an emotional response. So when those opposing the industry speak of selling our body, not a service like any other job which makes it by definition ‘rape’, it becomes impossible to convince them when we are, in fact, victims. To those individuals, we are crying wolf and the violence against us is ignored.  What’s not addressed is the pervasive issue of male violence in all of society, not just this industry.

Violence against women happens far too frequently and in all areas of society including school, work, recreational activities and homes.  It does not discriminate by age, looks, dress or nationality.  Yet the Steubenville rape is a reminder that for all of the progress made in women’s rights, we are still often blamed for the violent acts committed against us. It was only on January 4, 1983 when Canadian law finally acknowledged that a wife could be raped by her husband.  With the stigma sex workers already face it is hardly surprising that we feel our right to be seen as human, as a person is once again denied.

If you don’t support the right of sex workers to be free from violence, then you do not support the right of women to be free from violence at all. Anyone who believes that we have somehow brought it upon ourselves or that we deserve punishment for our behavior must also believe – on some level –  that all women who are victimized somehow invited the sexual violence.  Even when my choice is to do a job that is not seen by some as appropriate for women, sexual violence is never invited and never deserved.

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I am a Person – Not What I Do

I first thought about a blog when I witnessed the reactions from most people to hearing first hand about the sex industry.  Whatever their opinion about it, they were curious.  So I shared funny stories like the customer with a guitar who made up songs for us and sang them before leaving or a heartwarming story of a group of women involved in outreach called Lilies Among Thorns delivering baskets, gifts and food to workers every single holiday or special day of the year. People were responding positively so I was very excited when I heard about The Hooker Monologues, a production similar to The Vagina Monologues. Sex workers, former sex workers, advocates for sex work and family members sharing  their stories, reaching hundreds of people at a time.

The hope behind sharing these stories is to humanize workers in the sex industry, to begin removing the stigma that we deal with which is so harmful.  It occurred to me that never before had I thought twice about discussing my work.  I knew of only two types of work I thought people wouldn’t mention which were criminal or top secret. To not be able to talk about a job because of potential repercussions forces the double life many workers have to live. This is not a choice. It becomes a stumbling block, sometimes a brick wall cutting off both opportunity and aid. The fear of losing children, support networks, government aid or being forced out of communities is very real.  Sadly, the discrimination is far reaching and impacts every area of our lives.  I knew that I could not live a secret life and had to prepare to deal with the stigma…not as simple as I thought.

My children were my only concern and they had to hear it first and from me.  Fortunately they were adults at this point and my plan was to ensure that they understood the industry the way that I did, whether or not they agreed with my choices. Not surprising to me, both they and their partners have been very supportive and they often share their insights with others.  I received the same response from most of my family, friends and people that work with me.  Unfortunately, not every situation turned out to be that way.

For me, one of the most disappointing repercussions of being associated with prostitution was being asked to leave my position as a volunteer with Victim Services which is run by the Justice Ministry of Canada.  I was committed to it on a weekly basis for 6 years and knew I would miss being a part of something that made a difference.  I honestly thought it was a great fit with no conflict of interest because we had to remain anonymous so only the team would know.  I also believed that the information would benefit both volunteers and victims.  Apparently not enough to defeat the stigma.

As I prepared to set up my business I was repeatedly turned down as a client.  Six accounting firms and four law offices refused my business.  My insurance company is in Ontario because I couldn’t find one in Saskatchewan to work with me and the first company handling credit payments withdrew services.  Even with the added help of two realtors,  it took a year and calling on every potential site suitable for relocation before I found one.  I had even offered a longer than average lease. During all of the conversations and meetings that occurred, I was treated as an intelligent business woman until I mentioned my work.  In the space of 10 seconds, everything changed.  In my head was the thought…I am no longer a person, I am what I do.

My son once pointed out to me how sad it was when we claimed a victory over something that should never have been a fight to start with.  As I found myself celebrating the times I was treated with respect instead of expecting it as I had throughout my life, his words hit me like a ton of bricks.  How had I come to a place where I  wanted to thank people for seeing me as a person?  It was this question that really drove my advocacy into high gear.  I already knew that there were two things that would help me…educating people about the sex industry and making sure it was decriminalized.  I was not going to be a victim of discrimination.  I would take on the bully.

Freedom of choice and expression gives everyone the right to form their own opinion about the sex industry.  No one has been given the right to bully, endanger, exploit or discriminate against a person for their opinion or choice.  Isn’t stigma really another form of intimidation, dominance and arrogance?  In fact, an obsolete definition of the word bully is ‘pimp or procurer’.  It makes no sense that as an adult of absolute sound mind and judgement, I am being forced to conform to another adult’s ideals and have to accept that they have the right to dictate how I negotiate a sexual relationship with other adults. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” I wonder if this is how women felt when they were not considered persons so were the property of parents or husbands?  Somehow I thought we were past all that, yet here we are again!

The stigma of association to the sex industry goes right to the heart of the problem we face.  I resent the picture being painted of who I am…incapable of being in control of my life, not accepting that I am a victim of something or someone and that I need to be saved.  That is inaccurate and offensive.  Moreover, it’s hard to understand how the solution is to make my work illegal and then force me, a person painted by those same lawmakers as unable to make an intelligent decision, to change my entire life.  I respect everyone’s right to form and express their opinion of the sex industry and expect reciprocity.

Criminalizing any aspect of sex work gives bullies free license to exploit and discriminate against providers while law enforcement agencies are left with their hands tied and unable to help.  Decriminalization acknowledges that I am entitled to the same protections and rights as every other citizen… that I am a person, not what I do.







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My Assessment of the New Prostitution Laws in Canada

After tossing the idea of writing a blog around in my head for the last year I decided that this would be a meaningful time to start as I reflect on the events of the past year. I had lived an entire year freely making all of my own choices, accountable to and responsible for only myself, and it was a hard pill to swallow when that was taken away. On December 6, 2014, our former government implemented the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act and that one act changed my world. I felt the impact of government policy directly affecting my life and livelihood, of suddenly having basic rights stripped away and so began my journey into the world of advocacy and politics.

In 2012 I chose to open an Adult Services Studio in Saskatoon. Yes, a brothel. Despite the challenges, I was destined to be here. The idea appealed to me on both a personal and professional level. I could finally create my own company as well as work with women to help them achieve their goals and offer them support. I saw this as a valuable contribution to the community and it would leave no doubt as to how I feel about my right to freedom of choice. This is the change I want to see in my world. It might have been a more complicated decision had I not known that there was a strong likelihood it would be legal in Canada very soon. Saskatoon was already taking steps to regulate prostitution and I could see the potential to move closer to normalizing the sex industry.

The opportunity came through a case before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Attorney General vs Bedford. Prostitution had been legal in Canada since 1892 however, there were three laws still in the Criminal Code making specific activities illegal. Three sex workers, Teri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, asked the court to strike down those laws because they violated sex workers’ constitutional right to security of the person. I found an overwhelming and credible amount of evidence to support their case and it seemed so logical that I was confident that they would succeed.

On December 20, 2013, in a unanimous ruling, the Court agreed to strike the laws down concluding that they imposed dangerous conditions on prostitution and prevented workers from protecting themselves while involved in a legal activity. The sense of elation was felt around the globe. This was an important win for women’s and human rights and an early christmas gift to thousands of workers across the country who finally felt validated. Though parliament was given one year to decide on a course of action, I felt certain that this decision would stand.  After all, it came from our highest court of appeals and they had done their job. I was about to find out how naive that thinking was.

That year the industry was essentially legal and a glorious time.  The impact was immediate and positive. Many workers were licensed and taking measures to increase their safety by hiring personnel such as drivers/bodyguards. Studios were getting licensed and offering an alternative for those who wanted a safer method of working. In Saskatoon, the new bylaw went into effect with no visible evidence of sex workers moving their street business to locations in front of schools, churches or parks and brothels now operated outside of residential neighborhoods. In my opinion, the most significant result was how the city, police service and workers in the industry came together to make this work.  It truly felt like a community effort to achieve a common goal.

That same year, then Justice Minister MacKay shamelessly used a flawed process to develop his plan to promote the ‘Nordic’ model as the solution through Bill C-36. Sadly, that bill would threaten to undo the progress we had made and again deny our rights to freedom of choice, of expression and right to security of person.  Never before had I felt so helpless and outraged. Even more frustrating was the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to speak for myself.  My blind faith in government to uphold the Charter of Rights and stand up for women’s rights was stripped away.  What I saw happening was not just a rude awakening, it was literally scaring me.  It turned out that I had good reason to feel that way. In his haste to impose this ideology on us, Peter MacKay didn’t even wait til the deadline. In a move that added insult to injury, he chose the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada to implement the new laws.

A year has passed since then and it is a good time to assess what has occurred so far. There has been no indication at all that the industry will be abolished proven by the fact that it still thrives. This act has added to violence against sex workers and led to dangerous working conditions. Outlawing most forms of advertising created the opportunity for exploitation by those still offering to advertise. We have lost clients and had to slash prices leading to intense competition which encourages unsafe practices to get business. People have lost their shelter and will go underground to avoid police. There has been less willingness to interact with law enforcement or report criminal activity. This was a predictable outcome since the previous laws created the same conditions and were struck down because of it and the new laws are just a reworded version of them with more thrown in.

Law enforcement recently rescued victims of human trafficking in Canada and the accused are charged with trafficking in persons, forcible confinement, child pornography and sexual assault with a weapon, laws which are already in the Canadian Criminal Code.  The new laws surrounding prostitution aren’t even applicable because they don’t target criminal activity, they just further marginalize people who already face harmful stigmatization and they criminalize normal human behavior. Even the criminals are entitled to more protections and rights than we are.  Some days it feels like we just can’t win.

It’s evident to me that the new laws were based on ideology not evidence and we will once again pay the price. My hope is that this time not with more lives. Our new government has stated its intention to uphold human and women’s rights and I want to have faith but look ahead with a degree of skepticism. It’s difficult to imagine moving forward without an approach that includes those whose lives and livelihoods are most affected. We pay the ultimate price as victims of moral judgement passed by a few individuals in a powerful position to affect a majority of those who make the rules. While they sleep well at night, having done their due diligence and saved us from ourselves, our lives have been altered in ways they can’t comprehend and another tomorrow may not come for some of us.

It is not necessary to condone, endorse, like or understand an individual’s choice to work in the sex industry in order to allow the profession to exist or to support us as we fight for our rights.  As the global movement to decriminalize the sex industry gathers momentum, Canada can be a world leader in upholding women’s and human rights by repealing the current laws and implementing decriminalization here.  Help us send the message that this is the Canada we want to be a part of.

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