Critical dialogue on the sex trade industry offers compelling discussion
By Stephanie Simko
Coinciding with International Women’s Day, the “Pull Up Your Thigh High” event demonstrated women’s advancement while being a reminder that constant vigilance and action will continue to be required as equality is gained and maintained in all aspects in life.
Althea Anan, director of the Gender Issues Centre, invited men and women alike to come and learn about the complexities and grey areas within the sex trade industry.The GICis committed to enhancing the quality of the educational and social experiences of students through programs that reflect the diversity of the student body; the mission of the GIC is to encourage communication, action, awareness, self-reflection and compassion.
Anan said the dialogue for the evening meshed with the GIC’s mission as it is a gendered issue in today’s society: “The discrimination within the industry devalues sex workers and prevents them from feelings like true members of the community. By reflecting on the marginality of prostitutes in a North American context, we see that our services that don’t meet the needs of sex workers seeking safer working conditions or exit strategies.”
The film, Empowerment or Exploitation: Life as a Sex worker, offered a broader spectrum of opinions on the sex trade industry and its workers. “Constant portrayal through the media – whether it be radio, television, commercials, dating websites – these only give one perspective of the sex industry,”said Anan.The movie features people such asSalena, an exotic dancer, artist and musician who found empowerment in being tuned in with her sexuality; Carol Leigh, aka “Scarlot Harlot,” a prostitute rights activist who coined the term “sex worker” in 1978; Professor Robert Brem from the college of Alameda with a background in psychology and political science; and Chong Kim, the executive director of Minorities and Survivors Improving Empowerment (MASIE).
Guest speakers Bridget Perrier, Dr. Treena Orchard, Anita Changsand Yollande Bernier sat on a panel to share their own views and experiences as well as discuss questions raised from audiences members.
Perrier, the co-founder of Toronto’s only sex trade survivor organization, Sextrade101.com, drew from personal experiences to express her belief that prostitution is not a choice and how it places Canadian First Nation’s women at risk. “I believe you also need to look at the men – the johns – involved. If there was not a demand for it, there would not be a problem. We need to hold the purchasers of sex responsible and accountable.”
An audience question about power dynamics between police forces and sex workers caused passionate stirs across the panel. “The police force and the law are powerful institutions, and unfortunately some officers can wield their power in potentially damaging ways,” said Orchard, who has worked with police in her current hometown of London, Ontario. “In terms of police asking for free sex with the threat of being arrested, it does happen. Community agencies need to work with the police force in cities to ensure that sex workers need to be treated like people.”
Bernier, who works closely with the Thunder Bay Sexual Assault/Sexual Abuse Counselling and Crisis Centre, feels that the majority of women within the sex trade would leave the industry if there were more options for them: “I don’t think there are enough agencies that are active enough in educating the public of the poverty that exists in the city, and the circumstances that force young women into prostitution.”
“The sex trade can be seen as a service, and like anything else it can be seen as a transaction,” said Changs, who could be said to have played the devil’s advocate; Changsdid not shrink away from sharing her opinions and experiences which varied from those narrated by other panelists and audience members. Having been out of the sex trade for five years, Changsadmitted that the allure of fast money and easy access to drugs were why she remained a sex-worker for 26 years.
Anan reports that the event was a success, and brought up many concerns and questions as to how the community and women’s organizations to make sex work safer; there are hopes for a similar event next year.