Speeches by Sex Workers/Allies to Edmonton Councillors re Body Rub Parlors licencing

From Gabrielle Battiste

Good afternoon councillors and all speakers who are bravely bringing their stories forward. I am here today as a lawyer, a woman and as a survivor of decades of physical and sexual abuse. I am also here today to let you know that I am working with a group of very brave women in the industry who have recently filed paperwork to create an official Alberta Society to be run by sex workers and for sex workers. The Society will become a reality and we hope to be at the table for any discussions moving forward.

 

Last year, City Council asked for a review of how best to end licensing for Body Rub studios. We understand the pressure Council was under from certain interest groups at the time to pass that motion. And exploring that point of view has now allowed this Committee to clearly see the underlying discrimination inherent in the request – as evidenced by the collected feedback – most importantly - from the individual sex workers actually affected.

 

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada made a very strong statement – striking down Canada’s outdated laws prohibiting body rub studios and sex work because they violated sex workers’ constitutional rights to safety. The country still has a long way to go to recognize the call for solidarity that was signed by well over 100 organizations across the country, including AB, calling for:

 

  1. The recognition of sex work as meaningful and valuable work that provides economic opportunity for people selling and trading sex; that sex workers are an under-protected working class; that safe working conditions are vital; equal and non-discriminatory access to health, education, occupation, housing and economic opportunities and rights; and the creation of spaces for sex workers to take leadership and be centred in sex work law reform discussions.

 

The larger discussion is ongoing at the Provincial and Federal levels. The question is how can Edmonton, as a municipality, best support its business owners, economic contributors, tax payers and citizens to create safety and opportunity?

 

Council currently has before it a report from its own Administration that should cause the notion of shutting down body rub studios to be shelved for good. A mere 5% of people engaged in consultation support shutting down body rub studios – and those 5% are NOT practitioners and they are NOT customers and they are NOT material stakeholders. In contrast, 93% of practitioners, owners and community stakeholders SUPPORT continuing body rub studios. 99% of body rub studios are in compliance with bylaw and use harm reduction strategies. Those are astounding numbers.

 

In accordance with s. 3 of the Municipal Government Act, Council has a legislated obligation to provide good government to its citizens and to develop and maintain safe and viable communities. One of the pillars of good government and good governance is citizen engagement and incorporation of citizen feedback into policy development. Good government also means having a decisive separation of church and state. Municipal policy cannot be made based on a certain theology. Council cannot be seen to be unduly influenced by a 5% stakeholder group simply because they yell the loudest and peddle misinformation – urging Councillors to buy into alternative facts they made up themselves. Loud voices try to obfuscate facts with noise. Edmonton is about empowerment, inclusion and freedom of choice. The 5% should not dictate what a safe & viable community looks like for the 93%.

 

Earlier this year, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network submitted a letter to Council outlining dozens of logical reasons to continue Body Rub studios indefinitely – supported by numerous bodies of evidence and peer reviewed research.

 

Sex work is not sexual exploitation. Sex workers are not all women who suffer. And Body Rub Services are, quite frankly, an essential service to a very large percentage of the population.

 

I have had the privilege of working with sex workers from a criminal defence perspective, from a victim of crime perspective and from a business perspective. Without exception, the biggest threat to each and every one of them was the way they were stigmatized by others in positions of power. That discrimination must stop. Their voices must be heard.

 

Exploitation of vulnerability is wrong. Sex without consent is wrong. This is not what we are dealing with today. The City of Edmonton has received a full report - a report that finally provides a voice for sex workers. A report that speaks the truth and doesn’t hide behind outraged morals. The report speaks for itself.

 

Sex for money DOES NOT EQUAL exploitation and trafficking. Strip off the moral outrage. Strip off the lie that “good people” don’t sell or buy sex. Bury the bull that getting rid of safe, clean body rub studios will stop people from selling sex.

 

More women and children get raped and beaten by their spouses and family members – not by johns or pimps – and NOT at body rub studios. They are forced to have sex because they are married or in relationships and have no power - their own homes are the most unsafe places in the world. I have personally experienced all of that – I’ve also been raped and beaten while living with a partner.

 

Body rub studios give some of that power back to women and to all sex workers. Cleanliness, safety, a peer network, making more money than working at McDonalds, choosing how and when to have sex – it’s a business and it is empowering.

 

The overall best way to reduce the potential for harm, exploitation and trafficking is by raising the profile of sex workers and reducing the stigma of society’s moral Karen. Stigma kills good people and supports bad people.

 

It is time for Edmonton to show its collaborative governance, its inclusive transparency, its economic stimulation - for Edmonton to embrace the truth about sex - and for Edmonton to once and for all separate the church from the state through oversight and regulation. Send a message that sex workers are business people. They deserve the same respect, the same support and the same options for safety, security and earnings.

 

 – September 30, 2020

By Stephanie G.

 

I would just like to say that I worked as an escort for over 20yrs. I had one client who was charged with sexual assault after holding a knife to my throat and another client who was charged with unlawful confinement because he wouldn’t let me leave the hotel room. In the last yr before I left the industry I worked for a body rub centre and it was the first time I felt a 100% safe. In a massage studio your not alone. I would also like to add that I had several clients who went to John school. It does not work! I left the industry not by choice. I payed thousands of dollars for licensing, security clearances and advertising. When the law changed I could no longer advertise and wasn’t making the money to survive on my own. Which doesn’t just affect working girls but their families. Most women in the industry are single mothers just trying to make a living. I understand this job is not for everyone. But as an adult I should have the same rights as everyone else trying to make a living. My body my choice. Thank you.

From Mona F.

 

My name is Mona and I’ve been in the sex work industry for decades.   Seven years ago, for my own safety, I chose to join the body rub industry.

Cecilia Benoit’s research (she is a sociology professor out of Victoria and has spent 2.5 decades researching sex work by interviewing sex workers) cites the average entry age as 24. The abolitionists don’t like this fact so they create their alternative facts.

We at PIECE Edmonton are a peer to peer group of sex workers for sex workers.

It is the sex workers that are no longer with us that have paid the highest of all prices. They have gone missing. They have been murdered. Valerie Maurice in a client’s home,  Cindy Gladue in a client’s hotel room, Lisa Arsenault offering services during the COVID lock down at her hotel room.  All gone. Missed by their families.

Others have gone missing, never to be seen again. A personal friend of mine went on a car date September 6, 2019 and never returned. There are so many other women over the years missing and murdered.

And during all of that, since we’ve been Licencing body rub centers, we have not seen any murders in our safe environments.  Very little violence of any kind.

Body rub centers don’t just offer us safety. They offer us networking. Camaraderie. Information sharing. Mentoring. It is the safest and best place for us to conduct our business.

I’m proud of Edmonton for having the foresight and forethought that was clearly intended to reduce harm. It means that you respect us, care about us and treat us like citizens of Edmonton.

For all of these reasons, I fervently hope you vote to continue Licencing and at the same time you close the doors on cruel entities designed to hurt us by spewing their misinformation and mistruths. We are not trafficked.  We are not exploited. We are not being abused.

These groups have not only cost the City of Edmonton a great deal of time and money -  they are oppressors actively hurting 50000 sex workers on the national level - and  they’ve cost too many sex workers their lives. We are tired of their bullying. You’ve heard a sampling of their constant belittling remarks today. These groups have blood on their hands.  Shame on them.

We’ve noticed that the federal government this year have defunded anti-prostitution groups. We believe that is a good place to start. Instead of abolitionists groups offering advice at the body rub course, it would be great if the city invited active workers to come and talk to the group.

Massage therapists that don’t want unwanted advances  likely need to work together to first understand that touching another person’s largest organ, the skin, comes with it the possibility of a physical reactions. Have customers sign a waiver before starting the sessions - have them sign that they understand the nature of the service so they aren’t left in uncomfortable situations.  While they are looking inward they should weed out the therapists that accept insurance requests, trading shorter sex work sessions for longer massage sessions. It’s offensive and It is fraud.

A previous speaker from Regina says was we are doing is illegal. He makes a strong argument for decriminalization. Just as surely as cannabis was illegal for 90 years )how well did that work? It is time to help sex workers rise up and be liberated, to allow us to stand tall as we reduce the stigma.  

This would be better than complaining about us for something that will make no difference to their industry.

As sex workers, we are autonomous and are able to make our own decisions. And we choose safety in licensed body rub centers.

We thank you for being leaders that have caught the eyes of other Canadian cities that are now Licencing body rub centers. Because it is the right thing to do.

Thank you

From Sophie H

 

Although I don’t work in a body rub parlour specifically, I've been in the sex industry long enough to know that what affords us the greatest protection from violence and exploitation: it is having access to safe, legal, and transparent places of work. Licensed and visible body rub parlour provide this. The “Body Rub Centre Licensing Research Report” speaks volumes and reaffirms strongly that when adult consentual sex workers have access to safe working conditions the outcome will be harm reduction and safer communities. 

 

I understand that sects within our society see sex work as immoral and ultimately want it to “go away”. We live, however, in a society that is to be ruled not by morality but by law and thus should not strip the rights of those for whom acts of sex hold no moral value. Our autonomy on this should be respected and not be put in the same category as human trafficking and sexual exploitation. There needs to be a clear distinction made or adverse consequences will continue to affect all three. 

 

The City of Edmonton has been a leader in this country at providing a mechanism for these safe places to exist and I sincerely hope that this direction is not altered by anti-sex work groups claiming to know what is best for consentual sex workers. This leads into my next point. There is a concerted effort by these anti sex work activists to engineer our very language into their being referred to as “abolitionists”. This may seem benign but what they are actually doing is appropriating a term used to describe those who fought for the abolishment of slavery itself. If we allow this term to become commonplace we not only elevate these puritans to a moral status that they have not earned but we also linguistically equate all sex workers to slaves. This, just as the conflation of sex work and human trafficking, seeks to confuse and takeover the debate. Thus I strongly encourage the City of Edmonton to refrain from using this term in any and all communiqués regarding the sex industry. We are not slaves and johns are not our masters.

 

By Angel from ASPECC

 

Hello and thank you so much for providing me the opportunity to speak to this very important, and often very personal, issue.

 

I am a sex educator and program administrator at Alberta sex positive education and community center. As part of our programming we offer a monthly meetup for sex workers. It is a safe space for those of us that do sex work to share our stories, spend time with others who understand our lived experiences, and to share resources. Licensing comes up often in discussions within this group. The main takeaway is that sex workers feel safer, as they can work in groups and have access to other sex workers they can network with. They value the sex worker licensing class, and knowing what to do if they run into trouble. 

More importantly, they talk about what it means to live somewhere like this, where the city recognizes their profession and provides guidelines for navigating the workspaces. This is a key part of destigmatizing sex work, ensuring that we actually are recognizing this as a job, as a profession.

 

Additionally, as someone with lived sex working experience, I can tell you that there is a traumatic difference between choosing to provide sexual services and being coerced or forced. When engaging in sex work I decide what I will and will not do, when I will and will not do it, and where. I choose which clients to accept, and which to decline. I'm able to freely and enthusiastically consent to the contact I'm being renumerated for.

 

I understand that in a society where we have heavily stigmatized sex it can be difficult to understand why anyone, or should I say women, would choose to engage in consensual sex work. I get it. We live in a society that can understand women trading sex for being provided a home (traditional marriage), yet we struggle with the idea that women can choose to be more direct, choosing what they charge and what sexual acts they're willing to provide. We need to move past these antiquated ideas that sex workers are being exploited, that they cannot possibly be able to consent to their chosen profession. We need to stop infantilizing women, and start supporting their right to bodily autonomy-and that includes the right to engage in sex work. We need to start firmly differentiating between consensual sex work and trafficking, much like we need to start differentiating between consensual sex and sexual assault.

Folks are talking about the message that sex work sends to men, and I can answer that. Men who pay for sexual services from a sex worker learn really quickly that they have to respect boundaries. They learn that they only can do the acts that they have consent to do, or they find themselves blacklisted. If only the rest of society did the same.

 

I hope that the people who get to decide what the future of licensing looks like will give more weight to the words of the people who will be directly impacted by these changes, sex workers, rather than placing weight on the words of people who are bringing their own morality to the conversation and ignoring the lived experiences and unified voices of sex workers across our country.

 

I'm fearful of what will happen if we cancel licensing. removing the ability for body rubs to operate openly will create a huge barrier for sex workers to access supports and services, to simply be safe. If we're looking to create changes perhaps we should be looking at ways to decriminalize sex work businesses without having to hide them as a massage.