'Violence against us is expected': Stella calls for legal sex work in wake of Marylène Levesque's homicide

Stella, a Montreal organization for sex workers, says the discovery of the 22-year-old woman's body in a Quebec City hotel room last week shows why the government should focus on decriminalizing and destigmatizing all aspects of prostitution.

Eustachio Gallese, 51, charged with 2nd-degree murder after 22-year-old sex worker found dead in hotel room

Sandra Wesley is the director of Stella, a Montreal-based sex worker organization. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Stella, a Montreal organization for sex workers, says the death of  22-year-old Marylène Levesque in Quebec City last week shows why the government should focus on decriminalizing and destigmatizing all aspects of prostitution.

Sandra Wesley, Stella's executive director, says violence against women is deeply engrained in the sex trade, with society telling sex workers who are victims of violence that what happens to them is their fault.

"It's rooted in a notion of women being objects, of men being able to control them, of men's right to use women's bodies [being] more important than our lives," Wesley said. 

Levesque, who was a sex worker, according to Radio-Canada sources, was found dead in a hotel room in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy last Wednesday. 

Eustachio Gallese, 51, has been charged with Levesque's second-degree murder. Gallese, who killed his ex-spouse in 2004, was granted day parole in March 2019 and had been allowed to meet women to have his "sexual needs" met, according to parole board documents. 

Police say Gallese turned himself in Wednesday, telling them where to find Levesque's body, according to Radio-Canada sources.

Inquiry 'as soon as possible'

The Conservative MP for Louis-Saint-Laurent, Gérard Deltell, welcomes the government's announcement of an investigation into the parole board's decision, saying there must be an in-depth inquiry "as soon as possible." 

"When we have to address this type of situation, we have to be not too partisan," said Deltell on CBC Montreal's Daybreak. "We have a job to do."

He said when it comes to a tragedy such as this one, the government has a responsibility to address it with an open mind. 

Marylène Levesque, 22, was found dead at a hotel in Sainte-Foy on Wednesday. (Marylène Levesque/Facebook)

"This is the worst case scenario," Deltell said. 

Sex work laws must change: Stella

However, Wesley said it will take more than parole board reform to prevent violence against sex workers.

She pointed out the former federal Conservative government failed to act on a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that found the existing law makes it virtually impossible for a sex worker to operate in a safe and secure environment.

In 2014, that government criminalized the purchase of sex and living off the avails of sex, while decriminalizing its sale.

"They knew the impact of those laws would be more violence toward sex workers," Wesley said. "We're facing the consequences."

The message the government has been transmitting, Wesley said, is that sex workers' lives are not as valuable as the lives of others.

Eustachio Gallese, 51, has been charged in connection with the death of 22-year-old Marylène Levesque. He was released on day parole in March 2019 for the 2004 murder of his ex-spouse. (Radio-Canada)

"Violence against us is expected," Wesley said. 

She said sex workers continue to be murdered, rarely getting the media attention that Levesque's case has received. 

As long as sex work remains stigmatized and in the legal grey zone it's now in, sex workers are forced to find ways to hide from the authorities, which makes them more vulnerable to violent acts, she said.

"The fact that we're criminalizing sex workers is a central element not only in this situation but in in the vast majority of situations where sex workers experience violence," Wesley said. 

Listen to Quebec AM's Julia Caron interview Sandra Wesley: 

With files from CBC Montreal Daybreak and Quebec AM