Sex workers speak out as Senate hearings wrap up

Senators wrapped up three days of hearings on the government's proposed prostitution law rewrite with testimony from a male escort, a body rub parlour association and sex worker support organizations in Toronto and Montreal. Read the recap and the live blog here.

Anti-prostitution activists, sex worker advocates shared their thoughts on prostitution bill

Last December, the Supreme Court struck down on prostitution laws in a unanimous 9-0 ruling on Friday, which gave Parliament a year to produce new legislation. The government's proposed rewrite of the laws is undergoing a pre-study at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

After three days of back-to-back witness testimony, a Senate committee wrapped up its pre-study of the government's proposed prostitution law rewrite by hearing from anti-prostitution activists, sex worker support groups, the owner of a Toronto body rub parlour and the first — and, so far, only —  male sex worker to share his thoughts on the proposal in a parliamentary forum.

Maxime Durocher, a male escort who caters exclusively to female clients, was on the final witness panel of the day.

In his opening statement, Durocher said that he has a bachelor's degree in computers and became an escort after 10 years in that field.

He said he doesn't understand why the government feels the need to legislate the sexual practices of consulting adults, and challenged the claim that all sex work is inherently exploitive.

"I like my job," he told the committee.

"Our clients, men and women, are not perverts or criminals, and we are not victims."

But, he added, the new law would make it even more difficult for sex workers to report violence.

"We don't need saving, what we need is to be part of society like everyone else," which, he stressed, means being able to turn to the police for protection.

"If you call the police, they'll say, 'Well, you brought a criminal into your bed,'" he told the committee.

Senators heard a similar message from Nicole Matte, who sits on the board of Maggie's, a Toronto-based support service for sex workers.

'Not just symbolic representations'

"Sex workers are not just symbolic representations, but living, breathing Canadians who are going to suffer under C-36," she told the committee.

The group's executive director, Jean McDonald, posed a question of her own to the committee.

"Why is our ability to consent suddenly revoked when there is money on the bedside table?" she asked.

She, too, disputed the notion that sex work is inherently dangerous.

"I don't think purchasing sex is a violent act," she said. "It should be my choice who to see, and who to sell my sexual services to."

The committee also heard from Konstadia Spooner, who spoke on behalf of the Coalition Of Body Rub Parlours of the Greater Toronto Area.

She called for the bill to be amended to criminalize the purchase of sexual services only when a buyer "should have reasonably known" that the sex worker was being exploited, and only criminalize commercial establishments that "knowingly exploit sex workers to derive a material benefit."

"We believe these proposed amendments will more closely align with the stated objectives of the bill by separating exploitive and non-exploitive activity," she said.

Not all the witnesses who testified on Thursday were critical of the bill.

During the morning session, senators heard from front line anti-sex assault workers who praised the goal of eliminating prostitution through a Nordic model that goes after the purchasers, and not the sellers.

"Whether we decriminalize or legalize, we're assured of an increased demand," Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres representative Michelle Léveillé told the committee, which, she argued, would ultimately lead to more violence. 

Despite their overall support for the bill, though, all three witnesses called for the removal of all provisions that could lead to charges being laid against a sex worker.

"We absolutely cannot endorse any criminalization of women involved in prostitution," said Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter representative Keira Smith-Tague.

Sex work 'will not stop tomorrow morning'

The committee also heard from Tyler Megarry, who works with Montreal-based REZO, an organization that offers support to male sex workers, and told the committee that it simply isn't realistic to think that every sex worker wants to exit the industry.

On a similar note, Anna-Aude Caouette, a spokeswoman for Montreal-based sex worker support group Stella pointed out that, even if the bill passes, "sex work will not stop tomorrow morning."

Like other witnesses, she suggested that there are other ways the government could make life safer for sex workers — starting with going after those who commit violent acts against them.

Former dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford waits to testify at a Senate committee looking into the Conservative government's prostitution bill Wednesday. She was later escorted from the room when she refused to heed the chair. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"What happens to us is no less a crime than when violence happens against any other woman."

On Wednesday, senators were forced to suspend their afternoon session after an outburst from retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford.

Bedford, who is one of the three appellants behind the successful Supreme Court challenge, refused to stop talking when asked to do so by committee chair Bob Runciman, who eventually summoned Senate security to escort her from the building.

Before she was removed from the proceedings, however, Bedford did have time to issue a veiled threat to "make you forget about Mike Duffy."

"I got more information and proof on politicians in this country than you can shake a stick at. I promise," she told the committee.

The proposed changes still have to get the final nod of approval from the House of Commons before the bill is officially sent to the Senate for further consideration.


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