Prostitute. Sex worker. Victim. Whore. Sexually exploited woman. A woman who sells sex has probably been described vivaciously as many, if not all, of these terms at some point in time. She is named by others occasionally with accuracy but often with a deluded discourse that crumbles upon closer examination.
When sex work is discussed, two clashing narratives prevail: the woman is either a victim or an agent - as if our world was ever simply black and white.
“Some people who sell sex may identify as sex workers; some may identify as prostitutes or victims or any number of other things,” Regent, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as a sex worker and who readily proclaims that she has agency, explains. “When we’re talking about those individual stories, it’s really important to respect how people are identifying themselves and their own narratives and experiences.”
According to Regent, her identification as an agent is one that challenges local myths. Regent says the sex trade dialogue in Winnipeg is dictated by the victim narrative, which she attributes to larger discussions of race- and class-based discrimination, especially where Aboriginal women are concerned.
“As someone that’s not from Winnipeg, something that struck me when I moved here was how much of the discourses that you hear are centred around sexual exploitation and nothing else,” Claudyne Chevrier notes. Chevrier is a PhD candidate in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba who is in the midst of researching and writing an ethnography on sex work in Winnipeg.
Last year, advocates like Chevrier and sex workers like Regent joined in coalition to form the Winnipeg Working Group in response to Bill C-36. The Winnipeg Working Group, a chapter of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, aims to advocate for the decriminalization of legislation that empowers and protects those working in the sex industry.
“We’re not going to eliminate any of the problems around sex work by criminalizing clients or by further limiting the choices of sex workers,” Regent says.
She and Chevrier, along with their fellows in the Winnipeg Working Group, argue that law reform would mitigate risk for sex workers across the board, whether they choose sex work from a wide spectrum of options or do sex work because they feel they have no other choice.
The West Central Women’s Resource Centre is also part of the conversation. Executive director Tanya McFadyen and neighbourhood immigrant settlement worker Damien Leggett
say that, although they respect agency-based sex work, it is sexually exploited women who access their centre.
“What we’re seeing in our particular centre is women who have a long history of being sexually exploited as youth [and] as children, and then using the arena of sex to then survive,” McFadyen says. She explains that the exploitation narrative and the agency narrative are different conversations altogether and often get muddled up within one another.
McFadyen is frustrated that academic voices so often emphasize agency-based sex work. “I do historically think it’s good that we’ve shifted towards viewing sex as something that somebody, being privileged or educated, can choose. It’s just that we can’t negate the other experience either.”
Leggett stresses that the agency-versus-victim discussion is tied to class and race issues. “I think there are different terms to be used for different populations,” he says. “Privilege is the difference. Some people are making a choice and some people aren’t able to make the choice.”
“I certainly don’t fit into a whole slew of groups that tend to be marginalized,” Regent says, explaining what constitutes her agency. She cites her background in communications, middle-class upbringing, marketability as a sex worker and a strong support system as factors that play into her choice. “I did feel like I had other options should it not work out or should it not be for me,” she says.
Leggett adds, “What does it actually mean to have a full spectrum of choice? Not just, ‘Am I going to get money for food tonight?’ That doesn’t seem like a choice.”
Although Chevrier and Regent’s agency perspective differs from McFadyen and Leggett’s experiences with sexually exploited women, they agree on a great deal. Women have the right to choose how to use their bodies. Some women do not get to choose. Sexual exploitation more drastically affects racialized and lower class people, especially Aboriginal women. This exploitation is a manifestation of colonialism.
So where do we go from here?
“Humanize them. Just be their friends,” McFadyen says with vigour. Leggett nods. “Basic human dignity. People aren’t defined by the work that they do, whatever it is. It’s just one part of a human being.”