For December 17, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Sex Workers, WPCH member Paula Ethans sat down with Maxine* - a queer black dream✨ and sex worker in Winnipeg (Treaty 1 Territory and the birthplace of the Métis nation). In a fruitful discussion, we examine the intersections of policing and sex work, and understand why we must decriminalize sex work and push for safe working conditions for all selling and trading in sexual services.

In this interview, we discuss the current legislation on buying and selling sex; the relationship sex workers have with the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS); what “John Schools” are; how the pandemic has had disproportionately adverse effects on sex workers; and more.

If you are interested in supporting sex workers of Winnipeg, please consider getting yourself a copy of the book, Sex Work Activism in Canada. Until the end of the month, 100% of the proceeds go to SWWAC!

(*For the purpose of maintaining anonymity, Maxine is a pseudonym.)

Paula: For our readers who are unfamiliar, can you tell us a little bit about SWWAC—Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition? What does the organization do? What are its main functions and goals?

Maxine: The Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC) is an organization that, from my understanding, aims to increase safety, visibility, and access to resources for local sex workers. This is accomplished by initiatives aiming to educate, and partner with, other groups or organizations that members of the community may have frequent or necessary dealings with. SWWAC promotes the human rights and labour rights of sex workers and staunchly advocates for the complete decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work.

Paula: Can you describe your relationship with the WPS? Do you trust the police in Winnipeg? Why or why not? Would you say the sex worker community as a whole trusts the police?

Maxine: As per my fellow sex workers, contacting the police was considered very much a last resort, because several had had really disrespectful or concerning run-ins with law enforcement when bringing forward safety concerns. In most cases, it turned out to be a waste of time and emotion. You tell your story to an officer that is already looking down on you or assuming that this just comes with your territory, and then nothing usually happens.

If I was in a room with a client and was sexually assaulted or the person did something to me that I did not consent to, I didn’t feel that I could call the police and report the person. It strikes me as similar to the way that a spouse may feel unable to report sexual assault that comes from their spouse, because of the ingrained assumptions that there is a contract between two people that must include sex, whatever that looks like.

I myself had issues with certain taxi drivers or with being followed home, and calling the police never really came to mind because I figured they wouldn’t care or take it seriously anyway, unless something severe happened.

My colleagues and I were supposed to take care of each other, and even other sex workers I did not work with directly took on the role of supporting and trying to help keep me safe, rather than the police. Considering the sordid history of police complacency, disregard, outright brutality and violence towards sex workers (especially for those who are of intersected identities), I think a general distrust of police is absolutely warranted.

"Even if I had another income stream, I can say I would do sex work for the joy, discovery, challenge and autonomy it offers."

Paula: Canada’s Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, legalizes the selling of sex, but criminalizes the buying of sex. It forbids the advertising of sexual services, negotiating in many public places the buying of sex, and financial benefitting from the sale of someone’s sexual services. Can you talk about how these laws affect your work and life?

Maxine: I have an example of how this directly affected my livelihood, and part of why I actually thought of exploring a more independent version of this work as opposed to continuing in a massage parlor.

I had a client who came in, used up the time he paid for, and at the end, since he had not experienced a happy ending yet, wanted a refund. Now, the owner always told me “What happens in the room is up to you” and that included making sure I got my payment. She would not handle our funds, because she said as long as she was negotiating services FOR us, or collecting money to then distribute to us, then that would put her in the position of exploiting us, according to law.

When this client became aggressive and angry with me, demanding his money back, the owner really couldn’t comment on or discuss what occurred in the room, so she could not support me. I felt very alone and though I stood my ground, very vulnerable in that moment. She literally said to the client, “Well, I don’t have your money, so if you want a refund you’ll have to ask her.”

I think that this law ultimately makes sex workers unsafe, because when buyers are forced to be in the shadows, then we have to be found in those same shadows. That’s why we have to hide, for the most part, and also have access to less security or support if something goes wrong in those same shadows. We already know that the buyers could very well be more socio-politically advantaged than us, and that in the case of an incident or attack or robbery, we have less recourse for justice than they ever would.

Paula: In the Manitoban context, there is the Safer Neighbourhoods and Communities Act. This piece of legislation has extremely inflammatory and problematic language, stating sex work “...can ruin lives. It exploits the vulnerable, especially the young. It destroys neighbourhoods by making families feel unsafe, businesses falter, and by sending property values downwards. It is destructive…It contributes to overall crime levels, supports organized crime and lures children and young adults into the ugly and dangerous world of sexual exploitation.” Can you speak to why this language is both incorrect and concerning? What is the difference between sex work and sexual exploitation?

Maxine: I’m so so so tired of my work being equated to exploitation, or child exploitation or child abuse. I am not a child; no one has forced me to do this work. I actually love it and I readily choose it. Even if I had another income stream, I can say I would do sex work for the joy, discovery, challenge and autonomy it offers. I’ve had some really enjoyable encounters with people, and learned a lot about my community or even further communities (from people who paid me for service while traveling).

I think that this patronizing and misleading language also increases the shame and guilt that some people feel when accessing our service. So, it literally takes longer to help a person recognize that they are not sick, twisted or wrong for wanting companionship, affection, and whatever else may be negotiated between two consenting adults. There can be a myriad of psychosocial reasons why a person would be paying for such things. Arguably, sex can be just as transactional, albeit more informal, in other more normalized settings (dates, relationships, etc.). It’s not wrong to want sex. It isn’t.

For adult sex workers who are free to choose as they wish, I think connotations of victimhood or villainy only build stigma that is then translated to greater insecurity and violence and discrimination. I am staunchly for the rights of sex workers and their clients, while staunchly against the participation of children, teenagers, or any adults that are not fully consenting to the work.

I know what exploitation looks like, I’ve a history of working with youth who were being groomed and exploited, and I participated in countless hours of intervention with the goal of freeing these youth or tracking and reporting perpetrators.

Sex work is not what causes children or families to be unsafe, there are other social, economic and political factors that must be investigated and addressed to keep everyone safe. Scapegoating sex workers is just an easy pass for folks who know damn well that they are probably a greater part of the problem (parents, education, law enforcement, child and family services, the Internet, etc).

Paula: In that same vein, can you touch on the difference between sex work and sex trafficking? What are the differences between these two phenomena and why is it important that we know the difference?

Maxine: The difference between sex work and sex trafficking is that sex work is not exploitative, and sex work can absolutely be accomplished with a large amount of freedom. You can travel and work, work remotely, relocate all without necessarily stopping your work.

However, sex trafficking is indelibly linked to exploitation and victims are groomed, usually lied to, and either kidnapped or sent willingly (based on some plausible lie about a job abroad or something) to another location. At some point, these innocent people’s identifying documents may be confiscated, and their lives (or the lives of their family) threatened in order to force them to comply with whatever the perpetrators have decided. Moving these exploited individuals around from location to location is not only smart for the perpetrators (it helps make it harder for victims to be tracked or found) but also increases their revenue because “new” garners a much higher cost than someone that has become known to the local buyers. Trafficking may be domestic or international, but the movement is never of the actual victim’s choice so it is far from the kind of traveling a sex worker may engage in during their career.

It is important to know this difference because it allows for true victims to be identified, and for true sex workers not to be disturbed or harassed in their work.

Paula: Can you speak on the Prostitution Offender Program (Manitoba’s variation of “John School”) that is taught by the WPS and several partners? Do you know what this program looks like? More generally, why are these kinds of programs harmful to sex workers, and society?

Maxine: While working with exploited youth, I heard all about John Schools and how ridiculous they were. Often the very police officers that administered the “education” were grossly inappropriate in their language and made it clear that they did not actually care much or believe in what they were teaching. Some of them would be candidates for John School themselves.

The environment is very relaxed, the lightest of wrist slaps, for the Johns who attend that are not otherwise of marginalized status. Far from how harshly sex workers are dealt with when in contact with the law, even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

These programs, I think, are ineffective because they send the message, “Just don’t get caught again,” and fail to give any real incentive for Johns to better understand the crucial role they play in keeping true sex work safe for all involved.

To clarify, I am talking about Johns who we knew were looking for sex with kids or minors and being reported (albeit in small numbers). I feel like if someone is in John School for trying to obtain sex with a minor, then that’s just insufficient and indirectly supportive of child exploitation and abuse.

But Johns who are arrested for buying sex with consenting adult sex workers are wrongly penalized and discouraged from accessing service that is actually not harmful. This may have an impact on sex worker profits, as well as forcing them to go deeper underground to try to help shield clients. This only makes it unsafe when you come upon a bad apple or “bad date.”

John Schools are also a cash cow for the police. Each participant pays upwards of $800 to attend this one or two-day program, which is designed as a diversion program, as participants are arrested for purchasing sexual services and either given the choice of going to court and getting convicted or completing John school.

Many folks who are arrested do not speak English as their primary language and often have to bring family members or even their own children to act as translators. Attending this morality seminar forces people to lose wages for the day(s) they attended, on top of the fee to attend John School (which is jointly benefitted by Salvation Army and WPS).

This program does not stop people from purchasing sex. It just makes those caught purchasing sex feel shame for their sexuality or sexual desires or needs.

"Sex work is not what causes children or families to be unsafe, there are other social, economic and political factors that must be investigated and addressed to keep everyone safe."

Paula: In your opinion, what kinds of policies and laws could be implemented or abolished to make sex work safer in Manitoba and/or Canada?

Maxine: It’s almost 2021 and I think it’s high time that the oldest profession finally gets the respect, safety, agency and actual protective legislation that it deserves.

Instead of people thinking about what sex workers need through their own narrow, biased lenses, they could start by consulting us and asking us what we feel would be helpful. Want safer communities? We do too. Want fewer predators on the street? Trust us, we face them more than you ever will, so we want them tracked and apprehended too. Want to understand us better? We want you to understand us too!

Perspective is everything. If you already look upon us as less-than, or as criminals, then of course you are going to waste time and money (public money, mind you, that we also contribute to via taxes) to misinform people, fear monger and put counterproductive policies in place that don’t help at all.

The following changes would be great places to start: decriminalizing sex work (buying and selling); facilitating licensing of individuals and/or businesses and allowing establishments more freedoms for expansion of business premises and location, with regards to municipal law; and creating a registered association (like other professions have), with membership and benefits.

Paula: Covid-19 has exacerbated existing problems that sex workers deal with, and it disproportionately negatively affects sex workers. Can you speak a little bit about this? What challenges are you encountering?

Maxine: Covid has been a nightmare! I’ve not worked during the pandemic, as the lockdown occurred shortly before I had begun building my own independent clientele. Some of the folks I know did occasionally see regulars that they had established enough trust with to feel somewhat safe seeing, especially considering the financial insecurity that this pandemic has caused many members of our community.

Being that I had no regulars, and was no longer connected to an establishment, I felt very concerned about the risk of working during the pandemic. Subsequent uncertainty and changing restrictions also made re-entry into sex work difficult, and as recently as about a month ago, I had discovered an establishment that was open and that I wanted to inquire about working in, but then cases started climbing to dizzying levels in my current location, and I decided against it.

I am currently pretty isolated and would be greatly without support if I did get sick, so I’m being as careful as possible, especially considering the amount of dishonesty and disregard that folks are expressing about the pandemic. How am I to know if someone has been careful, or respecting restrictions, or not? And to what degree? I also don’t want to be helping prolong this nightmare, so not working is a way I’m trying to help keep my community safe.

With that said, I know that I am speaking from a position of privilege that not all community members share in (housing secured, access to food and necessities, support from friends). Some folks have had to continue working outside, with even greater risk to their health and well-being than usual, not to mention greater visibility and potential targeting for fines.

Meanwhile other folks have tried transitioning into new arenas (i.e. using video cameras, online work, porn, etc.) out of necessity. These, and other new entries into this domain have impacted the revenue of those who were already pursuing these avenues (the Bella Thorne bullshit is a perfect case in point).

However, there are different risks to evaluate when it comes to working online, and even different costs (startup equipment cost, for instance) can and have been a barrier for some, myself included. I didn’t have a webcam or any other equipment, and didn’t have the budget to obtain them when Covid began, so I didn’t end up trying that. Plus, I feel discomfort and worry about the Internet and potential confidentiality and/or privacy issues that could get in the way of me actually benefiting from the work I would be doing.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s missed working as they preferred pre-pandemic, and who have been faced with these weighty considerations.