A New Era of Canadian Sex Work: Interview With Lowell

22 Jun

Last year, Canada passed Bill C-36, a bill that governs sex work. This new law came about after Canada’s previous prostitution laws were struck down in 2013 as being unconstitutional, and the government had only one year to either leave the laws off the books or else create new ones. They chose to go with the latter option, and based their new bill on the so-called Swedish model of prostitution laws. These laws mainly criminalize the buying of sex but not the selling of it, meaning that johns would face the harshest consequences.

In theory, these laws are supposed to protect sex workers and decrease the threat of trafficking and “sexual exploitation”. In practice, they mean that sex workers are able to sell something that no one is legally allowed to buy. These laws also have the end goal of eradicating prostitution, which is not a great solution considering that there are many sex workers who love what they do and feel empowered by it. It’s hard not to feel that while Bill C-36 promises to help people, it will actually be hurting them.

Vice recently released A New Era of Canadian Sex Work, a short documentary hosted by Canadian musician Lowell. Lowell is a particularly good fit for this role, since she worked as a stripper before releasing her first album. She’s also smart, incisive, and thoughtful as she navigates what these new laws mean for sex workers. She approaches the issue from several different angles, first talking to Conservative MP Joy Smith, one of the politicians responsible for pushing through Bill C-36. She then talks to several different women involved in the sex industry, as well as Chester Brown, the author of Paying For It, subtitled a “comic strip memoir of being a john.” Finally, she travels to Nevada to see how the regulated, legal sex work compares to what we have in Canada. The documentary is short, clocking in at just under 35 minutes, but it packs a lot in and is one hundred percent worth watching.

I recently had the chance to talk Lowell, and here’s what she had to say about making the film:

Anne: So how did this happen? Did Vice approach you about making this doc, or did you approach them, or what?

Lowell: Vice approached me to host a documentary in general, and asked me to pick somethign I was interested in. I chose to do the bill because it felt like a really good opportunity to tell my story and our story.

Anne: There’s a really tense moment near the beginning where Joy Smith pretty much looks you in the face and calls you a victim. Like, when you called sex work one of the oldest professions, she immediately jumped in and said it was one of the oldest oppressions. What did it feel like to have her say that to you?

Lowell: First of all, I was like, how do you have this perfect turn of phrase ready? How long did it take her to come up with “one of the oldest oppressions”? That’s really great marketing, I wish I was that quick.

I guess I’m empathetic to the way she feels. I understand where she’s coming from. But if I were not so confident, I would feel like she was taking away everything that i’ve gained back and everything that i’ve been empowered by. Mostly, I wanted to make her understand why what she’s saying is so terrible.

Anne: What do you think motivates people like her?

Lowell:  I think there are ulterior motives that have nothing to do with speaking for women. I want to believe that she believes her personal feminism is good for women, but I also think there are a lot of rich, white Christian people with power trying to step into the lives of people who don’t have those privileges. And they do all this without identifying any of the social reasons why people might do sex work. Saving people who don’t want to be saved doesn’t work. You can’t indoctrinate your own brand of morals into people who don’t want them.

Anne: How do the new laws impact people buying sex?

Lowell: When they’re caught, they have to go to “john school,” where they’re taught that sex workers are exploited victims. Really, the whole program is based around women being victims. Which is nothing new.

Anne: Yeah, there was a part where you talked to a woman who had been arrested a couple of years ago under the old laws and sent to a similar program for sex workers.

Lowell: These programs teach you sex work is wrong, that you’re a dirty person for what you do, and you must hate yourself. And not only that, but there’s no acknowledgment of sexuality or gender – they’re very one size fits all, all women have uteruses, that kind of thing. Which makes them especially awful for anyone who falls outside their ideas of what women who do sex work are like.

Anne: I really loved that one of the women you spoke to was a trans woman. Was it important for you to be inclusive?

Lowell: It’s an inclusive topic. When it comes to transgender women, women of colour, those are the people affected the most by the law. These women are often not able to work in strip clubs, which in my experience function as a safe place where people can solicit sex. But strip clubs are more likely to hire white, blond [cis] girls, meaning that people who don’t fit into these categories end up being forced to work on the street. The result is that these laws – which are especially unsafe for people working on the street – end up targeting certain races, poverty levels, genders.

Anne: Tell me a bit about the place that you visited in Nevada, and how that was different from how we treat sex work in Canada. 

Lowell: They call the place I visited a “sex resort,” because you can stay there over night. Contrasting with Canada, it was so much better. It’s clearly a safer way to deal with sex work. I saw women there who had been victimized in the past but wanted to continue doing sex work – they were taught how to empower themselves and given the means to do it safely. That’s huge.

But the thing is, when you talk about legalization, it’s complex. You still have people who are running things and it’s still selective and can alienate certain groups. Decriminalization is for sure the safest way to approach sex work, but it doesn’t solve everything.

Anne: When you talked to Joy Smith, she said that only two percent of people doing sex work feel empowered about it. What do you think of that number?

Lowell: I think it must be nice to be a politician and just make up statistics to prove whatever you want. 

The truth is that we don’t have those numbers. We don’t have concrete numbers about how many sex workers are abused, and part of it is that there are lots of barriers to reporting abuse. 

Anne: What about numbers that reflect, like, job satisfaction among sex workers? Like, how many of them actually feel good about what they do?

Lowell: I don’t even think anyone’s ever asked. If we had that data, then we wouldn’t be able to use victim porn as a way to get people to vote for things.

Anne: How do you think we can make sure that all voices are heard in this conversation? I know that one of the biggest concerns about being pro-sex work is that it ignore the people who have been legitimately hurt by trafficking or abuse. How do we make sure those people aren’t being erased?

Lowell: I personally think to make it easier for the average person comprehend by putting an emphasis on the actual rape laws work – how police approach rape, how they approach assault, and trafficking. We need to train the police to work better with survivors.

Blending sex work and brutality together to make it seem like we’re ignoring people who are being abused, but people who are empowered aren’t taking anything from people who have been victimized. Laws like Bill C-36 make it seem like you have to choose who you want to support – the victims, or the people out in the streets who like their work. But you don’t get to choose who has human rights. Everyone has rights. It’s the government’s job to treat every person equally when it comes to safety and their rights.

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8 Responses to “A New Era of Canadian Sex Work: Interview With Lowell”

  1. Ninasusan June 22, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    Well, that was interesting!

  2. infinite8tome June 22, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

    This is such a complex subject. Your interview definitely provides a different vantage point on the sex industry. Informative. : D

  3. Sophestry June 23, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    Really interesting, and I totally agree that sex work does not equal oppression. Some women don’t want to do it and shouldn’t be forced to, whilst others want to do it and should be able too. It needs to be legal to stamp out human trafficking and protect women who choose it.

  4. Amanda August 14, 2015 at 4:41 am #

    First of all, let’s call “sex work” just what it is: prostitution. “Sex work” is a new age label that actually makes prostitution sound like regular work. It is not. I am an ex prostitute, nude model, and “porn worker” haha! Laying down and spreading your legs and allowing a strange man to insert his penis inside you for money is NOT IN ANY WAY EMPOWERING. You are essentially being raped for pay and selling your soul for quick (not “easy”) money. I got into “the business” because I was new to a large city, naive, and couldn’t find employment. I answered an ad in a local, popular newspaper for ” hostesses,” absolutely not realizing that hostesses meant prostitution. I was 19 years old. I could write about my experiences in the business, and would be happy to, but that’s a whole other story. Prostitution is not glamorous, fun, or a way to ensure a better future for us females. Quite the opposite, infact. I guarantee that if you offered any prostitute a good, high paying “straight job” that she would happily and eagerly take it. “Working” as a lady of the night is NOT enjoyable employment. Punishing the johns is where its at, not the prostitute! Some are victims, and are forced to do it, and some are “independents” like myself. Once I was schooled in that biz, I wasn’t going to let anyone take half of MY hard earned money! Quite simply, the johns should know better. They don’t give a shit if the female lives or dies, and that’s the truth. Most johns beg us to not use a condom while raping us for pay! They do not care if they spread diseases to their wives or girlfriends. All they care about is getting that orgasm, and whatever it takes to achieve it. Some buy underage girls, some prefer babies or toddlers, some desire an old lady, and some go after young adult females. They all inherently know what they are doing is wrong, but they do not care about the welfare of these females. I have been free from the business for years, and finally feel human again. The quick money is quite tempting, but in the long run, the scars will remain…

    • sellmaeth August 26, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

      I’m sorry that happened to you. No woman should ever be so desperate for money.
      Frankly, I am a bit surprised that a blog I thought was feminist speaks in favour of prostitution. While one certainly can disagree on whether outlawing the johns is the best way to go (there are those who say that a decent welfare system would be more effective at helping women to get out of prostitution) I cannot understand how one can want prostitution to continue.

      Prostitution makes men feel entitled to women’s bodies. It makes them think of sex as a commodity that women owe them. Regardless of how prostitutes may feel about it, this kind of entitlement is bad for all women. It makes men frame rape as theft.

      Women who genuinely want to have sex with anonymous male strangers can do so at their leisure. I just don’t see why they should have the right to get paid for it.

      If prostitution is a job like any other, I don’t see why it should be privileged over, say, whale-hunting. If it is bad for other people, it has to go.

    • alexmoriah86 October 19, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

      I’m glad that you said this. You pretty much said everything that I think, except that you actually have the life experience to back up your claims. I totally support your viewpoint and I believe that the Swedish Model is really effective. Also, anyone who reads a good history book on the origins of prostitution in the exchange of women and their literal sexual enslavement in prehistoric culture knows that it is the oldest oppression. That’s not a viewpoint. It’s a historical fact. I think that a lot of the voices of women who are in the sex trade or used to be in it are erased from this conversation if they won’t say that prostitution is empowering and be “sex-positive.” Your opinions and lived experiences are often marginalized, because it doesn’t fit the sexual freedom rhetoric that is popular right now. I don’t see how women being sexually objectified for money is in any way related to sexual freedom. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. georgefinnegan August 16, 2015 at 12:38 am #

    Prostitution isn’t a profession. A profession is an organization who’s goal is to institute ethics among its members. Those ethics reflect what society and the group expects of its members. What ethics do they promote that society would expect of them? Not having sex with married men? No. They, of course, want to say that that’s all up to their clients and they don’t have any part in creating marital discord, but their providing the venue. Not having sex in public? No. Although some high class prostitutes work only indoors (except we saw that fall apart in Rio during the World Cup when the women in brothels weren’t making enough), but many don’t. Age limits for their clients? No. Some will say they don’t have sex with teenagers, but many do – there’s no control over that. They don’t want to enforce any limits on what prostitutes do – it isn’t sexy. Prostitution would go away, if they tried to make it a real profession – don’t try to make it sound respectable out of some desire to pander to new age ideas.

  6. Maya November 11, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    I believe the interview states that a preferred method of regulation is the better option for prostitution and I would have to agree. The belief that prostitution whether it be empowering to women who choose it or a social ill to those that view it or have partaken in it is solely subjective thus far. Maybe that women feels that she is stronger because she sells her body for profit on the other hand society dictates that a woman who feels empowered doesn’t understand the full extent to which her very sex is being abused for commercial uses. My perception is the bill chooses a very one track method to deal with prostitution and does end up harming minorities more so then anyone else. This is not the way to handle the prostitution problem, in fact it just eerily reminds me of the “white man’s” burden and colonization of Africa . To understand fully why some feel emboldened we need deeper understanding of prostitution not just assumptions.

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