Veteran sex worker Susan Davis wants people to know that her “clients aren’t the bogeymen they are made out to be”.
“I love what I do,” Davis told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch. “I think the guys are the best; a lot of them are my friends. Some I’ve known for 18 years. How do you not become emotionally attached?”
Davis, who has been in the business for 23 years, insisted that stability and security for sex workers can only come with decriminalization of prostitution.
FIRST, a national coalition of feminists who support sex workers’ rights, hosted a lively forum on the subject at the library on November 23. Davis, who was on the panel, suggested that men who buy sex can actually help enhance the safety of those in the trade.
“I think that clients are our biggest resource in trying to combat exploitation, trafficking, and exploitation of youth within the sex industry,” declared Davis, a member of the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals, in the interview.
Another panellist, SFU sociology instructor and researcher Chris Atchison, echoed Davis’s sentiments. He revealed the results of an extensive three-year study—called “Johns’ Voice”—that documents the relationship between buyers and sellers of sex in Canada.
“I wanted to understand how these men engage in purchasing behaviour and what their relationships with sex-trade workers are about,” Atchison told the audience. “I wanted to know whether social and legal intervention such as the Swedish model is warranted by any empirical evidence.”
Atchison was referring to a Swedish law introduced in 1999 that criminalized johns’ purchasing of sexual services, but not the sale of those services by prostitutes. At the forum, organizers screened a 10-minute video that showed many Swedish sex workers are unhappy with the law. One sex worker featured in the video claimed that things have become much more dangerous for street workers, since they no longer have as much time to negotiate with their customers.
Atchison was critical of the Swedish law. The men he spoke to were seeking companionship and a connection with the sex workers they patronized, he said, adding that they wanted to engage in a safe and respectful relationship. He also reported that many customers saw the same sex worker for months or years, and that 79 percent said they wished to see prostitution decriminalized and regulated.
“I’m not here to present a picture of the sex buyer as some wonderful guy or say that they are all great, salt-of-the-earth people,” he said.
The “Johns’ Voice” project showed that between one and two percent of clients have been brutally violent toward a sex worker. Those are the people the law must address, according to Atchison.
Jody Salerno, a former sex worker and the director of women’s services for the B.C./Yukon Society of Transition Houses, told the audience that the men who paid her for sex were not criminals or violent. “They wanted to share my time and have consensual sex,” she said. “If men who pay for sex are criminalized, sex workers are unsafe.”
She emphasized that anyone—including sex workers—who commits acts of violence against women, children, youth, or men should be arrested and prosecuted. “When sex workers are victims of criminal acts, treat them with dignity and respect,” Salerno said.
Toronto author and investigative journalist Victor Malarek, a staunch critic of legalizing the sex trade, told the Straight in an interview earlier this year that about 90 percent of prostitutes worldwide are not doing this work by choice. “Rather than deal with the drugs, the mental-health issues, the physical-health issues, what led these women away from their reserves and put them on the streets, the only thing these bozos [proponents of legalization] can come up with is to keep them in something they never wanted in their lives in the first place,” Malarek said.