Patrick Clark doesn’t fit the profile of a typical sex-trade activist. Not only is he male, he was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
His impaired muscle coordination and unusual movements clearly indicate that he’s living with a serious disability—a product of brain damage that occurred when or just after he was born.
Yet Clark’s mobility issues didn’t stop him from joining the third annual Red Umbrella March on June 13 in downtown Vancouver. Red umbrellas have become the international symbol of sex workers’ solidarity since being adopted as an icon by Venice prostitutes in 2001.
In the eyes of the federal Conservative government, Clark is a criminal because he occasionally pays to have sex.
“I’ve been a long-time client of a sex worker,” Clark told the Georgia Straight. “I think that in order to change the status quo and all the harm that’s going on, we have to fundamentally change how the client–sex worker relationship is seen.”
The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which came into effect last year, makes it illegal to pay for sex.
Clark knows that by speaking out, he could be investigated and charged. The law allows for imprisonment of up to five years for paying for “sexual services”, which isn’t defined in the legislation, and a fine of $2,000 for first-time offenders.
Clark is willing to go public because he thinks that the law creates greater risk for sex workers and their clients by driving them into the shadows.
“One of the things that the mainstream doesn’t understand is that the true criminal—the truly violent—they don’t care about laws,” he said. “So the laws don’t affect them. By pushing people farther out of the mainstream, we are now more of a target.”
So why does he pay for sex? “Joy,” Clark replied with a big smile. “I’ve met over the years many wonderful people [who do sex work] from a wide variety of lifestyles and backgrounds. Sex is a really wonderful thing.”
Sex-workers' association is also vulnerable
Someone else at the rally who’s feeling the impact of the law is sex worker Andrew Sorfleet, president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of B.C. He told the Straight that the Conservative legislation makes his advocacy group illegal because it collects dues from sex workers. Under the law, no one—possibly not even a spouse—can receive any financial benefit from the sale of sex.
“For me, the most personal consequence is that it’s technically illegal to live with us or to be our friends and hang out with us,” Sorfleet said. “I think that’s a serious violation of our right to associate.”
One of the speakers at the rally, Maggie McNeill, is a Seattle-based former sex worker who writes the Honest Courtesan blog. She told a crowd of about 40 sex workers and allies that more states are legalizing recreational marijuana use. She suggested that this poses a threat to the “prison-industrial complex”, which she said needs a new target to justify its existence and keep receiving public funding.
A U.S.–based research and advocacy group called the Sentencing Project calls America “the world’s leader in incarceration”, with 2.2 million people in jail. In 2013, however, the U.S. state and federal prison population declined for the first time in 40 years.
McNeill claimed that authorities on both sides of the border are ramping up campaigns against the sex trade because the war on drugs is collapsing.
“I think one of the biggest things we have to do as sex workers right now is to get people to recognize that this is not just our struggle,” McNeill emphasized. “This is their struggle, too. Just like the drug war undermined the civil rights for everyone—even people who were absolute teetotallers—so the war on sex workers is going to undermine rights for everybody, even people who are absolutely celibate.”
It’s a message that Sorfleet and Clark heartily endorse.