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Sex Work is Not the Same as Sexual Exploitation

in Opinion by

In a long-ago part of my story, I was a teenage runaway with a bad boyfriend. It’s almost a caricature: at first he offered me protection; before long I was meeting guys from Craigslist in hotel rooms to support his addictions and pay the rent. I spent years unraveling the trauma of that time, and I am proud of the resilience I have developed by learning how to recover from my experiences.

Years later, after I had found my way back to a place of stability and well-being, I was a few months out from finishing my post-secondary program. I had scraped together tuition by saving every spare penny while working restaurant jobs and couldn’t wait to finally earn enough to do more than just get by. But the certification exams cost money, and I was low on funds to cover my living expenses through the last semester. A full-time courseload made working full-time and keeping my grades up daunting.

I stumbled on a job ad for a local massage parlour. During the interview I was nervous but the manager was frank and clear. She put me at ease. She asked about my boundaries and assured me they would be respected. I worked my first shift later that week.

It was not a perfect experience, but nor is any job I’ve had before or since that one. What that environment provided me was the confidence that someone was there to keep me safe and make sure that the work I was engaged in was within my comfort zone. It gave me a sense of control and agency that was completely different from the exploitative situation I experienced as a youth. And I was able to work a couple of shifts a week, focus on school and still pay my bills, something none of the low-wage jobs I’d worked in the years prior could offer. I stayed until I finished school and found a job in my field.

As someone who has worked of her own volition as a sex worker and someone who has experienced sexual exploitation, I can tell you unequivocally: the two are not the same. Measures should absolutely be taken to penalize those who profit off the abuse of others; this is already illegal and those laws should be enforced. But to erase the autonomy of sex workers under the guise of “protecting” them from exploitation actually makes it more dangerous for workers to do the jobs that put food on their tables.

Restricting any new massage parlours from opening offers workers less autonomy, less choice, less ability to find safer and more respectful working conditions if they encounter a problem. It does the opposite of what it purports to do. At best, it is hypocritical; at worst, it is punitive moralizing.

Four years ago, a group of 11 men sat in a room and decided something that has affected the lives of women trying to make a living to support themselves and their families. I hope that when our city council considers the question of lifting the moratorium on massage parlours, that this time they will listen to the voices of those currently working in these establishments. Let them tell you what their experiences are like and what they need, rather than listening to those who would speak over them or discredit their experiences.

Photo by Graham Kennedy.

Newfoundland and Labrador is a small province, and can become smaller for those who go against the grain. Following editorial assessment in each case, the Independent guarantees anonymity for those who require it.

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