Sex work, the law, and Company Town

My next book, Company Town (which is currently available for pre-order), takes place on an oil rig on the Atlantic, 500km NE of St. John’s, Newfoundland. It’s my first book set in Canada, despite the fact that I moved to Toronto in 2006. Today being Canada Day, I thought I would talk about why I chose a Canadian setting. TL;DR: I thought I was being clever about the legality of prostitution in Canada, until the Tories fucked up my whole premise.

I’ve believed that most forms of sex work (and there are a lot, from stripping to phone sex to fetish work to pornography to prostitution to things I can’t even imagine because I grew up as a nerdy Catholic in the suburbs outside Seattle) should be legal since I studied the topic in my undergrad years. I wrote two departmental honors theses during my time at my little Jesuit alma mater, and the first was on enforced prositution in Nazi concentration camps.

This is a real thing. It really happened. The Imperial Japanese Forces did it, too. When Hawaii was under martial law during World War II, the US military ran vice squads that standardized the price for seeing a brothel worker. And the Honolulu police chief who once ordered sex workers off public beaches and bars later consulted for the Tokyo PD on controlling the movement and rights of the “comfort women” the Imperial Japanese Forces had pressed into service.  They needed his expertise, once American GIs started making use of those women during their occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952.

In Germany, Japan, and Hawaii, prostitution was entirely legal, but not open. For example: in 1927, new “anti-VD” legislation in Germany sought to license prostitutes for operation on specific streets in each major city. Licensed sex workers then had to comply with mandatory health inspections and live in designated brothels. The regulations were so strict that by 1934, according to historian Dagmar Herzog, cities like Cologne had 1,600 unlicensed sex workers on the streets simply because they could not afford to comply with regulations. The Reich pursued a pincer strategy for dealing with the “stray” women: on the one hand, it oppressed elements of the religious Right that lobbied against regulation of brothels, and on the other, Himmler (chief of German police in 1936) encouraged autonomy among police services to regulate the activities of sex workers in an effort to meet the presumed “needs” of an increasing military population. But by 1939, that open-ness was gone. Women who were suspected of prostitution (i.e. women who appeared “promiscuous” or who had sex outside of marriage) still had to comply with the health inspections demanded of licensed prostitutes. So, if a member of the Gestapo saw you leaving your lover’s home, he could make you take a syphilis test. Unless you were Jewish. Jewish sex workers were granted no license. And all non-compliant women, Jewish or not, were sent to re-education camps, first Lichtenburg and then Ravensbrück. It was from the latter camp that Himmler, architect of the enforced prostitution effort, first suggested candidates for prostitution be culled from. When sex workers talk about fearing the impact of regulation on their personal safety, they have historical precedent for doing so.

Consider the fact that Hawaii only just now ended the police exemption for sex with prostitutes. Or that police officers all over America are under investigation for raping prostitutes. Consider that Gary Ridgway killed 48 women, most of whom were sex workers who felt afraid to talk to police. Or that Robert Pickton was charged with the murder of 26, and confessed to the killing of 49, most of whom were in the same position. Remember that the Vancouver police knew sex workers were going missing for years, and did nothing about it.

Think about the killers we would catch, if sex work were entirely legal.

Now, in celebration of Canada Day, take a look at Bill C36, the Conservative response to the Supreme Court of Canada striking down all prostitution laws as violations of human rights.

The women in the case had argued that the law prevented them from safely conducting their business as sex-trade workers, arguing that hiring bodyguards and drivers, and being able to work in private homes or talk with potential clients in public were important to their safety.

If you apply that same law to piano teachers (many of whom are women working out of their homes for individual clients), it looks like this:

What if, claiming concern for pianists’ safety, the government legislated that piano teachers couldn’t have others advertise on their behalf? Newspaper and Internet ads would be illegal, even on one’s own website, because – despite containing an exemption for advertising one’s own services – under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Ivory Ticklers Act, placing those ads where they might be viewed by a minor would be a crime.

A piano teacher, barred from advertising, then answering the phone and screening any budding Alfred Brendels seeking her services, would be more at risk from any unsavoury Alfreds. The law would also make trying to sell her services in public areas where people under the age of 18 might witness her efforts – so anywhere but a bar – illegal.

Mind you, it would also be illegal to inveigle anyone to visit a piano bar, or school, for the purpose of receiving piano lessons and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, hanging out at houses of piano would be evidence you were illegally living off the avails of piano lessons, and you could be jailed.


If passed, Bill C36 would ban sex workers from advertising publicly and from operating out of residences, while also banning bodyguards, drivers, and managers from making a living from their clients’ work, and individuals from soliciting their services. It would, in fact, force sex workers onto the streets and down the alleys, into cars and truck stops, behind the thin doors of highway motels, and upon the tender mercies of pimps. It would be as effective at curbing the dangers of a life in prostitution as anti-piracy legislation is at ending the torrents of Game of Thrones episodes.

But you see, I wrote Company Town before Bill C36 was written. I imagined a future in which meaningful policy innovations had already become part of the social fabric for legal sex workers in Canada. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard who belongs to the United Sex Workers of Canada. She pays dues and will receive a pension, like all the other workers. She uses an online social network to check on her details and their clients — and that same network allows workers to rate their clients and report bad behaviour in a safe and easy way. Her mother, a sex worker, works out of her residence and has ever since moving to New Arcadia. (A slip-up with a client and harsh anti-choice legislation is why Hwa even exists, and why her mother sometimes calls her “Half.”) These workers go to bars and parks, take self-defence classes, attend church, get married. In other words they’re people, strong and free, with equal protection under the law.

It might just be most optimistic book I’ve ever written.

Oh, Canada.


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