A Sex Worker's Struggle to 'Change the Code'
Amber Dawn's memoir recalls a street-level movement to rewrite Canada's prostitution laws.
- How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir
- Arsenal Pulp Press (2013)
[Editor's note: The Tyee published this piece, originally written for UBC's Creative Writing program, in 2007. Now it's part of a new memoir by Vancouver writer and former sex worker, Amber Dawn. In this chapter, the author offers an insider's perspective on early efforts to decriminalize prostitution in Canada. More than a decade later, her work and that of countless others has culminated in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada trial, beginning Thursday, that will challenge this country's prostitution laws.]
Coco and I peek through the yellowed blinds at the recreation centre meeting room, assessing whether we want to go in or not. It looks to be an amicable mix of community advocates, social workers, a Member of the Legislative Assembly or two, and a few Downtown Eastside residents, all drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and eating cheap pastries, so we push through the heavy glass door and find places at the round table.
As we sit, I see a woman who once strangled me because I wouldn't give her a cigarette. We made peace a few days later, or at least we pretended it didn't happen, and on the street, avoidance passes well enough for peace. This was long ago, when I worked low track. I assume she doesn't recognize me since now I am a good 20 pounds heavier, my clothes aren't from a donation box, and I don't keep my head perpetually bowed. When we make eye contact, I almost say, jokingly, "Hey, bitch, you strangle anyone lately?" to remind her who I am, but I stop myself, for it is my understanding that social workers and city councillors are uncomfortable with this sort of banter.
The meeting is to discuss changing provisions to the criminal code regarding prostitution, and how to push for the issue in the upcoming provincial election in April 2001. I quickly learn that most people present, or those doing the talking, are pro-decriminalization.
One speaker rouses the room so completely that the fluorescent lighting seems to flicker in time with her steady measured speaking rhythm. All coffee cups are down. We are hypnotized by the red manicured index finger that she brandishes in the pale air. I hold a bite of dry croissant in my left cheek, as if the sound of my chewing might interrupt.
This woman -- a home-job dyed blonde in her late forties -- commands the room at each and every sex workers' rights meetings I've attended. She speaks about striking down the bawdy-house provision, a law that prevents owning, managing, occupying or being found in a bawdy house. This is the same law that forced working girls out of indoor establishments (like the infamous Penthouse Nightclub in downtown Vancouver) and into the streets. The same law that numerous studies, and plenty of old-time working girls, connect with the increase of bad dates and missing women. The speaker punctuates every few sentences with the assertion, "It's a safety issue."
Broken hearts and fractured noses
I have made this argument myself, though nowhere near as articulately as the speaker, who is about 20 years my senior. For me, talking about law is comparable to taking French in high school; I memorize and regurgitate the correct words, not always comprehending what it is I'm saying. Yes, I want to see brothels decriminalized, and -- an even bigger yes -- I want to feel like I am a part of a big win, a historic victory. Moreover, I fantasize about becoming the kind of sex workers' rights speaker that is loud and fluent and spellbinding. I want to wave the red fingernail of authority. In becoming this type of speaker, I just might redeem myself for all the times I'd silently taken a punch.
But there is the catch. Already the laws intended to protect me have failed. Almost every woman I know is familiar with what a beating feels like, and most of us came by this knowledge when we were still girls. Our government purportedly spends millions of dollars each year to prevent girls from being abused, and yet one in three girls experience repeated abuse before age 18. Around the meeting table are signs of this rife truth; the telltale bow of a fractured nose, a forearm scored with slashing scars, a teardrop tattoo. Even the broken-heart cartoons that Coco sketches across her copy of the meeting agenda. The woman who once strangled me nods off until her forehead nearly touches the table top. When I look closely, I notice that even the speaker has a toonie-sized purple bruise below her eyebrow, covered by a liberal powdering of makeup.
I doubt that laws and policies could actually promote social change. My head unconsciously begins to bob with uncertainty as discussion continues. I blurt out, "But what about..." a couple of times, trying to insert myself into the conversation when someone has a mouthful of bran muffin, only to be interrupted by the next person.
When I do get a turn, I don't have a well-rehearsed speech prepared, only a jumble of questions. "Who is going to tell the women on the street that it's time to move indoors? And tell them how to be indoor workers?" I hear how foolish I must sound and try again. "I mean, changing the laws doesn't mean working girls will be able to change their lives accordingly. Most of the girls outside have pimps or they're underage -- how is this going to help them? Can opening sex workers' learning centres be an election issue instead? I mean, laws are great and all, but our resource centres keep shutting down. We need more drop-ins and stuff like that."
I swear I see one of the MLAs nod at me with a measured smile. The gesture is enough to keep me talking. "And if we decriminalize, does that mean all the sections under the Criminal Code are decriminalized? The 'living off the avails of prostitution' and the 'paying for sex from someone under 18' provisions too? Or do we pick and choose what sections we decriminalize? Or, like, who gets to pick and choose, and decide how this stuff is enforced?" Coco leans over and scribbles the word "Girl!" across the top of my meeting agenda.
"But the one, um, section that confuses me most is 'the right to communicate or solicit in a public space,' " I continue, still shaking my head even though I now have everyone's attention. "Is that going to work both ways? Is this a stupid question? I mean, will men be allowed to approach a woman they believe to be a prostitute and offer to buy sex from her? Can it go like that?"
This question is personally motivated. A fair percentage of my own street prostitution occurred because I was a young woman in a poor postal code, and the neighbourhood men frequently made offers. I once thought -- why not make an easy extra $50 on my way to the bus stop? -- unaware of the actual work or risks involved.
"Maybe I prefer our discrete, coded lingo, like 'half-and-half' and 'all-inclusive.' That is our language." I stress the words "our language," hoping I'll gain credit if my position suggests cultural sensitivity. I receive only blank stares from around the table. "I wouldn't want some guy to ask me if I go as low as one bill to ram my ass," I offer -- perhaps it's too colourful an illustration. One of the few men present clears his throat a few times.
"And what about trafficking?" Coco says, tapping her acrylic nails on the table top. I notice everyone leans forward as she speaks. Coco is considered an almost unheard-from voice: an Asian immigrant sex worker who is willing and able to articulate (in English) her experiences. "Vancouver is already one of the top cities for trafficked women in North America. Will decriminalization mean I get to stay in this country if I get busted?"
"Just because something's not criminal does not mean it's going to be fair," I add. "It doesn't mean the police or the hospital emergency room or whoever is going to be all respectful and helpful suddenly."
"Fuck the police," my old strangler friend shouts out. "They don't fucking protect us no matter if they are supposed to. If you want to do something, make the police protect us from getting raped. My daughter, she's just turned 14, she's already getting raped by these men who come down here just to rape our women...."
I grow hot with the rush of anger in the room. My skin prickles from hearing the vital and even ugly things that we normally keep quiet about. There is so much to discuss, more than the one-sheet agenda can accommodate. For a moment, the energy in the room induces the feeling that some tremendous thing is about to happen, that we are on the precipice of some sort of change. After a brief pause to reflect, the meeting loops back to the same agenda: how to make decriminalization an electoral issue. By the end of the meeting, the entire group dubs itself the "Change the Code" committee.
Being the 'bad sister'
This is not the first time I've involved myself with politics, or the first time I've had questions and doubts. Calling myself a feminist (the most suitable political appellation I've ever adopted) has posed problems in itself. I joined an anti-violence feminist collective in 1995. As a member, I learned the power of identity -- the idea that even an uneducated woman, like myself, who hadn't read Mary Wollstonecraft or bell hooks, could be an expert on feminism simply because of her identity as a woman. Phrases like "as a woman of colour" or "as a lesbian mother" qualified every opinion in the collective.
While being valued as a young, poor woman seemed miraculous to me, the miracle was hampered by my awareness of how different I was from my sister collective members. I was the "bad" sister. I wore a mini-skirt and had scraped knees in a room full of sensible pants and makeup-free faces. The collective also taught me that sex workers, from prostitutes to phone-sex operators, are "servants of the patriarchy." Part of my training included an anti-pornography workshop; six hours of learning about anti-pornography campaigns from the Women Against Pornography March on Times Square to the firebombing of Red Hot Video Stores in Vancouver. A stack of Penthouse and Playboy magazines were brought out at the end of the workshop for the collective members to judiciously analyze. Some collective members took up red and black sharpies and wrote anti-patriarchal slogans across the glossy photos of the naked porn models.
I learned immediately that the phrase "as a sex worker" is not met with the same gravity as other women's qualifiers. Debate arose when I suggested that we, as an anti-violence collective, stop vilifying sex workers and start offering them much-needed support. Some members listened, some agreed we should assist sex workers if they were trying to quit, and some acted as though I had spoiled their fortress of womanly empowerment. We took a vote: should we or should we not help sex workers out of violent situations? I remember crumpling into the purple beanbag chair in the meeting room as I watched the show of hands voting not to help. I left the collective with the bitter realization that "prostitute-ism" or "whore-phobia" were not yet words in the feminist lexicon.
However, I've witnessed a great deal of change during my short time as an out sex worker. I've seen an alarming number of women from the Downtown Eastside go missing. The north end of Commercial Drive -- the very street where I worked for years -- was exposed by the media as Vancouver's kiddie stroll. Dozens of massage parlours with names like The Lotus and Shangri-La have sprung up throughout the Lower Mainland. In response to this, it seems that every women's organization, health initiative, and housing program has slowly yet steadily added assistance to sex workers as part of its mandate.
Coco and I met at an HIV-prevention project that hired us to do safer sex outreach to prostitutes. Like me, Coco had lasted for a couple of rounds with feminist organizations and was no longer willing to be a living representative of the feminist sex-work debate. We both started volunteering at health-related organizations during the syphilis comeback and hepatitis surge. We bonded over this and because, unlike the retired prostitutes-turned-advocates, Coco and I were still hustling. It seemed perfect -- we subsidized our volunteer or low-paid, sex-work-justice jobs with money from our regular tricks. We were activists and our bills were paid.
Our first job together was to reach out to immigrant and Asian massage parlour workers, a difficult demographic to connect with. Initially, the parlour owners wouldn't let us through the door. Coco and I would stand outside parlour doorways joking in our best spy voices, "We've got to infiltrate the building." Next we pretended to be applying for jobs; this got us as far as the softly-lit lobbies. Then we were invited in because we came with big fruit baskets and sweets from a Chinese bakery. Finally, after months of this dance, we were welcomed in to hand out free condoms for the girls, teach safe sex, and to set women up with doctors who wouldn't discriminate. Coco and I performed a theatrical routine to demonstrate how to put a condom on while giving a blowjob -- it went over well in any language.
The project was funded through a one-time grant, barely enough money to cover the cost of a one-room office. Within a year we were looking for funders, and the project was scooped up by a doctoral student who forged a quick partnership with the board of directors. Coco and I were told the project could continue for several more months if we helped the doctoral student collect blood samples and other data for her thesis, which was basically a study of how HIV is spread by Asian prostitutes. Accustomed to duking it out in the name of sex workers' rights, Coco and I threw some good punches about how this stigmatized and blamed the women, how it would ruin the relationship we had with them, and how blood was a thing most Asian women, for cultural reasons, would not simply hand over. Never mind the fact that prostitutes are one of the most researched peoples in Canada, and as far as I can see, these studies aren't helping anything except the researchers' CVs. In the end, Coco and I walked out.
Having already tried feminism and health services, I suggested we give legal issues a go. This is how Coco and I joined the Change the Code committee.
A kind of 'ghetto feminism'
At the end of that meeting, we slink away, a little dazed. "I still don't know half the shit I'm saying or how it all is really going to play out or who it will help and who will fall through the cracks or anything," I admit. This is when Coco tells me she hasn't made any money in two weeks. She is broke, not eating-at-a-soup-kitchen broke, but broke enough to be scared.
"None of my regulars are calling." Coco asks me to hit the kiddie stroll with her. "I just need a couple hundred bucks or so," she says.
I take her to my old corner beside the fish factory. I haven't been on track for nearly a year, but the street still has easy dates if you know how to hustle. We scan the beat-up trucks that circle the block to check us out before going home after their work day. "Factory workers are okay," I tell her. "But only on a Friday when they get paid."
Soon a police cruiser is circling us too. "We're just out looking for a girlfriend of ours. We haven't seen her for a couple of days," I say to the officer, and he drives off without further questions.
When a suitable client does come around, I recite the numbers and letters of his licence plate loud enough that he can hear me as Coco gets in his car. "You bring her back smiling," I tell the trick with a wink. He winks and makes friendly eye contact -- a small, simple gesture that reassures me.
I sit on the stoop of the fish factory and wait for her to return as the setting sun lights up the pavement and makes the factory's windows glow. I've stood watch like this many times for other girls. I've come running when I've heard a woman scream and stuck around to hear why she was screaming. I've done hospital and police visits, without an organization's name backing me. I've shared resources, everything from bad date lists to childcare. And I am only one of many. We congregate in alleyways and on corners to strategize safety and justice -- which has nothing to do with government or institutional assistance.
I realize that this is the place where I have discovered a kind of ghetto feminism, a street social justice. This is the place where I understand the impact my actions have. Where I trust myself; where I do not question my voice or the voices of the other women here. This corner, where I wait for Coco, is the one space where I have learned and shared the most influential tools of my life -- listen, witness, pass information forward, be at the ready, and survive. Survival may be the most radical thing I ever do.