- "It's Scary for You ... It Has to Be
NEW YORK—In October, a group of men sat in a Calgary hotel room with printouts of escort advertisements. At least one man was armed. The men called the ads one by one, setting up appointments with each woman who answered. But when the women arrived at the hotel, they were met with a lecture, not paid work.
“I know it’s scary for you; it has to be,” one of the men told an escort, according to news reports. “You walked into a room where a man had his gun on his belt. I’m a good guy, but a lot of them won’t be.”
The men were law enforcement, and they targeted a total of 41 women. The police called it “Operation Northern Spotlight.” Sex workers’ fighting for labor rights in Canada called it police profiling.
In Canada, selling sex is not technically illegal. Yet police have a great deal of control over sex workers. Sex workers’ workplaces—often private venues like hotels or apartments—are regarded as sites of crime, not as legitimate places of business. [End Page 7]
This is also the case in countries like the United States, where selling sex and operating a prostitution business have been criminalized. But it is true, too, in countries like Norway, whose laws against prostitution are often described as having “decriminalized” sex workers. In Norway, Amnesty International found that police had gone so far as to issue an ultimatum to sex workers’ landlords: either stop renting to sex workers, or face arrest. Cops called this “Operation Homeless.”
When police can enter a workplace with impunity—such as they have in Operation Northern Spotlight, without a warrant—and attempt to disrupt their work, they are violating workers’ rights. Ending these rights violations is one reason advocates for sex workers’ rights demand the full decriminalization of sex work, a stance now supported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as United Nations agencies UNAIDS, UNDP, and WHO. An influential 2012 report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended repealing legislation that prevents sex workers from working safely— like laws against “living off the earnings of” prostitution and “brothel-keeping.”
At the recent Association for Women’s Rights in Development Forum, advocates from India, Brazil, and Canada spoke out against this kind of harassment and discrimination, which is often carried out in the guise of “rescuing” sex workers. Elene Lam, the founder of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex worker network in Canada, told forum participants that when police conduct these operations, they demand sex workers produce legal identification or face detention. Migrant sex workers are especially vulnerable as they can face jail and deportation as a result.
The solution to ending persecution and rights violations, advocates say, is for both the law and the police who enforce it to recognize sex work as work.
MELISSA GIRA GRANT is author of “Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work” (Verso, 2014) and a contributing writer at Pacific Standard.