Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The laws don't protect prostitutes

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Nikki Thomas has a distinctly rosy view of her job, even though she needs elaborate safety protocols at the Toronto apartment where she works with a fellow prostitute. This week's Ontario appeal court ruling legalizing brothels left many sex workers feeling empowered and triumphant, Thomas among them. As the executive director of the Sex Professionals of Canada, the case thrust her into the spotlight as the modern voice and face of the sex trade -- as she experiences it. The loquacious and well-educated woman might be seen as Canada's Happy Hooker and she says we had better get used to it. In the glow of the court victory, she chatted with Adrian Humphreys of the National Post about prostitution moving out of the shadows.

 

Q: These are high-profile times for the sex trade in Canada and you have been front and centre in that. What impact has the publicity had on you?

A: It is rather surreal to be walking down the street and see a newspaper box with you on the front cover. I will confess to a little bit of narcissism and I do enjoy being the centre of attention sometimes. I haven't perceived it as being negative. I am a little used to it because I have been advocating for a while.

There was a lot of positive reinforcement that came with it but at the same time, I found myself becoming, I don't want to say paranoid, but a little more aware of attention. Every time someone was looking at me, was it because they recognized me from TV as opposed to just being checked out normally (which also happens to me fairly often)?

I have actually been getting emails asking for appointments to which I reply that I am not taking on any new clients at this time and just basically working with the regulars I've been seeing for a while.

Q: Having been in every newspaper, passersby might know what you do and that might be curious, unsettling and titillating for different people for different reasons. How do you feel about everyone knowing your business?

A: If I had any issue with it, I wouldn't be public to begin with. My family has been aware of what I do for quite some time, so I don't have to worry about being outed through the media.

It would be very difficult for me to feel bad about the attention and the publicity given I know that what I do is right and is necessary because there are a lot of people supportive of legal reform in the sex industry and participants as well who don't feel they have the ability to speak publicly about it.

That is the silent majority of sex workers that I try to speak on their behalf.

Legal reform is just the first step and it would be incredibly wonderful to get rid of the laws that put us in danger, but that is not going to do much about the social stigma sex workers face. We do absolutely believe it is a legitimate profession and, in a lot of ways, no different from any other legal profession that provides a service to a client.

In order for that part of the battle to be won we have to stress the fact that we are pretty much just like any other Canadian -- we work regular hours, we have families and just try to get by and pay the bills like anybody else.

Countering that stereotype is the first step in gaining social acceptance, not just social tolerance. Canadians are very, very good at being tolerant, in terms of putting up with things that they may not necessarily agree with, but acceptance is a whole different issue.

We are taxpayers -- the CRA [Canada Revenue Agency] has its own industry code for us. We have been organizing tax seminars to help people report their income because that really speaks to overall social acceptance.

Q: You want acceptance but is the sex trade not different from other jobs because of its collateral damage? For every single client there will be a husband jeopardizing a marriage or family, for instance.

A: Anything to do with sex is going to have a lot of commentary attached to it and a lot of people making moral judgments. It is not all that easy to get people to overcome their preconceived notion of what good sex and bad sex really are.

It is unfortunate that the stereotype of sex workers is so pervasive that I have to define myself not by who I am but by who I am not: I am not a victim of sexual abuse, I am not from a broken home, I am not a drug addict, I am not somebody with low self-esteem.

Q: Those descriptors do apply to some in the sex trade, though. Is there a fear your message of this being a positive lifestyle might be seized upon by someone who then ends up in those horrid situations?

A: That's a complicated question. There would be a great deal of other factors that contributes to that end result.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether the experiences are positive or negative, the laws on the books only make things more negative. The laws certainly didn't help those women who were abused from being abused. The laws didn't do anything to protect them.

There is nobody who despises violence in the sex trade more than other sex trade workers and we don't deny the experiences that these women had. We really appreciate their courage in sharing their stories and telling people that, yes, this is an industry where all kinds of abuses are happening all the time and it is exacerbated by the laws, not helped by them.

We don't pretend it didn't happen or that they are exceptions to the rule, but as you've seen in your interviews, they always do that with us. They are telling me that because things have gone well for me, that I have no right to talk about it. We don't pretend that everybody has had it as rosy and wonderful as I have, or that everyone has had it as horribly as they have. No matter what, the laws on the books aren't helping any of us.

Q: You say your job is wonderful. How did it start?

A: I was [a student] at the University of Toronto about 12 years ago and received a degree in political science; spent time in the real world working a few jobs but didn't find them especially fulfilling.

In my mid-20s I decided to go back to school but I had some living expenses, I didn't want to incur a great deal of debt, and I needed flexibility in my schedule in whatever job I worked if I wanted to pay for my school and do well to get the grades I needed to get into graduate studies. I ended up going back to school and got a degree in sexual diversity studies and then followed that with a bachelor of science in psychology -- which I am just finishing up.

I spoke to a couple of friends; one of them worked in a strip club. She said she did quite well and there was an opportunity if I wanted to try it. I figured it can't hurt to give it a try; maybe it's for me and maybe it's not.

The very first time I danced on stage I thought to myself, halfway through: Isn't this the point I'm supposed to feel degraded and dehumanized and all that stuff? But it never happened. I didn't feel the least bit bad about it or exploited or used.

I found after I worked in the club for a couple of weeks that I really enjoyed the personal connections I had with people outside of just dancing for them and providing visual stimulation. It was more about connecting with people on different levels.

It didn't take me long to move into private entertainment and found that was a lot more fulfilling, a lot easier to schedule, more flexibility and it went from there. It didn't take me long to move into escorting and meeting clients outside of the club environment.

Q: How dramatic was telling your family?

A: When I told my mom, I called her after I started the activism. I said, 'Are you sitting down?' and I told her and she was, like, 'OK, I'm not especially happy. I'm not going to pretend it is a decision I support but it is not my decision to make. It's yours and I love you and care about you no matter what.'

Q: You've had some time to digest the court decision. How do you see things changing?

A: It is no longer a question of if it becomes legal and regulated, but when. It is absolutely critical that we participate in the discussion but we don't necessarily like our chances of being included, at least at the federal level.

We are concerned the government will make some knee-jerk reaction and not take the time for consultation. The government has proven with the omnibus crime bill that they tend to privilege ideology over rationality, particularly when it comes to questions of legal issues. All we can do is try to make our voices heard.

I'm genuinely concerned that the licensing will be looked as a golden goose... and make it so expensive that the only ones able to afford a licence are those involved in organized crime.

We have a great number of concerns of what might happen when the state becomes the pimp.

Q: Is Nikki Thomas your real name?

A: Yes.

Q: How old are you?

A: I am, oh, I'm 31. I usually describe myself as late-20s because of industry expectations but that's OK, you can use my real age.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J6

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