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A call for respect

Resentment, not regret from sex worker arrested at bawdy house

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/11/2011 (2100 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tilly still remembers what she was wearing, that summer day that changed her life: a bright cotton sundress. No shoes. Handcuffs.

It was June 24, 2009, and for the first time in her life, the young woman was under arrest.

The arrest and subsequent trial of 'Sinful Sydnee' drew plenty of media attention, but a former  employee has her own insider's perspective on the business on Stiles Street.

The arrest and subsequent trial of 'Sinful Sydnee' drew plenty of media attention, but a former employee has her own insider's perspective on the business on Stiles Street.

This was before the headlines blared and the tale got twisted. This is before anyone -- including most of the neighbours -- knew that in a cosy old home on Stiles Street, a Wolseley housewife ran a business of selling sex.

Last month, that woman -- publicly identified only by her frisky alias, Sinful Sydnee -- pleaded guilty to charges of keeping a common bawdy house. Tilly and the other sex workers arrested at the home that day were not charged. But the memories don't fade as easily as the legal fears do.

"That was a really life-changing day for me," Tilly says, sipping tea at a colourful downtown coffeehouse. "I didn't have a bad experience with sex work until I got arrested."

Tilly isn't the woman's real name, but it's young and fun and sort of sparkly, so she says it'll do. She is 25 years old. As she walks through the coffee shop, faces look up and people wave. After years spent gliding through concerts and art shows and political workshops, her face is a familiar one. People know her.

But the police did not know Tilly on June 24, 2009, when they placed her under arrest and took her down to the station to probe for information on the house that headlines would later call a "sex den." They asked how many clients she saw in a day; one or two a week, she replied. She was too busy gardening and volunteering to take on much more. "They assumed every time I was at the house, I had a client," Tilly says. "But I was there because I liked being there. The night before the arrest, we were watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs."

It was the shade of frustration to come -- a frustration that, with the trial now done, is enough to make a woman break her silence.

Weeks after her arrest, Tilly received a copy of the police's transcript of her interview. Immediately, she says, a handful of words leaped off the page. Every time she had told the investigator "sex worker," the transcript said something else: hooker.

"Seriously, hooker," Tilly says. She throws back her head and laughs, big open peals of laughter that turn heads at nearby tables.

At the time, though, it wasn't funny. "They heard what they wanted to hear," Tilly says of the police and, later, the Crown who prosecuted the case against Sinful Sydnee. "They'd already decided what the story was. I didn't have a history, I didn't have a personality to them. They decided who I was, and any time what I said was different from that, they heard what they wanted to hear."

She pauses, and shakes her head slowly. "It was like I was in the twilight zone."

To some it may seem strange enough already, this gentle daughter of quiet North Kildonan become inextricably tied up in such a titillating tale. Because hers is not the story of prostitution that culture bears; that story -- often for good reason -- is usually told in other words, darker ones. Exploited and exploiter. Victim and victimizer.

But sex work is not always thus. In rambling community spaces and blogs and online forums, a new discussion of the world's oldest profession emerges: ordained ministers who bill themselves as "sacred whores," the modern incarnation of ancient priestesses who sold sex to honour lustful goddesses. Women who style themselves after the flamboyant, ferociously independent courtesans of old.

And then there are the women who just plain like the work.

Tilly sits somewhere between these traditions. She still counts among her heroines the feisty and famously witty 17th-century French courtesan Ninon de l'Enclos; when she discovered a blog written by a California sexual surrogate -- a type of therapy that uses sexual touch -- something sparked in her heart. For 18 months, she debated the decision with friends. Could she? Would she?

Then, on an online forum where sex workers gathered to talk about the ethics of their trade, she met Sinful Sydnee.

The first time the pair met in person, they talked about the business over a fruit plate and cups of tea.

The first time she started working, she was full of nerves and nervous anticipation. But the clients, she said, were "awesome."

What surprised Tilly was how emotional it could be, with her small group of loyal clients. The connections were not romances, she says; but they were often tender. Men came to her because they wanted to talk, and to be healed. She craved that. "We're surrounded by so much sensuality all the time, but we never take time to enjoy it," she says.

In an autumn-coloured room on the top floor of that Stiles Street house, she created a space to do just that.

She knew the other women who worked there. They co-ordinated their vists; they set up a system to make sure they were never meeting clients while Sydnee's daughter was home, she says. (In court, the Crown would later argue that the 11-year-old child was regularly exposed to visiting sex workers and clients; those close to Sydnee dispute that claim.)

Most of all, the women all came to sex work for different reasons, Tilly says, but all appeared to be there of their own free will. In return, Sydnee offered advice and security, a cheap and clean room to meet clients, and something akin to a secretary service. While Tilly was busy gardening, Sydnee advertised her services, booked her appointments and screened clients.

"In that sense, she was more of my employee," Tilly shrugs, adding that it was work she didn't want to do.

Experts, it turned out, didn't see it the same way. At Sydnee's sentencing hearing, Winnipeg Police Service Sgt. Gene Bowers filed a 16-page expert report on the sex trade, asserting that bawdy houses offered no safe haven for workers. Of the fact that all but one of the women who worked for Sydnee refused to testify against her, asserting they enjoyed working with her, Bowers wrote it was "not surprising."

"It's a common tactic (for bawdy-house owners) to befriend the person and have them enter into what they believe is a fair business relationship," he wrote. "The relationship is actually exploitative, but appears to be reciprocal on the surface."

When she read this, Tilly was furious. "(Sydnee) was my friend," she says. He said, she said -- but she was there.

And that's what gets Tilly. She's not angry about the arrest. It was a known risk, she shrugs. And she doesn't regret sex work. But she does resent the spin. She resents the cops and lawyers and headlines that, she says, shaped the story into something dark and predatory.

Tilly isn't doing sex work anymore; she doesn't want to work as an independent escort, she says, and she is leery of some larger escort agencies in Winnipeg. Too many bad stories of how workers there are mistreated, she says. Instead, she has a more paper-perfect job, one her parents don't mind hearing about.

But she is still advocating the hell out of the issue.

What Tilly wants is more awareness of sex work and the diverse lives of sex workers. More effort put into supporting sex workers who are vulnerable. And more thought about the laws that stop women from organizing together to do sex work with pride, safety and self-determination.

"We have to ask ourselves what these laws are there for," she says. "If a law's there to protect someone, and it's not doing it, then it's not a very good law. And if a law is rooted in someone's sense of morality, instead of in what's good for people, then it's not a good law."

Oh, and one last thing, one final word for a culture where most stories involving real sex between real people -- paid or otherwise -- are billed as titillating scandals and voyeuristic teases. "At the very least," Tilly says, "we should be able to talk like adults about sex."

Read more by Melissa Martin.


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