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This article was published 26/4/2019 (727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sensational Serena has the potential to make many Winnipeggers uncomfortable.
Billboard space she purchased at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Aubrey Street advertises her services as "Winnipeg’s professional companion" and offers her phone number. It’s thought to be the first time an escort or sex worker in this city has advertised so prominently.
The billboard was uncomfortable for a co-worker who spotted it while driving past with his family. He and his wife raised their eyebrows at each other and were grateful the kids in the back seat apparently didn’t see the billboard and ask what is so sensational about Serena.
In a larger context, the brassy advertisement also has the potential to raise uncomfortable questions about what currently passes for a correct view of sex workers.
We’ve been sensitized in recent years to regard sex workers as exploited. The politically correct attitude is that it’s not their fault. Legally and socially, we’re been refocused to regard sex workers as victims of larger forces.
But then comes Serena, who is nobody’s victim. Unabashed, she told the Free Press she’s a businesswoman and licensed professional.
Her in-your-face advertisement highlights Canada’s flawed laws regarding commercial sex services, which are nothing short of bizarre. It’s legal for Serena to advertise her services and it’s legal to sell sex, but it’s illegal for customers to buy sex. I can’t think of any other transaction where it’s legal to sell but illegal to buy.
Our modern tendency to assume all sex workers are exploited victims is not an accident. It was the strategic direction of changes to the Criminal Code in 2014, under the government of Stephen Harper, that purposely turned a blind eye to people who rent their bodies for sex, and criminalized those who buy the sexual services.
In Winnipeg, it means police have street-level crackdowns about twice a year and criminallly charge dozens of men, often seizing their vehicles as well. They don’t charge the women who sell sex. A telling indication of the police attitude toward sex workers is that the arresting officers are called the Counter Exploitation Unit.
It’s quite a change since the heyday of Winnipeg’s red light district from 1909 to 1912, when police, at the suggestion of politicians, looked the other way as brothels did booming business in areas including Annabella and McFarlane Streets in Point Douglas, and the street now called Minto.
Today’s manner of legal enforcement coincides with a shift in public attitudes that, commendably, encourage people to regard sex workers in the context of larger factors. Are they being controlled by pimps? Are they driven to the streets to feed addictions? Did they have dysfunctional upbringings because of colonialism?
The jarring imposition of Sensational Serena — an entrepreneur running her own legal business — is that she doesn’t want our sympathy or understanding. She just wants more customers.
It’s been surprising to some of us that, until now, no one has legally challenged the current law’s premise that sex work is inherently exploitative. None of the dozens of men charged with prostitution offences in Winnipeg has fought their charges in court, as far as the Free Press knows. Perhaps they were embarrassed by the nature of their arrest and didn’t want to draw more attention to themselves with a public trial.
But finally, the premise of the law is being disputed. In a trial underway this week in Kitchener, Ont., the first test case of its kind, lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws.
The accused are being co-represented by prominent Toronto defence lawyer James Lockyer, who is familiar to Manitobans because of his high-profile defence of wrongfully convicted men such as James Driskell and David Milgaard.
Lockyer is now representing owners of an escort service. He argues that escort services often provide a safer environment for sex workers by protecting them from violence, screening clients, taking credit-card numbers, discussing expectations and prices, having a regular clientele and "planning an escape route."
"Working indoors is generally safer than working on the streets," he told the court in closing arguments on Tuesday.
He said the laws make it impossible for "people engaged in a risky but legal activity... from taking steps to prevent themselves from risks," which he said violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to personal security of all Canadians.
The legal community is attentively awaiting the verdict in Lockyer’s challenge, sensing it has the potential to go to the Supreme Court.
Sensational Serena is not part of Lockyer’s argument, but in their own ways, both want to get sex work off the streets, and both are reminders that the public can be too quick to assume a stereotype. Not all sex workers fit the template of victimization.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.