When Valerie Scott first started working she advertised in a newspaper. A seven-day ad garnered 93 hand-written replies. She tossed the ones with bad grammar in the garbage.
Scott was 24. She was a sex worker. Still is, 33 years later.
It may be the oldest profession but it’s also one of the most widely derided and, in Canada, one of the most unsafe.
Scott insists she became a prostitute because she wanted to: She admired the colourful, independent “saloon girls” she saw in westerns. She wanted that to be her.
But she wants to do her job without risking her life.
A lot has changed in the “many, many, many years” the 57-year-old has spent selling sex.
The internet, for one thing, made advertising — and vetting prospective clients — much easier, Scott said. Much like you’d google a prospective partner, sex workers could do the same with new clients.
Scott would demand a new client’s full name and get back to them after she had a chance to look them up.
‘A gift to traffickers’
That changed last year with the Conservative federal government’s Bill C-36. The bill was meant to replace Canada’s previous prostitution laws, struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Then-justice minister Peter MacKay said Bill C-36 would make sex workers more safe. Sex workers say it’s done the opposite.
READ MORE: Professor believes new prostitution laws do more harm than good
The legislation criminalizes the purchase of sex, but not its sale. The bill also makes communicating for the purpose of selling sex or advertising sex services against the law.
If Scott and her colleagues can’t advertise openly, she said, then they have to negotiate sex in bars, on the street, or through word of mouth. Clients, fearful of a sting that could land them in jail, now take greater steps to protect their anonymity. They won’t give their real names and use blocked numbers.
Scott has never been raped or attacked. But she has had close calls. Her current inability to vet customers gives predators the advantage, she argues.
She calls the current bill “a gift to the traffickers.”
“If you’re working in a brothel or massage parlour, you know if someone’s being coerced or forced,” Scott said.
“If it was decriminalized like it was in New Zealand, we just pick up the phone and call police.
“But if it’s all underground and in the shadows, no one’s going to say anything. Because if we do, they’re going to close the place down, everyone’s going to be out of a job, we’re all going to be arrested.”
With a new government being sworn in this week — one that opposed Bill C-36 when it was first passed — the push is on to get the law repealed.
Pivot Legal has threatened to take the Liberal government to court if prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau doesn’t repeal C-36 “immediately.”
That’s what Scott wants to see — followed by a new law altogether.
It’s a touchy topic: Many argue prostitution is exploitative and degrading by definition, there’s no way to do it respectfully or safely so it should be eliminated, period.
Many others, sex workers among them, argue it’s a profession like any other and that anything exploitative or degrading about it should be mitigated through more effective measures — poverty reduction, harm reduction, crackdowns on human trafficking and sexual violence — that require sex workers to be treated as people deserving police protection.
“It’s time to stop the moral panic and give sex workers the same rights as all other workers,” Scott said.
‘I support sex workers because I was one’
The debate came up unexpectedly online last week, when comedian Margaret Cho posed a question to her 400,000-odd Twitter followers: What do sex workers want?
It was the first time Cho spoke publicly about her past as a prostitute.
“I support sex workers because I was one and I know that it’s a job that’s needlessly shunned by society when frankly we should be worshipped,” the 46-year-old wrote.
The world’s oldest profession is not only “honest work,” Cho argued, but “holy work.”
She said she’s never being exploited as a sex worker, but used the job to find strength and power. Last November, Cho admitted on Twitter that she was a survivor of repeated rape — between the ages of five and 12 by a family friend, then again by an acquaintance when she was 14.
Cho’s passionate defense of sex workers elicited a flurry of responses. Amid women who shared their own stories of abuse were comments from dozens of sex workers on what they feel their industry needs.
The consensus: respect and protection. That means removing the criminality from their work so they can do their jobs and report abuse without fear of retribution.
‘To try and legislate us out of existence – it’s just not going to happen’
One of Scott’s clients first came to her seeking solace weeks after his wife died of cancer.
“He just lay in my bed, holding me while he cried. And then he talked about how much he loved his wife and how the house is now cold and dark when he gets home from work.”
Scott says she truly enjoys her job. It allows her to set her own hours and fees. She also chooses her clients, many of whom have become regulars. Some she’s seen for 20 years. “That’s longer than some marriages,” she points out.
But she feels sex workers are left “in the closet,” hidden the way gay and lesbian people were decades ago.
“We are an entire group of people. To try and legislate us out of existence – it’s just not going to happen. It won’t work.”
At a recent TEDx talk in Toronto, Scott proclaimed:
“We are everyone and everywhere. We are regular human beings who do ordinary, everyday things.”
“We have spouses, children and pets. We are at the PTA meetings and we are soccer moms.”
READ MORE: Prostitution laws around the world
Same goes for the people paying for sex.
“They are your colleagues, your neighbours, your uncles, your brothers, your fathers and your husbands,” Scott said.
“They are doctors, academics, teachers, off-duty policemen, restaurant owners, computer programmers, musicians and accountants.”
‘It’s important … that sex workers get brought to the table’
The incoming Liberals haven’t said yet what their plans are for Canada’s prostitution laws.
We still don’t know which lucky cabinet minister will be in charge of this file, along with numerous other legislative hot potatoes facing the new government.
Scott wants new legislation replacing Bill C-36, modelled after New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act.
That 2003 law decriminalized prostitution and entrenched sex workers’ rights in the human rights code, Scott said. Sex workers had to pay income taxes and violence against them decreased.
One key legal component Scott wants is a limitation on brothel sizes. That way sex workers would be more likely to afford their own brothel and could receive the majority of the profits, rather than “a strip club owner or corporation” controlling their livelihood.
WATCH: Vancouver lawyer Brenda Belak talks about why the Liberal government should repeal the law governing sex work in Canada
It would take months to craft new legislation to replace Bill C-36. If the bill’s repealed right away, that would likely let sex workers communicate publicly, decriminalize the purchase of sex and lift a ban on advertising sexual services, Pivot says.
Scott knows any change will take time. But when it does come, she wants to make sure she and her colleagues have a say in how they’re governed.
“It’s important that if they do want to change the law it’s of paramount importance that sex workers get brought to the table in a meaningful way. Because we are the experts of our own business.”