If you haven't been keeping up with the politics and legislation surrounding sex work, then this month's inappropriate blowout between MP Arnold Viersen and New Democrats' Laurel Collins may come as a surprise to you.
What might surprise you even more is MP Collins' political take on sex work as a whole, and her willingness to talk with us (yay, Slixa!) about her views.
"I have spoken at length with sex workers I know," stated Collins, in an interview with Slixa.com, "about their life experiences, and the damage that stigma does. It increases violence and it increases risk, and the laws of Canada, currently, really make their lives more dangerous." She's not wrong. Canada presently enjoys a modified Nordic Model of decriminalization that does little to help or advocate for providers, and instead criminalizes the buying of sexual services. Canada is also experiencing an unprecedented increase in so-called “rescue industry” organizations, littering the landscape with manipulative PR campaigns and unsourced statistics, in endless efforts to fear monger their goals into reality.
“My motivation for speaking out comes from hearing from sex workers about the work they do. Additionally, sex trafficking is a serious issue that needs to be tackled, but the two should not be conflated.”
But, first, let’s look at what happened between Collins and Viersen during parliamentary debate:
Viersen (already infamous for both his questionable views on pornography, and... whatever this is) and the New Democrats’ Laurel Collins were debating a motion calling for a review of the National Parole Board after a murderer on day parole allegedly killed sex worker Marylene Levesque in Quebec City earlier this year. MP Collins asked Viersen to consider whether previous Conservative legislation criminalizing many elements of the sex trade in Canada could have possibly been a factor in the death.
Which is when MP Viersen asked Collins whether sex work was an area of work she’d personally "considered." His objective allegedly to somehow show that sex work isn’t a career choice like any other. “I would just respond to that by asking the honourable member across the way if it’s an area of work that she has considered," he said and argued that his question itself somehow “makes the point.”
While the comment itself was immediately deemed "unparliamentary," and Viersen apologized shortly thereafter, the incident is representative of a larger disparity of understanding in Canada around the issues of human trafficking and consensual sex work.
Much of this debate stems from The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, S.C. 2014, c.25, which, in Nordic Model jargon, "create(s) an offence that prohibits purchasing sexual services or communicating in any place for that purpose;"– among other things.
Longtime Slixa Girl and Torontorian Isobel Andrews clapped back hard in an eloquent and thorough open letter addressing Viersen directly and explaining exactly what he seemed to misunderstand:
"When you conflate sex trafficking and sex work, you propagate ignorance. You presume that sex workers are all victims and have no agency, and that we cannot possibly think for ourselves. But this is because you refuse to listen to us. You neglect the real needs of thousands of sex workers in Canada by ignoring our lived experiences as sex workers, and as human beings.
You create an ineffective legal system with laws under the guise of “helping victims” that that in fact end up being very, very harmful to sex workers. I’m sure if Marylène Levesque and Vanessa ‘Petit Pied” were still alive, they’d agree. These women, and many others, are dead because Canada’s laws surrounding sex work are killing them.”
The offhand comment that MP Viersen made demonstrates not only his personal inability to differentiate between trafficking and sex work, but also the cavalier attitude with which disgust, degradation, and unfair treatment of sex workers is handled – even, and possibly especially, within the walls of Parliament.
Laurel Collins, the target of Viersen's ‘unparliamentary’ remarks, is a longtime activist and former educator who has made her stance on sex worker advocacy clear; her platform at this contentious debate was specifically to bring attention to the recent deaths of two providers.
From Collins’ remarks on the Parliament floor: "I would ask the honorable member to consider listening to the voices of sex workers. Sex workers are saying that sex work is work. I also ask the honorable member if he considers the Harper Government's decision to implement Bill 36, which criminalizes the work environments and the establishments that workers go to to feel safe… if he acknowledges that this is a factor in this death, and many others."
Despite MP Viersen’s willful ignorance, Collins feels like her caucus understands the significance of rights and safety issues around sex work in Canada. “In my NDP caucus, there is a large amount of support and urgency surrounding sex worker advocacy. Randall Garrison has been in the House speaking up about these issues, and he sits on the Justice Committee. He’s an advocate for sex worker rights and safety. I’m so grateful he’s able to do this work.”
As for what happened on the Parliamentary floor, Ms. Collins had this to say:
“Immediately after Arnold Viersen made the ten minute speech that framed sex work as amoral – that framed sex work using the same stigmatization that workers face in our society (and that in my opinion, increases danger for workers) – after he made that speech, and after I came back and questioned him on it, he made that ridiculous comment that was harmful to women and sex workers and anyone who cares about that justice.”
But it was quickly proven to be a more Viersen-specific view than one might suspect: “after that, people from multiple parties came up to me and said they did not approve of what he said-- an overwhelming majority of people said they believe we need to be doing more to support sex workers.
“In my opinion, he doesn’t understand the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. It’s extremely dangerous and harmful to have an elected official speaking in this way.”
So what’s next? What does she want the folks of Slixa to know?
“I think there is an opportunity for us to take this national conversation and continue it, as well to do some advocacy within our liberal colleagues, who should be taking action on this. We’ve seen and heard conversations in the past but we need to make sure they are making good on their commitments.
It’s the conversations I had after Mr. Viersen’s comment that lead me to believe that there is an opportunity to continue moving forward. To me, it seems like common sense that if we want to fight for justice and human rights, we need to speak for sex worker rights as well.”
Truth to power, Ms. Collins.