Victoria sex worker fears for safety in face of new bill

Her typical work day begins around 8 a.m. with a coffee, emails and a sleepy cat on her lap.

“I message people, set up appointments … and probably spend too much time on Facebook,” Cameron Diablo said. “You have to be really disciplined being your own boss.”

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The routine is similar to anyone running a home-based business. She advertises, does her own paperwork and monitors what customers say about her services online.

But she works discreetly from home for her safety, not just convenience.

Diablo is a sex worker. She uses a pseudonym and asks her clients to use a specific etiquette when visiting her residential neighbourhood. “If they knock on the front door, the appointment is over,” she said.

Her supplies include condoms, wipes and fresh sheets. Her work attire includes lingerie “and little dresses I would never wear in my real life,” she said. “And instead of a desk in my office, I have a bed.”

Diablo is among some Victoria sex workers and advocates concerned that prostitution legislation introduced by the federal government last month could make her job even more dangerous and stigmatized.

The proposed legislation makes purchasing sex illegal for the first time in Canada. It also outlaws communicating for the sale or purchase of sex services, advertising sex services in print or online and selling sex anywhere children might be present.

As dozens of academics, former sex workers and social organizations testified at a House of Commons justice committee hearing on the bill last week, Diablo shared her concerns at a downtown cafe.

“I don’t understand how it’s going to be better or safer,” said Diablo, who screens clients through her website, via email and by sharing information with other escorts.

“And I worry about my good clients. They’re supposed to be perverts because their wife died years ago and they haven’t had sex?”

Diablo is frustrated by the perception that sex workers like herself are victims or “troubled people who came from awful circumstances.”

She recognizes that trafficking, addiction and exploitation are a problem in the industry, but said the circumstances that led her to sex work were fairly ordinary.

Diablo grew up on the Island. She started waitressing at 15, travelled through Europe in her early 20s and studied social work.

“After being in the service industry for so long, I wanted to do something more intelligent,” she said. She decided to go to massage therapy school but couldn’t balance studies, work and the mounting debt.

“I got sick of calling my parents for money just so I could pay my $800 rent,” she said. After a bad breakup, she found herself on Craigslist looking in Intimate Encounter — a section of the website for people looking for consensual hook-ups. Instead, she came across an ad soliciting sex work.

“We emailed, he came over, and I made a few hundred dollars,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing but it wasn’t a bad experience. I’ve never had a bad experience. Some gross ones. But thankfully nothing scary.”

After her first encounter, Diablo researched sex work and approached a local agency.

“It was kind of like a job interview. You have to tick off what you’re willing to do and work a minimum of three six-hour shifts a week,” she said, describing the agency as supportive and feminist. “There’s a lot of female camaraderie and looking out for each other. … We even had Thursday potlucks.”

She now works from home and prefers her clients to be men over 30, polite and clean. She has refused clients who asked her to smoke cigarettes, would never consider dating one and is debating one young man’s request to lose his virginity.

“Do I feel OK about that? Hmmm,” said Diablo, who does yoga, doesn’t drink or do drugs and lives with her boyfriend. He knows what she does for a living, as do most of her friends and her parents.

“My mom was not very happy. She said, ‘I’m so sorry I failed you,’ ” Diablo said. Some of her old friends were also upset. “Some see it as a sad existence, but I’m actually the happiest I’ve been.”

She plans to work for 10 years, pay down her loans and save some money. If the new legislation passes, she’ll consider moving to Australia where sex work is legal in some states but heavily regulated.

Like Diablo, Celine Bisette (also a pseudonym) entered sex work via a student debt dilemma.

“Even with some financial assistance from my family, and a job working in retail, I could not afford to pay for all my expenses,” Bisette said. “I wanted to prioritize my education and spend more time studying, but I also needed money to be able to support myself.”

Now in her late-20s with a master’s degree, she stills works as an escort and sees at least one client a week.

“I spend a lot of time managing my business. It takes a lot of time to write ads, update my website and screen clients,” she said.

Bisette blogs about sex work issues. She was offended by the rationale for the new legislation expressed by Justice Minister Peter McKay and Conservative MP Joy Smith.

“I was angry that they were calling people like me victims and trying to speak for sex workers rather than listen to them,” she said. “They claim to care about vulnerable people, yet this legislation will drive the sex trade underground and make sex workers less safe. Criminalizing clients makes it very difficult for us to safely screen them and negotiate with them.”

Bisette argues one of the most damaging stereotypes about sex workers is that they are radically different from other people.

“We are not. We are just people. We come from all walks of life. I am not unlike other women my age. I go jogging, I do yoga, I watch House of Cards, I buy local food at the farmers market.”

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