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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 June, 2004, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Sex workers of the world unite
By Pauline Mason
In Montreal, Canada

The world's oldest profession is embracing new thinking.

Prostitutes working on the street face the greatest dangers

Sex work is undergoing a belated industrial revolution. Prostitutes from Brazil, France, the US and right across Canada converged on the country's sex capital, Montreal, for 'Turn up the Heat' - the second annual festival of sex worker rights.

Their aim? A new deal for sex workers.

The event is run by the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers. Organiser Jenn Clamen says the group's focus has changed since its inception in 1996.

"In the past, we've focused on issues raised by the anti-prostitution movement; HIV/Aids, exploitation and morality," she says. "This year, we're focusing on our rights; professional standards, health and safety and discrimination."

Union recognition

Ms Clamen has worked as a campaigner in the US, Canada and the UK.

She spent two years working with the London-based International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), which lists among its aims "the right to work on the same basis as other independent contractors and employers and to receive the same benefits as other self-employed or contracted workers".

Carol Leigh, author of The Unrepentant Whore
Carol Leigh - alias Scarlot Harlot - is from a family of political activists

The culmination of Ms Clamen's work in the UK was the IUSW's affiliation last year to the UK's third biggest union, the GMB.

"It gives sex workers a louder voice when campaigning for their rights," she says.

Carol Leigh - alias Scarlot Harlot - is the author of The Unrepentant Whore.

She comes from a family of political activists. Her parents campaigned for socialist worker rights.

Ms Leigh campaigns for sex worker rights in the US and has been working in the industry for three decades.

Pension provision

She is, at a guess, in her early fifties but retirement is a long way off.

"I don't have enough stamps to get a pension yet. I didn't cotton on to paying taxes until much later," she says.

As her Rubenesque figure has become less in demand, she has been able to substitute some of the lost income by writing and producing video documentaries.

But she acknowledges many of her peers may not be so fortunate and face a difficult old age. "If it were legal, we could communicate these things to young women," she says.

In the absence of a change in the law, Ms Leigh is working to change attitudes to tax and benefits in the industry.

"The government doesn't care where the money comes from as long as you pay your taxes. I just put 'entertainer' down as my occupation. It means I have access to the social security system," she says.

Maternity leave

Many younger sex workers remain unconvinced of the benefits of paying tax.

"What's the point of being a prostitute if the government's going to take half your earnings in taxes?" says mother-of-three Zoe Brown.

Zoe Brown
Zoe Brown makes a living now from telephone chat lines

Twelve years ago, Ms Brown was working as a prostitute when she fell pregnant with her first child.

For many sex workers, pregnancy, illness or disability means instant poverty.

Their need to remain within the unofficial economy - undetected by the law - also makes them invisible to other government agencies which could help them in times of need.

Ms Brown had the foresight to save a little of her $700 a day income so she didn't have to worry as much about money.

But she admits it would have been nice to claim her statutory entitlements.

"I could have paid my taxes and all those things but I didn't want to be known by the government," she explains.

Health and Safety

Ms Brown used to work in a brothel. "I was in control. It was a safe and clean environment," she says.

But a police raid put an end to the thriving business.

Ms Brown escaped prosecution that time but decided running a house of ill-repute was too big a risk as a young mother.

She now makes a living from telephone chat lines and her performance art.

Other sex workers are forced out of brothels onto the streets and a much more dangerous environment.


Many at the festival cite the Netherlands as a success story.

Britons spend more on the sex industry than on cinema tickets.

The country has pioneered designated red-light zones and a system for licensing brothels. Some UK local authorities, such as Birmingham, are looking at similar options.

"The law prevents us from conducting our lives in a way that's safest," insists Ms Leigh.

'Decriminaliser le prostitution' says a neon green badge pinned to her ample bosom.

And indeed everyone here agrees that decriminalisation is the best way of guaranteeing sex worker rights.

"Prostitution isn't dangerous in itself," says Ms Clamen, "It's the risks sex workers have to take to avoid the law which puts them in danger."

City supports red light zone plan
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New effort on prostitute nuisance
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09 Jun 04  |  Magazine
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23 Mar 04  |  Scotland
Taiwan sex workers demand rights
06 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Prostitution laws face overhaul
30 Dec 03  |  Politics

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