Wearing black high heels, rose patterned tights and a black jacket, Michelle says she is confident with her body.
Michelle—who requested to remain anonymous—has been working as a prostitute for the last three years in Kelowna.
The 26-year-old was addicted to methamphetamine at 17 and had an abusive boyfriend. She decided to move to Kelowna on a whim, after breaking up with him.
Finding herself in debt to a friend and unable to pay it off legally with her job at a nightclub, she turned to prostitution. At first, she worked independently then began working for an agency shortly after.
Michelle loves her job and recommends it, “but it’s not for everyone,” she said, noting her co-workers are generally clean at the agency where she works and are working to get themselves through school.
However those that have worked in the industry and now advocate for women, say Michelle’s story is rare and more women are harmed than find success selling their bodies.
Trisha Baptie, founder of EVE, a non-profit organization which aims to abolish prostitution, said she hears about people like Michelle occasionally, but as a former prostitute herself, thinks it should never be legalized.
“Prostitution isn’t something you engage in and just forget. It’s not like McDonald’s where you’re flipping burgers and you’re giving your labour. To give over your body causes trauma, no matter who you are,” she said.
Baptie also questioned why someone would continue in the service if they are doing well.
“If you have so many options, why are you capitulating men’s entitlement to women’s bodies? How does that help create an egalitarian society?” she said.
“It’s funny how women find acceptability in their body or freedom within their body when it’s done to men’s standards. So all you’re doing is catering to men’s idea of what women’s bodies should look like. What it looks like when we say ‘freedom,’ there’s no analysis of women’s freedom outside of patriarchy.”
Those who choose prostitution are in the minority, she said. The main drivers of prostitution are coercion because of the lack of basic needs.
“We have to realize too, that the women that say they chose it are by in large the minority, so if you know you’re the minority, why are you abandoning the most marginalized and the most vulnerable in the name of your choice?” said Baptie.
“I want to challenge why we think men should be able to pay for sex. I want to know how men paying for sex creates an egalitarian society. I want to make sure the men are arrested before they get in your front door.”
Baptie believes in the Swedish model, which like Canada’s current laws, decriminalizes the sale and criminalizes the purchase.
She says this is only a “partial step” however.
“You need legal ramifications of men’s behaviour, but we also need social supports to help women get out of prostitution and we also need the public education around what prostitution actually is.”
Baptie used Germany as a negative example where prostitution is legal. “They now have brothels where you pay a flat fee and you have 24 hours to do whatever you want to any of the women in there.”
“I don’t want women safer, I want them safe. And having security bust through your door midway through a rape is still a rape,” she said.
(Photo: It is common for prostitutes to market themselves in Kelowna using a web site.)
Angie Lohr, president of Hope Outreach and the House of Hope in Kelowna, disagrees with Baptie, saying the acts are going to happen regardless of the law, so legalizing it will allow the women to have doctor check-ups and holiday pay.
“It’s an industry that’s not going to go away, so we make it into an industry where women can choose that if they want… so why wouldn’t we protect them when it’s already going on behind the scenes?” she said.
In Kelowna, there is currently three massage parlours that are not run by favourable people, she said. Women also have their own websites, using it to advertise themselves.
She also calls on the city and asked why it isn’t doing anything when these massage parlours are obviously brothels.
“I can’t tell you how many girls come to me and say they’re pounded with heroin, all their money is taken away, they’re basically held hostage working 18 hours a day, where else are they going to go?” she said.
Greg Wise, business licensing manager with the City of Kelowna, said there are three businesses that are operating with social escort service licenses and body rub parlour licenses that are subjected to inspections annually in Kelowna.
Employee lists must also be submitted as well as criminal record checks are conducted, he said.
“We have a couple business license categories that could be considered somewhat nefarious, but they nonetheless exist and they are legal to operate,” he said. “Any business in the city has to adhere to general regulatory requirements.”
The city is not aware of any operating brothels at this time, said Wise.
“If we do have some active ones, I can’t comment on that at this time because there may be investigations underway,” he said.
Wise said complaints about illegal brothels may be made to the city or the RCMP.
As far as policing, Kelowna RCMP say their top priority is public safety and they have a vice position within their downtown enforcement unit, whose primary focus is on matters involving sex workers and the National Sex Offender Registry, according to Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey, communications officer with the Kelowna RCMP.
“With respect to enforcement, prevention and education, Kelowna RCMP conducts various measures including: targeted enforcement of individuals seeking services from sex workers through undercover operations, regularly monitoring online websites that offer sexual services in an effort to prevent youth exploitation, outreach with sex workers as we stop and talk with them and checking for suspicious vehicles in the area to address their safety concerns where possible.”
O’Donaghey also said police are participating in a project with community groups to get ‘bad date’ reports where police can be notified anonymously of offences that may be taking place against sex workers.
For Lohr, also a former prostitute who is now dedicated to helping women, she says the situation isn’t going to change so it’s better to legalize it.
“This has gone on for centuries and so it’s going to remain underground forever. The women are going to continue to be abused in not properly run brothels,” said Lohr.
Lohr doesn’t agree with the exploitation that goes on behind the scenes. “If we make it like a real job, then people have a choice to do what they want to do. If that’s what a woman wants to do, why wouldn’t she get holiday pay and CPP.”
Michelle’s circumstances that led to prostitution are not usual, but it does send a woman down a different road, said Lohr.
“That’s usually what sends girls to it. With so many financial responsibilities, you gotta look after kids, going through school, paying rent, they think it’s quick easy money and what could it hurt?”
She said there aren’t enough resources for women trying to get out of the industry, saying she has a woman waiting to get into Deborah’s Gate in Vancouver, but the wait might take four to six weeks.
“It’d be wonderful if the whole world changed and guys could keep their dicks in their pants,” said Lohr. “‘I’m not a man hater, I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but every problem that stems from this is male-related and dominated.”
As for Michelle, she says she is doing it for her future.
“For myself, I’m doing it to save money for my future, because I wasted so much time on meth,” she said. “I feel like I’m a little behind now, so I’m saving up money and going to school.”
She wants to get into criminal law after completing her high school education and has been clean from meth for about four years.
The agency, she says, looks after the women, with security and only performing in-calls, only doing sexual acts inside the brothel. Anywhere from five to 10 women occupy the building at one time, she said.
“That was one of the things that I absolutely hated was the outcalls, it was just so awkward. You’ve got this person’s number and you have to go to this hotel and you’re dressed in this little dress and heels.”
Michelle gets regular check-ups and said wearing protection is mandatory at the agency, which she declined to name. She works 12 hour days which she says a majority of the time is spent napping, watching TV, or eating food.
She makes up to $1,000 a shift, all paid in cash. An hour of her service costs from $250 to $300 plus extras for a “girlfriend experience,” she said.
She found the toughest challenge with her job was coming out to her family.
“My mom and my sister didn’t really get it at first. But then I gave them a good explanation about what it’s like, and they’re OK with it,” she said.
She finds her job to be empowering saying she is more comfortable with her body.
“Before I was ashamed to show different parts of it and now it’s like ‘here I am,’” she said.
She also enjoys paying her own bills and supporting herself.
“I can afford to get my hair done… got some bad tattoos fixed up,” she said.
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