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Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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an interview with

Jenn ClamenJenn Clamen is a tireless, sex work activist. Despite a workload that includes giving interviews, public lectures and drafting a constitution for what will be the first Canadian Guild for Erotic Labour, she found time to answer many of my questions and debunk a few widely held misconceptions on the subject of sex and sex work.


ARTS & OPINION: Who are sex workers?

JENN CLAMEN: Prostitutes, escorts, strippers, telephone sex operators, erotic masseuses. Some dancers don’t consider themselves sex workers because sex work, to many, insinuates prostitution, that is having sex with your clients. Many dancers ‘do not’ have sex with their clients. The term sex work, for many, is purposeful: it encourages a certain level of solidarity amongst people working in the sex industry and it allows sex workers to talk about work. So dancers, as workers in the sex industry, are included in this category because in reality, sex work is not just about prostitution.

ARTS & OPINION: If I understand correctly, stripping is legal and therefore strippers are protected by the laws of the land: prostitutes/escorts are not?

JENN CLAMEN: It is not against the law to sell sex for money. However everything related to the act of prostitution, procurement, soliciting etc, is illegal, which makes prostitution de facto illegal. And yes, sex workers, in theory, are protected by the laws of the land, but that does not mean the laws of the land are applied equally. A sex worker that goes missing will not get the same response as a dentist who goes missing, just as society, in expressing its values, will be more concerned about the missing dentist than the missing sex worker.

ARTS & OPINION: So you would like to see the laws of the land applied equally?

JENN CLAMEN: That and much more. Sex work is work. We want sex work to be regarded as work. Decriminalizing sex work would free sex workers from a criminalized status and remove the stigma attached to their occupation. We want them to be regarded as workers, which means being treated like all other workers, with full rights to negotiate their working spaces and the manner in which they provide their services.

ARTS & OPINION: Such as the rights sex workers have in Nevada, where prostitution is legal?

JENN CLAMEN: Sex work may be legal in Nevada, but it is very restricted. For example, where sex work has been legalized, like in Amsterdam or Nevada, sex workers are sometimes subjected to mandatory STI and HIV tests, while their clients are not. This is not an issue of equality, but of effectiveness because sex workers are only as STI and HIV-free as their next client. It is also hard to negotiate your working conditions when the state has control over your work.

ARTS & OPINION: Why are there so many legal and societal obstacles to the practicing of sex work? Why are most sex workers and their clients ashamed to admit to who they are? Is there perhaps something inherently shameful in what they do? Could it be that when all is said and done, it’s simply not natural for two complete strangers who don’t know each other to fuck, that a biological imperative has been violated?

JENN CLAMEN: Your question(s), and there are many of them, are full of assumptions.

First of all, the legal and societal obstacles to sex work are protectionist mechanisms which prohibit sex workers from working safely. This means that the laws created to protect sex workers in fact end up putting them in danger. For example, the ‘pimping law’ that forbids the sex worker from working with a third party. Most people think this law prevents women from being coerced into the sex trade, but it only prevents them from working in a safer environment that may include the woman and someone other than just the client: it could be someone she has confidence in, someone she trusts, such as a friend, or boss etc.

You raise an interesting bias that most people have about sex work, which is that the work is inherently shameful and that no willing person would work in the sex industry. I don’t think that sex workers and clients are inherently ashamed of what they do. I think society has failed to cultivate a healthy perspective on sexuality and hence imposes a shame on those whose sexual activities deviate from that imposed norm. If and when sex workers do feel shame, I would argue that it is a result of internalized discrimination and the stigma that constantly casts an accusing shadow over the immorality of sex workers’ lives and work. People hold sex up to unrealizable standards where the love component legitimizes sexual relations -- even though we know that a lot of people have sex outside of that limited context.

People approve of sex when it’s an expression of love, or if it passes religious muster, but outside of that, we’ve been taught to be ashamed of sex for sex’s or pleasure’s sake. All that being said, people continue to spend billions of dollars for the kind of sex society frowns upon. This is an unacceptable hypocrisy our sex workers rights movement is trying to bring down, and we feel the first step is to change the laws that criminalize the people who practice what is commonly regarded as ‘deviant’ – that being sex work.

We can look to other changes in the law that will help to change society’s attitude toward sex related issues. Gay marriage is now legal. That doesn’t mean that overnight society is going to approve of gay marriage, but there will come a day -- it will probably take at least a generation -- when the kids born today, for example, will grow up in a society where gay marriage is acceptable so as adults they won’t think twice about it when it occurs. If we as a society are to change our attitudes about the kind of sex that we want to indulge in -- that sex that is not necessarily a component of love, or of a relationship -- the laws must change, because it is the laws that set the tone and inform our values. In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution. This is the first country to take a step in the right direction.

ARTS & OPINION: If sex work is code for casual sex, what kind of message are we sending out if we legalize sex work? Is casual sex a good thing?

JENN CLAMEN: First of all, you are making an assumption about why people frequent sex workers. I would not say that sex work is a euphemism for casual sex, or vice versa, nor would I claim that sex, as an act, is any different in a casual sex relationship between two strangers than it is between a client with a sex worker. The point is, first and foremost, that people who work in the sex industry should not be regarded as criminals. If sex work were decriminalized, that is legitimized, the message sent out would be that people who work in the sex industry are not bad people, and like other workers and all citizens, deserve the same respect and working rights. It’s not that complicated.

ARTS & OPINION: Do you mean if our marriages and intimate relationships were more honest, the sex worker might disappear?

JENN CLAMEN: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I don’t think it’s only dishonest people who frequent sex workers. There will always be a place for sex workers because it’s impossible for one person to satisfy another person’s sexual needs and fantasies.

ARTS & OPINION: Isn’t there something fundamentally degrading when a man, who because of his looks, or quirks, or whatever, cannot attract a woman, and has to pay her to have sex with him?

JENN CLAMEN: One of the biggest myths about clients of sex workers is that they are ugly, pathetic and desperate. A lot of people who frequent sex workers are either married or in relationships. There are many reasons why people seek out sex workers. It could be the kind of sex they want. As far as I’m concerned, better to seek the services of a sex worker than have a partner in a relationship take on a lover in secret. Again, if there is a sense of degradation in sex work I would suggest that this results from a value system that has been imposed on us that makes people feel guilty doing what they want to do. Guilt about indulging in sex is inauthentic guilt.

ARTS & OPINION: Is that what mystifies most of us about sex work, we just can’t get past the idea that sex is what you make of it, that it is not subject to any prior laws or disposition?

JENN CLAMEN: Sex work is mystifying only if you work under the assumption that sex necessarily leads to bonding. Sexual relations facilitate bonding and help sustain a bond, but in and of themselves they don’t constitute the bond that designates a couple. Many sex workers have boyfriends, even husbands. They will tell you that their work is work, and that they haven’t necessarily developed any personal bond with their clients. Again, this depends on the type of service they offer and how often they see the same client because there are a lot of sex workers who will say they bond with their clients. The biggest mistake that people can make is using, as a matter of convenience, a single portrait to define sex workers and/or their clients. This kind of stereotyping usually doesn’t help to further people’s understanding of human nature.

ARTS & OPINION: Can you foresee in the near future when there will be a sex workers’ pride or parade day and/or a sex clients’ pride or parade day? Why hasn't this movement been born yet? And is this an indication of what huge battles lie ahead in getting everyday citizens to respect the profession of sex work and its soldiers?

JENN CLAMEN: How little you know (wink). Sex workers’ pride has been around since the 1970s, when the sex worker rights movement, as a force, was born. It was, however, only recently that March 3rd was named international day for sex workers.

The sex worker rights movement is big and strong, with over 60,000 sex workers in Calcutta alone! A lot of the clients, in fact, take part in the activities and celebrations of sex workers in India. The sex worker rights movement has brought forward in a single voice the just cause of sex work and sex workers rights, and has helped to educate the world at large in demystifying the life and work of the sex worker.

ARTS & OPINION: Thank you, Jenn.

Related Article
Sex Work: Gender-Based Income Redistribution with Honour and Dignity

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