AN INTERVIEW WITH LEAH SHUMKA
May 4, 2016
by Courtney Tait
Leah Shumka is the Executive Director of Peers Victoria, a non-profit organization in Victoria, B.C. that provides services and support to sex workers. She also teaches gender, sexuality, and social justice with the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Victoria, and has 10 years of experience doing empirical research on the sex industry.
I spoke with Leah about some common misconceptions around sex work, the impact of oppressive language used to describe the industry, and why sex work is a feminist issue.
Courtney Tait: For people unfamiliar with Peers, what is the organization’s mission and what services does it provide?
Leah Shumka: Our mission is to provide peer-led, client-centred services to people working in the sex industry. We meet folks where they are at—taking our direction from them in terms of the services we provide. Our programs include an outreach van that goes out seven nights a week on Victoria sex work strolls to provide food, clothing, harm reduction supplies, and referrals to housing and health supports. We also have a daytime drop-in centre where people access similar supports, and at the same time, have a space where they can connect and get the one-to-one social support they need. Our monthly indoor workers group is specifically for people doing sex work out of their homes or one of the city’s escort agencies. Here again, we provide a setting for people to talk and share, and, where appropriate, we provide information to help them navigate their lives in the best way possible. Our approach in terms of all of our programming is rights, not rescue. Meaning, if people want to exit out of the industry, we do what we can to support that. If they like the work and want to remain doing it, we are there to help them do that too.
CT: Can you describe your role? What might you be doing on a given day?
LS: I’m the executive director, which in a small organization like ours, means I do a little or a lot of everything. Primarily I work to ensure we have funding to run the organization—so I write grants and fundraise. I manage and oversee all the programs, and I do a lot of public education (in schools for instance) for organizations that want to learn more about us. I work alongside many other frontline service agencies in the city so that we can respond to the community we serve as effectively as we can. I also do work around sex work activism. The best part of any given day is when I am able to deliver a piece of good news to someone accessing our programming, news that promises to make a tangible improvement in their lives.
CT: Contrary to existing stereotypes, sex work is a diverse industry. Who are sex workers, and what kind of work is included in the term sex work?
LS: The short answer is that sex workers are everyone. They are the people you see at the supermarket and working part-time at the coffee shop. They are with their kids at the park and they are sitting beside you in the university classroom. The majority of people working in the industry in Canada self-identify as cisgender women (approximately eighty-five percent). The remainder of the sex work population is made up of cisgender men and trans* people (unfortunately empirical research has not done a good job to date of properly capturing gender break down beyond the traditional gender binary). The average age of people we serve are in their late 30s, although the industry is a bit younger than this, on average. Indigenous people are over-represented in the industry—in part because of Canada’s colonial history and the legacy of institutionalized racism. In terms of what constitutes sex work, in general it is the exchange between two consenting adults of intimate sexual labour for financial gain (maybe cash, or sometimes gifts, or shelter). This isn’t necessarily clear cut, however. For example, some people see erotic dancing and webcam work as sex work, while others do not.
CT: What are some misconceptions people have of sex workers and the sex industry?
LS: The main ones are that all sex workers work outdoors on the street, are drug-addicted, and disease-ridden. The reality is that while some people work on the street (approximately ten to fifteen percent of sex workers across the country), the majority of sex work happens indoors. And while some folks are substance using, many are not, or do not fit the stereotypes perpetuated through popular media. What’s more, sex workers tend to be well educated about safer sex practices, take those practices seriously, and play a key role in educating their customers. All of these stereotypes are incredibly reductionist, and damaging, and work to stigmatize all sex workers. The result is discrimination.
CT: When did the terms sex work and sex workers (versus “prostitution” and “prostitutes”) come into use, and why?
LS: I can’t say exactly when the terms emerged but they became popular in activist and academic circles around the late ‘80s. One of the reasons behind this shift in language was to separate sex work from the stigmatizing legal term “prostitute” and toward the recognition that the people who do this work are people, doing a job, and are therefore deserving of the same rights and recognition as anyone else. It also coincides with sex positivity, which entered mainstream consciousness around the same time.
CT: I recently heard a guest on a prominent media platform use the word “whorehouse” as a casual reference while making a joke. No one on the show objected or even pointed it out. It seems the public in general has been slow to realize that using this kind of language is not only politically incorrect, but oppressive. Why do you think that is?
LS: Sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist, and sex negative language may seem innocuous to some, but this is usually because they are using it from a place of privilege. It isn’t until you are on the other side of these words that you can begin to understand their negative impact. This is why a shift in language away from “prostitute”, “whore”, and “hooker” toward terms like sex work and sex worker are so important—these terms do not have the same moral judgement and stigma attached to them.
CT: Can you talk about the impact of oppressive language on those who work in the industry?
LS: Words have power. Judith Butler makes this point best when she talks about how “injurious names” can “enter the limbs, craft the gesture, [and] bend the spine”. Her point is that oppressive language lives in the flesh of the people it is addressed toward and accumulates there over time. These words powerfully shape a person’s sense of self-worth, and how they move about the world and interact with others.
CT: From your perspective, why is sex work inherently a feminist issue?
LS: Sex work is a feminist issue because it is largely self-identified women who work in the industry and are impacted by societal views about sex work. It’s a feminist issue because the patriarchal system in which we live has given rise to the sex industry; if more women had more opportunities to have “good” jobs—jobs that were secure and paid a living wage, but were flexible to the demands of children and family—fewer women would undoubtedly do sex work. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that many women choose this kind of work. A core principle of feminism is bodily autonomy and control and so it should be a woman’s right to choose to do what she wants with her body and sexuality. I come from a sex positive feminist position on sex, and by extension sex work. Basically, I support the idea that a woman’s sexuality can be a source of pleasure, strength, and creativity, and we take something fundamental away when we assume women’s sexuality is inherently disempowering.
CT: What is your sense of the current state of how sex work legislation in Canada is affecting sex workers?
LS: Prostitution laws negatively impact sex workers—I can’t say I’ve seen much to prove the contrary. First, there is so much confusion and misinformation about the laws and how they might be applied that many sex workers live in a climate of fear and uncertainty, which means that many never feel “safe” in all the ways that word can be applied. It also means that sex workers feel compelled to hide what they do (the sex industry as a whole is pushed underground) and in turn this means they don’t often take advantage of the social services they have a right to—calling police in the event of a bad date, calling a landlord when something goes wrong in their rental unit, or perhaps giving a doctor a complete personal history that could help in medical diagnosis or treatment. It means that sex workers often feel socially isolated—which can have a huge negative impact on their physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being.
CT: There is a global movement to decriminalize sex work, led by The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). In your view, what would the future of sex work look like, if the industry is decriminalized?
LS: Decriminalizing would move us toward the idea that sex work is a rational work option with identifiable benefits for some people and therefore the people that do this kind of work are entitled to safe and respectful workplaces. If it was no longer pushed to the margins criminally, there would be less exploitation and violence. The hope is that decriminalization, over time, would result in less stigma directed toward sex workers, and the industry as a whole. New Zealand decriminalized almost fifteen years ago and the empirical research on what the effects have been are mixed. By and large, workers appear more safe and feel more empowered to create and demand the workspaces they want, as well as access social services. It is less clear what the impact has been in terms of societal stigma. The moral judgement around sex work is so firmly entrenched, and so insidious in terms of everyday speech, that it will likely take much longer than fifteen years to make palpable change…all the more reason for Canada to move more quickly toward decriminalization, because we have a long road ahead.
Courtney Tait is a Canadian writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Victoria, and crafts and edits content for magazines, online media, and small businesses. On her blog, she shares reflections on life, interviews with people of all kinds, and thoughts on travel, books, relationships, and the creative process. You can find her at courtneytait.com.