The body of Marylène Levesque was discovered in a Quebec City hotel room on January 22. At the time of her death, she had been working as an escort. The man charged with her murder, Eustachio Gallese, was sentenced in 2006 for murdering his partner in 2004, but had nonetheless been permitted by his parole officer to meet women “for the purpose of responding to [his] sexual needs.” In a country where buying sex remains criminalized, the state tacitly encouraged a man guilty of femicide to patronize sex workers. His perceived “sexual needs” outweighed a young woman’s life.
In the weeks since it happened, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Levesque’s death — one of two murders of Quebec sex workers in as many days in late January. I’m a sex worker, and in the course of my job I’ve followed men I didn’t quite trust into hotel rooms, surreptitiously clocking exit routes while grimly aware I’d be unlikely to best any of my clients in a physical altercation. Levesque’s murder ressembles a sequence of events that I’ve imagined countless times since getting into this line of work — the worst-case scenario that remains in the back of my mind, even when I’m meeting regulars.
For Levesque, Gallese was a regular. Out on day parole since March 2019, he’d visited her several times at the massage parlour where she worked, before being banned from the establishment for behaving aggressively toward other women employed there. This, it seems, was why he and Levesque were in private that evening in January, meeting at a hotel in the suburb of Sainte-Foy. Or why, in the words of Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham, “Lévesque [sic] made the mistake of meeting him at a hotel.”
It’s clear that, like many others responding to this case, Bramham was struck by the question of why a woman in Levesque’s position would agree to be alone with a blacklisted client. Like many others, she took this for an error in judgement — unmistakable victim-blaming, but one can see how someone without personal experience in the industry might come to that conclusion.
On a whim, I emailed Bramham to politely explain why her formulation struck me as unjust. She responded promptly and at some length, assuring me the sentence in question “wasn’t a criticism of sex workers.”
“Canadian women live in a violent society with too few protections and the mistake that we all make is that too often we forget that or don’t want to believe it,” Bramham wrote. She herself, she said, makes a point of not meeting interviewees in their homes “out of an abundance of caution.”
Now, here’s the thing. The sex industry encompasses a dizzying range of jobs, identities and experiences, and speaking in generalities is a cardinal sin of sex work discourse. That said, no sex worker who has ever been alone with a client lacks an awareness of their own vulnerability to gendered violence. Many of us navigate high-risk situations routinely, not out of carelessness or naiveté, nor because, as anti-prostitution campaigners often imagine, we are all being coerced by traffickers and pimps. On the contrary, the socioeconomic reality in Canada today is such that a sex worker knowingly walking into a dangerous situation might very well be making a considered and pragmatic choice.
To be clear, I didn’t know Levesque, and I don’t wish to speculate about her personal circumstances or motivations in meeting with Gallese; however, I can feel neither surprise nor disapproval at her decision. She was a sex worker who took a calculated risk, in a country where the forces of criminalization and economic need have combined to make them par for the course in our line of work.
Because sex work is, after all, work. It’s something people engage in in pursuit of a decent income. This simple fact, as authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith point out in their excellent 2018 book “Revolting Prostitutes”, is often overlooked, either for reasons of political expediency by advocates of criminalization, or, as the authors write, “because sex workers are stigmatised to the extent that their motives are pathologized.”
Difficult or inconvenient though it may be to imagine, sex workers work for the same reasons as everyone else: to cover rent and utility bills, support dependants, buy groceries and medication, pay off student loans and credit cards, and offset the myriad other burdens capitalism places on people who must work to live.
The problem is that if you’re relying on your next client to make rent for the month, or refill a prescription you need in order to function, you have a strong incentive to be less selective about who that client will be than you might otherwise like. To accept someone who might make you uneasy — or have been aggressive to workers you know. To let him set the terms of the encounter: where it will happen, what you’ll do, etc.
Again, I’m not suggesting this is what happened in Levesque’s case, but that the dynamic whereby economic need exacerbates the already significant power imbalance between worker and client is very real, and contributes significantly to sex workers’ vulnerability to violence.
Criminalization tips the scales against us still further. Proponents of the so-called Nordic Model of criminalization, which Canada adopted in 2014 through Bill C-36, claim it only targets the “demand” for commercial sex (i.e. clients) rather than the workers supplying it. In reality, this is far from true: Under Bill C-36, any space regularly used for sex work is illegal, and anyone (including workers themselves) found to be managing such a space is guilty of brothel-keeping.
This means that if, for example, a client behaves aggressively at a massage parlour, workers there will be reluctant to alert the police for fear of losing their workplace and the safety in numbers it affords. It also means the pool of potential clients is limited to those who don’t mind risking a conviction; to quote Mac and Smith, “The clients who remain are disproportionately likely to be impulsive, drunk or violent: those with less to lose.”
Simply put, and contrary to the belief of Gallese’s parole officer, clients don’t need to buy sex nearly as much as workers need to sell it. Thus, while the potential rewards of sex work can be very high (much higher, for example, than those of a minimum wage job), workers experiencing economic need and navigating criminalization have a strong interest in adapting to their clients’ wishes, even at a cost to their safety. Without financial security and legal spaces in which to work, they lack the ability that, say, a Vancouver Sun columnist might have to set the terms of their own labour.
While financial precarity and criminalization both widen the margins of what many sex workers might consider acceptable risk while on the job, however, and while we know this can leave them exposed to violence, it’s difficult to reliably ascertain how often such violence occurs.
According to Statistics Canada, 294 sex workers in Canada — 96 per cent of whom were women — were murdered between 1991 and 2014. The real number is almost certainly higher, however, because yet another function of criminalization is that most people who work in the industry are strongly incentivized to hide that fact. (Depending on her social position and the nature of her work, a sex worker outed in Canada could face criminal charges, detention, the seizure of her assets, eviction, and, for migrant workers, deportation.)
What we do know is that sex workers are more likely than civilians to be killed by someone guilty of multiple homicides, and that their murders are more likely to remain unsolved. Both of these statistics point to a systemic disregard by law enforcement for violence against sex workers, even in cases where that violence is admitted to have taken place at all.
As I mentioned earlier, Levesque was only one of two Quebec sex workers killed in one 48-hour span. The second was Vanessa Primeau, who died on January 23 after being locked in a garage which was then set on fire. Despite reports (albeit unconfirmed by police) that the garage was locked from the outside, with no other ways in or out of the structure, her death has not yet been labelled a homicide and remains under investigation.
Of the two cases, Levesque’s has received exponentially more media coverage, with news of her murder even reaching as far as the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. In stark contrast, Primeau’s death was met with what sex workers’ advocacy group Stella called “the complete silence of media and authorities.” A posthumous profile in Le Devoir, francophone Canada’s paper of record, mentions Levesque’s “great beauty” and “ravishing smile.” The paper has run 13 articles about her death to date. There is currently no mention of Primeau on their website.
This is no accident. Unlike Levesque, Primeau had been a street-based worker who frequented shelters. She was not killed in a suburban hotel, but in an alley in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a heavily working-class neighborhood on the front lines of the fight against gentrification. As a result, Levesque’s death represented more of an aberration in the public eye than Primeau’s.
According to the logic of capitalism, the carceral system is supposed to ensure the safety of beautiful young women, not let murderous felons loose on them. Violence is supposed to take place in the back alleys of poor neighborhoods, not intrude into sleek, middle-class hotels.
Primeau’s murder and the Canadian public’s indifference to it demonstrate the extreme degree to which more marginalized sex workers are rendered not only vulnerable but invisible. The same dynamics of class- and identity-based oppression that can make sex work the most viable career path for a subset of women also create a paradigm wherein the bodies and lives of certain workers are valued more highly than others’, not only by clients but by society at large.
To give a practical example, this means a woman experiencing homelessness will have immense difficulty finding conventional employment because of the deeply entrenched classism inherent in our jobs market. Finding a job that will allow her to support herself will be still more difficult; minimum wage across Canada is far from livable. Sex work may well be this woman’s most promising opportunity to attain a measure of agency and financial security.
Because she is in such dire economic straits, however, she will be particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of criminalization and precarity on her ability to choose better clients and set the terms of her work. This will be all the more true because homeless people in Canada tend to be disproportionately policed, and the scrutiny of law enforcement is likely to scare off all but the most reckless clients. Even when she does manage to find clients, her class position will ensure she’ll earn far less than more privileged workers — those who can invest in advertising, lingerie and perhaps a rented indoor space in which to work.
Building financial stability will be a more difficult and drawn-out process for her, prolonging her vulnerability. Moreover, her life will be devalued for the same reasons as her labour. She will be an exceptionally easy target for a form of violence so normalized that, if she is killed, her death will barely register beyond her immediate community.
Again, I’m not suggesting this is precisely what happened to Primeau, as I’m no more familiar with her life than Levesque’s. It seems safe to assume, however, that she experienced at least some of these dynamics at one point or another.
I have not yet talked about how racism and transphobia can play into the patterns of marginalization and violence I’ve described. This is mainly because, as far as I know, both Levesque and Primeau were white and cis, and I’ve tried to keep my examples as germane to their particular cases as possible. I myself am also white, and cis-passing. To be absolutely clear, though, trans identity, racialization and Indigeneity are all factors that make people disproportionately vulnerable to precarity both within and outside the sex industry. The same axes of oppression that can lead to people relying on sex work to survive also function to make that work more difficult and dangerous.
This is not to say more privileged sex workers are immune to violence, of course. The tide of public outrage that followed Levesque’s death is cold comfort for her community: this supposed concern did nothing to keep her safe.
So where does this leave us? The actions of Gallese’s parole board put the lie to the claim that criminalization is upheld with the interests of sex workers in mind, proving that on the contrary, this country treats all sex workers as disposable. Meanwhile, the deaths of Levesque and Primeau demonstrate that sex workers will navigate and be impacted by this systemic harm and neglect in different ways, depending on who they are.
A brothel worker should in theory be safer than someone working in isolation on the street, but criminalization and economic need can rob her of that safety. The street worker, meanwhile, is already tremendously vulnerable to clients (and police) on many levels, but that doesn’t mean those same forces of criminalization and need can’t exacerbate her situation. If she is Indigenous, or trans, she will likely face violence that is at once more acute and less remarkable to the society around her.
The lesson here is clear: Sex work cannot be understood separately from the structures of economic and social power of the society in which it exists. This is what “sex work is work” truly means: not that sex work is merely “valid” in a hollow, liberal sense, but that it is an inescapably economic phenomenon. And once we understand this to be true, it becomes clear that decriminalization alone will not save us.
Decriminalization will improve labour conditions somewhat, and give certain privileged workers more legal recourse, but it won’t prevent women — especially trans, racialized and Indigenous women — from sliding into desperate economic need. Nor will it eliminate the vulnerability of sex workers who can’t afford to be selective in taking on clients, or eradicate millennia of stigma that frames them as disposable, and street-based workers doubly so.
In New Zealand, home to some of the world’s most progressive legislation on this issue, sex workers are still being abused by the police and murdered by clients. Meanwhile, migrant workers in the local sex industry continue to face a regime of criminalization and state violence.
In short, within the framework of capitalist society, decriminalization will never be more than a flawed preliminary step toward emancipation. We need to decriminalize sex work, but we also needs a jobs guarantee, and a living minimum wage. An end to systemic discrimination against non-citizens. Free education, childcare and access to every aspect of healthcare. More and better social housing. A form of law enforcement that prioritizes community wellbeing rather than the surveillance and control of marginalized people.
The movement for sex workers’ rights must be militantly and uncompromisingly anticapitalist, because while decriminalization may lift some of us up, it will never set all of us free.