In Memorandum: Wendy Babcock (1979-2011)

Law students like to think the have it rough.  But some of us have it rougher than others, especially those of us that took the less traveled road to law school.

This evening The Star announced that Wendy Babcock was found dead yesterday in her home.   Wendy would have entered her third year of law school at Osgoode Hall this Fall.  She gained notoriety given her background as a homeless teenage prostitute (she would say “sex worker”) before entering law school.

Third-year students expressed frustration today after Toronto area articling position offers closed when many were still waiting for a job.  Wendy recently asked me whether she should consider changing her name for law firm applications, because she was apprehensive about what law firms would think about her background.   The Eye Weekly once did a piece on her entitled, “All that she can’t leave behind,” and I responded that her experiences were what made her special.

Knowing the advocacy work that I’ve been involved in she also questioned my career path, asking me why I wasn’t practicing human rights law.

Wendy will live on in memories, and through the social media footprint she’s left behind (her “memoranda”).  Coincidentally, I just viewed this TED video earlier today:

Here are some of the sites you can find out more about Wendy:

Wikipedia Page

Facebook Fan Page

CBC Interview

Personal Blog

From the Stroll to Law School


Wendy Babcock – a site created post-mortem by her friends

And finally, here is her last note posted on Facebook, giving us some insight into a controversial subject currently being deliberated by the Supreme Court of Canada in Bedford v. Canada:


Can A Person Be A Sex Worker Rights Activist While Not Enjoying Sex Work Themselves? (ROUGH DRAFT)

by Wendy Babcock on Wednesday, 03 August 2011 at 19:28

I have to get something off my breasts… er… I mean chest. At the risk of offending the pro sex positive feminist movement (which I have no inclination of doing) I have to admit that as a sex worker rights activist, and more so a former sex worker, I have never enjoyed sex work. In fact I am remorseful that sex work is how I lost my virginity, I regret that at 15 I entered sex work, and I despise the fact that I learned about my sexuality through sex work while the majority of other girls my age were discovering theirs in the school yard – usually with kids their own age.

For me, sex work was something I did to survive to get me through the years when I was homeless and too young for a full-time job, general welfare, youth shelters, and food banks. I did NOT engage in sex work because I wanted to express my sexuality, bring pleasure to others, or any of the other reasons pro sex feminists have for engaging in sex work. Not that I’m condemning them for their choice or suggesting that their decision was not a well thought out choice to engage in sex work. I’m just saying that my reasons for being involved in sex work were different. How could I have gone into sex work for any of those aforementioned reasons without first discovering my own sexuality – let alone be comfortable with it? Hell, I never even kissed another person before I headed out to my first call in Mississauga to meet a business man who would pay me money for my virginity. I did not enjoy sex work as a teenager nor did I enjoy it as an adult. There was always the fear of a bad client, a broken condom, and the judgment of johns regarding my appearance (which includes having a few too many of them comment on my stretch marks, cellulite, and a whole slew of other insecurities that unfortunately we as woman must deal with – thanks to the airbrushing of models in magazines like Vogue, Glamour and Maxim), which would be reviewed and commented on by many “johns”. I didn’t enjoy the stigma, the fact that I had to hide my profession for fear of being socially isolated, teased, and worse – arrested.

Had I enjoyed sex work I wouldn’t have quit doing sex work and taken a job that didn’t require me to be sexual with the people I serviced when the opportunity presented itself. Yet I still consider myself to be a sex worker activist, one that promotes the decriminalization of prostitution. And do I think that not getting pleasure from sex work diminishes or sets the sex worker rights movement back? Hell no, in fact I believe it enhances it. Yet our voices are not heard in the sex worker rights movement, as it is universally falsely believed that current or former sex workers who dislike their previous or current occupation have no place in the sex worker rights movement.

I remember when I first got involved in sex worker rights and was a naively impressionable young woman. I did a talk show for AM 680 (the Bob Oakley Show) and when I mentioned that I didn’t like sex work myself I was chastised by fellow activists. “How will anyone understand why decriminalization is important if you keep telling interviewers that you don’t like sex work?” “Don’t tell people you don’t like sex work, if you want to do that you have no business speaking for sex worker rights” and “You are discounting everything other sex worker rights activists are saying!”

Stunned and not wanting to upset anyone as I felt really passionate about the need to decriminalize sex work I kept my mouth shut about my true feelings and instead pretended that sex work was this revolutionary way for me to reach my true sexual potential. And please don’t get me wrong, it is for some sex workers, for those sex work can be freeing, empowering, and a slap in the face to the misogynistic notion that men are the ones with the sexual power and women should just submit.

However, not all of us sex workers feel this way. In fact in my 8 years of working with street involved sex workers very few expressed that this was the way they felt as many of them were survivors of violence, ripped off by clients, faced arrest and were harassed on a regular bases. Many of them did not feel represented in the sex worker rights movement. This is an absolute shame as if anyone, ANYONE should feel they belong in the sex worker rights movement it’s the street sex workers who face the brunt of criminalization, social isolation, stigma, and discrimination. Yet, when sex worker rights are talked about it is usually the overtly privileged sex workers, the high end sex workers, the ones who chose sex work as a legitimate occupation over other employment choices that they could have made. These are the sex workers who work in safer environments, the ones who work independently who don’t have to give any of their earnings over to a boyfriend or agency, the ones who work from their own or shared establishments, the ones who have the luxury of choosing where, when and who they work with. These do not tend to be the sex workers who see sex work as their only means of survival – who don’t have (or are not aware) of other employment options. So then, why if it is street involved sex workers who feel harshest effects of criminalization not heard when it comes to the question of sex worker rights and decriminalization?

I can’t answer that question, for I do not know the answer. What I do know is that we, while acknowledging my own privilege at having my voice heard in this movement, as allies for the sex worker rights movement have an obligation to our brothers and sisters who face a much higher rate of isolation than us must embrace sex workers that do not feel that they would stay in sex work if given the opportunity to be employed in another profession.

Back to my question, Can A Person Be A Sex Worker Rights Activist While Not Enjoying Sex Work Themselves? I say, ABSOLUTELY! Just because a person does not enjoy sex work does not mean that they have nothing to add to the decriminalization debate. Since when does not liking your job mean that you can’t (or shouldn’t) speak up against the barriers that make your trade MORE unenjoyable – even distasteful? Personally, I believe that any debate about sex worker rights should be more diverse than just between the people who utterly despise the profession and want it criminalized to the people that love their profession and want it decriminalized to include the people who neither like it nor avoid it but can justifiably see that things still need to change. There is nothing worse than hating your job and feeling like you have no voice in changing things. Worse still, if you hate your job, the isolation, stigma, criminal records, and other legal repercussions (such as fearing custody of your children, ability to retain status in your chosen country, etc.) does nothing to assist those sex workers who would prefer to leave the profession. I may have disliked providing sexual services for money but that shouldn’t disclude my voice (or others) that the laws that keep sex workers working underground. Personally I think ALL voices need to be heard. What do you think?

17 Comments on "In Memorandum: Wendy Babcock (1979-2011)"

  1. It’s a shame that she passed away while so young and ambitious. But I just don’t understand her angle on Sex Workers Rights – not in the least! I mean, if you don’t like something – why defend it? What does it matter if others feel empowered by their trade…I mean, she was in dissatisfied by her work and essentially, defending her right to be dissatsfied. It’s so counterintuitive that I can only imagine how torn she must have been.

    It’s comparable to disliking gambling but defending the right to gamble even if it was the bane of your existence. wt…?

    I just don’t get it. With all due respect, she is so much more valuable than a Sex Worker. Anyway, RIP Wendy. I hope your life will be a lesson to those who knew you.

  2. Sarah — you need to read the last paragraph again.

    “Since when does not liking your job mean that you can’t (or shouldn’t) speak up against the barriers that make your trade MORE unenjoyable – even distasteful?”

    Gambling is a poor comparison because a) it is not work and b) it is legal and there are plenty of social/governmental supports for people with gambling problems.

  3. I’m deeply sorry that Wendy is dead.
    I knew her very well for some time.
    Wendy was a liar, and I caught her in many, many contradictory lies about her childhood. One day she was just dropped off by her mom and dad in DT TO to fend for herself, the next she was a runaway who couldn’t take it anymore. At breakfast she had never been a sex worker herself but she believed passionately in their rights, at lunch she was an ex-dominatrix, and at dinner she’d been an abused child prostitute.
    Her “abusive” parents sent her cash cheques for Christmas and she in fact spoke with them often. I too heard all the stories about her childhood… but unlike you, I also witnessed her conversations with them in present-day, and though she certainly had a mocking disdain for them and their values, her one-on-one interactions with them told a very different story. I think her parents were confused what to make of the adult Wendy, but I don’t know them well enough to say.
    She was never a bad person – ever. She was very confused and possibly mentally ill. She channeled her energies towards positive causes, and if those energies were sometimes destructive, I don’t blame her for that. Confusion gets the best of us all, myself included.
    I have no ill will against her, regardless of how it may seem. Had she called me to announce intentions of suicide, I would have talked to her all night long. I’m sorry she’s gone and I hope she has found peace and I hope her most beloved hopes for the world will come true.

  4. Wendy confused voices being heard in the media with the work being done in the courts to strike down 3 laws that harm all prostitutes. It makes no difference whether a “survival sex worker” or high end escort employed by an agency, a dissatisfied prostitute or happy prostitute gets a media interview. The laws apply to all across the board no matter what their circumstances or personality. Her blog above sadly confused the issue of prostitution in the Criminal Code. Had Wendy actually attended more classes at law school she would have understood the power to change the law is in the courts, not in the media interviews.

    Sara T., Wendy had one thing right. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that you think it should be entered into the Criminal Code of Canada. If someone doesn’t enjoy for example, gay or oral sex that doesn’t mean they think it should still be in the Criminal Code of Canada.

  5. To Sara:
    There is a difference between supporting sex work and supporting sex workers rights. She is not claiming that women should go into sex work but that the women who do (and especially the ones who do it out of necessity) deserve more respect than that which is currently given them, and at the very least, decriminalization.

    Many people have jobs that they dislike. As people of privilege, we might ask, “Well why do they do it in the first place?” but of course we do not know their story. But I surely hope you agree that just because they do not like their jobs and do not have the ability to get a better job, they still deserve the workers rights that are afforded to them in their country of work. And that taking away these rights and allowing them to be abused is not doing anyone any good.

    As for the criminality of sex work, the exchange of money for sex is legal in Canada but the communication of such exchanges are illegal. The current enforcement of this decreases the safety and dignity of sex workers while having little effect on the rate of transactions. Also, focusing on criminalizing the workers and not those who pay for sex work reenforces the power imbalance towards the male, wealthy, and privileged.

    Lastly, “With all due respect, she is so much more valuable than a Sex Worker,” is NOT respectful. This is the problem…

  6. I love this article for a number of reasons, the most glaring is that it speaks to my experience in the sex workers rights movement. I too did not enjoy much of my time in the trade, but am ardently passionate about it not being crappier and about people being allowed to make choices. It IS like fighting for the right to gamblem when one doesn’t like gambling. Or how about fighting for freedom of speech even though one finds what many say to be hurtful?

    The other thing I know is that my experience is not everyone’s experience, therefore my work in this movementr is not about me, or my experience. It is about everyone.

    Wendy was carved out the shape of herself in the political landscape in Canada. I am very sorry that she’s gone. She will be remembered for everything she did.

  7. also, Omar, if “she would say sex worker”, why do you insist on using “prostitute?”

  8. i don’t really see the contradiction in her not liking sex work but believing people should be free from social and legal repercussions if they want to, or feel the need to, engage in the industry to pay their bills.

    She’s defending the right of women and men to be sex workers without being punished or having to live in fear of the various repercussions. She wasn’t defending her right to be dissatisfied so much as defending her right to be free of state and social persecution for her work.

  9. Sara T, I disagree with your position, but I will always fight for your right to express it. Maybe that’s how Wendy saw her cause.

  10. I disagree entirely, Sara T. Workers who hate their jobs but have little or no other choice to continue in those jobs should absolutely defend the rights of themselves and their fellow workers. Some of the reasons she listed for disliking the work include violence, threat of arrest and customers who don’t pay. Decriminalization would open up opportunities to help to alleviate these and other problems. This doesn’t mean that workers will then love sex work, but it does mean that it would be less terrible for a large number of people. Also, gambling is an addiction, not a means for survival and consequently not an adequate comparison.

  11. Sara, it is not like disliking gambling because the majority of the time gambling is not how people support themselves.

    You can dislike a job, but still believe that the job should be safe and people who do the job should be free from stigma. You can dislike sex work but not dislike sex workers. You can care about working conditions without enjoying the work. Even more general – you can care about other people’s rights without having any intention of exercising those rights yourself.

    I never knew Wendy, but I think she was probably pretty inspirational to a lot of sex workers because she stood beside what she did, acknowledged it and made her struggles visible. I think she was probably pretty valuable AS a sex worker.

  12. Joyce Arthur | August 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm |

    Ohmigod! What a disrespectful and hateful comment by Sara T. Sex workers are not “valuable”?! They are human beings with rights and dignity, no different than you or anyone else. Actually maybe better, since many of the strongest, savviest, sweetest people I know are sex workers.

    There’s nothing at all contradictory in defending something you don’t like yourself – it just requires empathy for the rights and experiences of others. And insight – i.e., that one’s own dissatisfaction or negative experience does not have to impugn all of sex work which is extremely diverse, and that decriminalization can help ameliorate some of the worst conditions.

  13. While I think this post is intended (and in most aspects is) respectful, there seems to be a suggestion that Ms. Babcock committed suicide in response to Call Day for articling interviews. There is no evidence of this even being a motivation and, in any event, as we all should know, it is simplistic and, frankly, wrong to suggest that a person’s decision to kill him or herself has a “cause”. It is not as if some particular event is a trigger. Ms. Babcock, like many people in our society, suffered from mental health related issues and had previously attempted suicide. Reinforcing the myth that suicide is precipitated by a single traumatic incident (especially where there is no evidence that Ms. Babcock, an activist, even applied to traditional articling positions or that she would have been rejected had she) does not help and I hope this post will be modified to reflect its true intention, which is to be a respectful acknowledgement of someone who was a great Canadian.

  14. Michael – my reference to law jobs was only for the purposes of sharing my last conversation with her, and to highlight that some law students like Wendy deal with far more significant issues than the petty concerns that many others occupy themselves with. We simply don’t have the information as to what the cause(s) may or may not have been.

    Megan – the inclusion of both terms helps avoid ambiguity, and at the same time highlights issues around the terminology.

  15. Sara,
    “she was more valuable than a sex worker”
    ?? Seriously?

    I believe her blog post explains very well why she pushed for the decriminalization of sex work. For some people, sex work is all sorts of awesome. For others, it may be the decision that makes the most sense at that particular time but is a way to make money that they do not enjoy, wish to exit, despise etc. Regardless, all sex workers suffer from the criminalization of sex work, the lack of labour rights, the lack of police protection, the stigma, etc.

    As a teenager, I worked in a factory, operating a machine. It really sucked, I kept hurting myself, I was always cold, covered in bruises and cuts, little pieces of metal incrusted in my fingers, etc. I hated it so much that, one day, I dropped a heavy bucket full of metal pieces on my foot to get out of a shift. Should we drop the whole ‘fighting for factory workers’ rights’ because factory work is terrible? No, we should fight even harder for working conditions to be improved, for management to be fair and for people’s rights to be respected. Same goes for sex work. The laws as they stand now feed stigma (‘better than a sex worker’.. can’t really get over that one..), enhance the risk of violence, push the industry underground which then opens the door to the worst of the worst in terms of exploitation, unethical managers, agressors, etc, eliminate the potential for sex workers to benefit from police protection, something that does not fall into deaf ears(check out Gary Ridgeway or Pickton), further marginalization, etc.

    From what I understand reading her blog post, this is why Wendy was fighting fiercely against the criminalization, stigmatization and marginalization of sex workers..

    Conversations about the meaning of prostitution in a capitalist, patriarchal, mysoginistic world (as sex work does not happen in a vacuum – for some people sex work is empowering or challenges assumptions about certain sexualities, etc. For others, sex work reinforces these systems. Maybe these two truths coexist) need to be happening. But not at the expense of sex workers.

    Wendy’s life will indeed be a lesson for others. And that, because of her cleverness, her empathy, her tireless work, her generosity, her analyses, her contribution to the community, etc. Rest in peace Wendy.

  16. To Reason, who posed on August 11th, 2011 at 2:41 pm:

    It is distasteful to speak ill of the dead. But to do so on the internet behind the wall of a pseudonym, is downright cowardly. Your username is not well-chosen, as it is not reasonable to make passive aggressive ad hominem jibes about the intellect or academic tenacity of those you disagree with. Even less so when that person is not able to respond.

    I have accordingly given your post no weight, and I hope other readers likewise disregard it.

    As to Ms. Babcock’s question, I would have granted her an articling interview under her real name without question. I didn’t know her, but was very sad to hear of her death. May she rest in peace.

  17. jon kennedy | March 22, 2012 at 6:50 am |

    Much as it is not good to talk bad about the dead,yet the records must be put straight.mis wendy might have a good reason for defending th right of sex workers,but the fact that she committed suicide rubbishes whatever good intension she had, i wish God will have mercy on her soul.

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