MSVU prof makes sex worker film

Documentary examines Canadian and global attitudes toward prostitution

Mount Saint Vincent University professor Meredith Ralston is producing her sixth documentary “Selling Sex Globally.” (Photo: Stephanie Directo)

When women's studies professor Meredith Ralston heard a 40-year-old American sex worker say that she chooses to sell sex, she began to understand prostitution in a different light.

It was in April at a sex work awareness seminar in New York City that the Mount Saint Vincent University professor first met Megan Morgensen.

Ralston thinks Morgensen, who has been a sex worker for 18 years in Toledo, Ohio, may be the main character in her sixth documentary "Selling Sex Globally." This is the working title of the film now in pre-production.

Morgensen is so likeable and articulate about why she chooses to do sex work, says Ralston, and can reach those on the fence about sex work.

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The safety of street-based sex workers is being debated after an Ontario ruling struck down many of Canada’s prostitution laws. (Photo: Stephanie Directo)

Ralston herself is on the fence, so she is documenting her own struggle to understand sex work in interviews with sex workers.

"This is kind of my journey about trying to figure out what I think about prostitution."

Shortfalls of the law

Ralston is filming at a time when Canadians are questioning if sex work should be a crime. Last month, an Ontario judge struck down most of Canada's prostitution laws for putting the health and safety of sex workers at risk.

The ruling is on hold while the federal government appeals, but Ralston agrees with the judge. She thinks prostitution laws create risks for the women involved with the negotiation of sex, which is illegal.

The case of Robert Pickton, the serial killer and rapist who targeted street-based sex workers, shows how the laws are not protecting these women. "They might get into cars quicker, they may not really take time to talk to the guy, assess what they think of him, all the safety reasons involved," Ralston says.

Ralston also advocated for the safety of sex workers in a commentary on the ruling in the Chronicle Herald.

"Whatever our personal views of prostitution may be, we as a community through our laws contribute to the continued victimization of women when we criminalize and stigmatize them for sex work," she argued.

The influence of laws on sex work is one of the topics Ralston will focus on in her documentary. She will go to Amsterdam where prostitution is legalized. She will look at the debate in Canada and the United States between those against prostitution and those, like Morgensen, who value sex work.

Connecting with the industry

Ralston is further extending her research to the sex tourism industry in Ghana, where middle-aged, middle-to-upper-class Caucasian women go to solicit sex from young African males.

In Halifax, Ralston relies on Rene Ross, the executive director of the outreach group Stepping Stone, for resources and connections to sex workers in the area.

"Stepping Stone absolutely supports the work of Meredith and her voice has been instrumental in helping to bring attention to the plight of sex workers here in Halifax and globally," Ross says.

Ross cannot wait to see the finished documentary, which is funded by a three-year $167,000 research and creation grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Ralston hopes CBC will pick up her documentary for broadcast.

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