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All stories Concordia's Mary Anne Poutanen lands the Prix Lionel-Groulx 'I listened to the voices of sex workers from a different era,' says the affiliate history professor. We sat down with Poutanen to find out more about her research. Who were sex workers in 19th-century Montreal? Mary Anne Poutanen: Montreal was a city that was growing rapidly as it moved towards the industrial revolution.
There was a large influx of immigrants arriving. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who led complex lives. Like any other Montrealer, they contributed to the economy and served as ambassadresses to the men who arrived here. What was their relationship with the law? However, not all those charged with prostitution were actually sex workers.
Many were simply drunk in public or homeless and deemed vagrants. In other instances residents would complain about a brothel operating in their neighbourhood. These complaints would be privately prosecuted in front of a justice of the peace. Often the plaintiff would not show up and the charges would eventually be dropped. It was a means to get them in line with what society deemed to be acceptable. What lessons can we extract from this time period?
The same thing needs to be done today. Just as was the case in the 19th century, women who are involved in prostitution are not a homogeneous group living on the margins of society. They are individuals from all walks of life who choose sex work for different reasons. As a society, we need to listen to sex workers so that we can build neighbourhoods and communities with them and not despite them. We also need policies and laws so that the work they do is safer.