Sex work is among the most dangerous jobs in Canada. But a movement of increasingly-organized sex workers says the dangers they face aren’t inherent to the work. It’s the stigma, myths and criminalization that have made their trade so high-risk.

Jelena Vermilion, a sex worker who is the co-founder and executive director of the Sex Workers’ Action Program in Hamilton, says putting people in conflict with the law makes them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

“It’s not that the work itself is vulnerable,” she told The Breach. “It’s that [the law] fosters situations where exploitation and violence and harm can occur.” 

The federal government is dragging its feet on reform. Trudeau’s Liberals have mostly have not parted ways with laws written by Harper’s Conservatives. And despite the efforts of sex worker activists, organized labour still doesn’t see them as a meaningful part of the working class.

Migrant sex workers face additional risks like deportation, in part because of barriers they face in the job market more generally. Indigenous women have also been particularly impacted by anti-sex work laws, according to testimony shared during the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2018.

Even though current legislation makes it illegal for sex workers to organize, they are building power and mobilizing in cities across Canada. Their struggles have reinvigorated a push to change legislation, and to shift the focus away from influential and well-funded messages about human trafficking and the need for police intervention.

Sex workers led a protest against Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in Montreal. Photo: CUTV Montreal

Fighting for legal change

Over the past year, the Canadian government has been reviewing the 2014 Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) — a law opponents say criminalizes sex work and opens sex workers up to further harm, violence and stigma. 

Normally bills like this are subject to review after a five year period, however, that didn’t happen with PCEPA. The review process was initiated only after public pressure from the Canadian Alliance For Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR), a coalition representing 25 sex work advocacy groups from around the country. In addition, the group filed a constitutional challenge against PCEPA (also known as Bill C-36) last year, and began presenting their arguments to the Ontario Supreme Court this month.

But representatives from the Alliance say the most recent federal meetings on the constitutionality of the law—along with reports the federal government has published as part of their review of PCEPA—are rehashing the same issues brought forward in 2013.

That year, sex workers led a challenge to Bedford vs. Canada, arguing Canada’s anti-sex work laws were unconstitutional. The challengers won, and the laws were unanimously struck down by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Just months after the Supreme Court decision, Harper’s Conservatives enacted PCEPA, putting forth a framework based on the “Nordic Model” that criminalizes clients, advertisers, and third parties—for instance, anyone who helps book, drive, or provide security to a sex worker—while also framing all sex workers as “exploited persons.” 

The third parties criminalized by the law are often members of networks of support that sex workers rely upon and have built as a labour force. Not only does PCEPA characterize sex workers as victims of their own profession, it suggests that any attempt at organizing as the root of that victimhood.

The inability to advertise also forces sex workers to take on potentially more dangerous clients. Criminalizing third parties involved in the process relies on harmful stereotypes like “pimps.” But it also prevents sex workers from organizing alongside one another, or asking non-sex-workers for help with things as simple as making phone calls or booking dates.

“Fundamentally the conversation is just still very peppered with this idea of trafficking being the same thing as sex work,” said Angela Wu, project manager at the Vancouver-based Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN). 

Wu describes the PCEPA hearings as disheartening given that the federal Liberal Party hasn’t considerably shifted away from Conservative policies, as illustrated in its most recent Committee Report

A Canadian Alliance For Sex Work Law Reform campaign image

Undermining agency

Wu’s role at SWAN is centred on helping journalists correct the many myths around sex work and the sex industry, namely the conflation with human trafficking, which is often repeated in the news media. 

This myth is partly responsible for discrimination against immigrant and migrant women, says Wu. She believes the anti-sex work laws that are enacted in the name of preventing trafficking marginalize an already vulnerable part of the labour force. 

While some debate the ethics of sex work, there is a substantial labour force in Canada that is currently being criminalized under existing legislation. Evidence of how many people engage in sex work in Canada is thin, but the existence of more than 25 worker-led organizations indicates it is a considerable number.

Because of the stigma around the occupation, sex workers fighting for their basic labour rights—safety, decent working conditions and equality—are not often taken seriously. Many sex workers do not have the luxury of debate, as criminalization is a life or death issue for them. 

At the end of September, CASWLR held a press conference online, in which members of the organization detailed the specifics of their case against PCEPA and the harms the law causes sex workers. 

“We are here today because of government inaction and indifference, because the government has failed in their responsibility to protect the health and safety of some of the most marginalized people living within its borders,” said Jenn Clamen, CASWLR’s national coordinator. 

“[The government] leans on criminal law as a means of protection, but PCEPA provides no means of protection from actual exploitation.”. 

CASWLR argues that criminalizing clients makes them less trusting of screening processes that sex workers use for their safety, and strains open and explicit consent because of the need for discretion. 

A recent demonstration against Bill C-36 in Montreal. Photo: CUTV Montreal

Connecting struggles

SWAN is one of two organizations in the country that focuses on supporting the health and safety of immigrant and migrant sex workers. The organization offers frontline outreach in person and online, individual support like referrals or translations (in Cantonese or Mandarin), and has created an abuser registry, as well as doing education and advocacy.

In addition to calling for a full repeal of PCEPA, SWAN is calling for the repeal of sections of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations. These rules “unfairly put migrant workers at elevated risk of violence and make them unable to report these incidents without fear of deportation,” said Wu. This was one area the federal government did agree with, and recommended in their recent findings

A publication co-authored by SWAN and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women earlier this year pinpoints some of the barriers to entry into the labour force for non-status migrants. The report connects immigrant and migrant sex worker struggles to those of immigrant and migrant labourers across the country. 

“[Sex work] is the best way they can earn a living to support their families because of language barriers, they don’t have status, [and] they can’t use their credentials from their home country,” said Wu in a phone interview with The Breach. 

“There are so many barriers for them to actually be in the labour force legally,” she said. “We really take that approach of not just wanting to decriminalize [sex work], because there are so many other issues relating to labour as well.” The report identifies language, education, transferable work experience, and gender as intersecting barriers to enter the workplace. 

Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, a Toronto-based national grassroots organization that’s also part of CASWLR, agrees. 

“Instead of taking away options, how about you create more options for people in life and they can decide to do it or not, instead of punishing the workers with laws that endanger their safety,” said Lam. 

Like SWAN, Butterfly offers health and safety support, and does outreach and advocacy for immigrant and migrant sex workers. Butterfly organizes alongside sex workers to mobilize and build labour power in their community. “These workers keep [telling us]: ‘this is my work, this is my choice. This is what I want to do,’” said Lam.

Wu and Lam agree that sex workers’ agency is undermined during proceedings like the federal government’s consultations on PCEPA, where the positions of police and anti-trafficking think tanks are given equal weight to the lived experiences of sex workers.

“This is supposedly a law about sex workers and the sex worker community, but their voices are not being valued and respected,” said Lam in a phone interview with The Breach. 

Sex workers are organizing for their rights in adverse conditions, with little outside support.

‘The anti-trafficking industry’

Lam is currently co-authoring a book with sex work activist Chanelle Gallant, centred on what they call “the anti-trafficking industry.”

According to the authors, the anti-trafficking industry reproduces and furthers the narratives behind laws like PCEPA. It is a creation of police departments, prisons, social service organizations and NGOs. Federal and provincial money is funnelled into anti-trafficking organizations that then lobby local governments to enact anti-sex work policies and increase funding to police services. 

Gallant and Lam say the anti-trafficking industry overshadows evidence-based findings regarding human trafficking in the country, and does nothing to address the serious mistrust many sex workers already have of police. 

In 2020, the Ontario provincial government announced an Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy, promising a $307-million investment. The strategy, which will be carried out over five years, includes outreach through school curriculums and in Indigenous communities, programs centred on educating the public on the signs of human trafficking, and the creation of intervention teams composed of local police and child protection workers, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police.

According to advocates, this initiative further embeds an anti-trafficking framework within provincial and local laws. It frames trafficking as a crisis happening to helpless women and children as a way of drumming up public support and driving more money and resources to police.

The results of this strategy are currently unfolding in Newmarket, ON—the riding of Conservative MPP Dawn Gallagher Murphy—where $3.8 million of the anti-trafficking strategy is going to anti-trafficking groups like BridgeNorth and Cedar Centre, which are developing community programs in the area.

In their 2021 annual report, faith-based BridgeNorth detail their involvement in lobbying the City of Newmarket against “body rub parlours,” targeting them as sites of human trafficking while offering little in the way of evidence to support their claims. 

This lobbying led to the creation of a new bylaw in the city, which categorizes all alternative, non-Registered Massage Therapist establishments as “personal wellness establishments.” The bylaw requires massage parlours to be accredited by licensed Canadian institutions. Butterfly points out that this is a way of targeting Asian immigrant and migrant workers, even those who are not providing sexual services. 

Privileging Canadian forms of accreditation automatically disqualifies experience and legitimate training many of these workers possess or learn while on the job, and applying to be registered in the city requires numerous interviews that disproportionately precludes any non-English speaking workers. Butterfly argues this process prevents low-income workers from providing for themselves, and may further subject them to further fines or financial loss if they’re forced to shutter their business.

Lam says regulations like that passed in Newmarket are rooted in “whorephobia” and white supremacy, and fuel the myth that any and all Asian massage workers are sex workers. Though applications for the new licensing requirements have been open for some time, as of the publication of this article, Lam says no Asian-owned or operated parlours have qualified.

In August, members of Butterfly participated in a demonstration held by Asian massage workers outside of Newmarket’s city hall to protest the discriminatory bylaw.

“With the anti-trafficking funding and the enforcement of the criminal law, more sex workers’ places are being shut down, forcing people to work more underground,” Lam told The Breach. “They need to receive clients they don’t want and are put in more dangerous situations.” 

“When they experience violence, they are not able to seek any help, not only from the police, but people are also afraid of going to the hospital or other social service providers, because they receive training of anti-trafficking red flags and are required to report them.” 

The “red flags” that BridgeNorth says can be determinants of sex trafficking, and which the group uses in their school outreach in York Region, include: gut instinct; changes to social media, friend groups, personal style; issues at school; drug use; calling male partners “daddy;” and expensive gifts.

Lam says that rather than increased supports, these “red flags” are akin to modes of surveillance often lead to jail time or deportation for sex workers. BridgeNorth was contacted to request an interview for this story, which it declined.

In 2015, one year following the passing of PCEPA, 11 migrant women were deported following a human trafficking sting involving collaboration between Ottawa Police and Canada Border Servies Agency. 

CBC reported that the 11 women were detained but never criminally charged. Three years later, Lam wrote a report called “Behind The Rescue,” speaking with 18 Asian and migrant sex workers from across Canada who reached out to Butterfly after they were arrested or detained between 2015 and 2016. Many of these women had work permits, student visas, or visitor visas. At the time she wrote the report, all but three of them had been deported.

It is difficult to know with certainty how many sex workers are deported this way. In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced they had stopped a “Canada-wide prostitution ring” that was responsible for the trafficking of some 500 Asian women. This information was shared in a “drugs on the table” manner, with little information provided regarding how police determined these women were in fact trafficked, their immigration status, or their access to legal representation or translation services during the process.

Increased risks for Indigenous sex workers

Lanna Moon Perrin is one of the applicants challenging the constitutionality of PCEPA alongside the CASWLR. She’s a sex worker, artist and activist based in Sudbury, ON. 

During the Knowledge Keeper, Expert and Institutional Hearings on Sexual Exploitation for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Perrin spoke out against the anti-trafficking laws and detailed how they harm Indigenous sex workers and can push them into riskier situations where they may be trafficked or experience violence. 

“This whole trafficking scare has really made it hard for women, particularly Indigenous women in the sex trade industry to do our work safely, because now we have to hide from police, we have to go places that are more isolated, to advertise our services is even more tricky,” Perrin said in her deputation at the 2018 hearings.

“We’re being pushed and pushed further into isolation, further into dark places to hide our work. When we’re being pushed into isolation, it gives ample opportunity for those situations where we can become victims.” 

Indigenous scholars and legal experts have cited the Indian Act as a central influence on how sex work is policed in Canada today. Naomi Sayers of Garden River First Nation is a sex work advocate and lawyer. 

Sayers has written about how the Indian Act criminalized Indigenous women as prostitutes, and defined Indigenous homes as “bawdy houses,” a term meaning “brothel” that was only repealed from the Criminal Code in 2019 (and therefore appears in PCEPA’s original drafting). 

Indigenous women considered “Indian” before the law could be criminalized for the mere “intent to engage in prostitution,” according to Sayers. 

In addition, Indigenous residences were referred to as “bawdy houses,” a term meaning “brothel” that remained in the criminal code until 2019, which stated that anyone living in such a dwelling was engaged in or intending to be engaged in prostitution. 

“This provision operates in a similar way to the communication provisions as well as the bawdy house provision in PCEPA (i.e., being present in an area known for prostitution),” wrote Sayers in 2016.

Lanna Perrin Moon. Photo: Mush Hole Project

A violent attack in Hamilton

In June, a sex worker was violently attacked and sexually assaulted on Barton Street in Hamilton, leaving her in a coma and critical condition. 

The Sex Workers Action Program (SWAP) runs a physical drop in space not far from where the assault occured, and where many street-based sex workers in the city operate. After the attack, the SWAP held a vigil and fundraiser for the woman, who is still in the process of rehabilitation, and is now relearning how to walk. 

Every Saturday, the SWAP holds drop in hours, during which people are free to use the space to rest, wash up, do laundry, access therapy, restock on harm reduction supplies, and learn about the history of sex worker struggle through the organization’s archive. 

Vermilion, who co-fouded the SWAP, sees laws like PCEPA harming street-based sex workers in particular, since they are often the most maligned, even within the profession. 

“There can often be a hierarchy, even laterally, within the industry,” said Vermilion. “Sex workers themselves can sort of pit themselves against each other or consider themselves better or worse because of [the kind of work] they engage in.” 

Stigma and the perpetuation of it is the reason why Vermilion and others organizing for decriminalization instead of the legalization of sex work in Canada.

“What [legalization] would also do is create a tier of legal and illegal sex workers, where the restrictions or requirements that would be necessary to be considered a ‘legal’ sex worker, would be inaccessible for some poor, working class sex workers,” she said.

Jelena Vermilion speaking on CBC News about efforts to decriminalize sex work. Photo: CBC Youtube

Fickle, absent support from the left

The stigma around sex work followed Vermilion into her foray as a delegate of Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Hamilton chapter, which she joined around the time of SWAP’s founding in 2018. She took part in the chapter’s duties and started educating members to the concerns and struggle of sex workers. 

However, when she shared her sex work website in an article for the IWW, she says she was banned from holding office within the organization for five years. In the process her civilian name might have also been leaked, which she says could prevent her from crossing the border into the United States. 

“The effect of all of this is, I don’t trust working with them again,” she says of the IWW.

Vermilion believes that pervading stigma is the reason why labour organizations like the IWW or traditionally left-leaning political parties like the NDP don’t have stronger stances on the issue of sex work as a labour issue. 

“A lot more union bodies need to explicitly talk about how sex work is work. Sex work is not human trafficking, sex work is not inherently violent or exploitative and that until we change the law, we cannot even start to reduce and cumulatively improve those working conditions,” she told The Breach.

Though NDP MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke Randall Garrison is closely aligned with the CASWLR and requested the PCEPA review that’s now underway, the party isn’t unequivocal in its support or understanding of sex work in relation to exploitation. 

The labour-friendly Communist Party of Canada has unsuccessfully run the same anti-sex work candidate, Nigel Cheriyan, in Hamilton Centre for the past federal and provincial elections. That’s the same riding where the street-based sex worker was violently attacked this summer. 

During CASWLR’s September press conference, national coordinator Clamen reaffirmed the Alliance’s disappointment with inaction not only on the part of the Liberal government, but also from the NDP and Green Party. 

She pointed out that PCEPA prevents sex workers from negotiating with third parties, which is a barrier to labour organizing. “With this case we’re talking about freedom of association, and when we talk about freedom of association, for sex workers to not only work together but get access to labour mechanisms, and associate in ways that other industries do,” she said. 

“For local labour councils, activists and unions that are operating across Canada there’s nothing stopping you right now from reaching out and connecting with your local sex worker justice organization and taking the position that sex work is a real and valid form of work,” said Ellie Ade Kur. 

Ade Kur is a sex work organizer in Toronto who organizes with Maggies, one of Canada’s oldest sex-worker-led organizations. Member groups involved with CASWLR have made an effort to reach out to labour organizations, she said, to no avail.   

Considering how sex work is the site of various struggles, it seems like an important venue for support from left parties and organizations. But sex workers and sex work advocacy groups are still waiting for the left to show up for their rights.

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