Each year Montreal’s Grand Prix invites loud cars, lots of tourists, and a variety of road closures. It also brings with it exaggerated and unfounded claims of an increase in human trafficking, and youth and sexual exploitation. In more recent years it has also resulted in increased police repression and surveillance of people working in the sex industry and clients.
Amid this flurry of attention, sex workers in Montreal are placed at greater risk of violence as they undertake working practices to avoid police detection that put our security at risk. Police repression is one of the biggest factors in creating vulnerability to violence. A context of repression makes it equally difficult to report crimes and investigate acts of extreme violence, of which sex workers are targets in a context of impunity.
This situation results from fear, moralistic ideas and false statistics rather than evidence and the daily experiences of sex workers. It is part of a larger context of criminalization of sex work introduced through The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (née Bill C-36) in December 2014.
Stella l’amie de Maimie, a Montreal feminist organization run by sex workers for sex workers, has launched a social media poster campaign, Contre l’exploitation, Contre la prohibition: Pour les droits des travailleuses du sexe (Against exploitation, against prohibition: For the rights of sex workers). It provides much needed attention to the realities of sex workers and the impacts of repression and criminal prohibition on sex work. As with the work that Stella has been doing for 21 years, the campaign highlights the need to fight against exploitative working conditions, rather than sex work itself. At the heart of this is the need to repeal repressive criminal laws that prohibit sex work and put sex workers at risk.
The claims that fuel extra police surveillance and myths about trafficking during sporting events are baseless:
Several studies show that trafficking and sexual exploitation do not increase during sporting events. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women released a report in 2011 that demonstrates that trafficking myths are not supported by evidence. A report from Vancouver indicates that the trafficking numbers that are often cited are dramatically exaggerated. Other studies in several cities and for different events all conclude that there is no increase in trafficking because of sporting events.
Increasing police surveillance of sex workers during F1 puts sex workers in danger. Whether it’s the risk of violence or the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, most risks associated with sex work can be attributed to its criminalization. As confirmed in the Supreme Court decision in the Bedford case, criminalization of sex work is also a violation of human rights.
Sex work is not the same as trafficking. The framing of all sex work as exploitative, along with the conflation of sex work and trafficking, has empowered police to raid, detain and deport indoor sex workers, particularly racialized or migrant women, under the guise of seeking out “victims.” This has meant that actual cases of sexual exploitation — as opposed to labour exploitation — go unnoticed, but more importantly, unreported by sex workers and clients for fear of arrest. Eliminating criminal laws against sex work will refocus police efforts towards real cases of exploitation.
Purchasing sex has nothing to do with sports, and women are not pizzas; decriminalization doesn’t give a right to clients, it recognizes sex workers’ right to work and right to health and security. All conversations on sex work must start with the voices of those most affected. There must be an end to the dehumanizing discourses and stereotypes of campaigns that compare women to pizza delivery, but fail to make the same analogy with other jobs that involve a home delivery service, or that claim that we sell our bodies without acknowleding that other professionals sell manual or physical labour. We are best placed to talk about our experiences, and our organization works each day to improve the working conditions and lives of our members.
We are not the only ones demanding the repeal of criminal laws against sex work. In addition to all the groups by and for sex workers globally, Amnesty International, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization call for the total decriminalization of sex work. This consensus is supported by extensive evidence from various areas, such as public health, human rights, and anti-poverty work.
We invite our fellow sex workers who are working during the Grand Prix to contact us for non-judgemental advice and support, and for ways to protect yourself during this time of increased surveillance, police repression, and general sentiment of prohibition.