Sex workers speak out

Canada should be 'most concerned about the most marginalized sex workers'

Part 1 of a series
Photo: paul bica

Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws effectively criminalize the sex industry, but they don’t affect all sex workers equally. In this first installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers, two women from different sides of the country talk about the impacts for the most marginalized workers.

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Monica Forrester, Toronto, Ontario

I am a woman of colour from Curve Lake reservation in Ontario. I am a trans woman and a street sex worker of 25 years. I have been stigmatized because of my identity, race, class and circumstances.

For many years I was homeless. I had no other options but to do sex work to survive and get the basic necessities of life and to access community. Sex work was where I found community with people dealing with the same discrimination as me. I am now a college graduate and a community support and outreach worker at Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, bringing community, empowerment, safety and inclusivity to all marginalized groups.

Sex work after Harper For two years, sex workers have faced tough laws, implemented by the Harper Conservatives in defiance of a Supreme Court directive not to impose dangerous conditions on prostitution. The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the legislation.

Many don’t understand street sex work

The new sex work laws don’t help sex workers, including those who have limited options.

Some people work the street because they don’t have the money to pay for things like a phone, computer, space to work out of, and so on. Some are homeless and have no other method of earning money.

For some women, such as single mothers, social services are not sufficient. Ontario Works provides $718 to a single parent but the average one-bedroom rent in Toronto is about a thousand per month. Single parents who are sex working to support their family often do not want to work at home where their children live, so they work on the street.

A lot of trans women like me can’t find jobs, because they don’t have basic human rights. Recently a trans woman said to me about sex work, “How else would I pay my rent, go to college or transition so I can get another job?”

Aboriginal women in remote areas are working along the highways in order to get from town to town. Survival sex work is necessary to feed their kids and themselves. They face added stigma within their communities because of ongoing colonization. Colonialism already silenced them about sex, and sex work adds another layer of stigma and more isolation from their community. Aboriginal women killed by the Vancouver serial killer were from all over but worked on the downtown streets to do survival sex work.

When there is more policing and surveillance, sex workers get isolated from essential services.

There are migrant people and newcomers to Canada whose first language isn’t English. For them, advertising is difficult or impossible but they can advertise by being on the street and negotiate using a few English words.

A 50-year-old woman who has been a sex worker for her whole adult life came into Maggie’s for safer sex supplies the other day. “Who’s going to hire me? It’s all I’ve ever done. Am I going to have to go on welfare now?” she asked.

New sex work laws increase violence

As a sex worker and a frontline outreach worker with 20 years’ experience, I have seen all of these situations firsthand. When there is more policing and surveillance, sex workers get isolated from essential services, such as education about safer sex, safer work areas, the law, policing and community support.

The street-based community is a community of its own. It can be close-knit. We educate each other because we need each other. The new sex work laws change that because people are more fearful of sharing information and supporting each other. We end up taking whatever clients we can and are not able to screen for safety.

The new sex work laws would not have helped me then and they don’t help me now.

Police push outdoor workers away from residential areas because of the restriction on clients being near anyone under 18 years old. This leads to an increase in residential surveillance and harassment. Marginalized sex workers like people of colour, trans women, Aboriginal women and two-spirit women are more likely to be street based and face extreme criminalization under this new regime.

With the internet, much of the sex industry has moved indoors. With the criminalization of advertising, workers are now forced back out onto the street. This puts them at risk because indoor workers do not have any knowledge of street safety.

Together, all of this increase incidents of violence, murder and HIV in our communities.

My recommendations

Community groups led by sex workers should be supported to offer direct support to others in the industry that is not dependent on them leaving it, which many of us can’t or don’t want to do.

We need laws that allow us to work with safety and dignity, to make our own decisions, for example, by allowing us the right to advertise, to hire security staff and work with buddies.

We need sex-worker-positive agencies like Maggie’s that empower us with safety, health and well-being. The Supreme Court Bedford decision should be respected because the judges saw the necessity of decriminalization for all sex workers whether they’re in it by choice, are forced or influenced by economic circumstances.

Right now, when we face violence, we can’t call the police because our sex work status is recorded in the system. I have never been able to call police for help even after I was sexually assaulted. At the time, I had been through mandatory diversion programs after an arrest for prostitution and knew that I faced incarceration if my sex work was discovered. So even though I was raped, I did not call police. The new sex work laws would not have helped me then and they don’t help me now.

Reconsider these sex work laws that criminalize our industry and the horrible outcomes they have on the most marginalized sex workers in Canada.

Veronica, Victoria, British Columbia

I’ve been a sex worker for 16 years, first as a body rub attendant in Ottawa and then as an independent worker doing body rubs out of my apartment in Victoria. I’m still doing that, and grateful that I’m able to earn enough to live in this beautiful city. I feel very lucky to be able to choose who I see, to live and work in a safe building, and to have great neighbours that I know would come to my aid if I needed them.

Working in this context is different than working in a context where there is police repression, such as Ottawa.

In Ottawa, I was raped on the job and didn’t go to the police when it happened. Despite this, I still feel like I’m not in the most marginalized group of sex workers. Our country should be most concerned about the most marginalized sex workers. The new laws that the federal government passed to further criminalize sex work disproportionately impact Indigenous people, transgender women, and other groups who tend to be targeted for brutality and who are unlikely to be taken seriously if they report a rape. We need laws that reflect their needs and that keep them as safe.

I haven’t had any interactions with police in Victoria, before or after the laws changed. Victoria police have stated outright that prostitution crimes are not an enforcement priority for them. Knowing this has made me more comfortable describing my service in detail on my website. Working in this context is different than working in a context where there is police repression, such as Ottawa. My Victoria clients are in general more respectful of my boundaries, more polite, and less likely to engage in any kind of harassment.

My goal is to operate my business in a way that causes as little harm as possible to anyone.

I started doing this work because it was a way to support myself and my children when my husband and I separated. Now that they are grown and graduated from university, I’m finding it difficult to do anything else. No one wants to hire someone who’s been a self-employed masseuse for 16 years. When I first moved to Victoria in 2014, I took a few months off and tried to live off the income of my sewing business. I also applied for restaurant and housekeeping jobs without success, and so I returned to offering body rubs. I offer massage with a “happy ending” hand release.

My goal is to operate my business in a way that causes as little harm as possible to anyone. I keep my relationships with clients professional, and I try not to see too many clients and never at night so that the building where I live is as uninterrupted as possible. The risk of my clients being arrested causes them stress since the purchase of sexual services is now a crime under the new laws.

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