Violence against women includes violence against sex workers

When sex work is perceived as violence, actual experiences of violence — including assault, arrest, and even murder — become invisible
Photo: Sally T. Buck
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Dec. 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The day started in Seattle as a memorial and vigil for victims of the Green River Killer in 2003.

Now, it is an annual event for sex workers, their loved ones, allies, and sex workers’ rights activists all over the world to call attention to violence committed against sex workers, demand decriminalization of sex work, and eliminate stigma and discrimination against sex workers. There is much work to be done.

In 2016, I participated in the committee meeting of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) at the United Nations in Geneva. CEDAW is an international platform that advocates for the human rights of women, facilitating non-governmental organizations to play a role in advocacy and monitor governments and hold them accountable. They submit reports and speak to the CEDAW committee members about their concern.

I worked with the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform and other human rights groups to bring forward concerns about the violation of women’s rights in Canada. The violations included stereotyping (Article 5), infringement of labour rights (Article 11) and health rights (Article 12), not acknowledging equality before the law (Article 15), and assault, sexual assault, police violence, and murder (General Recommendation 19). We also expressed concern about the harm inflicted on sex workers by anti-trafficking policies.

Many of the feminist organizations that participated in this UN meeting took the moralistic stance that sex work is dangerous and a form of sexual slavery. They held the following positions: sex work is a form of violence against women; sex workers, particularly youth, migrant, and Indigenous sex workers, are forced or lured into the sex industry against their will or under economic coercion; human trafficking and sex work are the same thing and all sex workers are victims of human trafficking because all of them are sexually exploited; sex is not work, because sex is “not for sale”; and lastly, all third parties, such as bosses, managers, and clients, are abusive to sex workers.

The police were not interested in how she was assaulted by her abusive partner or other perpetrators. Instead, they wanted to know how she came to Canada.

During the committee meeting, we tried to develop a joint report with other organizations to submit to the CEDAW committee. However, these other feminist groups insisted that sex workers’ issues be confined to the “Trafficking and Exploitation of Prostitution” section and excluded from all others. They refused to address violence against sex workers under the “Violence Against Women” section because they perceived sex work itself as violence.

I was so frustrated and angry. It was very hard for me to understand why violence experienced by sex workers was not recognized as violence and thus excluded by those who claim to be concerned about the well-being of women.

This UN meeting took place a few weeks after the death of a migrant sex worker who was a member of Butterfly, a Toronto-based support network for Asian and migrant sex workers. Because of her position as a sex worker, her death was not recognized as the result of violence against women.

The police were not interested in how she was assaulted by her abusive partner or other perpetrators. Instead, they wanted to know how she came to Canada. Rather than looking into her death or her experiences of violence, the police investigation focused on human trafficking. Because she was being investigated as a trafficker, those close to her were forced to leave the country.

Migrant sex workers have described being investigated, harassed, charged, or arrested after reporting experiences of robbery, assault, or sexual assault. Instead of protecting sex workers, law enforcement is often the source of threats and violence towards workers. When sex work is perceived as violence, actual experiences of violence — including assault, arrest, and even murder — become invisible.

Many anti-trafficking initiatives and programs carried out by missionary organizations, anti-trafficking (anti–sex work) organizations, and radical feminists are based on a white saviour complex. Many of them are also based on the policing of sexual morals and the idea that people should not sell sex. These organizations protect law enforcement by silencing sex workers’ complaints while advocating for increased investigation, surveillance, raiding, and closure of sex workers’ workplaces or forcing sex workers to exit the profession.

For example, a national anti-trafficking organization has obtained millions of dollars of funding. Instead of listening to sex workers, they worked with politicians, law enforcement, and policymakers to advocate for racist anti–sex work policies (e.g., increased surveillance, investigation, and raiding of massage parlours) that targeted and harmed sex workers, specifically those who work at massage parlours and particularly those who are migrant and racialized. They could not see that sex workers are people with agency and rights who are being placed in danger by the anti-trafficking advocates and the police themselves.

On Dec. 17, sex workers across the world come together to fight for their rights, stand against criminalization, and demand an end to the harm caused by anti-trafficking initiatives and an end to violence against sex workers and their communities. On this important day, we call on allies, human rights activists, and real feminists to urge anti-sex work organizations to stop imposing their (im)moral values and to stop violence against sex workers.

Elene Lam is the executive director and a founder of Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network). She holds a Master of Social Work and a Master of Law, with a specialization in human rights. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, where she is researching the harms associated with anti-trafficking initiatives. Elene has been actively engaged in work related to human rights, violence against women, migration, gender, and sex work justice for more than 20 years. She has also served as a sessional faculty member at McMaster University.

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