The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Montreal’s sex workers further into the shadows, emboldening predators and putting workers in an increasingly desperate, dangerous situation.

On the western edge of downtown last month, street workers say at least two people wandered the empty streets, stalking Indigenous women in the trade. With day centres across the city closed because of the coronavirus, some sex workers have gone missing while others are being intimidated by clients.

“I’ve had guys offer to have me at their place for 24 hours but they would get to decide when I sleep, when I eat. No way!” said Marc, a sex worker who did not want his real name published.

“Some clients who will take a chance and have me over, they try to bargain me down. If I accept $20 for a service that I might otherwise charge $50 or $60, it’s finished, my prices have gone down permanently.”

As the pandemic continues with no signs of waning, Marc has been slipping deeper into poverty. It’s gotten so bad, he’s had to dumpster-dive lately instead of buying groceries. He can’t go back to his family because they’ve shunned him for the life he chose.

Most sex workers can’t afford to stop doing their job

“Some of the women I work with, because of the curfew, are trading sex for a place to stay overnight, ” said Jessica Quijano, coordinator of the Iskweu project to help make Montreal safer for Indigenous women.

“I get calls where it’s like, ‘Please get me out of here’ from one of the women I work with. I have this policy where if someone feels unsafe, I’ll send them an Uber no questions asked because I can’t send the cops. That’s been pretty common lately.”

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Though it’s a high-contact, high-risk profession to practise during a pandemic, experts say most sex workers simply can’t afford to stop doing their job. Because many can’t show proof that they earned over $5,000 last year, people in the industry don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or unemployment insurance.

Emmanuel Cree is a street worker who helped design a safety manual for those in the industry.

“It’s a high-contact job, it’s not risk free, but if people are going to do it, we have to make sure they take every precaution they can,” said Cree, who works with the RÉZO community centre. “It can be something like offering a striptease instead of sex, fellating someone while they wear a condom, keeping a limited list of clients.”

The manual outlines standard measures like washing hands, wearing masks and showering before and after contact with a client. Workers are encouraged not to kiss clients and, if possible, move services online where they can perform webcam shows instead of penetrative sex.

“If the federal government wanted to avoid sex workers offering their services during the pandemic, they could have made us eligible for CERB,” said Sandra Wesley, the executive director of Chez Stella, which advocates for the rights of sex workers. “This is a choice they made. We’re an industry that lobbies the government regularly, they’re aware of our concerns.”

‘People are going missing and it’s hard not to fear the worst’

Diane Gervais has been scouring parks, alleys and hangouts between Atwater Ave. and Guy St. for the past month, in hopes that she’ll find a young woman who went missing. The woman disappeared after she disclosed that she’d been sexually assaulted.

“I’m terrified for her,” said Gervais, an anti-poverty activist. “People drift in and out of sight on the streets but, at least, when day centres were open, they had people they could check in with.

“That’s basically gone now. So you have to wonder, is she staying with an abusive partner? Does she know we’re looking for her? I won’t give up until I find her.”

Quijano said she was recently called to pick one of her clients up at the hospital because she was assaulted and found naked on the streets of Montreal.

“It’s happening more and more,” she said. “We’re at a loss. Do we set up clothing bins outside? Because women are just naked, walking around because they’ve been assaulted.”

Another wrinkle of the pandemic is that drop-in centres often used by sex workers have had to shutter their doors or drastically reduce services. For those who are also homeless, overnight warming centres are closed, limiting safe spaces for people on the street.

“Our community centres are how we track a lot of vulnerable people,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. “We notice when someone hasn’t been around and we start asking questions, we start looking.

“We’re so swamped with the pandemic that, yes, people are going missing and it’s hard not to fear the worst.”

Last month, police warned a network of Indigenous organizations about two people stalking Atwater Ave. and the surrounding area, trying to abduct women in the trade.

“I think predators look to people that they believe won’t be missed and they go after them,” said Amanda Moniz, of the Montreal Indigenous Community Network. “These are women who don’t trust the police, who are less and less visible because fewer people are outside and now — with a curfew — no one’s outside past 8 p.m.

“It’s a dangerous mix of factors and a lot of us are scared for them.”

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling called for the decriminalization of sex work because it put the safety and the lives of workers at risk. As a result, the Harper government passed new laws, but they effectively criminalized all aspects of sex work as well as the purchase of sex.

“We don’t have recourse to the police,” said Wesley. “And a lot of women can’t open bank accounts because they fear their money will be seized. They can’t declare revenue without disclosing that they’re sex workers so many can’t set up the infrastructure they need to work from home online.
“The system is set up for us to fail.”

Cree and Quijano attended a protest in a downtown park Monday to raise awareness of the growing crisis. Both struggled to contain their emotions.

“We’re managing an endless crisis here,” said Cree. “You know that children’s game, musical chairs? Sometimes I joke that we play musical burnout at my work. It isn’t halfway through January and a lot of us are cracking. There’s no telling how bad things will need to get before we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jan. 22, 2021: Edits made to clarify the Harper government’s response to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on sex work laws.
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