A Roundtable on Sex Work Politics and Prison Abolition
with Elene Lam, Chanelle Gallant, Robyn Maynard and Monica Forrester
The Bedford decision was announced on December 20, 2013 saw the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously strike down Canada’s three anti-sex work laws including laws prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients. Sex worker advocates argued that Canada’s anti-sex work laws were unconstitutional, in conflict with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and put the lives of sex workers in great danger. In June 2014, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which criminalizes clients, advertising for sex work, and whoever helps or works with sex workers. While some feminists have applauded these harsher laws against prostitution, sex workers and their allies continue to struggle for justice. In this roundtable, we go beyond legal arguments to see who is benefiting from these laws. We also link sex workers’ issues to race and sexuality, police brutality, and prison abolition, bringing different movements together and discussing what should be done.
Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist writer and activist who works full time at Stella, a community-based social justice organization established and run “by and for” sex workers in Montréal, where she does outreach with indoor and street-based workers. She is also a co-founder of Montréal Noir; a Montréal-based network of Black activists committed to fighting anti-Black racism in Montréal. Over the last ten years, she has been actively organizing with youth and adults around anti-Black racism and racial profiling in Montréal and Canada. She is currently completing her first book called Policing Black Bodies: State Violence and Black Lives, for Fernwood Publishing, 2017.
Elene Lam has been in the sex workers’ movement for more than 15 years in Asia. She is founder of Butterfly ( Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network) and co-founder of Migrant Sex Workers Project. Butterfly does outreach work with and provides support to migrant sex workers, translating information about the sex worker movement, while bringing in their voices to the movement.
Chanelle Gallant has been organizing with the sex workers’ movement for over a decade. Elene Lam and Chanelle co-founded the Migrant Sex Workers Project, a group of sex workers, migrants, and allies working on transforming the conditions of work for migrant sex workers in Canada to reduce harm for all sex workers regardless of their immigration status. She also works with Monica in STRUT, an organization that works to center the voices of sex workers from criminalized communities who face state violence. She also co-edits a police and prison abolition blog called EverydayAbolition.com. Chanelle and Robyn are beginning to compile an anthology of radical sex workers justice politics.
Monica Forrester is a trans woman of colour, sex worker, and advocate. She is a program coordinator and does outreach at Maggie’s Toronto, an organization run by and for sex workers. She facilitates drop-ins for people involved in various forms of sex work including street-based sex workers and for people of different genders and sexualities. She also incorporated the non-profit organization Trans Pride Toronto which has been active since 2004. Trans Pride Toronto focuses on advocacy work and awareness raising within the transwomen community with a focus on trans people of colour. Monica and Chanelle Gallant will also be working with STRUT in a storytelling and media training event for sex workers.
Why are sex workers criminalized and who benefits from this criminalization?
Robyn: Historically the criminalization of sex work in Canada has been about exercising control over women’s bodies and sexuality through law enforcement. In 1867, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed, enabling the police to arrest women who they thought were sex workers, detain them for up to three months, and send them into forced treatments. This was all done in the name of protecting Canadian soldiers and the Canadian state. The work of Naomi Sayers has shown us how some of Canada’s earliest laws explicitly targeted Indigenous women. If you look at the arrest records in the 19th and early 20th centuries, you will see that a disproportionate amount of Black women were arrested on prostitution charges in Vancouver, Halifax, and other Canadian cities. At the same time, the Canadian government was actively keeping Black people from the Caribbean and the United States out of the country. They used stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality to justify their deportations, claiming that Black women were more likely to be prostitutes. Black women’s sexuality has always been criminalized. We have been stereotyped as ‘jezebels’ since the era of chattel slavery because they see us as threatening to the dominant social order. The laws were racialized from the beginning, and continue to be today. As well, criminalization of drugs and sex work were justified as protecting white women from the harms of migrant and racialized men. This racism and xenophobia is part of a larger context of asserting control over women’s bodies, especially Indigenous and Black women, dating back to the era of colonization and slavery.
Elene: Criminalization happens in two areas. First, it relates to capitalism. The government criminalizes sex work to keep people in exploitative situations and jobs. Sex work is unique, and here I specifically talk about women. If women can work anytime, anywhere, and in different ways, it is difficult for the market to maintain control. Because so many women are forced to work in hyper-exploitative industries such as farming and the food industry, sex work is a very powerful industry. Through sex work, women can increase their power by refusing more conventionally exploitative work. For example, many people of colour are pushed out from other industries, so they enter sex work. Also, many raids against places of sex work target East Asian people. By criminalizing sex work, those in power maintain their control and keep people in exploitative situations by eliminating other potential alternatives.
Second, a major justification for criminalizing sex work is the moral aspect. People in power, politicians, and religious groups organize in terms of morality and refer to violence against women. In many countries, sex work was not initially criminalized or illegal, but became criminalized through colonialism and its imposed morality, which the elite use to justify the oppression of racialized and colonized people.
Chanelle: I’d also like to discuss reproductive labour and capitalism as well. Sex workers control access to sexual labour and reproductive labour, and I think that one of the reasons sex workers face criminalization is because they disobey the cultural demand to provide free sexual, emotional, and reproductive labour. The penalization of sex workers is critical in the coercion of free sexual and reproductive labour from non-sex workers, which is why the punishment of sex workers is so visible. It provides this scare; a terrifying potential alternative should women refuse those terms and demand compensation or even recognition for sex as a form of labour. So if a woman asks, “Why should I sleep with you or bear and raise your baby? What would you do for me?” they’ll say, “She is a whore!” And with that comes forms of cultural, social, and economic sanctions because capitalism requires free labour from women. It can’t exist without reproductive labour from women, and men control and exploit that labour through the creation of the ‘bad woman,’ the ‘whore’ who asks for something that she’s not entitled to. Part of this critique comes from the roots of radical feminism. But of course, radical feminism has been ruined by racist transmisogyny, so I identify more as a revolutionary feminist, but I see the oppression of women as depending, in part, on the oppression of sex workers.
Monica: Laws that try to abolish sex work say that women need saving, and that they can’t make decisions on their own. This takes away rights from women and doesn’t look at the diversity of sex work, which includes trans women, trans men, and gender fluid people. At the municipal level in Toronto for instance, laws affect everyone in different ways in the sex industry. And they especially impact more visible street-based sex workers, people of colour, and Aboriginal people. They are policed more and are pushed out from their communities, and they face more reactions from their clients. This pushes sex workers into more dangerous areas, where there is no communication to keep them safe. So these laws put sex workers at higher risk than the previous laws. There are different reasons for why people do sex work; it could be poverty or some people just enjoy it. These laws target everyone, and many people are criminalized not only for sex work, but also because of the colour of their skin, their culture, or their citizenship status, etc.
What are the methods of decriminalizing sex work? And how do you connect this to the struggle for prison abolition?
Robyn: When we talk about the history of abolitionist movements, it comes from Black organizing against slavery. If we look at modern incarnations of abolitionist movements against the prison industrial complex (PIC), we also see that they continue to be led by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. For example, the work of Angela Davis links incarceration to historical forms of racism to prisons today. When we are talking about fighting racial profiling and incarceration of targeted communities, especially Black communities, we should put forward prison abolition as our goal. So to me, when we talk about abolition, we mean removing the power that law enforcement has to control and harm our bodies. Pushing to criminalize sex work does just the opposite.
So-called sex work abolitionists who push for criminalization are actually opposed to this view, and call for the reinforcement of law, prisons, and policing. We need to reclaim what abolition means. If we want to be intersectional on this issue, we should ask, “Who actually are sex workers?” Many of them are women of colour, Indigenous, and Black racialized bodies already subject to criminalization, and sometimes deportation. When we talk about prison abolition, we talk about stopping the criminalization of racialized bodies. When we advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, we must also address how the state has historically criminalized people of colour. Also any form of rescue industry that talks about abolition, but undermines these broader issues, misses the point. In my experience as an outreach worker at Stella, the police continue to harass and intimidate sex workers, especially Black and Inuit sex workers who sell or trade sex in Montréal. I talked to many sex workers who have been physically or sexually abused by police officers. Regardless of how the laws are framed, the police still go to sex workers’ places of work (often the street) and intimidate them. And research from the US shows that one of the most common forms of violence toward sex workers comes from the police.
Elene: Prison is a place of human rights violations, a place that takes away peoples’ freedom and supports torture. The whole PIC is being justified to isolate and oppress people of colour, sexual minorities and non-conforming white people while the rest of society thinks it keeps them safe. The ideology behind prison is to separate these different groups of people from mainstream people and generate fear in society. When I came to Canada I saw that many jobs needed criminal background checks! Why do we need that many background checks? So that when a criminalized and imprisoned person is released, they will be kept out and isolated.
In the past, people saw sex work as totally evil, but now it has changed and they use the word victim. The term victim is being used against sex workers. Sex workers are being targeted under the guise of protection. For example, when a corporation sells stuff on the street you don’t complain to the city to come and arrest them. So why when sex workers are selling their service on the streets everybody calls it a social nuisance? These two things work together: if you are not the victim then you are the worst thing in society, and this is how they justify criminalization and regulation.
Chanelle: I relate prison abolition to sex work from what Robyn and Elene already touched on, which is that an intersectional sex workers movement has to consider how the PIC oppresses many sex workers. So radical intersectional sex work organizing must be both prison and police abolitionist, and I include child protection services – its role in oppression and colonialism – within the PIC. But that system is not reformable for many sex workers because it has been designed as a tool and a weapon of oppression.
On its own, a sole focus on decriminalizing sex work is not enough. Especially because a lot of sex work activists will also support the enforcement of other laws. I understand where it is coming from. Sex workers are a targeted group, because our society has criminalized their forms of safety, pushed them into unsafe conditions, and then abandoned them to the predators. Of course that group of people will say, “We deserve protection, we deserve our lives, we deserve to be able to protect our own lives,” and many people will push to criminalize those who harm sex workers. To assure the people that decriminalization will not lead to some sort of chaos, they will say, “We are going to decriminalize sex work, but don’t worry we won’t decriminalize all other sorts of things and other forms of abuse.” Again I understand that because we share the same goal, which is safety for sex workers. However, when we look at the sex workers that are the most marginalized, they may benefit from decriminalization of sex work, but it may not have the impact we want it to because they will still be subjected to other forms of criminalization based on who they are. I know this is complex and controversial but I do support the abolition of all forms of prison, policing, and child welfare services.
In its place, sex workers can implement their own very effective, low cost, tried and true strategies of protection from intimate partner violence, client violence, and stranger violence. Sex workers are very knowledgeable and skillful at that, and have a lot to share with the prison abolition movement because the big boogie man in the prison abolition movement is, “What about the rapists and murderers?” Well, sex workers know about the rapists and murderers, and have all kinds of strategies to protect themselves. Many prison abolitionists say that in order to have abolition we need to have a society where people have the resources they need and that will prevent the vast bulk of harm. If people have the housing, food, and health care (including mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment) that they need, we will reduce lots of harm. We need to decriminalize sex workers’ methods of self-protection.
Monica: With these new laws, we see more police presence in the places that sex workers used to be. This pushes sex workers out of their safe areas, particularly trans women. The police force called TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy), in their words, tries to keep streets safe and target criminal activity, which means targeting sex workers and people who live in impoverished areas. Toronto’s east end has lots of low-income housing that many sex workers used to work at and still do, but we see so many of them being pushed out of those areas by new condo developments.
We also should look at how different police divisions act on sex workers differently. For example, 51 division has always been very hardcore in targeting marginalized and impoverished people and sex workers. In the last 30 years as a sex worker, my worst violent experience has been with law enforcement, and I know a lot of sex workers would say the same. I had only two incidents with clients, and I handled them on my own without the help of police. I know many women in the trans community who are migrant workers that have been arrested and waiting to be deported but still sitting in a Canadian jail for two years.
Criminalization has a specific effect on Indigenous women. We see that colonial sexuality has been internalized for many Aboriginal women and men. It reaffirms how our bodies can be criminalized and sexualized at the same time by law enforcement. They think they can do what they want with our bodies. In our cultures, we respected our bodies, our bodies were beautiful, sex was beautiful. The state thinks it can control our bodies through poverty, discrimination, the appropriation of our lands, and that is why a lot of two-spirited and Indigenous women are criminalized. The government responds by blaming peoples’ lifestyles, as if we are at fault for being murdered or sexually assaulted, and this is where the government clearly shows its racism against Indigenous women. In response, Idle No More has extended beyond pipelines, reserves, and impoverishment to include sex workers’ issues, our bodies, and our choices. It’s so important because Indigenous people and people of colour have the highest rates of incarceration, and premature death, so something has to be done.
Did Bill C-36 change anything? How has it affected resistance?
Monica: The laws before were the bawdy house ban, material benefits ban, and a ban on communicating in public for prostitution. These laws were brought down, but the new laws bring these back indirectly and further criminalize those who work with sex workers, while targeting johns and advertising. We are vulnerable because these laws don’t allow us to inform people when we are working, or don’t allow us to have a spouse or a friend around for safety when we are working because they can be charged as traffickers. Many women now are working outdoors instead of indoors; many come to our drop-ins for different issues, such as counselling because of the stress that came with new laws, financial and safety issues, and/or to talk about next steps. Because of increased police presence, many sex workers have shifted their ways of working.
Personally, I think one way to challenge Bill C-36 and to show that the problem is systemic racism and not about the type of work, would be the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Harper claimed that the crisis was all about lifestyle and he argued that these laws would help women to stay safe, but since these laws, women are still being murdered or have gone missing.
These laws are new, so it will take a bit of time to collect data and present a case, but at Maggie’s we are gathering info on how C-36 is affecting the lives and working conditions of sex workers. We have also been engaging with different communities, like Sistering, in the west end, and Regent Park, in the south end, to keep the communication and flow of information of who has been criminalized or assaulted. We aim to accumulate that data and bring it forward when the time is right to say that these laws are putting sex workers more at risk.
Chanelle: The legal environment for sex workers has not improved at all. That’s clear to everyone. It is not just clear to the sex working community across this country, but globally it was also obvious to hundreds of lawyers who supported us, and to global health organizations such as UN AIDS, all of whom have argued that the criminalization of sex work is against human rights, public safety, and public health. But there has been a difference since the Bedford decision: sex work organizing has become super-powered. Do you agree Robyn?
Robyn: Yeah! It has created a sense of connectedness and community within the sex worker’s movement; it brought the sense that we won together.
Chanelle: It did! Although it was essentially overturned by Bill C-36, the Bedford decision still give this sense of possibility and power to sex work organizers, and sex workers generally, that I haven’t seen in the last 10 years. It was an enormous and decisive win. None of the long-time sex work organizers like myself expected that the entire Supreme Court would unanimously rule against all of the provisions that were challenged! Once people start to get the sense of themselves as being capable of that kind of change, it produces an overall sense of power, and although the new legislation came in, the resistance is stronger. Sex workers were brought into conversations and policy decisions like never before. And sex workers have gained more voice in the media too. I spent 10 years reading e-media on sex work issues; reporters never consulted anyone in the sex work community on stories about sex work. Similarly, it is not just that sex workers have been invited into policy decisions or are more effective at elbowing our way in, but I’m seeing sex workers involved at a policy level in a way that they have not been before. An example of that would be Maggie’s, the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, being a part of a provincial roundtable on sexual harassment and violence against women. That would not have happened five years ago. Sex workers are a community that has been impacted by sexual harassment and sexual violence, but they would have been left out of that conversation entirely in the past.
Regarding working conditions of sex workers, I don’t believe anything has changed for the better. In fact, it has become even worse; we see increasing criminalization of those who carry sex workers advertising, and those sex workers who had previously used those forms of advertising are being pushed onto the streets, which is bad news for sex workers who are not familiar with that form of working.
Also, the federal government recently introduced a new regulation that bans migrants on student visas from participating in the sex industry, including legal forms of the sex industry. So at the policy level, we’re seeing rollbacks, but at the movement level, we’re getting stronger.
Robyn: Answering the phones at Stella, I heard firsthand how excited the sex workers were after the Bedford decision, while the outcome after C-36 was the opposite. C-36 is a nightmare for many sex workers. At the time it was passed I was working our ‘ligne ‘d’écoute,’ a phone line for sex workers, and we received 10 times more calls than usual from sex workers who were stressed about the new laws. The callers were worried about their income and how they would be able to work. They were especially worried about how to place ads on the internet and in newspapers because suddenly all the print media in Montréal stopped printing sex workers’ ads. For many people who were unfamiliar with the internet, particularly older sex workers without formal education, print ads were how they worked for decades; so overnight they lost their primary source of income and were suddenly facing poverty.
This is a huge difference from prohibitionist feminists who were publicly celebrating the passage of the new law. Bill C-36 did not decriminalize sex work. That’s why it is still possible for Ottawa police to deport 11 migrant sex workers after raiding their workplaces. Each year, we see feminist groups like the Collabouration of Struggles Against Sexual Exploitation (La CLES) pushing the Montréal police to enter sex workers’ workplaces during the Grand Prix, resulting in police harassment of sex workers. I have also heard of many cases in which police enter sex workers’ workplaces to check to see if people are on welfare or not, so even if they’re not arrested for being sex workers they may lose their social assistance. These laws have increased surveillance of sex workers and made it harder to access safer sex materials. For example, having condoms on site is now more discouraged than before.
Elene: I was so happy when I first came to Canada, and then this law passed. It was significant for the sex workers’ movement across the world. Although there is lots of dialogue and discussion about how we see sex work as legitimate work, in the judgment and in society, that part is not there. Instead you hear the same rhetoric that sex workers are victims, and the purpose is very clear: they want to abolish sex work. In many countries you cannot challenge the law, but in Canada you can lobby with politicians to change it. But when there is a challenge to the law it makes the government very smart. They find a gap in the law and use it to abolish sex work by imposing laws and regulation, and by restricting resources. They want to fill in the gap and make it even harder to survive. Why do we have so many forms of sex work? Because when laws change, sex workers change their ways to do business in order to survive.
I feel empowered that sex workers are so organized not just in the sex work sector, but now sex workers are going to many different segments of society. We see academics and lawyers who are supporting the cause, so the question is, “How can we mobilize more people to support sex work as legitimate work?” We should also change the dialogue and stigma that sex work is victimizing, and emphasize that sex work is not harmful to society. For instance, when I travel, I like to stay in a place that has lots of street-based sex workers, because their presence makes it a safer place in the city. But people usually have this illusion that there are so many sex workers on the street so it must be dangerous, but they are wrong!
Chanelle: Yes, smart, savvy women on the street at 3 am, who else would you rather have around you? As a woman, I would like to see smart women with experience on the street around, that is my community watch. And that is why I think the prison abolition movement should bang on the door of the the sex worker’s movement, because its skills and experiences like this that will create an actual community safety watch.
Elene: When I go to different cities, to the areas that sex workers are at, you see all sorts of different industries active there. Restaurants, bars, taxi drivers, etc. But, this side is not discussed by the society. Instead, sex work is always treated as a nuisance, and the nuisance is always based on moral judgements.
Chanelle: Yeah, and the tricky thing about the construction of sex workers as victims is that it produces the epidemic of violence against sex workers. The criminal legal system produces the ‘problem’ of sex workers as victims and then sends in the police, social workers, Canada Border Services Agency, and other agents of oppression who conveniently become so-called ‘rescuers.’
Elene: Now the public thinks that the client is the fundamental problem and should be criminalized, but they are wrong. For example, when you see the statistics of how many sex workers have been murdered by a client and compare it with the number of wives murdered by their husbands, you see that the latter is higher. So if you apply the same logic to domestic violence, you would need to criminalize the family and marriage, as well as punish all the husbands.
Robyn: Another issue with Bill C-36 is that they argue that because women are victims then they should do something else. For example, they say Black women are overrepresented in the sex industry, but they can’t see that the only other jobs available to many Black women are in the service sector, or domestic work and taking care of white peoples’ kids. There are structural elements of race and class that go unaddressed by anti-prostitution ‘exit’ programs.
How do we relate different struggles together, and in what direction should this be done? What do you expect from your allies, and who would you like to see as your future allies?
Robyn: I see lots of possibilities working in collabouration with others. Sex workers have always been diverse, but I think we have this opportunity to be stronger. For example, Black Lives Matter has been amazingly successful in raising awareness about violence against Black women, and violence against Black trans women, and those who are in the sex trade. Also, migrant justice movements can collabourate against conservative anti-trafficking campaigns. And the decriminalization of drug use, buying, and selling is important. The LGBTQI* movement against the criminalization of HIV transmission is something that the sex workers movement should be linked to as well.
Chanelle: The briefest way I can say it is: organize, organize, organize. Allies and sex workers must be organized in order to make changes against these enormously powerful systems. We are stronger than them but we have to know it, believe it, come together, and strategically fight together. I’m really invested for the long haul in sex work organizing that centres the issues and leadership of people who are most directly impacted by criminalization. I think that’s where the most transformative and the most holistic solutions come from, employing the least resources.
In terms of allyship, I pretty much echo what Robyn said. I would really love to see the labour movement more broadly come on board and strongly support sex work organizing as feminist organizing of criminalized workers. Last thing I want to say is that I really want to kick some white feminists’ asses. As a white woman organizer and a feminist, I’m really interested in leveraging the position that I have to push other white feminists to recognize sex work organizing as an innovative and visionary form of feminist organizing.
Elene: The trafficking discourse is expanding. In the US, you see that it has been expanded from migrant sex workers to youth, and now to all sex workers, and I see that it might happen in Canada too. Also, we need to watch government strategies. Now that sex workers are way more organized, they don’t give funding to sex workers’ organizations. They give it to the anti-sex work organizations and then they tokenize sex workers by merely consulting them in decision-making processes. It’s important to choose the ways that we resist so our energy and resources aren’t wasted.
In terms of allies, traditionally we have organized more with other radical feminists and migrants, labour, and anti-racist groups, but I think what is missing in Canada are religious groups. Religious groups are really powerful in influencing morals, especially those who have power, such as social services sectors, politicians, etc. Even though some people may not claim that they are religious, their values around sexuality, love, gender, sex, and bodies may be influenced by their religion. Although, there are actually different perspectives related to those values, the minority voices are not being heard. Some of them may be positive and supportive to sex work. We need more allyship from people in different religious institutions and for them to see sex work differently from the dominant view. This would bring a diversity of voices into the movement. We need to focus on recognizing that sex work is a form of work. The dominant discourse in the West is “My body, my choice,” but turning it into work is complicated. When sex work is recognized as work then sex workers won’t be the victims, people who should be saved, or evil people.
Monica: I would like to see that more political figures and more counsellors in the city of Toronto get on board with sex workers. Some of them got on board to change these laws, to make sex workers safer, but I would like to see them have more dialogue with provincial and federal levels of government to talk about how they can work with sex workers and not just to enforce the laws. They need to work with the community to see what we need.
We are also working regionally with different groups like Black Lives Matter to say sex workers’ lives matter. I think the younger feminist movement has been great, and the queer community has stepped up. I would like to see communities of colour embracing those platforms and recognizing that criminalization of sex work also affects people of colour. About faith groups, I would like to see religion as a matter of individual choices separated from political decisions. Ultimately, everyone should think about what kind of privilege they have and how they are going to use that privilege to bring awareness, because we all have privileges in different ways.