How sex workers have remained resilient in the face of COVID-19 and ongoing criminalization

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the rampant systemic inequality that exists in Canada. Racialized, low-income, precariously housed, disabled and many other marginalized folks in Canada have experienced a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Among the most affected are sex workers.

While the pandemic unavoidably affected the sex work industry, it is not the loss of work alone that has made this pandemic even more difficult for sex workers. It is the criminalization of the sex trade, the lack of social supports for sex workers and the fact that many sex workers are also members of other marginalized groups.

In 2014, Canada introduced laws that prohibited the purchase, attempted purchase, procurement and advertisement of sexual services, among other things. The titled “end-demand” model is based on the idea that targeting clients will end the demand for sex work and thus sex work more broadly.

The desire to end sex work is based on the incorrect assumption that sex work is inherently exploitative and that all sex workers are victims in need of protection.

In practice, these laws have put sex workers at risk. The prohibition of purchase has made it more difficult for sex workers to screen and assess clients as well as organize with other sex workers.

Moreover, these laws reinforce the idea that sex workers are victims of an exploitative industry when, in fact, most sex workers do not characterize themselves as such. These laws disregard the agency of sex workers and the fact that many choose this work. For years, sex worker justice organizations in Canada have been working to repeal these laws.

However, as the government failed to reform sex work laws, this was the state of sex work in Canada when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“What’s happening right now is a crisis. It’s a specific crisis for sex workers,” explained Jelena Vermilion, the executive director of the Sex Worker Action Program Hamilton.

“What’s happening right now is a crisis. It’s a specific crisis for sex workers,” explained Jelena Vermilion.

Throughout the pandemic, the federal and provincial governments have made several decisions that negatively impacted sex workers in Canada. 

In March 2020, the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. This monthly funding was part of a plan to ensure that “no one will be left behind” in the pandemic. However, several sex workers were unable to access CERB. 

Butterfly, Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, is an organization formed by sex workers and service providers that advocates and provides support for Asian and migrant sex workers. They ran a survey in April 2020 and found that less than half of respondents applied for CERB.

Some were not eligible because of undocumented work or immigration status, while others were not eligible because they were claiming other social assistance. A number of sex workers also do not file taxes because of the criminalization of their work.

“Some of it is strategic to avoid stigma. Just having the government know that you’re a sex worker is such a risk for some people. Some people sincerely don’t know how to do their taxes . . . and fear approaching an accountant for the same reason . . . and then many were unable to collect CERB. Or if they did, they were asked to pay it back,” explained Vermilion.

Vermilion also spoke to the specific impact that COVID-19 has had on sex workers in Hamilton.

“I’d say [COVID-19 has affected sex workers in Hamilton] a little bit worse than a couple of other cities, especially with the strip clubs around this area having been closed before COVID due to gentrification and other zoning [and] political issues. People have had to move to or get work in other cities and of course, commuting is its own expense. Having access to a vehicle is precarious for many people. So I would say that honestly we’ve had a lot more heard a lot more stories of people having housing issues, of people just having no way to get work,” said Vermilion.

Unfortunately, even for Hamilton sex workers who are able to work in other cities, 2020 brought extreme uncertainty.

On Sept. 25, 2020, the Ontario government announced its decision to close all strip clubs, which was made without consultation or notice to sex workers.

Strip clubs were singled out and hit harder with restrictions than other establishments at the time. The provincial government continued to allow restaurants, bars and nightclubs to remain open with added restrictions.

In response to these regulations, the stripper-led organization Work Safe Twerk Safe is pursuing legal action.

“We are concerned that our work at strip clubs is being treated differently than workers at other bars. We feel that the decision to enact these provisions to close strip clubs specifically relates to discriminatory and stereotypical assumptions about strippers as vectors of disease. We want to be treated the same as other bars and nightclubs. We feel we have been left out of decisions that affect us,” wrote Work Safe Twerk Safe on the organization’s website.

As the government has failed to support sex workers, organizations such as SWAP Hamilton, Butterfly, Work Safe Twerk Safe and Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project have stepped up to help their communities. 

These organizations have provided sex workers with guides for working during the pandemic, set up emergency funds and advocated for income support. SWAP Hamilton supported the city’s sex workers during COVID-19 by providing harm reduction packages, gift cards and $100 stipends.

While these actions demonstrate the resilience of sex workers, they are also reminders of the lack of government support for members of this community.

While these actions demonstrate the resilience of sex workers, they are also reminders of the lack of government support for members of this community.

As many sex workers are already members of other marginalized groups, this additional work takes a toll on their mental and physical health.

“Honestly, [SWAP Hamilton is] just trying to survive, just like everybody else. A lot of it falls on my shoulders. So a lot of it comes down to what my capacity is and I’m a trans woman. I’m dealing with my stuff as well during this whole situation. So ultimately it’s just been about being able to still remain visible in the community. And even if we’re not like active in the exact same way, we want people to understand that [sex workers] still exist,” said Vermilion.

Vermilion encouraged students to educate themselves and to think critically about these issues. She also encouraged all students to sign a petition to repeal the laws that criminalize sex work.

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