The dangers of sex work in Canada
Dec 17 is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
Every night Lexi Tronic risks her life at work.
If she gets beaten or raped, she feels she can’t call police to report the attack because – at least for now – Tronic is also a criminal.
"What happens when you’re trapped in someone's car with the doors locked? You don't have any options. It's fight or flight,” she says.
Tronic is a 10-year veteran in the sex trade who has worked both on the streets and from her home, as many sex workers have, she says.
On Dec 17, the transgender and sex-workers-rights activist will join others to mark the ninth annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Such violence is a pervasive problem that is largely preventable and often ignored, she says, noting that most violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished.
Tronic started as a sex worker in Winnipeg at Higgins Ave and Waterfront Dr, a notorious spot known for transgender sex trade workers, she says. “One of those hardcore areas where girls turn up dead or missing.”
Canadians are still haunted by the name Robert Pickton, who brutally murdered as many as 49 women, most of whom were sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Toronto is no different, says Tronic. "Women are getting attacked and abused daily. Sex workers are easy targets. And because sex-trade work is not legal, many of these women are afraid to go to the police because they’ve had negative experiences, especially trans women. Police not only berate them for being a sex worker, they bully them for being a trans sex worker.”
Sex workers deserve the same rights as everyone else, she says. The profession is perceived to be dangerous, and it is, Tronic notes, because the laws make it so.
"The police victimize the victim by saying it's their fault,” she says. “[Sex work] is no more dangerous than working a midnight shift in a 7/11. It becomes dangerous because it’s not legal and we don't have the safeguards for resources that the rest of the public do, like being able to go to police and seek help and safety.”
Regardless how many laws governments write, nothing will ever eradicate sex work. "It is always going to be here," Tronic says. Therefore, the working conditions need to change.
Last year, Ontario Justice Susan Himel struck down three key anti-prostitution laws that create hazardous working conditions — laws against communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdyhouse and living on the avails of the trade. Himel ruled that the laws make prostitution more dangerous.
The federal and Ontario governments are now appealing that landmark ruling, arguing that there is no obligation to maximize the safety of sex workers because it is not a constitutionally protected right to engage in the sex trade.
For the past four years, lawyer and Osgoode Hall professor Alan Young has represented sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, who are challenging the laws that criminalize sex work in Canada. He argued the appeal in June in front of five judges.
“I had a good time in the Ontario Court of Appeal,” he says, with boyish excitement. “I just got to sit back and watch the government squirm as they tried to overturn this decision.”
The appeal court’s decision could be released tomorrow or months from now, Young says.
Likely contributing to the delay is the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that upheld British Columbia's right to operate a supervised drug injection site.
The court ordered the federal government to abandon its attempts to close Vancouver’s Insite facility, agreeing with scientific evidence that the site saves lives without increasing crime.
The Insite decision offers a parallel situation for the case against Canada’s prostitution laws, Young says. “It’s a constitutional violation from a government action that is increasing a risk of harm.”
“The thrust of the decision is very strongly in support of what we argued for sex work,” he says. “[Insite] has to be considered. It would be senseless not to.”
Young expected the decision by November. “So I believe they are struggling with this.”
The case will eventually end up in the Supreme Court of Canada sometime next year; that court's decision will be the final word.
If the laws are struck down, Young says, they must be replaced with appropriate regulation. “I still think we shouldn’t put a brothel next to a junior high school.” Ultimately, sex workers should drive reform, he says.
But, even once sex work is made legal, there will always be some sex workers who choose or are forced to work outside the margins. It’s called “survival sex work,” Young says. “Look at cigarettes. They are legal, but there is a huge black market for people who want to avoid tax.”
“That has been a big problem in other countries. Legal regimes are set up for sex workers, but people don’t enter into them. They stay underground . . . So it’s not solving problems for everybody. What it is doing is giving sex workers who choose to be sex workers some autonomy to take care of themselves.”
There is already a black market within the black market, fuelled largely by human trafficking across borders, something Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, says is not the same as sex work. Sex work is a job that sells some form of sexual service. Trafficking is coerced or forced labour and sex slavery.
That distinction is important because the decision Canada makes will have a ripple effect internationally.
Laura Agustín, a sex-workers-rights advocate and an expert on undocumented migration, visited Toronto Nov 24 to discuss her book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. She says the criminalization of sex work in North America contributes to international human trafficking and enslavement.
For migrants trying to get to countries like Canada, the sex trade is sometimes the only option, especially for women and trans women who may not, for whatever reason, get work as maids. “For some it’s a chance at a better life,” she says. “But because it’s invisible and happening in an underground economy, there’s lots of opportunity for exploitation or abuse.”
Agustín says the sexual liberation movement is not over yet, and it won’t be until sex work is viewed widely as any other profession. “Why do people get so excited? In a capitalist society people can buy and sell anything they want, even motherhood, by hiring a nanny, but not sex. Why?”
Rather than look at sex workers as victims in need of rescuing out of the trade, she says, sex workers should be empowered from within the community to make the trade safe.
"When legalization happens, you will see a lot of women leave the streets and be able to come work indoors," Tronic adds. Regulation, such as occupational health and safety, will be created at the local level, and hopefully, sex workers will be at the table making decisions like any other taxpaying industry stakeholder.
“Wouldn’t it be great to one day see us so evolved that sex workers are given rights and treated like people? They could form unions, pay into benefits, a pension plan. That’s my dream,” Tronic says.
Changing the laws means Canada must stop looking at sex work through a moralistic lens.
Maggie’s says selling sex is a pragmatic and sensible response for someone with a limited range of options. If a person is doing sex work but would rather not be, it is the lack of available options that is the real problem – not sex work. Queer youth, trans women, people of colour and indigenous people often face limited economic options and discrimination.
“For many, sex work is the best or only option for work, and we work to improve the conditions of work.”