As both federal and provincial relief efforts are rolled out to help Ontarians deal with the prospects of lost work and wages as a result of COVID-19, one group is being consistently overlooked, advocates say. Like all service industries, sex work has been significantly affected by social-distancing measures and the closure of non-essential business, but inconsistent criminalization and stigmatization have left sex workers on their own and without government assistance.
Over the past month, advocacy and support groups within Ontario have responded to the lack of assistance by organizing funds to help alleviate the financial pressure on sex workers who have lost income due to the pandemic. In April, Maggies, a Toronto-based organization run by and for sex workers, partnered with Butterfly, a support network specifically aimed at Asian and migrant sex workers, to establish an emergency fund for those in need, prioritizing LGBTQ people, people of colour, and migrant workers or those with precarious immigration statuses.
Maggies’ board chair Jenny Duffy explains that the pandemic has made it more difficult to work safely — whether in strip clubs, massage parlours, doing street-based work, or as an escort — and cut off reliable sources of income for many Ontarians. “This is very challenging,” Duffy says. “Sex workers are in a difficult position between choosing their health and being able to afford food and rent.”
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Toronto-based sex worker william october has stopped all in-person client work completely and is now relying solely on income from online services. “It’s not nearly enough — and the absolute first time in my adult life that I haven’t been able to support myself with my private, in-person sessions,” they explain. “I’ve had to move, and the hours of work that goes into doing online sex work full-time is exhausting.”
The pandemic, Duffy says, “has really highlighted the impact of sex work being criminalized and how criminalization puts up barriers for sex workers in terms of accessing support.” Though the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit is meant for all workers — and has been expanded to allow for independent sources of income of up to $1,000 per month since it was first introduced in March — Duffy says that many are reluctant to apply, either because they already receive government assistance in the form of Ontario Disability Support Program or because they fear exposing themselves or their clients by being required to file their taxes. “When you’re working in a criminalized sector,” she says, “it’s very scary to provide the government with banking information and employment information.”
A spokesperson for the federal justice department told TVO.org via email that “the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (former Bill C-36) criminalized a range of sex trade-related conduct, including purchasing sexual services. However, those who sell their own sexual services cannot be held criminally liable for their part in that transaction.” They also said there will be a five-year parliamentary review of the legislation but that, “given the disruption to Parliamentary operations caused by COVID-19, decisions about the review may be somewhat delayed.”
Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, agrees, saying the challenges are compounded for migrant workers, who also experience increased levels of discrimination and police surveillance. “Sex work intersects with issues of race, immigration status, gender, poverty,” she says. “They are the people who are most suffering during this pandemic, and, when the support comes in, they are continuously excluded.”
The barriers to these supports highlight the hypocrisy inherent in the criminalization of sex work in Canada, says Ryan Conrad, media spokesperson for the Ottawa-based sex-worker-advocacy group Power. “The Canada Revenue Agency has a tax number for escorts so you can file your taxes even though it’s illegal work,” he says. “It’s very incoherent — the government will happily take sex workers’ money but then not help any of them or treat them like workers.” Power has based its own support fund, also launched in April, on the Maggies/Butterfly model. Sex workers can apply for these funds through an online application, though allowance is made for those who may not be able to access the internet.
Such applications provide information from the community that helps advocacy groups focus their efforts, Lam says, and highlight the need for better support systems for sex workers: “There’s a lot of workers who want to tell the government that they are also part of Canadian society, and they really, really need financial support.”
She argues that, in Ontario, money is funnelled away from sex-worker-support programs and into anti-sex-trafficking initiatives, which, she says, often erroneously identify migrant sex workers as victims of sex trafficking: “[It’s disappointing] to see how much funding is going to work that actually harms the sex worker and not to supporting them, because of the conflation, the assumption that sex workers are trafficked victims.”
When asked about the consequences of policing sex work through a human trafficking lens, a media-relations officer from the province’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services pointed to the government’s five-year, $307 million anti-human-trafficking strategy, launched March 6, which is intended “to protect children and youth, support survivors, raise awareness and hold offenders accountable.”
While accessible government support for sex workers during COVID-19 would be appreciated, Duffy and october say, they’re looking for a longer-term answer — such as a universal basic income. “Imagine if OntarioWorks and ODSP paid out an amount that people could realistically live off of. Or if CERB became a permanent benefit. With something like that in place, there would be no need to engage in unsafe practices out of desperation,” october says. “We need to implement things like permanent CERB or a huge increase in our existing benefits to pay out an amount that reflects our incurred costs as human beings.”
Lam emphasizes that any plan should address the larger legal issues. “What is the best way to support people to avoid exploitation, marginalization than giving them the resources to empower themselves as people?” she says. “Decriminalization [of sex work] is one of the powerful ways to give back the power to the people, because they won’t have the fear of being charged.”
Conrad agrees. “You can’t support sex workers as workers until sex work is fully decriminalized,” he says. “People will never be eligible or never be comfortable accessing support for workers if the type of work they’re doing is criminalized.”
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