I am an Indigenous woman, a domestic violence survivor and a sexual assault survivor. I am also a former sex worker. An Anishnaabe-kwe, I am originally from Northern Ontario, where I first started working as an escort. Eventually, I moved to Southern Ontario in search of more opportunities and I did so in the context of sex work. I am not a victim of human trafficking. But because the definition of a human trafficking victim is so broad, I would be considered a victim based on definition alone: young, Indigenous, female, travelling from the north to the south in search of more job opportunities, and working in the sex industry. In the context of Bill C-36, all sex workers would be considered victims irrespective of exploitative or coercive situations. Bill C-36 fails to differentiate between exploitative situations and non-exploitative situations, which is a complete contradiction to Bedford. For those individuals who do experience exploitation and coercion, diverting resources away from victims of exploitation toward anti-prostitution campaigns, like Bill C-36, does an injustice to the victims.
When I first moved to South Western Ontario, I had no friends and family in the area. I moved to a new city with only a few bags of clothing and a job at a local club. I drifted in and out of various forms of sex work, some criminal and some not criminal. Exotic dancing is not criminal. Before Bedford, receiving consideration for sexual services was not criminal either. What was considered criminal was a nexus of behaviours surrounding the selling of sexual services, similar to the behaviours that will be criminalized in Bill C-36—like working indoors or working in groups or pairs. If Bill C-36 is enacted, it will make all sex work criminal because it does not define what is meant by sexual services. With criminalization comes stigmatization and after living, working, and going to school in South Western Ontario, I became very aware of the isolation and alienation that criminalization of the trade creates in the lives of sex workers.
After experiencing a domestic violence situation, I sought out domestic violence counseling. Because of my sex work, the organization’s counselor thought that the source of all my problems was my work. Yet, those incidences were completely unrelated to sex work. Also, because of where I worked, the organization’s counselor could not believe that I was not being trafficked—no matter what I told them. This organization and others also support Bill C-36.
This organization and many other organizations and individuals who support the Bill C-36, in whole or in part, argue that all prostitution is male violence against women. This argument, however, distracts from real violence that a woman may experience, like myself, outside the context of sex work. As I stated earlier, this organization went so far as to blame my work for my problems even though my work had nothing to do with it. I ended up having to leave the counseling and not receiving the help I needed in relation to that traumatic event. I never felt more isolated and alienated. Following these experiences, the only people I knew I could count on for a sense of security and safety were other sex workers. Under Bill C-36, these relationships with other sex workers would be criminalized. If Bill C-36 were to become law tomorrow, sex workers would be forced to work alone and in isolation to avoid threat of arrest, creating more risk and harm. Even though the supporters of the Bill attempt to argue that only the sellers are decriminalized, this is a fallacy. There are multiple sections that implicate sex workers’ personal and professional relationships.
When I was sexually assaulted, I quickly learned, as a sex worker, I could not go to the police for protection. After this assault, which did not happen in the context of sex work, I went to the police to make a report. Yet, when the investigating officer asked what I did for work, I told her I was a sex worker. The officer then blamed my work for what happened even after I kept emphasizing that the assault did not happen in the context of sex work. Following this assault, I also asked to be referred to mental health counseling for what happened and my doctor’s office would not refer me until I lied about not doing sex work anymore–I asked three times and by the third time, I realized I would not receive the referral unless my nurse believed I was not doing sex work anymore. Again, even though sex work had nothing to do with the assault.
I left the police station feeling yet again alienated and isolated due to the criminalization of my work and the inability to access to basic services like safety and protection. This idea that all prostitution is violence against women ignores these realities that I outlined above. More importantly, these arguments, that prostitution is male violence against women, ignore the fact that Indigenous sex workers can experience institutional and systemic violence. Bill C-36 also ignores this reality.
This is one reality of many that is often ignored—the story of those who have worked in the trade without coercion or exploitation. I was not trafficked but because of the definition of a human trafficking victim, I would be considered a victim. The alienation, isolation, and denial of services from the policing agencies and domestic violence organizations are re-traumatizing in itself. Sex workers deserve protection and access to services. Sex workers are persons too!
When we criminalize prostitution, either the buying or selling, we focus on the act of prostitution as the source of all problems in a sex worker’s life—this is also the premise of the Bill. It creates victims where there are none. Bill C-36 does not help address exploitation and coercion as it diverts resources toward politicized and futile anti-prostitution campaigns and away from victims. If we were to meaningfully include Indigenous women into the discussion and if Bill C-36 were to become law tomorrow, the reality is that Indigenous sex workers will continue to go missing and murdered and their lives will continue to be seen as disposable. The government and organizations have attempted to argue that if one engages in a risky activity then those individuals must absorb the risks that come with the activity. This ignores the state’s role in creating those risks, leaving the sex worker vulnerable to more risk and harm. When Peter Mackay attempts to assert that Canada needs to listen to the stories of victims, we need to question why specific stories are being left out, because our stories, the stories of sex workers, matter too.
In closing, I would like to dedicate this piece to Tricia Boisvert and Michelle Rancourt. Tricia Boisvert was an Indigenous woman, an aunt, a sister, and a daughter who was found murdered in a remote area in Quebec. When the media initially reported on her murder, they focused on her sex work. Yet, she had just graduated from a college program and worked as palliative care nurse.
Michelle Rancourt, who was a mother, daughter, and sister, and worked in London, Ontario in the industry, was found dead in her boyfriend’s home. Her death was ruled a suicide by the police after only two days of investigations. Following this, her death was exploited by an anti-human trafficking organization in London, Ontario. The organization said she killed herself because she was trafficked. She was not trafficked.
Sex work may be one part of an identity but that is not the only identity. Sex workers are also mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers. Our sex work identity or our experiences in sex work should not invalidate our existence and our lives in society. We are persons too.