sex work

The power of defining and labeling

The first time I came across the labeling theory was in my second year sociology of deviance class. There are several theoretical perspectives and critiques when it comes to the labeling theory. Some of the names that come up when I think of labeling theories are Mead, Lemert, Becker, and most significantly, Ervin Goffman.

These two terms, defining and labeling, are almost synonymous to one another. It is almost as if the one cannot exist without the other. If you define one’s lived experiences, then you label their lived experiences and if you label one’s lived experiences, then you define their lived experiences. One does not exist without the other. 

So what does defining one’s lived experiences mean, and what does it mean to label another person’s lived experiences? This question is extremely relevant to the Bedford case which is going to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in June (and to have your case go all the way to the SCC is pretty darn important). 

Just recently, J. Wagner of the SCC denied leave to intervene to several prominent sex work organizations in Canada that would have represented the voices of sex workers from various geographic regions (Maggies, 2013) In Maggie’s press release, Kara Gilles, was quoted as saying, “When POWER and Maggie’s intervened in Bedford at the Ontario Court of Appeal, we were able to share sex workers’ perspectives and experiences that the Court would otherwise not have heard. It’s a shame that this time around, both sex workers and the judiciary will miss out.” And that is accurate on so many levels: both sex workers and the judiciary will miss out.

The fact that the judiciary denied leave to this coalition of sex workers is an act of defining and labeling in an extremely political sense. It says that this group is incapable of speaking or defining their own lived experiences and labeling their own lived experiences. More importantly, it says that this type of work isn’t real work. 

From the principles of Maggie’s, sex work is real work and it is socially legitimate and valuable! 

Decriminalization of Canada’s Anti-Prostitution Laws

                On June 26, 2012, the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2011-2012 was released and it is described as part of Canada’s public safety strategy by “providing external oversight and independent monitoring of the Correctional Service of Canada” (Sapers, 2012). One of the topics covered in the above Annual Report relates to Aboriginal issues. Under the report’s subheading “Diversity in Corrections,” it states that the percentage of Indigenous women in federal incarceration has increased by 85% over the last decade, and that all use of force incidents involved Indigenous women (Sapers, 2012). Though this report attempts to address the needs of Indigenous women who are already incarcerated, it does little to address how the women arrived there and what is being done to decrease the rising numbers of Indigenous women who are being criminalized. Previous to the report’s publication, a Report of the Standing Committee on 
the Status of Women was published in 2010, and it focused on violence against Indigenous women. In this report, a witness highlights that Canada’s “Criminal Code offenses related to prostitution increased the vulnerability of women in the sex trade by forcing women to work in unsafe conditions and to distrust the police” (Fry, 2010, p. 19). While some organizations support the complete decriminalization of Canada’s current anti- prostitution laws, there are some organizations that suggest this complete decriminalization will not address the violence that Indigenous women continue to experience. For example, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) supports the decriminalization of those who sell sex but does not supports the decriminalization of buyers of sex (Native Women’s Association of Canada, 2012). Although there is no current strategy on how to approach the further incarceration of Indigenous women, I will argue for the decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws as a way to address this modern-day colonization of increasing numbers of Indigenous women in federal institutions. To support my argument, I will provide a critical analysis of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws, and discuss the role this modern-day colonialism plays in subjugating Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality.
             In Home/Land, Mary Ellen Turpel (1991) argues that the current state of Indigenous peoples “can only be fully understood by appreciating its colonial context” (p. 336) and that “the system of white patriarchy is deeply embedded in Canadian legal thought, doctrine and jurisprudence” (p. 344). Turpel’s arguments appear to support the empowerment of Indigenous women by advocating that Indigenous people’s realities are unknown to Canada’s legal system and legal thought. Unfortunately, Turpel’s arguments fall short by not openly naming the oppression that Indigenous people experience due to Canada’s colonial legal system. To put it unashamedly, this oppression experienced by Indigenous peoples is both institutional and legislated racism that has been integral to Canada’s on-going colonization. Thus, there exists a need to reframe the issues Indigenous peoples experience to capture their lived realities. In Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda T. Smith (1999) presents the concept of reframing where she describes reframing as involving “taking much greater control over the ways in which indigenous issues and social problems are discussed and handled” (p. 153). This concept of reframing can be applied to the issue of decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws to include the lived realities of all Indigenous women who are involved in sex work. Citing NWAC, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) outlines that this reframing needs to occur where there is a consideration of the “decriminalization in the context of also stopping racism” (Yee, 2010, para. 6). Through understanding the decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws as also stopping racism, one can begin to understand the colonial structure of Canada’s Criminal Code.
            By examining the historical context of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws, one must understand the effects of Othering by policy makers and its effects on Indigenous women. Smith (1999) makes this connection by outlining that the description of the Other through a colonial lens “has had very real consequences for Indigenous women” (p. 46). Some of the consequences, as outlined by Smith (1999), include the way Indigenous women are described, objectified, and represented through this colonial lens (p. 46). Often cited by Indigenous scholars are the once held prestigious political, social, and cultural roles Indigenous women occupied within their Indigenous communities before the colonization of Canada (Boyer, 2009, p. 75). In addition to occupying these prestigious roles within their Indigenous communities, Indigenous women also played a significant role with respect to the facilitation of Canada’s colonization. Boyer (2009) outlines Indigenous women’s roles were central to Canada’s fur trade era which eventually mutated to the misconceptualization of Indigenous women as being “more promiscuous in nature” (p. 77). While sexual relations between Indigenous women and white men were initially accepted, these practices were later penalized as a “social evil and a racial problem” (Boyer, 2009, p. 77). In effect, Canadian policy makers began to legislate various methods to govern Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality.
Before the enactment of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) in 1892 where Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws exist, the subjugation of Indigenous women bodies and sexualities occurred via the Indian Actthrough a number of colonial tactics (Boyer, 2009, p. 78). Among the most referenced of these tactics include the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes, or the forced sterilization of Indigenous women (Boyer, 2009, p. 74-75). The forced removal of Indigenous children from Indigenous homes and the forced sterilization of Indigenous women are intrinsically connected to Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality since their roles as life-givers and care-givers in their communities were subjugated through these legislated acts. While these colonial tactics are barbaric, one of the most underreported colonial tactics to subjugate Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality is the enactment of anti-prostitution laws under the Indian Act. Boyer (2009) highlights that these changes began in 1879 and proceeded with more forceful provisions in 1880, 1884, 1887, and then finally in 1892 where all sections relating to prostitution were removed from the Indian Act and enacted under the CCC (p. 78). In Canada and Migrant Sex-Work: Challenging the ‘Foreign’ in Foreign Policy, Leslie Ann Jeffrey (2005) argues in a present day context “policy decisions on prostitution, therefore, most commonly reflect concerns to construct and discipline particular identities” (p. 33). This construction of the Indigenous women’s identity as being promiscuous and later legislated and criminalized as a prostitute is an example of Canada’s colonial concerns to discipline particular identities.
Today, Indigenous women over-represent both the prison populations and the sex work populations (Bruckert and Chabot, 2010, p. 96). Yet, there is limited discussion between the two relational statistics. In Challenges: Ottawa area sex workers speak out, the authors reported that Indigenous women, either sex workers or non-sex workers, are described as over-policed and under-protected (Bruckert and Chabot, 2010, p. 97). This same pattern of over-policing/under-protection is also highlighted by NYSHN in their October 2010 press release. Following the Ontario Superior Court’s decision to rule that the parts of CCC relating to Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional, Jessica Yee (2010), the executive director of NYSHN, writes, “high rates of arrest and incarceration are a reality, yet there still has been no justice for the over 500 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada” (para. 6). One might argue that these organizations are too focused on sex-work and do not capture the lived realities of those who are exploited. Consequently, there occurs a bifurcation of the topic of the decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws.
As stated earlier, some organizations that advocate on behalf of Indigenous women argue that the decriminalization of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws will not address the violence that Indigenous women experience. However, the violence that Indigenous women experience is often colonial in nature. It can be argued that in Home/Land (1991) Turpel’s focus on the violence that Indigenous women experience in the privacy of their homes is adopting a colonial lens since it is often that Indigenous women experience increased violence at the hands of non-Indigenous men and that these non-Indigenous men often commit these violent acts for years without any detection by law enforcement. Two examples of non-Indigenous men committing violence against Indigenous women and inconspicuously include Robert Pickton and John Crawford (Native Women’s Association, 2002, p. 5-6).  Respectively, one specifically targeted sex workers that often included Indigenous women and the other targeted Indigenous women, but both are labeled as serial killers. Another argument that is presented by some organizations is that the decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws will lead to an increase in human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls. However, often ignored is how exploitation through sex work occurs as a result of the criminalization of the trade. Through her post-colonial approach to migrant sex work, Jeffrey (2005) argues “trafficking, understood as exploitation within sex-work, occurs because of ignoring sex-workers’ rights to decriminalized and safe working conditions” (p. 34). As a result, the reframing of the topic of the decriminalization of Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws needs to occur which includes the realities of Indigenous women as being both over-policed and under-protected.
In Home/Land, Turpel appears to be advocating for the empowerment of Indigenous women by arguing that there needs be a dismantling of Canada’s colonial legal system. Yet, her argument appears to adopt a colonial perspective by focusing on the Other through the context of domestic violence in the homes of Indigenous families. When in reality, the violence that goes undetected has occurred through the examples of serial killers, Pickton and Crawford, or has been legislated through the use of force incidents in federal institutions as demonstrated in the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2011-2012 (2012). Accordingly, when Turpel (1991) highlights that “[Indigenous] peoples do not want to continue as wards of the federal government” (p. 343), a reframing as to how Indigenous women’s bodies and sexualities are subjugated through over-policing and under-protection via the criminalization of sex work needs to be investigated. In Call Into the Night: An Overview of Violence Against Aboriginal Women (2011), it is emphasized “women who are arrested for prostitution are rarely given diversion programs, while male consumers are often given opportunities for ‘john school’” (Fry, p. 19). Since there is an overrepresentation of Indigenous women in sex work, there needs to be an investigation in how this relates to the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in federal institutions. In other words, and as mentioned above, there is a need to reframe how Indigenous women’s bodies are being colonized, subjugated, and becoming wards of the federal government through its federal institutions in increasing numbers. Though previous barbaric attempts of assimilation and colonization of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal of Indigenous children and the forced sterilization of Indigenous women has failed, it can be seen that with the increasing populations of Indigenous women in Canada’s federal institutions that modern-day colonialism is beginning to take on a different shape.

Reference List
Boyer, Y. (2009). “First Nations Women’s Contributions to Culture and Community Through Canadian Law.” Ed. Valaskakis, Gail G.., Madelein Dion Stout, and Eric Guimond, Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community and Culture (69-96). Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Bruckert, C., & Chabot, F. (2010). Challenges: Ottawa area sex workers speak out. Retrieved from <;.
Jeffrey, Leslie Ann. (2005). Canada and migrant sex-work: Challenging the ‘foreign’ in foreign policy. Canadian Foreign Policy 12, (1): 33-48.
Native Women’s Association of Canada. (2002). Violation of Indigenous Human Rights. Retrieved from <;.
Native Women’s Association of Canada. (2012). Understanding NWAC’s Position on Prostitution – November 2012. Retrieved from <;.
Sapers, H. (2012). Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2011-2012. Retrieved from <;.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books Ltd.
Turpel, M. E. (1991). Home/Land. In T. Brettel Dawson (5th Ed.), Women, Law and Social Change: Core Readings and Current Issues (336-344). Ontario: Captus Press
Yee, J. (2010). Decriminalization of sex work and Indigenous youth and communities – a response from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network on the recent Ontario Superior Court Decision. Retrieved from <;.

Caught in human traffic Lies!

Here is a story that I read last week entitled “Caught in human traffic”. Coincidentally, I also happened to read it the day before I was presenting my paper on human trafficking of Indigenous women/girls which argues that these new anti-human trafficking legislation(s) and/or policies are in effect an attempt to control Indigenous women’s bodies/sexuality, and in a much broader significance, Indigenous sovereignty. I am not alone in this argument as Laura Agustin describes this social phenomena in similar terms. Smith on Agustin writes,

She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative. (Smith, 2011)

I was not impressed with the above LFpress story and the significant claim being made by the alleged victim in this story. After speaking to multiple mutual friends who both know the victim in this story and the dancer who committed suicide (who is mentioned in this story), I decided to write this blog post. The article reads,

Most importantly she throws a lifeline to the women being trafficked on the circuit she once worked. But sometimes the rope misses. “The hardest part is losing them,” she said, referencing a girl who hung herself three months ago. “Her stage name was Alex, but I want to say her real name out loud – it’s Michelle – because she was a real person,” said Stacey. 

The suggestion that this victim knew Alex/Michelle well enough to know her reasons for suicide is a falsification of Alex/Michelle’s story to sensationalize the alleged victim’s own story to solidify the argument that human trafficking in London ON (or in Ontario in general). Most importantly, it is also a complete disregard for the families/friends of Alex/Michelle. I even commented on the article and another reader suggested that I was in denial that her suicide was connected to human trafficking. I can tell you right now that the suggestion that Alex/Michelle committed suicide because of human trafficking is a blatant lie. I can also tell you that the victim in the story did not know Alex/Michelle. In fact, she was not allowed in the club or anywhere near the club where Alex/Michelle worked (from a mutual friend who knows the victim and Alex/Michelle). So to suggest she tried to “save her” is another blatant lie. Also, the article has Alex/Michelle’s death date wrong because she died last August 2012 not three months ago. To put it plainly: another blatant lie, and she just doesn’t know what she is talking about when it comes to someone I lived with, was my neighbor, had a relationship with, knew her parents, was there for the birth of her child, and a magnitude of other life events.

This idea that anti-human traffickers make up statistics or stories or use the lives/deaths of people no longer around anymore always seem so distant to me. However, after reading this article, I knew that I had to do something; hence, I am writing this blog post.

I am not here to suggest that people who are exploited or victimized should not have their stories acknowledged; however, if claims are going to be made about certain populations then these claims need to be legitimate and not further exploited for financial gain which is what is happening here with this idea that human trafficking occurs in London ON. I wrote about the research that suggests that “1:5 in sex workers” are trafficked (you can read more HERE). There are huge amounts of government grants and research grants that are being poured into program planning and program implementation locally, nationally, and internationally. In fact, Agustin mentions that one does not even have to mention “trafficking” to receive funding. I guess that is why the research report that I cited in my previous blog post “Human Trafficking in London?!?!’ mentions “Aboriginal women” only briefly (I mean, there are loads of money pouring into organizations and institutions that seek to investigate the lives of this “vulnerable population.”). While describing the picture of two white-abled bodied men drawing attention to “vulnerable women,” Agustin writes,

They don’t mention trafficking too loudly, but that is now the keyword to access much funding for ‘women’s issues’. It wouldn’t matter that these two guys are unlikely to have met any trafficked victims or know what to do if they did.

Another issue that needs to be addressed with the anti-human traffickers’ crusade is the organizations involved. As state in the article, the alleged victim received help from the Salvation Army and is a member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking coalition (LAHTC). I had a class last year and it was entitled “Sociology of Deviance.” In this class I learned that the LAHTC argues that the strippers/exotic dancers who are being trafficked travel in groups along the Windsor Corridor which is also described in the LFPress article. The reason strippers/exotic dancers travel in groups to various clubs in Ontario is because it is safer! It can even be argued that it is suggested that non-sex work women should not travel alone or employ safe travel practices when traveling alone like changing rooms if a stranger over hears the hotel agent announcing the room in the lobby while presenting a room key to the female guest. So then why is there a difference in traveling advice/tips for sex workers? Must they absolutely travel alone in order not to be considered a trafficking vicim? Must they put the consideration of anti-human traffickers and their ideals of sex workers above their own income/employment by sticking to one club, absolutely?

Not only does the LAHTC propose outlandish ideas that suggest a sex worker is being trafficked, the training manuals that have been created also create problems for all those involved in this anti-human trafficking crusade. This short 6 minute video is a fine example of the problems associated with training for the rehabilitation of human trafficking victims:

Although not obvious, the training manual suggests that prostitution can be found at health clinics (???), and that God intended for sexual relations to only happen between man/woman (hello transphobia/homophobia), and the there needs to be a “restoration” of sexuality to this natural intention, and finally, what to expect from human trafficking victims: masturbation (!?!?!?), confused sexuality (!?!!??!), and STIs (!?!??!). So not only does it cause stigmatization among the victims, it assumes that the only way for a victim to be truly saved he/she must conform to societal gender/sex norms. It also suggests that all those in the sex industry have STIs. I always wondered where this idea came from and why the reader in the above LFpress article suggested that prostitution be legalized (not decriminalized which is what is really being asked of the courts with the Bedford et al. case before the SCC), and that all “prostitutes” should undergo mandatory STI testing–I guess this is where the idea originates from that all those involved even those who are considered human trafficking victims will have STIs which is also indicated in this US based website. Hello stigmatization!!!

In addition to the above paragraph, what is really alarming about this video is the role-playing suggestions for facilitators of groups and as the voice-over announces, “it is a perfect example of sexual exploitation” because the facilitator must call on a volunteer (actually a woman), then blindfold one and then gag the other, and having the gagged-other to call out for help. A big WHAT-THE-EFF! This training manual is the training manual of the same Christian/Faith based organization mentioned in the LFpress: the Salvation Army.

So hey people of London, while you read about these stories and these suggestions that human trafficking exists in Southern Ontario, please be critical of where you are reading the information, who is presenting the information because it is clear that the organizations involved will exploit the lives/deaths of others for their own agenda and own gain.

Human Trafficking in London ON?!?!

Just recently I had the opportunity to speak at an event on Kings Campus. This event was organized by one of my peers and we were having a discussion on Idle No More (, and after the event we had an opportunity for attendees to ask us questions or converse with us.

At one point I was congratulated on my opportunity to present at Flaunting It 9 (an undergraduate conference on main campus). My paper was chosen for this conference and I am speaking on “Human Trafficking and Indigenous Women in the 21st Century.” At the moment I announced this, I was immediately asked about what I thought of the recent article in the Metro newspaper on human trafficking in London which cites that one in five (1:5) sex workers are trafficked  (read article HERE). I read this article before this young man had asked me about my thoughts on this and I knew well in advance how to answer this.

In addition to this, when people ask me what my thoughts are on human trafficking the first thing I ask them is “where do you think this problem comes from?” Almost everyone has no reply or no response, and I get it, they are probably not used of receiving that type of reply. They are probably confused with the term human trafficking too.

The current research that is being done in London ON on this subject is quite questionable. I am not saying that is shouldn’t be done or that those who experience victimization or exploitation should not have their experiences examined or investigated to further enhance the services available to them. What I am saying is that the research that is currently out there should not be blanketed on all those who are doing sex work.

That statistic that I quoted earlier is the one major issue I have with the discussions around human trafficking in London ON. This statistic was taken from the recent research done at My Sister’s Place (MSP) which is a social service agency that provides social supports, referrals and other services to women struggling with a range of issues including mental health, addiction, poverty, homelessness, and violence (Orchard et al 2012). The methodology states that “over half of the 100 women who come to the agency daily have taken part in the sex trade” and this statement is problematic in itself because how do the researchers conclude that over 50% of the women who enter MSP on a daily basis are have taken part in the sex trade? One possibly cannot determine this upon simply looking at an individual and one cannot determine if another has partaken in the sex work by a simple conversation–unless of course they asked every single women at MSP “are you in the sex trade?” upon entering. This was not the case as the data they collected only involved 33 semi-structure life histories and they only spoke with 23 women and of those 23 women, four categories of sex work emerged. Of those four categories, it was discovered that 4 of the 19 women who did sex work were forced whereby forced is defined as kidnapped, pimped, or coerced by a criminal organization. I find the sections dealing with human trafficking in the Criminal Code of Canada quite excessive. If the women were kidnapped/pimped/coerced, then there are already sections in the CCC to deal with those offenses.

In addition to this, the research indicated that there was an overrepresentation of Aboriginal women (25% interviewed but make up for 1.5% of London’s population. They do not account for this overrepresentation with being connected to the effects of colonialism (not once is this mentioned) and they ignore the fact that London is surrounded by some of Canada’s largest First Nations.

Much of the media’s focus on human trafficking in London has been focused on this research that was released last October 2012. However, to say that 1/5 women in sex work are being trafficked is not generalizable to sex workers in London ON. The research gathered their participants from an already vulnerable population and due to this fact, it is quite a reality that you are bound to find someone who has been exploited or victimized. As I stated earlier, I am not saying that this work shouldn’t be done. I am just saying that we have to be careful how we apply research to a specific population in a specific region. To say that 1/5 sex workers are trafficked in London is questionable.

Not only is this statistic questionable, but so is the suggestion that trafficking does happen in London. In the metro article, the police officer is quoted as saying that no charges for human trafficking have been laid and that these charges mostly end up as charges relating to assault and extortion.

Perhaps future research should include an accurate representation of sex workers in London and not just the most vulnerable and most visible. If the research being done on sex work is going to affect sex work, then the voice of all sex workers need to be included. Also, as a young Indigenous woman, I am tired of researchers that discuss Aboriginal women but the discussion remains lost or buried in the population being investigated. This was the case in this report since Aboriginal women and their experiences were only discussed briefly in the methodology section.

I thought I would write a brief blog post on this topic since it is coming up a lot in my life at the moment and since I will be presenting my paper on the topic this coming Friday. If you have any questions/concerns, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or contact me via twitter or Facebook.

Have a great day all!