In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and provincial governments rapidly launched emergency financial benefits to people being impacted, from individual workers to small businesses. As two women with experience in the sex industry, we instinctively knew the majority of our community would not be helped by these benefits, let alone considered as workers in need. Money made from sex work often goes unrecognized by governmental supports, so sex workers can’t avail of traditional worker benefits if and when we lose our income. This is perpetuated by the ongoing criminalization of sex work in Canada. These conditions make it is unsafe for sex workers to disclose our income to apply for mainstream financial relief at any time, including during an unprecedented time of crisis.
Sex worker communities have consistently been stigmatized, censored, and seen as expendable, which has made us extremely resourceful. We have always found ways to take care of ourselves and each other. One of the ways we take care of our sex worker community in St. John’s is volunteering with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), where we work to support the safety and human rights of sex workers across our province. At times this involves fighting for better legislative policy, other times it means we step in to provide resources and services that aren’t available or safe for sex workers to access in the community.
During COVID-19 one of the concrete ways we worked to take care of our own sex working community was to help SHOP create a Sex Worker Relief Fund. Just weeks after launching this fund we’ve supported almost 50 sex workers in and around St. John’s, witnessing firsthand how a fund like this is crucial to ensure no one is left behind in this pandemic. Many sex workers applying to the fund have said they feel forgotten, afraid for their futures, and that the government and society at large still don’t seem to care enough about them to offer support they can actually access. It was critical to create an emergency fund that was easy to apply to, based on our lived experience and the knowledge at SHOP. We knew that easy access for sex workers would mean allowing people to apply, directly and without referral, with whatever name they felt comfortable using and without requiring any government identification. We did this because we know sex workers often learn, from experience, not to trust institutions. It was important to us that this fund had a fast turn-around time, and focused on getting money directly into peoples’ hands without any conditions or oversight on how the funds would be used, because we trust that sex workers actually know what we need best.
We are not alone in establishing a fund like this. Our work is inspired by sex worker organizations across the country and around the world who rapidly mobilized to support one another. Hundreds of groups just like SHOP have worked swiftly to create emergency funds, secure safer housing for people self-isolating, develop and disseminate harm reduction guidelines for sex work when not working isn’t an option, and skill-share ways to develop alternative income streams. Sex worker communities are creative and capable. We always have been, but we aren’t recognized this way.
Sex workers are regularly stereotyped in one of two ways: in need of being rescued— sometimes by force—by police, social workers, or non-profit groups; or as immoral, criminal, public nuisances that need to be displaced from our communities. These harmful narratives erase the long history the sex workers’ rights movement has with organizing, sharing resources and information, and creating alternative structures that respond to our needs. Sex workers have consistently been at the helm of change, from the Stonewall riots of the Pride movement, to the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS, to labour rights and unions.
COVID-19 has intensified injustices that sex workers have fought against for so long, across our many movements. That is why a guiding pillar of our relief fund is recognizing some sex workers are impacted more than others, due to the existing stigma and structural inequalities that lead to certain bodies being over-policed and over-surveilled. In this way, supports like this relief fund connect to the growing conversation we’re seeing right now around Black Lives Matter and protests for Black safety. When the systems that have been created to address poverty, homelessness, mental health, gender-based violence, and sex work, are not serving people— and, at worst, are killing people—we must imagine alternatives and implement them.
Over-policed communities have always built alternative systems of mutual aid and security. Initiatives like bad date lists to warn other workers of violent individuals, screening and safety plans for seeing clients, and offering peer support are mechanisms developed from the ground up by sex workers. We do this because the criminalized nature of our work and our lives allows police to be a major source of danger and harm. For example, just working together or with third parties in the sex industry for the purpose of collective support and protection is itself criminalized, in the name of ‘protecting’ sex workers from exploitation. Beyond that, police routinely assault, intimidate, and harass sex workers, most often workers who are Black, Indigenous, trans, and migrants. Listening to these sex workers, we know they are even more consistently and disproportionately targeted by police, face more violence and harsher sentencing, and/or are additionally threatened with immigrant detention centres and deportation.
Living under constant criminalization, we as sex workers, particularly those who are poor, trans, and racialized, have also been thrown under the bus by mainstream feminism. Well-intended feminists and anti-violence advocates—particularly white people—all too often rely on police intervention to address women’s rights, gender-based and sexual violence. This kind of white feminism, sometimes called ‘carceral feminism’, advocates for increased police budgets, expanded criminal laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and enhanced police and corrections surveillance measures, which uphold and extend a prison system disproportionately filled with Indigenous and racialized people.
These carceral ‘solutions’ have greatly contributed to the current state we find ourselves in, where police departments handle any number of community services for which they are fatally ill-equipped and unsuited. Mainstream feminism’s continued reliance on policing our way to safety, despite the endless preventable casualties along the way, demonstrates how insular, short-sighted, and self-interested white women’s advocacy can be.
This work—our work—has deep roots, is ongoing and always evolving. It draws from the legacy of mutual aid, transformative justice, and community care undertaken by Black, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQIA communities, by prisoners’ rights advocates, disability activists, and sex workers. Take a cue from communities like ours. Our struggles for safety and social justice are intertwined and overlapping, and our movements are part of the same project for liberation. Decriminalizing sex work, following Black and Indigenous leadership, funding basic needs for communities to flourish, and envisioning alternatives to police-based systems of public safety is essential. This is a moment in time for concrete change that is long overdue.
Sadie Hamilton is a performer, SHOP volunteer, and community worker.
Valerie Webber is a SHOP volunteer and PhD Candidate in Community Health & Humanities at Memorial University.
The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) is the first and only sex worker advocacy program in Newfoundland & Labrador, operated by the St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre. SHOP’s mandate is to advocate for the human rights of sex workers across our city and province, both on an individual and collective level. In just 6 short years, our small SHOP staff team have connected with almost 600 current and former sex workers, and in practice our work involves a great deal of individual support, outreach, and advocacy. This unique program was developed in partnership with cisgender and transgender women who engage in sex work, and everything they do is informed by the real experts: sex workers themselves.
For more information and to support sex workers’ human rights follow Safe Harbour Outreach Project on Facebook or @sexworkoutreach Twitter, or visit our website at sjwomenscentre.ca/programs/SHOP.
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