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According to the Sex Work Health Research and Community Partnership, the sex industry in Canada is often misunderstood because people tend to focus on the moral implications of sex work. Therefore, the complexities involved in sex work are overlooked and entrenched in stigma.

Some current research is rooted in a feminist framework, which seeks to empower those working in the sex industry by providing them with a venue to raise concerns about the structure of sex work, and their resulting resource needs. According to this paradigm, sex work is not the cause of harm. Rather, the harm associated with sex work is attributable to the emotional, physical, and sexual violence experienced by people working in the sex industry, which is not inherently a part of sex work itself.

June 2 marked the anniversary of the 1975 occupation of Église Saint-Nizier in Lyon, France by more than 100 sex workers. Now, June 2 is recognized as International Sex Workers’ Day, in support of the continued fight to ensure that sex workers’ lives, bodies, and work are respected.

The day is celebratory, it’s purpose is to remember the discrimination of sex workers and learn from that history. Sex work in Canada has become a “hot topic” in part influenced by the public attention on the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Bedford v. Canada, which argued that Canada’s laws governing sex work were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Bedford. In reaction to that decision, the previous Conservative government introduced new laws framed as protecting women from exploitation. Even though many sex workers and allies alike mobilized, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Person Act (PCEPA) became law. The PCEPA criminalizes the purchase of sex while continuing to capture sex workers and third parties through criminal sanctions that limit where and how they work including criminalizing the advertisement of sexual services.

Locally, the Social Innovation Research Group of Wilfrid Laurier University conducted a needs assessment in 2014 stating that people of colour continue to be over represented in the Canadian sex industry, especially in street-based sex work. Highlighted in this needs assessment was a sex workers’ rights group out of Gatineau, P.O.W.E.R, emphasizing that racialized sex workers are also more likely to experience harassment by police officers and service providers because of increased visibility and persistent racism.

Additionally, Indigenous women are disproportionately represented in the sex industry as a result of Canada’s history of colonization. Specifically, the social and economic marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada limits alternative employment options for those working in the sex industry, particularly among low income Indigenous women.

Founded in Kitchener in 2007, the Sex Workers Action Network (SWAN) seeks to reduce the stigma associated with sex work by promoting the Region of Waterloo as a community where sex workers are recognized as valuable members of society. SWAN is a non-partisan umbrella group consisting of concerned individuals, including those with lived experience, agencies, and groups committed to assisting and supporting individuals working in the sex industry.

On the 2017 International Sex Workers’ Day, SWAN held a “die-in” at Kitchener city hall. Those in attendance wore red in remembrance of sex workers who have been killed, face on-going violence, and continue to resist. At 3pm, those wearing red dropped to the ground and others placed the internationally adopted symbol of a red umbrella over the participants of the die-in. Participants held their positions for a few minutes of silence and then proceeded to carry out the event by giving out hand bills to raise awareness about the day and sex work in general.

Alongside this action, SWAN has been working on getting some initiatives up and running. One of the proposed is the Bad Date Line, an anonymous reporting tool that sex workers can use to report a bad date and SWAN will distribute reports to keep other sex workers informed.

The second being a structured discussion to allow sex workers to identify if when, where, and what might work best as a first step in organizing.

In addition, SWAN is also working on a Safe Spaces decal and training program, similar to the rainbow flag symbol. This will symbolize to sex workers that the agency or business is sex worker-friendly and is able to provide safe support. To receive this decal, organizations will go through a training program that will have them recognize that people involved in sex work have the same rights as any other individual accessing our organization and commit to remaining mindful of their own preconceptions; reflecting upon stereotypes; being aware of sex worker diversity; respecting sex workers’ life choices; being vigilant about respecting confidentiality; appreciating that trust must be earned; believing and acknowledging their experiences; creating a sex worker friendly space.

If people working in the sex industry, community members with lived experience, or advocates feel they would like to contribute to any of these initiatives in Kitchener-Waterloo with SWAN, they can contact Lyndsey Butcher at director@shorecentre.ca or Amy Venner at womensprevention@acckwa.com.