5 Ways to Make Sex Work Safer In Canada

At least two Canadian sex workers have been killed in 2020. Callous legislation is a big reason their work was so unsafe, and it’s still putting women at risk.

(Photo: iStock)

Social distancing measures have threatened business activity from coast-to-coast, and that includes the sex work industry. Advocates say sex workers are blocked from accessing government assistance, even as distancing bylaws have forced them to either stop meeting clients altogether, or increase their safety risks by meeting still-willing clients in particularly isolated locations.

Sex workers were already having a bad 2020 before COVID-19 got underway. The first two months of the year saw two massage parlour workers, Marylene Levesque and Ashley Arzaga, brutally murdered. Although the women lived provinces apart, both of their deaths were made possible by ignorant attitudes about the realities of sex work, which are often reflected in federal, provincial and municipal legislation.

Levesque was killed in a Quebec City hotel room in late January. Her murderer, Eustachio Gallese, was out on parole after serving 15 years of a life sentence for viciously killing his common-law partner. When he was granted day parole in March 2019, he was barred from having romantic relationships, but allowed to meet sex workers in order to fulfill his sexual needs. No sex workers or advocacy organizations were given any warning about his release by the parole office, something advocates believe might have kept Levesque safe. In February, Gallese pleaded guilty to first degree murder and has been sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 25 years.

A month later, Arzaga became the victim of a machete attack at a north Toronto spa, after an assailant burst into her place of work and murdered her. Advocates say the problem there was a local bylaw preventing massage parlours from locking their doors (which was reportedly put in place as a safety measure for workers). A 17-year-old boy has been charged with first-degree murder, as well as one count of attempted murder for injuring another employee. His identity is protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. On May 19, Toronto police added “murder – terrorist activity,” to his charges: according to Global News, police say he was part of the incel, or “involuntary celibate,” movement, an online community of men who promote violence against women on internet forums, blaming women for their inability to attract sexual partners. This seems to be the first such charge in Canada, or anywhere.

Canada’s parole board is facing tough questions from the federal public safety committee about Levesque’s death. Arzaga’s death is getting no such probe, but Toronto’s sex worker community has launched a petition, demanding that mayor John Tory and city council take immediate steps to make sex work jobs safer. “We have a responsibility to examine the rules and regulations and policies that contributed to [Argaza’s] murder,” says Chanelle Gallant, a sex worker activist and co-founder of the Migrant Sex Workers Project.

Callous legislation at every level of government creates structural barriers to safety for sex workers, particularly those who are lower income, racialized or undocumented. At a time when the risks they face are only heightened by a global health crisis, here are five ideas from those who know best—the workers themselves—about how to make their work safer.

Decriminalize sex work

In 2014, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government created new sex work laws after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous rules as unconstitutional. At the time, the federal department of justice claimed that Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was designed to “protect those who sell their own sexual services.” Gallant says it does the exact opposite.

That’s because, while it may be technically legal to be a sex worker, it’s still illegal to buy sex. This means sex workers’ clients are still likely to pursue secrecy, since they’re effectively breaking the law. It’s also still illegal to “materially benefit” from sex work, which makes it difficult for workers to find a space to work or even live in, as a landlord could be charged for collecting a sex workers’ rent (in February, a London, Ont. judge ruled this law unconstitutional too, but only a ruling from a higher court would lead to meaningful changes).

Both provisions keep sex work effectively criminalized, says Gallant, and effectively deny sex workers the human right to security of person. “Sex workers are forced underground and are not able to take any precautions any other worker can take,” she says. “It creates total social isolation which then of course makes people vulnerable.” If sex work was fully decriminalized, predatory customers would be less able to take advantage of them.

Let sex workers protect themselves

Bylaws in cities across Canada—including Toronto, where Arzaga was killed in her workplace—prevent workers from locking their doors, working closely with one another (therefore “materially benefiting”), legally handling money or installing security cameras. Politicians claim these provisions are all in the name of sex worker safety, but Elene Lam, director of Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network calls them “repressive.”

Lam says such bylaws prevent workers from effectively screening and refusing suspicious clients. “In the last three months, we received more than 25 complaints of violence [from workers] but they’re not able to call the police,” she said, since making such reports puts workers at risk of being investigated for trafficking or other bylaw related offences.

Bylaw investigations are problematic in general, says Lam. A 2018 survey by Butterfly found that one third of respondents had been abused in some way by bylaw enforcement or police: 22 percent said they were verbally assaulted, while 12 percent reported physical or sexual assault. One respondent said an officer demanded she show him her underwear, searched her place of work without a warrant and issued three tickets in one week after she challenged his efforts.

Lam calls these searches “dehumanizing.” And, she says, COVID-19 has meant new bylaws giving police across Ontario new powers to enforce social distancing, including greater abilities to demand citizens’ identification. This, she says, puts migrant sex workers at particular risk. Despite their business being slowed to a virtual halt, “they’re still afraid they’ll be targeted,” Lam says. Along with the advocacy organization Maggie’s, Butterfly has set up a COVID-19 relief fund to help workers offset their lost income. A similar fund has been set up in Ottawa by the organization POWER.

Stop conflating sex work with sex trafficking

In early February, the federal Conservatives put forward a motion to condemn the National Parole Board’s decision to let Levesque’s murderer out on day parole. During the ensuing House of Commons debate, NDP MP Laurel Collins raised the question of whether federal criminalization of sex work could have contributed to Levesque’s death.

In response, Conservative MP Arnold Viersen asked Collins if she’d ever considered sex work—his point being that it’s impossible that anyone chooses it. Sex work is always something that women, he said, are “trafficked into.”

This is a massive misconception, says Lam. Most sex workers are doing their jobs by choice, even if it is a choice of circumstance driven by poverty. She says that attempts to enforce human trafficking laws ramped up significantly since Bill C-36 (which treats all sex work as a form of exploitation). This has only made sex workers further vulnerable, as their workplaces have become the targets of raids by police and bylaw officers looking for trafficking scenarios.

Lam says it’s rare for women who have been trafficked to be working in massage parlours at all, because victims of trafficking are typically forced to work out of hotel rooms, which don’t require licenses or leases.

Women who actually are being forced into sex work also need better ways to report issues to the authorities, as doing so often makes their situations more precarious, too. “Sometimes when a woman reports the violence…the woman [gets] investigated, either as a trafficking victim or as a trafficker,” Lam says.

Stop buying into stereotypes

Both Lam and Gallant say that Canadian authorities’ anti-trafficking lens is often distorted by xenophobia and racism. Lam says that holistic massage is a legitimate part of Chinese and other Asian cultures, and according to the City of Toronto, just one in four body rub parlours or holistic massage centres offer sexual services. Yet politicians and police behave as if sexual activity is going on in all of them, Lam says, and as such, “all the human rights violations [of these workers] become justified.”

She believes bylaw officers and police discriminate against Asian women by buying into stereotypes, assuming they’re unable to advocate for themselves. In Butterfly’s 2018 report, Lam wrote that “Asian migrant sex workers are perceived to be at risk of abuse from their ‘traffickers,’ who are often in fact their colleagues, partners, or friends.”

Lam calls body rub parlours and holistic centres “an important alternative economy”—they’re often places that offer work to migrant women who don’t speak English, or don’t have the money or immigration status to become Registered Massage Therapists. Such jobs can actually be less exploitative than working in factories and restaurants, says Lam, which pay much less, and so require excessive hours for women to be able to feed their families.

And yet, citing COVID-19 concerns, Edmonton city councillor John Dziadyk recently suggested closing body rub parlours permanently, even though local advocates say it will result in some workers turning to unsafe street work. “There’s no good thing that will come out of this. It will hurt us all,” said Mona Forya, a licensed escort and body rub practitioner told CBC, which reported that the city began licensing body rub centres in 1994, in part to reduce the involvement of minors and organized crime in the Edmonton sex trade.

Give Indigenous sex workers greater agency

In June 2019, the inquiry into Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry presented its final report, which also cautioned against conflating sex work with trafficking.

“This whole trafficking scare, you know, has really made it hard for women, particularly Indigenous women, in the sex industry to do our work safely, because now we have to hide from police, we have to go places that are more isolated,” Lanna Moon Perrin told the inquiry. “To advertise our services is even more tricky… We’re not victims. But, when we get pushed, and pushed, and pushed and hidden, that creates an opportunity for us to be victimized.”

Gallant offers the reminder that 60 percent of the women killed by B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton in what advocates call the “Downtown Eastside Massacre” were Indigenous. “With Indigenous women we have some of the most intense and most painful police abuse, whether that’s direct sexual assault by police officers or decades of neglect when Indigenous sex workers are targeted by predators,” Gallant says.

An inquiry submission made by the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform argued that it’s often law enforcement that poses the biggest risk to Indigenous sex workers. The alliance noted that violence inflicted on Indigenous women is often “directly related” to their contact with police. It also pointed out that the Criminal Code provision against “materially benefitting” from another’s person’s sex work put the larger community at risk, too, writing that it undermined women’s “relationships with family members who may offer safety or support to Indigenous women who sell sex.”

Among the MMIWG Inquiry’s final Calls to Justice were two takeaways that would empower Indigenous women engaged in sex work. First, governments must offer steady and significant support programs for Indigenous women, girls and people who are 2SLGBTQQQIA (an acronym encompassing people who are marginalized because of their gender or sexual identity). Perhaps most importantly, police services need to create and set up better guidelines for how to police the sex industry—and they need to do this in consultation with Indigenous women. Any new guidelines or approach must include a mechanism for Indigenous women to safely complain about police who are abusing their power.

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