When Sex Is Work: Organizing for Labour Rights and Protections

By van der Meulen, Emily | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

When Sex Is Work: Organizing for Labour Rights and Protections


van der Meulen, Emily, Labour/Le Travail


RESEARCH ON SEX WORK IN CANADA tends to analyse the ways in which the Canadian Criminal Code contributes to stigma, discrimination, and violence toward sex workers. (1) The negative implications of criminalization have been well documented in sexuality studies, women's studies, policy studies, and criminal justice studies research, not to mention by the courts themselves. In September 2010, a pronouncement by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (2) ruled that the sections of the Criminal Code which seek to prohibit aspects of prostitution are not congruent with the principles of justice as protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (3) In effect, the ruling supported the decriminalization of many common work-related activities, for example: working from a fixed location, including one's own home; hiring a driver or a bodyguard; and communicating in public for the purposes of engaging a client for services. The federal government appealed, and in March 2012 the Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision which again supported partial decriminalization. (4) The section of the decision regarding bawdy-houses includes a twelve month stay, which gives policy makers, politicians, sex workers, and labour organizers a limited amount of time to make recommendations and decisions about how to best regulate and organize indoor sex work.

While it is well documented that the criminalization of sex work increases harm and violence, the specific effects of criminalization on the organization of labour within the sex industry is considerably less documented. (5) As Becki Ross argues, "sex-free labour studies alongside work-free sexuality studies within Canadian social history has meant that the rich registers of 'sexuality' and 'labour' have rarely been placed systematically in relation to, and in tension with, one another." (6) As such, this article broadens the scope of analysis related to sex work and criminalization by looking at its labour-related consequences.

The arguments presented below have been supported and augmented by the results of other research on sex work, (7) but have been derived primarily from a study with twelve sex worker rights advocates in Toronto, Canada. (8) This qualitative and action-oriented study was designed and implemented with an eye to moving from research on sex workers to research with sex workers. (9) Each participant had experience in sex work advocacy, community development, and/or labour organizing and all were past or present members of Canada's oldest sex worker-run organization, Maggie's: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. Of the twelve interviewees, nine self-identified as women, one as male, and two gave no response; seven self-identified as white/Caucasian, three as Black/Afro-Caribbean, one as Latina, and one no response; eight were current sex workers, two were former sex workers, and two were allies; the average age of entry into sex work was twenty years old; and the average number of years working in the sex industry was thirteen. Each of the current and former sex workers had worked in a variety of sex industry establishments and sectors, including street-based sex work, erotic dance venues, massage parlours, independent escorting, and more. Their diversity of labour experiences and many years working meant that interviewees were highly knowledgeable about the organization of labour within the sex industry and about the ways in which it can be improved.

The interview sample represented a small and targeted case study of sex workers and allies involved with advocacy and labour organizing. Given the diversity and heterogeneity of the sex industry, it is nearly impossible to achieve a representative sample of all sex workers. (10) Thus, this targeted focus allowed for those already involved in advocacy efforts to reflect on the work they had been doing and discuss ways to improve their labour situations. Interviews were semi-structured and asked participants to discuss their ideal sex industry workplaces and to make recommendations that could be implemented both pre- and post-decriminalization. …

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