Canada’s first sex worker advocacy organizations were born out of crisis.
And once again crisis — this time the COVID-19 pandemic — is making life increasingly difficult for sex workers, says Cecilia Benoit, an expert in research on sex work, scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and a sociology professor at the University of Victoria.
As the AIDS pandemic ravaged the LGBTQIA2S+ and sex work communities in Canada in the 1980s and early ’90s, sex work organizations became lifelines for marginalized workers often discriminated against by the health-care system.
Sex worker organizations became essential partners with health authorities in distributing information about the virus and resources to reduce its spread and leading harm reduction efforts.
“What happened there is a mobilization of sex workers about their rights, about their right to safety,” said Benoit.
And it showed “the ability of sex workers to actually work together and say, ‘Hey, we can develop a social movement around our rights.'”
“It’s a remarkable and grassroots, or bottoms up, way of thinking about responding to these kinds of epidemics that we have.”
But despite that, government have failed to recognize the importance of funding these organizations during the current pandemic, Benoit said. And little political attention has been paid to decriminalizing sex work to improve security, health and safety.
The uncertain status of sex workers under the current laws means they are generally unable to claim employment insurance benefits or emergency funds under programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit because their work is not seen as legitimate.
“Right now, we still have the majority of sex workers being isolated and struggling daily to make ends meet,” said Benoit.
Research shows one in three sex workers hold jobs as care aides or in retail or food services, industries that have been extremely hard hit by the pandemic, said Benoit.
Benoit, who recently won a $100,000 Killam Prize for her research on health in vulnerable communities, says the pandemic has highlighted the damage done by the failure to recognize sex work as real work as people have been unable to access government supports available to other workers.
“We pointed out these inequities a long time ago... and what we see now is if you don’t attend to some of those needs, even more harm is done,” said Benoit. “Sex workers, they’re in this corner because their work is not legitimized.”
Decriminalization is essential to the health and security of sex workers in the future.
But Benoit said the government could also act immediately by funding sex work organizations, which could then distribute funds to workers in need.
A number of sex worker relief funds have popped up during the pandemic, including one from Vancouver-based sex worker-run Pace Society.
Benoit says building these networks of mutual aid and advocacy is essential to push toward decriminalization and relief for sex workers. Governments aren’t paying attention to the issues, she said. as government doesn’t have an ear to it.
Through a fellowship with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Benoit has been working with eight sex work organizations to train and mobilize sex workers from all walks of like in advocacy and knowing their rights. “It’s hard to have a strong collective voice with so many structural disadvantages,” said Benoit.
The Killam Prize, awarded to active Canadian scholars who have distinguished themselves through sustained excellence, will support this community-led research project as it evolves.
Benoit, who conducted research on midwifery before the profession was legalized and funded in B.C. in 1998, said it is a big step for the Killam prize to be awarded to an academic researching sex workers, a largely stigmatized community.
She hopes by listening to sex workers and having the community guide her research, its impact while go beyond the pandemic period.
“We need to come up with emergency benefit policies and so on, but in the long run we actually need to change how societies are organized if we want to not find ourselves in these situations.”