[Editor’s note: Jay Pitter travelled Canada for her forthcoming book 'Where We Live,' to be published by McClelland and Stewart, a journey among brilliant, inspiring advocates addressing the nation’s housing crisis. In a project for The Tyee funded by the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, she shares some of her conversations, including this one today.]
Compared to men, women are more likely to become homeless due to domestic violence, have their children apprehended when they are facing housing challenges and be priced out of unaffordable housing markets. The irony, as feminist scholars assert, is that despite the house being conceived as a women’s place, issues of safety, ownership and economic power prevent women from experiencing a deep sense of “home.”
Increasingly, research and conversations are recognizing those higher vulnerabilities of women living at the intersections of race, poverty and disability. However, one group of women, who face considerable vulnerabilities, and for whom housing is vital, tend to receive less attention — sex workers.
When I was invited to Newfoundland and Labrador to learn more about this underexplored issue, I was both excited and apprehensive. My only observed knowledge of sex work was witnessing an under-aged sex trade emerge in my inner-city community, which resulted in the murder of a friend’s sister. And while this is a single incident involved minors, legally and emotionally unable to consent, I struggle with uncomplicated notions of consent often espoused in sex work conversations.
There is an over-representation of marginalized women in sex work — Indigenous and culturally diverse women, trans women, poor women, women living with disabilities. Given that these women are entangled in social and economic legacies of inequity, systemically robbed of opportunities, how much consent exists?
This is among the most politically explosive questions I posed during my research process. Many professionals in women-serving sectors are divided on ideas of sex work, and many mainstream feminists have criticized sex work in ways that patronize those who do it. I’m careful not to perpetuate this harm while remaining true to my belief in the vulnerability of genuine inquiry.
Through one of my dearest friends, and chosen sister, Saadia Muzaffar, I was connected to Heather Jarvis, program co-ordinator at the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.
Heather is a queer feminist activist with experience in gender studies, social work and community activism. She lives in a small cabin with her partner and two dogs, in a friendly rural community along Newfoundland's Irish Loop, also known as the Southern Shore.
Although Heather is aware that we have different perceptions of sex work, she’s open to questions, and agreed to slowly peel back the delicate layers of this issue together. We began by affirming our shared belief that sex workers should be heard and supported rather than criminalized.
With this mutual agreement, Heather asked the sex workers she supports if I could join them for their weekly dinner. They welcomed me into their homey program space where I had the privilege of exchanging ideas with them, admiring cute photos of their pets and children and sharing a meal before learning more about this form of housing vulnerability in the wider community.
Here’s a bit of what Heather and I chatted about.
JAY: What experiences — professional or personal — inform your work as the program co-ordinator for a program supporting women engaged in sex work?
HEATHER: Early in my career, for a decade, I worked in grassroots activism roles. I worked for university women’s centres, group homes, queer spaces and AIDS service organizations. Later, I co-founded SlutWalk, a march which is now international, calling for the end of victim blaming. All of these experiences enabled me to understand injustice and power imbalances. And I did this work in close proximately with sex workers. These spaces were often sex worker led and always sex worker inclusive. The work is complicated and imperfect but I learned a lot about accountability and solidarity. My feminism was shaped by these experiences.
JAY: In witnessing your mindful approach and beautiful rapport with the women you work with at SHOP, I’m unsurprised by your professional background and attention to growth. This may seem like a basic question, but let’s begin by defining sex work.
HEATHER: Not at all, this is a good question as it is important to recognize that there is a continuum of sex trade involvement. This includes formalized sex workers, non-formalized sex workers, survival sex, human trafficking and exploitation of children and youth. Women on this continuum work from their homes, massage parlours and on the street level.
It’s important to understand that there is a range of sex work and circumstances — especially now with anti-trafficking campaigns. Some of these campaigns are unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) harmful... because they conflate consensual sex work with violent sexual exploitation and human trafficking. This is a problem because again the work and circumstances of women is extremely varied.
JAY: What kind of programs do you provide to the sex workers you support?
HEATHER: We work with present and former sex workers with a wide range of goals and experiences. Some women want to get out of the sex trade, have been exploited, while others are happy with sex work. We listen to women and support their choices. We provide a wide range of services such as accompaniment to medical and legal appointments, housing advocacy, prison programming and a weekly dinner at our confidential location.
JAY: These services and programs ae so important. I was especially struck by your weekly dinner and so appreciative that the women agreed to have me attend. Can you talk about what happens during the dinner and its purpose?
HEATHER: Yes. Again, the dinner is hosted at our confidential location, which is very homey. There’s a dining room table in the middle of the room. It’s colourful, with the women’s artwork and words of inspiration, comfortable chairs and a computer station.
Each week we order take-out based on the women’s preferences and dietary restrictions. When it’s a woman’s birthday we always try to get a birthday cake. It’s important to us that they do not cook. The purpose of the meal is to serve the women and create a space for them to relax and share. There isn’t an agenda.
The women chat about everything from Celine Dion’s gender inclusive T.V. ads to their pets. They also share concerns about things like a physician speaking over their heads, an experience triggering their experience of childhood sexual abuse, or needing emergency housing. Regardless of what the topic of the evening is there are always moments of laughter — lots of laughter.
JAY: The laughter and warmth during the dinner I attended remains with me. And their stories are so different. It was amazing to sit at a table with Krista, a hilarious single mom who owns her own home working out of a massage parlour (which I had the chance to visit the following day), Kelsea an Indigenous woman from Labrador living in supportive housing, and of course Tracey, who, as you know stole my entire heart. She was such a natural storyteller and it was really neat to meet this white woman from the East Coast who had the faith of my Caribbean Pentecostal grandmother.
HEATHER: Being sandwiched between these women — one who boldly refers to her work as ho-ing, one woman who is extremely soft spoken, and another who is filled with the faith of an old Black lady — you can’t experience that and think you know anything at all about sex work or sex workers.
Yes, yet there is so much misinformation and stigma.
JAY: Do you think this contributes to sex workers been erased from most housing crisis conversations and programs?
HEATHER: Definitely. Overall, stigma and discrimination against sex workers is deeply engrained in our society and is shown in the way we talk about, represent and treat them. Oftentimes sex workers are framed as victims, “vectors of disease,” and lost women located outside of housing. These attitudes permeate our systems.
Sex workers are almost never written into housing policies. They are not identified as a population who may be experiencing chronic homelessness. They are not included in national Point-in-Time counts. They are excluded from the housing crisis conversation on all levels of government.
This is a real oversight because when we consider those who are prioritized for housing — LGBTQI2S communities, Indigenous and racialized communities, people living with hep C, HIV and chronic illnesses, single mothers, people living with addictions and drug dependences, people struggling with mental health issues, migrant, immigrant and new-comer communities, people who are criminalized and often leaving incarceration — it’s clear that sex work often intersects with these experiences.
JAY: What kinds of living arrangements are the most vulnerable sex workers faced with?
HEATHER: When I meet women engaged in sex work at the street level and ask what their needs are, stable and independent housing is most often the answer. Intimate partner violence in sex workers’ lives can lead to housing vulnerability and sex workers struggling with addictions are often asked to leave or evicted from emergency housing shelters, supportive housing programs.
This is a problem because sex workers often seek these forms of housing to get support for addictions issues. Supportive housing organizations really need to rethink harm reduction policies that enforce punitive measures, like strict curfews and zero tolerance policies.
JAY: This idea of punishment within the housing system is clearly an extension of the criminalization of sex workers in law enforcement. Can you speak a bit about law enforcement related criminalization?
HEATHER: Yes, the issue of criminalization is important. A large percentage of sex workers in prison aren’t actually there for sex work. They are there for other offences like disorderly public conduct or drug use. These women aren’t the escorts operating outside of private homes, they are the women facing housing vulnerability working on the street level. They are heavily watched by police so naturally they get caught doing things considered illegal.
And it’s complicated because often you’ll hear sex workers say that jail saved their lives because it gave them an opportunity to address their addictions, get out from the cold, or rest from exhaustion. And I think people misunderstand this message. They aren’t actually saying that being incarcerated is a good thing — we know that prisons aren’t rehabilitating or supportive places. This statement reveals a serious gap in the system; it demonstrates that the lack of supportive housing is so severe that prisons are seen as a housing option.
Also, because sex workers are criminalized and go to prison often, they often lose the inadequate housing they had whether that be a spot at a shelter or room in a house.
So, we go into prisons understanding this complicated situation. We support women in numerous ways. For instance, we made posters with them that were carried by other sex workers at the first ever SlutWalk in Newfoundland and Labrador. We took pictures of their posters in the walk and shared it with them and they were so excited to be a part of something important outside of the prison.
We also host talking circles with them in partnership with the Indigenous Friendship Centre. There was also a time we watched Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video together.
I think this part of our work has had some positive affects because our program was the only one in the province invited to the NOVA Institution for Women resource event, which featured programs serving women in prison. I later found out that we were invited because a woman we supported in the prison spoke so highly of our program. It was good to hear that. Also, one of our long-time participants had died the week before the event and so it was good to mourn with the women who knew her and bring them word that I’d spoken to their deceased friend’s mother.
JAY: This is what I respect about your work. It’s humanizing. It isn’t the traditional client-service provider model. What are tangible approaches folks outside of your program can take to achieve the same? How can we all be better neighbours to sex workers?
HEATHER: Sex work happens in all of our cities, so do what you can to create space to have conversations about sex work and sex workers, along with other important and challenging conversations around mental health, drug use, homelessness, poverty, sexual violence and racism.
Recognize that you may know very little about these individuals lives, stop yourself from making assumptions and judgements, and do some meaningful listening.
Remember we all want the same things: to live safe and happy lives, and look for the things you have in common with sex workers, because they are women, men, straight, married, single, queer, transgender, non-binary, Indigenous, racialized, white, newcomers, immigrants, migrants, students in college or university, parents, they are part of families, they volunteer, they hold multiple jobs, they have goals and hopes and dreams.
Find the rest of this series, Talking Home: Voice from Canada’s Housing Justice Frontline, here.
Read more: Rights + Justice, Gender + Sexuality
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