Sex work laws criminalize a necessary community of women

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By Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV)

In July of this year, early results of a new study that was focused on social cohesion among sex workers were released at the International AIDS Society conference here in Vancouver, BC. The study was part of the AESHA Project conducted by the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI). Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) have been partnering with GSHI for many years. Following the presentation of the results, SWUAV participated in some of the promotion and publicity relating to the study, as this was a project whose findings were very important to us. What this study demonstrated is something that we and others who have been working in peer-led organizations have known for years: sex workers experience better health and safety when they are able to work in community with one another, rather than in isolation.

The idea of “strength in numbers” is not necessarily new, but when it comes to marginalized and criminalized populations such as sex workers, it is an idea that has been continuously under attack from the government through laws such as the Protections of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA – the latest federal legislation criminalizing activities surrounding sex work as well as the purchase of sexual services). By undermining sex workers ability to self-organize, these laws mean that sex workers are unable to work together to protect eachother’s health and safety. As usual, these laws were put forward under the auspices of trying to protect and rescue vulnerable women and youth – but in fact have the potential to create or worsen already dangerous situations.

One amazing example of social cohesion among sex workers that SWUAV has experienced has been the growth and concerted efforts of the national sex worker movement in Canada leading up to the constitutional challenge of the previous laws relating to sex work (Bedford v. Canada) and in the response to the legislation that has followed. It has been truly amazing and inspirational to hear new stories and find common ground with sex workers across so many different contexts from one end of the country to the other. We have had the opportunity to meet and work with sex workers who come from all different backgrounds; and while each one has their own story of how they got into sex work in the first place, we all share the same goal in this struggle: the decriminalization of sex work in Canada.

On the other end of the spectrum, all of SWUAV’s everyday programming also engages with the idea of social cohesion. In fact, that’s what we’re all about – building community among sex workers, making new connections through outreach and support meetings, and then building on them every time we go out. Whether it’s saying ‘hello’ and sharing some supplies and candy on outreach or being there when someone is ready to report a bad date, we are always ready, willing and able to be there for our sisters. We know that our community programming makes us all healthier and stronger; we can feel it as board members and outreach workers, and we hear it in the feedback from women we contact on the street.

We have been very fortunate as individuals and as an organization. We have grown with every contact we’ve made, and know that we’ve shared strength with people we’ve touched as well. We are part of a varied, complex community – we don’t all come from the same place, and we don’t always agree on every point. But we work, share, cry and laugh together and in the process become something that no laws can defeat. As much as we wish it wasn’t necessary, SWUAV is looking forward to the next stage in the fight for sex workers’ rights in Canada. Sex workers’ rights are human rights!

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