"Sex work isn't for everyone," says Sandra Wesley. "A lot of women would never do that. A lot of men would never do that. But obviously, it's an income-generating activity and when people need money, well, we look at all of our options." Wesley is the executive director of Stella, a Montreal-based organization "run by and for sex workers."
She says women in the industry have always faced repressive policing but things got a whole lot worse in 2014 with the arrival of Bill C-36.
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The new law was intended to protect women in the sex trade. Instead, it has pushed them further to the margins by criminalizing just about everything they do, she said.
Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 health crisis, Wesley said the city's sex industry has been radically transformed.
MTL Blog caught up with Wesley to ask her how local sex workers have been dealing with all the upheaval.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can sex workers in the city qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit?
The short answer is no. The program explicitly only covers legal income. And since 2014, all sex work is fully criminalized in Canada.
This puts sex workers in a really difficult position.
When the government this year announced CERB, they could have found many different ways to include sex workers and they refused everything we've proposed to them.
How are sex workers trying to keep safe during the pandemic?
There are many risks. But for a lot of sex workers, the risk of police repression is something that is often way more concerning.
And also, the risk of poverty and of the consequences of not earning an income.
In terms of the actual virus, sex workers are experts. We've been in a pandemic — the HIV pandemic — for 40 years now.
We also have been dealing with syphilis, with chlamydia, gonorrhea. Those are all things that we know how to handle and that we've developed tools and ways to minimize those risks.
The majority of sex workers stopped working at the beginning of the pandemic. But the thing is that some sex workers had no choice but to keep working because if you literally don't have money for food, well, you'd have to do something to get that money.
Sex work is a contact job. How has it been changing during the pandemic?
There's no one recipe for every sex worker because it's such a diverse industry.
But it can involve very practical things, such as wearing masks and having the client wear a mask.
In terms of the workspace, making sure it's been sanitized and that everything's clean. Changing the bedsheets in between clients. Also, asking the client to shower when they come in and to put their clothes aside.
One example of something that's been very difficult for sex workers is the fact that hotels have put a lot of measures in place and it's very hard to access a hotel room right now.
We are still having the SPVM actively pursuing the elimination of sex work through operation RADAR [the police's anti-sexual exploitation program], which is a project that they started last summer where they're asking hotels and taxis and anyone in the tourism industry to actively denounce any sex worker that they see under the guise of protecting us from potential exploitation.
So if you add the pandemic to this, it's creating this really, really intense sense that every average citizen is now an agent of state surveillance who feels personally rewarded by calling the police on us because they've been sold a lie.
That might lead to more sex workers working out of their homes, which for some people, this is great. But other people find it very invasive and dangerous and scary for many reasons.
A number of reports show sex workers are going online during COVID-19. What are your thoughts about that?
I know that's been reported as something fun and exciting. And, you know, sex workers are doing online services, but there's a lot of risk working online.
It's hard to work online without showing one's face and we know what happens to sex workers when we're outed. We can get kicked out of school, our families' can disown us, we can lose our kids, there's a lot of really big consequences.
What would you like to see the government do to help the situation?
What we're asking for is full decriminalization of sex work.
Or at the very least, for the duration of the pandemic, to stop all enforcement of sex work laws because criminalization is the reason why we're at risk.
Bill C-36 [the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act] came forward in 2014 and you see it in the title: they want to protect communities and they're calling us exploited persons, not sex workers.
We can't really claim that our human rights are being violated because no one really has human rights protections while committing a crime. So, this law's objective is to eliminate us.
We've seen in the past few years the increase of violence against sex workers. We've seen murders of sex workers happening constantly. And we can look at every single one of those murders and see that criminalization of sex work played a central role in why that violence occurred.
It's also sending a message to every aggressor out there that if they want to target someone, if they want to be violent against a woman, they can pick a sex worker because they'll probably get away with it.
What has your organization been doing to support Montreal's sex workers during the pandemic?
We don't usually give out financial or other types of charity style help to sex workers.
But because of this pandemic and because of the absolute urgent need that we saw in the community, we were able to get some funds to give $100 and a gift card for sex workers.
If everyone else gets $2,000 a month and sex workers got $100 over a period of several months, that's obviously not enough but it was enough to maybe make the difference in terms of someone being able to eat or avoid going back to work for another week or survive a few days longer.