Sex workers’ rights group Stella gets a biography by one of its members
The sex industry in Montreal operates in in a criminalized environment, where safety measures are difficult for sex workers to implement and sex workers are often targets of violence.
This criminalized milieu, argue sex workers’ rights advocates, has led to the over-policing, over-surveillance, discrimination, stigma and lack of access to health, legal, and social services of sex workers over the decades.
The current pandemic has made the situation even worse, argues Francine Tremblay, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and sex-workers’ rights advocate. She argues that the COVID-19 outbreak has left our most vulnerable citizens, most of them women, struggling: unworthy of financial protection, largely invisible because they work outside mainstream, left to fend for themselves.
She believes these women are victims of structural injustices and/or systemic racism. That they have been left aside during COVID-19 is symbolic violence – stigmatized, working within a criminalized environment they are still not worthy of protection, financial or otherwise.
Tremblay is in a position to see these effects up close. She is the author of a recent book looking at the history of Stella, l’amie de Maimie, a Montreal group made up by and advocating for sex workers.
Organizing For Sex Workers’ Rights in Montréal: Resistance and Advocacy, published by Lexington Books, begins with a look at the history of Montréal’s sex industry over two centuries, then tells the stories of Stella’s years of triumphs and challenges.
It concludes with a broader look at sex worker organizing in Canada and the pervasive stereotypes associated with sex work – stereotypes Tremblay says are reinforced by Canada’s existing laws.
From Fraser to Harper
Tremblay was driven to write the book by the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, more commonly known as Bill C-36, enacted at the end of 2014.
“I could not wrap my mind around the fact that after a Supreme Court case like Bedford that highlighted the dangers of criminalizing the sex industry, the Conservative government nevertheless created a law that made sex workers’ lives more dangerous, and that their goal of abolishing the sex industry and taking away women’s livelihoods was packaged and sold to the public as a ‘safety’ measure,” she says.
Even the wording of the law was problematic, she adds, saying it evoked old prejudices associated with what she calls the “whore stigma.”
“The whore stigma reinforces the depiction of sex workers as criminals, as vectors of disease, as immoral victims and drug addicts,” she says. “When people outside of the community use the word ‘whore,’ this is what they mean: she is not worthy of protection, and what she does is not work.”
Nevertheless, she works
Even in the face of constant opposition and controversy, the women of Stella took steps to promote the health and safety of their colleagues.
They stepped up efforts on harm reduction, such as distributing condoms and safe injection equipment. They also created a “Bad Client and Aggressors List” — people who would harm or rob sex workers. In 2005, they hosted Forum XXX, an international conference on sex workers’ rights.
They faced their share of challenges too, including public upheaval over a pilot project in the early 2000s involving a supposed “no-arrest zone” for sex workers. The organizers had hoped it would provide safety for sex workers but it failed after running into massive local opposition.
Tremblay and her colleagues argue that sex work raises questions about a woman’s right to make a living as she chooses.
“The fact is, these are women who wake up in the morning every day and make a decision about how they will pay the rent,” she says. “Women want and need to be self-sufficient, they need the economic capacity to move around.”
However, living and working under the constant threat of arrest and targeted violence does not help, argues Tremblay in her book — a point made all too clear given the recent history of sex worker murders in Quebec and Canada.
“If the government cannot stomach anything else, can they please, at the very least, recognize the harms of criminalization on sex workers’ lives and work, and recognize sex workers’ autonomy?”
For more information about the book: Organizing For Sex Workers’ Rights in Montréal: Resistance and Advocacy
Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.