The Heritage Classic returned to the NHL this year, and so did an anti-sex work campaign that has angered Winnipeg sex workers and advocates – again.
The “Buying Sex is Not a Sport” campaign, which last appeared before the 2015 Grey Cup, attempted to dissuade tourists from participating in the sex trade. It was motivated by the widely held belief that the demand for sex work increases during sporting events.
Yet the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women examined the rates of human trafficking during two World Cups, three Super Bowls and two Olympic games and found “no evidence that large sporting events increase trafficking for prostitution.”
Despite this report, the provincial NDP government spent $23,000 promoting the “Buying Sex is Not a Sport” campaign around last year’s Grey Cup, and the newly elected Progressive Conservatives opted to recycle it for this year’s Heritage Classic.
There is no evidence these ads had any impact the first time around, and some Winnipeg sex workers are fed up.
In a press release, the Winnipeg Working Group for Sex Workers’ Rights (Working Group) opposed the campaign, saying it “addresses a problem that does not exist.”
The Working Group, which uses the slogan, “fight exploitation, not sex workers,” is a partnership between the city’s sex workers who stand “firmly against exploitation and violence in the sex trade,” and their allies. They advocate for sex workers’ rights and educate the public about the problems from which human trafficking stems.
The group formed in 2014 as a response to Bill C-36, which, while written with the intent of making sex work safer, was heavily criticized by Canada’s sex workers. The bill prosecutes those who buy sex or “obtain for consideration… the sexual services of a person.”
Winnipeg’s Working Group felt, if passed, the law would make working conditions even more dangerous for sex workers, because it targeted their clientele. The bill was passed into law earlier this year.
Since then, the Working Group has continued to push for sex workers’ rights, challenging campaigns like “Buying Sex is Not a Sport,” which they say reinforce “harmful stereotypes about sex workers and their clients.”
The provincial government has insisted its top priority is to cut spending. Why then did they waste taxpayers’ money on a campaign whose basis has been discredited time and time again?
This recycled campaign takes no effective action in the fight against sexual exploitation. Instead, campaigns like these serve as façades for governments who want to show they’re addressing an issue. Of course, actually working toward ending human trafficking would cost much more than $23,000.
The province could have instead put that money towards starting to address the real issues that lead to human trafficking, such as gender discrimination, poverty and the ongoing abuse of Indigenous people.
Let’s not pretend there aren’t problems with the sex trade. Exploitation is a legitimate concern, but campaigns such as this one serve no purpose. They also feed into the narrative of the helpless sex worker, when in fact, according to a national survey of the sex industry, the majority of workers in the sex trade do not feel exploited and have no wish to leave their jobs.
Now that Bill C-36 has become law, it is harder for sex workers to earn a living, because their customers are under the threat of prosecution. The government should engage with sex workers to create better working conditions instead of fighting them with nonsensical campaigns that help no one.
Ozten Paul is in her second year at the University of Winnipeg and studies English.