Sex workers are not illegal

Labour, Labels and the Law

Illustration by Bram Keast

Since a law change in 2013, sex work in Canada is not illegal. Currently, sex work falls under the category of asymmetrical criminalization, meaning the purchase - not the sale - of sex is illegal.

The idea is “that by criminalizing clients, we will end demand and thus end sex work,” Claudyne Chevrier says, emphasizing that she does not agree with this stance. Chevrier is a member of Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC), a sex work advocacy group.

“The laws as they are still make it really hard for sex workers to be safe and to practice something that is not illegal safely,” Chevrier says.

Many sex workers and advocacy groups support the decriminalization of sex work, saying that asymmetrical criminalization inflicts the same harms as the former laws. These old laws criminalized certain aspects of sex work and were unanimously overturned in the Supreme Court.

“Sometimes laws specifically regulating sex work are designed to regulate sex work out of existence,” Jamie* says.

Chevrier uses a metaphor to explain the difference between legalization and decriminalization.

“In the olden days, cats existed. They were decriminalized … But now, you have to register your cat, you have to get it tattooed or get some sort of metal or chip thing … the reason for that is there’s a bylaw that kind of regulates their existence. So cats, and the cat industry, is legalized, as opposed to before when they were decriminalized and just doing their cat thing.”

According to Chevrier, the Trudeau government has said they would reconsider the new laws. So far, no changes have been made.

Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon, who runs the Counter Exploitation Unit and the Missing Persons Unit in the Winnipeg Police Service, says he’s unsure whether his units have a stance on the asymmetrical criminalization of sex work.


Jamie believes that sex work should be more greatly accepted as part of labour rights.

“While some labour unions have welcomed sex workers, others continue to ignore sex worker voices, denying our agency as workers and insisting that all sex work is exploitation and coercive. Under capitalism, all work is coercive, but sex work is treated as exceptional and uniquely harmful,” they say.

“You know what's exploitative? Paying workers minimum wage, which hasn't kept pace with inflation and is impossible to live on.”

Alex* says they feel safer and in better control in the sex industry compared to their former job as a health care aide.

“The unfamiliar situations that you have to throw yourself into are similar,” they say. “You don’t know who this person is on the other side of the door. You don’t know their history. There’s definitely a certain vulnerability that I got very used to while working in home care, and I’ve been able to transfer that over to (sex work).”

Having their own incall space that clients come to also adds to their sense of comfort and control, since they don’t have to enter strangers’ homes.

“You know what’s in the space, you know where the exits are, and you know who else might be in the space or not. There’s more control that way,” they say.

“I think sex work is actually … quite ordinary in terms of ways of getting money,” Chevrier says.

Alex says that the main way in which sex work differs from mainstream employment is that it is heavily stigmatized and policed. Because of this, they do not often talk about their job, meaning they cannot organize with other workers.

According to Jamie, under decriminalization, sex work would be treated like all other work in terms of having protections and benefits provided through Employment Standards.

“This includes things like workplace health and safety, limits on hours … discrimination and harassment, and so on,” they say.

“New Zealand has decriminalized sex work and treats it as work, and in 2014, a sex worker won a settlement against her brothel manager for sexual harassment.”

Chevrier says that criminalization acts as an institutionalization of stigma, barricading sex work from being viewed and treated as legitimate labour.

“Sex workers are not illegal. There’s this really intense conception that sex workers are either victims or criminals, or both. That comes from the government,” she says. “It’s stigma being enacted in an institution.”

“There are ample existing labour laws that can cover sex work the way they cover all businesses and workers. We no more need specific sex work laws than we need specific laws about who can be a writer, computer programmer or janitor,” Jamie adds.


According to Chevrier, the current laws allow police to surveil and harass those involved in the sex industry.

She gives the example of Operation Northern Spotlight, where, according to the RCMP website, “police pre-arrange to meet with individuals suspected of working in the sex trade against their will, or who are believed to be at high risk of being trafficked.” These meet-ups are referring to as “sting operations.”

To do this, the police use a technique called online carding, Chevrier says, “which means that they go and gather information on an individual based on their ads online.” She adds that police “are not supposed to be gathering information on private citizens doing things that are not illegal.”

According to Ramkissoon, “When our counter exploitation team comes in contact with someone working in the sex industry, on the street or even online, we generate (an) incident number for that individual, so we know when last we had contact with them, so sometimes we don’t see these girls for a couple weeks … so we can track when we last saw them, and we can start making some inquiries on where they are.”

Alex has concerns about this.

“That is absolutely an invasion of privacy,” they say. “It’s none of their business. It’s irrelevant … (sex workers) are not breaking the law.”

According to an article on (a news site based in Newfoundland), “Operation Northern Spotlight is leaving sex workers feeling deceived and traumatized.”

After speaking with Heather Jarvis from the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, writes that “the way police are carrying out the operation is damaging, putting sex workers at further risk of violence, and leaving them feeling as though they cannot trust the police and have to avoid them.”

Chevrier agrees that being targeted by a sting operation puts individuals at greater legal risk.

“There’s also been cases of people being deported, because the workers (targeted by the sting operation) were undocumented migrants or had papers that were not in order, and they deported them under the guise of helping them,” she says.

Kailey Bradco, the community connector at Spence Neighbourhood Association and facilitator of the drop-in
Our Place Safe Space, explains that in her own experience interacting with police, there is an assumption that all sex workers are exploited.

“I think there’s a really strong punitive attitude (toward sex workers),” she says.

“Laws and policies around sex work are always presented as wanting to make life better for sex workers,” Chevrier says, “but actually the way they’re done, because of the secrecy and because of the stigma, (they) actually create the harm that they are trying to avoid.”


Chevrier expresses concern about police reaching out to other areas of society in ways that infringe on the rights of sex workers. She cites examples of anti-exploitation campaigns that target the hospitality industry.

She worries that such campaigns “encourage hotel staff to spy on people and decide whether or not people have agency or what situations they’re in.”

Bradco has similar concerns about the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, which, according to a spokesperson from Manitoba Justice, is “complaint-driven.” Because of the heavy stigma around sex work, many individuals don’t understand that sex work is not actually a crime, and make complaints to Manitoba Justice about non-criminal acts.

After a community member makes a complaint, the public safety investigations unit gets involved. The public safety investigations unit is composed of retired police officers “and others who have the appropriate skill set,” a spokesperson from Manitoba Justice says.

“It sounds like vigilante cops,” Bradco says.

“I went to a community meeting … and so many people there were just talking about ‘criminals and prostitutes’ and just lumping it all into this really big thing,” Bradco says. “I was like ‘Hello? (Does) anyone know that (selling sex is) not illegal?’”

This stigma can be weaponized against sex workers by other civilians. Chevrier gives an example of a sex worker whose children were removed by Child and Family Services (CFS) after a breakup.

“There’s this case of a worker who reached out to (SWWAC) a few years ago,” Chevrier says. “She had kids … (who) were in no way connected to the work that she did. And she was in a relationship with a man, and then they broke up, and as revenge, he called CFS on her.”

“She was investigated. She was really understandably distressed, it was awful, and the kids ended up being apprehended. From what she said, there were no other issues that could have made this happen other than (her job).”


This misconception that sex work is illegal unlawfully inflicts penalties upon people who aren’t actually breaking the law. Chevrier gives an example of a sex worker who reached out to SWWAC.

“(Recently) someone received an eviction notice from their landlord, citing illegal activities, naming prostitution as the illegal activity. Even though it’s actually not illegal,” she says.

A similar conflation occurs between human trafficking and sex trafficking, Chevrier says.

“I think it serves a purpose for them to do that,” Chevrier says. “Putting it all together in a messy, moral, panicky call to action can serve the purpose of gaining attention to their cause (end everything that they see as sexual exploitation). Whether they realize it or not, this contributes to passing more restrictive immigration laws and policies, which can put people in more difficult situations, and it also ignores labour trafficking victims.”

Winnipeg’s Deter Identify Sex Trade Consumers (DISC) Program also conflates sex workers with criminals.

According to the public notes from the Winnipeg Police Board 2017 1st Quarter Update, this program is “a database to track and identify persons involved in the sex trade to better understand trends, behaviors and movements of these individuals.”

“One of the main components of the DISC program is it removes the anonymity of the consumers by identifying them as such. These spot checks assist with identifying male consumers, vehicle license plates and their regular sex trade workers,” the notes state.

The people targeted by DISC fall into the following categories: “Consumers or exploiters; Persons of special interest (persons picking up or found in company of/watching/stopping and talking to sex trade workers, continually driving in areas frequented by sex trade workers, watching children at play); Procurers/Human Traffickers; Sex Trade Workers; Youth/Exploited persons.”

According to Ramkissoon, of the Counter Exploitation Unit, DISC no longer tracks information on sex workers. He says that these 2017 minutes are outdated.

“That’s pretty common of them to just lump all that together,” Alex says. “Take exploitation out of the equation for a second, because that’s not what we’re talking about.”

Published in Volume 72, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 23, 2017)

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