By Halena Seiferling
Late last month, over 160 people gathered together from across British Columbia and beyond to talk about what’s next for the sex workers’ rights movement.
At SFU Harbour Centre, amidst students flowing in and out of classes and other community members attending their own events, conversations about this stigmatized and criminalized industry may have come as a surprise. But among those in attendance, including me, it was clear that these conversations, and this movement, have always existed and always will.
Living in Community—our non-profit and charity based in Vancouver—hosted this two-day conference to learn, collaborate, and strengthen the provincial voice for the rights of sex workers here. Attendees and speakers included diverse sex workers, sex work support and advocacy organizations, health and social service providers, government-elected officials and decision makers, and allies from justice, labour, anti-violence, and more.
In the spring of 2019 we held our first provincial conference, which was also the first conference of its kind in BC. From there, a provincial network of sex workers and frontline service providers blossomed, which we convened and nurtured over time as a space for folks to get to know each other, share best practices, and grow a collective advocacy voice to address the needs they saw in their communities.
Since then, of course, sex workers and frontline organizations have faced significant challenges. With the onset of COVID-19, sex workers completely or significantly lost their income, and many struggled to access community services because frontline organizations had to reduce their programs and hours. Many sex workers were also ineligible for both federal and provincial supports, such as the CERB and the BC Emergency Benefit, and faced even more stigma and judgement about their work, as well as increased surveillance by law enforcement. And as the pandemic was declared “over,” frontline organizations and programs lost their so-called “emergency” COVID-19 funding—at the same time that the overlapping crises of a toxic drug supply, poverty, and out-of-control housing and rental markets intensified for everyone.
Throughout these past few difficult years, Living in Community has focused on our role not as a frontline service provider, but as a convener, creating spaces for those most impacted to come together, to grow, and to be supported by each other.
After so much crisis and response, it was incredibly special to be able to gather again in person at this second conference to learn together and to make space to dream. Throughout three keynote sessions, speakers shared with attendees why sex work is a labour issue and must be respected by and included in the labour movement; what researchers found in the groundbreaking By Us, For Us report that captured the self-identified needs of sex workers in the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island; and what’s next for the BC Bad Date and Aggressor Reporting Project, which aims to create a province-wide reporting tool that all sex workers can access to help keep themselves and others safe.
In breakout sessions with panelists from all regions of the province and beyond, attendees got deep into the nuances of the experiences of sex workers of marginalized races, genders, dis/abilities, im/migration statuses, and other identities; the harms of Canada’s current sex work laws and of the mainstream anti-trafficking movement on sex workers; the ways sex work can look different in rural and remote communities; the barriers sex workers often face to accessing health care, housing, and other basic necessities; how foundations and funders can better support sex workers with their granting; and the considerations for organizations thinking about working with their local police or RCMP.
The conference programming also included a night out at a burlesque show, because along with talking about the barriers and the issues, it’s critical that we also celebrate and find moments of joy together.
Importantly, this conference ended with a full-group action planning session, where all attendees came together to determine what we want to do next, collectively. With deep conversations about the above topics and more, attendees identified the key gaps in services and changes to laws and policies that governments and other decision-makers need to make.
And what were those specific changes identified? Well, it’ll take us at Living in Community some time to put together a comprehensive list of recommendations, as we want to ensure we capture everything that attendees shared in a way that is true to their voices, needs, and intentions. In the coming months we plan to release a conference report summarizing all of the discussions and the recommendations, as well as an advocacy toolkit that anyone can join us in using (watch our website for those updates).
We know, though, that the criminalization of sex workers, including migrant and immigrant sex workers, must end. We know that sex work stigma runs deep and must be challenged at every instance. And we know that, until the federal laws are changed, there is much that provincial and municipal governments can still do to uphold the rights of sex workers, to consult with and listen to sex workers when developing new programs and policies, and to challenge the enforcement of harmful laws.
The movement for sex workers’ rights, in this part of the country and beyond, has vast root systems reaching far beneath the ground. It is built on decades of activism and community development that we and many others are indebted to. We hope this conference is just one more step in the pathway toward a world in which all sex workers can flourish free from discrimination, stigma, and criminalization—as we all deserve.
Halena Seiferling is the executive director of Living in Community.