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Finding community in sex work organizing

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When I moved to Ottawa to be with my partner, after completing a bachelor's degree, I was very isolated, both as someone new to the city and as a sex worker. I didn't have any friends in the city and I certainly didn't know any other sex workers. I was also new to sex work, having only been at it for a few months. I was so out of the loop, I didn't even know there *was* a sex workers' rights movement.

I became very depressed. An acquaintance suggested I get in touch with Nicholas Little, one of the founding members of the sex worker advocacy group POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist). It wasn't until a few months later that I actually attended a POWER meeting. At the meeting, I met other sex workers. I had never spoken about sex work with other sex workers before. They welcomed me into their group and at the first meeting suggested I do a guest lecture in one of Chris Bruckert's classes.

Dr. Bruckert was a POWER board member and Criminology professor at the University of Ottawa with a lot of organizing experience -- I felt a little overwhelmed. I was new to the sex workers' rights movement and I had never spoken publicly about my experiences. And yet, they believed in me. This was a new feeling to me. I didn't know it at the time, but the folks at POWER would come to be my family. With their support and encouragement, I became even more public about being a sex worker and immersed myself in the world of sex work politics. It wasn't just that they encouraged my activism -- they provided a safe space to talk to other sex workers. I had found a place where sex work was treated as work, where sex workers were considered important members of the community.

They were full of so much knowledge and information -- about working profitably and safely, as well as keeping yourself safe when doing public engagements. I spoke at university classes, wrote op-eds for local newspapers and did radio interviews. Dr. Bruckert inspired me to go back to school, where I did a second bachelor of arts in women's studies at the University of Ottawa. She wrote one of my letters of recommendation to graduate school. When I was accepted, I called her to tell her. During the first semester, when I felt the strange feeling of being in a course called the Global Sex Trade and being a sex worker -- the weird feeling of being the object of study -- she was the person I called. She wrote me a second letter of recommendation when I applied to the PhD program. I was never more excited to tell someone about my successes than her.

Sex work organizing has never made me feel more proud to be a sex worker. Through my work with POWER, I met so many wonderful, brilliant, resilient, strong men and women, all of whom were sex workers. We traded tips and tools of the trade. We supported each other when times were rough. We put on yearly vigils for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. We would read all the names of the men and women who had died that year and we remembered them. We honoured them. In June of 2013 when the Bedford case went to the Supreme Court, the sea of red umbrellas made my heart swell. We drowned out the anti-sex work opposition. Sex workers were being heard and it was amazing.

Even now, with Bill C-36 aiming to destroy the sex industry (and if passed, will certainly kill sex workers), sex workers have never been more organized. Sex workers' rights groups across Canada are speaking to the Justice Committee this week. We held the second National Day of Action on June 14 to protest Bill C-36, and groups across Canada marched in the streets to declare Bill C-36 grossly unconstitutional and dangerous. My Twitter feed was full of solidarity and support.

Sex work organizing, for me, has never been just about fighting for sex workers' rights -- it is also the place where I feel most at home.

Berlin is an independent escort and graduate student based in Toronto. Her research focuses on sex work and performance, feminist phenomenology and theories of resistance. She was formerly the Vice-Chair at Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist before relocating to Toronto for her studies. Follow her on Twitter at @berlinthewhore.

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