Unemployed sex workers lack access to government supports

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Neon massage parlour signs above a restaurant in Downtown Toronto, taken in 2006. Image: Ryan/Flickr

The pandemic has exposed what marginalised communities have known for a long time; that to access any kind of government support, one has to prove themselves worthy by jumping through a series of administrative hoops dreamed up by someone who has clearly never experienced the need to access support. 

As the sex industry ground to a halt in March 2020, many Canadian sex workers were unable to receive CERB due to systemic barriers. Proving their previous cash income, finding a sex worker-friendly accountant, and fears that the CRA will flag cash-based sex workers for fraud all discincentivized workers from accessing a benefit they were entitled to, just like anyone else out of work due to the pandemic. Sex worker organizations sprung to action. They organised mutual aid funds, held tax information seminars, and helped connect folks to sex worker friendly resources in the community.

The lack of support for sex workers is by design. It's a willful policy failure. Governments are capable of working with community groups to mobilize specific support, like English Second-Language classes or COVID vaccinations for those most at-risk. If they can do that, they can also offer sex workers meaningful supports and services both during and after this pandemic. Instead, we are criminalized, stigmatized, and left out to dry by the same government bodies that we pay licensing fees and taxes to.

When strip clubs in Ontario briefly reopened in the summer of 2020, there were infamously outbreaks at two Toronto clubs. Instead of consulting with strippers on how to make the clubs safer during the pandemic, the province legislated them closed. Mayor John Tory wondered out loud why clubs are still open and Premier Doug Ford expressed concern for the clients; neither offered kind words or meaningful support to the strippers. 

Programs like Ontario's Second Career -- which provide financial support and training for those who have found themselves laid off -- are great and easy to access, unless you're a sex worker. Part of the program requirements are proving that you're looking for work, and sharing your job hunt experiences with the other people in the group. Places like strip clubs, massage parlors, and agencies don't have HR departments you can email to prove you are looking for work. 

Expecting a sex worker to disclose their work in a room full of strangers puts them at risk. The stigma surrounding sex work poses a significant barrier to accessing employment services in the traditional world. Maybe nothing will happen, but maybe you get ridiculed, asked to leave, or maybe someone will use the information you offer in the context of a career workshop to stalk, harass, and doxx you. Now imagine taking all these steps, but as a trans sex worker, as a sex worker living with mental illness or addiction, or as a street sex worker; each of these compounds stigma and adds barriers to seeking support through mainstream channels. 

It's not just mainstream channels that put up barriers to sex workers. 

As the world went into lockdown, the popular content subscription service OnlyFans exploded in popularity. It wasn't just out-of-work strippers, massage parlour workers, and escorts who tried their luck at making an online living. Ordinary people were joining en masse as well, unaware of the risks sex workers take to engage in their work every day, whether online or in-person. 

It turns out OnlyFans -- used by many non-sex workers who found themselves laid off due to the pandemic and were looking for a stop-gap -- carried its own risks. Many content creators had their names revealed and lost other, non-sex-work jobs. It turned out that the unlimited earning potential sites like OnlyFans use to lure in new content creators is in reality only unlimited for people like pseudo-celebrity Bella Thorne, who managed to defraud her clientele by falsely promising nudes. This caused the site to alter their payout structure, leaving actual sex workers with less earning potential.

And then, the other shoe dropped. In his now infamous opinion piece, "The Children of Pornhub," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof directly called out the Canadian federal government for "allowing" Pornhub to operate in Canada. 

The government sprung to action by setting up Parliamentary committee hearings, eager to appear against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors. All this seems great on the surface, but in reality, American evangelicals were invited guests, while many sex workers were unable to get on the approved list of speakers. Those who did manage to get through had their microphones cut off. Surely, sex workers -- in this case porn performers -- would have something meaningful to say about their own work? Surely they would be the expert voices as to how to keep the industry safe for workers while suggesting ways to meaningfully ban and deplatform abusers? 

If sites like Pornhub do get banned, it only means that porn itself will get pushed further underground, and the average porn consumer will have to look for their material on the deepest, darkest corners of the internet. If you think big tech platforms like Pornhub and Facebook host unforgivable content, imagine what's being hosted on the Dark Web, or what porn would look like if performers didn't have to verify their age or ability to consent.

Criminlalizing sex work doesn't keep sex workers, exploited minors, or the community-at-large safe. When sex workers are forced even further into the shadows, it means they can't effectively screen clients, meaning they take on more risk. It means that they can't hire their own security, which leads to deadly consequences. You might remember that after the 2013 Bedford v Canada Supreme Court case, Canada adopted the so-called "Nordic model" of governing sex work, in which the selling of sex is legalized, but the buying of sex remains criminal. In reality, the old laws that Bedford argued were unconstitutional were rewritten to be new again, and the struck-down provisions are mostly still in effect, which is why the current laws are once again being constitutionally challenged.

What can you do to help sex workers? You can support any of the organizations linked in this column, so they can keep supporting their communities. You can show up and support us at city council meetings where they're trying to outlaw massage parlours. You can sign our petitions and write to your elected officials. You can support the decriminalization of sex work, as opposed to its legalization. (If the legalization of marijuana in Canada has taught us anything, it's that the profits of marijuana sales only profit those rich enough to buy into the system, not those communities who were overpoliced for marijuana offences in the past.) If Canada opts for the legalization model, profit will remain in the pockets of those who are rich enough to jump through the hoops, and not sex workers who might want to run a collective, for example. 

In short, listen to us! We're fearless, we're smart, we're resilient as hell and we're not going anywhere. Nothing about us without us!

Natasha Darling is a stripper and community organizer based in Toronto. "Natasha Darling" is a pseudonym to protect the author's true identity from the stigma and potential for harm associated with sex work. 

Image: Ryan/Flickr

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