Criminalizing sex workers harms the most vulnerable

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

I had planned to write my first post in MediaIndigena about something light-hearted (I'm working on pieces about yoga and an awesome art project). Much of my time is spent thinking about violence in our communities, so I wanted to take on some more positive issues, reminding us of our strengths and possibilities as Indigenous people.

But today I saw that the Canadian government is fighting the recent Ontario court decision by Superior Court Justice Susan Himel, which ruled criminalizing sex work creates higher risk of violence, by saying that it is not the government's obligation to protect women who choose to put themselves in harm's way. And this I could not stay silent about.

In a federal briefing filed on Wednesday with the Ontario Court of Appeal, government lawyers say that Parliament:

"is not obliged to minimize hindrances and maximize safety for those that [engage in prostitution] contrary to the law."

As an Aboriginal woman, this concerns me. This concerns me because women from our communities represent the vast majority of street-level sex workers across Canada, and men and transgender people from our communities remain invisible despite their involvement.

It concerns me because violence against Aboriginal people -- of all ages and genders -- goes ignored on a national scale. This "blame the victim" mentality is what allowed a serial killer to operate for years in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside without any response from police. The violence there was expected, seen as normal, excusable. This is the case in many other communities that have high Aboriginal populations. It's not as though I think more policing is the answer. But I do think that criminalizing sex workers and blaming them for other people's violent actions is what enables the high rates of violence in the first place.

What is the government saying by arguing in court that it's not their job to protect sex workers? They are placing the blame on the victims of violence, who may already be struggling with the impact of poverty and neglect in their lives. Is that their fault too?

This is not about the capacity of the police to provide protection or respond to violence. This is about the stigma around sex work, and the unclear stance the Canadian government has always had about it in their laws. It's kind of legal, but kind of not. It's not illegal to engage in sex work, but it's illegal to live off the profits from it or to negotiate fees for it. This wishy-washy legal stance is finally being clarified through recent court cases, hopefully resulting in sex workers not having to fear arrest for doing something they're going to do anyway. Why do the perpetrators of violence never fear for their arrest? Why do they never even figure in conversations about these issues? The perpetrators remain invisible, while the victims are marked by both the physical abuse and the social stigma resulting from violent acts.

So what can we do about this? We can start by talking about these issues in our communities. We can start talking about the real issues facing our community members, like quality of life, access to health care, safe housing and family supports. We need to remove the stigma around sex work so that we can better support our relations. If your auntie is working in the trade, how can you support her? Clearly the government and the police don't have her back, so how can you?

Sarah Hunt has more than 10 years' experience as a community-based researcher, educator and agitator around issues of colonial violence, sex work, sexuality, youth health and the somewhat less exciting topic of research ethics. She is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, looking at violence in rural reserve communities through the lens of legal geography. On her dad's side, Sarah is from the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, and is of Ukrainian-English heritage on her mom's side. 

This story first appeared in MediaIndigena.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.