Working for human rights for sex workers in Newfoundland

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Heather Jarvis, Alice, and Layla about the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), an initiative supporting sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador in their efforts to win full human and labour rights.

Several years ago, some feminists in St. John's recognized the absence of any organization working for the human rights of sex workers as a major gap in their province. So these feminists at the St. John's Status of Women Council and Women's Centre -- the oldest women's centre in Canada -- began the process of founding SHOP.

SHOP's work is based on three principles: Self-determination for sex workers, the power of harm reduction, and the pursuit of social justice. When SHOP started its work three and a half years ago, it was very deliberate in not starting with an already-established vision for turning these principles into action, beyond a commitment to engaging in a process of building relationships with sex workers in as many parts of the city and areas of the industry as possible. In this way, the work of SHOP was shaped by what sex workers themselves identified as their needs and aspirations.

One important aspect of what emerged from this bottom-up approach involves doing a great deal of individual support for sex workers. This support can happen when sex workers are struggling with things ranging from transportation, to filing taxes, to court appearances, to medical visits, to navigating income support bureaucracies, to finding housing, and much more. This support is never predicated on forcing sex workers to make particular kinds of choices.

Another important aspect of the work involves education and advocacy in a range of settings. There are many misconceptions about sex work that dominate media and popular understandings of it, prominently including (though far from limited to) the mistaken tendency to conflate consensual sex work with the quite distinct phenomena of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. There is also intense social stigma about sex work that is incredibly harmful to sex workers and makes their work and their lives far more difficult and dangerous than they would otherwise be. Much of the education and advocacy happens in the context of the sorts of institutions that shape people's lives and can regulate people's access to the resources they need to live -- institutions from police to health care to social services have long histories of treating sex workers very poorly, in part because of the misconceptions and stigma already mentioned, so SHOP does lots of work with such institutions to improve their policies and practices when it comes to interactions with sex workers.

And finally, SHOP is also working towards a broader agenda of human rights for sex workers. They are part of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, a coalition whose member organizations across the country are pushing for the decriminalization of sex work. Today's guests lay out why that approach is a crucial first step to reducing stigma, improving safety, and allowing for better access to human and labour rights for sex workers.

Heather Jarvis is the program coordinator for SHOP. Alice is a sex worker who has been in the industry for nine years, and she currently manages the Studio Aura adult massage parlour in St. John's. Layla has been a sex worker for thirteen years, and she currently works as a dominatrix. They speak with me about the realities of sex work and about the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.

You can learn more about the Safe Harbour Outreach Project here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.

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