Support and advocacy with migrant and immigrant sex workers

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Support and advocacy with migrant and immigrant sex workers

Alison Clancey is the executive director of SWAN Vancouver – that's short for Supporting Women's Alternatives Network – which is a sex worker support organization based among migrant and immigrant women who do indoor sex work. Jessi Taylor is the orgaization's research programs manager. Scott Neigh interviews them about SWAN Vancouver's advocacy work around everything from law reform to their efforts to challenge raid-and-rescue law enforcement actions that harm sex workers. They also talk about their new photovoice project, which gives migrant and immigrant sex workers a chance to tell their own stories and to push back against the powerful stereotypes that inform mainstream conversations about sex work and human trafficking.

Clancey had a long history of doing work, both academic and then in a provincial government office, focused on combatting human trafficking. While she was doing this work, there was something about it that didn't quite add up, but it was only after she started working at SWAN Vancouver that she was able to pinpoint what. It was working directly with and listening to migrant and immigrant women who engage in sex work that allowed Clancey to finally make sense of it.

According to the dominant stories about sex work – that is, the stories that currently inform the Canadian state's approaches to sex work and to trafficking – all women involved in it are coerced and by extension all immigrant or migrant women involved in it have been trafficked. Actually listening to the experiences of migrant and immigrant sex workers, however, shows that this is a highly inaccurate picture and that trafficking is not a useful frame for understanding the experiences of most sex workers, and points to the need for a very different political response to both sex work and trafficking.

There seem to be a number of reasons for the hold that these stories have over the public imagination. For one thing, they are consistent with and reproduce stigma and stereotypes about sex work, as well as racist stereotypes about Asian women, that deny the complex, multifaceted lives that migrant and immigrant sex workers lead. As well, certain institutions and certain political groups seem to be invested in using public horror about trafficking to legitimize a certain set of policies and practices that actually mostly target non-trafficked sex workers in harmful ways.

Of course, migrant and immigrant sex workers do face many barriers and challenges that constrict their choices, and they are quite vulnerable to violence. But by and large those are the same barriers and challenges faced by most people who are some combination of racialized, poor, migrant, and gender-oppressed, and what they really need is social justice along all of those axes, access to good working conditions, and a strong system of social supports. To the extent that they do face specific vulnerability to harm and violence, it is mostly because of the ways that stigma, criminal law, the police, and the immigration system make them vulnerable by both harming them directly and by making it dangerous for them to seek help when they are harmed by others. SWAN Vancouver calls this targeting at the intersection of the criminal legal system and the immigration system "crimmigration."

In this interview, Clancey speaks about the overall work of the organization to support migrant and immigrant sex workers, but particularly focuses on their advocacy work. Along with policy advocacy aimed at the decriminalization of sex work and at changing the ways in which the immigration system makes the lives of the women they work with precarious, they also focus on challenging mainstream narratives about human trafficking and the misguided programs and policies that result. In particular, she talks about their work to challenge Operation Northern Spotlight, an annual national law enforcement action that is ostensibly a response to human trafficking but that, according to Clancey, mostly has a detrimental impact on sex workers while doing little if anything to address trafficking.

One part of Jesse Taylor's work with SWAN Vancouver has been facilitating a photovoice project. Originally a research methodology, photovoice gives people tools to take photos and use them as a focus for telling stories about their own lives. In 2018, SWAN invited five migrant and immigrant sex workers that they had worked with before to be part of the project. Over the course of four months, they took photos of their lives, got together regularly to discuss them, and gradually put together an exhibit. Together, these photos and stories present their authors as thoughtful, complex, active, three-dimensional human beings, very different from the one-dimensional stereotypes of migrant and immigrant sex workers that are the basis for so much public discourse around sex work and around trafficking. Thanks to the city's Queer Arts Festival, the exhibition can be seen at the Sun Gallery in Vancouver between January 8 and February 7, 2019.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of SWAN Vancouver.


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 them 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.

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