SHOP releases campaign targeting stigma against sex workers

It’s time we turned the tide on how we talk about sex workers.

The right words can make a huge difference. They can help enforce self-worth, respect, and humanity — especially when it comes to the lives of sex workers. Words count.

The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) exists to advocate for the human rights of sex workers in and around St. John’s, and across Newfoundland and Labrador. The women we serve have continuously identified that stigma creates huge barriers to accessing their basic human rights. The collective fight for the human rights of sex workers is a new phenomenon in this province and there are still many challenges to changing the discourse and public perception around the people who engage in sex work.

June 14 has been recognized as a National Day of Action for Sex Worker Rights in Canada to combat dangerous laws and narratives, and today we launch ‘Words Count,’ a bold awareness campaign to make people stop and take stock of the language used to stigmatize sex workers and deny women their agency. Whore, hooker, prostitute, slut. Would you want to be called these words? These and many other weighted words bear down on women in our community every day – women who are parents, volunteers, students, neighbours, teachers, artists, safer sex experts, advocates, and members of our community.

Heather Jarvis, SHOP’s Program Coordinator, on sex work stigma:
“Sex work stigma has real world consequences. It is used to justify actions that infringe on the human rights of sex workers every day, making women’s lives more hazardous and unjust, and at its worst making sex workers disposable. The people we work with are intelligent, resourceful, critical, funny, kind, loving, creative, and come with skills and knowledge. Sex workers are a part of our community. Sex workers belong in our community.”

What can you do?
Challenge discrimination, stereotypes and misconceptions against sex workers, their families and partners. Download and print our campaign poster and help spread awareness in the community. Start a conversation about what you can do to support sex workers in your city. Purchase a ‘Words Count’ t-shirt, with proceeds going to support the work of SHOP. Watch the ‘Words Count’ video below and share it on social media with #EndTheStigmaNL.

CW: This video contains harsh language around sexism, sexuality, stereotyping, and violence and might not be suitable for all ages or individuals. Please engage with it at your own pace.

Vanessa V., local sex worker, on the ‘Words Count’ campaign:
“This is a perfect collage of the stigma that sex workers get because this is how we’re treated by society in general – overwhelmingly negative and with judgment, putting us down as if we’re ‘nobody’ or making us into a ‘bombshell,’ ‘trophy’ stereotype. Ultimately, we’re still made to be a punchline and not seen for the real people we are. The people who say these sorts of things aren’t sex workers, they aren’t my clients, they’re people who are looking at sex work from the outside.”

Take responsibility for your words and your actions. Help end the stigma. Support the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.

Media Contact
Heather Jarvis
Program Coordinator
Safe Harbour Outreach Project
Tel. 709.771.1077

Safe Harbour Outreach Project: Women’s March 2018 Statement

SHOP provided a statement to be read at the St. John’s Women’s March on Saturday, January 20, 2018:

Safe Harbour Outreach Project is a program of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, where our two-woman team supports and advocates for sex working women and their rights, in and around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Our work is rooted in harm-reduction, human rights, social justice, and decriminalization.

We at SHOP are eager to participate in the St. John’s Women’s March 2018. The involvement of sex workers is incredibly meaningful; it was only last year that sex workers endured the erasure of their lives and rights at the Women’s March on Washington. We are proud that our city recognizes that sex workers belong here, because we know that sex workers have been historically left out of international women’s movements.

We know that sex workers are strong advocates, policy makers, and labour rights activists. Sex workers are mothers, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, and fierce business women. Sex workers have been pivotal in the work against human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and must be included in this work. Sex workers have been pioneers of women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBTQ2I rights.

Sex working women must be included in our feminisms. Incarcerated women, Indigenous women, women of colour, immigrant and refugee women. We must look for these voices in the Times Up movement, and in the Me Too movement – and if they aren’t included, we must ask why, and do better. In the name of sharing sex workers voices, and honouring the role sex workers play in the women’s movement, we champion their words:

Last month, trans sex worker Hailey Heartless in B.C. eloquently said, “when we speak about violence against sex workers, we need to tie it back to the core reasons why we’re at risk. Stigma, on top of slut shaming, and whorephobia, is piled on top of other oppressions we disproportionately face: sexism, transphobia, ableism, racism, colonialism and homophobia, to name a few… As an ally, it’s your responsibility to create spaces, not movements. Please speak with us, not for us. Stand beside us, not in front of us. Include us in your movements and let us tell you what we need. Nothing about us, without us.”

And a sex working woman in our city of St. John’s said, “We pay income taxes. We vote. We promote and project equality, empowerment, independence, and self-worth. Our work is consensual. Our work is real work.”

Sex workers have been part of the women’s movement throughout history, even when their work and presence hasn’t been recognized. But let it be known,

We hear you.
We see you.

For Immediate Release: TURN OFF THE SPOTLIGHT: Sex workers and allies urge an end to Operation Northern Spotlight

Posted on behalf of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform – 

For Immediate Release
TURN OFF THE SPOTLIGHT: Sex workers and allies urge an end to Operation Northern Spotlight

October 19, 2017, Canada – As part of the hunt for people who “exploit” or purchase services from sex workers, police forces across Canada held their yearly raids between October 11 -15 on sex work establishments that they call Operation Northern Spotlight. These operations include intrusive and intimidating visits to sex workers to their homes and hotels and other places of work, under the auspices of an antitrafficking initiative. In their press release on October 18th (, the RCMP announced that “police interviewed 324 individuals” who they “suspect to be working in the sex trade against their will, or at high risk of being trafficked”. The criteria by which police assume or determine coercion or risk is unknown, but the proportion of police interviews to the “number of people of people removed from exploitative situations” highlights not only misguided police resources, but
problematic over surveillance and a violation of sex workers’ rights.

Sex workers across the country have reported to our member groups that Operation Northern Spotlight compromises their safety and dignity. The interactions begin with a male or female police officer posing as a client and booking an appointment with a sex worker. Several police officers then appear at the sex worker’s place of work, ostensibly to ensure that no coercion is taking place, but with the impact of intimidating sex workers, violating their right to privacy and putting their confidentiality and safety at risk.

Sex workers across Canada who are victims to this Operation also report feeling confused, frightened, stressed and traumatized after these interactions with police, followed by intense feelings of mistrust in the overall police system.

Operation Northern Spotlight has also undermined sex workers’ health and safety. To avoid the greater scrutiny and law enforcement surveillance, interrogation, harassment, detention, deportation and arrest associated with such campaigns, sex workers are forced to work in greater isolation and secrecy, reducing their capacity to earn money and their ability to negotiate safer working conditions with clients and with third parties.

Campaigns such as Operation Northern Spotlight have intensified an already hostile relationship between sex workers and the police and deterred workers in the sex industry from turning to law enforcement if violence or exploitation occurs. In a survey of Asian sex workers in Toronto and Vancouver, 95 per cent of respondents indicated that they never seek help from law enforcement — even if they experience violence, abuse, harassment or exploitation. In Toronto, not a single respondent indicated that they trusted the police. By alienating sex workers, Operation Northern
Spotlight discourages workers in the sex industry from reporting actual cases of human trafficking to law enforcement, frustrating the ultimate objective of such campaigns. It also diverts much-needed resources to antitrafficking investigations rather than place resources into other forms of services and supports that sex workers need.

Canada’s new criminal sex work laws introduced in December 2014 under the Conservative government’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), that wrongfully equate sex work with sexual exploitation and human trafficking have reinforced antagonistic relationships with the police, interfered with the safety mechanisms that sex workers use to stay safe on the job, and increased stigma and discrimination against sex workers. Operation Northern Spotlight perpetuates the faulty logic of PCEPA and continues to perpetuate great harms on sex workers.

Police repression is one of the primary factors that creates vulnerability to violence. A context of repression makes it equally difficult to report crimes for which sex workers are targeted in an environment of impunity. It contributes to a climate of fear and disdain for sex workers that promotes violence and discrimination. Antitrafficking campaigns that conflate sex work and human trafficking impact all sex workers, and particularly target Indigenous women and migrant sex workers, who already have entrenched antagonistic relationships with law enforcement, and sex workers who work indoors.

The Alliance urges law enforcement to put an end to Operation Northern Spotlight. In addition we ask that police:

• Stop using anti-trafficking programs as a pretext for the intrusion of law enforcement in sex work establishments, including indoor sex work businesses and hotels and on the streets with Indigenous sex workers;

• Review existing anti-trafficking policies and programs that equate sex work with human trafficking, and revise policies to remove assumptions that sex work is a form of human trafficking or sexual exploitation; and

• Provide support for Access without fear/Sanctuary City policies that allow migrants to receive essential services such as health care, without fear of deportation.

If law enforcement is genuine in their efforts to support victims of human trafficking, they must work in collaboration with sex workers to develop best practices to help and support trafficked persons while protecting the safety, dignity and human rights of all individuals in the sex industry.

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform formed in 2012 and is composed of sex worker rights and allied groups and individuals in cities across Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton,
London, Longueuil, Montreal, Kingston, Québec, Sault Ste. Marie, St. John’s, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg. Members work together to fight for sex work law reform, sex workers’
rights, and community well-being.

Member Groups of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform:
Angel’s Angels (Hamilton)
Action Santé Travesties et Transexuel(le)s du Québec (ASTTeQ) (Montréal)
BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (Vancouver)
Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network (Toronto)
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (Toronto)
Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) (Vancouver)
Émissaire (Longueuil)
FIRST (Vancouver)
Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project (Toronto)
Maggie’s Indigenous Sex Workers Drum Group (Toronto)
Migrant Sex Workers Project (Toronto)
PEERS (Victoria)
Projet Lune (Québec)
Prostitutes Involved Empowered Cogent Edmonton (PIECE) (Edmonton)
Providing Alternatives, Counselling and Education (PACE) Society (Vancouver)
Rézo, projet travail du sexe (Montréal)
Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.) (St. John’s)
Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) (Toronto)
Sex Workers Advisory Network of Sudbury (SWANS) (Sudbury)
Stella, l’amie de Maimie (Montreal)
Stop the Arrests! (Sault Ste. Marie)
Strut! (Toronto)
Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN)(Vancouver)
HIV Community Link, Shift Program (Calgary)
West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals (WCCSIP) (Vancouver)
Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (Winnipeg)

Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform
Sex Workers, Organizations and Individuals Advocating for Sex Workers’ Rights and Community Well-Being

St. John’s Status of Women Council calls for an end to Operation Northern Spotlight


October 13, 2017

St. John’s Status of Women Council calls for an end to Operation Northern Spotlight

The St. John’s Status of Women Council (SJSWC) and its Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) are deeply committed to the health, safety, and human rights of women, and trans women involved in the sex industry, including those who are at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation. As such, the SJSWC is asking the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to immediately end the practice of Operation Northern Spotlight and all other undercover operations targeting sex workers.

Operation Northern Spotlight is a harmful attempt to deal with a complex issue, that targets sex workers for interrogation, detention and/or arrest, without adequately distinguishing between those who are underage and/or coerced, and those who are not.

This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation, as evidenced by police posing as sex workers’ clients in hotel rooms. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ them. At its worst, it harms sex workers by forcing them underground to evade police. Further, this deters sex workers from turning to the police to report crime that they have witnessed and/or experienced. For women and girls who are at risk of exploitation and human trafficking this practice criminalizes them and perpetuates lack of safety and trust.

Jenny Wright, Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council:

 “We have been working with the police in good faith to find strategies to reduce violence against sex workers and find meaningful ways in which sex workers and the police can work collaboratively. Operation Northern Spotlight has broken that trust.”

‘Rescuing’ individuals who do not wish to be rescued has multiple impacts. Sex workers report being confused and frightened and may suffer trauma and even exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sex workers lose income and experience economic hardship. This places sex workers in a precarious position where they must either accept dates or provide services they normally would not. This operation further criminalizes women by increasing their chances of being arrested and detained on non- sex work related charges.

Bridget Clarke, Outreach Worker, Safe Harbour Outreach Project:

 “Women we work with at SHOP are confused, angry, and feel threatened by Operation Northern Spotlight. Some women have told us that they are no longer doing outcalls so their working conditions have immediately become less safe.”

Targeting sex workers through approaches that induce fear and increase mistrust of police jeopardizes any chance of cooperation between sex workers and law enforcement. This type of repressive enforcement also threatens the foundation of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder, community-based approach that SJSWC has been working painstakingly towards – in our shared goal of reducing violence against sex workers.

SJSWC joins Ontario and British Columbia advocates in calling for an immediate end to Operation Northern Spotlight, instead we ask that law enforcement:

  • Include sex worker voices in any and all work to end human tracking and exploitation;
  • Stop using anti-trafficking programs to justify the intrusion of law enforcement in places where consensual sex work is done, including indoor sex work businesses;
  • Review existing anti-trafficking policies and programs that equate sex work with human trafficking.



Media Contact

Heather Jarvis

Program Coordinator

Safe Harbour Outreach Project


About St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre 

The St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre is a feminist organization that since 1972 is continually working to achieve equality and justice through political activism, community collaboration and the creation of a safe and inclusive space for all women in the St. John’s area. The St. John’s Status of Women Council operates the Women’s Centre, Marguerite’s Place Supportive Housing Program and the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.

About Safe Harbour Outreach Project  

The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) exists to advocate for the human rights of sex workers. SHOP serves women for whom sex work is an occupation; we also serve women who are in the industry not by choice, who are wishing to exit. We provide front line support, system navigation and outreach from a harm reduction approach.

S.H.O.P. & Happy City St. John’s to host city-wide meetings with innovative Vancouver-based organization on community safety and collaboration



June 13, 2017

St. John’s, NL


S.H.O.P. & Happy City St. John’s to host city-wide meetings with innovative Vancouver-based organization on community safety and collaboration


Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.) and Happy City St John’s are hosting the Living in Community initiative that works to find solutions to the impact of sex work and youth sexual exploitation on communities and to reduce the harms and isolation that sex workers experience. Culminating in a year-long pilot project led by S.H.O.P., several sessions with community groups, government, law enforcement, sex workers and residents will work towards applying the successful Vancouver model for safer communities to St. John’s.

S.H.O.P. and Happy City are also hosting a public information session this evening, which will be an opportunity to hear in detail about Living in Community’s innovative policy work in Vancouver, British Columbia in the aftermath of the tragedy of missing and murdered sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown East side. Living in Community will outline its experience addressing sex work-related policy and best practices working with residents, neighbourhood groups, business associations, law enforcement, government, health, non-profit organizations, and sex workers to make communities safer for all.

This session will conclude with a Q & A with S.H.O.P. and Living in Community on the ways to adapt lessons and best practices to the St. John’s context, to effectively respond to communities in St. John’s where sex work happens. The session will be at the Crypt (basement) of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, at 16 Church Hill. The information session is free and physically accessible.



Media contact:

Heather Jarvis, Program Coordinator, Safe Harbour Outreach Project


Lisa Gibson, Director of Living In Community



Living in Community

Living in Community (LIC) is an innovative community initiative that works to find solutions to the impact of sex work and youth sexual exploitation on communities and to reduce the harms and isolation that sex workers experience. LIC recognizes that systemic change only happens when groups work collaboratively – little is achieved when people work in opposition to one another. That’s why our work is directed by a diverse group of representatives such as: residents, neighbourhood houses, business associations, law enforcement, government, health, non-profit organizations and sex workers. Watch LIC’s short video:

Safe Harbour Outreach Project

As a project of the St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre, Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.) was established in 2013 and is the first and only front-line service supporting women who do sex work in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and exists to advocate for the human rights of sex workers.

Happy City St. John’s

Happy City is a non-profit organization that aims to help people develop a clear picture of what municipal issues are and to understand what can be done about the challenges we face as a city.

For Immediate Release: The voices of sex workers displayed at City Hall

For Immediate Release

Feb. 24, 2017

St. John’s, NL

Sex Workers Speak Out: The voices of sex workers displayed at City Hall

Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) and the City of St. John’s have collaborated to host a unique advocacy display, titled “Sex Workers Speak Out: Coast to Coast Perspectives About Canada’s Harmful Laws” in honour of International Sex Workers Rights Day, which takes place on March 3rd each year.

Showcasing the voices and writing of people who engage in sex work from across Canada, including sex workers in St. John’s, the display will be hung in The Great Hall within City Hall for the week of February 27th to March 3rd, 2017 and is open to the public. Stories from sex workers of various identities, ages and experiences highlight the harmful impact Canada’s prostitution laws are having on sex workers’ day to day lives in ongoing stigma, barriers to basic human rights, and pushing the people who do this work underground.

In culmination of the week-long display, a reception will take place in The Great Hall on Friday, March 3, beginning at 6:00p.m., to coincide with the annual International Sex Workers Rights Day. City officials and SHOP representatives will be speaking at the reception, recognizing that sex workers are a part of St. John’s, are valuable members of our community, and sex workers rights are human rights that should be upheld. The reception is free, physically accessible and open to the public, and will have light refreshments.

About SHOP The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) is an initiative of the St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre. SHOP advocates for the human rights of sex workers and provides support to over 150 sex workers in the St. John’s area.


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Media Contact

Heather Jarvis

SHOP Program Coordinator



RED ALERT – SHOP issues a Red Alert in the St. John’s area

A “Red Alert” is a tool SHOP uses to spread awareness and information about violent clients. The information is meant for those engaged in sex trade activities; we share information through Red Alerts so that people working in that industry can make informed decisions about the clients they see.

SHOP has received multiple reports from numerous women who do sex work; we believe they are all referring to the same violent client. Given the number, and escalating nature of violence in the reports, SHOP is issuing a “Red Alert” to warn people working in sex industry about this potentially violent client.

Initially, reports came from women who were working on Long’s Hill. The client was picking them up at that location and driving to other locations in the city where the assaults then happened in his truck. More recently, reports are coming in that a man matching the same description was physically violent with women doing indoor work. With regards to the indoor work, it was reported that the client will only meet at the worker’s location – he prefers in-call only.

The reports include both sexual and physical violence; this client has forced women to engage in sexual services without payment or consent, and he has also engaged in physical violence ranging from locking women in his vehicle, to kicking, punching, stepping on women, and in one case grabbing a woman by the hair and smashing her head off the windows and dashboard of the truck.

Vehicle: Red GMC pickup truck, possibly a ford.

Perpetrator description: Skinny to average size, with a “beer gut”, approx 140-150 lbs; medium height, approx 5’7″ to 5’8″. Depending on lighting his hair has been described as a strawberry blond/ grayish blond. He has very light greenish blue eyes, and one notable feature was that he had very blond, almost white eyelashes and eyebrows. His voice was “nasally” sounding. Numerous women said they would describe him as “strange looking” because of the eye lashes and brows, and said that he “looked very small driving the big truck”. He has a few tattoos on his arms – these are individual tattoos, spread apart, not a sleeve. He also has a little facial hair, and at one time was reported to be wearing multiple hoop earrings. He uses a three-letter name.

Location: Long’s Hill and also in-call locations.

Please call Laura or Heather at SHOP, at 771-7171 or 771-1077 for further info. Any further reports can be made anonymously to the WOW (Warn Other Workers) line 1-800-726-2743. Aside from leaving a message with information about bad dates on that line, you can also call that number 24/7 to receive support from trained sexual assault crisis response volunteers, through the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre. All volunteers have been trained by SHOP staff, and the line is sex worker positive.

Supporting Sex Workers, Supporting Women: Why We Come From A Human Rights Approach

Supporting Sex Workers, Supporting Women: Why We Come From A Human Rights Approach

By Laura Winters – SHOP Coordinator
Heather Jarvis – SHOP Community Outreach Worker

We support sex workers – we listen to women engaging in sex work as they define their experiences, we see their strengths and skills, we value their autonomy, we treat them with dignity, we ask them what they need and want, and we fight like hell for their human rights.

Our S.H.O.P. program’s mandate is simple: we advocate for the human rights of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, and everything we do is guided by the principles of human rights. But what does it mean to come from a human rights approach to sex work? Let’s unpack what that means for the work that we do, the ways we approach the women we work with, and why this approach is crucial in supporting women and our communities.

Applying a human rights framework to sex work means:

• Beginning from a place of respect for all people and their autonomy,
• Allowing women to define their own lived experiences,
• Ensuring basic civil and political rights for meaningful participation in our community,
• Rooting the work in the belief that everyone deserves access to human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, association and movement, supportive healthcare and safe housing, safe and equitable working conditions, and to live and love with dignity and respect,
• And recognizing and addressing the ways in which certain groups of people, like sex workers, are denied their human rights due to underlying historical power structures and discrimination based on gender, race, socio-economic class, orientation, ability, citizenship status, ethnicity, family status, and moral judgments.

Our goal in a human rights approach is not to eradicate or abolish sex work from our society, as is the case with many anti-human trafficking groups who take what can be called a “rescue” approach to sex work. We see the rescue approach as one that:

• Comes from a moral belief that all trade involving sex and sexual services is wrong and inherently violent,
• Labels all people who sell sex to be “victims” who need outside intervention and rescuing, regardless of their conscious and autonomous decisions,
• Speaks over and for countless women’s experiences and realities, upholding a singular narrative,
• Dangerously conflates consensual sex work with sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and conflates the experiences of adults with that of children,
• Sees the selling of a sexual service as the selling of a person’s entire body and self,
• Inconsistently defines what constitutes consent,
• Heavily relies on the criminal justice system, police and government powers to enact justice, often through arrest, criminalization and incarceration.

In strong contrast, our goal is rights, not rescue. We defend and advocate that sex workers rights are human rights. We recognize that sex work is something that many people consent to – whether they work in a strip club, on the street, in a massage parlour, online, in porn, or independently – and they deserve to be able to work and live safely in communities. We also recognize that some people are involved in the sex trade non-consensually, and experience exploitation or human trafficking (when there is sexual exploitation and movement involved), and that those people also deserve access to their human rights. The needs of people who experience exploitation and/or trafficking are vastly different from people who do consensual sex work but we believe that no matter what someone’s experience of the sex industry, women are the experts of their own lives, and that we must first and foremost listen to them when creating services, supports, policies, or legislation related to sex work. The voice of experience is the most important voice in the conversation, always, and this is the place from which we start our work everyday.

So what about supporting people who don’t see sex work as work? We know, from listening to women involved in sex work in our communities, that there are people in Newfoundland who do not consent to offering sexual services, or who are doing “survival sex” to support chaotic drug use and addiction, to put a roof over their heads when they are homeless. We also know that there are people here who are coerced and forced into the industry by others, and they are sexually exploited against their will. The best approach for serving people with these experiences is still not a rescue approach – it’s harm reduction.

Harm reduction acknowledges that people engage in harmful activities (in some cases, sex work might even be harmful for someone) but it also acknowledges that people cannot or will not stop those activities for many reasons. This approach works to reduce the harm associated with the activities. This is also a part of our human rights approach working with women. If someone is engaging in sex work and for whatever reason it is harmful to them, we don’t tell them they need to stop, or that what they’re doing is bad – this approach more often than not just leads to the person not trusting you, feeling judged, and deciding not to connect with you in the future. Instead, we ask people what they want, what their goals are, and how we can help them get there. This may mean that someone is doing sex work to support an addiction and that the addiction is part of their life right now, but we can offer information on working more safely, offer harm reduction supplies such as needles or crack pipes, offer condoms, information on bad dates, information on where to go if they want to move from working on the street to working indoors, and we can let them know that we’ll be here again next week. Through doing these things, through upholding human rights, harm reduction and supporting people where they are at, we build relationships. When we build relationships, we build trust, so if or when someone is ready to make a change, they know we are here to support them.

We have the utmost respect for all women we work with, and even when people are in bad situations, we still believe they know what’s best for themselves and that things have to happen on their terms, in their own time. Listening to people and believing them leads to the knowledge that there are many people doing sex work, for many reasons, and that everyone’s story and situation is different. There is no one truth about sex work or the people that do it. People have all kinds of sex for love, for pleasure, for curiosity, for business, and for many, many other reasons. The only line that truly separates moral and immoral ‘sex’, is consent. Unfortunately, when money and trade is involved, the logic and significance of consent is too often overlooked. If women are to be believed when they tell us they did not consent to sex, we must believe women when they tell us that they did, including consenting to sex for money.

There are many individuals, groups and organizations out there that say consent is essential, but all sex work is bad, all sex work is a form of exploitation, and all sex workers are victims of violence. This was the position of the Conservative Government of Canada when they enacted new ‘prostitution laws’ in 2013, blatantly stating that their goal was the ‘eradication of prostitution’ and they had no interest in making the sex industry safer for women or protecting the rights of sex workers, because they saw all women who sell sex as victims. It was this rescue approach that guided the misinformed, harmful, and ultimately, unconstitutional laws that we currently have in our country around sex work. It is also, sadly, the position of many influential and financially powerful anti-trafficking rescue groups and organizations across the country and around the world, and it is hugely problematic for many reasons, contributing to ongoing stigma, stereotypes, misinformation, violence, and human rights violations for sex workers.

Approaching sex work and sex workers with a commitment to upholding human rights has brought us to advocate for decriminalization of sex work, and we aren’t the only ones. Sex worker advocacy groups across Canada, often led by sex workers, and many other organizations around the world have listened to sex workers, poured over evidence and research on sex work and human rights and have come to the conclusion that the most supportive thing to do is to call for the decriminalization of sex work. We join the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, UNAIDS, the International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and many other sex worker organizations across the world in prioritizing the human rights of all people who engage in sex work.

When human rights aren’t the priority, we’re worried. We’re worried because the moral position embedded in the rescue approach does not start from a place of wanting to understand people and their complex experiences – it starts from a place of telling people who they are and defining what their experiences mean. This silences the voices of people who do consensual sex work, and it’s dangerous because it is often used to justify actions that infringe on human rights, and make life more hazardous and unjust for both sex workers and people who truly are being exploited. It’s not that people who believe in the rescue approach are bad people – on the contrary, they are often concerned, well-intentioned and want to help. The issue – the biggest part of our worry – is that the beliefs of people taking the rescue approach are based in moral assumptions around sex work and upholding one truth about the sex industry, rather than the countless realities of the millions of people in this industry. The only way to know about the realities of the sex industry is to listen to those involved in it – this is what those who take a moral rescue approach to sex work fail to do.

After working with over 100 women in Newfoundland who have engaged in sex work, in one form or another, we know that one experience cannot and should not speak for everyone, and there is no one truth out there about sex work, except for the truth that everyone who trades sex deserves human rights. The women we work with are intelligent, resourceful, critical, funny, kind, loving, creative, and come with skills and knowledge that have informed us on our work from the beginning of this program. We believe wholeheartedly that the first step to increasing human rights for sex workers is to listen to them – they are much more than the one-dimensional people that stigma makes them out to be. Sex workers are multifaceted people with complex lives. They deserve access to human rights, and they alone are the experts on how to make that happen.

*Our sex worker advocacy program is a part of the St. John’s Status of Women Council and Women’s Centre, with the mandate to serve women. We advocate for human rights for all sex workers, across all genders, but through S.H.O.P. we centre and serve women-identified people in the St. John’s area.

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Sex Worker Sexual Assaults, Social Media & Hope

Sex Worker Sexual Assaults and Hope for our Future

By Michelle Keep

Content Warning (CW): Rape, graphic violence, links to upsetting images of assault, victim blaming. I use heavy, blunt words for brutal behaviours.

Social media can do amazing things. We can receive information and reactions faster than ever, and without it being filtered by multi-millionaires at the top. Some benefits are that there are a greater variety of voices that are being heard, and that grassroots movements can take on a bigger power which would previously have been snuffed out. The occupy and blacklivesmatter movements were born from social media, touched a chord with people, and has shaped history.

One of the other benefits, though, is that more women are taking power into their own hands when it comes to suffering from rape and domestic violence. When only 3 rapists are convicted out of 1,000 assaults, it’s clear something needs to be done. Victims/survivors are refusing to be shamed, and can use social media to connect with thousands or millions of people overnight.

This is especially amazing, and heartbreaking, when it comes to sex workers with a large platform. One thing that has always bound sex workers together — their willingness to disclose bad dates to one another — and now they can reach even more people.

Stoya, a porn star and writer, was raped by her ex-boyfriend and former co-star, James Deen. In her own words, he held her down and fucked her while she said no, stop, and used her safeword. They were both co-workers, and a couple, around a year ago. This has spawned the hashtag #solidaritywithstoya. People in the industry have joined in support of Stoya, saying this is not the first time they have heard something like this about Deen, and that they’d seen other behaviour that backs up what she’s saying. Joanna Angel, another ex-girlfriend and former costar, has tweeted her support to Stoya. Deen identified publicly as a feminist while at the same time making rape jokes.

Christy Mack, another porn star, suffered from 18 broken bones, a broken nose, a ruptured liver, a fractured rib, multiple stab wounds, and missing multiple teeth. Her ex-boyfriend, War Machine, an MMA fighter, threatened to rape her. He beat her friend. Now he’s in court, mocking the proceedings, mocking the (pregnant, female) prosecutor, and mocking all of us watching in horror. His attorney claimed that because she engaged in consensual rough sex during their relationship, and was a porn star, that it suggested consent to the heinous beating months after they broke up. He claimed her performances showed “the desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside the norm.” The judge has requested War Machine’s defense to submit a written motion detailing their sexual relationship.

A columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times accused a sex worker — who was raped at gun point — of making a mockery of rape, because it was more akin to ‘theft of services’. She says that she doesn’t believe that rape victims are at fault, but that she doesn’t see the sex worker as a victim, because “when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, [she] is putting [herself] at risk for harm.”

Are you angry? Because I’m angry. I’m outraged.

I’m outraged that these women’s jobs or sexual decisions are being used against them, even when they’re beaten to the disgusting point that Ms. Mack was. I’m outraged that people are confused why attractive men are rapists. I’m outraged because they didn’t deserve this. I’m afraid that they’ll be subjected to an even higher level of scrutiny than most rape victims. And I’m disgusted that these women’s future sexual decisions and choices will lead people to judge the validity of their allegations.

But people can choose to engage in consensual, rough sex, and still be raped.

People can choose to be sex workers, and still be raped.

But you know what gives me hope? Faith?

The few people who have been vocally gross about this are vastly outnumbered by people offering their support, kindness, and love. The few people who tried to use it to push their own narrative, such as SWERFs [sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist], and talk over Stoya have been called out for their despicable behaviour, and the disgusting serial harassers online — you know the ones — are being ignored. It was way easier for me to find positive and heartwarming tweets and responses than cruel ones, and that’s amazing.

The Frisky is no longer publishing James Deen’s Sex Advice Column, and I would imagine that other sites will soon be pulling their platforms from him as well. People are listening to — and believing — Stoya.

It’s easy to focus on the things that make us angry. There are so many horrible things happening in the world, and sometimes, it seems too easy to find things to be upset about. It’s easy to hold onto those things, and feel despondent and frustrated.

But I’d urge you to open your eyes to the good, as well, because it’s a combination of the good and the bad that will keep you going. It’s knowing that things need to change, and seeing that there are others working to usher it in that will keep your momentum up on dark days.

Caring a lot is hard, and I care with everything I have. My heart breaks daily for people who are hurting, but my heart is mended by allies, by those that are working towards and hoping for the same things I desire: Compassion, understanding, a better society.

Even compared to the muted reaction back in February when Cytherea was attacked and raped in her home, where many feminist channels were silent, we’ve improved. We’re making progress. All of our hard work and advocacy, in standing up for sex workers, is helping. In August, Amnesty International gave the middle finger to all those well-to-do actresses that fought their policy by ruling that sex workers’ rights are human rights. The Liberal Justice Minister says she’ll listen to Sex Workers on prostitution reforms. Locally, we now have a street nurse and the Anglican Diocese is offering S.H.O.P. a new home and we have a dedicated line to Warn Other (sex) Workers about bad dates. We had our first Trans March, and we’re finally getting some much needed trans rights passed, like allowing transgender people to change their birth certificate and government IDs to match their gender identity.

Standing with sex workers, standing with victims, standing with oppressed minorities, is always the right thing to do, and society is changing to see that. Don’t forget to take a moment and realize how quickly public opinion is changing. If you support sex workers, and you support victims, and you support equality, you’re standing on the right side of history. Don’t lose faith.

Michelle Keep is an eternal optimist, a Marxist feminist, and believes that sex work is work and needs to be treated as such. A Jill-of-all-trades, she runs a small publishing empire with her husband, has sold hundreds of thousands of her fictional books, and takes beautiful photos in her spare time. On twitter: @jmkeep