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ONTARIO: Workers in the sex industry facing COVID challenges in the margins

‘It can be difficult for them to protect themselves when they have to choose between a potential interaction or not being able to eat,’ says harm reduction co-ordinator

Editor's note: The following story may contain content that is disturbing or graphic to some readers. 

From glory holes to making moves virtually, public health advice for sexual contact during COVID-19 has varied across Canada.

During the pandemic, people engaging in sex work are facing unique challenges not only because of the novelty of the virus, but also due to the unregulated nature of their work and the social stigma that goes along with it.

In Simcoe County, police are noting an increase in congregation complaints related to sex work, but a steep drop off in human-trafficking tips.

Jessi (not her real name) has made the move from stripper to sex worker due to major changes that have hit the industry throughout COVID-19. She was working as a stripper in Barrie up until the pandemic hit in March.

“As a single mom with seven kids, that was the only work that could support that many kids,” said the 34-year-old. “I do everything on my own.”

While the club opened again in June for a short time, Jessi says everyone was required to wear masks and stay six feet apart, which made it impossible for her to make money on private dances. 

“I found it was a waste of time. Nobody is going to pay for a dance from six feet away when you can just watch the girl on stage,” she said. “That’s when I decided to start doing this.”

Sarah Tilley has worked at the harm reduction co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre since January 2020. Prior to that, she worked for the centre as the sex worker outreach and support co-ordinator.

The Gilbert Centre is a not-for-profit, charitable organization located in Barrie that provides programs and services to people dealing with AIDS or HIV. While the organization has evolved over the years to help members of the LGBTQ community due to need, other affected communities, such as those engaging in sex work or struggling with addictions, are also included as part of their mandate.

“Sex work is not one group or activity. There are so many different forms of sex work. When it comes to criminalization of those who are engaged in sex work, whether it be through massage therapies, escort services, or folks who are engaged in advertising on a street-based level or on social media sites, in recent years there’s been a very big focus on human trafficking,” said Tilley.

“People who are doing sex work for a variety of other reasons – it can push them to the margins,” she added.

As COVID-19 is spread primarily through through respiratory droplets and aerosols, there are ways for people engaged in sex work to do so safely.

“When it comes to sex work, even having your face associated with the work you do, there are a variety of different forms. For example, if it’s a massage parlour and the sex work is digital manipulation, wearing a mask there wouldn’t be any increased risk,” said Tilley. “Because there’s so much stigma about sex work in general, there’s increased concern about safety, not just during COVID, but it was also seen during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and in a variety of other sectors.”

Public perception of people engaged in sex work can be a barrier to making sure proper protections are in place.

“It’s almost like sex workers (are seen) as these vectors of ill health. I believe some of that concern comes from the stigmas around it and not any real potential harms,” said Tilley. “It can be difficult for them to protect themselves when they have to choose between a potential interaction or not being able to eat.”

Public health advice across Canada for sexual contact during COVID

Jessi provides any services a customer might request, but she says she does observe COVID-19 safety as best she can. This includes only meeting clients at a specific hotel, always insisting all participants, including herself, are wearing masks, and sanitizing the hotel room between clients.

She says, in her experience, the number of clients requesting services has gone up throughout the pandemic. She said she’s seeing between four and five clients per day, making roughly $2,000 per day.

“Everybody’s bored and stuck at home. Nobody can go to bars anymore, or pick people up that way,” she said. “Business has been really good.”

Earlier in the pandemic, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) garnered laughs on social media when they suggested the use of glory holes as part of their advice on how to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 through sexual contact.

The BCCDC also provided guidance for sex workers through a harm reduction lens to help reduce the risks associated with in-person contact and to keep workers as well as clients safe from COVID-19 illness.

That advice includes regularly washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, wearing a mask, switching from in-person to web-based, phone-based, or text-based services when possible and using positions that minimize face-to-face contact.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit does not have specific advice when it comes to sexual contact during COVID-19, however referred BarrieToday to the advice shared by the BCCDC.

Although she is making a lot of money right now performing sex work, once the pandemic is over, Jessi says she would still want to go back to working at the strip club.

“I had fun. It’s kind of like a big family there,” she said.

In regards to her own safety, Jessi says she has a male friend who accompanies her to client meetings and waits in the car so she can call if she needs help. She said that during the pandemic, she has had men reach out to her, offering to act as a pimp for her.

“There’s no way I’m going to pay somebody when I can do it on my own,” she said.

Legality of sex work

Det.-Const. Michelle Jansen works in the human-trafficking unit with the Barrie Police Service.

When it comes to the laws in Canada regarding prostitution, Jansen references the Nordic Model, which is in place across Canada.

“A female can work independently, and the laws are set up in a way that she has full control of her business. If she wants to post advertisements of herself online or anywhere else, she has full control to do that,” said Jansen. “No one else is allowed to post advertisements for sexual services in regards to (another person), because that takes the control away from the sex worker.”

Another charge in relation to prostitution is material benefit from sexual services.

“So, she can collect her money, but no one else can collect money as a result of her providing sexual services,” said Jansen.

'Johns,' or clients of sex workers, can be charged with communicating for consideration.

“I get that it’s confusing,” said Jansen, adding that an apt metaphor for the laws can be most closely related to laws surrounding drug use.

“It’s illegal to buy drugs and communicate about drugs and transporting drugs, but it’s not actually illegal to do drugs,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Jansen says Barrie police haven’t changed the way they police offences related to prostitution, however there have been increases in calls regarding congregating at hotels and motels.

“The hotels do not want the constant in-and-outs of the johns. So, some hotels when they notice the traffic going in and out they may ask the sex worker to stop due to COVID. If they don’t comply with the rules of the hotel, we get calls to help evict them,” she said. “When we do that, we also conduct an investigation to determine if she is safe and is working for herself and isn’t being trafficked.”

Jansen said officers will also offer information on social services that may be able to help them get out of the sex trade, if that’s something they want. Although, Jansen says there are some challenges to enforcing current recommendations.

“We’re ensuring COVID measures are being followed, but a lot of the time if we show up and there are sex workers working, they may not necessarily be forthcoming that they are sex workers,” she said. “There’s also a difference between what the government is recommending, and the actual laws that are enforceable.”

Throughout COVID-19, Jansen says she has noticed a decrease in the number of community members coming forward with tips or seeking advice when it comes to human trafficking.

“I’d like to encourage community members to continue to participate in combating human trafficking in our community,” said Jansen. “One of our struggles during COVID has been a lack of information and tips that were coming in prior to COVID. When we sit at our community table with other local agencies, they’re feeling the same way.”

Jansen said that as a method of addressing skepticism of police, Barrie police has separated its services for victims from their enforcement so people engaging in sex work who may want or need help can do so without having to file charges or proceed with a criminal investigation.

“They’re not required to initiate a police investigation in order for us to assist them with any issues they have, services they need or to exit the sex trade,” said Jansen. “There is sometimes a distrust between sex workers and police and we’re trying to bridge that gap and create a better relationship.”

Broader systemic issues

Tilley says COVID-19 has shone a light on a variety of unregulated industries, including the sex trade, and the exploitation and danger that can occur when those industries remain unregulated.

“COVID has just impacted everybody negatively in terms of isolation. There’s even more surveillance of people on a street-based level,” she said. “This issue isn’t just related to sex work, it’s related to all unregulated labour markets. We’ve already seen it documented when it comes to temporary foreign worker programs. It means people’s situations are exploited because it’s not viewed as a form of legitimate labour.”

A step forward for the industry could be the decriminalization of sex work, a stance the Gilbert Centre has stated publicly.

“They just recently came out with a report on the benefits of sex work. One of the major findings was the decrease in harm... because there wasn’t the ability to exploit certain aspects of their work,” she said. “There are many examples throughout history of people engaging in sex work being targeted by people who are very violent. The reason they were able to exploit sex workers is because of the social stigma.”

In 2003, New Zealand moved to decriminalize sex work by passing the Prostitution Reform Act. Five years after its introduction, the Prostitution Law Review Committee found that the sex industry had not increased in size, and many of the concerns predicted by those who opposed the decriminalization had not been experienced.

Overall, research showed the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry were better off than they had been previously.

One method used to keep people engaging in sex work safe is the Bad Date Book, a reporting tool facilitated by the Gilbert Centre where clients who engage in bad behaviour such as rudeness, theft, price bartering, threats, or acts of violence are reported anonymously and shared across the community.

While the Gilbert Centre is not the first organization to use the Bad Date Book model, Tilley says the list isn’t used very often as the abuse experienced comes from places you may not expect.

“Speaking anecdotally from the folks I’ve had interactions with (locally), the majority of violence they experience is at the hands of organizations taking people’s kids away, or treating people terribly such as hospitals, police stations and other social services. Not at the hands of clients,” said Tilley.

When talking about sex work, Tilley says the value of the service is typically glossed over, as intimacy and connection with people is something we, as a society, need.

“Sex work is a service and it’s a valuable service within our community for a variety of reasons. It can be difficult to wrap our heads around (that)... especially considering how sex-negative we can be,” she said. “There is so much intimacy and emotional labour that is done through sex work and in general, it’s a good thing.”

One day, Jessi says she would like to eventually get out of the sex industry.

“I do want to get out, but with supporting seven kids on my own, any other job makes it difficult to do that. I’d have to pay for daycare during the day and McDonald’s isn’t going to cover it,” she said.

She says she keeps in contact with her former co-workers and many of them are struggling.

“A lot of them are sitting at home right now, and are behind in their rent, but some of them aren’t interested in getting into this sort of thing,” she said.


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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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