Canadian sex-trade workers gather in Edmonton for national assembly
Standing on stage in a cream-coloured dress, Marisa Swinton looks out at an audience scattered at tables across a hotel ballroom.
"Who is controlling our message?" she asks.
"Politicians? The media?"
"Nothing about us, without us," she tells the the crowd gathered for her presentation on securing public interest in eliminating the stigma around sex work.
About 190 people have convened at an Edmonton hotel this week for the National Sex Workers Assembly. Dozens more have joined virtually for four days of panels, workshops and keynote speakers.
The schedule includes sessions on a range of topics such as costuming, challenging stigma, and coming out to family members. The four-day event ends Friday.
Hosted by the Edmonton-based Advocacy Normalizing Sex Work through Education and Resources Society (ANSWERS), the conference is a rare large-scale gathering of sex workers and allies from across Canada.
For many, the ability to gather for this kind of event is special.
"We're doing this in a public space in a hotel that is aware of who we are. I don't think people can really grasp how huge that is, based on the stigma we usually have to deal with," said Sultry Miss Em, a Calgary-based sex worker, advocate and educator who was set to speak on a panel on Wednesday.
Sultry Miss Em is not her real name, but one she uses for work. CBC has agreed not to use the real names of sex workers interviewed for this story and not to identify the hotel hosting the assembly to protect attendees' safety.
A 'freeing' experience
Sultry Miss Em said that often when sex workers are asked about what they do for a living, they have to quickly decide if they should tell the truth.
If they do, they also have to consider what kind of a reaction they'll get: they could be met with judgment or stigma, and may end up having to reassure the other person that they're fine.
"To be here in a group of this many people from coast to coast and just simply be able to exist and share our experiences without that judgment — I don't know how to put into words how freeing it is to not have that weight of trying to justify everything that we say," she said.
While many of the attendees do sex work, others are partners and loved ones of sex workers, or they're individuals who support or interact with sex workers — such as therapists, lawyers and accountants and representatives from social agencies and the City of Edmonton.
On Wednesday, Adebayo Katiti, a transgender man who works as a sex worker and advocate, spoke about the importance of building alliances between the sex worker and trans communities.
"In terms of ideology, the two movements are not so far apart," he told the room.
The assembly is part of a larger 19-month project funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada. The federal funding has allowed ANSWERS to host a series of smaller events leading up to the national conference.
"It's a dream come true," said ANSWERS president Mona Forya, who has been involved in advocacy for sex workers since 1995.
She said it's the first time she's seen a sex worker group get a grant of this type.
"I just hope that it is a signal from the federal government that we're supposed to do this in order to get the message out so that we can pave the way for legislation," she said.
The push for decriminalization
Laws around sex work shifted after a 2013 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that found three criminal prohibitions on prostitution unconstitutional and harmful to sex workers.
New legislation in 2014 made it illegal to purchase sexual services, but says an individual cannot be prosecuted for selling sexual services.
However, many activists have argued for full decriminalization, saying that the effect of the laws on sex workers endangers them by driving the trade underground, and prevents them from being able to properly vet clients and have security.
Forya said that despite what the legislation says about not criminalizing individuals selling sex, entering into a transaction with a person who is breaking the law puts sex workers into a legally problematic position.
"From our perspective we are criminalized regardless of what they say," she said.
Other attendees echoed Forya's optimism that the assembly is a sign things are changing.
Cinnamon, an Edmonton sex worker who recently joined the ANSWERS board said they hope the message the wider community takes from hearing about the assembly is that sex work is work, and that full decriminalization would advance sex workers' well-being.
"What it would mean to our community and how it would change everything, and being able to take those steps here together — I think is just — it's amazing," they said.