By Peter Berton
In a world where the legitimate, consensual, and positive efforts of sex workers are regularly denigrated and discouraged, the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC) is a champion fighting the good fight’ for their human rights. “The BCCEC are the only 100% – for sex workers by sex workers – organization in British Columbia,” explains Susan Davis, the BCCEC’s Executive Director. “We work to bring the voice of our community to the tables of power where decisions are being made about our lives and safety. We are working to address the system -wide bias, exclusion, and discrimination sex workers face in our everyday lives; from law enforcement to access to health care.”
The Naked Truth (TNT) recently spoke with Davis to learn more about the BCCEC’s work.
TNT: You are releasing a major report entitled, “Current Affairs: Sex worker action and planning 2023”. Why has the BCCEC prepared this report, and what do you hope to achieve by releasing it?
Davis: This report represents three years of work that the BCCEC’s members have prepared using our first funding since 2011. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns created an environment where government were suddenly willing to provide financial support to sex worker organizations.
Being an unfunded group, the BCCEC has long known how to stretch every penny and to develop this comprehensive report on a wide range of issues as they arose during the past few years. We plan to share it with the systems who are named in the report in order to ensure they recognize the harms they are creating for the sex working community.
We also plan to share it with sex workers! We hope the sex working community will feel that their everyday issues are not being ignored and that we understand, as members of the community. where we need to start; to begin to unravel all of these system-wide issues.
By outlining the concerns of sex workers as they relate to each issue, we hope to show how bias and discrimination against us are widespread and not limited to the Criminal Code and law enforcement. Conversations about the issues we face at work have shown us that we need to be working on more than decriminalization, if we wish to address issues of workplace safety, for example, and other labour-related issues.
We are also hoping to demonstrate the “democratic” process (the vote) we used for establishing priorities in order to show law and policy makers how we have arrived at these actions and ideas – that we worked together to decide where we should focus our efforts and resources for the benefit of our community.
The “short reports” contained as Appendices in the Report are also intended for use in finding funding to support work to address these issues. All funding/ grant proposals require a “background” component that demonstrates the need for a project or action.
All told, we wish to raise awareness of the issues the sex working community face and to find financial and political support for work in addressing these issues.
TNT: What are five major points you cover in this report that matter to sex workers, and why do they matter?
Davis: Decriminalization: We are part of the Canadian Alliance Charter Challenge of the sex work laws. Our community has always been criminalized and we feel that the first step, for society at-large, should be to acknowledge the hypocrisy of them criminalizing us and at the same time “trying to save” us.
This is a critical step towards ending stigma against our community. It would begin to change the way our movement works, what our focus is. Until we are decriminalized, everything we do is a risk … a risk to us and our families.
Adult content being removed from the Internet: During the COVID Pandemic lockdowns, many sex workers were caught without any income or way to survive. Many turned to online sex work as an alternative. On top of that, there is not a sex worker in this country who does not have sexy photos or videos online.
The government has chosen, now, to begin to try to restrict our ability to work online, find clients online, or to be online at all. Sex workers are worried about the move towards more and more censorship and exclusion of sex workers from online spaces. Our lives, our ability to feed and house ourselves, and of course our safety, all rely on the internet. So, this is a pressing and troubling issue for our community.
Financial exclusion: Several laws in the USA conceived to “fight sex trafficking” have created an environment of financial exclusion for our community. Banks and credit card companies have all created policies that deny sex workers access to the financial tools other business-owners take for granted.
Because these laws were so broadly worded, they have become easy “talking points” for anti-sex work crusaders who spend their time and platforms trying to destroy our community, as our choices for getting paid for our work are being narrowed more and more. These attacks on our ability to get paid for our work have created opportunities for people to exploit us via expensive third and sometimes fourth-party transactions and fees, and in some cases to seize our wages completely.
Cryptocurrency is unreliable and no longer confidential, so we have few choices for conducting transactions in a world moving more and more toward a cashless society. We must endeavour to find a way to take control of the situation and create room for adult consensual sex workers as business owners and masters of their own fates.
Unions: The sex industry has long operated outside of the workers’ rights and workplace safety margins. Complaints about everything – from working conditions in brothels to bed-bugs in hotels where exotic dancers stay while on tour, or dangerous adult film companies – have never had a mechanism for complaint or redress. As well, new sex workers are for the most part in a “sink or swim” situation in terms of knowing how to work safely, screen clients, or even choose what area of the sex industry is right for them.
Workers in other countries where decriminalization has already taken place have shared that many of these issues remain, even after decrim, and that they also need a way to address these issues as an industry. If we want to show the mainstream community that, as an industry, we are ready to be accountable, we have to find a way to come together in work towards solutions.
Across Canada, sex worker communities are trying different approaches. But not everyone agrees on how to move forward. If we want to learn from issues in places were decrim has occurred and we want to prove to the powers that be that we are ready to “self govern”, we must find a way that works before they impose something on us instead.
Wellness: Sex workers are notoriously hard workers, We rarely make time for self care. Sure, we go to the gym, we get our hair and nails done, etcetera, but that is just part of work for us.
Sex worker advocates are even worse at taking care of ourselves. There is little to no pay for this work. Facing the constant attacks of anti-sex work crusaders telling us we’re wrong, don’t know what is best for us, are part of the “pimp lobby”, are “grooming children” for sex work, is exhausting. We need to find outside pursuits like art, performance, and writing to save our strength for the fight.
TNT: When it comes to securing their legal rights, are sex workers in the same position as visible minorities, in terms of being confronted by prejudiced, uncaring elites who stigmatize them to justify their oppression?
Davis: Absolutely. The Government of Canada’s representatives and employees are required to take an “Oath” that demands “impartiality”. This is clearly ignored in particular by those elites who have made anti-sex work crusades their mission.
How can we attain just and impartial government responses to these issues, if they are already being decided by those with a private interest in the abolition of sex work? How can we trust those government systems who have breached the public’s trust and fallen into perpetuating misinformation and myth about who sex workers are and how our safety could best be protected?
The work by anti-sex work crusaders to confuse the conversation about sex work is widespread and global. We see an erosion of our voice and exclusion more and more, as this powerful lobby attacks all aspects of our lives and ability to feed and house ourselves. We are not recognized as citizens deserving of rights. We are not recognized as people who have children and families. We are seen as a “problem” to be dealt with; not as a community deserving of equality.
What will it take for lawmakers to do their jobs and properly protect sex workers as Canadian citizens? Do lawmakers have the stomachs and ethics to do what’s right?
TNT: So what can be done?
Davis: I am hoping we can work to hold law-makers accountable to the rules contained in the Tri-Council Policy Statement – a document which governs research involving human beings in Canada.
If we can force them to adhere to their own rules and scrutinize all information being considered during development of law and policy – including information from pro-decriminalization people – before it is allowed into committee or to biased processes in this regard, we can ensure that law-makers are only being given actual data and facts when making decisions about our lives.
This is why Amnesty International changed their position on sex work, after they examined all the “evidence” and separated fact from fiction. When you do this honestly and impartially using only the facts, there is only one conclusion that can be reached –decriminalization and rights for sex workers is the path forward.
If the government and other “powers that be” really care and want to protect the safety of sex workers, we must first have an honest conversation, based on truth and that includes the perspectives of those citizens who will be directly impacted: Sex workers.
TNT: So what can sex workers do themselves to protect their rights?
Davis: Come out of the closet! It’s harder to violate the rights of sex workers when their sex worker status is known.
Obviously, this is not possible for most sex workers as it places us at risk of loss of resources, loss of family connections, apprehension of children, and targeting for hate-based crimes. But for me, there has been nothing more empowering than not having to fear being “outed” and being able to say YES! I AM A SEX WORKER!
For those who cannot come out, surround yourself with strong people and create connections with other sex workers. This way when your rights are being violated or you are facing challenges due to your sex worker status, you can draw on the experiences of your social networks and be reminded that you are not alone in this. It happens to all of us.
The one thing the anti-sex work crusaders fear the most is our community coming together as a collective voice. If we can do this, we will show our opposition and those in power that we are the majority, that we understand the best path forward, and that there is no way to address the issues facing the sex worker community without the voices of sex workers.
TNT: Does the ‘whorearchy’ need to change to help matters?
Davis: I would say yes. We need to be better to one another. The class distinctions we make within the sex worker community mean nothing to those with power. To government and police, we are all low caste. From drug-using street sex workers to Onlyfans stars: They do not see any difference.
Meanwhile, we have to address the anti-sex work crusaders who have defined who we are – voiceless victims with no understanding of what we need or of the “harm” we cause all women by simply existing. If we want to change that conversation, we need to support one another, we need to stop judging those who charge less or who do full contact sex work or work on the street.
We are all part of the same community. What happens to street level sex workers will happen to everyone else as well, as we are now seeing with laws against adult content and film emerging across the world. And make no mistake: Wherever we go, the anti-sex work crusaders will find us and fight for our exclusion.
I have worked across the spectrum of sex work – from adult film to street level sex work. I always like to say, “if I want to give a blowjob for a smoke, that’s my choice and nobody else’s business.” We must do better and work together to end exclusion within our community.
TNT: Once your report has been released, who are you sending it to and what results are you hoping for?
Davis: We will release it to as many people as possible in government, the public sector, health, police and funders.
Our hope is to demonstrate that sex workers have complex ideas and issues to unravel, and that there is not one aspect of government or society that does not somehow exclude us.
As we try to work through the things outlined in the report, we hope to make some tangible progress for our community; to make movement forward. If we can get anywhere? We’ll see!