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Montreal, Whoreganize !

Sex Work Autonomous committee

SWAC contingent banner at the IWW protest on May 1st 2022
Like many others, the pandemic has largely  isolated many of us, sex workers (SWrs). Agencies, strip clubs and massage parlours have been mostly closed since the first lockdown; there is no physical place left that resembles a workplace. Many of us have tried our best to offer our services virtually, be it for a few minutes every now and then when our clients can take a break from everyday life. The Onlyfans platform has seen a dramatic increase in subscribers from 7.9 million in 2019 to 85 million a year later.1 Many SWrs have been transitioning to other areas of work, taking advantage of the new opportunity to do accelerated beneficiary attendant training or signing up to help out in the health and social services system. After a break period (or not), many have started seeing clients again while doing their best to reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission, because they had no other alternatives. Others have made exclusive arrangements with clients, but these have often ended badly; boundaries become blurred, clients start mistaking us for girlfriends, try to push our limits, take over our time, start renegotiating condom use and so on.  As if it wasn’t enough to risk one’s health for a livelihood, the attacks have come from all sides; moral panic over pornography has intensified in the United States2, making it harder to advertise services online and collect payments over the Internet. Many of us have not had access to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In addition, the Quebec government has extended the curfew introduced on January 9, making repression ever more present in our lives, especially for those working in public spaces. Furthermore, no governmental public health policy has taken an interest in our safety and health during the pandemic, since we are not recognized as workers. One thing is certain, we are still working, but in even more precarious conditions than before and increasingly alone. In other words, the collective power acquired through organizing is being undermined, at this very moment when we need it most. Despite the presence of online communities, we have no place to gather in-person, discuss our working conditions and the ways of improving them. The Sex Work Autonomous Comittee (SWAC) is an autonomous political organizing project initiated by SWrs based in Montreal in the fall of 2019, just a few months before COVID-19 pandemic forced us into confinement. Obviously, everything has been turned upside down since then. During the first lockdown in March 2020, we thought we could wait it out, as it seemed impossible for us to mobilize in the short term. Now we see that we have no choice and that we’re going to have to be creative. After several Zoom meetings and an in-person workshop in a corner of a park, when it was still possible, we decided to write this text to lay the foundations for our organizing, and to outline what an autonomous SWr movement would look like.

Invitation flyer for the very first SWAC meeting (page 1-2)

Autonomous from who and why?

Since our first calls to organize, one question has come up over and over again: “Why create a new organization when there are already community organizations to defend our rights? Aren’t they the best ones to speak for us with many years of experience?”. Let us first establish that the creation of autonomous committees is in no way intended to replace or eliminate any organization or to criticize particular individuals. However, we believe that discussions about the organizational models and structures that are in place in a movement can only be beneficial to the struggle. By creating an autonomous committee, we want to create a space where mobilizations and collective actions are priorities; we believe that we and our colleagues have much to gain by organizing politically.  Since their inception in the 1990s, Canadian SWr organizations, like many others, have always tried to find a balance between providing services and collective action for political change, both at a legislative and public health level. Discussions on the tension between service provision and collective action have been a recurring theme in our conversations at SWAC over the past year. Time and energy being limited resources, we believe that asking this question early in the formation of a political group is essential. “This debate was already present at the founding of the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP) in 1983” says Danny Cockerline, a gay activist, sex worker and founding member of CORP:

In its early days, the CORP devoted all its energy to lobbying politicians, governments, the media, police forces, etc. in order to obtain their support for the decriminalization of prostitution. In 1985, Peggie and Chris formed a group to start a self-help project. The idea was that the CORP would only succeed if more prostitutes became involved, and only when their basic needs were met would they be able to devote time to political work.3

This new project was called Maggie’s and is still active today in Toronto. However, the idea of creating new services divided those involved at the CORP, according to Cockerline, since “many feared that they would end up with another social service that prostitutes would turn to for help rather than join us in creating an advocacy movement”4. Since then, the CORP has ceased its activities and Maggie’s continues to offer services. However, the initial idea of being a training ground for SWrs to mobilize is less and less present in SWr organizations. Sarah Beer, a researcher on SWr rights in Canada, is critical of this model:

Funding formalizes organizational structures but tends to bureaucratize mobilization. The outreach services [recrutement practices of these organizations] that are provided can be restricted based on funding criteria (e.g., funding might give money only to do street-based, not indoor, outreach). […] As a consequence, sex workers need to organize on multiple fronts.5

Like Sarah Beer, we believe that if political demands and collective actions are not given priority in the SWrs’ rights organizations, it is because of the requirements of these structures, starting with those of their funders, and the resulting bureaucracy: activity reports and accountability, funding requests, action plans, human resources management and all the administrative paperwork that comes with them. In short, it is not surprising that there is not much time left to mobilize those who aren’t already active! The first SWr organizations’ funding was granted as part of the fight against HIV6. Of course, one can empathize with the fact that at the time, SWrs, like LGBTQIA+ populations and drug users, wanted to create their own health services to fight against an epidemic that was decimating their communities to the government’s disregard. However, as Act-Up activist and writer Sarah Schulman points out, these organizations are often reappropriated by governments to contract out work at a lower cost: 

The distinction between service provision and activism has become elusive. Poor people are very interwoven into state agencies: there’s a lot of surveillance […]. My life has shown me that activists win policy changes, and bureaucracies implement them. In a period like the present where there is no real activism, there are only bureaucracies.7

The bureaucracy of community organizations makes it difficult to have wide spaces to discuss solutions and to mobilize to defend our rights. This is why we believe it is time to organize on an autonomous basis.  The foundations of such an organization still need to be defined. This is what we will try to do here. Of course, this is a work in progress and these principles are bound to be updated. It should also be noted that SWAC activists have varying perspectives and work experiences. These principles therefore serve as a basis of unity, first at a theoretical and then at an organizational level.

Invitation flyer to the very first SWAC meeting (page 3-4)

Theoritical principle:

    1. The recognition of sex work as work and the need to decriminalize it in order to obtain the same labor rights as other workers;
We believe that sex work is work and that SWrs are workers. Furthermore, we believe that sex work belongs to a particular, undervalued category of work: reproductive work. Theorized by feminists from the Wages for Housework movement, reproductive work is defined as all the work necessary to maintain and renew the labour force: domestic tasks, care of children and the elderly, meeting the emotional, physical and sexual needs of the wage earner. This work has traditionally been taken care of by women in the heterosexual family so that men can be fresh and willing to go to work. If these forms of work have become more complex with the entry of women into the wage labour market, they have not disappeared and are increasingly taken care of by racialized women, following the international division of labour, to which we’ll return later. In the 1970s, wages for domestic work activists emphasized the contribution of this largely feminized labor to capitalism and the importance of perceiving oneself as a worker in the struggle against it.  How can we go on strike and refuse this work if we can’t name it as such? There were already links between SWrs and housewives struggling for wages at the time.8 In 1977, Margo St James, SWr and founder of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), was invited by the Toronto branch of Wages for Housework to a forum on the decriminalization of sex work. In their opening speech, the collective said, “Our poverty as women leaves us little choice. Hookers get hard cash for their sexual services while other women get a roof over their heads or a night out.”9 However, in addition to being devalued, sex work is also criminalized. This criminalization is an excellent way for those who appropriate our work to control its conditions, be it through a flesh-and-blood boss or an online platform. It is impossible for us to have access to the minimal protections normally guaranteed to workers. These precarious conditions are the source of daily concerns and challenges, ranging from difficulties in getting paid to the impossibility of denouncing clients and employers’ violence through legal mechanisms. Of course, we know that the decriminalization of our work alone cannot guarantee us decent working conditions, as evidenced by difficult environments of the legal sectors of the sex industry such as pornography or strip clubs. The pursuit of sex work decriminalization is therefore not an end in itself, but rather a first step in providing ourselves with the means to obtain better working conditions. We believe that by organizing now in autonomous committees for decriminalization, these committees will be able to serve as a basis for the organization of our workplace.  

2. The recognition that sex work takes place within a capitalist, neo-colonial and cishetero-patriarchal system; the recognition that women, racialized people, trans/queer/gender non-conforming people, migrants and people with disabilities are over-represented in sex work, due in part to the barriers to employment and good jobs in the capitalist system;

The context in which sex work takes place is often ignored by those who are outraged that women are forced to “sell their bodies”10. Instead, we start from the principle that all workers sell their bodies – this is a more interesting starting point in the struggle for better working and living conditions. In other words, starting from the point of view that work should be empowering and free from exploitation seems to be a trap to avoid. The sex industry, along with many others, is filled with exploitation, sexist and racist violence. However, few of us are in a position to refuse this work individually, because the reality is that we have to put bread on the table and pay the rent. Most of us are SWrs because it is the best or the least bad option available to us in this context. We have seen it throughout the pandemic; in Canada, statistics show that job losses have impacted women more severely than men11. In the United States, reports show that Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour are 1.5% more likely to lose their jobs because of COVID than white men older than 20 years old12. In Canada, BIPOC people still have a higher unemployment rate than White people, particularly Indigenous women13. This is also true if you are experiencing employment’s discrimination, whether you are a BIPOC, trans or disabled person. The job market is stratified by class, race and gender and it’s no coincidence that these people are over-represented in sex work. In this context, what options are available to SWrs who wish to leave the industry? Finding themselves behind the cash register of a grocery store or joining a long-term care facility to provide care? Not only do these options not reduce the risk of being exposed to the virus, but the expected decrease in income means that they’ll have to work even harder and lose time flexibility. This flexibility is desired and even vital for many, including, single mothers, students, and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Moreover, these work alternatives, often precarious and poorly paid, are not exempt from exploitation and violence. We also live in a time where an international division of labor prevails. The conventional definition of the international division of labour refers to the displacement of industrial production from the countries of the North to the countries of the South, where workers’ wages and protections are lower. Feminist thinkers have also demonstrated the importance of the work exported from the countries of the South to the countries of the North, particularly women’s reproductive work14. This can be seen by the large proportion of so-called essential work performed by migrant women, particularly in hospitals, daycare centers and long-term care facilities. These jobs are often done through employment agencies, causing a deregulation of work and allowing employers to get away with offering poor working conditions. More often than not, they are temporary jobs occupied by those with precarious immigration status, putting the people who work there at risk of deportation, as highlighted by the movement of migrant workers during the pandemic15. Similar logic applies in the sex industry, particularly in stripclubs, where female workers are often considered self-employed rather than employees. However, it is often assumed that women who migrate and work in the sex industry are victims of sex trafficking. This discourse ignores the role that borders and migration policies play in this process. Indeed, many are forced to accept terrible working conditions because of their precarious migratory status, but this reality is not specific to the sex industry, as some anti-prostitution organizations suggest.
Photo by Betty Bogaert at the SWAC gathering on March 3rd 2022

Organizational principles:

    1. The self-representation of SWrs and their right to talk about their own realities, and non-hierarchical self-organization that allows the implementation of direct responses and actions;
The principle of “by and for” has shaped the ways of the SWr movements. From its beginnings, there has been a tendency to place workers at the center of their struggles in order to detach themselves from the interests of those who supposedly want to save us. However, this does not mean that each SWr can speak on behalf of their colleagues and that no power dynamic crosses our work and organizational spaces. Racial, class and gender relations are very much present, and to have only one spokesperson, especially one that  is salaried, only crystallizes and emphasizes this power relationship.  Certainly speaking out when dealing with criminalization and stigma can be a challenge for many of us. But we think that there are ways to get around these barriers with a little bit of creativity. Organizing ourselves into open committees with a flexible structure will already allow us to discuss the demands that need to be put forward according to the context, and to be able to quickly reorient ourselves. In pandemic times, where the context is rapidly changing, this formula will allow those involved to put forward essential demands that would make a real difference in their lives. We want to create a space that is open to all SWrs in accordance with the basic principles of CATS, where we can discuss organizational methods, demands, and actions to be taken in order to achieve gains, without any of the bureaucratic red tape. We also aim to foster a space where involved people get to have more control over the struggle. But all these principles will be nothing more than wishful thinking if they are not backed up by consistent practice. This is why the rotation of tasks within a group is an essential element both for preventing the informal concentration of power that is created by assigning one person to carry out the most attractive tasks and to avoid  having the same people doing the less esteemed but nevertheless essential chores. Although it would be easier to delegate everything to a competent person, we think that in the long term, we have much more to gain by taking our own destinies in hand, and learning to do everything together, without making anyone indispensable.
    1. The mobilization of our colleagues in our workplace is the basis of organizing towards better conditions;
In almost all sectors of the sex industry, we often hear that it is much better to be self-employed and that it is a sign of empowerment to be one’s own boss. The pandemic has exacerbated the current trend to dismantle our workplaces to the disadvantage of the most precarious workers. Far from improving conditions for all, independence at work makes us insecure and, above all, distances us from our colleagues. We are then dependent on platforms that force us into competition with each other, while taking a cut in our salary. This trend is not exclusive to the sex industry and can be referred to as a kind of uberisation of sex work. Last year, strippers in London celebrated the legal victory that gave them the status of employees of their club16, just like the French Deliveroo delivery persons who had managed to get the company convicted of “dissimulating work”17 and the Uber drivers who won the right to unionize18. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to know what our workplace is like and who our colleagues are, especially since many of us work on different platforms. That’s why we think it makes more sense to have a large committee that welcomes all SWrs and doesn’t divide us according to the type of work we do. This helps counter the tendency towards uberisation that isolates us. Moreover, it prevents us from falling into the trap of whorearchy, a term that refers to the hierarchisation between different forms of sex work. This hierarchy is constructed according to proximity to the client. Those who work only on the internet are therefore less stigmatised and criminalised and those who perform more intimate services are more so. 
    1. Autonomy from government institutions and other institutional donors.
As mentioned above, funding seems to be one of the elements that brings a great deal of complexity to community organizations. It also keeps us away from the activities we want to do, i.e. mobilising our colleagues and taking action to improve our working conditions. It also appears to us that this funding is contrary to the principle of “by and for” since it gives the state and private foundations a great deal of latitude to control our activities. In this sense, we believe that detaching ourselves from these donors is essential to achieving our goals, and that we should not sacrifice our autonomy to obtain funds. We believe that the search for money should be limited to the realisation of those projects and actions aimed at furthering our political objectives.

The crisis: an opportunity to reinvent the struggle!

 

The current crisis is an unavoidable moment of restructuring. The pandemic isolates us and makes us precarious, but it may also be an opportunity to reinvent our movement and organize ourselves, as it was the case with the HIV epidemic. While we recognize all of the barriers to mobilization, it’s time to be creative and to rethink our strategies.

Photo by Lizo Ginestet at the SWAC gathering on May 1st 2021
This particular context, has led to multiple strippers’ strikes in Portland and  Chicago to demand an end to racial discrimination against Black strippers in their clubs during the summer of 202019. According to Cat Hollis, one of the strike organizers, the closure of the clubs due to COVID-19 has allowed the strike to organize itself when the establishments reopened at the end of the first wave20. We, too, want to channel the anger and despair felt in face of the current circumstances into something constructive. We hope that this collective force acts as a catalyst for the creation of a strong SWr movement to achieve political gains that will have an impact on our lives. While the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities, we also want to turn it into a time of solidarity and struggles for better working and living conditions.  It is said that only the struggle pays off, and we believe that this payout is not only to come from the pockets of our clients, but also from those of the State. The same state from whom we must demand the social protections owed to us in times of crisis, and even more so, the recognition of our status as workers!

1. Axel Tardieu. (2020). Elles posent nues sur Internet pour payer leurs études, ICI Alberta, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1762202/etudiants-onlyfans-internet-pornographie-chomage?fbclid=IwAR1rDnzlEP5kVJ8s57jkyzS2XGsIutnbBi2xQXOWR21o4nTi2kBHwxgFOV4

2. SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) are two bills passed in the United States in February and March 2018, supposedly aimed at combating sex trafficking. Under these two laws, web platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Craigslist, Backpage can now be charged with sex trafficking for published content. Thus, overnight, hundreds of SWrs have seen their income and security threatened by the closure of web spaces. Several SWrs also denounce that platforms like paypal or even their bank close their accounts without warning when they discover their activities: Jesse and PJ Sage. (2020). Episode 78: Porn Performers Talk Pornhub and Payment Processing, https://peepshowpodcast.com/episode-78-porn-performers-talk-pornhub-and-payment-processing
In December 2020, following a sensationalist article in the New York Times exposing the presence of underage videos and non-consensual acts on Pornhub, Visa and Mastercard stopped supporting payments on this platform. Several SWrs have denounced the fact that this measure will not affect the adult entertainment giant, basing its revenues exclusively on advertising, but will directly affect the revenues of those who sell their content on this platform. The links between the anti-Pornhub campaign and the American religious right wing have also been strongly denounced by journalist and ex-SWr, Mélissa Gira Grant. For more information: Melissa Gira Grant. (2020). Nick Kristoff and the Holy War on Pornhub, https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub

3. Since we couldn’t find the original version, this quote is translated from the french version of this text in Danny Cockerline, «Whores History: A Decade of Prostitutes Fighting for their Rights in Toronto», Maggie’s Zine, n 1, hiver 1993-1994, Toronto, Maggie’s: The Toronto Prostitutes’ Community Service Project, p. 22-23. Traduit de l’anglais par Sylvie Dupont, dans Luttes XXX, Inspirations du mouvement des travailleuses du sexe, 2011, Les Éditions du remue-ménage.

4. Idem

5. Sarah Beer. (2018). «Action, advocacy and allies: Building a movement for sex workers right», Red light labor: sex work regulation, agency and resistance. p.332

6. In Montreal, Stella was born out of a consultation committee of the Centre d’étude sur le SIDA on which the Projet d’intervention auprès des mineurs prostitués (PIAMP) and the Association Québecoise des travailleuses et travailleurs du sexe (AQTS), among others, sat. The project was intended to be a sister organization to Maggie’s, which had received its first funding a few years earlier from the City of Toronto’s Public Health Department. Claire Thiboutot. (1994). Allocution: appui au projet Stella, Montréal, Association québecoise des travailleuses et travailleurs du sexe (AQTS) et Danny Cockerline, «Whores History: A Decade of Prostitutes Fighting for their Rights in Toronto», Maggie’s Zine, n 1, hiver 1993-1994, Toronto, Maggie’s: The Toronto Prostitutes’ Community Service Project, p. 22-23. Traduit de l’anglais par Sylvie Dupont dans Luttes XXX, Inspirations du mouvement des travailleuses du sexe, 2011, Les Éditions du remue-ménage, p. 48 à 52

7. Sarah Schulman. (2012). The gentrification of the mind: witness to a lost imagination. p. 16

8. See Wages for Housework. (1977). «Housewives & Hookers Come Together», Wages for Housework Campaign Bulletin, vol. 1, no 4, dans Louise Toupin. (2014) Le salaire au travail ménager, Chronique d’une lutte féministe internationale (1972-1977). Les éditions du remue-ménage, p.257

9. Idem

10.The question of “selling the body” is a subject of debate even within the SWr movement. On one hand, it is defended that one does not really sell one’s body, but rather a service or one’s work force. The Girlfriend Experience is an example of this. On the other hand, it is argued that selling the body is present in every field, be it construction, professional sports or even office work, and that all of these jobs wear out the body in one way or another. This perspective also helps to understand how gender performance is expected in certain industries, such as the sex industry, catering or fashion for example. Whether one starts from one perspective or the other, sex work is not fundamentally different in this respect.

11. Radio-Canada. (2020). 3 millions d’emplois perdus au Canada depuis le début de la pandémie, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1701093/coronavirus-chomage-avril-canada-perte-emplois

12. Catalyst, Workplace that Work for Women. (2020). The Detrimental Impact of COVID-19 on Gender and Racial equality: Quick Take, https://www.catalyst.org/research/covid-effect-gender-racial-equality/

13. Idem

14. Sarah Farris. (2017). «Les fondements politico-économiques du fémonationalisme» dans Pour un féminisme de la totalité, Éditions Amsterdam, Période, p.189-210

15. Dan Spector. (2021). Quebec Curfew making life even harder for undocumented workers doing essential jobs: Protesters
https://globalnews.ca/news/7610014/quebec-curfew-making-life-even-harder-for-undocumented-workers-doing-essential-jobs-protesters/?fbclid=IwAR11NG9HO7itDYjSqwIUi-bClk2gY750KR4gcRPqVHZfGoMVmOql2B6eZS8

16. Strippers union United Voices of the World, Decrim Now. (2020). Strippers Union United Voices Of the World (UVW) Wins Landmark Legal Victory Proving Strippers Are ‘Workers’, Not Independent Contractors,
https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/en/news/2020/03/press-release-strippers-union-united-voices-of-the-world-uvw-celebrates-employment-tribunal-win/

17. Catherine Abou Al Kair. (2020). Livraisons : La condamnation de Deliveroo pour travail dissimulé peut-elle faire tache d’huile ?
https://www.20minutes.fr/economie/2717155-20200218-livraisons-condamnation-deliveroo-travail-dissimule-peut-faire-tache-huile

18. CBC News. (2019). 300 GTA Uber Black drivers unionize as city mulls regulatory overhaul, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/uber-drivers-union-ufcw-toronto-1.5190766

19. To learn more : Haymarket Pole Collective. (2020). Press coverage, https://www.haymarketpole.com/press

20. Tess Riski (2020). A Labor Movement Demands Better Treatment for Portland’s Black Strippers
https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/06/16/a-labor-movement-demands-better-treatment-for-portlands-black-strippers/