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Activist Spotlight: The Migrant Sex Workers Project On Borders and Building Movements, Part Two

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I interviewed Toronto’s Migrant Sex Workers Project co-founders Elene Lam and Chanelle Gallant as well as Migrant Sex Workers Project member Kate Zen over video chat. The first part of that conversation, edited and condensed for posting, is here. The group’s vital representation of a population often absent from sex worker activism inspired me. I was eager to speak them about  their unique justice themed work—advocacy grounded on the autonomy and leadership of migrant sex workers themselves, rather than the rescue themed approaches which wrest that autonomy away from them. 

The MSWP issues four demands to Canada’s government on its website:

  1. The non-enforcement of the anti-sex worker laws of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).
  2. Labor rights and protections for migrants.
  3. An immediate moratorium on all detention and deportation of migrant sex workers including those undocumented.
  4. The de-funding of anti-trafficking policing and the redirection of those resources to community led solutions.

In the second part of our interview, we discuss these demands as well as conditions on the ground for Toronto’s migrant sex workers.

How do anti sex work and anti immigrant laws hit migrant sex workers harder?

Kate Zen: First of all, the racial visibility of migrant sex workers makes it so that migrants are more readily targeted than any other group [of sex workers]. You see this in Toronto specifically with the targeting of […] Asian massage parlors, with the rhetoric of “all human trafficking must be going on with THOSE people.”I think [for] migrants, because of language barriers, [it] makes it much more difficult to defend what is going on inside. And because of migration and because of immigration barriers [it] makes people much more vulnerable to being deported or further marginalized. It makes it more difficult for people to speak up.

Elene Lam: But this law, actually, it targets, affects more than migrant sex workers. Because of the language [barrier] and because of the connection to the community, most of them, they need to work with a third party. But the law has criminalized all the third parties. Also, the people who work as partners, and peers, or community members, we become criminalized. So that it’s more difficult for them [migrant sex workers] to negotiate, more difficult for them to seek support, and more difficult for them to speak out when they have [experienced] different kinds of violence.

I think the other side is [that] they don’t say anti-immigration law, but actually the anti-trafficking law is an anti-immigration law. They start already at the border control—because when you enter the border there’s so much screening to see whether you’re vulnerable to be[ing] the victim of trafficking. But they are being taken out—so it’s how to stop the people who are moving from the Global South to enter Canada.

But I think what they are doing also creates a panic of the society, and get the support from them. You make the people [have] more fear of the sex worker because they think, “If my neighbor is a sex worker that means they are [involved with] organized crime. If I have an Asian sex worker near me that means I have this trafficking victim near me I should report.”

Chanelle Gallant: While there are migrants in the sex workers’ movement broadly, I see a real gap and a lack of representation and leadership of racialized migrants. I think one of the impacts of criminalization is that it really makes organizing and advocacy more difficult for racialized migrants because they’re at a whole different level of risk than non-racialized migrants.

Activist Spotlight: Magalie Lerman on Exploitation, the Anti-Prostitution Pledge, and Outreach

Magalie speaking at a city council meeting. (Photo by Kendra Kellog)
Magalie speaking at a city council meeting. (Photo by Kendra Kellog)

Magalie Lerman joined Prax(us), a Denver homeless youth and anti-trafficking organization, in 2010, as an outreach worker – one who knew the lay of the land in a way that others at Prax(us) did not. She now directs the outreach program and Hartcore, the constituent community organizing program. Hartcore and SWOP Denver  (Sex Workers’ Outreach Program Denver) have collaborated on many projects – Know Your Rights trainings, a zine, a speakout, and so on. In 2012, Magalie joined SWOP Denver (which already had overlapping membership), and Hartcore and SWOP Denver have continued to collaborate. Magalie formerly traded sex and is a current webcam model. She is a queer lady and likes music and shows.  

When you joined Prax(us) in 2010 you brought street experience and knowledge that was lacking in the organization at the time, and you contributed a lot to their abilities to offer harm reduction and outreach. Can you comment on the relationship between experience and effective outreach?

Outreach can happen regardless of a person’s experience. I think many good outreach workers are social workers, etc. But I would say that HartCore’s community organizing became possible after a person with the lived experience stepped in. I can say, “This happened or is happening to us. What can we do to heal ourselves and our communities?” It’s inclusive and real that way. Outreach is one of my favorite things ever, and I think it’s super important for street-based folks or people who have left the street to be able to do outreach because outreach is a way to redefine the streets. I have always known I have a place on the streets, and outreach allows me to take it back.

Nude for the Needy: A Stripper’s Mission To Pay It Forward

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Photos courtesy of Soren High

Ziploc bags overflow with disposable handwarmers, hand sanitizer, crackers and nuts. Thick cotton socks and toothbrushes, tampons and lollipops are piled nearby. A few women and a couple of men stand or sit along a heavy wooden table, chatting lightheartedly and stuffing goodies and toiletries into bags. Two children toddle around, munching crackers and playing with yarn.

Luchador in north Portland is holding its first Nudes for the Needy drive. It’s like many other holiday donation events, except for one thing: it’s headed by adult entertainers. Petite, bespectacled pole dancer Soren High brushes her dreadlocks away from her face as she hurriedly carries blankets and boxes around the room, delegating tasks to her volunteer friends.

“I’ve been homeless before,” she explains. “From about 2005, on and off until 2009. I lived in my car, with my boyfriend at the time. I lived under bridges. I know what life is like when you’re homeless, and I want to give back.”

When asked what sparked her desire to organize an event, Soren answers candidly. “I literally woke up one morning and felt like I needed to do something good. I started chatting about making blankets and giving them to family, but somebody else proposed a blanket making party, and here we are.”

The temperatures have been unseasonably frigid for Portland this year, with snow falling early in the month of December, and temperatures of 13 degrees recorded. The normal average temperature at this date is about twenty degrees warmer. “At least five deaths of street-folks were recorded within a matter of days,” Soren posted on her Facebook, rallying help in a hurry to hand out blankets and supplies on December 9th and 10th. I spoke with her about organizing in the community.

How did this begin?

Nude for the Needy started as a Christmas present for my family. I meant to make snip-n-tie blankets for everyone in my family and give them to a person in need as their gift. The idea bloomed into asking several of the girls that I work with to help with the project to come together and bring donations and a blanket. I know how amazing it feels to be given a blanket when you’re cold, or to receive food when you’re hungry. You remember that person for the rest of your life.

Activist Spotlight: Nine, on Bad Policies and Holding Abolitionists To Account

nineNine is an itinerant writer from Northern Ireland, who spent several years working at an outreach project for sex workers in Scotland before being made redundant in 2009.  Recently, she has written and spoken against attempts by politicians and feminist organisations to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland, most notably in the barnstorming essay “Taking Ideology to The Streets: Sex Work And How To Make Bad Things Worse” and in her zine Sex industry Apologist, now on its second volume.  Nine’s writing has also appeared in Autostraddle and The Rumpus.

I’d like to ask about the work you did supporting street-based sex workers, and what you’ve done since that came to an end?

I spent six and a half years at a sex work project, from 2002 to 2009, providing outreach services to sex workers on the streets, in flats, saunas and massage parlors, and online. I gave out condoms and needles, linked people up with specialist services, took reports of violence and circulated them to other sex workers, provided emotional support, gave advice on legalities and personal safety—basically I just responded to whatever issues sex workers brought to me. However, we were sometimes limited in terms of what we could actually do, given that we were operating on pretty much a shoestring, and adequate support was not always available to sex workers from other agencies. I guess that’s what happens when the funding is almost entirely focused on sexual health, as if sex workers couldn’t possibly have any other needs. Hi, I may be ranting already.

“The Higher End of the Community”: John Scarpa and Solidarity

RIP Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar (photo via the Gothamist)
RIP Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar (photo via the Gothamist)

There are John Scarpas everywhere. There is a John Scarpa in every department of the federal government. There is a John Scarpa in every police department. Every four years, a John Scarpa is nominated to run for president. Our world is full of John Scarpas. The difference is that, unlike his doppelgangers, the actual John Scarpa stated the ethical beliefs that underlie the transphobia, whorephobia, and HIV criminalization policies carried out at every level of government around the globe out loud.

For those who missed it, John Scarpa was a Queens-based defense attorney for Rasheen Everett, the murderer of trans sex worker Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar. And while Everett acted out the hate in his heart by killing Gonzalez-Andujar for being transgender, his attorney acted out his own hate by way of his defense. From The Gothamist:

…defense attorney John Scarpa caught the ire of the judge when he argued against the victim’s character. “Shouldn’t that [sentence] [twenty five years] be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?” he reportedly asked, adding, “Who is the victim in this case? Is the victim a person in the higher end of the community?”