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:
- The non-enforcement of the anti-sex worker laws of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).
- Labor rights and protections for migrants.
- An immediate moratorium on all detention and deportation of migrant sex workers including those undocumented.
- 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.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On producer Rashida Jones reflected on the mistakes that were made with the original documentary: “I think that many people within the industry felt like the movie marginalized and further stigmatized sex work, which was not our intention at all.” It’s perplexing to reckon her revelation with the litany of pushback the current iteration of Hot Girls Wanted has received.
Released not even two weeks ago, the latest installment of the Hot Girls Wanted brand is already suffering some harsh criticism and accusations from within the sex industry. Some sex workers have alleged that their content was used without their consent and that they weren’t fully informed of Rashida Jones’ involvement. The Free Speech Coalition even issued a formal denouncement. I reached out to the producers, the film’s media contact, and Herzog & Company for clarification and (by the time of this post, 10AM EST) I still have not heard back.
But they weren’t afraid to talk to Variety! In an interview yesterday, it seems the other two producers may have dialed back their sympathy for marginalized sex workers. “Criticism of the series, she [producer Ronna Gradus] said, is likely fueled by sensitivity over how the industry is often portrayed in mainstream media—and that performers who have spoken out against the show may be doing so because they feel they have to. ‘The industry is very defensive about people coming in and shining a light on the industry and doing stories about it,’ she said, adding, ‘The allegations that have come out are probably the result of pressure they are feeling to stand in solidarity with the industry.’”
Gia Paige is one of the performers featured in the series. Her legal identity was exposed in the series and she alleges that the producers used her footage without her permission after she backed out. She was kind enough to respond to my queries via email.
I do these interviews because I want to talk with other sex workers about our work, and because I think we all have interesting stories. But, after interviewing Matthew and his telling me he was coming out, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to worry about that. I acknowledge that I am very privileged to have a mom who isn’t freaked out by my work, but we’d had very few conversations about how she felt about my work. Actually, we hadn’t had any. I tell her about sessions, and I told her when I started working, but beyond a few mentions here and there that was it. I wanted to know what she thought about my work, and since she’s a preacher, if she thought it clashed with our religion at all. I didn’t know what she was going to say, I swear, but I committed myself to reproducing whatever she said no matter what.
Toronto’s Migrant Sex Workers Project, “a grassroots group of migrants, sex workers, and allies who demand safety and dignity for all sex workers regardless of legal status”, was co-founded last May by Elene Lam, Chanelle Gallant, and Tings Chak. Lam, who moved to the area from Hong Kong two years ago, saw a gap in local activism where migrant sex workers were concerned,”because there is a strong sex worker movement and strong migrant movement but no migrant sex worker movement.” She began organizing with the Chinese Canadian community, specifically with MSWP’s sister organization, Asian and migrant sex worker support network Butterfly. Soon, longtime sex worker activist Gallant began collaborating with her—”I really wanted to support the work that she was doing…she moved to Toronto and with pretty much no resources and no connections just started making all these things happen, in terms of creating support for migrants in the sex trade here.” With the aid of Tings Chak of Toronto’s No One Is Illegal, they solidified their burgeoning work into the MSWP. This summer, Kate Zen, a sex worker activist with years of experience organizing in the informal labor sector, joined them as a member.
In the context of coverage of the “migrant crisis” all over the global media, I felt it was more important than ever to learn about migrant sex worker activism. I spoke to Lam, Gallant, and Zen over a video call. The transcription below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. The second part of the interview is here.
How does the displacement of millions of refugees due to war and economic inequality, which the media is calling “the migrant crisis,” affect your organization’s work? What would you want to see the North American sex workers’ rights movement do in response to the crisis?
Elene Lam: So I think instead of starting with the crisis recently, we need to know actually, that people start to move to different places since we have the history of the human being. I think the “migrant crisis”, this term is used to create a panic and fear of people, to justify how they screen the migrants and stop the migrants. I think that when you see the history—that people migrate because of economic reasons or war—this always happens. But you see more recently—especially [in] the Global North—they use whatever reason to stop people migrating, compared with 10 years, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. So they have more and more boundary control.
They categorize the people. Some are refugees. Even the refugees, they have the who-is-more-deserving-to-have-the-right-to-enter refugees. So when you see this whole picture, you see how the countries from the Global North create a boundary to not let the people from the Global South to go to their places. So they create categories—so that by categorizing refugees that means they can deny a lot of people to enter their countries.
I think it’s also related to the whole anti-trafficking discourse. We think anti-trafficking is so accepted by so many people because on the surface, they say, “Oh, yeah, we are protecting the victim, we are rescuing them, they are in a vulnerable situation.” But what you see, the real thing is how the Global North—countries like [the] US, Canada, or [in] Europe—they have more and more laws to stop the people from migrating more easily to their country. And they work with the sending country to stop the people from moving. Even when people move here, they can use anti-trafficking as the reason for “rescuing”—but actually they are arresting and deporting racialized people, especially if they are from the Global South.
So I will not discuss about the migrant crisis here, because I think the migrant crisis story just makes people feel justified and comfortable about rejecting the migrants to come to their places.
Chanelle Gallant: I think that the sex workers’ rights movement in North America needs to also be taking into account and taking more seriously Indigenous sovereignty on the lands on which we live. And so, to consider the migrant “crisis” as having been produced by the Global North to a great extent, whether that’s through economic exploitation or through irresponsible climate change that’s making climate refugees out of millions of people. And then at the same time acting as though our governments have jurisdiction, completely unquestioned jurisdiction, over these lands to decide who gets to move when and where and on what basis.
And I don’t believe in that jurisdiction. I don’t agree to that jurisdiction. We’re ruled by it but it doesn’t mean that it’s right or moral. And so that’s just another element that I want to add to this conversation around sex workers questioning borders as being imposed by colonial governments that don’t have moral legitimacy. The movement would look very different and exclusion would look very different if we were respecting the legal jurisdictions of the Nations on whose lands we are living.