STATEMENT: Law enforcement “protections” harm sex workers

Rather than helping, sex workers’ human rights are being systemically violated by those meant to protect them


The following statement is issued by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (“Legal Network”). Comments can be attributed to Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.


April 10, 2019 — In 2018, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network interviewed 22 sex workers in Ontario about their recent experiences of law enforcement. Aged between 19 and 60 years old, the sex workers interviewed identified as women, trans, Two Spirit or male; white, Indigenous, Asian, Black, Latina and Middle Eastern. While their identities and backgrounds were vastly different, their experiences of law enforcement were not. The most apparent commonality was their experience of law enforcement as a source of repression rather than protection.

Sex workers’ human rights are violated by aggressive and disproportionate surveillance and abuse by law enforcement. This includes assault, harassment, threats, extortion and unwarranted searches and seizures of sex workers across Ontario. Recently released, the research report The Perils of “Protection”: Sex Workers’ Experiences of Law Enforcement in Ontario highlights individual accounts of a law enforcement system that maintains and promotes extraordinary control over sex workers’ lives.

“They still wanted to hold me accountable for whatever they could get me on, even though they couldn’t charge me for the prostitution they were going to charge me for something. Always a target. As long as they knew who I was, they were going to get me.” — Leigh, Toronto-based sex worker

Systematically across the interviews, sex workers describe pervasive surveillance from law enforcement officers, who employ an array of laws to scrutinize, interrogate, harass, detain and/or arrest them. To mitigate these harms, sex workers report working in unfamiliar and secluded areas, working in isolation from community members, and working with unknown risks — heightening their vulnerability to targeted violence, exploitation and abuse. The negative impacts are significant and wide-ranging, from harm to sex workers’ physical safety and mental health, to hampering sex workers’ ability to support themselves and their loved ones, to being “outed” as a sex worker and stigmatized. In many cases, law enforcement surveillance also led to barriers to other and/or future employment, eviction from sex workers’ workplaces, loss of child custody, and/or immigration detention and deportation.

For sex workers, reporting to or contacting authorities when they are victims of a crime is not seen as a viable option and the majority of those interviewed indicated that they would not go to the police for help, especially if they needed to disclose their sex work. Sex workers reported that when they do request police intervention, they are denied such assistance; their experiences are often minimized or discounted, they are blamed for the harm they have suffered, or they are treated as criminals and, in some cases, also charged after seeking police assistance.

This research has underscored the need to centre the perspectives of sex workers in order to truly understand the implications of laws and law enforcement in their lives. It also highlights the need to remove unsolicited law enforcement from sex workers’ lives. The sex workers we interviewed stressed that police must treat the sex work community with respect and provide police assistance only if requested.

“It’s the same situation over and over. ‘Well, you did put yourself into this type of situation, so to avoid these types of situations you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.’ … That’s how you always get treated, in any type of sex work.” — Guisella, London-based sex worker

Almost all of the sex workers we spoke with highlighted the critical role of sex worker–led human rights organizations as a source of support, and the need for policy-makers to invest in and sustain such organizations.

Most important, the lived experience highlighted in this research strongly challenges the assumption that law enforcement officers protect sex workers. Aggressive surveillance and law enforcement abuses of sex workers must end, and sex workers’ human rights need to be upheld.




About the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network promotes the human rights of people living with, at risk of or affected by HIV or AIDS, in Canada and internationally, through research and analysis, litigation and other advocacy, public education and community mobilization.

Law Foundation of Ontario
The report was financially supported by the Law Foundation of Ontario.

This report was written by Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Jenn Clamen and Tara Santini.



The Perils of “Protection”: Sex Workers’ Experiences of Law Enforcement in Ontario

Report summaries are available in English, French, and Chinese.

Full report in English is available to download (French available in May 2019):

Emma Riach, Communications and Campaigns Officer
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Telephone: +1 416 595-1666 ext. 236