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

Criminal law has perpetually trapped sex workers within dualities of criminality and victimization. Whereas the previous criminal offences concerning sex work framed sex workers in terms of nuisance and criminality, the passage of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) in 2014 legally enshrined sex workers as victims, invalidating the labour of sex work in addition to the agency and consent of people who sell or trade sexual services.

The Sex Work Documentation Project was borne from a need identified by sex worker advocates and allies to document sex workers’ experiences with law enforcement — exploring the ways in which myriad criminal, immigration, human trafficking, municipal and other laws and law enforcement practices affect sex workers’ lives.

Inspired by participatory models of research, the project involved sex workers and sex worker advocates in the development of the research questions, questionnaire, methodology, analysis and presentation of the findings. It also modeled the ethical process and consent documentation from other participatory models of research with sex working communities. As a member of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform — an alliance of more than 28 sex worker rights and close allied groups working towards the safety of communities and reform of Canada’s sex work laws — and as a result of our work with sex workers and sex worker rights communities, we were able to connect with sex workers across Ontario who had encountered law enforcement in the context of their sex work, to tell their stories.