Sex work is often described as the world’s oldest profession. In fact, there is mention of “prostitution” dating back to 2400BC. ASK Wellness Society’s SHOP Program, which provides social and health options for people who do sex work, looks to displace the stigma surrounding the age-old occupation.
SHOP Program Coordinator Melissa Collick highly recommends people do their historical research concerning sex work. She says that definitions of ‘sex work’ have “changed to suit peoples cultural or religious beliefs, desires, societal norms and monetary gains.”
First and foremost, Collick asserted that “sex workers are adults who receive money and or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services.” Sex work is not akin to human trafficking, which by definition is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labour, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation.
She went on to say, “a great way that communities can help better advocate for and protect sex workers is to familiarize themselves with sex work enforcement guidelines and the continuum of consent within the spectrum of sexual exchange.”
“Educating oneself on what sex work is across the continuum [of consent] and of the obstacles faced in the line of work, without personal judgment, is crucial in providing better protection and advocacy for sex workers,” Collick said.
“A big part of advocacy is education, such as education around de-stigmatizing the profession. It appears the biggest risk to sex work is, in fact, stigma,” said Collick. Stigma prevents professionals, such as sex workers, from having safe working environments, access to fair justice processes, and economic gains like legalized work.
Collick went on to say decriminalization would provide safe sex work environments on all levels, including safer working environments for “men, women, transgender, non-binary, and two-spirited workers.”
“When we criminalize sex work, we are forcing it underground where workers don’t have much ability to negotiate respectable terms such as value of service, personal safety and health. Criminalization also makes it difficult for sex workers to report incidents of injustice,” Collick said.
“Sex workers want to be governed by labour law and have protections within their chosen profession. It is recognized that decriminalization won’t resolve all issues faced by sex workers but, [by asking for decriminalization] sex workers are just asking for human rights.”
At SHOP, Collick explained they help clients and the community understand the continuum of choice and consent regarding sex work. They also use “Red-Light Alerts” and community collaboration to help keep community members involved in sex work safe and informed. They create opportunities by building relationships with businesses, neighbourhood groups, and other stakeholders and work to improve the health and safety of those involved in sex work through crisis intervention and harm reduction strategies.
SHOP programming includes support sessions and “safe suites” in which clients have access to 24-hour staffed, confidential, and safe short-term shelters. Further, “SHOP staff work closely with community resources and are strong advocates for sex workers.” Collick stated, “[SHOP} can help guide [sex workers] to achieve [their] goals.”
Do not be afraid to reach out if you or someone you know is involved in sex work. SHOP is an excellent community resource, and its client-centred approach ensures people are heard, valued, and supported.