[This open letter originally appeared on Medium and is shared with permission]

Dear Mr. Viersen,

My name is Isobel Andrews and I am a resident of Toronto, ON. Though I do not live within your riding, I am a sex worker. Your general comments about, and attitude towards sex workers are harmful to myself and my sex worker colleagues across this country, and so I’m writing this letter to you.

As it seems you have some misunderstanding of the terms “sex worker,” “human trafficking,” and “victim,” I thought I would take this opportunity to help educate you on some of the pertinent terms you use in your discussions around the topic of sex work in this country. I’ll also take this opportunity to discuss the real harms associated with the conflation of sex work and human trafficking.

“Human trafficking” is the “recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.[1]” Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking, where victims are exploited and forced into performing sexual services of some variety, without their consent and against their wishes.

“Sex work” is a broad term that encompasses more than “prostitution”; it involves exchange of sexual labour for some form of consideration. Sex workers are people who are paid to work in these roles, and can include strippers, erotic dancers, porn stars, cam models, kink enthusiasts, Dommes and Doms, escorts, companions, and sugar babies. Importantly, sex workers are doing this work voluntarily. They have consented to their jobs.

The key difference between sex work and sex trafficking involves consent. Section 273.1(1) of the Criminal Code provides a definition of consent and says that consent means “the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question[2]” [emphasis added]. If one continues to read, section 273.1(2) outlines some of the scenarios in which no consent is obtained, including a scenario where a position of trust, power, or authority is abused[3].

Persons engaging in sex trafficking are committing an offence under s.279.01(1) of the Code[4] by directly engaging in or facilitating the exploitation of persons by exercising “control, direction or influence” over another person. The exploited person then becomes a victim[5], and this is where definitions begin to get cloudy.

You see, Mr. Viersen, people have a hard time accepting that sex workers are not victims, are not being exploited, and are not working under duress. They stick to the long-held, patriarchal doctrine that sex is for marriage, it’s between men and women, and anything that doesn’t represent this traditional norm couldn’t possibly be consensual. I’m guessing you’re one of them, judging by your comments in Parliament on February 4, 2020, where you said “I do not think any woman in this country ever chooses this as a job.”[6]

When you conflate sex trafficking and sex work, you propagate ignorance. You presume that sex workers are all victims and have no agency, and that we cannot possibly think for ourselves. But this is because you refuse to listen to us. You neglect the real needs of thousands of sex workers in Canada by ignoring our lived experiences as sex workers, and as human beings.

You create an ineffective legal system with laws under the guise of “helping victims” that that in fact end up being very, very harmful to sex workers. I’m sure if Marylène Levesque and Vanessa ‘Petit Pied” were still alive, they’d agree. These women, and many others, are dead because Canada’s laws surrounding sex work are killing them.

These women consented to sex work. But because the current law criminalizes purchasers of sex services under s.286.1(1) of the Code[7], it makes it incredibly difficult or impossible for them to seek security or screen clients because clients are afraid to provide their information to workers because they know they can be charged. Instead, clients provide fake information (or none at all) which compromises sex worker safety.

This is where the real victimization comes in, but it’s not from being trafficked. It’s because the Canadian government and MPs like you, Mr. Viersen, continue to ignore our needs, you dismiss our rights, and you refuse to listen. You put forward laws and policies without our consent. You, Mr. Viersen, have painted us as the victims, not us.

I think this makes the point, don’t you?

[You can write to Arnold Viersen at Arnold.Viersen@parl.gc.ca]


[1]Public Safety Canada, “Human Trafficking”, online: Public Safety of Canada <https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/cntrng-crm/hmn-trffckng/index-en.aspx>.

[2] Criminal Code, RSC, C-46, s.273.1.

[3] Supra note 2, at s.273.1(2)(d)

[4] Supra note 2, at s.279.01(1)

[5] Supra note 2, at .279.04

[6] CTV News, “MP Arnold Viersen apologizes to MP Laurel Collins over question about sex work”, at 00h:1m:01s, online (video): YouTube < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c84sF5goo4>

[7] Supra note 2, at s..286.