What I learned: question assumptions and listen to the client

I recently attended a training session on the legal rights of migrant sex workers, funded by a Connecting Communities grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario. CLEO‘s Connecting Communities projects train front line workers on how to give useful legal information and referrals to help clients.

When facilitating the training session, Elene Lam of Butterfly, an agency that supports Asian and migrant sex workers, pointed out that the stigma surrounding sex work and precarious immigration status can hinder us in our efforts to help people with legal problems, particularly migrant sex workers.

I learned from the training that sex workers, and particularly migrant sex workers, are seen as either victims or criminals. The law itself seems to support this dichotomous treatment. Canada, after a recent Supreme Court ruling, passed laws that decriminalized some aspects of sex work. At the same time, local law enforcement initiatives, such as regulation of municipal bylaws, enable the passing on of information about sex workers to immigration authorities or police and can result in the deportation or criminalization of migrant sex workers. We’re still treating sex workers as criminals.

Stereotyping and stigmatization reinforces this discourse, to the detriment of helping sex workers. Before I took the training, I lumped migrant sex workers and victims of human trafficking into the same category – looking at all of them as victims. Sex trafficking is a huge issue. But when we view all those who work in the sex trade industry as victims of trafficking, we take away workers’ agency.

Want more information about best practices to deliver legal information to migrant sex workers? Check out the resources from this project.

Now, I know to be wary of making assumptions, and to make sure that I listen to the client’s voice. When trying to help migrant sex workers and other communities vulnerable to legal problems, I realized that it is important to reflect on my ideology and any biases I might have about these communities.

All sex workers can be severely affected by how law enforcement combines with stereotypes about choice of work, immigration status, race and gender. The training stressed the importance of strategizing with our clients on ways they can protect themselves. Ask the client: what do you want? What is the best safety plan for you?

Our clients’ perspectives and needs should drive the information and referrals we give them, and we need to make sure we’re listening – and hearing. When we make assumptions about the needs of migrant sex workers, thinking of them as victims instead of individuals with agency, we risk giving bad information. Reaching out to sex worker rights organizations such as Butterfly can help us find appropriate and useful resources for migrant sex workers.

Miscia Sullivan is a project associate with Connecting Communities.
Interested in this topic? Register for a free webinar on how to give useful legal information and referrals to migrant sex workers on January 19, 2018.


  1. Author: Sirpa Helina Luolaja

    on January 5, 2018 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    Would you have any comments/concerns regarding sex trade workers in Northern Ontario?

    • Author: Miscia Sullivan

      on January 8, 2018 at 11:58 am - Reply

      The information I learned at the workshop (that can be viewed here: https://www.butterflysw.org/legal-information-for-services-prov) is relevant to all migrant sex workers in Ontario, including those in Northern regions. Since I do not work in Northern Ontario and am based in Toronto, I cannot speak on any specifics. But, sex workers experience a more difficult time accessing services in Northern Ontario’s rural areas, and are typically more isolated than in urban areas. So, we do need to have more discussion on strategies that protect the rights of sex workers in these areas.

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