Beyond the ‘missing women inquiry’: Empowering sex workers as social justice advocates

Funding body

Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship


One major gap in the struggle for human rights and dignity for sex workers in Canada is the urgent need to mobilize people in sex work who are dealing with social divisions and are facing difficulties sustaining a collective voice in their communities and nationally. This project engages sex workers of different social demographics backgrounds and substance use histories in a peer-to-peer community empowerment program in seven cities to learn from one another how the current Criminal Code law impacts their work, crucial resources, and how they may further their shared goals, including the ability to work in safety and access non-judgmental health, harm reduction services and social supports. 

Participants and leads from local sex worker outreach organizations will present their understandings, in safe and respectful conditions they determine, at a peer-led national policy forum in Ottawa coinciding the Government of Canada's 5-year mandate to review the 2014 Criminal Code law that criminalizes most sex work related activities. The project will also contribute to the ongoing National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada by providing insider knowledge from Indigenous sex workers who face intersecting stigmas related to their race, gender and substance use and whose voices are routinely silenced.

The project will make accessible a peer-informed practical manual for mobilizing sex workers, in partnership with sex worker outreach organizations; improve understanding of policy makers and the general public of how Criminal Code and other laws and policies impact the diversity of adult sex workers in their local communities and contribute to scholarship by providing an innovative methodology for empowering sex workers in their communities and including them at policy tables where they contributions are valued by decision-makers.

Progress to date

The partnership between the PI and the seven sex worker organizations has been established through virtual and in person meetings, the training program is being developed and interviews about the interactive process with the executive directors or designate of each organization underway.  An update on the project was presented at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Community Retreat (May 27-30, 2019).

In recent months we have recruited three additional community partners that prioritize the needs and concerns of marginalized sex workers, including those from Indigenous and migrant backgrounds and those who use drugs.

We have created a sub-group from the community partners to draft the Sex Workers’ Activist School Facilitation Guide (SWASFG). Research funds have been redirected to these group members to free up some of their work time for curriculum development. We have also conducted interviews with community partner members about their views on the unfolding research to date and published an article on the early assessment of integrated knowledge translation efforts to mobilize sex workers in their communities.

The plan to implement the mobilization training programs in each of the six communities in 2020 has been postponed due to the COVID 19 pandemic and is now planned for 2022. In the last year, I interviewed ten members of these seven organizations about how they have been helping sex workers in their communities deal with the immediate and longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. One paper has been published and another is in press.