Sex Workers Rights: Toronto organization reaches out to teens and aboriginal workers

by Sunnie Huang

Over the years, Canada’s oldest sex workers advocacy group has seen its name changed from Prostitutes’ Safe Sex Project to Toronto Prostitutes Community Service, and then, three years ago, to the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project.

The less favourable word “prostitute” was taken out from its name, replaced by the term “sex worker,” which better describes the diverse sectors of the erotic labour. Nonetheless, the organization, with its office in downtown Toronto, is still fondly dubbed by people close to the movement as “Maggie’s” – even the font of “Maggie’s” has stayed the same on the organization’s many logos.

According to Keisha Scott, executive director of Maggie’s, the name is a relic from the ’80s when saying “I’m going to Maggie’s” is a more discreet way for sex workers to indicate their whereabouts and offer them some anonymity, which she says were much needed at the time.

Run by sex workers and for sex workers, Maggie’s in 2012 is far from just a faceless name. This quarter-century-old organization not only offers court accompaniment and legal support, but also provides workshop and outreach programs for sex workers of all genders across all the sectors.

Throughout March this year, the organization will kick it up a notch by hosting series of free events to observe the 8th anniversary of the International Sex Workers Rights Day, on March 3.

Scott said this occasion is often overshadowed by its winter counterpart, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on Dec. 17.

“People are focusing on the violence that happens or they believe happens within sex work,” she said. “We do need to talk about other good things that happen in sex work.”

“We need to focus on March 3 even more so, if not in the same amount.”

She added it is easy to allow the debate to become a religious or even a moral issue. Maggie’s mandate is to focus its effort on human rights and labour rights for sex workers.

Originally started by a Calcutta-based sex workers union in 2003, International Sex Workers Rights Day celebrations have been quickly picked up by other like-minded groups around the world, thanks to the close-knit nature of this community.

On March 11, Maggie’s will host a roundtable talk called Hu$tle & Dough: Youth, Labour and Sex, which invites experts to discuss the challenges faced by youth sex workers.

For Maggie’s, the definition of youth – set between 12 to 15 years old – is slightly younger than the society’s norm. The sexuality of this group is still a taboo, according to Scott.

“This is an age group that people don’t want to talk about,” she said. “We have a hard enough time as a society believing that youth hare having sex, never mind being paid for it,” she said.

Another highlight of the month is a sex worker-only movie screening on March 21. Carol Leigh, the grand-dame of the sex workers rights movement in North America who also coined the term “sex work,” will come from the United States and join the crowd.

Wrapping up the month-long celebration is a forum on Aboriginal people in the sex trade. Staff at Maggie’s will debrief the achievements of the Aboriginal Sex Work Education and Outreach Project (ASWEOP),  a three-year partnership with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

Scott admitted that advocating for sex workers’ rights is still a “very white” movement.

“There is a huge group of Indigenous sex workers that aren’t represented in the movement,” she said. “The only way we can change that is by making space for different groups.”