Angie Lohr is on a mission.
For years, she has helped sex workers in Kelowna and Vernon find the support and resources they need as the executive director of HOPE Outreach. She recently launched Bad Date Alert, a system to provide vital information about predatory clients. She also started Sex Work 101, a training module to educate community members about sex work.
But the pandemic has made Lohr more frustrated at the lack of safe supports for sex workers. Many existing support services were forced to close due to provincial and local public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
OnlyFans, a content subscription service, is becoming increasingly popular among sex workers because it is a safe way to make money during the pandemic, but it exposes them to several privacy issues. OnlyFans functions on a subscriber model in which users — mostly men — pay a monthly fee to specific creators to view their adult content.
Many sex workers are also forced to work underground due to isolation and not being able to work, said Lohr. Many are also participating in “survival sex” to pay their bills and afford basic needs. Worst of all, Lohr has heard a lot more stories of predatory men compared to pre-pandemic times.
“Women are just assuming now that the danger comes with the territory. It’s a risk they’re willing to take,” said Lohr.
Sex work is considered the oldest profession in the world, but it is also one of the most heavily stigmatized. Sex workers are often blamed for the breakdown of the traditional family, sexually transmitted infections and escalating crime in urban areas, according to a study by Peers Victoria.
Social media is also blowing sex work out of proportion which preys on impressionable young girls and women. A lot of sex work-related content on TikTok portrays an image of young women showing off how much money they make sugaring or stripping. Sugaring involves receiving money and gifts for sexual favours and is becoming increasingly popular on post-secondary campuses across Canada.
“This is a very uneducated view of sex work,” said Lohr. “This is just a glorified look into the industry, where young people want to make extra money for material things.”
Sex work is largely illegal in Canada but the laws are confusing. Bill C-36 criminalizes prostitution, which involves both the purchase and the sale of sexual services. It is also illegal to advertise the sale of other’s sexual services and operate a business that profits from sexual services. While it is not illegal for someone to sell their sexual services, it is illegal for someone to buy them.
Canada’s Department of Justice said that these laws were put in place because jurisdictions that have decriminalized prostitution have larger sex industries and higher rates of sex trafficking.
“This means that legalizing and regulating prostitution would result in more people being subjected to prostitution,” reads the Department of Justice’s website.
Calls to address and decriminalize sex work are being echoed across Canada. Action Canada for Sex Workers Rights published a statementadvocating for the decriminalization of sex work. Rysa Kronebusch launched an e-petition on January 21, 2021, which called on the Canadian government to repeal Bill C-36. The petition was presented to the House of Commons on April 21, 2021, and was tabled on June 4, 2021.
“Bill C-36 puts our most marginalized members of society at risk of being beaten, raped and killed because criminalization hinders their ability to seek assistance from law enforcement and puts barriers to accessing health, safety and other benefits available to workers,” reads the petition.
Community perceptions towards sex work also need to change. “It’s not like it’s a new thing to our city but nobody wants to talk about it or look at it,” said Lohr.
“Sex work is not going away. Obviously, there’s a lot of demand, or else why are people coming from Vancouver or the island to make twice as much in Kelowna?” she added.