Stella, a Montreal-based group working to protect the rights of those involved in the sex industry, addressed students about the continuing stigmatization of sex workers as part of McGill’s Human Rights Awareness Month activities last Wednesday.
For 13 years, Stella has been committed to improving the working conditions of women and transgendered people in the Montreal sex industry, distinguishing itself as a peer resource “by and for sex workers.” Advocating decriminalization, Stella’s main goal is to legitimize sex work in order to guarantee basic human rights of individuals.
“Where our government is still stuck is whether sex work is okay or not. People are still trapped in this debate,” said Jenn Clamen, an outreach worker at Stella.
Though prostitution is legal in Canada, any solicitation on the part of a sex worker is considered an offense according to article 213 of the Criminal Code. Due to fear of prosecution, workers in the sex trade are not likely to report sexual assault, robbery, or any other breaches of their rights from which they might suffer.
“Sex workers are working in danger, not because the job is dangerous but because the laws are,” said Émilie Laliberté, an ex-sex worker and outreach worker at Stella.
Clamen and Laliberté criticized the tendency of abolitionist feminists to dismiss sex-work as inherently oppressive and threatening to females.
“They claim sex work is violent, when they are actually not allowing their fellow females to have personal agency,” Clamen said. “This is the most violent thing you could do to a woman.”
Stella’s efforts to create a more secure sex-work environment include holding individual meetings with workers, distributing informative pamphlets to both workers and their clients, maintaining a medical clinic, and participating in political lobbying.
According to Clamen, education lies at the heart of the group’s endeavours.
“We want to equip sex workers with the best knowledge they could have. They need to learn strategies within their situation in order for them to gain more agency,” she said.
In an attempt to dispel common misconceptions of sex workers as predominantly drug-users or victims of incest and abuse, Stella also focuses on community outreach, sending representatives to speak with students, police officers, and nurses.
Clamen and Laliberté stressed that, contrary to public opinion, many sex workers even enjoy their occupation because of the sense of empowerment that comes with financial independence. In addition, sex work provides individuals an opportunity for free sexual expression and experimentation.
“Most people assume that people coming to Stella aren’t happy doing sex work. But people actually like doing the job,” said Clamen. “That’s significant considering it’s rare now that people actually enjoy their jobs.”
This sense of enjoyment is evident in Stella’s philosophy and activities. From holding the XXX Forum – in which 250 sex workers from around the world gathered in Montreal – to its publishing of a magazine with the creative contributions of local sex workers, the organization is committed to fighting for human rights while maintaining a positive, empowering outlook.
“Kind of cute and sexy – that’s our style at Stella,” said Clamen.