6 min

Salvation Army plays into the fear and paranoia around sex work

Campaign tries to falsely portray all sex workers as victims of sexual slavery

Recently I read a great little article, “The Worst Predator of All: The Ever-Growing Fear of Predators,” by sex therapist Marty Klein. Dr Klein argues that the paranoia-based society we’ve created not only influences collective mental health but also limits how we see ourselves as sexual beings. He says that this extends to structural levels as well:

“Public policy that appeals to emotion rather than logic is dangerous. Lots of public policy designed to “deal with” sexual exploitation does nothing to reduce risk, but encourages other problems.”

That got me thinking about the new campaign by the BC Salvation Army that mixes misinformation and paranoia in a pretty toxic way:


With its The Truth Isn’t Sexy campaign, the Salvation Army — a vocal opponent of the decriminalization of sex work — attempts to portray all sex industry workers as victims of sexual slavery. The campaign image above claims there are 250,000 of us slaves in North America alone! (Many of us earning far more per hour than you, dear reader…)

How can people really fall for this kind of fear-based propaganda? The Shift project at the AIDS Committee of Calgary writes:

“Although the campaign deals with human trafficking, which is a huge issue to tackle and a gross violation of human rights, the concern is that human trafficking and sex work are grouped together as one. The messaging is confusing and generalizes all sex workers as being exploited victims.

“We believe the message about human trafficking should be a strong one and we recognize the need for a campaign to focus specifically on this issue. However, it is essential for the messaging to be clear and focus solely on trafficking and not include those working in sex work. When grouped together sex workers lose their voice, and their choice. It continues to marginalize, and discriminate one of the most vulnerable populations in Canada.”

To be clear, then: no one is opposing campaigns that seek to end genuine, forced migration of individuals. But it’s pretty disingenuous to conflate that issue with the fact that, because we live in an inequitable, capitalist system where every form of labour has a price, some people make the difficult choice to leave their homes and families to cross borders to engage in work that they would otherwise choose not to do. Check out the front cover of the Oct 11, 2008 Ottawa Sun, which depicts Jamaican migrant workers as “happy” to work in Ontario fields during the pumpkin harvest.

Deedle-dee-doo, hi there! We’re a cheery gang of happy-go-lucky migrant workers from Jamaica! We left our partners, kids, warm weather, friends and the culture we grew up in back home to come to your gem of a country to work for six months under a “special” class of labour rights different from the ones you have. We do it all because it means that much to us to make sure you have a happy, happy Halloween this year. Don’t believe us? Just check out that text on the cover! It says right there that we’re happy to work in the fields for you! Happy! Were we forced to come here and do this work? Hell, no! And that’s why you have no shame infantilizing us on the front pages of your dailies! We’re all adults here, right? Forget economic justice in this world or the eradication of poverty, we just want all those shit jobs that you Ontarians hate to do!

So the Jamaican dudes who harvest our pumpkins for god knows how many hours a day are worthy of a cutesy cover shot on the Ottawa Sun, while the hookers we pick up and bang get cast as the voiceless victims of… of… Well, they’re our hookers, aren’t they? They’re our pumpkin pickers and they’re our strippers. So what’s the difference? Are we a two-faced, self-deceiving society or what?

One difference is that the pumpkin pickers’ labour isn’t criminalized under Canadian law — in fact, we set up special programs to help them come to Canada. Just like in the 1990s when the Canadian government created a migration program for foreign exotic dancers to help fill the Canadian shortage. The dancer program was subsequently shut down, however, amid the usual trafficking hysteria, bringing immense clarity to the situation. To summarize, then: hookers are always trafficked, farm workers are never trafficked, and strippers are trafficked this decade but last decade they weren’t. Sorry, what?

Another difference is that the pumpkin pickers do come from Jamaica and other countries, whereas many of these so-called trafficked sex workers are actually Canadians who weren’t transported anywhere. The only thing that changed between their untrafficked and trafficked status is that they got a job so they could pay their bills.

Do you have a job? And do you do it for the sheer endorphin rush of being told what to do with your time and how to do it (submissive bottoms, I know you’re out there!) Or do you work so that you can pay bills and not get evicted from your house? Is your boss sometimes a pushy asshole who too easily glosses over your rights? Or have you ever moved cities, provinces or even countries because the job situation where you lived sort of sucked and there were work opportunities that suited you better somewhere else?

If you answered yes to any of those questions then, folks, you have been trafficked! Quick, there may still be time to save yourself! No, wait. Whatever you do, don’t save yourself. You already fucked that up trying to earn an income in the first place. Just sit tight and the Salvation Army will be along in a minute to do the saving. Hey, the word salvation is right there in their name so leave it to the experts, alright? And in the meantime: sit back, relax and enjoy your newfound status as a helpless victim.

I’m laying it on thick because I’m not sure what else to do in the face of absurd campaigns like The Truth Isn’t Sexy. But here are some more sober perspectives:

“Every sex worker who wants to exit the sex trade needs the option to do so. All sex workers, however, need the option to work safely, without fear of violence and exploitation.” Pivot Legal Society

“Women are not the only victims when trafficking is conflated with sex work. The confusion squanders opportunities to address real victimization and to assist people in real situations of abuse. Resources, time and energy that might actually help trafficking victims are wasted in sensational ‘rescues’ that are also ineffective and often counterproductive.” Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network

All migrant workers — be they sex workers or farm workers — are vulnerable to exploitation precisely because they have fewer rights while on the job. Most migrant sex workers are not trafficked. And many sex workers — migrant or not — do not want out of the industry.

When we make distinctions between different types of migratory labour based on paranoia and sex-negative moralism, we undermine the silenced struggle of the Jamaican pumpkin pickers. We also create a straw-man argument about bogus trafficking because we’re too afraid to articulate what we’re really thinking.

I love — love — when anti-sex-work sites post a fact vs fiction list. Nowhere is their fear-based ideology and readiness to side-step rationale thinking more exposed. And The Truth Isn’t Sexy site delivers in fine form. They’ve named theirs “The lies vs the truth” and they do their damnedest to try to scare everyone. Here are some examples of their fear-mongering:

  • “[A john] may have a sex addiction, but he is almost always looking for a sense of power. He is often longing for help, but he doesn’t realize he needs it.” Eeeeeeeeeeek!!!
  • “Although poverty is one of the biggest risk factors, anyone can become a victim of human trafficking. In fact, some victims are university-educated and others are professionals. North American women may be lured with the promise of fame or fortune with a career in modelling, acting, dancing or hosting in a gentlemen’s club — a far stretch from the eventual truth.” Could the next unwitting victim be you? Be afraid!
  • “Although human trafficking can include both violence and confinement, it might be based solely on deceit, psychological manipulation and/or threats of violence.” Sorry — is this campaign about trafficking or about the vast majority of relationships I’m witness to? Psychological manipulation? Deceit? Oh my god, we’re all being trafficked! Quick, everyone to the Salvation Army shelter before it’s too late!…

The Salvation Army is homophobic and has now positioned itself as an overt obstacle to sex worker rights. If you see them out collecting donations this holiday season, please don’t donate. Send your money to Stella, Maggie’s, POWER or the Pivot Legal Society instead.


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