Criminalization and law enforcement campaigns as a compounding contributor to gender-based violence against racialized sex workers

About the project

This knowledge synthesis project is part of a larger research and communication initiative entitled “Under the Red Umbrella: Sex and Solidarity!” This larger multi-media project focuses on the harms of criminalizing sex work (prostitution) and conflating it with trafficking, sex worker rights, and sex work governance in Canada and the and the United States. The research team includes academics, activists and artists, all of whom have scholarly expertise about the sex industry and are committed to advancing the rights of sex workers. Together, we are developing and applying an approach to research that empowers sex workers and their "by, with and for" organizations.

We are working on a series of comic strips aimed at starting conversations about sex work, the harms of criminalization and the importance of human rights for and the empowerment of sex workers. These open-access comic strips will be incorporated into a hybrid, book-length monograph. Ultimately, we hope that our work serves the ends of destigmatizing and decriminalizing sex work, advancing the rights of sex workers and empowering them. For this smaller project, we review the academic and civil society literature on the harms of criminal laws around sex work and anti-trafficking law enforcement campaigns, especially for racialized/minoritized sex workers.

Key findings

  • Sex workers in Canada and the US have long identified the increased risks of violence created by criminal laws around sex work, as well as certain anti-trafficking enforcement campaigns.
  • Peer-reviewed research confirms that criminal laws and certain enforcement campaigns displace sex workers to isolated areas where they are more vulnerable to predators, make them reluctant to report violence against them, and limit their access to health-care support.
  • Peer-reviewed research also confirms that criminalization limits sex workers’ ability to adequately govern their industry (e.g., network, unionize, provide support service), which compounds risks of violence and diminished health.
  • Indigenous, Black and Asian sex workers face much higher risks of violence, which are exacerbated by criminalization and racism.
  • Im/migrant sex workers also face greater risks, which are exacerbated by criminalization, including anti-trafficking law enforcement campaigns and immigration laws.
  • Because of laws and law enforcement campaigns, Indigenous, Black, Asian and im/migrant sex workers are much less likely to trust authorities.
  • Rather than preventing violence against sex workers and preventing human trafficking, criminalization and law enforcement campaigns contribute to conditions in which these crimes are more likely to occur.

Policy implications

  • Empowering civil society organizations that are "by, with and for" sex workers
  • Destigmatizing sex work and sex workers
  • Combating misinformation about the sex industry
  • Educating policymakers, law enforcement officials and the general public about what sex work is and is not
  • Removing criminal laws around sex work and ending law enforcement campaigns that conflate sex work with trafficking

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Professor Fuji Johnson (PI) Professor, Department of Political Science, Simon Fraser University:

Research team members: Kerry Porth, Chris Atchison, C Icart, Addison Finch, Nadine Flagel, Nadine Mhuriro, Beatrice Omboga and Kerry Waters

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