When it comes to workers' right groups in Hamilton, Big Susie's stands out.

It doesn't have an office, collect dues or broker negotiations between its members and their employer.

Its logo — a silhouette of a corseted woman in high-heeled boots, holding an umbrella with one arm and flexing her bicep with the other — doesn't have much in common with mainstream labour organizations.

And unlike unions that represent pipefitters, deli clerks or government workers, it advocates for people whose work is often regarded as illegitimate, and in some cases, illegal.

"Big Susie's is a working group by and for sex workers in Hamilton in its surrounding areas," explains Mz. Scream, 30, who sits on the organization's board. Based in Toronto, she has "dungeons" in Hamilton and one in B.C.

(Citing privacy concerns, she asked that her professional pseudonym, and not her real name, be used for this article.)

Founded in 2009, the group, she says, aims to improve working conditions for men, women and transgendered people who work in all corners of the sex industry — exotic dancers, porn actors, webcam performers, phone sex operators, dominatrices and escorts.

"We try to be as inclusive as possible."

'Criminalized'

At the moment, the group's main goals, is to lobby against laws and social misconceptions that, it says, discriminate against sex workers. These factors, Scream notes, are among the greatest threats to their wellbeing.

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Mz. Scream, a Toronto-based dominatrix, sits on Big Susie's board of directors. (Courtesy of Mz. Scream)

"There isn't a minimum labour standard like there is with other jobs. Many other jobs have health and safety risks involved as well, but because sex work is criminalized we don't have access to danger pay, sick leave or workers' compensation."

Sex work, including prostitution, is technically legal in Canada. However, federal laws prohibit common bawdy houses, establishments like brothels and dominatrices' dungeons, and the solicitation of sexual services.

Designed to outlaw exploitative pimping and human trafficking, another law on the books forbids one from "living on the avails of prostitution," or, put more simply, profiting from another person's sex work.

In 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the common-bawdy-house and living-on-the avails laws, deeming them "unconstitutional." 

The federal government promptly appealed the decision, pushing the issue to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case in mid-June. Until the top court makes it ruling, the laws will remain in effect.

Related: Legalized brothels ruling to be appealed to top court

These rules hurt sex workers more than they help, according to Nikki Thomas, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, an advocacy group that's spearheaded the court challenge.

'Many sex workers have to work secretively or within isolated settings in order to prevent neighbourhood complaints and having to deal with police enforcement.'—Mz. Scream, Big Susie's

The living-on-the-avails tenet renders it illegal for independent sex workers to hire security guards or receptionists, she says. And the ban on common bawdy houses has historically pushed prostitution outdoors or into sex workers' own homes, each scenario posing its own set of safety concerns.

Fear of law enforcement

The laws also discourage sex workers from calling police when they face violence or theft, says Scream.

"Many sex workers have to work secretively, or within isolated settings in order to prevent neighbourhood complaints and having to deal with police enforcement. So many people who are engaged in illegal activities — which sex work unfortunately falls under that category — they don't want to call the police for help if anything bad happens."

The consequences can be tragic. Scream mentions the case of Robert Pickton, the B.C. pig farmer who is believed to have murdered dozens of women, many of them street-based sex workers based in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, over the course of about a half-decade.

Stigma harms sex workers in subtler, more insidious ways, too, says Cecilia Benoit, a University of Victoria sociologist who's spearheading a nationwide study on the lives of sex workers.

"Even people who are doing quite well economically… they're dealing with this fear of being exposed, this fear of their work ruining their lives."

And the stigma surrounding sex work may discourage some workers from seeking medical treatment, furthering the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Photo exhibition

Big Susie's formed in response to a 2009 exhibition by artist and curator Gary Santucci. The photo set, titled "The 'Hood, the Bad and the Ugly," depicted street-level dealings in Lansdale, the central Hamilton neighbourhood where Santucci and his partner Barbara Milne live and work. It featured shots of sex workers negotiating with potential customers, the subjects apparently oblivious to the lens pointed in their direction.

"It put the women's safety at risk, outed them to anybody who saw it," says Scream, who joined the group only months after it was founded.

Since then, Big Susie's, modeled after Maggie's, an organization in Toronto, has hosted discussion nights to raise awareness for its cause featuring panelists who've worked in different roles in the sex industry.

On an evening in late-March, the group held a book signing with Terri-Jean Bedford, the Toronto-area dominatrix and former escort who has been at the forefront in the legal challenge against the country's anti-prostitution laws. The fundraiser featured a drag show, "kink demos" and light snacks, and admission was pay-what-you-can.

Do-it-yourself fundraisers are Big Susie's primary source of income needed to offer the services it believes sex workers need and deserve.

"We have absolutely nothing," Scream says. 'We don't even have an office. We're just a bunch of volunteers that meet up and throw events to do some fundraising. We have some money saved up, but not enough money to start providing services because, in order to do that…we'd need funding for a location and money to hire outreach workers."

The dream, she adds, is for Big Susie's to "provide informal counseling and peer support, offer health and safety education for sex workers," free condoms and maybe even a safe, monitored worker cooperative where street-based escorts could entertain "guests" in relative safety.

Future battles

In the meantime, Big Susie's and other sex worker advocacy groups across Canada are waiting with baited breath to see how the Supreme Court will rule on country's anti-prostitution laws.

Thomas is confident the top court will reaffirm the Ontario decision. That outcome, she predicts will bring about new battles with other levels of government. She expects municipalities will try to push sex workers to the fringes of town, or charge them exorbitant licensing fees to stay in business. 

"The crux of the issue is that I, as an individual, free, Canadian citizen, can invite as many visitors to my home as I wish and engage in whatever behaviours or activities with them that we consent to," Thomas says.  "And yet, the moment that there's any exchange of goods or money or an exchange of one service for another, all of the sudden the government has a right to be involved?

"That doesn't make any sense to me at the most basic level."