New Edmonton non-profit offers support for sex workers

The Advocacy for Normalizing Sex Work through Education and Resources Society is a newly certified peer-to-peer organization that plans to support sex workers with mentorship as well as access to accounting and counselling services.

The group will also provide community education to tackle stigma about sex work

ANSWERS, a newly certified non-profit in Edmonton, announced its intentions to provide support for accounting, counselling and mentorship for sex workers, while fighting for their labour rights and providing education to the community about this industry. (Scott Neufeld/CBC News)

When Inna Stefen worked as a dancer, she felt she often had no support.

With two young children, Stefen says she didn't see pathways for financial help while in the sex work industry. She said she often felt looked down upon and like she had to hide her work.

"I had no clue and I felt very isolated," Stefen said.

"I don't want other girls and women who are in this profession experiencing the same."

Now, Stefen is one of the founders and board members behind ANSWERS, which stands for the Advocacy for Normalizing Sex Work through Education and Resources Society. The group is a newly certified peer-to-peer organization created to support sex workers in the Edmonton area.

ANSWERS, which was first created in November, says it will also provide educational resources about sex work to help remove the stigma and negative stereotypes surrounding the industry.

After receiving more than $70,000 in grant funding, ANSWERS plans to help sex workers by partially subsidizing accounting services and counselling, offering a mentorship program, and providing necessary supplies like groceries and face masks.

"When I was a dancer, I never heard about support for accounting services, there was no support for psychological and trauma counselling, and there's still none," Stefen said.

"So ANSWERS is, in this way, pioneers."

Inna Stefen is one of the founders of ANSWERS, a newly certified peer-led non-profit in Edmonton to support sex workers. (Scott Neufeld/CBC News)

The new non-profit's goals also include building trust and respect with government, helping provide a better quality of life for sex workers, and working toward decriminalization of sex work along with labour rights for the industry.

The group of board members who created ANSWERS came together with a shared vision to help sex workers, Stefen said, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic that has cut into their already precarious work. Stefen said unlike other vulnerable communities in Canada, she and the other founders saw even fewer government supports for sex workers.

Stefen said sex workers often face stigma when it comes to conducting business at banks, renting places to live or even when they try to receive proper care from counsellors and doctors.

The group will provide education and training modules for partner groups. Stefen says they hope to offer those resources in the community through universities and police services, for example.

ANSWERS calls itself the first and only sex worker-led non-profit in Alberta. Such a group was needed in Alberta, said Mona Forya, another founder of the group. Forya is a sex worker and CBC has agreed to refer to her by a pseudonym out of concerns for her safety.

"All the stigma within the industry will be reduced immediately just knowing that they're going to be helped by their own comrades," Forya said.

The financial assistance is especially timely, Forya said, because many sex workers have faced even more difficulty in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced their income.

Lilith, a sex worker for around three years now, says the introduction of ANSWERS helps relieve much of the stress and pressure she and others in her industry often face when accessing medical support.

"Not too many people are comfortable even saying what they do for a living without judgment coming back to them, especially in the medical community," said Lilith, who CBC News has agreed to refer to by a pseudonym out of concerns for her safety.

"That discourages a person from ever entering an office or even going to see a doctor. So having this offered makes them feel more comfortable because now the organization that they're associated with is run by sex workers or people who advocate sex work."

Elizabeth Eaton, an Edmonton-based psychotherapist, says they were immediately interested in working with the organization after being asked to be a part of their ally directory, noting the importance that anyone who is in a position to help marginalized communities to do so.

Eaton expects clients will be referred to their office, knowing it's a safe, supportive space for them. The psychotherapist will also receive education about sex work to better assist clients.

"You want to be sure that the person working with you respects you and understands you, and is going to be safe to work with," Eaton said.

"You're going to be able to look into that [ally] directory to find an accountant, to find a massage therapist, and then feel like you're not going to be judged or shamed by that person when you work with them."

Lilith said she's hopeful about the supports this group can provide, adding that she hopes it will help further foster a community in the industry.

"I think a lot of fears will start to diminish," Lilith said. 

"There's no hidden agenda, and it's very transparent in what we do, what our mission is, and I think a lot of people in the industry are looking for that."