Heavy police presence during Grand Prix hurts sex workers, says Montreal group

Campaigns that focus on sexual exploitation during the Grand Prix weekend are both misleading and harmful to people who work in the sex industry, says Stella, a Montreal-based support group for sex workers.

Stella wants police to consult with sex workers before making decisions on how to protect them

'There's a lot of conflation of sex work with exploitation and human trafficking," says Sandra Wesley, director of Stella. (CBC)

Campaigns that focus on sexual exploitation during the Grand Prix weekend are both misleading and harmful to people who work in the sex industry, says Stella, a Montreal-based support group for sex workers. 

Human rights groups and the government recently teamed up to crack down on exploitation, particularly during race weekend. But according to Stella director Sandra Wesley this effort is endangering sex workers.

Women might decide to carry fewer condoms with them, out of fear that they'll be used as proof that they're engaging in sex work.- Stella director Sandra Wesley

She argues that a heavier police presence puts sex workers more at risk, not less, with the fear of being arrested leading them to make unsafe decisions. 

"Women might decide to carry fewer condoms with them, out of fear that they'll be used as proof that they're engaging in sex work," said Wesley. 

"We will also see women who work on the street who will not take the time to chat and determine if it's safe before getting in the car."   

'Buying sex is not a sport' campaign attracts controversy

At the beginning of June, several Montreal humanitarian groups introduced the "Buying sex is not a sport" campaign, writing in a press release that the Grand Prix weekend is "sadly recognized as devastating in terms of human trafficking."

Minister Lise Thériault helped launch the anti-exploitation campaign, and announced the Quebec government would give $30,000 to the cause. (Paul Chasson)

Wesley said that while sex workers might see an increase in clientele, the evidence of a spike in exploitation or trafficking during the weekend just isn't there.

"There are a lot of studies that show that sporting events do not increase exploitation or trafficking," said Wesley.

She says fears about exploitation are often pinned on large events like Formula 1 or the Olympics. 

According to a Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women report published in 2011, "No evidence shows that big sporting events cause an increase in trafficking." 

Nathalie Khlat, president of Beacon of the Freed, one of the partner organizations in the "Buying sex is not a sport" campaign, argues the lack of evidence can be chalked up to the clandestine nature of sexual exploitation itself, which makes it harder to document. 

Stella rolled out their own campaign this year, with posters that read 'Against exploitation, against prohibition.' (Radio-Canada )

"We have trouble getting numbers. When we do have them, we see just the tip of the iceberg," said Khlat.   

Heavier police presence 

The Montreal police rolled out their own campaign last week, promising to up police presence at "various strategic locations" and placing posters downtown reminding people that buying sexual services is illegal in Quebec.

A poster from the police campaign, which reads 'Buying sexual services is a crime: don't be an accomplice." (Radio-Canada )

"[This weekend] there are a lot of people in Montreal, it attracts a certain kind of clientele, and we're here to intervene," said Chief Insp. Johanne Paquin of the SPVM. 

Wesley says the increase in police presence is keenly felt by sex workers. 

"We've heard about police raids, we've heard about arrests," she said. 

'Sex workers should be at the centre of the conversation'

Wesley underlines the importance of not mixing notions of sex work with sexual exploitation. 

"If there are more clients for sex workers, in the same way there would be more for restaurants or hotels, that doesn't necessarily mean that these are clients who are coming to exploit women or be violent," she said. 

She would like to see police consult directly with sex workers so they can understand their needs better. 

"If we really want to get serious about talking about exploitation, then we need to listen to sex workers and not people who are against sex work as an industry."