Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

The Sex Worker Rights Movement in Canada: Challenging the 'Prostitution Laws'

Document type Thesis
Author Beer, Sarah
Degree Ph.D., Sociology and Anthropology
Publisher University of Windsor; Windsor, Ont.
Date 2011
Pages 188 pages


The contemporary movement for sex workers' rights organizes around a range of international, national, and localized grievances. They are unified in their efforts to promote and protect sex workers' human and labour rights through the decriminalization and destigmatization of sex industry work. Within the context of social movement theory, literature on the sex worker rights movement has focused mainly on its failure to mobilize due to inadequate resources, small membership base, lack of sex worker leadership and absence of influential allies. In 2007, sex workers in Toronto, Ontario and in Vancouver, British Columbia, launched constitutional challenges to their respective Provincial Superior Courts to strike down Criminal Code of Canada provisions related to adult prostitution. The two court challenges are contrary to what would be predicted based on the extant literature on the sex worker rights movement. That literature supports a conclusion that due to marginalization, ambivalence toward their work, and feelings of inadequacy as political actors, sex workers lack the material and organizational strength to impact state regulation and alter social perceptions of sex work. This dissertation was based on a multi-site ethnographic study examining the processes by which constitutional challenges were initiated, the role of sex workers, and how the cases were perceived by the larger movement of sex worker rights activists in Canada. Drawing on primary and secondary data sources, including interviews with 26 movement activists, I examined constitutional litigation from the perspective of social movement theory, specifically considering the political opportunities, alliances, and resources necessary for these challenges to take place. This research demonstrates some tangible successes for the sex worker rights movement in Canada, despite ongoing social movement obstacles. The history of sex worker rights activism in Canada has produced sex worker-run organizations and political coalitions. These have garnered support from other organizations, researchers, cause lawyers and their teams, making it possible for sex workers, as individuals and via organizations, to mobilize legally against federal prostitution laws.