Sitting Down With SWAP: An Inside Look At Sex Worker Activism and Advocacy

two people holding banner that reads "it takes a community to end sexual violence #SurvivorsFirst"
Photo provided by Jelena Vermilion

Nearly 20 years ago, in 2003, a Black trans woman named Chevranna Abdi was arrested by police in Hamilton, Ontario. She had made a distress call while on cocaine, seeking help. 

Instead of coming to her aid, police dragged Abdi down seven flights of stairs face-first. She died in police custody. Abdi was a Somali refugee and a sex worker. Her death was ruled as “accidental.” 

Systemic Violence Against Sex Workers

Sex workers’ deaths are frequently dismissed as accidental. Police sometimes use the dehumanizing term NHI (no humans involved) to label (and dismiss) cases that involve the death of a sex worker. In the case of the recently arrested Rex Heuermann, who stands accused of being a serial killer that targeted sex workers, it was reported police were tipped off on his appearance and truck nearly 10 years before he was arrested. 

This, in itself, is evidence of the systemic violence and harm perpetrated by the law against sex workers without consequence. If the law won’t help people seeking safety because they sell sex, who are they protecting and serving when sex workers are left to die and defend themselves?

Working For A Better World

Years after Abdi’s death, in 2018, a small group of community members in Hamilton, Canada came together to establish Sex Workers’ Action Program Hamilton (SWAP).

In the years since its founding, SWAP has grown to become an effective and robust organization that supports, provides services to, and advocates on behalf of local sex workers. It aims to protect sex workers from the discrimination and violence they often face while lobbying for concrete legal change.

Championing and protecting a group of people criminalized for their work, in a society filled with stigma, is no easy feat. But the people behind the organization—who are sex workers themselves—are wholly dedicated to creating a better world for everyone in the sex trade. 

“We are a niche social service organization championing a flame, saying ‘We believe that you are okay, we believe that these streets belong to you. You’re not bad or wrong for being a whore, you’re not bad or wrong for being whatever people consider of you. You’re welcome here and you belong,’” Jelena Vermilion, SWAP’s executive director, told Cashmere Magazine. 

Creating Community, Together

Vermilion, a trans woman, has been a sex worker in Hamilton for a decade. She helped to found SWAP roughly four years ago. In that time, she has watched it go from a small group hoping to provide basic support networks to sex workers to something far bigger. 

With community support from former and current sex workers, local addiction facility managers, local trans health care networks, a synagogue manager, and the local city councilor, SWAP has grown into a change-making entity with three distinct areas of focus: education, outreach, and advocacy. 

The education portion of SWAP’s mission includes providing workshops to local businesses and organizations looking to learn about sex workers. The group also provides guest lectures at Canadian universities. 

The outreach aspect includes harm reduction: outreach bags filled with safe sex supplies, local resources curated for the area, toiletries, and even makeup. The goal of distributing these supplies is not just to help make sex workers’ jobs easier – but to show them they’re valued members of the community. 

This area of focus also includes SWAP’s physical space: a warm, welcoming environment in which sex workers can go to feel safe and cherished. 

Providing Care, In Many Forms

Additionally, the organization offers mental health support to sex workers in Hamilton. 

Sara, a registered psychotherapist and sex worker, provides pro-bono therapy sessions to community members through SWAP. 

Knowing the unique struggles sex workers face and the judgment they often experience from mental health professionals, Sara wanted to use her skill set to benefit her community. When she discovered SWAP on Instagram, she immediately reached out to Vermilion to offer her services. 

“Many mental health practitioners reinforce notions of whorephobia or try to convince workers to leave the field,” Sara tells Cashmere. “Therapists who have not participated in sex work have difficulty understanding the nuances of the sex trade. Sex workers need access to specialized mental health care with practitioners who can grasp the complexities of working in the field.”

Advocacy and Action

SWAP’s political advocacy work meanwhile includes lobbying local politicians, participating in municipal elections, and endorsing candidates. The organization also researches the history of sex work in Hamilton, and maintains the sex worker media archive—one of the organization’s biggest and longest-running projects. 

The archive, which Vermilion has been working on for the past three and a half years, includes books, zines, movies, documentaries, and other media. The focus is art and media created by, and for, sex workers.

“Media can transform prejudice into empathy, and often what isn’t spoken about doesn’t exist in the world.” 

She continues, “Bringing attention and bringing light to these topics for us is really important, as is presenting media that shows sex workers in a dignified manner.”

Finding Funding As A Marginalized Group

Securing sustainable funding is important for SWAP. The organization received a federal grant in May, which was used to rent their space, but grants aren’t consistent. Vermilion notes attaining funding on a consistent basis is a significant challenge for a group of people who are, technically, breaking the law. 

And while one of SWAP’s goals is to change this reality, the group is pushing for the decriminalization of sex work, not legalization. This is a particularly important distinction. 

Decriminalize, Not Legalize, The Sex Trade

Decriminalization is the removal of all criminal penalties, municipal bylaws, and other legal frameworks that impact sex workers, Vermilion explained. 

For example, under Canada’s Immigration Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR), migrant workers are not allowed to engage in the sex industry. If any migrant with a work permit in Canada were to be caught engaging in the sex industry, they would be liable to be arrested and deported. 

Sex work is one of the few accessible professions for migrant women, but according to the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, Canadian law forces them to do everything in their power to avoid investigation and prosecution. This leads to subsequently increasing their vulnerability to exploitative and dangerous working conditions. It also makes it more challenging, if not impossible, for sex workers to report violence to the police. 

 Under decriminalization, this IRPR law would be removed. Legalization, on the other hand, would essentially “make the government the pimp,” Vermilion tells Cashmere

It would allow for certain regulations, such as mandatory sexual testing, to be introduced. 

“We believe that unless every person who’s having sex is being forced to be sexually tested, it’s either all or none,” Vermilion said. “Sex workers generally have more wisdom when it comes to sexual health in their practices than the average Tinder date.”

The Pitfalls of Legalization

Legalization would also create a kind of tiered, hierarchical system of legal and non-legal sex workers, Vermilion explains. 

For example, there would likely be a regulation and licensing system under legalization. This would separate sex workers into two classes: those who can afford to keep up with licensing or registration costs, and those who are poor, can’t afford it, and are fined by the government. This, she said, would create a class of indentured workers who are caught in a vicious cycle of doing sex work, getting fined, sex work to pay off their fines, getting fined again, and so on. 

“When we decriminalize, we remove the government’s ability to have power over our bodies and our sexuality in relation to whether we choose to sell or trade sexual services.”

Creating A Safer World For Sex Workers

SWAP has accomplished a ton in its short lifespan, evidenced by its lengthy list of achievements

But the biggest accomplishment of all, and SWAP’s ultimate goal, would be for sex industry conditions to improve so much that SWAP’s very existence essentially becomes unnecessary. 

“I hope we don’t have to exist [in the future],” Vermillion says. “I would like us not to have to provide specific extra care to sex workers because we as a society do that enough already through the general infrastructure of social services, through the general infrastructure of legal services, and educational services. Everything that’s available for your average person should be available to sex workers, without discrimination.”