NSWP Canadian member group Butterfly – Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network state “Sex Workers’ Rights and Migrants Rights are Human Rights” on their website. This summarises the unique cross-section of priorities and challenges that this young and active group works on. This profile and interview with founder Elene Lam outlines Butterfly's history, work and challenges.
Butterfly was formed in 2014 as a support network for Asian and migrant sex workers to address the unique challenges they face working in Canada – particularly within the context new anti-sex work legislation that criminalises the purchase of sex, advertising sexual services, and communicating in public. Asian and migrant sex workers are especially vulnerable, says Butterfly on their website, “their human rights are denied because of their race, language, social, immigration and legal status. Stigma and marginalisation increase their exposure to violence and exploitation and hinder their access to basic healthcare, services, protection and justice.”
Founder Elene Lam has been involved in the sex workers’ movement for more than 15 years and she co-founded the organisation after moving to Canada from Hong Kong. Within months, Lam was quoted in the National Post, speaking out against deportation orders issued against migrant sex workers.
After moving to Canada, Lam saw a need for activism around the specific needs and concerns of migrant sex workers. Lam felt the voices of migrant sex workers were missing from the sex workers’ rights movement. Furthermore, migrant sex workers are often treated as victims by the abolitionist movement.
Butterfly does not have staff. Buttery relies on volunteers from different backgrounds, including migrant sex workers, activists, and health and legal professionals.
Asian and migrant sex workers in Canada
“Asian and migrant sex workers are being excluded, isolated, oppressed and marginalised because of the sexism, racism, classism, nationalism and whore-phobia of society,” Lam told NSWP. “Their voices are not just missing in society, they are absent from the sex workers’ movement as well. Asian and migrant sex workers are facing (both) the criminalisation of sex work and immigration laws.”
Currently, Butterfly’s activities include
- Outreach to migrant sex workers;
- Organising workshops and activities, including legal, health and safety workshops;
- Conducting research on the abuse and impacts of police and municipal law enforcement;
- And finally, facilitating the formation of a network to address the anti-trafficking initiatives at the municipal level.
Butterfly is one of the founding organisations of the Migrant Sex Workers Project (MSWP) along with Strut and No One Is Illegal. They work together to promote migrant sex workers’ justice.
In a recent interview with Tits & Sass, Lam spoke about the abolitionist strategy of targeting migrant sex workers. She said they focus on communities that are vulnerable and are more difficult to hear: “Even when they voice themselves, [it’s difficult] because [the anti-trafficking discourse] plays so well with the racism of the society—especially Asians. Because they think Asian [means] weak, vulnerable, [that] they have no brain, and then they are vulnerable, waiting for rescue…So when the Asian identity integrates with the sex worker identity, it is so easy to use the racism in the people’s minds, that they are weak, cannot make decisions for themselves, they are so passive…So that we need to rescue them.”
What are some of the specific challenges faced by migrant and Asian sex workers in Canada?
The anti-trafficking initiative is being used to cover up the racialised moral panic about Asian and migrant sex workers. The trafficking discourse works hand-in-hand with the abolitionists who aim to eliminate the sex work industry altogether. By intentionally distorting the realities of the sex work profession, the anti-traffickers and abolitionists are actually victimising individual sex workers. As a result, the migrant sex workers are often the target of law enforcement and surveillance and they are being arrested, deported and detained in the name of getting rescued.
What are the priority areas that Butterfly works in? Tell us a bit about the organisation’s area of work specifically, as well as any activism you engage in.
Butterfly uses a rights-based and migrant sex workers justice approach. Many Asian and migrant sex workers are isolated and cannot access information and services due to the language barriers, discrimination and social exclusion that exists in Canada. One of the most important of Butterfly’s initiatives is conducting outreach to Asian and migrant sex workers in their working places and building up the support network. By providing support, information and capacity building, Butterfly makes it possible for Asian and migrant sex workers to get organised to fight for their own rights.
Does Butterfly work with other sex worker groups in Canada/elsewhere?
Butterfly has formed a migrant sex workers’ project with Strut and No One Is Illegal to build a strong alliance to conduct an effective fight for the justice of migrant sex workers. Butterfly also works closely with Maggie's — the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, Stella and with the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform to develop the types of assistance migrant sex workers need, such as legal information and other types of support. Maggie’s and Strut have provided great support that has enabled Butterfly to conduct its work more effectively and to develop its network. It also has built an alliance to address the harm of anti-trafficking initiatives and to advocate for the rights of migrant sex workers in Toronto and Canada.
What are some of the biggest challenges Butterfly has faced?
Migrant sex workers are facing both criminalisation of sex work and anti-immigration law. They are being forced to work more underground and some of them may only be able to stay in one city for a short time. It is very difficult for them to come out, build up a support network and get organised. Innovative and unconventional approaches need to be developed to reach them and get them organised.
What have been some of the best moments in Butterfly's history?
We have developed a Butterfly Voices project to collect the personal and very human stories of migrant sex workers. We have received over 40 submissions from 26 migrant sex workers. The installation was exhibited in a Migrant Sex Workers Justice Forum, which was organised in cooperation with the Migrant Sex Workers Project. More than 120 participants attended and we received very positive feedback. Lam later told NSWP that Butterfly will continue the project of collecting migrant sex worker voices with Butterfly Voices Part 2.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for Butterfly and for migrant and Asian sex workers in Canada in the future?
The anti-trafficking initiatives are being integrated into different levels of enforcement, other than criminal laws, because the government is using and creating more new municipal laws, immigration laws, or other regulations that either prohibit migrant sex workers from getting involved in sex work, or even prohibit sex work in the name of protecting trafficked victims. Also, people with student or working visas are not allowed to work in the sex industry. What is crucial to understand is that, while the government says that the power and funding of enforcement authorities is intended to “rescue” the victims of trafficking and “prosecute” the “traffickers”, it in reality is a tactic used to arrest, detain and deport the sex workers and prosecute the persons or other sex workers who work with, and for, migrant sex workers.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
Rights not Rescue! Migrant sex workers are not the victims of human trafficking groups; rather, by engaging in sex work, migrant sex workers actually are resisting all kinds of oppression, such as racism, sexism, classism and imperialism.
Profile by Regional Correspondent North America and the Caribbean. Photos provided by Butterfly.