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Why Are Cops Catfishing Sex Workers in Canada?

Sex workers and prominent organizations are asking for police to stop.

Allison Tierney

Allison Tierney

Photo via Flickr user Matthew Romack

Cops in Canada have been posing as sex worker clients in "rescue" missions no one really asked for. Now, numerous prominent organizations and individuals have issued an open letter in support of sex workers calling for British Columbia police to cease involvement in Operation Northern Spotlight, a country-wide covert police operation involving the catfishing of sex workers.

"It's baffling that police think this is a positive thing and that it's actually going to be helpful," said sex work campaign lawyer Brenda Belak of Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. Pivot was one of the groups that signed the open letter.

As part of the operation, police pretend to be clients on sites like Backpage, set up dates, and try to "save" sex workers from their jobs. It's an attempt, albeit a misguided one, to target trafficking.

"There's certainly no legal basis for it because the law right now in Canada… targets the clients of sex workers, which is essentially the same as targeting sex workers." Current Canadian laws surrounding sex work were introduced in 2014; as it stands, it's illegal to buy sex, but not to sell it.

Operation Northern Spotlight was first conceived by Durham Regional Police in Ontario in 2014. Major raids of the project occurred in October 2015 and October 2016, the latter of which involved the FBI and 53 Canadian police agencies in nine provinces. Pivot has been contacted by sex workers working on their own accord who say they feel they're not in danger except for through these raids. Belak pointed to the entering of premises without warrants and illegal searches of sex workers—both of which have allegedly been part of the operation. She said some victims of the raids have had charges unrelated to sex work brought upon them.

Jelena Vermilion, 23, a sex worker in Ontario, said she is "fed up" with how police and the law in Canada deal with the field she works in.

"Sex workers deserve a lot more respect and dignity. We have so much autonomy, and we've just been screaming into the void for so long, and no one seems to want to listen to us," Vermilion told VICE. "We're not babies—trafficking may be a real issue, but trafficking in sex work and consensual sex work are very different."

Belak referenced the same conflation between consensual sex work and sex trafficking. She said the operation has further dampened police relations with sex workers in Canada, making them less likely to come forward if they become the victim of a crime while working.

"Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not 'save' or 'rescue' them," reads the open letter calling for the end of BC police involvement in the operation.

Vermilion said the concept of the operation is tied to the saviour complex, which in this context is "essentially someone trying to offer help where it's not needed, superfluously, and in the face of being told 'I don't need help,' still offering resources."

Both Belak and Vermilion said the best way to improve sex worker safety is by decriminalizing it.

"This isn't helping anyone," Vermilion said. "If you want to benefit sex workers, listen to them."

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