In the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 2018, Nadia Guo made an alarming discovery. A Toronto newspaper had published details of her job as a sex worker — along with her full name.
She had been outed publicly.
Guo was scheduled to appear before the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) that morning for a “good character hearing.” It would examine four complaints about her conduct as a law student in 2015, all related to allegations of negative statements she made about other lawyers, and details about cases she had shared on social media.
The fact she worked as an escort wasn’t on the LSO’s docket; Guo said they had been made aware of her profession and didn’t consider sex work as a reason for denying a call to the bar.
Yet, a photo of Guo and the headline, “LEGAL ‘NYMPH,” had hit the Toronto Sun’s front page, falsely claiming the hearing was centred on her “double life as an escort.”
Toronto Star columnist, Rosie DiManno, wrote a story about Guo’s hearing, and led with details about her escort work — while at the same time stating it had nothing to do with the hearing.
As Sun reporter Sam Pazzano told Canadaland, the escort angle added “spice” to his story. That spice cost Guo: initial coverage and follow-upcolumns took a toll on her health, she told HuffPost Canada over email. She suffered fitful dreams and intrusive thoughts about death and disappearing.
Guo’s family already knew about her sex work, but the public scrutiny was nerve-wracking for her parents. Guo worried their colleagues would find out and judge them.
“I wanted to protect [my dad] and my mom from the viciousness that I was experiencing more than anything,” she said. “I feel like I can handle whatever shit I have to deal with, but the hardest thing has been how the media is making my family deal with it too. They’re innocent to all of this.”
Like many sex workers, Guo made great efforts to conceal her identity online. She blurred her face and identifiable body parts in many ads. She went by a pseudonym, Dawn Lee.
Guo gave permission for HuffPost to use her real name for this story, and said she wouldn’t have been bothered by coverage of the hearing itself, which was public record. However, she described the framing of her escort work as a detriment to the law profession as a “smear campaign.”
Sex work isn’t something she’s ashamed of.
What is sex work, and who does it?
A sex worker is anyone who consents to providing sexual services in exchange for money. As an umbrella term, sex work covers escorts, cam models, phone operators, adult entertainment performers, strippers, erotic masseuses, and street-based workers. Around 77 per cent are women, according to a 2014 report funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
While “prostitution” is Canada’s legal term, many activists prefer the term “sex work” for being less loaded with societal disapproval.
Sex workers come from all walks of life, yet according to Caressa Renoir*, an escort and board member of sex work activism organization, Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, perceptions of who they are fall under two extremes.
“I find it’s either, ‘Look how hard their life is’ or, ‘Look how many red-bottom heels she has.'” she said. “A lot of us occupy a space in between that — we have secondary jobs, or kids, or go to school.”
HuffPost Canada spoke to several Canadian sex workers about their experiences with stigma. What kept them up at night isn’t the services they provide. “Whorephobia” — a term sex work activists use to refer to hatred and discrimination against sex workers — was their biggest enemy.
Stigma against sex workers, they said, creates barriers to their labour rights, endangers their safety, and puts them at odds with legislation that outlaws how they operate.
The fear of being outed
The effects of outing can devastate lives, said University of Ottawa professor Chris Bruckert.
“The implications can range from losing contact with your family, friendships, your job, and losing housing,” she said. “The problem, ultimately, is that there’s so much stigma in being a sex worker.”
Andrea Werhun, author of Modern Whore, a memoir of her escort work, was outed twice: among strangers in a fraternity and then by her uncle to her family. Before and after those experiences, the idea of not being able to control who knew about her sex work terrified her; at one point, it led Werhun to leave her life in Toronto and work on a farm for two years.
“Getting outed is your worst fear realized,” she said. “It’s having to deal with the possibility you will no longer have access to opportunities that were once on your doorstep, because people know that you’re now a whore.”
Carissa Renoir’s mother discovered her sex work and outed her to other family members. She then convinced a doctor to institutionalize Renoir at a psychiatric hospital.
“[It] was beyond humiliating,” Renoir said. “That was a traumatic experience, to say the least. It took me a while to speak to her again.”
Kharisma*, who uses they/them pronouns, had been in the sex work business for 20 years. As a dark-skinned person of colour, they said they had experienced abuse from police officers when they were doing survival sex work.
After they were outed in court during a child custody dispute in 2018, they feared their unborn daughter would be taken by child protection services. The document was later withdrawn, but the damage to their sense of safety was done.
“It was a tactic, that’s what bothers me. I live with a lot of fear now,” Kharisma said. That fear has caused them to leave the sex work industry and move to another city.
Sex work isn’t a crime, but it is criminalized
Bella* is an escort who envisions a future where her profession is considered ordinary.
“I would be able to talk about my work like it’s work,” she said. “I could debrief with my friends about amazing days, shitty days; instead, I’m in a situation where I can only talk to select people.”
The infrastructure of sex work includes mundane tasks, as in any other industry. Work days may include administrative duties like answering emails and screening potential clients. Many elect to work independently, while others choose to hire assistance.
Anyone who helps a worker sell services is a third party, such as an agency that assigns clients or an accountant who helps file taxes.
Being a sex worker isn’t against the law; however, core aspects of the industry are criminalized. It’s illegal to pay for sex, or to run a brothel. Advertisers who publish their ads may face prosecution. Many third-party agreements are illegal.
WATCH: How sex work laws work in Canada. Story continues below.
Reform looked promising in 2013: the landmark Bedford case saw the Supreme Court strike down anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional.
A year later, the Harper government replaced the overturned laws. Disregarding the Supreme Court’s findings, Parliament amended the Criminal Code to treat sex work using the “Nordic” model, which positions sex work as a social ill, sees workers as victims, and punishes clients.
Many workers and activists disagree with this framework; they view sex work as a profession that a consenting adult should be able to engage in under safe conditions. They call for decriminalization, not legalization.
If the Canadian government were to legalize the industry, Bruckert says, any new laws would be informed by existing stigma.
“[The laws] will pin on assumptions that sex workers are a risk, bad for the neighbourhood, that we will need to regulate disease. All these things of trope end up becoming embedded in the laws,” Bruckert said. “You end up with laws that become highly discriminatory because you are pivoting off these myths.”
Potential pitfalls include invasive health checks, zones that restrict where sex work can be conducted, and a federal registration system. With any line of work, exploitation and unfair business practices exist, Bruckert said. However, the current laws ignore and endanger the diversity of circumstances in the sex-work industry.
Anti-prostitution legislation from south of the border has affected Canadian workers. Following the passing of two U.S. anti-trafficking bills, which were supposed to help trafficking victims, Bella’s advertising sites were shuttered, despite her operating across Canada.
“Imagine waking up and your employment was gone. There was no way for us to advertise what we were selling … We have bills and families to feed; I was in a situation where I was taking bookings I never had to before,” she said.
To get by, Bella had to see clients she wouldn’t normally be comfortable with. One who gave her a “bad gut feeling” locked her in his garage, she said.
Sex-work stigma affects health and safety
The Nordic model hasn’t improved health outcomes for Canadian sex workers. University of British Columbia researchers found a 41 per-cent reduction in sex workers accessing health care following the 2014 law’s implementation.
Wary of stereotypes about diseased sex workers, many choose not to disclose their jobs to doctors. A Canadian Public Health Association study found that sex workers are nearly eight times more likely to avoid health care because of a fear or dislike of doctors. Additional disclosure concerns are compounded for trans workers and workers who are survivors of sexual violence.
@elena_argento explains why Canada’s move to end-demand criminalization of #sexwork creates barriers to health services n puts sex workers at risk @ #AIDS2018#decriminalizesexwork#sexworkISwork#humanrights#PCEPA @GSHI_research pic.twitter.com/DvQg9QPOj8
— Brittany Barker (@bbarker13) July 26, 2018
Those on the street make up the smallest percentage in the industry, but face the brunt of violence, as well as the highest levels of incarceration and involvement with law enforcement. Nearly 300 sex workers were murdered from 1991 to 2014, according to Statistics Canada, and a significant number of those were Indigenous women (34 per cent of female workers killed from 1997 – 2014). A Centre for Addictions Research paper reports that the targeted brutality can be traced to a colonial history of devaluing Indigenous women.
“We still assume that because they are sex workers, they have put themselves in risky situations where rape and murder are occupational hazards,” said Werhun.
“Even if people are lauding our bravery, ingenuity and getting out of these dangerous situations, they’re still using our stories as entertainment, while not supporting our right to live.”
The community offers support
Guo was surprised by the community that rallied around her after she was outed. Fellow escorts reached out to offer their support, helped keep the articles off escort review forums, and defended her on social media. Her clients have sent her encouraging messages as well.
“I never felt the full strength of the sex worker community until all of this unfolded. The way even strangers went out of their way to show support and concern for me was something I hadn’t experienced before from the legal community,” she wrote.
The solidarity Guo experienced speaks to a workforce that understands how sensationalizing or belittling one of their numbers can negatively affect them all.
That interest in working together manifests in alliances. Through whisper networks, many share advice and warnings about dangerous clients. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform unites activist organizations. And sex workers from specific communities have formed groups that combat isolation and advocates for themselves, such as Butterfly for migrant women and Maggie’s Indigenous Sex Workers Drum Group.
But a Canada where stigma and whorephobia are eliminated is still a long way away. Until the laws prioritize them, workers said there will continue to be situations where someone like Guo can become the face of a newspaper cover overnight.
What can change in the present, they hope, is perception. That starts with civilians, buyers, health-care providers, lawmakers, and media outlets treating sex workers as everyday Canadians.
More from HuffPost Canada:
On Wednesday, the LSO tribunal made a decision on Guo’s hearing. Guo was found of good character and deemed eligible to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.
She said she’s “much less stressed” because of the decision, but is wary about the profession’s current disposition towards individuals like her.
“I want to run my own practise someday. I want to help foster a kinder, more understanding legal community that is more accepting to people who don’t conform and are more accepting of those with diverse perspectives and backgrounds,” Guo said.
“I also want to help facilitate the public’s understanding of sex work and reduce stigma against sex workers by sharing my own experiences, my outlooks, and my truths. I want to help lift up other sex workers when I can.”
*Due to their concerns over their safety, Kharisma, Bella, and Carissa Renoir asked us to refer to them by their former or current working names.
Also on HuffPost:
@repost Divorce Agreement
Via Primary Custody
Kathie Lee Gifford wants Kris Jenner to pay back the money she loaned her from back when times were hard.
The departing Today show star, 65, revealed to People that before Jenner, 63, made her family famous with Keeping Up with the Kardashians, she badly needed help.
“Kris was having financial problems,” Gifford said to the magazine.
“I loaned Kris money years ago because they needed it. They were really struggling.”
Veteran co-host Gifford, who is leaving her job on Today this week, laughed, “I want that money back!”
Gifford and Jenner have been friends for years, starting in the 1970s when they were both living in California.
When Jenner’s husband transitioned into a woman, Caitlyn, Gifford revealed to Today viewers in 2015, “This was new to Kris. She’s trying to get her act together. She’s trying to be a good friend to (her). Trying to still be a good parent. And it’s complicated in ways that we cannot even comprehend.”
Before marrying her second husband, then known as Bruce, Jenner divorced the late Robert Kardashian.
As a single mom, Jenner has remembered, “I didn’t have anything. I went to the market one day and my credit card didn’t work. I had a market credit card and I’m like, ‘I can’t even buy a tomato.’ ”
But now Jenner is a millionaire momager who uses her children’s scandals to boost KUWTK, as a Radar source has said.
She has plenty of money to pay back her old friend Gifford — but it might not be necessary as the TV host is also loaded after 11 years on Today following stardom on Live!
Gifford’s NBC morning show cast mates threw her a goodbye party and her last day on air is Friday.
@repost Joint Custody Child Support
WATERBURY, Conn. — Authorities say a mother and her boyfriend accused of taking the woman’s three children during a supervised visit are back in Connecticut.
Waterbury Police Lt. David Silverio says Crystal McGrath and Lester Joy were extradited on Friday from Texas. They were taken into custody earlier this month in Mazatlan, Mexico, where the three children were found safe.
Authorities say McGrath, the children’s noncustodial mother, took them out a side door of a Waterbury’s McDonald’s in February during a visit supervised by the state Department of Children and Families.
Silverio says McGrath and Joy are being held on $500,000 bail pending their arraignment on charges of custodial interference and risk of injury. It’s unclear if they have attorneys.
The Associated Press
@repost Divorce Papers
NORRIE, Wis. — A 19-year-old central Wisconsin man has been charged with intentionally starving cows on his family’s farm.
The Wausau Daily Herald reports prosecutors charged Joshua Litze Friday with two counts of intentionally failing to provide food to animals, four counts of failing to timely dispose of an animal carcass and one count of bail jumping.
The complaint says a Marathon County sheriff’s deputy responded to a report of cattle in the road near a farm in Norrie, about 25 miles (40.23 kilometres) east of Wausau. The officer found cows with bones protruding from their sides and at least four carcasses of dead cows.
Authorities say Litzke was supposed to be taking care of nearly 30 cows while his father was out of town.
It wasn’t clear if Litzke has a lawyer.
The Associated Press
@repost Divorce Rights
Kim Streich-Poser has tried to reduce her staff with early retirement offers, but most of them are too dedicated to their work to take the bait.
“We’ve got people who are very, very committed to working with some of the most vulnerable children and families in our community,” the executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Algoma told HuffPost Canada.
“They develop relationships with those people.”
So she’s had to cut costs the hard way. Streich-Poser, who is based in Sault Ste. Marie, says she’s given layoff notices to six of her 141 employees and is negotiating other “displacements” with their union. She’ll also close Algoma’s office in Hornepayne, Ont. and reduce two full-service district offices in Wawa and Blind River into small satellite offices with one employee each.
“We can’t afford to have more workers there,” she said.
The Children’s Aid Society of Algoma services a 49,000-square-kilometre swath of northern Ontario that stretches from Elliot Lake in the east to Pukaskwa National Park in the west.
Employees investigate allegations of child abuse, place children in foster care and work with birth parents so that they can provide a safe home for their kids.
Algoma’s society had already lost about 10 staff through attrition and early retirement before the director had to start layoffs.
“It’s left the remaining staff to sort of pick up the pieces,” adoption worker Lee-Ann Pettenuzzo told HuffPost. She’s also president of the local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
She said she worries about what will happen to her co-worker left alone in Wawa.
“How is one worker going to cover this area? How is she going to meet the needs of the children?” Pettenuzzo asked.
How is one worker going to cover this area? How is she going to meet the needs of the children?Lee-Ann Pettenuzzo
“When you are talking child welfare, for her to be dealing with whatever crisis she’s dealing with and then not be able to debrief with anybody …”
Pettenuzzo trailed off.
“These are really emotional jobs.”
All of Algoma’s funding comes from the Ontario government. Over the past two years, their funding has decreased as Algoma transferred cases to Nogdawindamin Family & Community Services, an Indigenous-led child wellbeing agency.
But the rate of new kids needing care is going up, partially because more parents in northern Ontario are becoming addicted to opioids or dying of overdoses. So even though Nogdawindamin took over 66 cases, the number of kids Algoma is responsible for only decreased by 22.
The disproportionate cut in funding threw the children’s aid society into a “significant financial crisis,” Streich-Poser said.
This is happening in multiple areas of Ontario that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. And workers say layoffs will force children’s aid societies to work crisis-to-crisis rather than focus on their mandate, which is to support birth parents so that they can be reunited with their children.
More than 600 Ontarians died of opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2018, according to numbers released Monday by Public Health Ontario. And there were 6,688 opioid-related emergency department visits in the province, up from 5,909 during the same time frame the year before.
Sault Ste. Marie, the largest community in Algoma with a population of 13,600, had Ontario’s third-highest rate of hospitalizations for opioid poisonings in 2017, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Program for kids with special needs cut
One of the casualties of Algoma’s cuts was an intervention program for foster children with special needs. All five workers who ran the program, which Pettenuzzo said was for children who may have behavioural issues or had pre-natal exposure to drugs and alcohol, lost their jobs last week.
If Algoma can’t find extra services to help those kids in the north, they may be sent to live with foster families in southern Ontario, Pettenuzzo said.
“How do you reunify a family when the children aren’t even in the area?” she said.
The kids in that program developed “tight relationships” with Algoma workers.
“When we aren’t that consistent person because now we have to move them, who are they connecting with? Who do they learn to trust?” she asked.
“If kids don’t know that they matter, they’re hopeless.”
26 children’s aid workers laid off in Brantford
Ontario’s highest rate of hospitalizations for opioid poisonings is in Brantford, a city in southwestern Ontario with more than 134,000 residents.
The director of Brantford’s children’s aid society, Brant Family and Children’s Services (BFACS), recently laid off 26 employees.
“My first job is to keep kids safe,” BFACS executive director Andy Koster said. “You can see now with the layoffs, that’s jeopardizing my role.”
The day before he spoke with HuffPost, two more children came into BFACS’s care because of opioid overdoses in separate homes.
The stress on our staff trying to deal with this is horrendous.Andy Koster
“That’s how real it is to our staff,” he said.
“The stress on our staff trying to deal with this is horrendous. They never quite know what they’re going to find.”
BFACS has also transferred a number of cases to an Indigenous-led organization. But Koster says his agency has dozens more children in its care than it did this time last year because of the drug epidemic.
In the last year and a half, 22 of the children in BFACS’s care have lost parents to overdoses, Koster said.
On top of that, the province notified children’s aid societies in the fall that they would have to cover 75 per cent of the cost of subsidies for parents who adopt kids or take permanent custody. Agencies were expecting to cover only 25 per cent.
In the 2017/2018 year, subsidies cost BFACS $195,000. This year, that cost was $671,000. For Algoma, the cost soared from about $60,000 to more than $200,000. The government did not provide any funding to help cover these costs.
More from HuffPost Canada:
“It’s impossible that you could have planned that,” Koster said.
He said the province needs to change its funding formula for children’s aid societies.
“We just want to get through this fiscal year and start into the next … I’m worried about my staff, but I’m worried just as much or more about the kids and families that they serve,” he said.
“We’re the last hope for some of these kids.”
The Progressive Conservative minister responsible for children’s services, Lisa MacLeod, was asked about the situation during question period at Queen’s Park last Monday.
NDP MPP Sandy Shaw quoted Koster, who said that when governments cut child welfare services, children end up living in violent and neglectful conditions and some ultimately die.
MacLeod said her government is proud that Indigenous agencies are taking cases and blamed BFACS for not managing its money properly.
“What that member opposite is suggesting is that the 18 per cent of Indigenous youth who are going to a customary care model in an Indigenous-led children’s aid society don’t deserve the funding that is required for them to get the services that they need,” MacLeod said.
“This children’s aid society has refused to look after its fiscal house and get its services in order as we transition. This is not new.”
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services did not respond to HuffPost’s questions despite multiple requests over the course of two weeks.
Koster stressed that he supports and respects Ogwadeni:deo, the agency that took over jurisdiction for children who live on the Six Nations reserve.
The issue is that children who are abused anywhere … should get the proper services.Andy Koster
“We’ve always supported and had a great respect for Indigenous child welfare. That’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is that children who are abused anywhere … should get the proper services.”
He said he appreciates that this government didn’t design the funding formula imposed on agencies as they transferred cases to Indigenous-led agencies.
“But they have an opportunity to fix it.”
Pettenuzzo, the adoption worker in Algoma, said the government simply doesn’t understand what it takes to do child protection work properly and how the long drives up north make it more difficult to be there for families.
“We shouldn’t have to service foster homes in Elliot Lake from an office in Sault Ste. Marie because of funding,” she said.
“Unless Lisa MacLeod has driven from Toronto to the Manitoba border, she has no idea.”
With a file from The Canadian Press
Also On HuffPost: