Jelena Vermilion is working to put an end to stigmatization of sex workers in Canada 

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The urgent need to address the ongoing discrimination, hate and violence against sex workers 

Jelena Vermilion, executive director of Sex Workers’ Action Program (SWAP) Hamilton, works to take an active stance against the negative treatment that sex workers face. As a sex worker of 10 years, she understands the complexity of sex work and how easily people are stigmatized for partaking in it. This year her work is being recognized as a 2023 Young Women's Christian Association of Canada Women of Distinction nominee

SWAP was created as a place where people could come together as a community in a safe space. The space on Barton Street educates people on topics such as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, an HIV prevention medication. The organization partake in advocacy for the positive treatment of people within the sex industry by speaking at conferences and leading workshops for businesses and organizations in Hamilton. SWAP at its core aims to support sex workers and every challenge they may entail — whether that be through education or direct action. 

“I think having a space is mostly about combating stigma, providing a space of solace for people who are in the sex industry to come to rest with us and particularly for street by sex workers who maybe don't have access to shelter,”

Jelena Vermilion, Executive director of SWAP

As one of 25 groups in Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, they are challenging the current laws surrounding sex work in Canada. It’s on the basis that current laws violate a sex worker's rights to life, liberty and security. This violation can be observed in laws that criminalize communication pertaining to the sale of sex, which directly affects sex workers. Ultimately, the goal is to give sex workers the same liberties as other workers. 

“There's not really an opportunity of equal advantage or an equal foundation that people who are in the sex trade can have as business people. When we're talking about accessing legal services [or] higher education . . . there's so much stigma that permeates society,” said Vermilion. 

The response from the Hamilton community to SWAP’s physical space has been both positive and negative. Those who  have supported SWAP feel like neighbours who look after one another. On the other hand there have been multiple people who haven’t been very approving of SWAP either intentionally or from a degree of misunderstanding. Vermilion noted there was even an instance when people who did not support the organization shooed away those trying to use SWAP resources. 

However, the violence didn’t surprise Vermilion as the sex industry is heavily stigmatized. She shared the story of a 46-year-old sex worker who had been violently assaulted in an alleyway in Hamilton. The woman had been beaten up to such an extent, that she had to relearn how to walk after the attack. SWAP had come together to raise $9,000 for her and held a vigil to draw attention to the injustice.  

“The idea that their work is less valuable and therefore their lives are less viable, it's reflected in the violence against sex workers,”

Jelena Vermilion, Executive director of SWAP

Some of the violence against sex workers can be attributed to the fact people don’t fully understand the scope of sex work. Blinded by ‘whorephobia’, the pervasive fear and hate towards sex workers, they don’t see the gifts sex work can provide—everything from company and comfort to a sense of belonging—which can be invaluable to folks who don’t feel fulfilled in these aspects of their lives. Vermilion shared how easily some people simply just crave the company of another person, whether that be in a sexual or non-sexual manner.  

“In essence, sex work is love . . . At the end of the day, the clients who are coming to see sex workers, often I say, they're lonely, you know, they're not getting what they need at home or they're not getting what they need in their own lives — day to day in their private lives. And so they seek the services of a sex worker to cuddle, to have conversations with, to be listened to, to be witnessed, to be heard,” said Vermilion.  

The life of a sex worker is threatened every day through the legislation that surrounds their existence. Despite this, they continue to work and challenge the stigmas present. Vermilion is one of the many people who work to destigmatize sex work and hopes the government and people of Canada support the work. 


  • Abonti Nur Ahmed

    Abonti is in her third year of the Life Sciences program. Abonti has loved the idea of sharing stories through writing since she was a child. Beyond writing for The Sil she is often reading dystopian fiction, hanging out with friends or trying to find the motivation to go to the gym.

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