Why it Matters that Bedford is Black: Misogynoir and Sex Work in Canada

Nuance Media
Feb 6 · 11 min read

by Daniella Barreto

Author’s Note: People of many gender identities and sexual orientations engage in sex work. This piece addresses some of the systemic barriers that cis and trans women in Canada can experience and refers to research done predominantly among women sex workers.

The author is a Black cis woman who is not a sex worker. Sex work decriminalization is a racial justice issue and it is crucial to listen to Black sex workers’ experiences and needs in Canada to meaningfully address the issues highlighted in this piece. Daniella is a queer anti-racism advocate who holds an MSc. in Population and Public Health focusing on the health of sex workers and women living with HIV.

Content Notes: Mentions of violence and death, racism

IIt’s not every day you see a leather-clad woman with a whip and scarlet hair leaving Canada’s highest court. People who have been following the legal saga of sex work in Canada will be familiar with the name “Bedford.” Terri-Jean Bedford, to be exact. She is one of the women who took on this colonial state’s oppressive sex work laws in the landmark case, “Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford” and won.

Colloquially known as the “Bedford case”, this iconic lawsuit overturned Canada’s backward sex work laws in 2013. Terri-Jean herself is a sex worker, a dominatrix, who has been and remains unafraid to tell institutional violence what’s what. She was the face and name necessary to further the tumultuous decriminalization struggles ongoing for more than a decade in Canada. Her name was splashed across newspapers and embedded in the minds of anyone paying attention.

Does it matter that Terri-Jean Bedford is also a Black woman?

More often than not, the experiences of Black cis and trans women and non-binary sex workers in Canada are made invisible, stereotyped, or attacked. Black cis and trans women are often erased in social justice work, in civil rights work, in public health, and in history — even though Black women are often the ones laying the groundwork and taking risks to make society better for more than just themselves. In light of Black History Month, it is important to identify that Bedford is Black because Blackness is inherently tied to struggles for justice and equity against systems of oppression, especially in Canada where Black people’s violent and ongoing experiences with colonialism are often unrecognized. Blackness is the “other”, the concept and identity to be subjugated in order for society to function as designed.

As Amnesty International USA outlined, after the organization came out publicly in support of sex work decriminalization:

“Black women have always fought for bodily autonomy and resisted against exploitation. Instead of punishing and shaming survival strategies, we should be invested in expanding choices. Sex work decriminalization is a racial justice issue, requiring us to address the root causes…”

It took years of hearing and reading about the case and its implications before it occurred to me that Terri Jean Bedford might be Black. The first time I saw it explicitly stated was when I found Robyn Maynard’s book, Policing Black Lives. Having grappled with the erasure of Blackness in Canada time and time again, I couldn’t help but feel this detail was not an innocent omission. To me, this reeked of the ‘we-don’t-see-colour-here-in-Canada’ brand of erasure. The ‘we’re-all-one-human-race’ brand of erasure. The ‘why-do-you-need-to-bring-race-into-it?’ or, even, the ‘you’re-being-divisive’ brand of erasure.

So, I asked about it.

Pick a cause, you’re told, it’s too much otherwise. Always too much.

Bedford, via email, agreed there wasn’t much reason to know anything else about her, “I have looked at my various writings and interviews and there is very little reference to me being Black. You yourself said you did not realize I was Black until you read it.” (She clarified in a follow-up call that while she does identify as Black, she is also mixed race with white and Indigenous ancestry as well). When we spoke, Bedford highlighted that she was specifically counseled not to identify herself as Black during her time in the media spotlight due to the fear that raising the issue of race would hurt the cause of sex work decriminalization. She was told that the public was tired of or averse to hearing Black women “complaining” — another catch-22 I’ve heard and experienced time and again as a Black person with multiple identities.

Bedford was adopted into a Black family as a child and raised to think she would only amount to being a “washerwoman or a prostitute, maybe a nurse if [she] showed some intelligence”. She said she grew up believing this because she was Black. “There was a lot of stigma placed on my young mind,” Bedford said. Her decision to become a dominatrix was informed by repeatedly seeing men pay white women for sex but not Black women. Bedford did acknowledge that while she has experienced discrimination due to her race, the world has treated her much better than if she were a darker-skinned Black woman.

However, she stressed to me that in her busy life she doesn’t have time to think about racism and challenged me for focusing on it too much. She recounted that there was hardly any airtime to raise additional issues beyond her fight for sex worker rights and said, “If I spent a lot of time on racism issues, I wouldn’t have time to work on myself.”

I wasn’t the only Black woman who found it strange that I didn’t know Terri Jean was Black. Speaking to Mebrat Beyene, the Executive Director at WISH Drop-In Centre in Vancouver, she noted that in all her preparation, interviews, and research to take on her crucial role in one of the most prominent sex worker support organizations in the Downtown Eastside, Terri Jean’s racial identity didn’t come up once — something she also found curious as a Black woman in Canada who has to contend with racism daily.

Beyene went on to speak of the many challenges in addressing Blackness and sex work simultaneously. There is a difficult thin line she must walk between focusing on the unique, intersecting needs and experiences of Black sex workers while not playing into respectability politics* or perpetuating stereotypes and tropes of Black women being “hypersexual”.

Echoing Bedford’s sentiments, Beyene said it is struggle enough to get sex work itself discussed at policy tables, let alone race and sex work together. It is even more of a struggle as a Black woman executive director who is often accused of overinflating the issues of Black sex workers among sex workers of different backgrounds. Part of this issue lies in the frustrating and damaging narrative that there “aren’t any Black people in British Columbia”. In Beyene’s experience, Black women are overrepresented in sex work in Metro Vancouver compared to the general population, yet still rendered completely invisible.

A common experience of being Black in Vancouver is being hypervisible and penalized for it at the same time as being invisible and ignored. When Black people are further marginalized this way, it is a near-impossible bind to escape. Beyene recounted client experiences where, because of the deep, ingrained anti-Black racism in Vancouver– when Black women in the Downtown Eastside react in anger because of the racism they’re facing– they’re the ones who get banned, punished, and barred for creating a disturbance, and the frustrating systemic and institutional issues remain unaddressed, creating further exclusion. Situations like this have also been highlighted in Policing Black Lives where the suspicion of sex work seemingly justifies further mistreatment of Black women by police in Canada.

Another concern of Beyene’s is organizations that support sex workers should be able to advocate for the unique support of Black sex workers and not be perceived as pitting populations that deal with the impacts of colonialism and white supremacy against each other. There are some Indigenous-centered programs that exist to support Indigenous sex workers but few, if any, for Black sex workers. Beyene says, “[In BC, when it comes to population size, the Black population is] almost equivalent to the Indigenous population”. Indigenous people make up approximately 2% of Vancouver’s population compared to approximately 1% when it comes to Black people. She was clear that this should by no means imply a desire to redirect funding away from Indigenous-specific programming and support. On the contrary, it suggests an increase in funding is needed for all sex worker support programs to help more women access what they need. Sex workers face discrimination and stigma in many areas including access to healthcare, housing, and education so additional programming can provide women with much-needed resources.

The triumph of the Bedford case essentially rendered Canada’s sex work laws toothless at the time of the ruling.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sex workers’ rights and human rights advocates, academics, and of course, sex workers themselves, celebrated. While she doesn’t always like to talk about race, Bedford codified her response to the ruling in racialized terms: in the wake of the announcement that her case had struck down these oppressive laws against sex work Bedford said, “I’m taking off my shackles. It’s emancipation day.” (She later explained to me that she meant freedom from sexual slavery by this remark). This win was the culmination of lives lost, discrimination endured, police violence, and healthcare exclusion. Overnight, the threat of this terror and violence lifted. Ostensibly.

Sex workers were not protected by the law before the Bedford case and are not protected now.

It’s clear that the laws that Bedford helped strike down were an absolute failure when it came to improving the health and safety of sex workers. These laws did not protect sex workers from violence and murder and further exacerbated susceptibility to health inequities including HIV, Hepatitis C, and additions-related issues. In 2014, the Harper government hurriedly pushed through Bill C-36 (also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) under the premise that shifting the target of the law to buyers of sex work would protect sex workers themselves. This changed nothing. Sex workers were still susceptible to violence, especially if they were trans, queer, immigrants or refugees, disabled, or facing any other barriers to accessing basic health needs. Sex workers were now worried about their clients being targeted, driven away, and harassed by law enforcement, leading to rushed, unsafe transactions and limited time to determine whether a client was dangerous. This pushed sex workers further into hidden and isolated zones where they were more exposed to violence and to people with ill-intentions. Even after the Bedford court case and incredible community organizing, nothing had materially changed.

In this way, Canada’s sex work laws continue to create an unsafe and unfair environment for sex workers to meet basic needs for themselves and their families, like food, housing, and accessing health services without judgement or punishment. Sex workers from further marginalized groups, especially immigrants or refugees, have to contend with stereotypes and violence perpetuated by these laws as well as the increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric in North American media.

While we know Black people in Canada experience anti-Blackness, especially from police, there is very little research about Black sex workers and the specific anti-Black violence and over-policing they experience in Canada. On the one hand, perhaps this lack of research has prevented some of the harm that researchers can inflict on groups already experiencing high levels of institutional violence. On the other hand, it’s hard to press for necessary changes without research or even a fundamental acknowledgment of Black women’s experiences with sex work in Canada.

While more research might be needed, the academic study of sex work and sex workers’ experiences is steeped in oppression. Academics who study oppression in its various manifestations are not necessarily dedicated to eliminating the structures that create it. We cannot presume researchers have a vested interest in eradicating the reasons behind people’s oppression in any field of study as many benefit from systems remaining precisely as they are.

When we erase, forget, or obscure the names of revolutionaries who drive movements, we also erase the identities they embody and forget the justice they demand.

Black women have led and continue to lead the push for sex work decriminalization and tirelessly work against racist violence and violence against women in Canada, including Raven Bowen, Angela Marie MacDougall, Sadie Kuehn, and April Sumter-Frietag to name just a few. Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour often do the most dangerous work of standing up to the state and organizing on the ground when it comes to social justice around the world. They’re also placed in the most dangerous positions by the intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender. Their contributions are then often overwritten by whiteness and by institutional powers that dictate how we live and understand history. Take Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the Stonewall Inn rebellion of 1969. These were two trans women of colour, one Black and one Latina, who were also sex workers and social justice advocates, who, in revolutionary self-defence against the police, were instrumental to what we now know as the Pride movement in North America. What started as a protest against state oppression has now become a whitewashed corporate endeavour more concerned with reverence to the very institutions that perpetuate violence against queer and trans folks of various identities than to its original purpose. We cannot let this erasure keep happening.

We owe so much to the Black women who have come before us in the fight for the rights of sex workers. For this reason, it is crucial to recognize that Bedford is a Black woman. It is time for Canada to recognize the incredible advocacy of sex workers and meaningfully work towards decriminalization and against the violence, stigma, and misogyny that cis and trans women sex workers face daily–especially those at the intersections of marginalized identities. It is possible to focus on race and simultaneously advocate for everyone to thrive.

As Bedford said when she ended our phone call, “There are many battles before the war is won.”

In addition to those linked throughout the piece:

Nuance

Diversifying the Sexual Health Conversation

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Diversifying the Sexual Health Conversation

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