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Critical Trafficking and Sex Work Studies

Members of this research cluster engage in research that: examines sex workers’ experiences of labour, management, migration, advocacy, regulation and criminalization, stigma, and discrimination; problematizes the conflation of sex work, labour exploitation, trafficking, and migration; and supports, consults or is co-produced with sex workers and other people harmed by campaigns against sex trafficking. It is premised on the argument that efforts to combat human trafficking and prostitution are informed by assumptions about individual vulnerability to exploitation rather than analyses of complex socioeconomic dynamics and problems. In particular, the research conducted by members of this cluster is aimed at disrupting common misconceptions about sex work and human trafficking from intersectional, critical feminist, and inter-disciplinary perspectives while also situating the Canadian experience and evolving legal and policy frameworks within racialized and geopolitical hierarchies that structure contemporary labour policies and practices.

Faculty and students in the group come from York University, but also share affiliation with other institutions and organizations in Canada and abroad. They represent a variety of related fields such as: women’s studies, social science, socio-legal studies, geography, public health, and political science.

Members of the research cluster espouse the following goals and principles:

  1. Conducting critical empirical research that centres the agency, experiences and understandings of people working in diverse sectors and locales of the adult entertainment and sex industries.
  2. Critically examining discourses of “modern-day slavery” in the context of globalization and human rights.
  3. Advancing research and policy development and providing tools and resources to communities concerned with and/or directly affected by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking interventions.
  4. Disseminating research outputs and hosting events that educate policymakers, researchers, service providers, students and members of the broader community about the impacts and implications of regulations and discourses that portray people involved in the sex industry as risky/victims.

Outcomes and Research

Bruckert, C., & Law, T. (2013). Beyond pimps, procurers and parasites: Mapping third parties in the incall/outcall sex industry. Ottawa: Rethinking management in the sex industry project.

De Lisio, A., Hubbard, P., & Silk, M. (2019). Economies of (alleged) deviance: Sex work and the sport mega-event. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 16(2), 179-189.

De Lisio, A., & Fusco, C. (2019). Cruel optimism: Zika, Lex Sportiva, and bodies of (alleged) contagion. Columbia Journal of Gender & Law, 38(1), 1-30.

Kempadoo, K. (2020, May 4). On migration, sex work and the pandemic in the Caribbean. Stabroek News.

Kempadoo, K. (2020). Towards a decolonization of sexual economic praxis in the Caribbean. The Scholar & Feminist Online. Barnard Center for Research on Women. 

Kempadoo, K. (2020, Nov 25). What is trafficking in a region built on exploitation? Thoughts from the Caribbean. Open Democracy.

Kempadoo, K. (2017). Bound coolies’ and other indentured workers in the Caribbean: Implications for debates about human trafficking and modern slavery. Anti-Trafficking Review, 9, 48-63.

Kempadoo, K. (2015, Jan 11). The white man’s burden revisited. Open Democracy: Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Kempadoo, K., & Davydova, D. (2012). From bleeding hearts to critical thinking: Exploring the issue of human trafficking. Toronto: Centre for Feminist Research, York University.

Kempadoo, K., McFayden, N., Pilon, P., Sterling, A., & MacKenzie, A. (2017). Policy brief: Challenging trafficking in Canada. Toronto: Centre for Feminist Research, York University.

Kempadoo, K., & Shih, E. (2022). White supremacy, racism and the coloniality of anti-trafficking. Routledge.

Law, T. (2021). A different kind of risky business: Men who manage men in the sex industry. Sexualities, 24(7), 941-956.

Law, T. (2013). Transitioning out of sex work: Exploring sex workers’ experiences and perspectives. In E. Durisin, E. van der Meulen and V. Love (Eds.), Selling sex: Experience, advocacy, and research on sex work in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Lowthers, M., Sabat, M., Durisin, E. M., & Kempadoo, K. (2017). A sex work research symposium: Examining positionality in documenting sex work and sex workers’ rights. Social Sciences, 6(2), 39.

Cluster Members

Kamala Kempadoo is a Professor in York’s Department of Social Science, and a founding member of this research cluster. She has developed and taught courses in Sex Work Studies, Critical Anti-trafficking Studies, Caribbean Studies, and Black Radical and Black Feminist Thought and is a former director of the Graduate Program in Social and Political Thought. She has published extensively on the global and Caribbean sex trade and anti-trafficking discourses, including Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition (edited with Jo Doezema), Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labour, and Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights (edited with Jyoti Sanghera and Bandana Pattanaik). She is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Award of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Caribbean Studies Association.

Tuulia Law is an Assistant Professor in the Criminology Program at York University. She is also appointed to and supervises students in the Socio-Legal Studies, and Gender Feminist and Women’s Studies graduate programs. She has been involved as a researcher and member in various sex worker advocacy organizations for more than a decade; she currently works with a Toronto-based strippers’ social and advocacy group called Work Safe Twerk Safe. Her previous research has examined: third party work and management in indoor sex and adult industry venues; sex workers’ creative problem solving and security strategies; racialized, gendered and classed tropes of sex work and management. Her current projects explore stripper-management relations and tensions, and strippers’ engagement with provincial labour and human rights protection mechanisms.

Amanda De Lisio is an Assistant Professor of physical culture, policy and sustainable development in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science and Executive Member of the City Institute at York University. Her research is predominantly focused on urban and health inequities in mega-event host cities. She previously collaborated with Coletivo Puta Davida in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to examine the impact of FIFA/Olympic construction on women and gender-diverse people in feminized, sexual labour. More recently, she is interested in feminist solidarities fomented in response to state violence and abandonment—namely, the collective action of women and LGBTQIA+ people in Rio de Janeiro and im/migrant Asian women in Toronto. Her work has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in England, Mitacs Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and published in academic and popular presses in English and Portuguese.

Elene Lam is an activist, community organizer, educator, and human rights defender. She has devoted herself to organizing, defending the rights of, and empowering marginalized communities - particularly sex workers, migrants, and precarious workers - for over 20 years. She is the founder of Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network) and has used diverse and innovative approaches to advocate social justice for migrant sex worker, e.g., leadership building and community mobilization. She has made transformative contributions to the migrant sex workers’ movement in Canada by being a unique and compelling player in sex worker rights, migrant justice, labour rights, and in gender justice circles. She holds a Master of Laws and Master of Social Work. She is the PhD candidate at McMaster University (School of Social Work) and studying the harm of anti-trafficking movement. She is also the recipient of Constance E. Hamilton Award for Women’s Equality (City of Toronto).

Upcoming Events

Book titles by the speakers

Previous Events

On November 18, 2023, we hosted the Critical Trafficking and Sex Work Studies symposium, bringing together sex workers, academics, activists and allies to discuss recent books, research activities, and mobilizing efforts in Canada and abroad. The event featured recently published academic works by Lyndsey Beutin (McMaster University/Princeton University), Kamala Kempadoo (York University), Elena Shih (Brown University), Juana María Rodrígues (Berkeley, University of California), Tuulia Law (York University), and Katrin Roots (Wilfrid Laurier University) in conversation with workers, activists, legal experts, and organizers.

On May 1, 2023, we hosted an informal coffee chat with sex workers, activists, artists, and academics that work in the realm of Critical Trafficking and Sex Work Studies. The afternoon allowed us to facilitate needed connections for research and other forms of straight work as well as more non-academic creative projects. We are incredibly thankful for the dedicated folks at York University and beyond that attended and were so generous with their expertise, experiences, and insights. With their support, we submitted a brief for the for the Study on Human Trafficking of Women, Girls, and Gender-Diverse People in Canada as commissioned by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Soon, our brief will be available in English and French on the Parliament of Canada website.

On November 21, 2022, the Social Work Student Association (SWSA) at York University, in collaboration with Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, hosted an event at Founder's Assembly Hall (Rm. 152, Keele Campus). The event welcomed members of the York University student population, staff, and faculty to listen to and learn from migrant and Asian women detrimentally impacted by the criminalization of sex work. Often portrayed as trafficked victim, migrant and Asian women spoke directly to their realities of stigmatization, discrimination, and state violence in the GTA. The event was well-attended with more than 50 students, predominantly from the Faculties of LAPS (Liberal Arts and Professional Studies) and Health.

On November 11, 2022, we proudly hosted the launch of White Supremacy, Racism and the Coloniality of Anti-Trafficking (edited by Kamala Kempadoo and Elena Shih) at the William Doo Auditorium (45 Willcocks Street, M5S 1C7). The book is available to purchase now at Another Story Book Shop.

On May 30, 2022, the Critical Trafficking and Sex Work Studies Research Cluster at the Centre for Feminist Research hosted an event to share insight and provide context to the recent implementation of a new accreditation process in the Town of Newmarket for people in alternative massage. To view the recorded panel and/or read a summary of the event, see Feminist Dispatch: Municipal Bylaws and Anti-Asian Racism From Past to Present.

Posters included below.