A Brief History Of Sex Worker Activism in Toronto

1977 - 1979
Better End All Vicious Erotic Repression (BEAVER)
Founder: Baba Yaga (Margaret Spore)

Inspired by COYOTE, the San Francisco prostitutes' rights group, BEAVER was the first sex workers' rights group (made up mainly of strippers) in Canada. With the help of other people in the biz, including Gwendolyn and Maxine, Baba Yaga brought the sex workers' rights perspective to the public for the first time. BEAVER was eager to build bridges with feminists.

1979 - 1980
Coalition Against Street Harassment (CASH)

Because getting other prostitutes involved was so difficult, Baba Yaga eventually joined forces with some sympathetic feminist lawyers. Offended by the name BEAVER, the feminists insisted on changing the name to something they were comfortable with. CASH brought the publics' attention to the violence prostitutes face on the street because of hostile laws and attitudes.

1979 - 1982
Canadian Association of Burlesque Entertainers (CABE)
Key Players: Diane Michaels, Mama Mia, Notorious Nadine

The first strippers' union in Canada put the issue of strippers' working conditions on the public agenda with its public appearances and a newsletter that lasted three years. Hoping that it would help improve working conditions, CABE supported licensing strippers. Instead licensing led to the closing of all but the most corrupt clubs, and the city was flooded with out-of-town table dancers. Conditions for strippers have gotten worse while Metro Toronto profits from licensing fees.

Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP)

    1983-1986 (the Peggy years)
    Key players: Peggy Miller, Danny Cockerline, Feather, Chris Bearchell, Gwendolyn

    Sometime in 1982, a Toronto street girl named Peggie Miller got busted for keeping a common bawdy house when she picked up a cop and took him back to her place. She pleaded "not guilty" but lost in court. Peg's lawyer told her there wasn't much point in appealing the case; the problem was the law. If she wanted justice, the law would have to change first. She told Peg how to get hold of people who were fighting the law.

    Peggie hooked up with a few people, and they started the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP).

    CORP participated in the Fraser Commission on Porn and Prostitution, went to Ottawa to fight against C-49 which criminalized communicating for the purpose of prostitution, got the National Action Committee on the Status of Women to support the decriminalization of prostitution and challenged the media's negative depiction of prostitutes.

    1986-1991 (the Valerie years)
    Key Players: Valerie Scott, Danny Cockerline, Ryan Hotchkiss, Gwendolyn, Chris Bearchell.

    Media coverage of CORP reached an all-time high and many of the stories presented the prostitutes' rights perspective positively. CORP produced its newsletter, Stiletto, lobbied against C-61, the enterprise crime law, was given intervenor status when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the communicating and bawdy house laws (both were upheld), challenged residents' groups at the police commission, and organized non-prostitute supporters in a sister group called the Campaign to Decriminalize Prostitution.

    1991 - 1994 (the Alexandra years)
    Key Players: Alexandra Highcrest, Valerie Scott

Problems arose with spokespeople representing CORP in the media without being accountable to other CORP members. These problems escalated, leading to an exodus of members, most of whom went on to form the Sex Workers' Alliance of Toronto in 1992. CORP's profile declines with the exception of occasional print media by Alexandra, including a couple off attacks on Maggie's.

1986 - present
Maggie's — the Toronto Prostitutes' Community Service Project
Founding members: Chris Bearchell, Gwendolyn, June Callwood, Grant Lowry, Peggy Miller,

CORP started out trying to organize pros to fight for law reform so that they could improve their working conditions. But Peggie also realized that things people go through in the business because the work is illegal and people are down on them for doing the job get in the way of sex workers getting organized. That's where the idea for Maggie's came from.

Peggie persuaded Chris to help her recruit the first board, (of both sex workers and non-sex workers) which began meeting September 5, 1986. We thought that we could get the broader community — maybe even the government or people with money — to support a project that involved prostitutes joining the self-help movement. We imagined male and female pros providing access to information and services to other pros. Our first vision was something like a 24-hour laundromat, with attached daycare centre and space to run everything from self-defense classes to money-management seminars. We picked the name "Maggie's" for Margaret (Babba Yagga) who, along with women like Gwendolyn, organized Better End All Vicious Erotic Repression (BEAVER), the first prostitutes' rights group in Toronto (in the late 70s).

In August, 1991, we were finally incorporated under the name the "Toronto Prostitutes' Community Service Project." Our application for charitable status with Revenue Canada was approved in December, 1991. At our first annual general meeting in 1992, Maggie's first elected board became more than half sex workers.

1986 -- 1994
Prostitutes' Safe Sex Project (PSSP)
Founder: Danny Cockerline

Started as the Safe Sex Corps, a spin-off of CORP, to protest the blaming of prostitutes for AIDS and to fight against forced HIV testing and quarantine of pros. Produced pamphlets and buttons (volunteer) to educate pros about the dangers of AIDS. With the help of the Maggie's Board, applied for funding from the Toronto Board of Health and became the first prostitute group in Canada to ever receive government support in May, 1988. PSSP has been growing and thriving as a project of Maggie's ever since and provides peer education on AIDS and STDs, produces newsletters, Bad Trick Sheets, posters and pamphlets and involves sex workers in an organization trying to improve the working conditions of prostitutes.

1992 - present
Sex Workers' Alliance of Toronto (SWAT)

    1992-1994 the beginnings
    Key Players: Bentley Ball, Kara Gillies, Andrew Sorfleet, Danny Cockerline, Gwendolyn, Anastasia Kuzyk, Pauline, Codie Barrett, Petal Rose, Linda and Barbara, Matthew McGowan, Beth Wolgemuth, Jeanne B.

    On April 6, 1992 eight people formed the Sex Workers' Alliance of Toronto. they got together and discussed current events that effected their work places, and brainstormed ideas on how to improve the situation. After a long meeting they planned four subsequent meetings and made this call for members:

    "SWAT, the Sex Workers' Alliance of Toronto provides a space for people working in all areas of the sex trade, to get together and share their opinions and grievances. We're not out to change the world; we're not making anybody's political careers, we just want to make a safe place where we get a little support and repect."

    Many were weary from their experience as members of CORP. Bitter personal differences and other bad habits made meeting impossible. Yet individual members were still making public statements as the "official spokesperson" for CORP. But also many were fresh to forming a group, empassioned about sex workers' rights, and seasoned as sex workers.

    The group was solidified as an activist group by January 1993, when Danny Cockerline drafted and moved SWAT's constitution. SWAT became a political outlet for many staff of Maggie's. Over the next year and half Maggie's and SWAT collaborated on critical defenses in the face of attacks on the sex industry of great magnitude.These included the usual summer sweeps on the streets; never-before-seen sweeps of women who were running ads in weeklies and using their apartments to see clients; media panic about a series of court decisions that set presidence for nude fondling in strip clubs; and absolute hysteria with police busts using section 163.1, the new sweeping Canadian kiddie porn law.

    These battlefields took their toll on both Maggie's and SWAT. Difficulties continued to spring up in dealing with the media. Key members pulled away from both groups.

    1994 - present
    The Sex Workers' Alliance of Toronto has been resurrected by veteran member, Anastasia Kuzyk.

NOTE: This document was originally written by Danny Cockerline and researched by Gwendolyn in September 1993 as a handout at a screening of Gwendolyn's Prowling by Night — a 12-minute, paper-doll animation that documents police harassment of prostitutes. Prowling by Night was made with the participation of 21 sex workers. The film was part of Five Feminist Minutes, Studio D, National Film Board of Canada, 1989. This Toronto history chronology was revised and updated by Andrew Sorfleet in 1995.

[Rights Groups]

Created: September 23, 1997
Last modified: February 13, 2018

SWAT Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto
Tel: +1 (416) 921-SWAT
Email: s.w.a.t.@sympatico.ca