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PhD student Elene Lam speaks up for Asian and migrant sex workers

Why Elene Lam founded Butterfly, a grassroots group that speaks up for Toronto’s Asian and migrant sex workers. Butterfly helps workers access health and legal services, organizes English classes and ‘know your rights’ workshops, and translates city bylaw information.

Jun 18, 2021

Elene Lam has carried their stories with her for decades. Since she was a 19-year-old student in Hong Kong volunteering at a grassroots sex worker organization, Lam has heard stories of women being sexually harassed by police, detained and deported, or even murdered because of their work.

“The criminalization, discrimination and stigma kills people,” Lam says. “It’s something we really need to change.”

Lam’s fight for the rights of sex workers brought her overseas to York University, where she got her masters in social work. After she graduated, she started working at St. Stephen’s Community House, where she connected with local Asian and migrant sex workers.

Around that time, sex worker activists had launched a constitutional challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional because they deprived workers of their right to security by forcing them to work in secret. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the laws were unconstitutional. The outcome impressed Lam, as did the city’s existing sex-worker movement dedicated to advocating for the safety of our city’s workers.

But through her conversations with workers, Lam quickly learned that sex-worker prejudice and attacks were still rampant in Toronto — and that one group appeared to be targeted more than the rest.

“At the time, (many) sex workers were not being targeted by the police,” Lam says. “But when I spoke to Asian and migrant sex workers, their stories were very different. They kept being arrested.”

In 2014, Lam founded Butterfly, a grassroots organization made up of sex workers, social workers, and legal and health-care professionals that supports and fights for the rights of Asian and migrant sex workers.

Butterfly helps workers access health and legal services, organizes English classes and “know your rights” workshops, and translates city bylaw information so workers can understand the policies that directly affect them.

Read more in the Toronto Star.