The Invisibility of Migrant and Immigrant Sex Workers in Law Reform

23 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2016 Last revised: 26 Jan 2017

See all articles by Jamie Liew

Jamie Liew

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: December 19, 2016


“The Invisible Girl can do it better.” Sue Storm said this in one of her early appearances in the comic world. As one of the Fantastic Four, Sue Storm was “Invisible Girl” or now “Invisible Woman,” she gained her super powers from cosmic rays from a trip to space. Portrayed in comics as a female voice of reason, her powers to turn herself invisible were almost useless on the battlefield and she was frequently portrayed as the helpless female, constantly in need of rescue.

The Invisible Woman, while a fictional character, has parallels in our more corporal world. Being invisible does not garner power in legal discourse. This paper is about a migrant and immigrant sex workers, and how they were rendered invisible in discourse before the courts and parliament involving the reform of laws regarding sex work and prostitution in Canada. The paper discusses how migrant and immigrant sex workers were legally abandoned, and why their exclusion in the law reform projects is problematic.

Acknowledgment, recognition by legal institutions is not benign. As one scholar writes, “by simply acknowledging the complex, creative histories of women like Amy Leibovitch, Valerie Scott, and Terri-Jean Bedford, by judicially seeing and so validating the experiences of sex workers in rendering a decision, the case [of Bedford at the Supreme Court of Canada] signaled a first step toward undoing the pervasive invisibility of Canadian sex workers.”

While this statement may be true, there are a sub-group of women that were still in the shadows - migrant and immigrant sex workers. As one scholar notes, “The erasure of marginalized voices in the public sphere is a problem of particularly grave concern, even though it can be difficult to perceive.” The erasure of voices is a “form of epistemic violence” which may include “subtle and socially sanctioned methods of undermining that are sometimes couched in the language of ‘helping,’ ‘protecting’ and ‘saving.’”

In examining the journey of legal reform for sex work in Canada, this work fills a gap in examining one sub-group of sex workers that have been given little considered in discussions of sex work and law in Canada. The paper continues the work of feminist and critical race theorists who aspire to look to the bottom to examine how marginalized persons, particularly ethnic, migrant and immigrant, are considered within law. While this paper is bearing witness to how law in Canada affects migrant and immigrant sex workers, the paper is a starting point for future research to further examine how perhaps the voices of migrant and immigrant sex workers may be lifted so that there is participation in future and potential legal challenge and reform.

Suggested Citation

Liew, Jamie, The Invisibility of Migrant and Immigrant Sex Workers in Law Reform (December 19, 2016). Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2017-04. Available at SSRN: or

Jamie Liew (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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