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Self-defence classes focus on safety, confidence, community for Toronto sex workers

At a small Toronto boxing gym, people punch, jump, duck, and laugh. Working up a sweat is just one goal for those who are there. 

All the participants in this class are sex workers — and they’re there to learn self-defence. 

“As part of my work, obviously safety is always a concern,” said a sex worker who uses the name Selene.

“Hopefully I won’t have to use it, but it’s better to be prepared.” 

CBC Toronto has agreed to use the working names of sex workers interviewed for this story.

The classes are organized by the Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, in response to an uptick in members reporting incidents of violence and harassment. 

Demand for classes

Maggie’s executive director Ellie Ade Kur said the ask for self-defence classes came directly from members. 

“One of the things we hear a lot from sex workers is the issue around facing direct violence. Often not being able to necessarily defend or report that violence or be taken seriously,” Ade Kur said. 

Two people face each other, wearing boxing gloves with their arms up next to their heads.
The ask for self-defence classes came from sex workers themselves, who are at risk of harassment and violence on the job. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

The group received a $50,000 grant from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to fund the classes, and Maggie’s partnered with local boxing coach Frederic Montaricout to teach them. All 30 spots were filled within 24 hours, and within a week there were another 50 on the wait list. 

“It grew a lot faster than any of us were really expecting it to, the level of demand and excitement for it,” Ade Kur said. 

The classes began in March, and will run until the end of June. After more than two months, there’s clear progress, Montaricout said. 

“I think everybody changed like differently … physically and mentally.” 

Frederic Montaricout smiles at the camera. A punching bag hangs behind him, to the right.
Frederic Montaricout teaches the self-defence classes at his small Toronto boxing gym. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

‘Strength in numbers’ 

For Alexia Woodroe, the biggest takeaway from the classes has been confidence. 

“The confidence in certain moves, the confidence in how I walk, the confidence in that if something were to happen, I have some idea of what to do, if at least just to get out of the situation,” Woodroe said. 

Fellow sex worker Alexandra Starr knows all too well what it’s like to be in an unsafe situation. She said two years ago, she was assaulted by a client. She said an Uber driver saw what happened, and intervened, and also captured video of the assailant. 

“I was definitely lucky, but I can only imagine for a girl that’s really alone … it’s really drastic what can happen, you know,” Starr said. 

“After that I was like, OK, I need to learn some skills to prevent this from happening in the future.” 

Close up of a pair of hands putting on black wrap to prepare to put on boxing gloves.
The classes focus on technical skills, but also bring sex workers together in a social setting. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Starr said she upped her security process and screening of clients, and also began hitting the gym to improve her physical fitness. 

When she heard about the classes organized by Maggie’s, she jumped at the chance to learn specific self-defence skills — and also the chance to get to know others in the industry. 

“Being a sex worker can be lonely sometimes, and you feel like you can’t share your struggles with just kind of the everyday person. So having these girls that relate to you, and have been through the same things that you’ve been through, it definitely gives you that strength in numbers feeling,” Starr said. 

A person wearing a colourful t-shit punches toward coach Frederic Montaricout.
Coach Frederic Montaricout said he’s seen a big difference in both the fitness and confidence of the people taking the self-defence classes. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Ade Kur, with Maggie’s, said those social connections are a big part of why she views the program as such a success. While the classes for this cohort are set to wrap up at the end of June, she hopes to be able to offer more classes in the future, if the group is able to secure funding. 

“The violence that sex workers face in community because of criminalization and stigma is  jarring and absolutely heartbreaking,” Ade Kur said. 

“But I also think on the flip side … it’s important to also focus on the fact that there are people that are working to change that, that are working to build community and directly address that. Even in the absence of policy makers addressing the issue of criminalization.” 

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