Genevieve Fuji Johnson awarded SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant

February 21, 2023

Professor Genevieve Fuji Johnson has received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Knowledge Synthesis Grant of more than $27K for her project, “Criminalization as a Compounding Contributor to Gender-based Violence Against Trans, Non-Binary, and/or Racialized Sex Workers.”

Professor Johnson emphasizes that sex work is not inherently violent. She is examining how the criminalization of activities connected to sex work increase the risk of violence to sex workers. Her research also focuses on how sex workers experience transphobia and racism. Before 2010, however, Professor Johnson’s research was not focused on sex work, and she had never even thought about it.

“The community and the profession are heavily stigmatized, so I had fairly stereotypical views on sex workers back then,” says Johnson. “Then, I started volunteering for the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, which is an organization for sex workers, and it really opened my eyes.”

In meeting sex workers, she discovered how diverse they were and how many of them were advocating for the decriminalization of their profession and the differentiation of sex work from trafficking.

“As a political scientist, I became interested in conceptualizing sex workers as political actors and as governance actors,” says Johnson. “I started doing a set of preliminary interviews, which resulted in my first publication on sex work governance in 2015. One of those interviews I did was with an amazing Vancouver-based activist, who became my research collaborator, Kerry Porth.”

Johnson and Porth continue to work together, now with a team of activists, scholars, and artists, Addison Finch, Beatrice Omboga, Kerry Waters, Natasha Mhuriro, C Icart, Nadine Flagel, and Chris Atchison, on their current project about the effects of the criminalization of sex work. When asked what a society where sex work is decriminalized would look like, Professor Johnson points to New Zealand.

“In New Zealand, you don’t have sex work-specific provisions in criminal law,” she says. “All the harms that sex work-specific criminal provisions are intended to address are already prohibited by criminal laws. It’s already a crime to assault someone, for example.”

Professor Johnson also noted that sex work is treated like any other industry in New Zealand, where labour standards and anti-sexual harassment policies apply.

While Professor Johnson and her team will convey the results of their research through academic papers, they will also share the information with the public through community reports, something Porth has insisted on from the beginning. Johnson and Porth also work with illustrator Finch to produce comic strips, which makes their work more accessible to a larger audience.

“The comic strip is structured over an academic year,” says Johnson. “The main characters are students. One is a master’s student, and the two others are undergrads. The opening comic strip is them having a picnic on the beach. The master’s student, Selina, casually mentions that she has a fan page. This is in the context of talking about what sex work is. We thought this would normalize the conversation.”

The characters have frank conversations with one another about topics like the criminalization of sex work, conflating sex work with trafficking, and much more. Johnson says there are more comic strips to come, and readers will see the trajectory of the characters’ friendships, their growth, and knowledge about sex work.