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December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
In past years Kingston’s Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG) has done many different things to honour this day. We have had a vigil in front of city hall, we have held a Slutwalk/Scavenger Hunt and we have showed films to expand peoples’ thinking about sex work. This year we are doing none of those things, but I didn’t want to let the day go by without taking some action. So, I decided to write to Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. I have no idea what her feelings are about sex work, but it seems to me that she is a reasonable woman who would like to see all Canadians safe, regardless of their profession. I’m hoping that includes sex workers. My letter to her (couriered yesterday) is below.
December 17th, 2015
Dear Mrs. Grégoire-Trudeau,
First, let me say how grateful I am that you and your husband worked so diligently to get into office. The vast majority of Canadian’s are feeling such a sense of relief to have our Canada back. Thank you!
I’m writing today because it is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I do not identify as a sex worker myself, but I do count myself fortunate to have been granted the title of Ally by sex workers. I coordinate the Sex Worker Action Group in Kingston, Ontario. (www.swagkingston.com)
In 2010 a brilliant and caring judge, Justice Susan Himel, struck down laws around sex work that she felt clearly created unsafe working conditions. Since that time, and thanks to our previous federal government (among others) we have spent a fortune and put three women through hell to basically end up with the same result. Laws that make sex workers unsafe.
As you possibly know, sex work is not now, nor has it ever been, illegal in Canada. However so many of our laws lead to unsafe working conditions. When you combine this with the stigma and discrimination faced by sex workers it becomes clear that we have a portion of our population who has no access to labour or even basic human rights.
As the Laws Stand
Current laws mean that while sex workers are less frequently criminalized, clients of sex workers are now the ones often facing charges. That doesn’t help keep sex workers safe. When clients fear arrest they get nervous and want to talk to the sex worker for as short a time as possible, in case the next car around the corner is a police officer. So, even though Justice Himel struck down the communicating for the purposes of prostitution law, when clients started being criminalized it created a very similar set of circumstances. Sex workers are forced into isolated, often industrialized areas. Sex workers have to make very quick decisions about whether or not a client is safe to get in a car with, and they have to do so while the client is likely nervous, thus making that decision even more difficult.
Sex workers don’t want their clients charged; it ruins their business, it adds to stigma and discrimination faced by sex workers, and in many cases sex workers form close and real relationships with clients who they don’t want to see face prosecution.
Additionally, our current laws do not allow for sex workers to work together in any indoor location. Indoor sex work is clearly safer than outdoor work. When a sex worker is working in a known (to her) location she is aware of the exits, where the phones are, and she can even set up safety systems with a neighbour…if she/he or they can find one to trust. With “brothel” type of setups, there are many safety systems built in. Everyone in the building is either doing the work or knows what is happening. Everyone can listen out for problematic situations, and standard screening systems are often in place. Indoor sex work locations also mean that someone else is taking care of the administration. Not every plumber wants to own their own business – some want to work for someone else. The same holds true for sex workers. Not everyone is interested in advertising, booking the clients, keeping the books etc. Unfortunately now with our new laws, police often target indoor sex work locations making the safer places less so.
Sex workers do a legal job but face so many challenges, it might as well be illegal. For example, sex workers can work out of their own homes, on an individual basis as per the new law. They are allowed to advertise their services, however any publication (print or online) that carries their ad are subject to prosecution. In my best guess with our current laws, the only truly legal way for sex workers to advertise is to create a flyer and distribute it door to door!
Police
Sex workers in Ottawa identified the police as those who were most likely to inflict violence against sex workers. It is not uncommon for police to take sex workers on “twilight tours” where they take workers out to the middle of nowhere and drop them off. They have to make their own way back to town. Police have been known to demand sexual services in exchange for not being arrested. In the end arrest may or may not happen. And of course there has been many cases of physical abuse, calling sex workers out, humiliating them and using terms such as NHI when they’re at a murder scene of a sex worker. NHI means “no human involvement”
Sex workers also face another significant problem with police – they are unable to access them when needed.
The following is a quote from an Ottawa sex worker:
“I’ve been raped twice. This one time, I was just coming out of an alley, I had just been raped, I have been hit over my head with a brick. My head was gushing blood. I flagged a cop and he told me to call my own fucking ambulance. He called me a fucking crack whore and told me he had no time for me. Then he left. After you have been told you are a piece of shit you don’t try a second time […] They didn’t give a shit. I couldn’t walk even. I ended up just sticking my piece of gum in the hole in my head. I wasn’t gonna go to the hospital either; they don’t treat you well there. I took care of myself. I did what I had to do.”
(Beth, street-based worker)” Challenges Report by POWER
Sex workers who face violence or any type of illegality are pretty much left to their own devices to deal with it. They cannot and will not call police, and with good reason. When sex workers and managers of sex workers told police about serial killers Robert Picton or Gary Ridgeway they were dismissed as unreliable. Women could have been saved if they didn’t discriminate against sex workers.
Stigma and Discrimination
Sex workers don’t only face stigma and discrimination from police however. As you can see from the above quote, medical personnel also stigmatize workers leaving them not only unable to access police, but often unable to access emergency services. How would you feel if you knew your best option to deal with a bleeding head wound was to stick a piece of gum in it?
Many times I have heard stories about positive relationships being developed with counsellors, nurses or health care workers. So positive in fact that the sex worker outs their line of work. And that is when the positive relationship ends. Agency workers become standoffish and want to remove the person from their office as quickly as possible.
Health care and social service workers also assume that when a sex worker comes in to see them the problem they are facing has to do with sex work, when really they may need help finding housing, paying their hydro bill or they just need a flu shot!
Sex workers are stigmatized by society as a whole. While workers may gain many skills during the course of their work, (counselling, touch therapy, advertising and marketing, admin, bookkeeping, security etc. etc. etc.) they are very unlikely to ever be able to showcase their skills on a resume. Reasonable fear of negative reaction means workers often have to keep a part of their life secret. They may have been responsible for creating one of the best ever days for a quadriplegic, but there are very few people with whom they can share.
Abolitionists
I am not at all certain of your feelings, if any, around sex work Mrs. Grégoire-Trudeau. I do know many feminists, especially from Quebec who come from an abolitionist based approach. The problems I see with the abolitionist perspective are many. Sex work has been around since the dawn of time. The church even used to sanction and play a part in sex work. Sex is a normal natural aspect of our lives, but it has been made taboo and in doing so, sex negative attitudes have developed. Does it really make sense that parents are okay with their kids seeing people tortured and killed on tv but they switch the channel immediately when a scene comes on that involves sex. We need to change our attitudes. We need to be more sex positive.
Abolitionists, in my opinion, wish to decide what is and what isn’t okay for other women’s bodies. They want to decide what are okay or not okay choices for other women to make. They ignore the fact that sex work is done by all genders and simply see it as violence against women, regardless of how sex workers themselves actually feel. This to me is not feminism. Even if you would prefer to see sex work end, what I hope is that in the meantime you want to see all our citizens as safe as possible, and see laws that support the safety of Canadians.
The Nordic model of sex work, the model of reform pushed by abolitionists and what Canada basically ended up with, has been proven to not increase safety. We should be looking towards New Zealand where they have decriminalized sex work and have therefore created an atmosphere where sex workers can access police and health services, where stigma and discrimination has been reduced and where condom use, while doing the work, is mandated and now accepted as the norm. New Zealand has seen zero increase in trafficking, child sex work and in fact, sex work itself.
While I understand that not everyone who is doing sex work wants to remain in the profession, there are many sex workers who love their jobs and, even after finishing graduate school, choose to continue their sex work career. For those who want to be doing something else but feel they have no options, we need to look at the underlying problems…poverty, lack of access to education, food and housing insecurity among others. Only when these social issues have been dealt with will we put an end to people “forced” into sex work.
So, what I’m asking you today Mrs. Grégoire-Trudeau is for your consideration. Canadian sex workers need an ally with access to power. Power to make change, power to say that human and labour rights should apply to ALL Canadians, power to stand up to abolitionists in recognition that sex workers themselves have a right to decide what is and isn’t okay for them. As the wife of our Prime Minister, you have that access. You can make a difference in the lives and safety of many women, as well as men and trans people – citizens whose only “crime” has been to engage in legal work in our country.
Sex workers are moms, daughters, aunties and yes, even grandmothers. Sex workers take their kids to soccer games, the orthodontist and back to school shopping. Sex workers knit and do yoga and read sci-fi novels. Sex workers are safer sex experts, activists and graduate students. Sex workers are human beings who deserve full human and labour rights. Please Mrs. Grégoire-Trudeau, consider Canadian sex workers.
Sincerely,
Deb Kinder
Coordinator, Sex Worker Action Group Kingston
Women and HIV/AIDS Community Development Coordinator
HIV/AIDS Regional Services
dkinder@kingston.net
Ps – to learn more about sex work I suggest an excellent and local site: powerottawa.ca. They have engaged in an abundance of amazing community based and authentic research

 

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