By Trina Ricketts
The woman who sat in my passenger seat was grateful to get out of the cold for a few minutes. Armed with a sandwich and hot chocolate from the trunk of my car and $30 richer, she couldn’t stop thanking me for stopping on her stroll tonight.
“Now I can go home,” she said. “Thank you so much.” I asked her to sign the top of the questionnaire to indicate she’d been paid for her consultation.
“You don’t have to use your real name,” I assured her. “We’re not recording names anyway. We just need signatures to show that we aren’t keeping the money ourselves.” I smiled.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she replied. “The cops, everyone, they all know that I’m out here. I’ve been arrested too many times to count. This is the only street I can work on that I haven’t been red-zoned.” A red zone is an area that individual sex workers are banned from. If found even walking through them, they can be arrested. “I can’t go to the library anymore. My bank is in one of my red zones. I’m breaking the law if I walk out of my place and cross the road,” she chuckles ruefully.
Although I spend the next half hour asking her some very heavy questions about her experiences of violence and trafficking in the sex trade, she is cheerful. That $30 was her ticket home tonight. She wouldn’t have to get into any more cars.
“You know that girl found in the bushes outside of the hospital?” she said. “That was my friend. Us working girls are going missing like crazy. It’s scary out here.”
She tells me stories about having objects thrown at her from cars, as have all the other women I’ve interviewed. It’s quite common in Surrey for residents and young men to throw rocks, beer bottles, pennies, and garbage at the women working the streets.
One of my interview questions is: ‘Why do you think people commit violence against sex workers?’ The most common answer was that sex workers are disposable. “No one cares about us so they know they can get away with it,” this woman answers.
When I get to question number ten in the violence section, I hold my breath. This is the most important question. We need the expertise of these women to find solutions to violence against sex workers. ‘How can we prevent the mass genocide of women in our communities”‘ is the question I think in my head. What I say out loud is: ‘What are the key things you believe can be done to reduce the risk of violence upon sex workers?’
She doesn’t hesitate even for a second. “Give us a safe place to work,” she says. “Stop moving us around from one place to another. Do you think I want to be standing out on a street corner in somebody’s neighbourhood? I feel like shit when a kid walks by with his mom and asks her ‘why is that lady always standing out here?’ I have kids too. But they don’t let us work in the industrial areas anymore. Stop telling us where we can’t work and tell us where we can.”
That interview, along with many others, was conducted in February of last year. Since then, we – the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC) – have been working on solutions to the epidemic of violence towards sex workers in BC.
The trial that is being covered so extensively on Orato by two former sex workers, who experience the daily trauma of sitting through testimony about friends they’ve loved and lost, is a testament to how long women can go missing on the streets before anything is done about it.
One woman, Susan Davis, a sex worker and coalition member who has a dream she won’t give up on, has been involved in every initiative she can to find solutions to the violence. She was the primary researcher and contributor to the “History of Sex Work: Vancouver” project that shows without a doubt how the laws around prostitution have directly led to increased violence and murder of sex workers.
Susan has also been an integral member of the Living in Community Task Force that released their 27 recommendations to reduce the impact of sex work on communities on Monday of this week.
And it is Susan who is leading the charge on behalf of the BCCEC for the most controversial recommendation to come out of that report – the safe sex work space run by a sex worker co-operative.
Now before you jump all over the idea, please open your mind and allow me to explain the finer details. You might be surprised at how you feel once you understand it better.
A multi-stakeholder co-operative to provide safe, indoor workspaces for sex workers is exactly that – a safe sex work space created under a co-operative model to ensure that all decisions about the business, which would be run under the business license of a massage parlour, are made collectively among the men, women, and transgendered sex workers who access and contribute to the space.
It would reduce the vulnerability of sex workers who provide services in alleys, cars, or wherever their customers take them. It would also create an option for indoor workers (those who work out of massage parlours or escort agencies) who are exploited by agency owners.
For street-based sex workers, who bear the brunt of violence in the industry, it would look something like this:
A man in his car would pull up to a working woman and she would give him directions to the safe sex work space. Once there, she would gain access through a non-judgmental employee to a clean room that is supplied with condoms, lubes, and a garbage can. There would be a sign on the wall that clearly explains expectations for customers.
Rather than pay for an entire night like she’d be required if she was renting a hotel room, she can pay for the space according to what she can afford. This might be something that is paid for in advance through membership fees, or something that is done at the moment of use – or she might have both options.
The funds acquired through the membership fees and for-use fees will serve to keep the space open and self-sustaining. Profits beyond the cost of running the co-operative will be used for various initiatives decided upon by vote.
Some of these initiatives might include scholarship funds for sex workers, training and education workshops, outreach programs, and other much-needed social cause functions that do not receive adequate funding under our current system (of applying for grants and appealing to the public for donations).
Now you may be thinking that there’s no way we could accomplish so much with the earnings of our safe sex work space. But I can assure you as a former sex industry worker, there is no shortage of customers in this industry. That is one of the reasons why we’re looking for solutions that support workers when they are working rather than attempting to eliminate the industry altogether.
The abolitionist movement to eliminate the sex industry is failing miserably. Not just because there are too many customers (and therefore too much demand) but also because many workers like their jobs.
You heard me, they like their jobs. The street-based sex trade is a very small percentage of the workers who are bringing home the bacon as sex workers. Similarly, drug addiction and homelessness does not affect the majority of sex industry workers.
Some sex workers live in the best neighbourhoods and send their children to the best schools. They are your neighbours; moms you chat with in your community. But you’ll never find out because they are masters at keeping their occupations secret.
When I was stripping, I knew a woman who worked as a kindergarten teacher in her home community during the school year and traveled to strip over the summer. She was the sweetest woman and I had no trouble imagining her being every kids favourite teacher (and every parents favourite teacher, as well).
Many of the women who are working the streets are just as sweet. They are not disposable, as so many of them believe because of the way they’ve been treated. For every man, woman, or transgendered sex worker, there are many people who love and worry about them. Shunned by society and abandoned by their families, it’s not hard to see why having higher aspirations might escape them.
Let’s assume that the sex trade is all bad. Let’s assume that all sex workers are worthless and they deserve what they get because of the choices they’ve made. Let’s assume, like many people do, that if we help them or show them compassion and acceptance that we are enabling them to continue their bad life choices (assuming that the choice to be in the sex trade is always a bad one).
Let’s assume we believe that by constantly telling sex workers how bad their choices are and how they just need to overcome their addictions, they will eventually feel so low that they will want to change their lives.
Now, I want you to think about a time in your life when you were at your lowest. Perhaps you’ve struggled with an addiction, or experienced a loss, or maybe it was your teen years when you felt so misunderstood and depressed that you still have anger towards the world around you because of it.
Now tell me how you overcame it. Were the people around you supportive or did they throw garbage and beer bottles at you? Did the police try to protect you from violence, or did they arrest you for swearing too loud in public? Did your neighbours encourage you, ignore you, or try to chase you out of the neighbourhood?
Isn’t it obvious that the more anger and resentment is thrown your way, the more angry and self-destructive you become? Isn’t it true that it is moments of compassion and acceptance that have lent you strength to overcome obstacles in your life?
Then why wouldn’t it be the same for sex workers?
The safe sex work space represents compassion and acceptance for sex workers. For the ones who want out of the industry, the co-op could be the entrance point. It is a place where workers will have ownership, support, and be empowered to trust in their own decisions. Their experiences and knowledge will be respected and valued. And they will be safe from predators.
There is only one problem with opening up the space. Ironically enough, although it’s legal to own a massage parlour or escort agency, it is illegal for us to open a safe sex work space.
Anyone who has studied the Canadian laws around prostitution knows that they are harmful and should be abolished. In fact, for all those abolitionists out there – this would be a much more worthwhile cause than trying to abolish the sex trade.
Decriminalization would make the biggest impact on creating a safer sex trade. But for some reason, after years of studies and reports that recommend it, and even more workers missing and murdered – the laws continue to exist.
Shaming the Johns
In the same category with attempts to abolish the sex trade altogether as a harmful stance that leads to more violence, is the belief that punishing the johns is the answer. Tell me exactly how taking away all their customers will help sex workers?
In reality, it makes them more financially desperate and therefore more vulnerable to violence. It’s discriminatory in that it takes away the income from only one part of the sex worker population – the street trade who, in most cases, are the most financially desperate sex industry workers out there.
It isn’t the respectful, paying customers who should be punished for the violence against sex workers. Society should be punished, if anyone, for allowing our laws and our behaviors to create a belief system where assault and murder of sex workers is considered acceptable. “Well, what does she expect? She’s a hooker.”
Legalization is another widely supported solution, but it has many holes in it as well. Being a sex worker is much too sensitive and intimate an experience to be regulated by the government, which is essentially what proponents of legalization are suggesting.
Legalization would make pimps out of our government. Instead of being under the rule of individual pimps, we’d have “institutional pimps” with laws and regulations telling sex workers how to run their businesses, and the added risk of going to jail for not obeying.
We don’t “legalize” other professions, so why would we consider it for sex work? Sex workers should be allowed to run their businesses just as any other citizen does (and many of them already do).
A sex worker co-operative is a much more humanitarian way of regulating the sex industry. Through the co-operative, we could develop a trade association that would recognize safe, healthy, supportive sex work environments and put pressure on sex industry venues that are exploitive.
For instance, a strip club that is clean, safe, and takes care of its dancers, would receive recognition from the trade association. They could use that recognition in their advertising. Dancers would know where the good places are to work. And customers could choose to patronize those “certified” businesses.
Don’t underestimate sex workers. The condescending assumption that sex industry workers are too degraded and incompetent to think or act on their own behalves is effectively silencing an entire segment of our population. We are perfectly capable of regulating our own industry if only we could do it without being arrested.
How can we decrease violence against sex workers?
People offer ideas for solutions, from red light districts to legalization to arresting johns. But none of these solutions work. Good luck finding a neighbourhood in Vancouver that would gladly become the “red light district.” Legalization essentially makes pimps of the Canadian government. And arresting johns just makes sex workers more desperate to earn money.
So what is the solution?
There isn’t one. No ONE solution is going to decrease violence against sex workers. The laws push them into isolated, dangerous environments while workers are exempt from the rights everyone else shares – protection, safety, liberty. Police abuse their power over sex workers with the law on their side – not to mention general public opinion.
Society shames sex workers and holds them in the lowest regard of all humankind. The degenerates who prey on sex workers do so secure in the common knowledge that sex workers are deemed the most worthless members of our communities. Young people throw pennies and garbage at sex workers, secure in their belief that sex workers do not deserve dignity or respect.
Our society teaches us to view sex workers as disposable human beings, and our laws support this view. It is no wonder that violent men target sex workers. We make it easy for them to get away with it.
We need several solutions. Decriminalization, sensitivity training for police and health services, educational campaigns, youth presentations in high schools, outreach, and support services for sex workers are some of them. These need to be implemented through experiential leadership – sex workers should be providing the expertise and getting paid for it.
Many professionals earn their livings off the backs of sex trade workers – many in government positions, with sick days, vacation pay, extended health and dental benefits, nine to five and the respect of the community. Their jobs were created to respond to sex worker issues.
Meanwhile, sex workers are expected to share their most horrendous experiences of rape and police brutality, among other things, shunned by their communities, while researchers and social workers write it down in their little books. The benefit to sex workers – nothing.
Just look at the Parliamentary Subcommittee on the Solicitation Laws in Canada.
In the words of Susan Davis in a guest editorial published in The Province Newspaper on December 15, 2006: “In 2003, a parliamentary subcommittee was formed in response to rising violence against sex workers and the unbelievable number of missing and murdered workers across Canada. We shared personal experiences and ideas with the committee and, for a moment, had a glimmer of hope.
We sat patiently as they catalogued the darkest moments of our lives and then waited. A year after the report was due and a change in government occurred, the report was finally tabled in Parliament this week. A disaster for workers, the report does not support decriminalization but does call for (big surprise) more research.
Must sex workers endure researchers and politicians making their careers and millions of dollars while discussing “safety issues”? How long will we wait. Twenty years? Thirty years? It’s been almost thirty years since the Fraser Accord recommended changes that we are still fighting for today. What actions were taken? None – and this report spells more the same.
It shows total complacency for the value of the people affected and a total lack of respect for those who died. Canada presents itself as a leader in human rights on the international stage, but the number of missing and murdered sex workers tells a different story.”
As you can tell, Susan Davis is not just a pretty face. Nor does she resemble any of the typical stereotypes most people think of when they consider prostitution. She blows out of the water suggestions that she is degraded, incompetent, drug addicted, easy, or worthless.
Susan Davis has another solution to add to the list started above. A solution that will make a truly significant impact on violence against sex workers. A bricks and mortar solution that is nothing short of genius, it will make such a difference in so many sex workers lives.
A cooperatively-owned, cooperatively-run brothel where sex workers – male or female – can bring their dates and deliver their services in a safe and supportive environment. A place where advertising, licensing, drivers, security, rent, EVERYTHING can be shared financially among members in a tiered system designed to make it affordable to every sex worker.
Members would vote on where the profits would go – scholarships, access to conferences and training, exiting programs, projects to further support sex industry advocacy, and more.
Educational materials on site for workers and customers alike. An environment of mutual respect. Clean, safe access to rooms. A meeting space for industry members to unite and bond, decreasing isolation and competition. Opportunities for collective initiatives, including social cause projects to facilitate community building.
How long have our politicians been asked what they are going to do to make Vancouver streets safer in response to the tragedy of the missing women? They have no answers. We are providing a solution for them on a silver platter. They would be insane to refuse, wouldn’t they?
Vancouver has shown itself to be a progressive city in many ways. With the advent of the 2010 Olympics, our project may appeal to those who might ordinarily oppose us.
For all the workers, alive or in spirit – this is for you. For us. Pray that we will persuade those with power to help us make it happen.
To read the full report “From the Curb” on violence and trafficking of sex workers in BC or the “Developing Capacity for Change” report on the co-operative model and how we came to our conclusions – go to www.bccewc.ca and click on ‘Documents.’
To order a copy of the “History of Sex Work: Vancouver” publication, go to www.historyofsexwork.com.