Giving sex workers control

March 1, 2008 at 5:40 am (News) ()

Susan Davis has a dream.

The Vancouver woman’s vision? To build a safe and legal environment for sex workers to entertain their clients. Free from police harassment and free from violence.

“No one in Vancouver was unaffected by the trial of Robert Pickton,” Davis says of the convicted murderer who targeted isolated sex workers with grisly killings. “The dildo gun, the garrotting of the arms and legs — and the fact that nobody cared,” recounts Davis, an activist and a sex worker herself, with over 20 years experience. “And the only solution to this problem can come from people who have lived it.”

Davis, along with other female, male and trans sex workers in the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC), spent six months drafting a mission and governance procedures for a cooperatively run sex-work facility. Just last month, the project, dubbed the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals, was officially incorporated by the BC government. They hope to have the facility up and running in time for the 2010 Olympics.

In a cruel Catch-22, sex for pay is not illegal, but almost anything you would need to do to get work — such as talking to potential clients or taking them somewhere to have sex — can be subject to penalty under the Criminal Code. The BC cooperative is planning to lobby the government so their planned workspace is exempt from “bawdy house” charges.

“Enforcement policies have led to the systematic elimination of safe work spaces for sex workers,” Davis told xtra.ca. “There are few places where indoor work can take place, and the competition to get into them is huge. People are forced into dangerous environments.” By contrast, a cooperative venue run by sex workers themselves means greater control.

“It’s a form of expense sharing,” she explains. Sex workers can tell clients to meet them at the safe-work site. The facility will have different options, “quickie rooms, middle-of-the-road rooms, and VIP lounges,” according to Davis. Sex workers will only pay for the time they are there, and the fees will go toward upkeep of the site, including safe-sex supplies and shower facilities. The public will see a reduction in public sex, less traffic by sex-work clients, and the elimination of sex-related litter on the streets.

Meanwhile, sex workers will have an avenue out of danger and isolation. And a way to access support in a trusted environment. Davis says her group has already established a positive relationship with the street-nursing community. “We’ve talked about having a nightly clinic onsite where sex workers feel safe and they know their confidentiality will be respected.” The co-op site could serve as a community centre for sex workers, including those who want support to exit the industry, she says.

The fact the site will be managed by sex workers themselves is key, Davis says. “We are going to own this, take things over so we are not at the mercy of support agencies. So many paycheques and mortgages are dependent on the downtrodden of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. No one should profit off other people’s misery like that.”

Davis says the West Coast Co-operative has received a lot of encouragement to date — though not from the Tory government and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. She is undeterred. “This is going to happen whether they like it or not.”

“I’m going to shame them into submission,” Davis vows. “The time for profiting from our deaths — and for keeping us sick and dying and in need of social-service support — it’s over.”

For more information on the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals and the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, see bccec.wordpress.com.

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