A group of sex professionals and activists are calling for police in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, to stop arresting sex workers.
The group has also criticized local media in the northern Ontario city for publishing personal information about sex workers who have been arrested.
“Sex workers deserve to live in safety and dignity,” says Joni Aikens of Kingston’s Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG), a sex-positive organization run by current and former sex workers and their allies.
In an open letter, SWAG asks Sault Ste Marie police to take part in a community consultation on the issue. The group also calls on residents to show solidarity with sex workers by joining the Red Umbrella Campaign’s local Take Back the Night march on Sept 20.
The letter is a response to the arrest of nine sex workers on Aug 13 and 16. Sault Ste Marie police released the women’s names and addresses, which were then published by local media.
The campaign is personal for Aikens and fellow activist Arlene Pitts, both natives of Sault Ste Marie.
“We recognize that we’re not there, so we would like this to reach out and be a community-based initiative,” Pitts says.
Aikens hopes the nine women will get involved in the consultation. “We have not approached the women personally, as to do so would be using the information wrongfully leaked to, and published by, the local media,” she says.
Sault Ste Marie police maintain that because open solicitation is still an offence, the arrests are justified. “We thought the enforcement was part of the solution,” says Chief Robert Davies.
Activists see it differently. “What they’re doing is taking advantage of vulnerable people who probably don’t know how to defend themselves in court,” says Nikki Thomas, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada. Thomas says her organization is supporting SWAG.
In a landmark March 2012 decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down two Criminal Code provisions related to sex work. The judgment legalized brothels and changed a law that made it illegal to live off the avails of sex work. However, it chose to uphold legislation that prohibits communication for the purposes of prostitution.
Activists are waiting to see if the Supreme Court will hear the federal government’s appeal of the ruling. Until then, they say, police should back off. “This is not something they have any business enforcing until the Supreme Court has ruled one way or another,” Thomas says.
Davies says it’s standard policy for police to release information about those arrested in the community of about 75,000 people. He says it’s vital to avoid confusing residents with the same name.
But Pitts says the small size of the community means sex workers have virtually no anonymity. “Sault Ste Marie does not forget,” she says. “They are not going to forget these women.”
Along with names and addresses, local media published the nature of sexual services offered. With no publication ban, the media was free to release the information.
Activists say the potential harm of releasing such information outweighs any benefits. “I cannot fathom any reason why they think the public interest is being served by making already marginalized people that much more vulnerable,” Thomas says.
Davies says police received complaints of disorderly behaviour where the sex workers were arrested. “When in the back alley condoms and needles are found, this is pretty upsetting to residents,” he says.
He says police want to partner with social agencies to deal with issues leading to disorderly conduct, particularly drug use. “When you look at the individuals we arrested, our experience is that they’re out there when they need money for a fix,” he says.
SWAG encourages community partnership but says it’ll take work. “That community development requires trust building,” Aikens says. “It has to be viable.”
All together, police laid 19 charges against the women, including nine for communicating for the purpose of prostitution. The women were also charged for breaches of probation.
One woman pled guilty while the other eight have pending charges before the court set for Sept 17. They were all released from police custody, but three were later rearrested for violating bail conditions.