4 min

Giving sex workers control

Safe house

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 “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


HIV transmission, medication and the law

Shockwaves went through the HIV advocacy and medical establishment around the globe in late January when the Swiss Federal Commission for HIV/AIDS made a controversial announcement.

After closely reviewing several research studies, the commission asserted that people with HIV are incapable of transmitting HIV to their partners sexually if they are on effective medication, and have a consistently undetectable viral load and no other STIs.

One of the most provocative aspects of the Swiss advisory committee’s findings was their argument about legal implications.

Many countries around the world have laws that state that if two people choose to engage in unprotected sex, and one of them has HIV and the two of them did not discuss HIV status, the one with HIV is subject to prosecution. In several Canadian cases, people who did not get HIV from a positive partner have pressed charges after the two of them chose to have unprotected sex. The Swiss argue that in many such cases, the person with HIV did not place anyone at risk and therefore should not be criminalized.

There is no universal consensus on the Swiss statement at this point, particularly because it focused on heterosexual transmission. But this discussion has strong implications for HIV-related harm reduction. Watch this space for further developments.


Thailand vows to re-implement extermination policy against drug dealers

“It’s better to help drug users find ways to change their behavior instead of killing them. There are not enough graves to bury us all,” Odd Thanunchai, a 26-year-old recovering heroin addict from Thailand told the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The Thai government failed to heed Odd’s advice. Instead, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave his police forces licence to deal with drug offenders in a “ruthless” and “severe” manner. In the next 3 months, over 2,000 of them were executed, though the government claimed the majority were victims of gang wars rather than state killings.

And it’s about to start all over again. Earlier this week, current Thai PM Samak Sundaravej announced his plan to enact “a decisive and quite possibly bloody campaign” against drug dealing, according to a report from BBC’s Asia-Pacific bureau. “I will not set a target for how many people should die,” Samak told the BBC.

This is an extreme example of a phenomenon witnessed around the globe: the harshest consequences of drug use come not from the effects of illegal substances themselves, but directly from enforcement efforts.


What do you think? Do sex workers deserve the same working conditions as everyone else? What strategies for addressing addiction make sense? Should people with HIV be thrown in jail for unprotected sex? Share your comments here.