When a contingent of staff and supporters of Stepping Stone marched in last month’s Halifax Pride parade, for many onlookers it was the first time they had heard of the group.
Yet, as the organization’s director Rene Ross told Xtra.ca, “the organization has existed in Halifax for twenty years offering supportive programs and outreach to women, men and transgender sex workers and former sex workers.”
Ross says this year’s Halifax Pride theme — Tearing Down Walls, Building Bridges — tied in well with the work that Stepping Stone is doing. She describes the group’s participation in the Pride parade as “an overall positive experience, but there were a few looks.”
These “looks” are nothing new for the staff at Stepping Stone. One of the organization’s main challenges is fighting the stigma of sex work and they do this, in part, by tackling misconceptions about the prevalence of drug use, pimps and sexual abuse. These are realities for some but not all sex workers, Ross says. She adds that most sex workers are not coerced into prostitution by someone else, but that some freely choose to pursue sex work, and some are pushed into it by economic and social conditions and are “just trying to survive on the street.”
The organization also speaks out against the idea that law enforcement controls the spread of prostitution or that it “rescues” sex workers by arresting them. Quite the contrary, says Ross. Raids on brothels and street sweeps of prostitutes merely push sex workers further underground. Stepping Stone is working with other Canadian and international groups to decriminalize sex work.
Ross says that the reasons sex workers come to Stepping Stone are varied. The small staff, many of whom are part-time or casual, refer sex workers to appropriate program partners such as AIDS Coalition Of Nova Scotia, Dalhousie Legal Aid, Pride Health or the Prostitution Education Program. Of the approximately 115 people that Stepping Stone sees monthly, between 5 and 10 percent are male or trans sex workers. Ross says Stepping Stone’s central philosophy is to be non-judgemental and respect the workers’ right to be self-determining. Stepping Stone’s function is to assist sex workers in making choices that are as safe and positive as possible and to support both current and former sex workers. Some come seeking specific kinds of help and others come, Ross says, “Because they need a safe space and someone to talk to.”