When he was caught in the fall of 2001, Gary L Ridgeway — aka the Green River Killer — had been murdering female sex workers and teenaged runaways for over twenty years. Two years after his arrest, he pled guilty to nearly fifty counts of first-degree murder. Amidst the hubbub of his many trials in 2003, Dr Annie Sprinkle and the Sex Workers Outreach Project of New York City conceived the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
Dec 17 became an international day of memorial that mourns these and other deaths and focusses attention on abuses committed against sex workers worldwide. To date, 19 cities host this annual vigil — 12 in the US, one in Australia and six in Canada.
Canadian involvement in the event was fuelled by the 2007 conviction of Robert William Pickton, who allegedly confessed to murdering 49 women — most of them sex workers from the downtown East Side of Vancouver — but was only convicted of six (second-degree) murders. Despite Pickton receiving a life sentence for these crimes, the small number of actual convictions caused an uproar across the country.
Scores of women had disappeared, and the remains of countless bodies were found on Pickton’s farm — many of them devoured and destroyed by pigs and insects by the time police discovered them.
“[It’s] important to raise awareness around the issue of violence against sex workers which is often a problem that is ignored,” says Julia, an Ottawa area sex worker and a member of POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate & Resist). “It’s also important to educate people that sex workers can actually be raped. Too often it’s viewed as her own fault the way it is sometimes viewed as her own fault if she is wearing a short skirt or being provocative.”
Ottawa’s Dec 17 vigil is being hosted by POWER, a local group organized by sex workers and allies that advocates for the rights of sex workers. Founded on Feb 17, 2008, this non-profit organization has already made local news by organizing rallies in front of parliament, having their first Annual General Meeting in March, and throwing a summer Sex Workers’ Pride Party “Whores Hustle” at Babylon nightclub.
POWER is committed to spreading the idea that “Sex Work Is Real Work”, and that the practice of this particular profession should be made legitimate and its workers should be protected from violence and harassment. The group welcomes workers of all genders in its membership, and is open to the many industry levels of the sex trade.
Julia, one of many involved with POWER, joined the group because she felt her rights — as a worker and as a human being — were being compromised because of the sector she works in. She wanted to enact change so that the rights of sex workers would be acknowledged as “just as valuable as the rights of all other members of society.”
Prostitution, in and of itself, is not illegal in Canada, however article 213 of the Canadian Criminal Code, also known as the Soliciting Law, cites that communication “with another person, in a public place, with the objective of practicing prostitution” is a summary conviction. Sentences range in severity from a small fine to six months in prison. These laws mostly affect street-level sex workers — the ones who carry the brunt of media attention and are often hounded by police, brutal pimps and abusive clients. To this day Canadian sex workers still have the highest rate of murder by occupation.
That’s why Julia and the other members of POWER see this upcoming vigil as crucial and significant.
Vigils taking place across the country on Dec 17 are in memoriam to Pickton’s victims and the many street-level sex workers — male, female, and transgender — who disappear without investigation, never to be heard from again.
Canadian events marking Dec 17:
OTTAWA: To show your solidarity with POWER and to pay respects to the countless Canadian victims of violence, attend the candlelight vigil on Thu Dec 17 at 5pm at the Human Rights Monument (Elgin and Lisgar). For more information on POWER, visit the group’s Facebook page or the POWER website at tinyurl.com/ottawaPOWER.
TORONTO: Join Maggie’s for an open mic/speakout and demand an end to the ongoing criminalization and other forms of violence in sex work. 7-9pm. Thu, Dec 17. Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave. maggiestoronto.com.
MONTREAL: The Red Umbrellas March begins at 4pm. Thu, Dec 17. Meet at Papineau Metro. Followed by a discussion panel on violence against sex workers — 6pm at Café Cleopatra. chezstella.org
VANCOUVER: March with red umbrellas and distribute materials amongst holiday shoppers on Robson St. Fancy dress and festively decorated red umbrellas are definitely encouraged! 6:30pm. Thu, Dec 17. Vancouver Art Gallery, Robson St side. The march will be followed by a gathering at the Lennox Pub/Restaurant (corner of Robson & Granville).
HALIFAX: Unite in the Nite – A Party Celebrating Sex Workers. 7:30-9:30pm. Thu, Dec 17. 2606 Agricola St. For more info, check out steppingstonens.ca.
VICTORIA: Meet at Discovery/Government at 11am, Thu, Dec 17. March down Government St to the legislature. For more information, contact Chris Leischner: 250-388-5325 or visit peers.bc.ca.