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Sex workers face harrassment, abuse: report

POWER calls for public inquiry

University of Ottawa professor Christine Bruckert, shown here in a file photo after winning Xtra Ottawa's Hero award for political activist of the year in 2009. Credit: Paul Galipeau

A new report paints a stark picture of the violence, harassment and stigma that sex workers face in Ottawa — much of it at the hands of police.

Interviews with 43 sex workers were released in a new report, “Challenges: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out,” written by Chris Bruckert, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, and Frédérique Chabot.

Sex workers are regularly harassed by police — on and off duty, they say. There are examples of police outing women on the street while grocery shopping or waiting for a pizza to be delivered (where one woman was accidentally arrested in a sweep).

Sex workers recount stories of verbal harassment — “Take this, you fucking cunt” — and more severe cases include physical and sexual violence.

Beth talks about being “slapped around,” Holly had her arm broken, Jamie was tasered, Jannette was burned by a cigarette butt, and Marci had to be hospitalized after a cop punched her in a spot on her back where she had an abscess.

Women have been sexually assaulted, stripped down in public and strip-searched by opposite-sex police officers, they say. They allege illegal confinement, destruction of private property, sitting in a waiting cell naked for 24 hours and “starlight tours,” where women are taken in a police car to the outskirts of town, dropped off and made to walk back to the city.

The report, written in collaboration with POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), was released Dec 2. The identities of the sex workers have been withheld, making it hard to verify their accounts.

POWER also launched an appeal to the Ontario Human Rights Commission for a public inquiry into the behaviour of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) in relation to sex work.

The report includes interviews with male and female (including transgender) sex workers in Ottawa. It collates the narratives and experiences of sex workers — including labour policies, working conditions, safety, the law, stigma and police relations.

“We’re talking about essentially a disenfranchised population that is incredibly vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and is stigmatized in really profound ways. Add that to an apparent enthusiasm of the police, [which] only makes things worse,” says Bruckert.

The report could not be more timely. In September, justice Susan Himel struck down three sex work provisions in Ontario because they endangered the safety of sex workers. That case is being appealed.

Meanwhile, the reputation of the OPS has taken a beating in recent months. This summer, several gay charities declined cash from a police fundraiser, citing their treatment of a man arrested in May for failing to disclose his HIV status. In November, a judge threw out a case against Stacy Bonds, an Ottawa woman who was beaten by police officers on camera and held in soiled clothing for several hours.

Until Himel’s decision, OPS conducted monthly hooker sweeps in Centretown, Hintonberg, the Byward Market and Vanier.

The last sweep was in July. In the OPS’s 2009 annual report, it was reported that 1,457 charges were laid (including trafficking, robbery, breach of probation, possession of stolen property and prostitution-related offences) against 300 persons.

One sex worker, Jannette, says quite clearly, “I don’t feel safe because I am scared of getting hurt or harassed by the cops.”

“It is very powerful,” says Bruckert. “These things become embedded, not only in law but in enforcement practices, so what you have happening is a stigmatized response.”