Mark your calendars: Dec 17 is the fifth International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This is significant in a year when Ottawa Police Services implemented a new tactic that will push an already marginalized population into further isolation. Intimidating clients by sending warning letters to the address at which their car is registered will do nothing to make communities safer or to reduce transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It will, however, render sex workers more vulnerable to violence and decrease their access to the rights, protections and support services that could improve their lives, work and neighbourhoods.
It is one year since Kelly Morrisseau’s body was found naked and stabbed to death in a Gatineau parking lot. And after enduring gleefully voyeuristic coverage of every gruesome detail of the Robert Pickton trial, our own sisters, mothers and daughters (not to mention brothers, fathers and sons) are once again under attack from the very police force that should be protecting them.
So what have sex workers got to say about it all? A lot, actually. Last year Centre Espoir Sophie and U of O researchers Chris Bruckert and Colette Parent asked 19 local sex workers to identify their most pressing needs. Here’s what they said:
Decriminalize sex work. Love it or hate it, the sex industry is here to stay and pushing it underground through criminalization only increases the risks. We simply cannot police our way out of complex social issues. We learned this with the war on drugs. We learned this with the cutting down of trees in parks used for cruising. Sex workers want to work in safety, free of worry that they are breaking the law.
Let’s get organized. An organization by and for sex workers would raise public awareness about the realities of sex workers’ lives. It would allow a strong lobby to abolish prostitution laws that currently put sex workers’ lives in danger. It would establish programs such as a list of aggressors and bad clients. Montreal and Toronto are miles ahead of Ottawa in terms of organizing. Let’s get on it!
A drop-in centre for workers. Sex workers have specific health, legal and counselling needs and too many live in isolation. Run by and for workers themselves, the centre would be “a space just for [us]. … A place to get changed, to get dressed, to talk also. A place where there are coffee breaks; where one can maybe find two or three support workers, and they have different types of expertise to help [us].” (This and the quotes that follow are from participants in the Centre Espoir study.)
It would also be a place for peer-mentoring to exchange tips on how to better handle violence or negotiate safer-sex techniques. Contrary to widespread stereotypes, sex workers are not vectors of disease transmission. In fact, sex workers practice safer sex at rates higher than women having non-commercial sex. They are also much better at negotiating safer sex with reluctant partners. A centre would be an incredible community resource of safer-sex experts.
Educational opportunities. “They cut all those programs [so] there’s girls out there saying let’s go back to school, or let’s be able to retrain on computers or something to go back to work. Instead of having to stand out there, to have a legit job, you know. But it’s not covered.” Many sex workers love their job and wish only to work in greater safety. Yet for those who want to return to school, write a CV or search for alternative income, tailored assistance is sometimes needed. And without decriminalization, many men and women have police records that stand in the way of finding work outside the sex industry.
The basic essentials. Affordable, safe and livable housing. Access to nutritional food. Judgement-free medical services adapted to their realities and delivered without wait times. Social assistance at rates sufficient to meet basic needs. We hear a lot of talk about poverty forcing women into sex work, yet resources and energy continue to be wasted trying to abolish the sex industry instead of abolishing poverty itself.
Freedom from police injustice. Sex workers deserve the same police protection afforded to all citizens, yet seven of the 19 women described abusive incidents with the police. “Finally somebody calls the cops, they come. You know what? They arrest me! For prostitution! They let him go! And I — no bra or underwear, dress wide open, black and blue, bleeding and they arrested me! I told them, yeah I was working on the Market and this guy picked me up and he’s beaten the shit out of me. Fucking arrest him! I got rights.”
Join us Dec 17 at the corner of Cumberland and Laurier at 5pm or at the Human Rights Monument at 5:30pm to call for an end to violence against sex workers. And get set for February when a rowdy crew of sex workers from Montreal’s Stella (www.chezstella.org) will join us here in Ottawa to help kick-start an Ottawa sex workers group! If you’re a guy or girl involved in the sex industry, call (613) 238-5014, ext 229 for details. I’ll see you there!