Fighting violence against women in Vancouver’s sex trade

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 6, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen's Kitchen, experienced violence in the survival sex industry first-hand - and today she advocates for those in the trade. Photo by David P. Ball

Jennifer Allan knows first-hand what it’s like to sell one’s body in order to feed it.

About ten years ago, the 34-year old founder of Jen’s Kitchen – an advocacy, outreach and food relief service for women in Vancouver’s survival sex trade – found herself pacing the streets of Calgary and Vancouver, the pain of hunger in her belly.

“I remember (…) walking around in tears from pain because I was starving,” she told the Vancouver Observer, over supper at a West End Denny’s. “The only way I could get food was to sleep with men.

“I entered the sex industry when I was 18. I got a lot of bad dates – I got robbed of $160, I got physically attacked and sexually assaulted, and then I had a guy pick me up, drug me and dump my body somewhere. When I got beat up and sexually assaulted, I got really hardcore into my drug addiction so I wouldn’t have to deal with the reality of what happened to me. Just by luck, I didn’t end up dead.”

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the Montreal massacre – when 14 young women at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec were murdered by a feminist-hating young man. The 1989 massacre sparked a country-wide soul-searching about violence against women, gun control, and feminism – and its legacy today is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

But while numerous memorial events are planned in cities across Canada – including two in Vancouver (see below) — few address violence against survival sex workers or Indigenous women, a decades-long crisis that has only recently come to prominence because of the Missing Women’s Inquiry.

But with more than 600 women missing across Canada, many of them Native, and hundreds of sex trade workers murdered in Vancouver, Allan hopes that others will begin addressing these issues as urgently as they do domestic violence, trafficking and sexual assault.

“If we’re going to talk about violence against women, we need to include all women,” she said, estimating that Vancouver has roughly 600 street-level sex workers. “We need to stop violence against all women, including sex workers and survival sex workers.

“When you talk about social justice, you don’t get to cherry-pick who deserves it and who doesn’t. Why are we as a society so willing to put services in place for battered women and human trafficking victims, but let survival sex trade workers die on a pig farm? I’m sure when they first fought for shelters, people said, ‘It’s just a waste of money – who cares?’ The domestic violence issue took 40 years to get where they’re at — and we’re just starting.”

What Allan started, in fact, is an experiment in radical hospitality and unconventional advocacy – literally out of her home. But it was a long journey there for Allan, an Indigenous woman who was adopted into a white Nova Scotia family, and making contact at 17 with her family on a reserve in the Yukon.*

Entering the sex industry in 1995, at age 18 – first for two pimps (who she says describes as kind but codependent) in Prince Rupert, B.C., then in a woman-run brothel. Four years later, Allan entered the survival sex industry.

The sex trade encompasses “anyone who chooses to sell their body for money,” Allan said, including escorts, massage parlour workers, and independents, most of whom work in relatively safe conditions and have the right to decide how much to charge (usually between $160 and $300 an hour, she said) — and the ability to say, ‘No.’

But it is what she calls the “survival sex trade” where most violence occurs, Allan said – and that’s where she found herself at 22, strolling on Calgary’s street corners.

“A survival sex worker is someone who doesn’t necessarily want to work in prostitution, but they have no other economic alternatives at the time,” Allan said. “They work in the most dangerous working conditions, they get the most bad dates, they get the most criminal charges – and they don’t have the right to say no.

“They’re the ones that serial killers and serial rapists go after. They didn’t get up when they were 12 years old and say, ‘I want to sell my body for money.’ They entered into it because they were put there by someone, or due to poverty, due to addiction – something happened in their life that that became their only choice in the moment.”

In 2004, when she was 26 and only just out of the sex trade – she left, thanks to a sex worker support agency, after a would-be pimp beat her up – Allan decided to head back to the streets to support other women in the survival trade.

But unlike some organizations, her goal was not to convince women to exit the trade or to stop prostitution in society. The point was empowerment – and reducing violence against women.

“I started off by making 12 sandwiches and I had 12 condoms – and I walked the street,” she recalled. “It was October – it was freezing cold and raining.

“I gave out sandwiches and condoms to the girls. Then I got my friends to come volunteer and help me, and we just kept on doing it. I just looked at all the stuff that caused women to stumble back into the survival sex trade. What if you provided women with those basic needs? Unfortunately, not everyone is in the economic situation right now to leave the survival sex trade. We understand that.”

Allan was joined by a growing team of volunteers, making sandwiches, then suppers, and later full food hampers in her West End apartment — and distributing them to women in streets, alleys and, today, even some of Vancouver’s illegal, underground brothels.

Every so often pulling her black hair to the side of her face, revealing a piercing above her left eyebrow, Allan exudes confidence and pride as she recalls growing up around constant hospitality on her family’s reserve near Whitehorse.

Describing herself as descendant of generations of human rights activists, Allan said she is most inspired by her grandmother and mother – who insisted on offering refuge to women in the community fleeing spousal abuse, or seeking to recover from addictions. Allan recalls her mother always having guests on the couch — her family would go to their guests’ houses to sweep, clean andchop wood.

“I grew up with people sleeping on our couch – people in different conditions, from taking care of crack babies to taking care of elders,” she recalled. “In the city, you couldn’t get anyone to do that.

“I think I took all I learned from my grandma and my mum, and invented Jen’s Kitchen – except I organized it and gave it a name and a business number.”

One of the reasons people had to depend on each other on her reserve, Allan believes, is only partly because of its remote, cold conditions. Although abuse, addiction and incest were common, she said, the subjects were largely taboo – and many felt they had to fend for themselves in order to avoid involving the police.

“There’s been a bad relationship between First Nations people and police,” she said. “With my own Native family, you don’t call the police when something violent happens to you – you deal with it internally, with each other, because the police are seen as the enemy.

“They’re the ones who come to take your kids away, they’re the ones who’ll beat you up, they’re the ones who’ll accuse you of stealing property. They’re the last people you’ll call.”

Today, Allan cites several helpful police officers she has known over the years – including one in Calgary who checked in with her every week when she worked the streets there, to ensure she was safe – as well as officers who taught Vancouver sex workers self-defence skills under an award-winning programme in 2003.

Recently, she traveled to cities across Canada meeting with sex worker advocacy organizations and police forces, documenting the murders and disappearances of survival sex workers. While she found police forces took a range of helpful and unhelpful approaches in different cities, she felt the Vancouver Police Department is among the worst (perhaps second to Winnipeg, she suggested).

“The Vancouver police are responsible for those missing and murdered women, because they turned their back on them when they needed them the most,” she said. “We all know if those women were rich white women from, say, Kitsilano, the police would have been right there and done something about it.

“But because the women were survival sex workers — they were poor, some were First Nations, some were poor white women – the police turned their back on them. And as far as Vancouver police are concerned, I believe that they viewed Robert Pickton as just cleaning up the garbage.”

Allan’s passion for documenting missing and murdered sex workers across Canada began after her best friend and fellow street worker died eleven years ago – and although police claimed she died of asthma, Allan is certain her friend was murdered as she did not have asthma.* In fact, Lee’s body was discovered under a car with her pants around her ankles, Allan said — and her mouth was stuffed with gravel.

But she also has a larger goal – to take the issue to the United Nations and shame Canada into striking down prostitution laws, and creating social services aimed at helping women in the survival sex industry. Those services include long-term trauma counselling, 24-hour safe houses and phone lines aimed at sex workers, affordable housing for workers and their children, access to education and – perhaps most importantly – adapting a gay community strategy and having violence against sex workers declared a hate crime with enhanced sentences.

“We have an epidemic of violence and discrimination against this group of people,” she said, finishing her turkey-and-stuffing sandwich as we both sipped on Cokes. “How are we supposed to help these women in the survival sex trade deal with violence if we’re not willing to fund the organizations that help them?”

In fact, both support agencies which helped Allan exit the trade — the Providing Alternatives Counselling and Education society (PACE) and the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resources Society (PEERS) — have lost their funding from the provincial government and announced they will close their doors in the coming months. But such services – including Jen’s Kitchen – do make a difference for survival sex workers, she insisted.

“You’re not just fighting all this stuff on your own, you’re not fighting your addiction by yourself, you’re not fighting poverty and violence on your own – you have people you can go to,” she said. “I think I’m just following in the footsteps of my grandma and my mum. They inspire me.”

In Vancouver, events will be held today with a 1 p.m. ceremony on the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn, organized by Women Against Violence Against Women. A second event – the launch of the Métis Women: Strong andBeautiful Project (Poster PDF) – is planned from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (1607 East Hastings Street).

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