Sex workers call for hate crime law, end to violence

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 18, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Photos by David P. Ball.

Sex workers and their allies rallied outside the Downtown Eastside (DTES)police station Saturday, calling on Vancouver police to treat women in the neighbourhood with respect, and to put a stop to violence against people in the sex industry.

Roughly 75 people – many of them from the neighbourhood, including some from the sex industry – covered the detachment’s steps with candles lit in memory of missing and murdered women, and placed several pairs of high-heel shoes as a symbol of “survival sex workers“: people who turn to prostitution to meet basic needs such as shelter. They called for violence against sex workers to be classified a hate crime, and demanded more support services for workers, including:

– A 24-hour emergency sex worker shelter
– An emergency phone line
– An increase in programs for people exiting the industry
– Drug detox beds and counselling services.
“What I don’t understand with the police down here is if something happens down in the West End, they seem to race down there in a hurry,” said one speaker, who identified herself as D.J. “If anything ever happens down here in the Downtown Eastside, they take their sweet time.

“All I can say is shame on them. They’ve got to start pulling up their socks and start doing their job more… We’re sex trade workers. We have the right to get the help that we need down here, too. We’re human just like everyone else.”

Organized by Jen’s Kitchen — a food and outreach service for survival sex trade workers — the rally was part of worldwide demonstrations for International Day To End Violence Against Sex Trade Workers. The day was marked by events in Ottawa, Toronto and other Canadian cities, as well as around the globe.

Several women at the Vancouver rally carried red umbrellas, a symbol of sex workers’ safety. In Canada, key parts of the sex industry are illegal underSection 213 of the Criminal Code. Even though it is permitted to buy or sell sexual services, it is illegal to communicate for the purpose of prostitution, to “live on the avails” of prostitution, or be part of a “bawdy house,” for instance. However, sex worker rights advocates say the law endangers sex workers by forcing parts of the trade underground. This was recently the subject of an Ontario Supreme Court case, which resulted in parts of the law being ruled unconstitutional.

“We need (Section) 213 struck down,” said Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen’s Kitchen – who described her experience in the sex industry for the Vancouver Observer earlier this month. “When you get charged with it, you basically have a tag that you’re involved in the sex industry.

“So even if you make it out of the sex industry, you’re always going to be tagged that you were involved in it. When a survival sex worker’s able to get the courage to leave the sex industry, and she tries to go get a regular job in the straight world, and her boss finds out she got charged with 213, she usually becomes sexually harassed after that. Her boss figures, if you do it once, you can do it again. Did she really leave prostitution?”

Another speaker, a victim services counsellor at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, criticized racism against Native women in the Vancouver Police Department, which she said has led to tragic effects, as evidenced by the ongoing Missing Women Inquiry into the Robert Pickton case. Pickton confessed to killing 49 sex workers from the neighbourhood, but was only charged in the deaths of six.

“I see the toll it takes on my women – our indigenous women – and it saddens me,” said Carol Martin. “People get up and say you care, but how far is that care going to go? How far?”

After the rally, Martin told the Vancouver Observer that in her counselling work with DTES women, she has seen first-hand the impacts of systemic failures.

“I’ve been working down here for many, many years,” she said. “I see the downfalls, I see the cracks, I see the dead-end solutions to a lot of the problems. If you look at the system, it’s almost like there’s racism and discrimination ingrained in the system.”

Martin added that one of the most important steps towards stopping violence against sex trade workers would be to remove the social stigma attached to the industry’s participants.

“If a woman comes to me, I don’t judge her and what she does for a living,” she said. “I look at her as a human being.

“As a society, that’s the first and foremost thing we have to do, is look at a person as a human being first – somebody who has feelings, someone who has labels attached to them, someone who’s living a very tough, hard life… Understand those issues before you start pointing fingers.”

One man who spoke at the rally said that men must be part of stopping violence against women, and must not remain silent.

“Yes, I am a man,” said Richard Cunningham, with the DTES Neighbourhood Council. “You know, I’m here not just to end violence against sex workers, but to end violence against all women.

“That has to change – we’re talking about human lives… I have to call a spade when I see a spade: it is racial profiling when they don’t react. They just say, ‘It’s just a working woman, a Native woman’…’So what? Too much paperwork.’ We all have lives – we are not second-class citizens. We are class citizens like everyone else.”

Photo by David P. Ball.

Photo by David P. Ball.

Photo by David P. Ball.

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