A need for legislation change

12 07 2009

26victimsI’m pretty sure you are familiar with the image on the left. If you weren’t then maybe you’ll recall the name Robert Pickton.
They are the women whom Robert Pickton was charged of murdering. Many people believe after the conviction of Robert Pickton, something would change. Many people believe that something would have been done to protect the sex trade workers, mainly in the downtown Eastside.

Unfortunately, not much has been done. “According to police reports submitted to Statistics Canada, there were 171 sex trade workers were killed between the year of 1991 and 2004, and 45% of the homicides remain unsolved” (ctv.ca). How many were unaccounted for? How many were unreported?

Unfortunately for these women, and other sex trade workers in Canada, the Canadian legal system offers no protection for these women at all. Under the Canadian law, prostitution itself is not illegal, but the activities related to it are. Individuals who were found to sell sex can be charged under the Criminal Code. And it only puts these women in more danger. Reporting bad dates may lead to arrests and imprisonment, therefore many violence victims have chosen to stay silent.

“The lack of legal protection and non-recognition of the work of sex workers is leading to violence and marginalization”. A statement by Jenn Clamen, coordinator of Stella, a Montreal-based support and information group by and for sex workers. I couldn’t agree more. Decriminalizing prostitution will provide more protection for these women. Violence victims will be able to make reports without being treated like criminals. And this has been a continuing struggle for years. Take a look at this article too.

Whom we need to treat like criminals are the violent clients and the predators. Not these women, for trying to survive or to make ends meet. Instead, we need to protect them. They are no different from us. They are our fellow human beings. In fact, they are just like us. They are someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone important to someone else.


The business of sex and violence

10 07 2009

When we look at sex trade, we must admit, that it is a business. Whether it is organized or unorganized, from the streets or at higher-end places such as strip clubs or micro-brothels. From our interview with SFU’s own Chris Atchison, we’ve learned a lot about the business models.

On the streets, where survival sex trade workers are usually unorganized and work for their own,  business is simpler. Where there is a buyer, a seller, an agreeable price, sex trade will take place. Unfortunately though, street sex workers are more vulnerable to violence such as physical and verbal abuse, rape, robbery and even murder. Mainly because they sell sex on the streets. And they have little time to decide if it was safe or not to get into a client’s car. They only have little time too, to judge whether or not a client is safe to date.
A lot of times, violence against these women were induced by things as simple as a client refusing to wear a condom. And the chance of violence happening is that when a client take a sex worker to industrial area, where nobody is around.

On the higher levels, where the operations usually go under the radar, business is more complicated, even dysfunctional. With Canadian laws prohibiting brothels or “bawdy houses”, these operations are somewhat invisible. Operations such as escort services, massage parlours, and strip clubs often offer sex as part of the services. And they have legal business permits. Sex trade workers are more organized under these operations, in the sense they they work in a contained space, with people who decides which client to date or who can see a certain client. The other word: pimps. Some establishments though, run more loosely. Where the sex workers can choose whom to date or who is going to date a certain client.
Violence however, happens less in these businesses. Because of the contained space and the women have more time in judging whether or not a client is safe to date.
What makes the business complicated though, is the sex workers would have to pay a big cut to the business owners. Many of them are being economically exploited. And sometimes these women don’t even have access to their pay until a certain time. Then again, the sex trade workers are disadvantaged.

Some women though, are better-off from working through these kinds of businesses. High paying clients are not too difficult to find. And some micro-brothels, are well organized that they have sex workers who actually work by choice.

So can legalizing brothels actually be a good solution to reduce violence?

Getting ready for 2010 Olympics?

10 07 2009

I’m sure you have noticed, with all the hype on the upcoming Olympics, Vancouver is busy. Constructions are happening everywhere, from apartment buildings to public transit facilities. Have you ever wondered though, with all these construction projects going on at once, where in the world these did these workers come from?

Apparently, we get a lot of foreign workers. A lot. According to this article, in mid 2008, there were 2,000 to 3,000 foreign workers and thousands more unaccounted for in BC alone. Legally or illegally, these people were being trafficked from Southern American region, particularly Mexico. And these people too, are prone to abuse. Abuse in a sense that they are being exploited and underpaid. Unfortunately for them, leaving a job to another is not that easy. The lengthy process of getting a new work permit has prevented them to even reporting the abuse.  Okay, back on track.

What I’m trying to say is, with the increasing number of foreign workers, there is an increase in demand for sexual services. And if I may quote “sex trade workers in Vancouver are busier than ever” (Chris Atchison). And the Olympics is not even here yet.
Given these foreign workers live all over Vancouver, there is likelihood that sex trade workers from downtown east side will be taken out of their “safety zone” even further. How about if they were taken on a date to an unfamiliar area, where there is only little lighting? Or an area where there is just no one around. Sex trade workers are even more susceptible to violence than ever.

Don’t forget about the “social cleansing” mentioned in a previous post. Cleaning up the streets mean that these sex trade workers have to, willing or unwillingly, go some place else. And then the question comes up again. Where can they go? Where should they go? What if every street in Vancouver is being cleaned from sex trade workers? Then these women must go where they are unseen and almost invisible. That means they have to go to dark streets, dark alleys, industrial areas, and everywhere else they can be less visible.

An alley on East Hastings. Is it a better place than the streets?

An alley on East Hastings. Is it a better place than the streets?

Many sex trade workers, interest groups and organizations have been pleading for decriminalization of prostitution and legalized brothels, which hopefully will increase safety for sex trade workers. However, the idea of having legalized brothels seem to be far-fetched. Disagreements come from many levels of society: Vancouverites, politicians, local government, and all the way up to federal government level. The idea of decriminalization too, received favourable and ufavourable responses. Some would agree that providing brothels mean providing a safer, controlled space for these women, where they can be much safer than being on the streets. But some would argue that brothels may induce more people to become prostitutes.
If these ideas are much opposed, what’s the better idea then?

Societal Perceptions and Removing the Stigma of Sex Work

7 07 2009

It seems like any progress that is made to make working conditions safer for street-level survival sex workers is met by protests. The funding for the Mobile Access Project is pulled, as reported in this post. The comments on news pages that described this story was inundated with viewer comments about how taxpayer dollars should not be spent on this project.

In 1998, just when the number of missing women was starting to reach phenomenal proportions, the idea of giving Vancouver prostitutes cell phones to call for help was raised. The cost of the proposed 100 phones was only $3000. These phones could only be used to call 911 and the users would not be able to conduct business over these phones. The plan was scrapped due to public outcry.


It’s difficult not to wonder if this idea would have saved the lives of the missing women. Though they say that life has no price tag, the result of this fiasco seems to indicate that the price of $30 to help secure the safety of each prostitute was too high. Similarly, the price of running the Mobile Access Project for one month was approximately $22083.  If this amount is divided amongst the 1500 prostitutes who use its service monthly, the price of providing some semblance of personal safety, community and protection of public health comes to $14.72 per prostitute.

What is wrong with our society that spending so little in an attempt to secure the safety of a marginalized group of women would result in such public self-righteousness and misplaced outrage? Has it not ocurred to our fellow BC residents that the woman standing on the street is someone’s daughter, mother, wife or sister? Or that her “chosen” profession may have “chosen” her?


Why shouldn’t her safety be a priority?

Perhaps in our journey to finding a solution for the prevention or mitigation of violence against sex workers should begin in the changing of public perceptions of sex work. One possible way to go about this is to advertise in Skytrain stations, Skytrains, busses and bus shelters.

canuck ad

According to TransLink, there were an estimated 284 534 000 boarded passengers of the Coast Mountain busses and Skytrain in 2008. Obviously, the numbers do not separate individuals who take multiple trips during the year and those who only took one trip. However, the number is still significant, as all passengers would have been exposed to advertising displayed in transit areas.

Naturally, the hypothetical ads on ending street worker violence or the human rights of sex trade workers would need to be logical, thought-provoking and tasteful. If we start the conversation between transit riders, workers around the “water coolers”, we may be able to begin the movement to turn the tide against stigmatism of sex trade workers.

Mobile Access Project in Jeopardy

2 07 2009

The Mobile Access Project (MAP) is the result of the collaboration between the WISH Drop-In Centre and the PACE (Prostitutes Alternatives Counseling & Education) Society with funding from the province of British Columbia. MAP takes the form of a van that operates 7 days a week from 10:30pm until 5:30am (when all of the stores have closed) in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). This van is staffed by 3 women, at least one of whom have been a survival sex trade worker.


They pass out coffee, juice, water, condoms, clean needles and other supplies. Most importantly, they converse with sex trade workers and these workers know that there is someone who cares about their well-being.

In the WISH Drop-in Centre’s “Evaluation of the Mobile Access Project (MAP)” report written in 2006, MAP employees estimate that the van serves 1500 women a month and reaches the “most marginalized women in the DTES” .

  • Over 90% of sex trade workers said that the van’s presence made them feel “safer on the street”.
  • 16% remember a specific time when the van’s presence saved them from being physically assaulted.
  • 10% remember a specific time when the van’s presence saved them from being sexually assaulted.
  • 57% of sex trade workers report “bad dates” (clients who didn’t pay and/or assaulted the worker) which have been linked to Robert Pickton’s murder conviction.
  • 1200 used needles were collected per month
  • Predators who work in the DTES area know about the presence of the van and the support workers for the sex trade workers.

When the report was written, it was concluded that the MAP project had succeeded in its goal of harm reduction by reducing the number of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. The project has also allowed the most marginalized women in Vancouver to obtain help when they need it and know that someone will notice if they or another “regular” goes missing.

Though this project has helped reduce the number of health problems in the area, given the sex trade workers a sense of safety, deterred predators from abusing sex trade workers, led the resolution of violent crimes…the funding of this project is now under review.

On March 21, 2009, CTV reports that the annual cost of $265000 needed to pay the employees and provide supplies for the van may no longer be funded by the province. It was pointed out to the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Housing and Social Development that the cities of Victoria, Calgary and Halifax have sister programs, to which the answer was “We’ll see.”

Due to this lack of funding, MAP ceased operations on June 12, 2009, according to a Vancouver Sun article written on June 4, 2009. In a city that can afford what some have called a “5 ring circus” or a “2 week party”, this is not good enough. We can not sacrifice the well-being of the most vulnerable sector of our society for any reason.