A discussion about sex work in the DTES
By Katie Czenczek, Contributor
Society is very biased in its views towards who deserves public outrage and who does not.
It is the difference between the outrage towards the Paris bombings or recent Manchester attacks versus the response to bombings that occur in Syria or other non-Western countries. I am not arguing that people shouldn’t be upset by the events that happened in Paris or Manchester, because they should be. I am simply pointing out a bias that our society has towards who deserves our Facebook photo being changed in honour, and who does not.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described this phenomenon best in her TEDtalk called “The danger of a single story.” She said that this phenomenon occurs when a country or a group of people are labelled as nothing more than sufferers or monsters. This is how Africans and Middle-Easterners are described in the media, and is also how sex workers are labelled in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Apathy for those on the outskirts of “civilized” society is what allows for people to disregard atrocities that occur daily if a group of people is constantly deemed as victims or lesser-than. This also contributed to how at least 26 missing women went unnoticed when Robert Pickton murdered prostitutes in the ’90s to early ’00s.
I, too, had not previously put very much thought towards sex workers or their basic human rights. I failed to know that indigenous and trans women are disproportionately represented in the DTES at the street level of sex work. I failed to know that some sex workers choose to work in the sex industry. I also failed to know that Davie Street sex workers of the ’60s to ’80s were displaced due to stigmatizations surrounding prostitution. This is what we do as a society; we remain ignorant to issues that do not affect the dominant culture.
On September 16, 2016, a memorial on Jervis Street and near Davie Street was placed in honour of those who were unfairly displaced in the ’80s due to their work being considered immoral. Historically, Vancouver had a vibrant sex work community on Davie Street, where sex workers could safely work on the streets without the threat of violence, police intimidation, and hate-crimes. People within the community were accepting of those who were LGBTQ+ and people of colour before it became more popularized, were sex-positive feminists who felt empowered by their choice to sell sex, and were often in charge of their businesses at a time when the rest of society was only starting to diminish gender discrimination in the workplace. This all changed when sex workers were displaced from Davie Street and forced to work in either Mount Pleasant or the DTES. Laws were instilled that criminalized selling sex, and charged sex workers on Davie Street up to $28,000 in fines. Although this has changed since the introduction of the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act in 2014, many sex workers are still subject to unsafe working environments due to the notion that sex work is not real work.
Sex work is routinely described as exploitative and as women “selling their bodies.” Not only is it not just women who are involved in prostitution, but not every sex worker is a trafficked human being. There is a huge difference between trafficked people who are coerced into sex work and two consenting adults who exchange money for sexual intercourse.
The notion that a person—specifically a woman—is selling their body demonstrates how fearful our society still is of sex and a women’s right to be a sexual. The stigmatization of sex work is another form of slut-shaming that, statistically, causes more women to be targeted by the police for prostitution charges than men.
Jamie Lee Hamilton, a sex worker advocate for 45 years and former sex worker herself, stated in an interview with the Other Press that prostitution is “engaging in an exchange of services for financial compensation. You’re not selling your body, you’re selling your expertise, your skills, your compassion, and knowledge.” However, she also acknowledged that there are those who are pressured into sex work in order to survive. Often, these are street level sex workers who are the most at risk for exploitation and violence. But rather than stigmatizing these vulnerable persons or simply putting them on welfare, would it not be better to provide services that help them exit out of this line of work? Or decriminalizing prostitution outright in order to set up rules and regulations that keep sex workers safe? I believe so.
Currently, Canada uses the Swedish model of prostitution, which is how the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36) arose out of 2014. The Swedish model aims to criminalize pimps and patrons, rather than prostitutes. However, if prostitutes work together or sell their services in the public sphere, they can still be subject to fines and charges. To put it in simpler terms, prostitution is still not allowed and sex workers can still be punished for trying to make a living. People who support this law aim to stop prostitution by discouraging buyers (the demand) from participating in the sex trade. Not only does this model perpetuate the idea that sex work is not legitimate work, but it also continues to put sex workers in dangerous positions.
The law has succeeded in building tentative trust between sex workers and police, but now police are seen as a public nuisance because they drive away prostitutes’ clients. This causes sex workers to have less time to negotiate their terms with their clients, which can mean condoms and other forms of contraception will not be used. At the street level, sex workers have to quickly get into vehicles so their clients will not be fined and travel to areas they are unfamiliar with because the police have established a large presence at the DTES’ prostitution hubs, which puts them in vulnerable positions as they are further away from their turf, and therefore easier to exploit. Moreover, if sex workers are forced to work alone, they can be subjected to sexual and physical violence and do not have harm reduction strategies readily available, such as writing down a person’s licence plate if the client tries to do anything horrific, or simply having a presence that deters a client from trying to be abusive. A sense of community present at the time of the Davie Street red-light district is lost on the 21st century wave of prostitution, and though this law attempts to bring justice back to prostitutes, it fails to do so.
The New Zealand model, in comparison, proposes the total decriminalization of sex work. Buyers of sex and sex workers alike would be able to participate in the exchange of sex for money without facing charges and fines thrown at them by police. Pimps and traffickers would still be criminalized, as they seek to exploit and coerce people into sex work. It would give sex workers the right to refuse work, get them unemployment insurance if they choose to exit the sex trade, and introduce laws and regulations that would help prostitutes stay safe physically, medically, and emotionally. Sex workers would be able to conduct work with dignity and safety in mind, because their work would finally be treated the same way that other work is. It would also enable sex workers to regain the community they once had, and it respects a person’s choice to consent as an adult to sexual activity in exchange for money. This model would directly affect street-based sex workers in the DTES, because they are the ones who are currently targeted under Bill C-36. As long as no one is being forced to have sex with someone, I fail to see what is so immoral about sex work or the New Zealand model.
Although both the Swedish Model and the New Zealand model aim to help sex workers, only one of the two respects a person’s choice to be involved in the sex industry, and protects those who do not have many options for work. I genuinely do not believe that criminalizing the demand of sex work will slow down the supply. In fact, I believe it will only cause sex workers to go underground, which subjugates them to more exploitation and a higher likeliness for sex trafficking.
Back to Adichie’s assertion that it is a society’s view of a group of people as victims or “the Other” that allows for apathy to be justified, and to make the assumption true. By stating that all sex work exploits women and should therefore be criminalized, sex workers become exploitable. By having police criminalize sex work, it causes distrust within the community and leads to prostitutes not turning to the VPD if their friends begin to go missing. This isn’t the only thing that keeps sex workers from turning to the VPD, Hamilton explained. “You don’t build trust by routinely going down into the DTES and arresting sex workers because they might have an outstanding warrant for failing to appear on possession of marijuana or shoplifting.”
This has already happened before in Vancouver. Every February 14 there has been an annual Women’s Memorial March honouring those who have gone missing or been murdered. Many of them are sex workers in the DTES, and they are disproportionately indigenous and trans women. I hope to see that in the future, we will be better at protecting those who are the most vulnerable and at-risk in our society, rather than simply allowing this resilient community to yet again fall into the cracks.
I hope that there will be more organizations—such as the PACE society—available to help survival sex workers get out of seemingly impossible situations, and that the Red Umbrella March fighting for sex workers rights will eventually become unnecessary, because sex workers will already have rights equal to any other workers out there.