Hot on the heels of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a physician and a sex worker delivered an engaging discussion about drugs and women in the Downtown Eastside as part of the Robson Reading Series on December 4.
In the short seminar, the two authors linked violence against marginalized women to multiple complex factors, including child abuse, poverty, media portrayals and the legal system. The event also occurred just days before the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, which is on December 6.
Amber Dawn vividly portrayed life as a prostitute in the late 1990s in East Vancouver in a personal essay titled “Mel-hoes Place”. Dawn is a sex worker who has toured with the Sex Workers Art Show and won Xtra West’s Hero of the Year award in 2008 for her advocacy work in the queer community.
Combining life experience with an MFA in creative writing she earned in 2006, her work explores sexual taboos and struggles faced by women in the sex trade.
Gabor Maté, a renowned doctor who works in the Downtown Eastside, read an excerpt from his recently published book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.”
The reading chronicled the difficult life and death of one of his patients, Serena, an aboriginal woman who was caught between generations of abuse and addiction.
The role of a toxic drug strategy
Maté was quick to blame anti-drug laws for fueling poverty, addiction and violence. He explained that the laws ignore the process by which people become and remain addicted.
“The physiology of the brain, it’s shaped by early life experience. So when people have terrible experiences, they have brains that are pre-disposed to addiction, so that people don’t choose to become addicts.”
He said that the most pernicious forms of violence occur in childhood. “That’s the story of every one of my female patients in the Downtown Eastside.”
According to Maté, these experience driven addictions are propelled and maintained by stress. “To ostracize and impoverish them, and marginalize and criminalize them is to stress them, which is to say, you make it totally impossible for most of those people to work on their addiction. Because of the law itself.”
Related: Q&A Physician Gabor Maté
Maté contrasted the double standard afforded to the manufacturers of the additive painkiller Oxycontin. He argued that “if you’re a cocaine addict and you sell a quarter of an ounce or half an ounce in the Downtown Eastside, there you have it, you’re in jail.”
The sex trade and the law
Maté and Dawn had differing views about what drives prostitution. Based on what he had seen in his practice, Maté said that it probably wouldn’t exist if the drug laws didn’t facilitate addiction.
Dawn however, was quick to point out that the issue is complex and there are many sex workers who do not use drugs. When asked if she thought prostitution should be legalized, she was somewhat hesitant.
“I say yes, but I also have to say I really lost my hope that legal change is going to lead to social change and that if it was decriminalized, or legalized completely, that women who are working in the sex trade would see a really huge rise in safety or social acceptance.”
Dawn expressed disappointment about media coverage of the Pickton case. She worried about the effect on a teenage girl of reading a blurb in the Metro about the “dildo gun” with no further dialogue or context.
Not believing that the media or authority figures could stimulate discussion that would lead to change, she said “I think it’s time for folks like us to start facilitating that ourselves.”
The Robson Reading Series is a showcase for emerging and accomplished writers that takes place in the UBC bookstore at Robson Square. Readings are on hiatus for December and resume in January.