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The Missing Women’s Memorial in Crab Park is a tribute to the women murdered in the DTES

Safety first for Downtown Eastside sex workers

Members of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside’s community have praised new police guidelines to protect sex-trade workers, but are also raising…

By Tiffany Kwong and Carlos Tello , in City , on March 28, 2013 Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Missing Women’s Memorial in Crab Park is a tribute to the women murdered in the DTES
The Missing Women’s Memorial in Crab Park is a tribute to the women murdered in the DTES

Members of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside’s community have praised new police guidelines to protect sex-trade workers, but are also raising concerns about whether they will make a difference.

The police released an eight-point set of guidelines in January stressing that the department considers the safety and security of sex workers a priority and reinforcing that all cases of violence or abuse have to be treated as serious criminal matters.

“I think the new guidelines are a really important shift in the right direction,” said Katrina Pacey, litigation director of Pivot Legal Society. “Sex workers will be given the kind of protection they deserve by police who traditionally have not been there for them in the ways that they needed them to be.”

These new guidelines are aimed at improving the usually conflicted relationship between the sex industry and law enforcement that has often ended with sex trade workers being arrested or left unprotected.

Katrina Pacey, litigation director at Pivot Legal Society
Pacey: New guidelines are a shift in the right direction.

But Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of award-winning Canadian feminist blog Feminist Current, said that without changes to prostitution laws, the relationship between sex-trade workers and police won’t change.

“I think it is really important to decriminalize prostituted women,” she said. “[At present,] if they are raped, if they are assaulted or if there is violence, they are not going to go to the cops because then they could be at risk for being thrown in jail.”

Is prostitution legal?

The Canadian law on prostitution is complex. Technically, prostitution in Canada is legal, but all the illegal components that surround it make women in the sex trade vulnerable. Running a brothel, pimping and communicating for the purposes of prostitution are all illegal, according to the Criminal Code.

Murphy said that it’s the prohibition on communicating for the purposes of prostitution, “plus a culture and a history of misogyny within the RCMP and the VPD,” that effectively criminalizes sex trade workers and prevents them from seeking help from the police.

“[The communication law] doesn’t work particularly because it’s out to criminalize women who are prostituting,” she said. 

The country’s prostitution laws are being challenged. Advocates for sex trade workers’ rights are going into the sixth year of a court battle to decriminalize sex work.

But Vancouver police — who came up with the new guidelines after the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry identified seven critical failures in the police investigation into the missing women in the DTES — believe that putting the safety of the sex-trade workers at the forefront of their work will make a difference even without a change in the laws.

Related: Enforcing the new guidelines the hard way

“In the past, sex-trade workers have been harmed and injured and they have been at risk in the community,” said VPD spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham. “We are hoping that changes such as the ones we’ve done to the VPD policy … create a safer work environment for sex trade workers on the street.”

Putting the word out

The release of the guidelines has spurred local groups to initiate campaigns to educate sex workers in the DTES about their rights.

The guidelines were put together with the help of various groups including Pivot, which has been pushing for the decriminalization of sex-trade work and for police accountability for more than 10 years.

Corinne Demas, outreach volunteer at the Sex Workers United Against Violence Society
Demas: Helps sex workers learn about their rights.

Pivot, in partnership with Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV), recently launched one such campaign. The group printed 2,000 pocket-sized cards that highlight the changes introduced in the new guidelines, as well as the actions sex-trade workers can take in case they feel “harassed, targeted, intimidated, followed, told to move along, or arrested by the police.”

Pivot started distributing the “Know your rights” cards in February through community centres and outreach groups. Even though there have been delays in getting the cards to some centres, volunteers have been handing them to sex-trade workers directly.

Corinne Demas, a member of SWUAV’s outreach team, said her group just wants to get the word out.

Twice a week, the group spends its evenings giving out bags of supplies – and with them, the “Know your rights” cards – to sex workers.

“We always [take] a bundle of them and hand them out to all the girls. And some of the girls refuse them, but most of the girls take them.”

She claims that, in all the times she´s been out, she’s only been turned down by a sex worker once. She sees that as an indicator that these cards are wanted. “I wish they [all] would take [the cards,] but you can’t make them,” she said. “I think every working girl should have one.”

The new campaign emulates another one initiated by Pivot 10 years ago.  The earlier campaign has distributed approximately 100,000 cards nationwide since it started.

Pacey said Pivot has not measured the impact of the cards and relies on direct feedback from residents to judge the effect of the outreach.

“There’s no real proper evaluation for it – we just have to rely on what we hear on the streets,” said Pacey. “We talk to sex workers … they give feedback to Pivot all the time. If they tell me that they are happy with it and we’re hearing through outreach that women on the street are feeling better informed, then we’ll carry on.”

Is having a card knowing your rights?

Jennifer Allan, local activist
Allan has concerns about the overall effectiveness of the cards.

Jennifer Allan, a local activist and former sex-trade worker, said that while she supports the cards in theory, she is worried about their overall effectiveness, given the diversity of the DTES population.

One of her concerns is the language barrier that the English-only cards create, taking into account the large immigrant population of the DTES. She also said that the cards won’t make a difference by themselves.

“Just because some organization did a nice little “Know your rights” card isn’t going to change [police behaviour],” she said.

Allan said the cards aren’t enough – they need an accompanying education campaign about sex-trade workers’ rights.

“What I would like to see [are] sessions and classes where the women are brought in, paid a little honorarium, given a bus ticket and food, and are sat down and taught [about their rights],” she said.