New police approach to help sex workers proves ineffective

When Kerry Porth worked with the Vancouver police department in 2012 to create new rules on sex-work regulation, she had hope for huge changes.

The sex-work enforcement guidelines that came out the next year — a direct result of calls for change that came after Robert Pickton was convicted of murdering several Downtown Eastside sex workers —  made it clear that consensual adult sex work would not be a priority for police. 

Everyone knew changing an entire city’s approach to sex work wouldn’t happen overnight, but organizations and workers were hopeful.

Consensual adult sex work would not be a priority for Vancouver police.”

But, two years later, the Conservative federal government passed Bill C-36. The bill allows the sale of sex work but criminalizes advertising, the purchase of sexual services, or receiving any “material benefit,” such as a money received by a pimp or brothel.

Now, Vancouver’s sex workers are living in a morass of confusing, contradictory regulations that leaves them preoccupied with staying out of trouble under the new federal law.

Slow acceptance leads to fearful relationships with police

Besides that, the Vancouver police guidelines have produced so little change that workers are unsure of how the laws will be enforced due to damaged past relationships with police.

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Kerry Porth lobbied in Ottawa against Bill C-36, which passed in fall of 2014

The slow acceptance of the guidelines by police, according to Porth, doesn’t help that relationship.

She provides sensitivity training for organizations whose workers come into contact with sex workers.

“It’s a huge shift for people to even think about sex work as being something that’s not a criminal activity,” Porth says of the training. “And for the police, that’s even more difficult. It takes them a little longer to get there.”

A 2014 study in Vancouver compiled in-depth interviews from street sex workers who said they noticed an increase in positive interactions with police. Many of the workers said the police presence was a nuisance, including Lisa, whose work was negatively affected by police interactions.

“You stand out there and you fuck up my business and scare away my dates,” says Lisa of the increased police presence. “The longer I’m out there, my chances of getting sick, raped, robbed, beat up, whatever, are greater.”

Fear of Bill C-36 still trumps local law

What we do is illegal – like talking on the phone.”

Right after the Conservative bill passed, SWAN Vancouver Society, a non-profit assisting mainly immigrant and migrant sex workers, saw a lot of fear and anxiety in the community.

After a few months, they saw the local police weren’t enforcing the bill.

But executive director Alison Clancey thinks that sent a confusing message to the workers. That confusion still prevails.

Carmen Shakti can’t be explicit about what services she will provide due to restrictive Bill C-36

“The ban [on advertising] is still against the law, so in their minds they don’t know at which time the police could start enforcing that,” says Clancey. “So they have to curtail their behaviour based on fear of the law, which I think is just as bad as if the laws were being enforced.”

This fear leads workers to rush their screening processes. Indoor sex workers like Carmen Shakti, account for 80 to 95 per cent of sex work in Canada, say their screening of prospective clients isn’t as thorough as it used to be.

“What we do is illegal, like talking on the phone [about] what you will do and what you won’t do in a session,” Shakti explains.

The workers aren’t the only ones worrying.

Clients also remain fearful over which laws the police will enforce. Clients do not know if they are texting or talking to an officer and so aren’t as explicit in their requests. Less graphic communication from the clients mean the workers do not find out what sex acts will be requested or if safety measures, such as condoms, will be used.

Police focus arrests on clients instead of workers

In the year following the introduction of the new police guidelines, Vancouver actually saw an uptick in prostitution charges from 29 to 37 arrests. But by 2015, arrests settled back down to 19.

Albeit gradual, this change brought about better interactions with police, according to street workers from the 2014 study. Officers focused more on their safety, and when arrests were made, the majority were clients.

Sex work-related Criminal Code offences (charges against mostly clients and pimps) increased from 47 to 71 in the year following the guidelines.

But the police’s focus on arresting clients makes life almost as difficult for workers. Police pursuing client arrests means that workers are rushing to choose clients. In order to remain undetected by police, clients don’t stop, slow down, or look for services in clearly lit areas.

Women in the 2014 study said they had less business, worked longer hours, and worked in more unsafe locations.

Violence rates stay the same; secondary criminal charges still a fear 

The health and safety of sex workers is the primary reason the guidelines were created. Yet many workers don’t consider reporting violent clients an option. Workers from the 2014 study said they rarely reported violence to police because they didn’t believe their complaints would be taken seriously.

And it’s not just violence that has sex workers hesitant to report.”

Work-related physical and sexual violence rates stayed almost the same, at 25 per cent in 2012 and 24 per cent in 2013.

The police guidelines have also been ineffective in another crucial area. They haven’t allayed workers’ anxiety about whether any interaction with police, even reporting problems with violence, will end up backfiring on them.

And it’s not just violence that has sex workers hesitant to report.

Advocates say immigration status poses an extra hurdle to the already isolated immigrant and migrant workers, says Clancey of SWAN.

“The sex workers we support still have to worry about Canada Border Services, or if they do make the police report, if that information will make it to immigration officials,” Clancey says.

Others worry about secondary criminal charges, according to Naomi Sayers, an indigenous sex worker activist. Drugs, warrants, or other criminal activity associated with the sex work can all affect a worker’s decision to report. The lack of trust in police has sex workers hesitant to report violence against them.

“I would not feel safe, especially as an indigenous woman with a criminal record,” says Sayers. “I would guarantee 100 per cent that they would use my criminal record against me.”