[TW] For discussion of sexual assault, police violence.
In the summer of 2010, I was sexually assaulted by a man I met online. For our first date, we decided to meet for drinks at a downtown bar. The next memory I have is waking up the next morning, half naked, and sore all over. I was a sex worker at the time. But he was not a client.
Sex work is a contentious subject and with the politicized climate surrounding sex work, it is sometimes hard to talk about sex work, especially when it comes to personal experiences. One has to consider whether they might lose friendships, family members, loved ones, or educational and employment opportunities.
The first and last time I went to the police for a separate assault, they asked me if I consumed drugs or alcohol. They also asked me where I worked. I was honest with the police about where I worked. But I did not think for a moment that they would blame my work for a sexual assault, even when the assault that did not occur in the context of sex work.
The Bedford decision dealt exclusively with adult consensual sex work. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled three laws as unconstitutional: the bawdyhouse law, the communication law, and the living on the avails law. Bill C-36, which is in response to Bedford, assumes all sex work is exploitative and inherently violent. It also assumes that targeting clients will prevent the harms that sex workers experience. Yet, Bedford found that the laws created harms in the lives of sex workers and prevented sex workers from accessing protection and safety.
The man who assaulted me during the 2010 incident later showed up at my work. I was dancer at a strip club. He was swiftly kicked out after I told my manager what happened and who he was. Bill C-36 explicitly states that if bars, such as strip clubs, hire security, then they could be charged under the material benefit section. But it was the security and the manager in my bar that protected me. Bill C-36 will harm sex workers by preventing others to hire security to protect the people that work for them.
The main goal of decriminalization of sex work is to increase the safety of sex workers; meanwhile, the goal of Bill C-36 is to abolish prostitution through the criminalization of clients. But even Justice Minister Peter Mackay and Conservative MP Bob Dechert acknowledge that the Bill may not entirely abolish prostitution. Sex workers and their allies highlighted that this Bill will cause more harms than anything else. If the Conservatives are admitting that their Bill will fail before it is even enacted, is it worth it to risk the lives of sex workers?
Bill C-36 assumes that targeting clients is a new approach to policing prostitution in Canada. This assumption is false. There are a number of cities in Canada that have been targeting clients without Bill C-36. Specifically, the Vancouver Police Department made this their official policy in January 2013. However, it is well documented through evidence-based research that targeting clients increases vulnerability to violence among the most marginalized sex workers. From this research, we also see reports of police violence, police harassment and police sexually assaulting sex workers. If the police are supposed to enforce Bill C-36 and protect victims from violence, how will the Bill protect sex workers from perpetrators of violence, like the police? Bill C-36 creates an adversarial and contradictory relationship between police and sex workers.
Further, when police target clients, sex workers are forced to work in isolated areas which increase vulnerability to violence. Wally Oppal’s Missing Women Inquiry report also states that the criminal regulation of prostitution contributes to the marginalization of women through displacement and isolation. This displacement and isolation is directly correlated to violence in sex workers’ lives. As a result, Bill C-36 will increase the vulnerability to violence in sex workers’ lives.
Targeting clients is sometimes referred to as the Swedish or Nordic Model. Yet, in Sweden, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare reports that sex workers feel less trusting of social services, the police and the legal system. Under the so-called Nordic model, it also prevents sex workers from seeking help and protection. In Norway, where a similar approach was adopted, sex workers report increased violence and insecurity. As an Indigenous woman and a former sex worker, I will never feel safe to call the police. Bill C-36 will not magically change this for current sex workers, especially current Indigenous sex workers.
The most harmful section in Bill C-36 is the communication section. In Canada, outdoor sex workers constitute less than twenty percent of the entire trade. But the majority of prostitution arrests in Canada are under the communication law. Supporters of Bill C-36 argue that Indigenous women comprise the majority of the most marginalized and vulnerable population group in Canadian society. If this is the case, then Bill C-36 will not protect the people it is meant to protect, the most marginalized and vulnerable. Indigenous women and girls are over-policed and under-protected.
The police have a history of not protecting Indigenous women and girls. This lack of protection is evident in cases like Robert Pickton and John Martin Crawford. Pickton and Crawford were two serial killers who preyed on women in the sex trade. Crawford preyed specifically on Indigenous women. The one Indigenous woman who did go to the police after Crawford sexual assaulted her ended up being arrested instead. With Bill C-36, these patterns of injustice will continue to occur.
After my sexual assault in 2010, I did not go to the police. From my experience, I learned that the police were not there to protect women like me, young, Indigenous, female and in the sex trade. Most recently, the police admitted to seeing Tina Fontaine the last time she was alive. They also admitted that she was exploited. If this is how the police treat the exploited, it is hard to believe that Bill C-36 will change this behaviour even in the long run.
If Bill C-36 defines all sex work as inherently violent, then the same argument that failed at the Supreme Court of Canada follows: sex workers who choose to engage in an inherently violent activity also agree to the harms inflicted on them. But if sex workers are going missing and being murdered, would we continue to blame them for their actions? Ironically, the same people that are supposed to protect women and girls are sometimes the sources of violence themselves. Moving from one criminal regime to another will not protect sex workers. Only the decriminalization of sex work will protect sex workers. We can learn from this differential treatment by the police that Bill C-36 will not protect women like me: young, Indigenous, and in the sex trade.
Decriminalizing sex work holds people in positions of authority to a higher standard. It tells society that we must stop blaming sex workers for their outcome, including the missing and murdered. Decriminalizing sex work also informs policing perspectives. It tells police that they must protect all women and girls regardless of the choices they make in their lives. The lives of all sex workers should matter too.
 http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/pivotlegal/pages/615/attachments/original/1401811234/My_Work_Should_Not_Cost_Me_My_Life.pdf?1401811234 @ page 9 AND http://www.ag.gov.bc.ca/public_inquiries/docs/Forsaken-ES.pdf @ page 107