Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sex trade
March 10, 2006

These days, I drive along Rock Bay Avenue more often than I used to. I think it has something to do with my job as executive director of a non-profit that supports sex workers, PEERS. When your work life is tied to whatever’s going on in the city’s sex trade, detouring along the outdoor prostitution stroll just becomes kind of a habit.
The street is gentrifying: a new brick facade for one building, a paint job for another. Were it not for my PEERS-altered perspective, I would applaud the improvements as a positive change for our community. Everybody likes a street refit.
But when it’s Rock Bay, I drive past thinking about what the changes mean for the outdoor sex trade. In that world, a street’s gentrification signals the beginning of the end. Once a street looks good, it’s a matter of months before businesses and residents start thinking about how much nicer things could be if they could also dump the commercial sex scene going on outside their doors.
So what a street refit more often than not means for outdoor sex workers is increased police presence, more trouble, and eventually a relocation to some new street in a darker part of town. The businesses along Rock Bay have been much better than most about tolerating the visible face of sex work in the region, and supportive of PEERS’ efforts as well. But sooner or later, the pressure’s on.
I listened with interest to Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean in Victoria this week denouncing violence against women. She’s familiar with the issue both personally and professionally, having grown up in an abusive family and gone on to develop a network of women’s shelters in Quebec. But what she and most of Canada may not grasp is that vicious assaults and rapes occur constantly on the outdoor prostitution strolls in our communities, and nobody does a damn thing about it.
I don’t blame the police; the Victoria Police understand the issues of the local stroll far better than most. I think fault rests with Canadians overall. We’d rather tolerate laws that tacitly create the most dangerous workplace in the world rather than admit that people in their communities want to buy sex.
“In the name of ideology, they are harassed, assaulted, beaten, raped and murdered,” said Jean in her speech at Government House. She was referring to women from distant lands and cultures, but could have just as easily been speaking about outdoor sex workers right here in Victoria. Our poorly articulated and uninformed ideology around prostitution has led to a most terrible situation.
A local woman was knocked unconscious two weeks ago by a man wielding a two-by-four, then raped anally with a traffic cone. Can a country that sets up a whole class of women to endure such acts - not even as anomalies, but regular occurrences - consider itself to be tackling the issue of violence against women? Hardly.
The critics could argue that the laws are already in place for redress. A working girl can report her assault to the police, can’t she? And access all the services any victim of crime can?
But that’s not really true for outdoor sex workers, who in fact are breaking the law just by talking to their customers. With addiction rates at nearly 100 per cent on the local stroll, an outdoor sex worker most likely has an illegal drug or two in her possession as well. She may have warrants out for her arrest. Or she may just be terrified of anyone in authority finding out she’s a sex worker, having learned through hard experience that things usually go badly after that.
The larger point, though, is that sex workers shouldn’t have to endure a violent workplace in the first place. What other job features beatings and rapes on a regular basis? What other Canadian workplace exists with virtually no regulation or oversight? An estimated 850 workers are in the industry in this region alone, including at least 85 working the violent outdoor stroll. Who’s looking out for them?
Until we figure out why men drive around looking for people to buy sex from, I’m not counting on an end to outdoor prostitution. But that’s not to say we couldn’t improve. We certainly couldn’t do too much worse.
That woman knocked out with a two-by-four: she had no idea the guy would turn out to be a violent “trick.” You and I won’t recognize him, either. He could be sitting across from you at the board table - or lying in your bed - and you none the wiser. As long as violence against sex workers remains in the shadows, so does he.
I wish Rock Bay well in its gentrification, and hope they keep trying to be tolerant. It can’t be easy to be grappling with your street being Ground Zero for a 10,000-year-old social problem.
But I’d understand if one day they got sick of the whole thing. Me too.

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