Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pickton trial no relief for outdoor sex workers
Jan. 26, 2007

Today was going to be the day I didn’t write about social issues. Too much thinking about the frightening mistakes being made these days can really bum me out.
But then Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan came out with his happily-ever-after take this week on how the trial of Robert Pickton will be the thing that changes everything for the troubled women the pig farmer allegedly preyed on.
“There's no doubt that a very big, negative impression is going to be created by this," said Sullivan when asked about the impact of Pickton’s trial on Vancouver’s reputation.
"But hopefully, out of this, we can turn it into a good-news story and find a way to ensure that no women will ever have to put themselves at risk again in this way."
I just couldn’t let that go.
If we actually planned on making a difference in the lives of the women who go missing on our streets, there’d have been some sign of it by now. We’ve known for many years that women are dying out there. It’s not like we can claim surprise.
They’ve been going missing in significant numbers since the 1980s. They’ve gone missing in Vancouver, in Prince George, in Edmonton and Victoria - in every city in Canada, no doubt.
Sure, we’ve wrung our hands about the situation. Our newspaper archives are laden with our outbursts of dismay and horror.
But we haven’t actually done anything. An extremely disadvantaged group of women and youth are still having to work the dark streets on the edges of our towns.
Violence is routine, whether robbery; rape or assault. Addiction is common. So are the many illnesses that result from combining heavy drug use, poor nutrition, and a hard, hard life.
The men who shop for sex among such disadvantaged people run the gamut. Many of them aren’t out to hurt anyone. But given the state of the modern-day Canadian outdoor prostitution stroll, a few killers are bound to find their way there.
The conditions on the stroll are such that murderous types are provided with anonymous access to a population that’s widely shunned by the mainstream.
That population works in the dark, and largely out of sight. The drugs are everywhere, so nobody’s eager to call in the police. The workers are often sick, desperate and out of options, making them easy pickings.
If you were looking for a woman or a kid who nobody was going to make too big a deal about if they went missing, where would you look?
So Sullivan’s bright-new-day comments are just a bit much, given our fairly horrifying lack of action to date.
We can’t just hope to “find a way.” We have to actively seek one out. If we don’t want a subclass of workers vanishing on the edges of our cities, what are we prepared to do about it?
Would we consider trying to house them, for instance? Would we actively help them find another way to make a living? Would we find a safer place for the ones who continue to work, and get them the health care they need to get a handle on their addictions?
I talked to the Canadian Labour Congress the other day about whether the organization would ever consider coming out in defence of a safer sex trade. The members are divided, I was told. No position has been taken.
With all due respect to the members - and to anyone who still thinks we will eliminate prostitution - people are dying out there. They were dying before the Pickton case ever made headlines and they’ll be dying long after if all we’re going to do is more dithering about whether we feel ready to deal with the bigger issues of prostitution.
The first thing to do is strengthen social services, because many of the thousands of women working on B.C.’s outdoor strolls would gladly be doing something else for a living if it was an option. They need a place to clean up and housing they can afford, and maybe three or four years of solid support to get their lives straightened out.
Next comes the workplace.
We wouldn’t tolerate the ridiculous conditions of work that sex workers endure for any other profession. We shouldn’t be tolerating them for the workers of the sex industry either. Whatever our feelings on prostitution, surely we can all agree that adults working in it deserve a safe, healthy and fair workplace.
Improving the situation for women on the outdoor stroll also requires a commitment to cracking down hard on the men who go there to hurt somebody. Nothing about the sale of sex has to involve violence. The killing of a sex worker is not about a “high risk lifestyle,” but about our willingness to apply that term as an excuse for doing nothing.
It doesn’t have to be that way. But if we can’t get beyond the talk, the Pickton trial is nothing more than a pause in the proceedings for B.C.’s most vulnerable workers.

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