Friday, August 27, 2010
Creating prey for the next Pickton
Our sex-work laws kill people.
We had a reminder of that just last week, when Willie Pickton’s murderous ways were news again. Only the streets can provide so many potential victims to a predator like him, and it’s our ineffective and dangerous laws around sex work that create those streets.
Then last Friday, the Vancouver Police Department released the report that we all knew had to come - one that detailed the tragic inability of B.C.’s police forces to act on years of tips that women were being killed at Pickton’s farm. I’ve watched our conflicted attitude around the sex industry for too long to be surprised by the public’s muted response to that damning report.
We talk a good game about how much concern we have for the women who Pickton and his ilk prey on. But our actions tell a different story every time. It’s beyond ironic that even as the shameful story of B.C.’s missing women returns to the headlines, the federal government is introducing much tougher penalties that can only increase risks for sex workers.
We light candles for dead women without a moment’s thought for the appalling working conditions that primed them as targets for murder. We lament the Pickton legacy without giving one hoot for the people who we continue to banish to the fringes. The hypocrisy is unbearable sometimes.
I was working with sex workers at PEERS Victoria when Pickton was on trial. Media outlets from across Canada called me frequently to ask what I thought, and whether anything was changing for sex workers now that there had been so much publicity about the hard life of a street-entrenched sex worker.
How can anything change when our laws remain resolutely the same? Working outdoors and alone in the middle of the night would be a dangerous business no matter what product is being sold. As long as we continue to deny adult sex workers a safer workplace and a place in our communities, nothing changes.
The federal government’s recent decision to ramp up penalties for people convicted of keeping a common bawdyhouse will add significantly to the risks. People convicted of operating a brothel will now face a mandatory jail sentence of at least five years (compared to a maximum of two years under the previous law).
The Department of Justice says the change is needed to fight organized crime. Unfortunately, the tougher penalties will also ensnare many, many independent sex workers and small business people operating thousands of escort agencies, massage parlours and bathhouses across Canada.
Perhaps there are still some people who believe that closing down brothels will eliminate the sex trade. I’m not one of them.
The commercial sex industry thrives in every country of the world, courtesy of a rock-solid customer base and a strong profit motive. A crackdown on indoor venues won’t stop prostitution, it will merely push sex workers deeper into the shadows and closer to the streets.
How is it that we can mourn the Pickton murders so eloquently, yet do nothing to address the real issues for sex workers?
We have erected monuments to murdered women. Lit a few thousand candles in their memory. Spent a small fortune on bringing Pickton to justice. But we haven’t done a thing to reduce the risks for Canada’s sex workers, who apparently hold our interest only when they’re dead.
Our laws are as conflicted as we are. The sale of sex is legal in Canada but anywhere that it happens is by definition illegal, because a bawdyhouse is wherever a sex worker regularly conducts business. You can sell sex through a newspaper ad, but risk arrest if caught soliciting customers in a public place.
The last time our country’s police forces cracked down hard on indoor sex venues was in the 1970s. The result was a notable rise in street prostitution and an even more notable increase in assaults and murders involving sex workers.
Can we possibly be here again? That would be the biggest tragedy of all - to have learned nothing from the deaths and suffering of so many women and their families.
Not everybody shares my opinion on the sex industry, of course. But I think even the nay-sayers want laws that work. Our laws are all but useless in preventing the sale of sex, but frighteningly effective at increasing the misery and danger for those in the industry.
Canada has poorly considered law, random enforcement and a strong undercurrent of moral judgment when it comes to sex work. It’s a lethal combination.
More jail time for people with the audacity to want to work indoors certainly won’t change that. Neither will tears and candlelight vigils.