Friday, April 27, 2007

Safe Work Space for Sex Workers

“How can we decrease violence against sex trade workers?” I’m asked this question all the time when someone finds out I’m a member of the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities.

People offer ideas for solutions, from red light districts to legalization to arresting johns. But none of these solutions work. Good luck finding a neighbourhood in Vancouver that would gladly become the “red light district”. Legalization essentially makes pimps of the Canadian government. And arresting johns just makes sex workers more desperate to earn money.

So what is the solution?

There isn’t one. No one solution is going to decrease violence against sex workers. The laws push them into isolated, dangerous environments while workers are exempt from the rights everyone else shares – protection, safety, liberty. Police abuse their power over sex workers with the law on their side – not to mention general public opinion.

Society shames sex workers and holds them in the lowest regard of all humankind. The degenerates who prey on sex workers do so secure in the common knowledge that sex workers are the most worthless members of our communities. Young people throw pennies and garbage at sex workers, secure in their belief that sex workers do not deserve dignity or respect. Our society teaches us to view sex workers as disposable human beings, and our laws support this view. It is no wonder that violent men target sex workers. We make it easy for them to get away with it.

We need several solutions. Decriminalization, sensitivity training for police and health services, educational campaigns, youth presentations in high schools, outreach, and support services for sex workers are some of them. These need to be implemented through experiential leadership – sex workers should be providing the expertise and getting paid for it.

Many professionals earn their livings off the backs of sex trade workers – many in government positions, with sick days, vacation pay, extended health and dental benefits, nine to five and the respect of the community. Their jobs were created to respond to sex worker issues. Meanwhile, sex workers are expected to share their most horrendous experiences of rape and police brutality,among other things, shunned by their communities, while researchers and social workers write it down in their little books. The benefit to sex workers – nothing.

Just look at the Parliamentary Subcommittee on the Solicitation Laws in Canada.

In the words of Susan Davis in a guest editorial published in The Province Newspaper on December 15, 2006: “In 2003, a parliamentary subcommittee was formed in response to rising violence against sex workers and the unbelievable number of missing and murdered workers across Canada. We shared personal experiences and ideas with the committee and, for a moment, had a glimmer of hope. We sat patiently as they catalogued the darkest moments of our lives and then waited. What recommendations would the committee bring forward? A year after the report was due and a change in government occurred, the report was finally tabled in Parliament this week. A disaster for workers, the report does not support decriminalization but does call for (big surprise) more research. Must sex workers endure researchers and politicians making their careers and millions of dollars while discussing “safety issues”? How long will we wait. Twenty years? Thirty years? It’s been almost thirty years since the Fraser Accord recommended changes that we are still fighting for today. What actions were taken? None – and this report spells more the same. It shows total complacency for the value of the people affected and a total lack of respect for those who died. Canada presents itself as a leader in human rights on the international stage, but the number of missing and murdered sex workers tells a different story.” (You can order a copy of “History of Sex Work: Vancouver” which contains a reproduction of the entire article by going to the History website.)

As you can tell, Susan Davis is not just a pretty face. Nor does she resemble any of the typical stereotypes most people think of when they consider prostitution. She blows out of the water suggestions that she is degraded, incompetent, drug addicted, easy, or worthless. (And she gives a mean blow job, by all accounts too.)

Susan Davis has another solution to add to the list started above. A solution that will make a truly significant impact on violence against sex workers. A bricks and mortar solution that is nothing short of genius, it will make such a difference in so many sex workers lives.

Imagine a cooperatively owned, cooperatively run brothel where sex workers – male or female – can bring their dates and deliver their services in a safe and supportive environment. A place where advertising, licensing, drivers, security, rent, EVERYTHING can be shared financially among members in a tiered system designed to make it affordable to every sex worker. Members would vote on where the profits would go – scholarships, access to conferences and training, projects to further support sex industry advocacy, and more. Educational materials on site for workers and customers alike. An environment of mutual respect. Clean, safe access to rooms. A meeting space for industry members to unite and bond, decreasing isolation and competition. Opportunities for collective initiatives, including social cause projects to facilitate community building.

Davis dreams of much more than that. A safe work space born out of a cooperative model – or trade association. (Read “Developing Capacity for Change” in the “Documents” section of the coalition website.)

Of course, to make this dream a reality involves a lot of hard work and funding. We’ll need to get exemptions from certain laws and municipal bylaws like INSITE did. We’ll need to get funding to create and pay for the development of the coop. We’ll need to find a space and funding for the rent, to create the safe work space. A lot of this work will go unfunded and already has. Susan Davis tells me she is frustrated how far ahead she’s thought this through, but how long it will take to implement it. Just the bureaucratic bullshit necessary to even begin thinking about the safe workspace is tremendous.

And of course, there are the stigmas and stereotypes to overcome. Most people don’t realize we even have the capacity to create something like this. They imagine us to be uneducated, incompetent, and drug addicted – the fact that we’ve even thought this up amazes them. We need influential allies in the mainstream to even get people to take us seriously – our voices are not sufficient.

How long have our politicians been asked what they are going to do to make Vancouver streets safer in response to the tragedy of the missing women? They have no answers. We are providing a solution for them on a silver platter. They would be insane to refuse, wouldn’t they?

Vancouver has shown itself to be a progressive city in many ways. With the advent of the 2010 Olympics, our project may appeal to those who might ordinarily oppose us.

For all the workers, alive or in spirit, who experienced violence yesterday or will experience violence today or tomorrow – this is for you. For us. Pray that we will persuade those with power to help us make it happen.

(For those interested in learning more about how laws affect sex workers, check out APLE, based in Hawaii but relevant everywhere.)

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