The following article contains references to gender-based violence and sexual violence. For more information on the risks, harms and barriers facing sex workers, or for support for sex workers, check out Maggie’s Toronto, POWER Ottawa, or PACE Society Vancouver, among other organizations.
Today is December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
In 2003, Dr. Annie Sprinkle, a porn pioneer, later-turned sex work advocate and feminist scholar teamed up with Sex Workers Action Project (SWAP) USA to hold a memorial vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer, who preyed primarily on sex workers in Washington State in the 1980s and 90s. Since then, December 17th vigils, marches, commemorations and actions have sprung up worldwide. Violence against sex workers is, after all, a global phenomenon. It is also a local one.
Let’s talk about violence against sex workers today, as uncomfortable and bleak the topic may be.
First thing’s first: sex work is work. For many, it is a rational and pragmatic solution to survive under capitalism. Sex work is neither inherently exploitative or empowering. Like any job, it’s the working conditions and consequent satisfaction or lack thereof that can be either exploitative or empowering. We are neither sad tropes or happy hookers, most of us live in the spaces in between these extremes.
What makes sex work dangerous is not the job in and of itself. It’s the laws that govern sex work both in Canada and abroad and the apathy towards us by the general public.
It seems to me that Canadians didn’t learn much from the horrors uncovered at the Pickton farm, or, if I’m being generous, they took away the wrong lesson.
The material conditions that put folks in a position of choosing sex work have not improved. our governments have failed us. Access to housing and education is out of reach for many of us. People of colour are still discriminated against in conventional workplaces. It’s impossible to live with dignity on any form of social assistance in this country. People fall through the cracks of the system everyday, and some of them choose sex work as a means to survive. Some find that sex work offers them better pay and independence than most conventional jobs.
The laws and regulations that govern sex work in this country do nothing to keep sex workers safe.
In 2020, there was a brutal murder at a North York spa. Ashley Noelle Arzaga was murdered at her place of work. While some might think that it’s a good thing that her killer — a minor who was part of the incel movement — was charged with terrorism, an enhanced criminal charge does nothing to keep sex workers safe.
In the wake of Arzaga’s murder, the City of Toronto has failed to implement the recommendations from sex worker-led organizations like Butterfly and Maggie’s.Many cities in Canada are trying to shut down spas instead of addressing the laws that make sex work unsafe. If it’s still illegal to hire a driver or security guard, and illegal to work in pairs or teams out of fear of criminalization, then sorry, but sex workers are right to feel angry and abandoned.
This year was no less brutal. At one point this fall, there were multiple predators in Ontario preying on street-involved sex workers. Strippers in Vancouver are being attacked and robbed while leaving the club after work. While there was a news story here and there, there was no public outcry, and as always, sex workers had to rely on each other to stay safe, spreading the word on social media. In both Hamilton and Ottawa alike, serial predators targeted sex workers specifically. In Hamilton, the predator was charged with attempted murder; in Ottawa, the predator was serially sexually assaulting sex workers. Sex worker-led groups in both cities have pleaded with local law enforcement to offer anonymity and amnesty to sex workers so that they would be safe from criminalization and feel safe coming forward to tell police their stories in hopes of catching their attacker.
In Montreal, a 25-year-old independent sex worker was murdered by a violent client who had been blacklisted by local escort agencies. There are many other victims, named and unnamed, in Canada and abroad.
The laws meant to keep us safe fail us time and time again, as evidenced by a new Canada wide study titled Sex Workers’ Access to Police Assistance in Safety Emergencies and Means of Escape from Situations of Violence and Confinement under an ‘End Demand’ Criminalization Model: A Five City Study in Canada.
According to the study, authored by researchers from the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia, 31 per cent of sex workers interviewed reported being unable to call 911 in an emergency out of fear of being prosecuted for their work while being a victim of a crime; this rates doubled among Indigenous respondents. When confronted with violence, 40 per cent of sex workers relied on each other for help, compared to the five per cent who were able to get help from the police. Let those numbers sink in.
Sex workers want and need full decriminalization. Studies have shown this, Amnesty International agrees, and meanwhile in Canada, parliamentarians would rather listen to American evangelical anti-porn crusaders than sex workers. There is a logical disconnect in Canadian public policy between what would actually work to save lives and the knee-jerk moral panic that too often takes hold.
Politicians, governing bodies and those in power would apparently rather see us dead than give up some of their power, risk offending their voter base, and let us live and work in peace and dignity.
In one of the most egregious examples of how little the government thinks of sex workers, in January last year, Marylene Lesveque was found dead in a hotel room. She was brutally murdered by a man who was out on parole for already killing a woman, but was allowed to see sex workers. The federal parole board in Canada decided that a violent man’s sexual needs come before the safety of sex workers.
Our lives should not be sacrificed this way. The state shouldn’t get to decide that a violent man can come see us, even though he’s killed a woman before. We shouldn’t be put in harm’s way so that other, less scandalous, more “respectable” women can stay safe; we are not human shields.
Our lives should not be cut short because of state- sanctioned whorephobia and misogyny. Our lives matter.
Ashley Noelle Arzaga. Marylene Lesveque. Say their names. Pause for the many other victims, named and unnamed. Their lives matter just as much as the life of Sarah Everard, the white woman who was murdered by a man pretending to be a police officer in London, U.K.. Their tragic deaths should be met with the same amount of public outcry, sympathy, and policy changes.
May they rest in power. May they find peace.