I remember being in a pub when news of human remains on a Vancouver pig farm was first breaking.
And I remember my friend’s countenance of knowing sadness. She’d befriended a few sex workers in VanCity’s Downtown Eastside years back. They were afraid to work, she said. They knew someone was preying on them.
At a cold, lonely vigil in Allan Gardens on December 20, Roxanne Smith echoed that sense. “I recognized 40 out of 62 victims. We all knew there was a serial killer in Vancouver. We told the police. No one paid attention because of who we were.”
Between 1991 and 2004, 171 female sex workers were murdered in Canada, according to the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto (SWAT). More than one person a month has been killed simply because of their gender and line of work.
If that ever became true of journalists in this country, I doubt I’d write another word.
Those in the trade blame the law for putting them in danger. While the sex act involved in sex work isn’t explicitly verboten, it is barricaded behind Victorian anachronisms: it’s illegal to communicate for the purpose of prostitution, and “living off the avails” or operating a “bawdy house” is illegal.
The latter two prohibitions keep workers from hiring security or working indoors in a safe, stable environment – accepted conditions in other businesses. A constitutional challenge to these laws was filed last spring by Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young and three former and current sex workers.
All this puts Detective Wendy Leaver in a somewhat touchy position. Head of the special victims section in the Toronto police sex crimes unit, Leaver has made it her mission to reduce violence against sex workers.
“The community has to care, and it starts with the police taking an interest,” Leaver says. “What’s most surprising is, you tell [those accused of abusing sex workers] they’re under arrest and they’re surprised. They say, ‘For that whore?’ We have to stand up and say, ‘No, we can’t allow this.’”
Most of the work done by Leaver’s small unit, formed at the beginning of 2007, consists of building intelligence and relationships – the former on predators within the community, the latter with support agencies, to convince women there’s somewhere to report violence without fear.
“It’s a lot of trust to be established,” she says. “We knew starting out that we’d be starting from the bottom.”
The unit puts up posters and takes out ads, hoping to gain visibility among both workers and johns. She’s anxious about the difficulties.
“The young ones, the pimps get them inside and we lose track of them. It worries me. It’s very difficult to get through to those working the bawdy houses.”
Of course, that may be because those working in them risk being charged. Sex worker advocates estimate that indoor workers account for 90 per cent of the field. While not all of them take outcalls, many do.
Those on the street are even more likely to be attacked. “Women don’t work the street by choice,” says SWAT’s Anastasia Kuzyk. They do it because they fear the consequences of a bawdy house charge.
Which leads me to wonder – in the interest of getting her job done, will Leaver deliberately ignore bawdiness? She won’t confirm or deny it. “That’s not why I’m there,” she says carefully. “I’m there for the sexual assault call.”
When I ask Kuzyk about the new unit, she’s skeptical. “The reality is, we don’t even get regular treatment, so how can we expect to get special treatment?” she says. “Plus, when a girl gets attacked, the first person she has contact with is generally a uniform.
“I had a girl who was raped. She approached a police cruiser, and the first thing the officer said was, ‘What are you more mad about, being raped or not being paid?’”
(Says Leaver, “Call us with your complaints. We take them from this office to the division.”)
Outside of legal challenges, what would Kuzyk suggest? “They need to hire us to go to the police colleges to train them. They have people come in to teach them forensics, interviewing techniques. They’re paid consultants. Why shouldn’t we be?”
I ask Kara Gillies of sex workers support organization Maggie’s what kinds of changes she hopes for. She thinks for a moment before answering.
“I’d ask that [the city] revisit its inane licensing procedures,” she says, referring to the licensing of strip clubs and “holistic” parlours.
The latter indirectly decriminalizes in-call workers, but with few real benefits. “The city makes a lot of money off the backs of sex workers. It’s a very devious system.”
Says Kuzyk, “We need to address this term ‘high-risk lifestyle.’ It’s just another label to blame us for what happens to us.”
She concludes with a statement that, for what it’s worth, Leaver uses as well: “Sex work is a job, and violence is not in the job description.”