December 17 is the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This date was chosen by American sex worker Annie Sprinkle and late sex worker activist Robyn Few because it was the day in 2003 that Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, was convicted of killing 49 women, many of them prostitutes. He later confessed to killing twice that number of women.
As the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) notes, Ridgway says he chose prostitutes as his victims “because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
Just as with convicted Canadian serial killer Robert Pickton, “for years, many sex workers were aware of the identity of the Green River Killer but were either afraid to come forward for fear of arrest or simply dismissed by police,” says NSWP.
It is generally understood that sex workers who are street-based endure the most violence, and yet even under Canada’s new prostitution laws claiming to protect “exploited persons,” they are the ones left most exposed by proscriptive laws, neighbourhood vigilantism and negative media discourse.
Arlene Pitts recently completed a major research paper on the criminalization of sex work for her M.A. at York University, Remembering Bedford (a reference to the Supreme Court challenge that struck down Canada’s prostitution laws before the Harper government responded by passing the even more insidious Bill C-36 to replace them). It’s an extensive participatory research study on the lives of six street-based sex workers in Toronto since the passage of that legislation.
Pitts understands the reality the women in her study live with. She became street-involved during the Mike Harris years, and because of changes to Ontario Works by that government was ineligible for any government assistance or support as a minor without her parents’ consent. She spent most of her teens and early 20s on the street.
“It was the streets,” she says, “where I gained most of my understanding of the oppressive political system that creates harmful realities for people who use drugs, sex workers and street-involved people. My community was criminalized for being poor and being poor in public spaces.”
Street-based workers know that laws regulating their bodies, no matter what they are called, are the expressions of an excluding, proscriptive power structure. As BowChicaWowWow, one of Pitts’s interviewees, notes, “Laws are not what women feel protect them.”
The earliest prostitution laws in Canada, Pitts notes, “generated fear and discrimination against visible sex workers, which in effect caused prostitutes to be shunned from their communities.”
Street-based workers continue to be positioned as a nuisance in moral, legal and social contexts. Try to imagine what this is like on a day-to-day basis, when a confluence of discourse and action – legal, police, social – frames you as a pest and a criminal and incessant material power is exercised and showcased at your expense.
Despite the focus of much of the discussion of C-36 on targeting clients and third parties, Pitts’s research shows that women on the street identify the police as their biggest concern. Because of the criminality of their mere presence, street-based workers are often charged for non-sex work related issues.
“Women are terrified of getting stuck in the system,” Pitts says. Even if a woman is not working, it’s assumed that she is, putting her body in a constant state of imminent trouble. This makes many other aspects of her life – crossing borders, trying to access social services, applying for other forms of labour – difficult.
“One of the gals, Jersey, straight-up stated that when she was looking over her shoulder, she was looking for cops. She would rather run into the worst predator than the cops.”
Pitts says, “This speaks to the reality of the violent atmosphere that criminalization has created for all sex workers.” And racialized and trans sex workers experience violence to a much higher degree.
Pitts describes street-based sex workers as “some of the most crafty and clever folks out there,” but “in reality, no matter how clever or cheeky they are, arrests and harassment by law enforcement are inevitable under the current system.”
Anti-sex-work activists often insist the new laws only criminalize clients, implying that sex workers are safe from harassment. “So what are they complaining about?” is their refrain.
Yet Pitts’s research shows that street-based sex workers “continue to be criminalized and harassed on the streets” without support, making it “extremely challenging to work safely.”
The main objective of Pitts’s research was to include and amplify the sex worker voices left out of most discussions that directly affect them. Pitts wanted to engage “specifically street-based sex worker voices in the political process and discussion about laws that impact their lives.” She created a space to hold six weeks of group discussion on topics such as the new laws, life, safety and everyday realities.
One participant shared her dream of creating a green-light district for street-based sex workers. “There were several ideas about what this would look like,” says Pitts, “but all were outdoor venues, and the sex workers were still street-based but no longer seen as a public nuisance. They were workers offering services and contributing to the real world.”
All research that engages sex workers directly shows we have ideas about our lives and our place in the world that contradicts almost all the existing discourse.
Pitts describes the green-light district as “brilliant, because it challenges the idea of abolishing sex work through punitive laws. The green-light district is another world – a world that would appreciate sex work as work and would be a place where all the bullshit realities of living under a criminalized system would no longer exist.”
To honour the women who participated in her study, Pitts is organizing a special ceremony for them on December 17 – a red-carpet affair at an undisclosed location.
“Sex workers are over-researched and rarely included in the crafting or dissemination of that research,” she says. “This was important to me, so during the discussions the gals were asked what they wanted the next steps to be or what they would like to see happen with the research. Immediately, one participant said, ‘I want to celebrate our work and our lives!'” So she suggested a red-carpet event.
Pitts continues, “She more like demanded a red-carpet event for hookers: whore awards. Awards to honour and recognize the important and at times difficult work of street-based sex workers.”
So on December 17, they will get just that. Pitts guarantees it. “A red-fucking-carpet event to get pampered, dressed up, done up, an event that reflects the struggles and strengths experienced by the research participants and other street-based sex workers. This December 17, we will all be celebrating the strength and resiliency of all sex work communities, including street-based sex workers, with love and rage.”
Fleur de Lit is a pseudonym.
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