This 18 minute video will blow the minds off people who don't understand our work. Maggie DeVries speaks clearly and eloquently delivering a compelling and authentic "case for decrim."
The Case for Decrim - A Story
By Annie Temple
The woman who sat in my passenger seat was grateful to get out of the cold for a few minutes. Armed with a sandwich and hot chocolate from the trunk of my car and $30 richer, she couldn’t stop thanking me for stopping on her stroll tonight.
“Now I can go home,” she said. “Thank you so much.” I asked her to sign the top of the questionnaire to indicate she’d been paid for her consultation.
“You don’t have to use your real name,” I assured her. “We’re not recording names anyway. We just need signatures to show that we aren’t keeping the money ourselves.” I smiled.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she replied. “The cops, everyone, they all know that I’m out here. I’ve been arrested too many times to count. This is the only street I can work on that I haven’t been red-zoned.” A red zone is an area that individual sex workers are banned from. If found even walking through them, they can be arrested. “I can’t go to the library anymore. My bank is in one of my red zones. I’m breaking the law if I walk out of my place and cross the road,” she chuckles ruefully.
Although I spend the next half hour asking her some very heavy questions about her experiences of violence and trafficking in the sex trade, she is cheerful. That $30 was her ticket home tonight. She wouldn’t have to get into any more cars.
“You know that girl found in the bushes outside of the hospital?” she said. “That was my friend. Us working girls are going missing like crazy. It’s scary out here.”
She tells me stories about having objects thrown at her from cars, as have all the other women I’ve interviewed. It’s quite common in Surrey for residents and young men to throw rocks, beer bottles, pennies, and garbage at the women working the streets.
One of my interview questions is: ‘Why do you think people commit violence against sex workers?’ The most common answer is that sex workers are disposable. “No one cares about us so they know they can get away with it,” this woman answers.
When I get to question number ten in the violence section, I hold my breath. This is the most important question. We need this expertise to find solutions to violence against sex workers. ‘How can we prevent the mass genocide of sex workers in our communities”’ is the question I think in my head. What I say out loud is: ‘What are the key things you believe can be done to reduce the risk of violence upon sex workers?’
She doesn’t hesitate even for a second. “Give us a safe place to work,” she says. “Stop moving us around from one place to another. Do you think I want to be standing out on a street corner in somebody’s neighbourhood? I feel like shit when a kid walks by with his mom and asks her ‘why is that lady always standing out here?’ I have kids too. But they don’t let us work in the industrial areas anymore. Stop telling us where we can’t work and tell us where we can.”
That interview, along with many others, was conducted in February of 2010 for the From the Curb project. Since then, we – the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC) – have been working on solutions to the epidemic of violence towards sex workers in BC.
The prohibitionist movement to eliminate the sex industry is failing miserably. Not just because there are too many customers (and therefore too much demand) but also because many workers like their jobs.
You heard me, we like our jobs. The street-based sex trade is a very small percentage of the workers who are bringing home the bacon as sex workers. Similarly, drug addiction and homelessness does not affect the majority of sex industry workers. In fact, during any research I've ever done interviewing street-based sex workers, I met many who are street-based, who also like their jobs.
Some sex workers live in the best neighbourhoods and send their children to the best schools. They are your neighbours; moms you chat with in your community. But you’ll never find out because they are masters at keeping their occupations secret.
When I was stripping, I knew a woman who worked as a kindergarten teacher in her home community during the school year and traveled to strip over the summer. She was the sweetest woman and I had no trouble imagining her being every kids favourite teacher (and every parents favourite teacher, as well).
Many of the women who are working the streets are just as sweet. They are not disposable, as so many of them believe because of the way they’ve been treated. For every man, woman, or transgendered sex worker, there are many people who love and worry about them. However, they are shunned by society and often they are abandoned by their families. The visible street-based population of sex workers receive the brunt of the stigma and oppression facing sex industry workers, therefore they are the first people we need to protect with our laws.
Anyone who has studied the Canadian laws around prostitution knows that they are harmful and should be abolished.
Decriminalization would make the biggest impact on creating a safer sex trade. Canada has taken the first step in achieving the goal ofdecriminalization. But there is a backlash from the morality police (read: judgemental religious fanatics) and sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERF's), who do not want to see decriminalization occur. Rather, they support Canada adopting what's called "The Nordic Model," criminalizing clients of sex industry workers.
The Nordic Model
In the same category with attempts to prohibit the sex industry altogether as a harmful stance that leads to more violence, is the belief that punishing the clients is the answer. Tell me exactly how taking away all our customers will help sex industry workers?
In reality, it makes us more financially desperate and therefore more vulnerable to violence. It’s discriminatory in that it takes away the income from primarily one part of the sex worker population – the street-based sex workers who, in most cases, are the most financially desperate sex industry workers out there.
It creates the same issues that are caused by criminalizing sex workers directly. We will still need to hide our work. We will still be reluctant to report violence to police for fear they will start watching our workspace and arresting our customers. Furthermore, police in places like Sweden, where the Nordic Model exists, find other reasons to raid, arrest, and harass sex workers. Clearly, the continued criminalization of the sex industry under the Nordic Model perpetuates stigma and oppression of sex industry workers via enforcement activities.
But the most disturbing aspect of the Nordic Model, in my opinion, outside of its direct and obvious harmful effects on sex industry workers, is that clients - who are in the position of coming across and identifying exploitation in the sex industry (such as forced participation, trafficking, and youth sexual exploitation) - will be too scared to report what they find to police. Clients have the potential to be our secret weapon against exploiters. But not if we criminalize them.
Legalization is another widely supported solution, but it has many holes in it as well.
Legalization would make pimps out of our government, creating “institutional pimps” with laws and regulations telling sex workers how to run their businesses, and the added risk of going to jail for not obeying.
We don’t “legalize” other professions, so why would we consider it for sex work? Sex workers should be allowed to run their businesses just as any other citizen does (and most of them already do).
Don’t underestimate sex industry workers. The condescending assumption that sex industry workers are too degraded and incompetent to think or act on their own behalves is effectively silencing an entire segment of our population. We are perfectly capable of regulating our own industry if only we could do it without ourselves or our clients being arrested.
How can we decrease violence against sex workers?
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 clients just makes sex workers more desperate to earn money and reduces the likelihood of real exploitation being reported.
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 deemed some of 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 social service organizations, 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 industry 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 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. 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.”
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, stupid, or otherwise unable to speak for herself.
The Case for Decriminalization is bullet-proof. Conservatives, religious fanatics, and sex worker exclusionist radical feminists might get what they want temporarily. They might succeed in forcing "The Nordic Model" on Canada. But sex workers will continue to fight for our rights.
The Supreme Court of Canada is not a tool for hateful, morality-driven prohibitionists. It will strike down any laws in the future that may be created to criminalize customers. Just like they deemed the current laws to be unconstitutional, so will they realize that criminalizing clients is also unconstitutional.
As the December 2013 Canada v. Bedford decision, written by the Chief Justice, said:
“The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risk.” (para 60)
The same will be said of criminalizing clients because the effects will be the same. Sex industry workers know this and we will not stop until our governments recognize this, as well.