Housing committed to sex worker safety is a critical part of the solution
By Kerry Porth, Pivot Board Member and former executive director of PACE society
Recently, an important study conducted by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS regarding sex worker safety and supportive housing was released and has garnered some interesting press.
The researchers interviewed 39 women living in supportive, women-only housing within the downtown east side where they are permitted to bring guests into their homes and can engage in sex work in a safer environment. The study reinforced what has already been well documented- the location where sex work occurs has a significant impact on sex worker safety. More simply, it is much safer to work in an indoor location than it is to work on the street because the sex worker has much more control over her work and work environment. Working indoors, however, is usually not an option for street-based, or survival, sex workers due to many factors including precarious housing situations, age and drug addiction.
As the former Executive Director of PACE Society, a small DTES organization offering support to over 200 street-based sex workers and a former sex worker myself, the results come as no surprise to me. I was, however, struck by two media articles about this study that reflect the deep ambivalence our society feels about prostitution. The first, published by The Province on May 9th was titled “Vancouver study: Sex trade workers feel safest when working inside supported housing” by Susan Lazaruk and the second, published by the Vancouver Courier on May 14 was titled “Vancouver housing provider operates brothels in the Downtown Eastside” by Mark Hasiuk.
While the Province did a sensible, factual report about these critical services, Mr. Hasiuk wrote an inflammatory article that suggests that supportive housing providers, most notably Atira and Raincity, are removing hope from sex workers when the truth is quite the opposite. In his article, Mr. Hasiuk asks "Would they rather receive help out of prostitution?" Perhaps he hasn't heard the news that the ONLY exiting program for sex workers in the Lower Mainland, PEERS Vancouver, has been forced to shut its doors due to "re-structuring" of Provincial funding. Perhaps he doesn't understand how difficult exiting sex work and recovery from chronic addiction actually is. It is not something that happens overnight but over years. He asks if the women have been referred to "women-only detox". Perhaps he doesn't realize that women-only detox doesn't exist and access to any detox services involves significant wait times.
Mr. Hasiuk also touts the Swedish or Nordic model of prostitution law as the miracle cure that will eliminate prostitution. The Swedish model makes it a criminal offence to purchase sex, but does not criminalize the sale of sex. Unfortunately, the reality is that when either party to a sex work transaction is criminalized, it pushes sex work further underground and pushes sex workers away from supports. The Swedish model isn't a new system, it's simply increased criminalization. It also presupposes that every sex buyer is a man and every sex worker is a woman, something all sex workers know to be false. It demonizes male sexual desire and assumes that all sex work clients are violent perverts, something else sex workers know to be false.
Solving the harms related to survival sex work requires an enormous investment in social programs including raising welfare rates, improving access to education and employment for impoverished women, long-term, relevant drug-treatment, better access to child care, access to legal aid for poor and migrant women, strategies to address the impact of colonization and residential schools on First Nations people and so much more.
Our current federal government has been cutting funding for women's programs for years and has clearly stated its position that it doesn't owe protection for individuals who "choose" to put themselves in harm's way despite the fact that selling sex is legal and survival sex work is often a woman's only choice in order to meet her survival needs. And, despite Premier Clark’s assertion when responding to questions about funding for the Missing Women Inquiry that she would prefer to spend money to help the women going forward, no such money has been forthcoming.
The media has a long history of reporting on sex work issues in a sensationalized and misleading manner which can contribute to ill-advised enforcement initiatives and moral panics such as the current panic over international sex trafficking. Mr. Hasiuk, in particular, seems to have a particular loathing for individuals, like myself, who are fighting for the human rights of sex workers and believe that the decriminalization of adult, consensual sex work is a necessary first step in addressing the harms associated with sex work despite the fact that many of us in this movement are current or former sex workers.
DTES organizations such as Atira and Raincity have years of experience working on the ground, on a daily basis, with survival sex workers and have, for years, developed supports and programs in consultation with these individuals that are responsive to their unique needs. Sex work is a complicated and nuanced issue requiring real expertise based on actual experience and unbiased research and Mr. Hasiuk could learn much from them and activists like myself. Perhaps, if I identified as a helpless victim, Mr. Hasiuk would be more inclined to listen to me from atop his fine white steed.