It Is Unacceptable: A Statement on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA)’s work is conducted on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, which include the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations (colonially known as Vancouver, Canada). CATA seeks to work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples’ fight for autonomy and self-determination. This piece was written by a member of CATA who is a trans woman of colour currently engaged in the sex industry.

Originally conceived as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle Washington, United States (US) in 2003, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is held annually on December 17 by sex workers, their advocates, friends, families and allies. The day calls attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers worldwide, as well as the need to remove the social stigma and discrimination that have contributed to violence against sex workers. This year, 212 deaths of sex workers were documented, the vast majority of whom are women of colour. Many of these same women were memorialized during this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance.

Here in Canada, colonial laws criminalize sex workers, as well as their clients, their drivers, and the owners and operators of the places where they work. This reality forces the industry underground and weakens the ability to combat strong-arming, exploitative labor conditions, and violence against sex workers. As a result, criminalization empowers and fosters violence against women, men and nonbinary sex workers.  Violence that has become a normalized part of the work environment for sex workers include sexual violence, psychological violence, and economic violence (where theft and robbery become common occurrences). The results are that the right to refuse unsafe work does not apply to sex workers. This is unacceptable.

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On this 16th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, CATA recognizes that:

  • When sex work is criminalized, sex workers are vulnerable to violence and obliged to “choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person” (Justice Himel in Bedford v Canada).
  • It is unacceptable that the Canadian Criminal Code (CCC s. 210) makes it illegal for sex workers to work in their own homes or in establishments – the very places where they are safest because they can have security measures in place (i.e. cameras, neighbours, known exits).
  • It is unacceptable that the Canadian Criminal Code (CCC s. 210, 211, 212) makes it illegal for individuals to provide support or security to sex workers by criminalizing drivers, agency personnel and establishment owners.
  • It is unacceptable that street-based sex workers are often charged under Canadian Criminal Code s. 213.
  • It is unacceptable that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR s. 185) authorizes an immigration officer to impose, vary or cancel conditions on work permits if a migrant sex worker is found to be engaged in the sex industry.
  • It is unacceptable that in order to avoid coming to the attention of the police, street-based sex workers are forced to forgo safety strategies such as working in pairs, soliciting in well-lit populated areas, or taking the time to carefully assess a client prior to entering a vehicle.
  • It is unacceptable that sex workers are over-policed but under-protected. As a result, they are hyper-exposed to violence and predators who target them with impunity.
  • It is unacceptable that community members who seek to create a more socially just society leave out and ignore sex workers and sex worker issues from movements.
  • It is unacceptable that justice does not exist for sex workers. Police repression against the sex industry does not address this issue and creates conditions that encourage trafficking.

On this 16th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, CATA calls for awareness that violence against sex workers is a global catastrophe:

  • It is unacceptable that Joel Rifkin confessed to killing 17 sex workers in the New York area between 1989 and 1993, without there having been a single missing persons report filed for any of the women during that time.
  • It is unacceptable that the remains of numerous missing sex workers were found on Robert Pickton’s family farm right here in Metro Vancouver. CATA recognizes that he has probably killed dozens of sex workers though he was only convicted of 6 murders in December 2007.
  • It is unacceptable that Peter Sutcliffe (aka the Yorkshire Ripper) murdered 13 women, from 1975-1980 in Northern England.
  • It is unacceptable that Robert Hansen murdered between 15 to 21 sex workers near Anchorage, Alaska between 1980 and 1983.
  • It is unacceptable that Gary Ridgway (aka the Green River Killer) confessed to killing 48 sex workers from 1982 to 1998 in the US.
  • It is unacceptable that in one month, in December 2006, Steve Wright murdered five sex workers in Ipswich, England.

On this 16th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, CATA works to remind us all that stigma increases violence:

  • In Toronto, 100% of migrant sex workers interviewed by the Migrant Sex Workers Project said they would not call the poliec if they experienced violence.
  • In Vancouver, only 25% of youth who experienced sexual assault as suvival sex workers reported the violence to the police. Of these youth who had been victimized, 18% did not receive help from anyone, including boyfriends, other sex workers, friends, or parents.

On this 16th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, CATA calls for action to end violence against sex workers:

  • People in leadership positions must be trained to be culturally competent towards sex worker communities and sex worker issues.
  • People working with and in service of sex workers can help organize bad date lists, support sex workers in creating programs that meet their needs, and work to create and open leadership positions for people with sex work experience.
  • Community advocates must push back on the conflation of sex work with human trafficking and support policies that increase sex worker access to safety, human rights, justice, and liberation.
  • Communities must support and help create space for peer-led, sex worker-led efforts for safer workplace conditions and meaningful advocacy.
  • Institutions, organizations, and community groups must develop sex work policy to create safer and empowering spaces for sex workers in their own organizations and in the community at large.
  • Institutions, organizations, community groups, and individuals who seek to work in solidarity with sex workers and multiply-marginalized communities must be more vigorous with identifying and exposing sex worker antagonism, anti-sex work sentiment, and SWERFism (sex worker exclusionary radical feminism) in their work.

On this 16th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, CATA seeks to remind the public that sex workers are resilient and robust, and come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. They collaborate and stand up for each other to increase safety and resist violence. They organize bad date reports and participate in information sharing regarding dangerous situations, organizations, police, and people. They are safety buddies for each other and come together to support other sex workers who have experienced violence. They do their own research and draw from their immense lived experiences. Sex workers don’t need rescue. Sex workers deserve rights and they need solidarity in their fight for justice and liberation. Anything less is unacceptable.

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