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Ottawa sex workers report systemic discrimination by police

POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa Work Education Resist) today released a fascinating report about the conditions, context and challenges faced by sex workers in Ottawa, with particular emphasis on their experiences with the Ottawa police. In light of the findings of this report, POWER has asked the Ontario Human Rights Commission to conduct a public inquiry into the Ottawa police’s systemic discrimination against sex workers.

“Sex workers are criminalized for providing consensual sexual services – something that is not criminal.”

This report is based on interviews with a wide range of Ottawa sex workers, including those who work on the streets, as well as dancers, escorts, massage workers, and so on. It includes men, women, transgender, straight and gay sex workers, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s.

Most sex workers in this study reported generally good working relationships with their clients. They describe their clients as “normal guys” and do not feel they are being exploited. Some individual clients may provide challenges, such as intoxication, poor hygiene, or blurring of the professional/personal relationship (ie he perceives it as more of a personal relationship over time, whereas she still perceives it as a professional relationship). For male sex workers, there can be issues around maintaining an erection when not attracted to a client.

But the far greater challenge reported by sex workers is not the clients, but the police.

171 female sex workers were murdered in Canada between 1991 and 2004. Many more (especially street-based sex workers) were subjected to other forms of violence, including rape. Violence is, therefore, an issue of concern to sex workers. The report addresses the question of whether violence is inherently an occupational hazard for sex workers, or if it is, instead, a consequence of the criminalization, stigmatization and marginalization of sex workers. This is a critical distinction. Like the drug question: is it illegal because it’s dangerous, or is it dangerous because it’s illegal?

The report also distinguishes between situational violence and predatory violence. The former may occur when, for instance, there is a dispute over payment and the client resorts to violence. The latter may occur when a predator poses as a client in order to gain access to a victim, with the pre-meditated intention of doing physical, sexual or financial harm.

Predators target sex workers at least in part because they work in isolation and they work in a quasi-criminal occupational “grey zone” – ie, outside of police protection. If they are assaulted, they’re considerably less likely than most victims to report it. This is because some don’t know their rights, and many anticipate the “just a whore” mentality from police, which is often based on their own previous personal experience.

This “just a whore” attitude may stem from social profiling, which is like racial profiling, but based on social status rather than skin colour. It occurs when police (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not) classify people according to stereotypes, and then discriminate against them because of it. Sex workers are not the only group to experience social profiling; homeless people also experience it. Certain categories of sex workers experience it more than others. It’s ugly.

Chapter Five of this report is particularly harrowing. Sex workers report being assaulted by police, as well as experiencing verbal and physical harassment, call-outs, outings, illegal detainment, violence, ‘starlight tours,’ seizure of condoms and theft or destruction of property at the hands of police. They describe being strip-searched by groups of male officers, as well as having their clothing physically removed by police in public places, such as outside the Shepherds of Good Hope, or on Bank Street, in front of Hartman’s.

Because they are so poorly regarded and treated by police, street sex workers are understandably unwilling to turn to police for help or protection when needed, or to report being victims of crime.

If you’d like to learn more, the official launch of this report will take place at Venus Envy on Lisgar Street, at 6:00 tonight.

2 comments to Ottawa sex workers report systemic discrimination by police

  • This is something I’ve long argueed about. I can see no reason why sex for money should be criminal – it’s a service, plain and simple – no different than paying someone to mow your lawn. Unfortunately moral, religious objections far too often take precedence over common sense.

  • DW

    I agree with Valerie however I think its disingenuous to think its the same as someone mowing your lawn. The worst that could happen with someone cutting your lawn is getting a bad lawn cut, perhaps injury to the person cutting the lawn with faulty equipment. With prostitution you are looking at STDs which can network out into the community at large. However decriminalization is a good first step but I would want regulation and testing intertwined with the profession just as other dangerous occupations are regulated for safety.

    You could start by mirroring the rules used in Nevada (where street walking is still illegal but bawdy houses are not) and/or the testing regimen used by the pornography industry.

    However, as soon as you start putting up regulatory hurdles, there will continue to be an illegal trade, just as in other industries (unlicensed contractors, illegal cigarette smuggling to avoid taxes, etc.). The key is finding the right balance to protect the public safety vs. the rights of the individual.