Jen (not her real name) started working the streets at 12 years old. She was a Children’s Aid kid and did it to survive. When she turned 16, she moved out of foster care, found an apartment and got a job.
Society often views sex work as an identity, not an activity, and Jen argues many sex workers self-stigmatize.
“That category of sex worker is a master identity — it’s a permanent social identity,” she explains. “You’re viewed as a pariah, as damaged, as amoral. People feel comfortable treating you poorly, which reflects an awareness that organizations aren’t going to take up your rights or enforce them in the same way.”
A couple dozen concerned residents braved the snowy roads to gather at the Croatian Centre on Kathleen Street this week for a public forum on sex work. Organized by the Greater Sudbury Police, NOAH’s SPACE, the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth, the Corner Clinic and Shkagamik-kwe Health Centre, it pointed to the ongoing stigmatization of sex workers, which can deter women from accessing services or leaving the trade.
Lee-Ann Gould was introduced to sex work by her then-fiancé when she was just 15. She has since left the profession, but told Tuesday’s crowd there is a serious lack of resources in Sudbury.
“There hasn’t been very much,” she said. “The only one we have directed for sex workers is Project PEACE.”
The lack of networking between agencies has also hampered their efforts.
“In terms of barriers, there’s lots of judgment,” Gould said. “Another is that a lot of community organizations don’t refer to each other. I’d like to see more drop-in centres, more out-of-the-cold programs, and mobile (outreach programs).”
Randy Hosken, acting sergeant with the police, said there were 300 incidents in 2012 related to the sex trade, which included arrests, sweeps and calls from concerned citizens.
Hosken admitted past enforcement tactics “weren’t solving anything.”
“We realize we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said, adding that sex work is a “community issue, not just a police issue.”
The city police service has adopted a community response approach, coined The Nickel, which champions community safety, security and wellness for all citizens. The aim is to help sex workers when necessary, rather than prosecute them.
Barbara Makela, victim and youth referral co-ordinator for police, said not all sex workers are being exploited; some just want to pay their bills at the end of the month. She echoed Gould’s position that Sudbury needs a safe drop-in centre for women, where they can discuss their concerns and experiences in an inviting environment.
Transitioning away from sex work can be difficult.
“Society never lets you back in,” Jen says. “Show me a person who’s received those messages — that you’re a whore — who won’t suffer from low self-esteem … I think oftentimes they feel more comfortable hanging around with other groups who are also marginalized.”
Jen “didn’t buy into that identity,” eventually studying her way to a master’s degree in social research.
About project Project PEACE
Project PEACE was founded in 2010 and is a registered non-profit organization
It offers advocacy, education and mediation services to women working in the sex trade
For more information, go to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/project.peace.sudbury.