Focus on ‘high-risk lifestyle’ shifts blame from violent perpetrators to their victims
In separate incidents on Aug. 12 and Aug. 25, two women were found dead in their apartments in the same New Westminster building. Both women were believed to have worked as escorts who advertised online.
However, nothing is known about the circumstances surrounding their deaths or that the relationship to the perpetrator was in any way related to their occupation. Regardless of the circumstances of their deaths, media reports have focused on the “high-risk lifestyle” of escorting and on the associated dangers of advertising for clients online, with warnings to sex workers to be extra vigilant.
It is critical that individuals engaged in sex work are given warning about a potential violent predator as Vancouver has already seen the implications of what happens when police fail to do so as was the case with the murdered and missing women.
The overemphasis on the “high-risk lifestyle” of the women shifts blame away from the perpetrator to the women themselves. Moreover, referring to sex work as a high-risk occupation only works to further normalize the kind of violence that is experienced by sex workers and further stigmatizes individuals engaged in sex work.
Ultimately, this is a situation of violence against women and must be treated as such, and not the consequence of an individual’s choice to engage in sex work. When a construction worker dies on the job, the person is not implicated in the death based on a choice to do work that is potentially risky, but rather the focus is on the external factors that led to their deaths, such as faulty equipment or workplace safety.
While research has shown that indoor sex work is safer than street-based sex work, there are a number of factors that determine an individual’s level of safety. Most indoor sex work remains invisible in communities because of the stigma associated with it. Because sex work is criminalized, sex workers are isolated, with little if any access to support services.
In most Metro Vancouver municipalities, there are no support organizations for sex workers, and most sex workers are hesitant to report any violence or suspicious activity for fear of arrest. It is clear that alternate approaches are required.
Living in Community started in 2004, born out of community concerns about the impact of sex work and sexual exploitation in neighbourhoods. With representation from business, residents, sex workers, neighbourhood organizations, police and government, Living in Community addresses the needs of everyone impacted by sex work.
The project continues to hold extensive public discussions and continues to work with communities to implement evidence-based community-supported actions that work toward health and safety for all.
The key to the success of Living in Community has been to move away from a position of debating whether sex work should be criminalized or not, and whether it is a valid type of work. Rather, we acknowledge the diversity of perspectives that exist, and hold a fundamental belief in the right to health, safety and well-being for all citizens, regardless of the work they do.
Our Toolkit and report entitled Balancing Perspectives on Vancouver’s Sex Industry, presents a plan including 27 recommendations calling for prevention, education, harm reduction and intervention, support for exiting the sex trade, strategies to live together as a community, and legal issues. We continue to work to implement these broad-based recommendations, and have been encouraged by an increasing focus on health and safety by different levels of government and policing.
At a municipal level, there has been some positive change toward greater health and safety for sex workers within the city of Vancouver. The Vancouver Police Department has recently adopted new sex work enforcement guidelines which shift enforcement efforts away from arresting sex workers toward building relationships, with an emphasis on sex workers’ safety and security. In addition, the city of Vancouver is also engaged in adopting a series of recommendations passed by council in September 2011, in collaboration with diverse stakeholders.
In December 2012, the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry released its Forsaken Report, which focuses on a series of recommendations to enhance the safety of vulnerable women. The report also calls upon all entities with responsibilities under the Living in Community Action Plan to implement the Living in Community recommendations. Despite the urgent nature of the issues covered, the implementation process has stalled. With the exception of providing funding to a drop-in centre at the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, the provincial government has not otherwise acted upon recommendations before them.
We call on the provincial government to take a leadership role, and other Metro Vancouver municipalities and law enforcement agencies to engage in collaborative community efforts with sex workers, support organizations and other community groups to promote the safety of all sex workers, including indoor workers.
Both the Living in Community Action Plan and the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry contain important frameworks for how to make this happen successfully.
What is now required is political motivation and community collaboration to ensure that the kind of violence that we have seen recently and in the past does not continue.
The Vancouver Sun