In the decades Susan Davis has been in the sex trade, she has had several brushes with death. One was at the hands of Robert Pickton, who she claims raped her at knifepoint back in 1991. With the recent release of Wally Oppal’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry report into the police investigation of Pickton’s murders, Davis says that efforts to stop violence against women must include ways to keep sex workers safe.
“When you’re working on the street…you have to jump in the car and close the door before you can negotiate the terms of your employment,” says Davis, who now works out of her home, in a phone interview. “You don’t know if the guy wants to torture you for $5 in Crab Park. I’ve had to dive out of cars while they’re driving.
“A man tried to kill me in West Vancouver on an outcall,” she adds. “If you’re assaulted or robbed or you’ve been hurt, you still have to go back because you need the money.”
When she tried to report that alleged Pickton assault to police, Davis says no one took her seriously or bothered to follow up. She says she was essentially told that with sex work, violence goes with the territory.
“We need more places to work indoors and we need to have safe work sites in the Downtown Eastside,” Davis says. “I don’t know how we can justify violence against women in the fight against violence against women.”
Sex workers are at higher risk of violence; so are women with disabilities, geographically isolated women, young women, and aboriginal women, according to the We Can End All Violence Against Women coalition. But it occurs across all demographics, with 51 percent of Canadian women having experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.
Stopping violence against women can’t happen without a shift in societal mindset, says Beverley Jacobs, the indigenous-communities project consultant at Ending Violence Association of B.C.
“It [violence] has become normalized in today’s society, and that’s what needs to change,” Jacobs says on the line from her Vancouver office. “It’s worse now than it’s ever been. We need to make changes to better the future of our kids and grandkids.
She points to poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental-health issues as key underlying factors that need to be addressed. And she urges anyone who’s experienced violence or who’s afraid of it happening in a relationship to get help.
“They need to know they are not alone and that there are men and women who care,” Jacobs says.
Women in a violent relationship need to know the warning signs of future or possibly increased danger, notes the website of EVA B.C., which provides services to the 200-plus antiviolence organizations in the province. Risk factors include the abuser having a history of alcohol or drug abuse, being depressed, having threatened or attempted suicide recently or in the past, facing employment instability, and having access to weapons.
Then there are warning signs of imminent danger. Violence may happen: after the abuser has been drinking or taking drugs; if the abuser has had a bad day at work; if a woman has been out with friends or family, has returned home later than usual from work, is paying a lot of attention to her children, or divulges that she has filed for divorce or has a new boyfriend.
“The list of things that may trigger the violence is endless,” EVA B.C. notes. “And none of them are your fault.”
The organization suggests letting friends or neighbours know about the situation so they can check in, and having your cellphone in your hand or pocket during any of the above scenarios so you can dial 911 if necessary.
Sex workers, meanwhile, face danger daily because of Canada’s laws surrounding, and attitudes toward, the trade, Davis says. She considers herself fortunate to have her own place out of which to work, but she remembers all too well her days on the street.
“I was living in a hotel, so I was always one day away from being homeless,” she says. “Social policies don’t take into account the choices people have to make to prevent themselves from being homeless or so they can feed their children. We need to cease raiding and closing brothels and making it illegal to rent hotel rooms by the hour.
“Abolitionist pressures and pressures from residents’ groups have led us to this situation that’s so dangerous,” she adds. “Imagine going to work and having no safety….Criminalizing sex work is not a reasonable approach.”