For the past two years, the City of Vancouver has been working to meet its commitment of July 28, 2009, when council passed a motion to “Develop a Strategy to Address the Negative Impacts of the Street Sex Trade…on sex workers, sexually exploited children and youth, residents, businesses and communities throughout Vancouver”. Their stated concern includes “people involved in the survival sex trade who continue to be vulnerable to violence, homelessness, addiction and mental health problems, HIV and other serious health issues”.
On September 22, 2011, the report came to city council where 49 people signed up to speak to it, the first of its kind in North America. We all heard that there is common ground and areas of difference on the issue of sex work.
We need to appreciate the dialogue that this report has generated and the energy that has gone into its development and that can go into its future actions.
When we talk about sex workers, we are talking about people—people who have families, people who are so often stigmatized, ignored, isolated, and are the targets of violence. We are talking about a group that is primarily made up of women and aboriginal women. We are talking about sisters, brothers, friends, daughters, sons, parents—family.
What we see in this report is not a set of answers to issues that are diverse within communities in Vancouver.
What we see is a road map, broad brush strokes, outlining ways to go forward from this point in addressing the health and safety of the city for all residents including people involved in sex work.
There are many aspects of this report to be expanded and those that need to be contained.
Actions that support safety and inclusion; look at prevention and awareness for youth; provide stability for organizations offering services for sex workers; recognize the city’s role in the protection of all citizens and that delineate the roles of the provincial and federal governments; promote the training and education of frontline staff; and look to leadership and coordination to ensure the health and safety of all community members are all aspects of the report that can be identified as starting points for expansion.
The approach is comprehensive and coordinated, but there is much to be done in each area of the framework to ensure that those most affected by the actions laid out are included in seeking solutions and addressing the gaps.
There is an emphasis on enforcement that needs much greater clarification.
Enforcement needs to relate to protection from violence, something that street-level sex workers face every day. Eighty percent of street-level sex workers are women, and the level of violence perpetrated against them is unspeakable. Forty percent of these women are aboriginal, women who face layers of discrimination and displacement due to loss of culture and connection through colonization.
These are all women who are vulnerable and it is that very vulnerability that offenders prey on. Every one of us needs to take steps to combat violence in our communities.
Decisions around enforcement have to focus on what enforcement can do to support sex workers, not be punitive. Sex workers have the same rights to safety as anyone else and the approach taken by city staff, police, and other enforcement has to come from a place of increasing safety. It is the perpetrators of violence who need to be tracked and arrested.
The impact of enforcement can be further isolating to sex workers, making their lives far less safe, particularly if they are forced into dangerous areas. All areas within the city bureaucracy as well as enforcement must evaluate the impact of their actions to ensure that unintended harm does not come to the very people in need of protection.
This framework needs to be coordinated and needs to go forward. What we don’t want here is the cliché of a report that is passed by council and winds up on a shelf. All the actions must address the human needs of people and respect that the experience of sex workers is as individual as they are. Needs of all will be diverse but there is much common ground to work with. It is the responsibility of all of us to take this road map forward.
Kate Gibson is the executive director of WISH Drop-In Centre Society.