By Susan Davis
Vancouver has seen its share of violence against sex workers. The cases of the missing women and they're horrific details put a spotlight on how NIMBYism and lack of concern for the lives and safety of Vancouver sex workers lead ultimately to their torture and murder.
Contributing factors identified through the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry, the City of Vancouver Task Force, and a citywide project known as Living in Community showed that there were many actions that could have prevented the disaster and could prevent it from happening again.
Recent revelations about yet another unfolding disaster in rural communities in British Columbia and murders of sex workers in places where enforcement is high have reminded us all how enforcement, uninformed actions, and stigma can isolate sex workers and make them vulnerable to violence.
In Vancouver, all citizens were impacted by the terrible outcome of targeted enforcement and lack of understanding issues facing sex workers. No matter a person's perspective on sex work, everyone agrees that the violence and vulnerability caused by the actions of the past are unacceptable. A culture of change was created by the tragedy and indeed remains the legacy of the women who died.
Increasing understanding of the mistakes of the past—and the violent impacts of taking action based on moral or ideological assumptions about sex workers and their lives—has changed the way sex work is viewed and monitored in Vancouver.
Vancouver police created a sex work enforcement guidelines policy, which clearly stated that adult consensual sex work would no longer be a priority. Instead of blanket targeted actions against all sex-industry participants, exploitation would be their only focus and, of course, investigating crimes against sex workers.
Training about the policy has ensured that police officers know and understand the position of the VPD and what is expected of them in terms of fair and unbiased treatment of sex workers during interactions with police.
The VPD also strengthened the sex industry liaison officer position, currently held by Lynda Malcolm. Her role has been critical to increasing the trust between sex workers and police in Vancouver.
She has consistently made herself available when sex workers are in need of help and provides a nonjudgmental link to the police and reporting those who commit crimes against us.
The City of Vancouver also adopted a policy of non-enforcement through their sex work response guidelines, which states explicitly that sex work is not a bylaw violation. Training for licensing and inspections staff has ensured that they understand the spirit of protection in the policy and what is expected of city staff should they have cause to interact with a sex-industry worker or businesses.
The net result of all of these things, which includes a lot more than described here, has been de facto decriminalization of sex work in the city of Vancouver. Even before the policies were made official, steps were being taken to change the culture of policing and enforcement against the sex industry in Vancouver.
Criminalization of sex work has been the largest contributing factor to violence faced by sex workers—and this needed to change.
“How is it working?” you might ask.
We are happy to report that these actions have made a prolific difference.
Not only are crimes against sex workers being reported more often and true exploitation being countered with several exploiters being investigated and prosecuted successfully, but...there have been no murders of sex workers in Vancouver since 2009!
We would like to congratulate the Vancouver police and City of Vancouver staff for having courage in the face of opposition to these actions from those who feel the sex industry could never be safe and who, for moral or ideological reasons, promote the “abolition” of the sex trade.
This past decade has proven without a doubt that decriminalization of sex work does make sex workers safer and is truly the only solution to ending exploitation and violence in the sex industry.
As the federal Liberals and NDP debate whether to support decriminalization of sex work, it is our hope that Vancouver can be held up as an example of how communities can address these issues in a way that respects all people's rights and safety.
Vancouver is success of decriminalization in a Canadian context. Both sex workers and communities are safer now.
It is time for reason to prevail. It is time to decriminalize sex work in Canada.