Living A Targeted Life
Naomi* flicks her pink-tinted glasses onto her head, the sun from a nearby window bouncing off of them and painting patterns on the ceiling of a hip, downtown coffee shop. She’s wearing jeans shorts, a blue sleeveless shirt and flip flops, and twirls a paper straw around in her iced coffee.
She has a sparkle in her eyes though its source is a secret, and a pixie-like smile that gives no hint to the struggles she’s triumphed.
Naomi is a trans sex trade worker based in Victoria, B.C.
When she was 15 years old, she ran away from home and eventually turned to the sex industry to keep herself sheltered and supported. In the beginning, she says, she faced violence almost daily.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand about the violence sex workers face is it’s not that they don’t know any better, it’s that they’re making a strategic choice to risk that violence to get the money they need to survive,” Naomi says.
Through more than a decade of experience she’s learned strategies to keep herself safe; she works from home when she can, screens her clients, stays in contact with friends and other workers, and makes sure to get cash first.
“Plus, I’m less visibly trans now, so I’m a lot less targeted” she says.
While most encounters between clients and sex workers don’t result in violence, the possibility of rape, beatings, harassment and robbery shadow every worker as a shift starts.
More can be done to change that, Naomi says.
That’s why she and staff at the local sex worker resource organization, Peers Victoria Resource Society, are advocating for a provincial online bad date reporting system, shortly after launching their own local version.
When Naomi began working with Peers a year ago, part of her role was uploading submitted reports of violent, uncomfortable or time-wasting dates to a new online Peers database. Peers had received a violence prevention grant from Justice Canada to help launch the online initiative, and collect bad date reports from Vancouver Island incidents south of Nanaimo.
These bad date and aggressor reports help identify clients through physical descriptions, vehicle descriptions, their phone numbers or email addresses. This information is released with partial disclosure – for example part of a licence plate or the last digits of a phone number – in part to protect privacy, but more importantly to prevent backlash.
The reports have been handed out in hard-copy form through the Peers night outreach van for many years, but could now also be accessed through a password-protected website with emailed updates.
While leafing through the information during a shift, Naomi froze.
“There was one incident that was particularly visceral that described the perpetrator, and reminded me of something that happened to me a few years ago,” Naomi says. “So I guess I was just wondering if maybe it would have made a difference, maybe it would not have happened if I had reported it.”
Violence, Trust and Reporting
Even though violence and harassment can be common for sex workers, reporting incidents is not.
Sex workers are hesitant to put forward reports for many reasons; sometimes it doesn’t seem important enough, sometimes violence is internalized, and sometimes workers don’t know where they can report or how the information will be shared.
Sex trade workers also have very low trust in local police, despite over a decade of police liaison partnership between Peers and the Victoria Police Department.
Statistics gathered be Cecilia Benoit, researcher with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) and sociology professor at the University of Victoria, found that only 14 per cent of violent or disturbing incidences in Victoria are reported to police by sex trade workers. Of the reported incidences, less than a third ultimately lead to an arrest.
“It’s quite obvious that while some police are quite respectful, some are not, even if there’s legitimate complaints,” Benoit says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to understand how their actions and behaviours and their attitudes affect whether people will report… one bad experience really colours their subsequent choices.”
That being said, VicPD officers have not pursued sex workers for criminal charges since the 1990s, according to Peers executive director Rachel Phillips.
“Not to say there isn’t the occasional things come up, but only in situations where they think people have been victimized,” Phillips says. “For the most part there’s no active enforcement of the Criminal Code, so that creates a setting where we feel more comfortable working with them… but that’s not the same across Canada.”
Recent changes to the Criminal Code have also changed how police can approach sex work. In 2014, Bill C-36 ruled that being a sex worker isn’t illegal, but paying for sex is, a law that leaves workers in an ambiguous situation where they’re not sure of their legal standing.
An Alternative Solution
“The whole point of bad date reporting is to offer an alternative to reporting to the police and promoting it in the community,” Naomi says.
Having a wider online database would eliminate barriers for many industry workers who can’t access the information, including those who work indoors, either privately or with an escort agency.
“I want to make it more accessible,” she says. “There are a lot of subsections of the community that are mostly under served, whether it’s marginalized people like disabled workers or trans workers or just simply under served workers like men who do sex work.”
This helped spark an idea brought forward at an inaugural violence prevention conference which took place in Vancouver at the end of May.
The “Safer Province for Everyone: Responding to Violence Against Sex Workers” was a first of its kind in B.C. and saw participants ranging from industry workers, resource centres, municipal leaders, police forces, health care workers and more.
From the presentations heard, it was decided that a working group of local resource centres would come together to create a comprehensive online database for bad date and aggressor reports no matter where in the province things take place.
Since May the working group has launched its first steps to secure funding for the project, as well as set plans for research into what could work.
Naomi is happy to see the project move forward, but for a moment she pauses. Her gaze shifts from the last drops of iced coffee in her cup into a corner of her memory as she and recalls something a friend told her once.
“‘It sucks that we can only get support after we’ve been raped’,” she says as she brings her gaze forward again.
“As important as bad date reporting is it’s not the end of efforts,” she says. “We need more resources, community support and safety in order to reduce the violence and stigma that sex industry workers face so we’re not just keeping each other safe after the fact.”
The sparkle in her eyes flashes again, and this time it’s no secret it’s lit with purpose.
*Names have been changed to preserve the identity and safety of the people interviewed.