Advocacy groups say Ottawa sex workers need more social services, not legislation

Advocacy groups say Ottawa sex workers need more social services, not legislation.

By Paula McCooey,

Ottawa Citizen

December 17th 2014.

A new survey by a pair of advocacy groups looking at how the drug and sex trades are intertwined in Ottawa highlights just how many sex workers are homeless and says many live in fear of being mistreated by clients or police.

The survey was conducted by PROUD — or Participatory Research in Ottawa, Understanding Drugs, along with DUAL, Drug Users Advocacy League.

The groups surveyed 858 people at community health centres across the city from March 2013 to January 2014. Among those questioned, 108 said they had engaged in sex work over the past year.

Of those 108, there were 68.5 per cent who said they were not living in their own house or apartment. That same percentage said they had spent at least one night in a shelter over the past year.

The survey also found that 77 per cent of the sex workers reported being stopped or searched by police without arrest; and that 50.6 per cent said they had experienced verbal abuse by the police.

The study’s release Wednesday coincided with the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

About 50 community members met at the PROUD and DUAL centre on Murray Street to speak about the results and emphasize the need to protect the rights of sex workers and fight against the criminalization and stigma of sex work.

“POWERS’s position is that sex work is not inherently dangerous but rather it’s the social and legal context in which it takes place that makes it dangerous,” says Emily Symons, chair of the group Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist.

Of particular interest to these groups is the new law Bill C-36 governing sex work that was brought into effect on Dec. 6. The so-called Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act largely criminalizes the buying of sex.

They say the new law will continue to stifle workers’ ability to communicate freely with clients and therefore put sex workers at risk of violence.

“It’s now illegal in Canada to advertise sexual services and what this means is sex workers are no longer able to communicate opening and honestly with their clients about services they are willing to perform and services they are not willing to perform,” said Symons. “And it also means that sex workers are not able to negotiate safer sex practices with their clients.”

Jennifer Bigelow, 46, a former sex worker turned advocate said she is concerned the new laws will damage inroads they’ve made with police over the past decade to help keep sex workers safe. Now she feels workers will have to “go more into seclusion.”

“So now do you not only have to fear the violence of the johns, you have to fear the harassment and probably the violence and brutality of the police,” says Bigelow, adding she’s noticed a larger police presence on streets that are high traffic areas for sex workers since the bill was put into place.

Rather than criminalize sex work, Bigelow would like to see it legalized and controlled with more social support so workers don’t have to fear for their lives

“My passion is to open up a centre in Vanier where 90 per cent of the prostitution happens,” she says. “Where they can drop in, always have condoms and always have drug harm reduction tools and be provided with a counsellor because you never know when you are going to have that bad day.”

By the Numbers

44.8 per cent of female participants had received money, drugs or gifts for sex

31.3 per cent of male participants had given money, drugs or gifts for sex

Of the 108 participants who had engaged in sex work in the past 12 months:

68.5 per cent were not living in their own house or apartment

52.7 per cent had spent at least one night on the street or outdoors in a park

31.5 per cent had experienced violence from a client in the previous 12 months

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