By Kristi Alexandra
As Vancouverites, we know we’re at home in the poorest zip code in Canada.
Along with that comes the struggle of some of the most economically disadvantaged, severely marginalized people—among them, street-level prostitutes.
It’s a visible demographic in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, and also a highly policed collection of individuals whose many injustices include a lack of support from the law resulting in a dangerous and sometimes violent work environment.
Three Kwantlen instructors, Jean Nicolson-Church, Susan Power and Seema Ahluwalia, along with Dr. Leslie Ann Jeffrey had something to say about the conditions of the Canadian sex-trade, and how different schools of feminism can help or hinder the perceptions and value of sex-trade workers in Canada.
Power, an instructor in Kwantlen’s Bachelor of Psychiatric Nursing program, knows that the ideas of feminism and the sex-trade can sometimes be both mutually inclusive and exclusive.
“It depends on what you define as feminism and what you define as the sex-trade,” she said, alongside Nicolson-Church in an interview at Kwantlen’s Surrey campus.
“I think, philosophically, in the BPN program, teaching women’s studies, the focus is the lens with which you work with people. That’s coming from a point of relationship and respect – which are both feminist concepts. So, then it’s very compatible with working with people in the sex-trade.”
However, some feminists aren’t always willing to look at the sex-trade this way.
“According to some feminists, [prostitution] should be illegal because it’s a product of our society as a man’s exploitation of a woman,” said Power. “However, there’s another group of feminists that believe that it should be legal to ensure the safety of women in that they should have a right to choose. People need to realize that it’s complicated and look at it through a systems perspective.”
Jeffrey, a political science professor at University of New Brunswick and co-author of Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back and Sex and Borders, also sees the separation among feminists.
“Feminism as a field is fairly complex and has many, many forms. There are a number of sex-work alliances across Canada who are trying to bridge the gap,” she said over the phone from New Brunswick.
“You’ve got to stop calling that kind of feminism – which is prohibitionist and wants to eradicate prostitution – you’ve got to stop calling it radical because it’s actually not radical, it’s quite conservative.”
It’s these conservative views, unfortunately, that lend to conservative law-making, which ultimately lead to a lack of protection for sex-workers and force them into more dangerous situations.
Seema Ahluwalia, Kwantlen’s chair of the Department of Sociology, has focused heavily on violence against women and policing surrounding the sex-trade. She says that street-level prostitutes, unlike prostitutes at massage parlours or escort services, are at a higher risk of violence and policing.
“Today, we have the term ‘survival sex.’ Often what people are referring to is street-level prostitution, and we understand that this is where most of the public gets their sense of what prostitution is,” she said from her office on Kwantlen’s Surrey campus.
“That’s the type of prostitution that’s largely policed, and the kind that’s most visible. In terms of policy to protect society from prostitutes, there’s a concern that street level prostitution is connected to other social problems like crime and drug-use.”
These stigmas amount to much of the negative attitudes towards female sex-workers, when in fact, the unseen avenues of prostitution are the norm.
“Generally, street-based sex-workers are the minority in sex-work. They are maybe 10 to 20 per cent maximum of those in sex-work. It’s the smallest proportion but is the most visible. The vast majority of it takes place as escort work or massage parlour work, which nobody ever sees or cares about,” said Jeffrey.
But the author and professor doesn’t see this changing anytime soon.
“I don’t see a lot of stigma changing around sex-work,” she said. “It’s probably the biggest barrier. What contributes to [violence] is the stigma by society, which doesn’t care when sex-workers are killed or when they’re blamed. Murders of sex-workers are going on across the country – we’ve lost 18 women in Halifax alone. It’s a fairly constant set of killings that wouldn’t be tolerated if it were any other group of people.”
“It goes deeply into gendering and sexuality,” she added. “Most importantly, there’s a double sexual standard. There are whores and there are good girls—that’s it, Madonnas and whores.”
These two restrictive classifications for women spurned the country-wide Slutwalk events that had women from all walks-of-life marching together to eradicate victim-blaming. The initiative was to bring to attention that women are not responsible for being sexually assaulted, regardless of what they do or what they wear.
“We have to get rid of that set of assumptions [that people deserve violence], and the Slutwalk is one of the ways in which women across the spectrum have taken up that issue.”
About the Author: Kristi Alexandra is a fourth-year journalism student and Culture Editor for The Runner. She is a freelance writer for The Georgia Straight and BeatRoute magazine, and hopes to one day be a MuchMusic VJ. You may send your donations for Kristi's future nose job to firstname.lastname@example.org so she that she can be telegenic enough to realize her dreams as a television personality.