Speak with sex workers, not for them

A walk through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside can be an overwhelming experience for anyone unfamiliar with the neighbourhood or the myriad social issues that intersect in this community. 

The poverty and results of that poverty are easily visible. And if you were to walk through the streets of this community without speaking with any of its residents, you might well come to conclusions based on the preconceptions and assumptions you carried with you about what it means to be poor.

That seems to be precisely what happened when veteran journalist Chris Hedges recently visited the Downtown Eastside. He describes the neighbourhood as “filled with addicts, the broken, the homeless, the old and the mentally ill, all callously tossed into the street.” 

He also portrays it as filled with “desperate street prostitutes.” It’s clear that Hedges isn’t really interested in the Downtown Eastside, though, or the experiences of the people who live and work there. His target is the global sex trade, and the people he passed by in the Downtown Eastside are little more than rhetorical objects he uses to attack an entire industry he wants to bring down.

Hedges uses Downtown Eastside sex workers as props to support his treatise that sex work is part of the imperialist, racist capitalist machine. “The wretched of the earth…” he writes, “are imported to serve the desires and fetishes of those in the industrialized world.” 

Hedges champions the Swedish approach of criminalizing the purchase of sex as a means to end prostitution and trafficking. It’s an approach that has been adopted here in Canada under Bill C-36, the federal Conservatives’ Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, enacted in December 2014. The new law  also makes it illegal to advertise sexual services, work collectively with other sex workers, and communicate in public for the purpose of prostitution.

Like the Harper Conservatives who drafted C-36, Hedges conflates all sex work with trafficking. This confusion can have harmful results for sex workers and migrants alike. He relies heavily on (and misquotes) a report by the ILO concerning international human trafficking. He claims that child trafficking has exploded in Germany and the Netherlands, while Sweden, which the criminalizes purchase of sex, has “cut street prostitution by half.”

However, a recently released report says that sex work has not necessarily diminished in Sweden -- it’s simply become less visible. The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (agreeing with a 2014 report by the Stockholm County Administrative Board) found the decrease in street-based sex work may have more to do with the use of cell phones and the internet to connect buyers and sellers than the law. What the law has actually done is increase stigma for sex workers, cutting them off from health and other services and limiting their abilities to negotiate with and refuse clients. The Association stated that the law is putting those who sell sex “in an even more precarious position” and that it should be changed to better protect sex workers’ rights.

Despite these findings and similar research, Hedges concludes that criminalization is the most effective way to protect the “aboriginal women” he saw working in the Downtown Eastside. Had he bothered to speak with sex workers instead of only abolitionist organizations, he would have heard calls for decriminalization, an approach that prioritizes sex worker safety and recognizes sex workers as people making choices about their lives. The decriminalization of sex work is also supported by recent evidence from research conducted both here in B.C. and around the world.

In Vancouver, evaluations of the actual experiences of sex workers revealed that targeting clients still exposes sex workers to “significant safety and health risks, including: displacement to isolated spaces; inability to screen clients or safely negotiate terms of transactions; and inability to access police protection.”

Criminalizing clients has the same negative impacts on sex workers’ safety as criminalizing sex workers. That’s why sex workers’ organizations such as Sex Workers United Against Violence argue that decriminalization is a more effective way to ensure their safety and improve the conditions under which they work. 

Hedges comes to the opposite conclusion. He decided what he wanted to find before he came looking. When you go searching for the answers you want, you get the answers you want.

Hedges is scheduled to give the keynote address at “The State of Extraction” conference, hosted by Simon Fraser University from March 27-29.