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Rene Ross

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A Night in the Life of a Sex Worker

Posted: 03/28/2012 5:05 pm

It was a Monday morning three years ago, shortly after the Stepping Stone drop-in centre opened, when *Abigail turned up to report she had been attacked. She wanted the incident added to our "bad date list," the only warning tool available to sex workers in our region when they face threats and acts of violence.

Abigail met a "walking date" in the North End of Halifax. She told us there was nothing about his looks or demeanor that "looked off" or threatening to her. At the time, she was working in a well-known stroll area with a significant police presence.

Because she feared getting arrested and charged yet another time under Section 213 of the Criminal Code for solicitation, she wasn't afforded the time to assess the date and negotiate the deal properly before being brought behind abandoned buildings to take part in the transaction. Abigail knew time lost negotiating under the authority's scrutiny could lend her time in jail or placed under tight release conditions that would essentially ban her from her very own community.

The date took a turn for the worse. He raped her, punched her repeatedly, and beat her to the head with a stray two-by-four he found in the alley.

Abigail slipped in an out of consciousness, yet, she was able to scream loudly enough to alert someone in a nearby building who called 911. No one knows whether the sirens scared away her assailant or if he left before police were on the scene, nor does Abigail remember how she got to the hospital. But one thing was certain, she remembered the man's face.

"I want the cops to find him before he kills someone," she insisted. "I will never forget his face."

Sex workers rarely file police reports out of the likelihood that they would not be taken seriously by the authorities or out of the likelihood that they would be blamed for engaging in "dangerous" acts with strangers. Not withstanding the fact that, if her attacker knew she had reported the crime, Abigail could have faced even more danger and be left at his mercy if he saw her on the stroll again.

Around the same time in Halifax, police and the media were reporting on a string of sexual assaults against women who were not sex workers.

The descriptions given by these women all resembled Abigail's attacker. She was convinced that this man was not only out for sex workers, but other women too.

Police first told us that we had blood on our hands since we were unable to report the crime on her behalf.

Authorities questioned Abigail as to why she was in an area known to police as a stroll.

Stepping Stone staff were able to locate a police officer who proved to be sympathetic and the officer was going to take Abigail into the station the following Tuesday.

We were ready to accompany Abigail to her appointment with the officer on Tuesday. We wanted her to identify sketches and pictures, to show authorities what this man had done to her. We wanted, along with Abigail, to try to protect that safety of other women before he attacked again.

Tuesday came and went and Abigail never showed up at the drop-in centre, nor did she make it to the police station.

Little did we know, she had been put on house arrest after she left our drop in centre to report the attack, and to have pictures taken of her injuries. She was immediately charged with breaching conditions linked to a previous charge of solicitation and was placed on house arrest. She was to remain outside the boundaries of her community, from her place of work and from the supportive resources that she relied on for her health and safety.

In Halifax, the boundaries that sex workers are placed on when they are charged with a Section 213 extend through the majority of the downtown core. Across the bridges, in Dartmouth, the central area is off-limits to workers found breaking the "communication law." Staff at Stepping Stone spent the following weeks bringing her food and toiletries as her home stands within the area she is to keep away from.

Her mistrust for the police grew. She felt victimized and persecuted, at once for having no right to security and for choosing to be a part of the sex-trade industry.

Three years later, Abigail is still trying to fight the boundaries she was placed on. The boundary charges, which could carry jail time if breached, have been added to her criminal record, and if she decides to transition out of the trade she could face greater difficulties. Moreover, her attacker remains anonymous and free and there was no movement on the investigation.

The communication law, Section 213, is also known as the solicitation law in Canada. It is the law that most street workers are all too familiar with and by far the most common criminal charge laid against street based sex workers.

As is the case with Abigail, we see time and time again how that this law builds mistrust amongst law enforcement and sex workers, erases their ability to transition out of the trade, hampers the reporting of violent crimes in our communities, threatens human rights, their security and public safety.

This week's verdict by the Ontario Court of Appeal, that ruled laws around bawdy houses and living on the avails of prostitution contradict the constitutional rights of sex workers are progressive steps forward for many.

Yet, the Court of Appeal has refused movement on Section 213, thus leaving the most marginalized of sex workers fending violence on the streets.

The message is clear. The courts feel that public nuisance is a greater priority than violence in our communities and that the lives of women, men, and transgender individuals can be pushed into the dark, forgotten areas of our cities to fend for themselves.

*The name of the sex worker in this story has been changed by the author to protect her confidentiality

Read about prostitution laws in 100 different countries.

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  • Germany

    Prostitution is legal in Germany, and brothels are registered businesses that do not require a separate license. In the state of Bavaria, it is mandatory to use condoms. <i>A German prostitute's self-portrait in a brothel, 1999.</i>

  • Netherlands

    In the Netherlands, prostitution is legal, as are brothels. Because of the size of the industry, the government has attempted to scale it back in recent years, and a law has been proposed to ban women under the age of 21 from the business. <i>Red Light Bar in Amsterdam</i> (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/" target="_hplink">Flickr/Ben Sutherland</a>)

  • New Zealand

    Thanks to the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, prostitution, owning a brothel and street solicitation are legal in New Zealand, though coercion remains illegal. The law still causes controversy today, with certain parties attempting to overturn it. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/flissphil/" target="_hplink">Flickr/PhillipC</a>)

  • Nevada

    Nevada is the only place in the United States where prostitution is legal, in the form of brothels (though prostitution outside these businesses is illegal). The brothels are located in isolated rural areas, and employees work as independent contractors, therefore not receiving any health or insurance benefits. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bludgeoner86/" target="_hplink">Flickr/Bludgeoner86</a>)

  • Argentina

    In Argentina, prostitution is legal, but operating a business like a brothel based on the industry is illegal. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tempus7/" target="_hplink">Flickr/quimpg</a>)

  • France

    Like Argentina, prostitution is legal in France, but associated industries are not. In addition, paying for sex with someone under the age of 18 is illegal. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/grantmatthews/" target="_hplink">Flickr/idreamofdaylight</a>)

  • Singapore

    In Singapore, prostitution is legal, but activities like brothels and organized prostitution is not. Workers in brothels carry health cards and receive regular check-ups. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/azwegers/" target="_hplink">Flickr/Arian Zwegers</a>)

  • Japan

    In Japan, prostitution is technically illegal, but many have found legal loopholes that allow for certain acts -- specifically, anything outside of coitus. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/loiclemeur/" target="_hplink">Flickr/loiclemeur</a>)

  • Greece

    Prostitution is legal in Greece, and workers have personal licenses, as well as health cards that are checked often. Brothels, however, are not legal, and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/20/prostitutes-in-greece-dem_n_429722.html" target="_hplink">have caused many demonstrations</a> within the country. (Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/85211939@N00/" target="_hplink">Flickr/DoctorWho</a>)