Friday, September 29, 2006

Daphne Bramham

p. A2.

Safe zones for sex-trade workers the easy way out for politicians

What we really need to do is ensure that 14-year-olds don't have to sell their bodies in the first place

Prostitution is not a profession. It's almost always a result of bad choices, made unwillingly or in desperation by children.

The average age in which boys and girls begin selling their bodies for money in B.C. is 14. Their chances of being beaten, raped, murdered, kidnapped or mutilated are then 120 times higher than any other group in society.

Ninety-eight per cent of Downtown Eastside sex workers have been victims of violence. A U.S. study of sex trade workers conducted in 1998 found 68 per cent of sex workers met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

To regard prostitution as anything other than a coercive, exploitative and potentially dangerous way to make a living is to fool ourselves into believing the myth perpetuated by movies like Pretty Woman.

Yet that's the premise of a city-sponsored report on the sex trade: "Most sex workers exercise some amount of choice, even though they may not choose the conditions within which those choices are made."

What utopian pap.

The premise is unsupported by the report's own facts — including those above — and its own words.

Five to 10 per cent of all sex work is done on the street. High-priced prostitutes are "in pimping situations," it says, adding that "pimping relationships may involve manipulation, threats and violence… it is actually often the pimp that is the perpetrator of severe forms of violence."

Sex workers in the Downtown Eastside are "engaged in survival sex work, which means that they are unable to refuse sex work in dangerous situations because of poverty, addiction, mental illness, predatory violence and discrimination."

Working conditions for massage parlour workers vary widely "depending on the level of gang activity." Some "have been trafficked to or within Canada and are working under coercive, deceptive and/or slavelike conditions." Others are "extremely vulnerable and frequently isolated."

Surely few in those situations would agree that they freely consented to that kind of life.

And it's why some of the report's recommendations are not only foolish, but dangerous.

Girls, boys, men and women who sell sexual services should be protected.

But the question is what are we trying to protect them from? The overwhelming majority of the report's recommendations are aimed at accommodating sex trade workers in neighbourhoods and protecting them from the outcomes of their so-called choice to be in the business.

Safe zones. Committees, forums and education to help everybody get along better. A community development officer at city hall with all the committees, teams and forums. Training for police and others to make them more respectful of sex-trade workers. Standards of behaviour for prostitutes working in residential neighbourhoods, including agreeing to no-go zones like schools and parks. Research to gain a "better understanding of customers, pimps, indoor sex work, trafficking and the impact of sex work on residents and businesses." Daily outreach and 24-hour services for the workers. Self-defence training for sex workers.

It's mostly bromides and Band-Aids — a distraction from the root causes of prostitution and sex work that the report says are "poverty, addiction, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, marginalization and discrimination."

If we want sex workers off the streets, out of brothels and massage parlours, away from gangs and pimps, we need to ensure that 14-year-olds don't have to sell their bodies for money or drugs in the first place.

The report should have made the argument that keeping kids out of the sex trade is both cheaper and more effective than trying to fix them after they've been raped, beaten, drug addicted or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

By recommending safe zones and things like self-defence courses, the committee gives politicians an easy way out.

Although those might be headline-grabbing and controversial, they're still a lot cheaper and easier than grappling with poverty, homelessness and child abuse.

Just as the four pillars drug strategy has on its one pillar — supervised injection sites — my fear is that help for sex trade workers will begin and end with safe zones.

Out of sight and out of mind; there will be no money for the more important things — including no money for enforcing the law that makes it criminal to use and abuse desperate people with nothing left to lose.

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Created: October 6, 2006
Last modified: October 6, 2006
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