Alberta groups document abuse to protect sex workers

Call for more consultation over rewriting new laws

As Parliament is working to develop new prostitution laws focused on sex workers’ safety an increasing number of sex workers are turning to online “bad date” lists to warn each other of dangerous customers.

The Central Alberta AIDS Network Society (CAANS) based in Red Deer and Shift Calgary both work closely with prostitutes to gather and publish reports of bad dates.

For a sex worker the meaning of “bad date” is much worse than having dinner with a jerk says CAANS executive director Jennifer Vanderschaeghe. While reports of rude or weird clients do come in clients who beat rape rob threaten and refuse to pay prostitutes are typical bad dates.

A recent entry into CAANS’ “Bad Date Book” on Facebook describes a young man who drove a sex worker to a location outside Red Deer.

“She was given $20 for the completed date. He left her stranded there on the road 40th Avenue in county by jumbo car wash and the old dump. He then came back got out of his vehicle held a knife to her throat asked her if she wanted to live or die and demanded his money back. She gave him the money. Then he took her gloves and toque and left” reads the report.

One of many entries into Shift Calgary’s “Bad Date Sheet” at shiftcalgary.org recounts a similar incident: “The worker went with the date to his apartment around 14th Ave and 2nd Street S.W. The worker provided services but the date was not able to climax and the worker ended the appointment after a few hours. The date did not want the worker to leave and became aggressive and punched her in the eye. The date returned to the stroll on December 11 and assaulted her again punching her in the face.”

Vanderschaeghe says her organization encourages sex workers to submit anonymously to CAANS’ book in an effort to at least alert others. She and her counterpart in Calgary Shift program manager Amanda Berjian say staff do prompt sex workers to report these incidents to authorities otherwise police are powerless to lay charges. Sex workers on the whole are wary of police and reluctant to report such incidents to officials for fear of being charged themselves publicly exposed as prostitutes dismissed or being found out by their client and retaliated against.

“If [police] don’t have a victim coming forward they can’t lay a charge” says Vanderschaeghe. “The RCMP could really only have a conversation with that gentleman — a pointed conversation.”

“We’ve certainly seen from Calgary Police that they do care very much about investigating the bad date reports that are made…. And I know that they do investigate those issues” adds Berjian. “Police are taking those claims seriously and I think that that helps to build some trust.”

The bad date lists have a growing following thanks to their promotion by social agency outreach workers but many involved in the sex trade say it’s a poor substitute for real safety measures.

“The federal laws are going to have to change. I have hopes that they’re going to change for the better” says Vanderschaeghe. “One of the things to remember is that violence coercion rape stealing blackmail child porn child prostitution kidnapping murder and slavery are already illegal. And because they’re already illegal the prostitution laws can be changed to make sure the safety of the sex workers is ensured.”

The little-known crux of the current legal debate and the reason the Supreme Court struck down several prostitution laws is that prostitution is legal in Canada. However soliciting acts of prostitution conducting sex work from a single establishment (the brothel law) and living off the avails of someone else’s sex work is illegal. While those laws looked good on paper it made it impossible for sex workers to legally hire security staff band together or openly discuss business practices. The Supreme Court ruling found the laws unconstitutional because they made the legal sex trade too dangerous to conduct.

New laws are due in December and to help legislators work through the touchy subject the government has established a public consultation survey. The six-question online survey explains this back story and asks Canadians what we think should be legal but many say the government should be asking sex workers first.

“I’m not convinced the general public actually understands the depth and complexity related to this question” says Vanderschaeghe.

Berjian agrees. “Only sex workers are in a place where they can comment on the extent that the laws impact their safety and their rights…. If we were talking about a plan to expand the oil industry we would be talking to oil industry professionals more seriously than we would be talking to what the average Canadian thinks about that issue. The key stakeholders need a more direct involvement for sure” says Berjian.