Government blames sex workers for violence used against them

I had planned to write my first post here about something light-hearted (I’m working on pieces about yoga and an awesome art project). Much of my time is spent thinking about violence in our communities, so I wanted to take on some more positive issues, reminding us of our strengths and possibilities as Indigenous people.

But today I saw that the Canadian government is fighting the recent Ontario court decision by Superior Court Justice Susan Himel, which ruled criminalizing sex work creates higher risk of violence, by saying that it is not the government’s obligation to protect women who choose to put themselves in harm’s way. And this I could not stay silent about.

In a federal briefing filed yesterday with the Ontario Court of Appeal, government lawyers say that Parliament

“is not obliged to minimize hindrances and maximize safety for those that [engage in prostitution] contrary to the law.”

As an Aboriginal woman, this concerns me. This concerns me because women from our communities represent the vast majority of street-level sex workers across Canada, and men and transgender people from our communities remain invisible despite their involvement.

It concerns me because violence against Aboriginal people – of all ages and genders – goes ignored on a national scale. This “blame the victim” mentality is what allowed a serial killer to operate for years in Vancouver’s downtown east side without any response from police. The violence there was expected, seen as normal, excusable. This is the case in many other communities that have high Aboriginal populations. It’s not as though I think more policing is the answer. But I do think that criminalizing sex workers and blaming them for other people’s violent actions is what enables the high rates of violence in the first place.

What is the government saying by arguing in court that it’s not their job to protect sex workers? They are placing the blame on the victims of violence, who may already be struggling with the impact of poverty and neglect in their lives. Is that their fault too?

This is not about the capacity of the police to provide protection or respond to violence. This is about the stigma around sex work, and the unclear stance the Canadian government has always had about it in their laws. It’s kind of legal, but kind of not. It’s not illegal to engage in sex work, but it’s illegal to live off the profits from it or to negotiate fees for it. This wishy-washy legal stance is finally being clarified through recent court cases, hopefully resulting in sex workers not having to fear arrest for doing something they’re going to do anyway. Why do the perpetrators of violence never fear for their arrest? Why do they never even figure in conversations about these issues? The perpetrators remain invisible, while the victims are marked by both the physical abuse and the social stigma resulting from violent acts.

So what can we do about this? We can start by talking about these issues in our communities. We can start talking about the real issues facing our community members, like quality of life, access to health care, safe housing and family supports. We need to remove the stigma around sex work so that we can better support our relations. If your auntie is working in the trade, how can you support her? Clearly the government and the police don’t have her back, so how can you?

7 thoughts on “Government blames sex workers for violence used against them

  1. This is brilliant! It’s strong and it’s positive. I hope those who read this will pass the insights on to acquaintances. I’m posting it on Facebook, which is where I found it, through The Native Youth Sexual Health Network. I have known many sex workers in my life. None “chose” it. It’s not a lifestyle, like crochet or yachting. As long as there are sexism and racism, women of color will find themselves victimized again and again. Thank you for writing this. I’m passing it on.

  2. Thank-you for speaking out. We all want to be positive but it is always more important to speak the truth. Too much harm has come to our loved ones while good people stood silently by. Speak out and vote against all unjust inequities in the law

    While speaking the truth and we must keep our hearts open…show ourselves to be trustworthy and available to listen without judgement. Our relatives will know that we support them through our words and actions. Empower them to speak their stories….they are powerful beyond belief

  3. I’m a white mom who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks: government housing, poverty etc. I’ve seen too many good time guys fly through the city and I’ve had enough of it for too many years. Over the last 10 years I have recorded license plates and had altercations with the drug dealers who want to sell to these girls believing that they are guaranteed a sale; after all who really wants a job like a street walker? These girls have addiction problems and perhaps they may never have sex with “johns” like we may believe. They just dress “fancy” so the mobile drug dealers can make a quick deal and leave. IT IS and immigration problem from my perspective and I will try not to sound racist when I say it isn’t my color fueling the fire. Yet, perhaps to be fair, their color may believe that they are being humanitarians and helping out the girls with a fix before their “job” because the white guys leave aboriginals with no choice but to choose random sex as an occupation. As if. How wrong they are and you for assuming no one gives a shit.

  4. It sounds like a greater intolerance is seeping into our society, under the guise leaving people to their own devices. But not once taking into consideration the very factors that have people there in the first place. The idea of having more prisons, is playing along with the idea that the government can and will refuse to accept the responsibility for the condition and lives of people. But it will continue to develop the tar sands. Money speak louder than people’s lives, in a society so materialistic. It is easy to distance yourself from people you have no affinity with. And that’s the problem the government needs to have a greater connection to its First Nation’s people.

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