St. John's Jelly Bean Road, via Flickr user Kenny Louie
Earlier this month, there was a media outcry in Canada about reported gang rapes of sex workers in Newfoundland—but police have yet to begin an investigation. In fact, the warning about the 20 or so rapists came not from the police, but from an outreach organization. And not a single sex worker was quoted in the initial articles about the gang rapes.
The reason the cops haven't looked into the matter is the same reason the media couldn't get statements from sex workers in the province: They're afraid to talk and risk being stigmatized in a tight-knit community. They're backed up against a wall by a leering three-headed beast: criminal charges, violence, and public scrutiny.
In many ways, it's not a new story. In a country in which government is cooking up laws that will clearly hurt sex workers, of course they don't want to speak up and report their rapes. New Canadian legislation called Bill C-36, which could become law in a matter of weeks, would further aggravate the problem by introducing harsher penalties for prostitution, driving more sex workers underground. The law is, in many ways, a big step in the wrong direction.
It took me over a week to find a Newfoundland escort who was willing to talk. Finally, I got in touch with Krista (which is not her real name) by reaching out to workers listed in the St. John's section of Backpage. Krista is new to sex work; she's only been doing it for about a month. She needed a job with flexible hours so that she could finish her degree in civil engineering and take care of her kids. While one sex worker cannot speak for all sex workers in the province, she sais there was a culture of fear among those she knew in St. John's. She doesn't expect anyone will report the rapes and that she wouldn't, if it happened to her.
"I only do in-calls, never out-calls," she told me. "I want to avoid the gang rapes and whatever [is] going on. That, and I don't want to be charged for prostitution."
She heard through other girls on Backpage and Facebook that the 20 rapists are foreign workers in town on business for a construction firm, although this could not be confirmed. Several messages I left for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) weren't returned.
Sex workers across the country are afraid of police coming after them, and of being ostracized by their communities. As I said, this is nothing new. But in Newfoundland, there's a third fear to contend with: biker gangs.
These groups have been active in the province in recent years, and people in those gangs, Krista says, often see escorts—and obviously, if sex workers told the police that they were being roughed up by bikers, it would just make their occupation even more hazardous.
"If these escorts went out and made these situations known, they'd find themselves in trouble in the end," Krista said. Due to the combined threat of gangs and the police, she explained, escorts have to rely on DIY security.
The girls she knows who do out-calls go to a client's residence with a driver, and if they're not out within the agreed-upon time frame, the driver comes to the door. A kind of informal policing is in place, with the RNC effectively relegated to the sidelines.
Police insist that if the crimes were reported they wouldn't charge the sex workers with anything and are only after those who try to harm them. And it's true that there were zero prostitution charges in Newfoundland last year, indicating that the cops aren't too interesting in going after sex workers.
But regardless of decisions made by the RNC, the Canadian justice system doesn't deal well with cases of sexual assault. Put a sex worker who's been sexually assaulted in front of it, and you're not likely to have much success.
What makes the situation even worse in Newfoundland is that there's only one outreach organization dedicated to helping sex workers in the province, which means there's almost nowhere for women to turn if they have questions about taxes or a dangerous client. When I spoke to her, Krista had no idea which parts of her work were legal, which speaks to an overwhelming lack of support in a province where the demand for sex workers is on the rise.
I called Laura Winters at Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), the group that issued the gang rape warnings over Twitter, and asked if she could connect me to someone, anyone, currently doing sex work in the province. She told me they don't, under any circumstances, connect sex workers with journalists because it hasn't gone well in the past—sex workers in Newfoundland, she said, are more vulnerable and more marginalized as a group than they might be in larger, more urban areas, and SHOP doesn't want them to be hurt by having their voices misconstrued.
I can understand her reasoning. But while it's a good thing that SHOP issued a warning, what, exactly, are sex workers supposed to do? Stay at home, decline clients, and starve? According to a piece in the Labradorian, that's exactly what's been happening.
Clearly, sex workers are feeling threatened from all sides, and yet their work is still technically legal in Canada. What happens, then, if Bill C-36 becomes law?
The gang rapes reported in Newfoundland this month are emblematic of what will happen to sex workers all over this country if Bill C-36 passes. If clients are made full-on criminals, it will push sex workers underground and into a vulnerable situation where they will be less able to properly screen clients. Right now, they protect themselves by obtaining a client's personal information, like their real name and cell number. Clients will be unlikely to provide this information if they are criminalized—and if clients are anonymous, violence will be more likely to occur and harder to detect.
The government claims the bill's purpose is to help victims of human trafficking. A bill to help those who are trafficked is a great plan—but not in its current iteration, which only serves to punish, infantilize, and endanger anyone who engages in sex work. There is a stark difference between someone who chooses the work and someone who is forced.
Sex workers will be raped and murdered under Bill C-36, and their rapists will get away with it because the workers will be more afraid than ever to report. If Bill C-36 becomes law, sex workers countrywide will be in the same position Krista and other Newfoundland sex workers are in now: feeling endangered, operating as though their work is illegal, and unable to reach out for support.
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