A Man Threatened Her. Police Said Death Threats Come With Being a Sex Worker

"We almost never see a sex worker who wants to file a complaint and usually when they do there’s no positive outcome," an advocate told VICE News.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
October 6, 2020, 1:01pm
worried woman looking away
A sex worker said she's reached out to police multiple times, only to be told that harassment comes with the territory of her job. IMAGE VIA PEXELS/DƯƠNG NHÂN

A Canadian cam model who reported online abuse and harassment says police officers told her that abuse is a “job hazard.”

Hayley, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said a longtime male friend started harassing her online in May by allegedly outing her and her childrens’ identities repeatedly, spreading her contact information, and creating fraudulent accounts with her adult images. She said it was because she repeatedly refused to turn their friendship into a romantic or sexual relationship.

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Hayley said the man also threatened her life.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna watch you drown, you stupid bitch’ and he decided to tell me that…he should have shoved me in his truck and banged my head,” Hayley said.

In a voice recording from May, obtained by VICE News, Hayley and a man argue for about five and a half minutes. The man says he is going to report her to child and family services and post more of her information online, while Hayley says she is going to go to the police.

“Call the police, please, I’m waiting for them,” the man says.

Hayley first called Durham Regional Police in Oshawa, Ontario, a city 60 kilometres east of Toronto, in May.

“The officer I spoke with basically said, ‘It’s your job hazard and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is your downfall,’” she said.

Hayley reached out to police again in August and in September. She said responses have ranged from kind to hostile—but even a polite pair of officers who visited her in the summer said abuse comes with the territory of being a sex worker.

Hayley said of another officer, “He said, ‘We can barely catch real-life criminals. How do you expect me to catch one online?’”

The harassment “has nothing to do with me being a sex worker. (The man) is using my platform to hurt me,” Hayley told VICE News.

Durham police spokesperson Dave Selby told VICE News in a statement he’s surprised Hayley didn’t get the help she needed, but did not respond to any of the specific allegations by the time of publication. “I find it strange and odd that an officer would have treated her this way, considering how much emphasis we put into helping victims and sex trade workers,” Selby said. He added the human trafficking unit is available to help her.

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Sandra Wesley, the executive director of Chez Stella, a nonprofit advocacy group run by sex workers for sex workers, said police often conflate sex work with human trafficking.

“Police can’t conceive we’re in the industry for reasons that aren't due to exploitation and trafficking,” Wesley said. “As soon as sex work is mentioned in any way it’s sent to human trafficking departments and then the pursuit is to stop all sex work…it’s this idea that we are traumatized and alienated and manipulated.”

“It’s an absolutely absurd notion,” Wesley said.

According to Wesley, sex work laws in Canada, which effectively criminalize the entire industry, don’t exist to make sex workers safe, but rather, to eradicate the industry. The result is that police have a skewed understanding of sex work, Wesley said.

Wesley said most sex workers don’t even go to police because they fear that instead of looking into the reported abuse, cops will take the opportunity to investigate—and shut down—sex work activity under the guise of human trafficking. VICE News previously reported how human trafficking stings are believed to be covers used to target sex workers, many of whom are migrants or racialized.

“We almost never see a sex worker who wants to file a complaint and usually when they do there’s no positive outcome, because it’s almost impossible with the human trafficking conflation,” Wesley said.

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When sex workers do opt to report abuse, officers often aren’t as sympathetic as they should be, Wesley said.

“It’s a very realistic expectation for most sex workers to not be taken seriously by police,” Wesley said. “For women in general these harassments and threats are crimes that police are never particularly interested in and there is an extra layer of contempt for sex workers.”

Sex workers outside of Canada also struggle to report abuse. One woman in Minnesota told VICE News someone took her pictures, including nudes, and created a fake Craigslist ad. She reached out to Mapleton Police Department as soon as she saw the fraudulent listing, but got no help. She said the officer told her to reach out to Craigslist instead and she’s stopped hearing from them.

Mapleton Police Chief Ben Honsey denied that he or any of his officers advised a woman to reach out to Craigslist instead of police. Honsey added that state courts recently struck down laws that make nonconsensual porn illegal, so police are often unable to investigate. (In Canada, nonconsensual porn has been illegal since 2014, but tracking down and charging those at fault is still incredibly difficult.) Honsey also said police will recommend a number of alternative solutions for people in the same position as the Minnesota sex worker—including passing on the case “to our local Human Trafficking Task Force when appropriate.”

According to Wesley, perpetrators know how difficult it is for sex workers to access justice, so they have a lot of power to threaten or blackmail with impunity.

“Because of stigma and criminalization we are in a position where people have a lot of power to harm us,” Wesley said. She added that assailants target sex workers for a lot of reasons, including demands for money or sex.

After VICE News reached out to Durham police, Hayley reached out yet again on September 29. She said on Monday she still hasn’t heard back.

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