One-third of sex workers unable to call 911 due to fear of repercussions: study

VANCOUVER — A new study shows nearly a third of all sex workers are unable to call 911 for help in a safety emergency due to fear of repercussions from police for themselves, their coworkers and managers.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Sciences, is based on community research conducted in Surrey, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Sudbury, Ont., from 2017-18, and was a joint effort between the University of B.C.’s Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) and the University of Ottawa.

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Dr. Anna-Louise Crago, PhD, the CGSHE project lead and Banting post-doctoral scholar at the U of O, said the current legal framework, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, put in place in 2014, places emphasis on criminalizing clients, and third parties like managers, security personnel and sex workers who share commercial expenses or work outdoors.

“The stated aim of the law was to assist exploited persons and to assist exploited persons to report violence against themselves,” said Crago. “What is so alarming about our findings is that the law has clearly, clearly failed.”

Although Ottawa had the worst outcomes overall for sex workers, Crago said, “the outcomes were alarming across all cities overall.”

Almost a third of all sex workers report being “unable to call 911 in a safety emergency due to fear of police detection of their managers or coworkers,” said Crago. “This data shows sex workers are forced to choose between accessing help if they sense they are in immediate danger or protecting their coworkers or their managers from potential legal jeopardy.”

The data show the current legal framework under Canada’s Criminal Code creates an obstacle to safety, and is harmful, said Crago.

Indigenous sex workers had twice the likelihood of reporting they were unable to call 911 in an emergency. Sex workers who reported experiencing police harassment in the previous 12 months, such as being carded or asked for ID, being followed by police or detained without arrest, had five times the likelihood of reporting they were unable to call 911.

In research reported by the Pivot Legal Society, Indigenous, Black and other racialized groups are more likely to be targeted by such actions as carding or street stops.

Another key finding of the study, said Crago, is that when sex workers needed help escaping a situation of violence or confinement, some 40.5 per cent were assisted by other sex workers; 29.7 per cent by friends, family or partner; 24.3 per cent by clients; and only 5.4 per cent reported getting help from police.

Crago said: “Based on the data we feel there is an urgent need to reform the laws and decriminalize sex work following a human-rights-based model.”

Given the disproportionately negative outcome experienced by Indigenous sex workers, Crago said policy and law reforms must be informed by the experience and expertise of Indigenous sex workers.

Crago is also calling for an end to carding and street stops: “We call for an end to those practices based on the documented harms that they cause.”

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