Until two years ago, the Sault Ste. Marie community could comfortably flout the existence of a local sex trade. Even though numerous and futile attempts to launch supportive services for people in the sex trade industry were pursued over the past ten years, it was a select group of individuals that took on this effort. What once occurred primarily in motel rooms or in the privacy of one’s home has become a highly visible activity in the downtown making the business of sex rather impossible for local residents to ignore.
But it’s not just the sex trade that’s on the rise. With vacancy rates in the downtown core increasing and more businesses re-locating to the north end of the city, the area is experiencing higher rates of physical and sexual assault, homicide, theft and domestic disturbance. The common denominator can be linked to the proliferation of a flourishing drug culture within the downtown division marked by Pim Street on the East, Huron St. on the West, St. Mary’s River on the South and Wellington St. on the North. Moreover, poverty, low-income housing and homelessness act as causal affects upon the sex trade.
Michelle is a professional in the community and has been providing supportive services to women in the sex trade for over two years. During this time she has met over 50 women who are street level sex workers. Michelle acknowledges that the stereotypes about the women working the red light district are a lousy reality. With reluctance she concedes that drug use and poverty as well as mental health issues are the dominant antecedents propelling our local women into street sex work. “When you look at the housing that exists downtown there are people squatting in empty houses on Gore St. and it basically becomes a crack house. There’s no one regulating the building and they can come and go. And there is a huge amount of low- income housing and unfortunately that does attract people who are poor and who also recognize the opportunity to supplement their income by selling drugs to so many desperate people that live in these areas.”
For most of these local women poverty plays a significant role in their choice or obligation into the sex trade. The need to supplement a low-paying job or unemployment can lead local women into street level sex work for the purposes of meeting basic needs such as rent or groceries. Poverty can also drive women onto the street to earn bucks to support a drug habit. According to Michelle the ratio of women turning to work on the street to eat compared to the women working on the street to peak is about 50/50. However, it is not uncommon for the sex worker to develop an addiction after entering the business to deal with the stressful and complicated emotional realities of working in the business.
“Quite often they come from poverty, abusive backgrounds and then that leads to a mental health issue that is either undiagnosed or where the medication is too expensive. And that leads to self-medication or illicit drug use and then that leads into the sex trade to support the habit. Or potentially poverty is the situation and then the sex trade which then leads to an addiction.”
The well-publicized sting and arrests of nine female sex workers has split the community and drawn national as well as international attention. In an open letter (click here) authored by two former locals, Arlene Pitts and Joni Aitkens, and with the backing of the Sex Workers Action Group Kingston (SWAG), the letter includes demands to stop the arrest of sex workers by local police and to discontinue the publication of the names and addresses of women arrested by the media.
In Ontario prostitution is legal. However, current laws (Section 213 Canadian Criminal Code) around communicating in public for the purposes of exchanging money or other for sexual services are not. The province is awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court of Ontario that could determine whether this law is or is not a violation of human rights as outlined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the meantime, these women are viewed as criminals and are subjected to the police and media decision to publicize their actions. This decision carries far-reaching consequences for these women who are already at risk to experience greater incidents of physical and sexual assault, domestic violence and other criminal acts. Add to that the lifelong stigma- with thanks to the world wide web, and their perpetual decimation of self-esteem, these ladies face a pretty depressing future.
Michelle fears for the resiliency of these women who are lacking in services and supportive networks. “None of these women are proud of what they do- that is the reoccurring theme I see among all of them. They’re not proud of what they do. They feel like they don’t have any other choice. Whether they come from abusive backgrounds, chronic poverty, mental health issues or whatever, these women have been told that they’re a piece of shit and that they’re not really worth it. These women are living with that reality. Everyday someone tells them they’re not worth it.”
“A lot of these women won’t go to an authority figure if they have been assaulted. When you’ve been arrested six months ago for prostitution- a lot of these women just don’t see the point in reporting to the police, especially when a cop treats them like a piece of trash. ‘They’re just going to tell me it’s my fault anyway’. And the media is great at perpetuating this attitude. The women are continuously degraded by our media and on top of that they never look at the flip side. They never look at the men or women who are paying for the service and bringing the drugs to use together.”
Among the demand to instate a moratorium on arrests and a freeze on the publication of names and personal information, Pitts and Aitkens delivered an emphatic message to local service providers. “We’re ultimately hoping that now there is attention on this that there will be a push towards policy and attitudinal change. And that well actually see a multi-agency and multi-stakeholder effort to make this happen.”
A collaborative effort among agencies and stakeholders is critical in improving the safety and health of women already involved in the local sex trade. There is also a need for agencies and stakeholders to develop exit strategies for women who feel trapped in the lifestyle. Furthermore, creating services and strategies that are relevant and respectful of the sex worker’s needs requires the meaningful involvement of current and/or former sex workers. Aitkens pointed out that though there would be challenges to this structure that it is achievable.
“We have to be careful that we don’t invite people to the table in a token way. We have to make sure that we enrich all conditions that allow that to happen. That will also include providing within the community the opportunity for these women to give their testimony anonymously, to play a role in helping to shape these changes in a behind the scenes way.”
For local woman wanting to leave the sex trade an urgent need is safe housing. Michelle has observed that a particular challenge around this issue is that the one shelter that does provide emergency housing requires that women are alcohol and drug free. “These women may need a safe place to flee to where they can use for a couple of days before they can get to that headspace where they are able to make the decision to go to detox and maybe rethink where they are.”
These women who have been devalued historically and/or because they are sex workers have found a place within a sub-culture of people who are fearful of society and of those that wield the most authority. As a result communicating information about the very few local services available to them and earning their trust is one of the greatest challenges in providing outreach to these ladies. Michelle credits the ongoing public humiliation in the media and the blatant disgust from the community as perpetuating factors preventing these women from seeking safety or a way out.
“Just because someone has a mental health issue or a drug addiction or is a sex worker doesn’t mean that they are less than human. Our city and the media are doing a great job of objectifying these women. Animals get more respect. It can take one person to make you feel good about yourself. And a lot of these people don’t ever have that. So if one professional along the way can give them a minute, a hug or a pat on the shoulder and tell them that they are worth it, well, sometimes that can make all the difference in the world. It can be that woman’s turning point to begin reaching out for support and trusting again.”
*If you are a former or current sex worker and would be interested in confidentially sharing your personal story please contact firstname.lastname@example.org