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Sex work in the shadows 

It's Monday evening, Natal Day. While the rest of the city recovers from the long weekend, a woman sets out for work on Agricola Street. She trolls the strip, letting the stares and comments of passers-by roll off her back, until a "date" stops to pick her up. They drive together to a remote part of Bedford---an area sure to have fewer prying eyes, fewer prowling cops.

But when she asks for her money, things turn ugly. The man gets violent, pulling a knife and holding it to her throat, before insisting the woman disrobe and service him. After she's done, he throws her out of the car without paying, leaving her naked and alone at the side of a dark road.

Thought it's an act of assault, the woman's story doesn't make it into the local papers. It doesn't get reported on the radio. The reason: her job. For sex workers in Halifax, violence is a frighteningly common daily threat---from harassment and beatings to knifings, rape and, occasionally, murder. But fearing they'll be arrested or harassed by police, many women who have been attacked on the job tend not to report the crimes---no matter how brutal. It's a vicious circle in the truest sense of the word.

"People have no idea as to the violence going on against sex workers, cause it's not being reported," says Rene Ross, executive director at Stepping Stone, a non-profit organization based in the north end that supports both former and current sex workers, most of whom do street-based "survival" sex work. Since the majority of violent attacks go unreported, those who perpetrate the crimes get off scot-free.

"When it is reported," says Ross, her steady voice straining with frustration, "it is all too often dismissed by a society that views sex workers as disposable."

Therein lies the rub. Our culture has a double standard when it comes to sex. On a superficial level, we're obsessed with it. From the softcore TV ads that penetrate our living rooms to pole-dancing fitness classes and thongs for tweens, there's nothing we like more than a little titillation. It's the real stuff that scares us to bits: The people who sell actual sex are among our culture's most marginalized and vulnerable, often viewed as throwaway people who are somehow deserving of the treatment they get.

And then there's the criminal issue. Today, it's legal to be a sex worker, but illegal to do sex work or advertise your wares. That's like being a legal house painter and trying to run a business in a scenario where it's illegal to paint a house or ask anyone if they want their house painted. It forces those who do sex work to operate underground, leaving them with little support and very few options. And that's why, when things go wrong, sex workers often feel they have nobody to turn to.

Tracy (sex workers' names have been changed for this story), a soft-spoken woman who worked in the sex trade in Halifax for 20 years before retiring last year, shrugs when she talks about on-the-job violence. "You can't do anything about it," she says bluntly, her tone resigned.

Lynn, seated nearby, is new to the city. She's chatty and straightforward, saying sex workers have to deal with violence "on a continuous basis," but that for many, going to the police is a futile undertaking, resulting in ridicule more often than results. As a parallel, she describes a friend in another city who, stalked by an obsessive john, went to the police. "As soon as they found out she was a sex-trade worker, they let it go. But what does that have to do with anything?" says Lynn indignantly. "That guy was stalking her!" She pauses, then says with dismay, "It just seems like we're not important."

In 1985, three sex workers were murdered in Halifax. The details of those murders are becoming lost with time, but Ross relates what she's been told: One was named Tina Baron. A second, Brenda Garside---or Garson---was killed at the old Waverley Hotel. A third was named Kelly, but Ross doesn't know the woman's last name---"She was not the same Kelly whose body was found in the grain elevator," she says, placing the sex workers' murders firmly in the context of general violence against women.

In response to those murders, Stepping Stone was established in 1987, as a project of the Elizabeth Fry Society, to provide peer outreach support for people who work in the sex trade. It became independent in 1989 and is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Stepping Stone operates on a "harm-reduction" model, meaning it will provide help only when asked for: Stepping Stone doesn't try and get people out of the sex trade against their will, though it will support people who want to get out. The organization currently supports about 115 people a month (about 30 percent are former sex workers) on a budget of roughly $200,000 a year. Besides providing housing help (the organization placed 136 people in housing last year, though funding for that program has just been cut), court support and advocacy, Stepping Stone also does street patrol a few nights a week, passing out condoms and copies of the "bad date" list that describes recent violent incidents and people to avoid.

Over pizza in Stepping Stone's tidy kitchen, their hands wrapped around cold bottles of root beer, Tracy and Lynn express their frustration with the way they are often harassed by the police (though they'll readily admit there are a number of good ones out there, they both agree "that there are a lot of dirty cops in this city") and the way they are judged by the community-at-large, because of the work they choose to do.

"I've been retired a year and I still get harassed," says Tracy of the cops. "I couldn't even sit on my front steps and smoke a cigarette, because the police would make me go inside 'cause they thought I was working.

"I can't even jaywalk," she continues wearily, "because there's this one cop who says if you even jaywalk, you're gone. I try to be so good. But it's just like they're always waiting."

Sergeant Richard Lane agrees the police's relationship with the city's sex workers is a complicated one. Introducing himself as "Richie," a name that seems too diminutive for his impossibly muscular frame, Lane, who is in charge of "special enforcements," has clearly spent time wrestling with the issue of how his force deals with policing sex work.

"The majority of them are victims of one sort or another," he says sympathetically. "They don't need to be victimized again by the justice system or the police."

And though he's quick to mention that his unit---the vice section---has a good relationship with "the girls on the street," he acknowledges, subtly, that that may not be the case in some of the other units. The struggle, says Lane, is finding a balance between "what the public wants and what the individual wants---we get a lot of community complaints from people who live where prostitutes are actively walking the stroll in front of their houses."

The problem, he says, is drugs.

Many in the community see prostitution as inherently tied in with drug use---a problem they don't want to see lingering on the sidewalk. But the true relationship between the two is a deeply complicated one. Though the police may believe that the majority of Halifax's street-based sex workers are hooked on crack, Stepping Stone's staff insists that's just an cruel stereotype.

"A lot of people work and don't use," says program coordinator Jeff Liberatore. "But," says Diane, who worked in the sex trade for 30 years before retiring a decade ago, "a lot of people use [crack] and don't do sex work. I don't see addiction and sex work together as a problem. It's just an added choice as a way for [addicts] to make their money, but addicts make their money in a whole lot of different ways." As far as she's concerned, they're completely separate issues.

But crack was definitely a game changer for sex workers in Halifax. It hit the streets with force in the early 1990s---about the same time Tracy got involved in the business. Though she's clean now, Tracy admits turning tricks was an easy way to help her feed her habit. Certainly, says Tracy, crack's presence on the streets "brought a lot of girls down. It almost brought me down."

"There's something about crack that takes over a person," says Diane. "I've used a lot of drugs in my life, but crack cocaine was one of my worst addictions. It just consumed me more and more. My whole life was about using and making money to get more drugs."

That desperation has had a frightening impact on street-based sex work. Diane, a lean, tanned woman, is blunt about the change: "The money is not out there now, and I think they are more desperate now. It's a lot more 'survival' sex. When I worked the streets, the money was good. We all had set prices. When crack came, women started dropping their prices."

It became common for a desperate woman to turn a trick for $20---the price of a rock of crack. "You couldn't make any money," says Diane. The johns "would go see the other girls who were charging less."

Tracy says that if she hadn't gotten off the drug, she was "gonna be dead." She sums it up deftly: "There's been a lot more violence and crime since crack cocaine came."

If the relationship between sex work and drugs is complicated, so is the question of how people find themselves working in the sex trade in the first place. "Everybody has a different reason for going into sex work," says Ross, "it's not a straight cut-and-dry."

Our culture, of course, tends to explain sex work as fuelled by drug addiction or early childhood abuse. But more often than not, the unifying factor is economic.

"It's not necessarily something we love doing," says Lynn, who says she started in the sex trade at age 12. "We do it 'cause we have to. Because welfare doesn't give us enough to live off."

Certainly, sex work can provide far more money than a full-time, minimum wage job---an important consideration, especially for women who may be raising children on their own.

"It's easy money," says Lynn bluntly, before correcting herself. "I should say it's not easy money, it's fast money. I've had guys tell me that it must be the easiest job. Well, sometimes I feel so dirty." But right now, as far as she's concerned, sex work is her best bet.

For Diane, sex work was a better option than her job as a hotel clerk. "I had a friend who came to see me with all this money... all these bills. So I asked, 'How did you make all this money?' Then I took a leave of absence from the hotel and got into the sex trade."

But that was 30 years ago. Today, retired sex worker Diane says she'd be "very nervous" to work the streets. "I won't walk my dogs out there now," she says. "People will kill you for $20. I've heard too many stories, seen too much stuff. It's a lot different out there now. It's a lot more dangerous now than it ever was."

Adding to the danger is the frustrating "boundaries" issue: When a sex worker is arrested, she has the option of being released with what are called "boundary conditions"---she is banned from parts of the city where prostitution is known to happen and is released only on condition that she sign off on a map outlining those areas. Otherwise, she stays in jail until she can meet bail or goes to trial.

"If a certain area gets known as an area where a john can go and pick up a prostitute," says Lane, "then if you take the girl out of the area, it'll eliminate the problem."

Halifax is one of the last cities still using boundary conditions as a policing tool to address prostitution, and the restrictions have only been applied to female sex workers, not to male sex workers and not to drug dealers. On the peninsula, the off-limits area extends from Cogswell to Young, Agricola to Brunswick. In Dartmouth, it spans a huge swath between Windmill and Victoria, all the way north past the MacKay Bridge.

The problem is that many of the services sex workers need to access---child care, food banks, the North End Health Clinic, probation offices, even Stepping Stone---are within the bounded areas. And if a woman lives within the bounded area, she can find herself on unofficial house arrest.

If a woman is picked up in an area she's been banned from, she's considered "in breach of her conditions of release" a far more serious charge than the initial charge of "communicating." It can lead to jail time.

Lane insists women under boundary conditions are free to come and go in a bounded area as long as they aren't working. "Most of them get charged with violating the conditions when they're back on the corner waving at cars," he says.

But Ross says that isn't the case. "How do you prove to someone that you are just going to the food bank?" she asks. "We've had people harassed just for going to the grocery store."

"A few of my girlfriends are on the methadone program," says Tracy. The clinic on Gottingen Street is within the bounded area. For them, getting treatment means risking arrest. "It's so frustrating. And the cops love that. It's the only thing they have---it's the only way they have to get us now."

"Is it the best solution?" asks Lane of boundary restrictions. "Probably not the best. But it's the best solution we have for the problem." As he sees it, getting women off the streets---getting them healthy, getting them jobs and getting them "away from the abuses they suffer," is the goal.

Ross, however, says the only way to decrease the abuse sex workers suffer is decriminalization, which would put "power back into the hands of sex workers," allowing them to maintain their independence with more protection and less harassment. A better relationship with the police would presumably decrease the violence and would improve working conditions.

In his report on violence in Halifax, the result of mayor Peter Kelly's Roundtable on Violence, criminologist Don Clairmont recommended that Halifax create sanctioned red-light and stroll areas for sex workers. But Ross says this type of legalization of sex work won't necessarily solve the violence problem. "Where would a red-light district go in Halifax?" she asks. "Way out where the women are being attacked now? It would be like shooting fish in a barrel."

Though they're not always obvious, there are currently unofficial strolls all over HRM---including in Dartmouth, Sackville, Bedford and Fairview. "People say, 'Where are they? I don't see sex workers on the street.' But all that means is that sex work is being pushed further and further into the margins," says Ross.

Sex work has moved to back alleys and industrial parks---where it's far more risky for the women. Because they're afraid of getting caught by the cops, Tracy says women will sometimes jump in a car before they have time to assess whether conditions are safe. "Sometimes you'll throw caution to the wind and you'll go with someone who you don't know. Like this guy, he took me, I don't know where---somewhere in the country and then he started getting violent. And what could I do? I took off out of his truck and hitchhiked back to town."

"Quite a few rapes and beatings happen outside of the city," Ross says carefully. "I've heard about women tied to trees, raped, drugged." She's quiet for a minute, struggling to explain the brutality and hate some sex workers have to deal with, then says simply, "If someone is willing to rape or beat a sex worker within an inch of her life, he's not an upstanding member of society. I don't see how that's not going to translate to other violent crimes."

"If somebody is sexually assaulted with a knife held to her throat---somebody who does that to a prostitute would obviously do that to somebody else," agrees Lane. "It's just the opportunity is there for them to get those girls into a car, and that's the big danger."

In Toronto, a group of police officers works solely on cases of assault against sex workers. Halifax, however, doesn't have those kinds of resources. The man who left the naked woman at the side of the road on Natal Day was eventually picked up by the police---but only because the woman, too vulnerable to do anything else, called for help.

But the average john picked up by the police (they're caught trying to pick up decoy women) merely pays a fine and is sent to "john school" where he learns "the truth about what really goes on" in the sex trade. Lane says he rarely sees a john arrested a second time.

For Lane, policing prostitution is a delicate balancing act. "The violence is a huge issue," he says, "and the quality of life issues for our public that live in the areas [where sex workers work] is an issue." The solution to keeping sex workers safe, he says, is to "get these girls off the street" and into better situations. He says if a sex worker has been the victim of a violent crime, police will look past the prostitution offence out of concern for their safety. But Lane is clear: as long as sex work is criminalized, it will be policed.

Rene Ross writes the words "sex worker" on a piece of paper. Then she draws a circle around "sex" over and over again.

"At the end of the day," she says, without lifting her pencil, "it's about the morality of this. It's the reason for the marginalization, the stigmatization."

If there's one thing Ross wants people to understand, it's that sex work is work, and that the people who choose to do it for a living deserve the same safe working conditions and harassment-free living as anyone else. What she'd like to see is a climate where violence is taken seriously---and where the police listen to sex workers, rather than victimizing them.

"I want them to know that I'm somebody's daughter," says Tracy. "That I'm a mother, somebody's friend. And that we're just trying to make it in this world, just like any other human being."

Meredith Dault is a freelance writer and sometime broadcast journalist. She'd like to thank everyone who graciously offered up their brain for picking in the writing of this article.

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