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Sex workers trapped 

Seventeen Halifax sex workers have gone missing or been killed, and the organization that advocates for them needs your help.

Steven Laffin, a 39-year-old Dartmouth man, appeared in court last week on charges of murdering sex worker Nadine Taylor. If Laffin, who was also charged with assaulting a different sex worker in the past, is found guilty, one more violent criminal could be off the streets. Still, those working in the street-based sex trade will remain vulnerable to attacks, as the risks associated with sex work have not disappeared.

Rene Ross, the executive director of Stepping Stone, an organization working to ensure the health and safety of sex workers, says the organization is seeing an increased demand for its services as working conditions get more dangerous. "We're working with more people than we were five months ago," says Ross, who says approximately 150 current and former sex workers use Stepping Stone's services. "It's definitely more violent out there than it was years ago."

Since 1985, 17 Halifax sex workers have gone missing or been confirmed murdered. "We're talking about violent deaths that these women in Halifax have endured. We're talking about women that were pregnant. We're talking about women whose bodies were found down at the grain elevators. We're talking about women whose bodies were found in school yards and in dumpsters," says Ross.

The regular violence endured by sex workers often doesn't make headline news. Stepping Stone circulates a monthly "bad date report" to its clients to help raise sex workers' awareness about violent aggressors. Ross pulls out the "bad date" book and quickly finds several disturbing reports of violence. In one report, a sex worker says a man drove a woman out of the city and beat her. Another says a man took her to a house, became angry when she insisted he wear a condom, then tried to kidnap her. In the next report, a sex worker states that a man "grabbed her by the hair and throat and started threatening to rape her."

"Those were ones that the public never heard of," says Ross. She explains that "bad dates" such as these are not unusual, reflecting a culture where sex workers are disposable.

Sex workers "know that it's more violent out there and they're taking as many precautions as possible," says Ross. But Canada's prostitution laws make it difficult for them to stay safe. Research shows widely that sex workers are safest when they work in groups and indoors, but those who work from home can be charged with up to five years in prison under federal law. Our laws push sex workers onto the streets alone, increasing their vulnerability to violent aggressors, explains Ross. "How many people would be alive if the laws were not as draconic as they are now," she laments. Officials at Halifax Regional Police's vice unit were not willing to comment about enforcing Canada's prostitution laws.

Ross feels that because helping sex workers is not a "warm and fuzzy cause," some hesitate before supporting Stepping Stone. Services such as the street outreach program, which provides food, condoms, crisis intervention and referrals, lack adequate funding. "We haven't had an increase in our core funding in about 12 years," says Ross.

Those interested in supporting the cause can head to The Fabulous Lobster Trap Cabaret, a fundraiser and "funked up rockabilly dance party" organized by Stepping Stone and community supporters like Feminists for Reproductive Education and Equity. Money raised will help inject needed funds into Stepping Stone's operational funding, contributing to the health, safety and well being of local sex workers.

The Fabulous Lobster Trap Cabaret, Friday, November 5 10pm, The Paragon Theatre 2037 Gottingen Street, $8


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