"We're your daughters, your mothers, your aunts and your cousins," says Valerie Scott, a wavy-haired redhead with a raspy drawl. "Next time someone makes another gratuitous insult about sex workers, challenge them on it. Defend us in public, because that's how people's rights start."
Scott is a sex worker herself. A former Haligonian, she is now executive director of the Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada, which is mounting a legal challenge against three laws targeting sex work in the Canadian Criminal Code. SPOC expects to cross-examine witnesses before the Ontario Supreme Court in April.
The national icon for the workers' movement was invited to Halifax by Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, a local outreach program for sex workers. Scott addressed about 150 people at the Italian Cultural Centre last Thursday, a talk purposely scheduled between the federal and municipal elections, when the public is thinking about government's role in public policy.
"We wanted to do a big public education piece," says Ross. "The city makes some of the bylaws that affect sex workers and the community has a lot of questions about it."
SPOC advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, as exists in New Zealand and certain states in Australia. This is not to be confused with legalization, in places like Nevada and Germany, where the government controls sex workers and their conditions as opposed to giving them the freedom to organize themselves.
In Halifax, Ross is concerned with a district of sorts that is in effect.
When sex workers are arrested on solicitation charges in Halifax or Dartmouth and want to be released without going in front of a judge, they have to sign a release condition, which includes a map that states if they are found in a certain area, they'll be arrested again with a more serious charge.
Constable Jeff Carr of the Halifax Regional Police says these boundaries have been in place for as long as he can remember, and encompass problem areas in the north end and Dartmouth.
Ross points out the boundaries include places like Stepping Stone, the North End Health Clinic and Direction 180, the methadone clinic.
Many program users are in jail because of breach of boundary charges, says Ross, adding that this year, the number has more than doubled from 32 charges in 2006, to 75 so far in 2008.
"Sex workers who come to Stepping Stone for support are being arrested for going to the store," she says. "They're being arrested for walking up the street and waiting for the bus."
Program users tell Ross violence towards sex workers has increased this year. She says when police crack down on boundary laws, sex workers aren't as cautious with the clients they choose, and often take rides to outskirts of the city, such as industrial parks, where violence is more likely.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to give concrete statistics for sex worker violence, because many victims won't notify the police for fear of being arrested for prostitution.
Similarly, to avoid mandatory reporting by hospitals, sex workers sometimes show up at Stepping Stone after they've been badly beaten or raped.
Dr. Michael Goodyear, a professor at Dalhousie, has organized an international research network made up of academics who challenge laws that prosecute sex workers and produce reports critiquing the government.
"Public policy, particularly around health issues, ought to be based on empirical fact instead of knee-jerk reactions and prejudice," he says, adding that arresting sex workers is like pushing down on a water-bed---it displaces the problem. "I promote people first and what they do second."
Ross says sex workers need community support, because citizens influence the law. When people in a neighbourhood complain about a brothel on their street, the police make arrests and shut it down, often leaving the sex workers homeless. "Some of the community sees us as running around promoting prostitution, but we're promoting treating people as people," she says. "People's choices need to be valued and that's at the core of Stepping Stone."