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VANCOUVER—A recently released study by the BC Centre For Excellence in HIV and the University of British Columbia proves what community advocates have been saying for years: safer indoor spaces for sex work save lives.
The study interviewed 39 women living in supported housing projects on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Run by RainCity Housing and Atira, these projects are self-identified women-only (in terms of staff and residents) and include safety measures such as cameras in the buildings, sign-in sheets for guests and harm reduction supplies. Sex workers who live in these buildings are allowed guests, which means that they can bring in their clients.
The women who live in these buildings were largely homeless before moving in, or living in buildings that did not allow guests. This lead to interactions with clients where the workers had very little power or control. “It’s common sense if you think about it,” says long time sex work advocate Trina Ricketts. “Imagine yourself preparing to work outside in the cold, negotiating services and fees in strangers’ cars. Then imagine yourself preparing to work out of your apartment building, which happens to be staffed with caring, vigilant support staff committed to helping you stay safe no matter what.”
The findings are that these projects help empower women to better negotiate safer sex with clients, which is a factor in preventing HIV transmission. “We have previously shown that displacement and lack of safer indoor options for street-based sex workers are directly associated with elevated rates of violence and HIV risk,” says Dr. Kate Shannon, the senior author of the study. Of course, having easy access to healthcare workers with harm reduction supplies also helps.
Workers also reported that being housed inside made them feel safer from police harassment and violence. While many of the workers interviewed for the study were quite weary of police, they found that they felt safer when placed in one of the housing projects.
As one sex worker explains: “On the corner, doing it in the car, I used to be scared all the time, paranoid about cops, scared of getting charged. It is a lot easier now. It is different.”
Less fearful relationships with police as well as access to trained healthcare staff and harm reduction supplies are meeting survival sex workers where they are at. “We have created policies and practices that support women’s choice and ensure their health and safety are protected,” says Amelia Ridgway, Manager of RainCity Housing. “Women have the right to govern their own bodies. We believe that housing is a human right and this is about providing women with the most basic human rights around protection from violence within a harm reduction framework."
This study reinforces the need and effectiveness of safe, indoor sex work spaces which is very encouraging for the sex work community. “Safer sex work spaces support better health and safety, period,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer, Vancouver Coastal Health.
Kathleen Cherrington who has organized events such as the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers says that perhaps more intentional work spaces may be a next logical step. Not everyone wants to bring their work home with them. “Some sex workers have children and need a place to work that isn't from home. So we also need brothels that are for those wanting a place to work that is away from home,” says Cherrington.
The West Coast Cooperative Of Sex Industry Professionals has formulated a business plan which includes a collectively run sex work space where workers can take their dates. This would be a multiple room establishment where folks could pay per use. Their vision is described as similar to a bath house, with showers, towels and safer sex supplies avaialble to both workers and patrons. The hope would be that as patronship increased, costs could be kept low. Unfortunately, this plan was formulated quite some time ago and has not come to fruition due to both a lack of funding (capital) and legality issues.
This study comes on the heels of a legal development that the sex working community sees as encouraging. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that prohibiting bawdy houses is unconstitutional, as it increases the dangers faced by those who are forced to work on the streets. While the Conservative government is currently in the process of challenging this decision, it may very well find its way into the practices of law enforcement in Vancouver.
In the meantime, Ricketts feels that more housing, like the facilities in the study, are sorely needed in Vancouver and that no survival sex workers should go without a home. “In my opinion, being homeless is violence,” she says. “So providing housing is paramount to reducing violence against women.”
Eli Mills is a contributor to the Vancouver Media Co-op.
This article was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.