A new study shows almost one-third of sex workers say they are unable to call 911 due to a fear of police.
Released Tuesday, the study found 31 per cent of sex workers do not report crimes to police because of the current criminalization framework.
Conducted by UBC’s Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) and the University of Ottawa’s Department of Criminology, researchers interviewed 200 sex workers from five cities across Canada: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Sudbury, and Surrey, B.C.
In each city they found that current federal law discouraged sex workers from calling police to report a violent or dangerous situation.
The most commonly reported source of assistance in an emergency was other sex workers, followed by friends and family and clients.
Police were one of the least reported sources of assistance, at only 5 per cent.
Sex workers said they feared police harassment, as well as police detection to themselves, or others close to them.
The study found that Indigenous street-based sex workers experienced this disproportionately to other sex workers.
Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was introduced in 2014 and criminalizes the purchasing of sex but decriminalizes its sale.
Known as an “End Demand” model, its objectives are to protect those who sell their own sexual services, and reduce the demand for prostitution and its incidence.
But many sex workers and advocates have long criticized the current model, saying it puts sex workers themselves at risk.
Currently the law prevents “the development of economic interests in the sexual exploitation of others and the institutionalization of prostitution through commercial enterprises,” according to Canada’s Criminal Code.
The study’s first author Dr. Anna-Louise Crago said often that means sex workers do not call for help because of fears they, or others close to them, could be arrested.
“What we are finding is that the ‘End Demand’ criminalization framework forces sex workers to choose between accessing police assistance when they are in imminent danger or protecting themselves and their co-workers and managers from being in potential legal jeopardy,” Dr. Crago said.
The law does say those who sell their own sexual services are protected from criminal liability, but Dr. Crago said the current laws can criminalize their sex work in some circumstances.
“The laws actually discourage sex workers from working in the situations where they would have the most assistance by making it illegal to work with other sex workers and have shared expenses.”
Some examples could be if sex workers share an apartment and one person has their name on the heating bill, and everyone pays that person to contribute the cost.
Dr. Crago said that person could be seen as profiting off sex work.
Some sex workers also have a manager, security personnel, or a receptionist, and could operate through an establishment.
“Sex workers need to be able to access emergency police assistance, they need to be able to report violence to police, and they need police to take swift, respectful and meaningful action. And what we are finding is that the laws are preventing sex workers from doing so.”
The study was conducted prior to the pandemic, but Dr. Crago said it’s likely the situation has worsened due to the economic hardships many sex workers are experiencing during this time.
“Because sex work is still a crime sex workers are not eligible for some of the pandemic benefits,” she said.
That means a lot of sex workers are forced to continue to work in circumstances that put them at risk, she added, and the concern for losing income can become even higher.
“When you have a legal framework where you are concerned that if you call for help, or you call for assistance, that could result in a raid of your workplace and you could lose your income…it gives us reason to be concerned that these dynamics that we’ve documented could be worse now during the pandemic.”
Another obstacle: police harassment.
Data shows experiences of recent police harassment were directly association with sex workers reporting they were unable to reach out for help in an emergency.
“Police and proponents of end-demand legislation defend tactics, such as following sex workers, carding them, or detaining them without arrest, as necessary or “protective,” the study notes.
CGSHE Executive Director Dr. Kate Shannon, said this study shows the importance of law and policy reform, as well as full decriminalization of sex work.
“This research highlights the urgent need to recognize the harms of the “end demand” criminalization framework on sex workers and the immediate need for law and police reform,” she said.
Study data are drawn from a community-based study at CGSHE at University of British Columbia and University of Ottawa of 200 sex workers interviewed in Toronto, ON, Ottawa, ON, Montreal, QC, Surrey, BC, and Sudbury, ON. Research participants were interviewed between July 2017 and January 2018.