Monday, February 13, 2012

stig·ma: noun

1a) archaic : a scar left by a hot iron, brand b) : a mark of shame or discredit, stain.

 At PEERS we see a lot of examples of how stigma creates enormous barriers for the people who use our services.  Nearly every day someone comes into our office or onto the RV with a story about how they were treated badly because of the work that they do (or have done in the past).

 In many cases, stigma prevents sex workers from accessing vital services like health care and police protection.  As multiple studies have shown, even brief experiences of exclusion can have long-term, negative health consequences.  It’s not hard to understand, then, how social exclusion over years can have devastatingly debilitating consequences on the lives of people who experience it.

 I saw a glaring example of stigma against sex workers just yesterday.  A dear friend of mine had written me an email asking me to consider joining the bone marrow donor registry, and I was researching the process.  The first step was a set of “Health Screening” questions including Have you ever donated blood? and Have you ever had a positive HIV test? These questions seemed reasonable considering that the donation is blood-related.  Then I was asked: In the past 5 years, have you taken money or drugs for sex?

 If my answer to this was “yes,” what would that mean about the viability of the stem cells in my bone marrow for transplant? Would it disqualify me from the registry? I called the Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS) information line to ask, but the polite woman who answered my call didn’t know how to respond and it seemed that no one who did was available to talk.  The assumption implicit in this question is that people who trade sex for cash or goods even once, under any circumstances, live more disease-prone lives.  Otherwise, why not ask about whether a potential donor has ever paid for sex with drugs or money?  Or whether they’ve had sex with lots of people for free? The assumption that sex workers’ blood is more likely to be tainted and unusable does real damage by promoting tired, old stereotypes.  Not only is it illogical, but statistics about sex workers’ health in Canada don’t support the notion either.  While it may speak to his or her economic circumstances or notions about the validity of sex as service, trading sex for money, drugs, or anything else does not in itself say anything about the health or character of the person who does it.  It doesn’t make someone different or more dangerous.  And it should not preclude someone from even applying to be a donor of life-saving material. Test my blood first and, if you have to, reject it on its own merits, not on those of my sexual history.

 I’m still applying to join the donor registry (you should too!), but will continue to follow up with CBS about this antiquated question.  Challenging stigma is central to increasing sex workers’ safety and is one of PEERS’ central purposes.  We invite you to join us in noticing and taking apart anti-sex work stigma when you see it happening.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Nothing About Us Without Us

Dear Human Rights & Justice Activists,

It has come to our attention that Gunilla Ekberg and REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity) are coming to town. REED believes that "prostitution is violence against women" inherently. Ms. Ekberg is a proponent of the "Nordic Model" of law whereby sex work is still illegal but only the buyers are charged criminally. Another presenter at the event, Trisha Baptie, is a well known abolitionist in Canada. The event will take place at the Victoria Public Library on Tuesday March 8 at 6pm.
We are asking for your support in attending this event and challenging their claims.

PEERS disagrees with REED's perspective and believes that it is not a rational or useful approach to sex work. Criminalizing the sex industry as a whole without distinguishing between the wide variety of sex workers' experiences helps no one. It is crucial to differentiate between those who are forced into sex work through trafficking, those who are in the trade through circumstances such as poverty and those who choose the work from a position of empowerment. Further, making it legal to ply your trade but illegal to have customers is about as reasonable as saying that it is legal to trade sexual services for money, but illegal to talk about it, which is what current laws state.

Many sex workers have criticised the Nordic model, including most sex workers' rights organizations across North America and Western Europe. Some sex workers in Sweden are reporting now they are being set up as 'bait' by the police against their will. This model of sex work law both patronizes and disempowers sex workers.

PEERS believes that the only truly feminist and approach to sex work is to respect the voices and experiences of actual sex workers. We do not believe in creating laws that assist a small number of sex workers - those trafficked and exploited - and leave everyone else out. Although issues of exploitation, trafficking and violence are very real in the sex industry, they are not universal. Classifying sex work as inherently exploitative is overly simplistic, and fosters the idea that all sex workers are victims.

Within that framework, the only difference that is acknowledged between them is their degree of victimhood. The hierarchy of who will be listened to and who won't in debates around sex work laws has to stop. It has no place in the lives of those in the sex trade, no matter how they got in, where they want to go and whether or not they want out.

REED says " The sexual exploitation of girls and women in the commercial sex trade is a human rights crisis and a direct hindrance to women's equality. Some argue that prostitution is a harmless commercial transaction between consenting adults. We refute this. Prostitution is violence against women. It is driven by the male demand for sexual access to the bodies of women and children and must be treated as a form of gendered and often racialized violence.“ (italics mine)
PEERS is very clear about the difference between the commercial exploitation of children and the adult sex trade.  The laws that Gunilla Ekberg refers to do not address the exploitation of youth and children, but only adult sex workers.  Although the exploitation of youth and the adult sex trade are sometimes linked, they are not universally nor are they one and the same. These must be kept separate in order to address each issue effectively.
We ask you to consider how issues around criminalized sex work are intrinsically tied to other social injustices such as insufficient housing and harm reduction services, and to support us in challenging REED's position, which we believe to be oversimplified to the point where it is harmful.

Please come out and join us in insisting that the voices and experiences of a variety of sex workers are heard and taken into account when discussing the laws and policies that affect everyone.  Please do pass this on to everyone who might be interested. For more information call PEERS.
-Megan Lewis

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

After Red Umbrella

Red Umbrella Day is over and done. I love that so many people showed up in the freezing freeze. I'd like to thank the UVic Women's Centre and the Anti Violence Project for their help in this and particularly I'd like to thank Sinead, Tracy and Gina for all their hard work getting it together.

It was a small gathering, Red Umbrella Day is still relatively new in Victoria. But everyone there walked and yelled in the march. Everyone stayed for the speeches afterwards and I think everyone had a sandwich and tea. We sold a couple happy sex boxes and had some great conversations in the Outreach RV.

What I was particularly impressed with was the men.

I've been immersed in sex work issues on 'this side of the counter' since 1995. This was the first time I'd seen men stand up for us in numbers. I think, for a long time, violence against sex workers & violence against women has been seen as a 'woman's issue' with only single, lone men involving themselves. Lately, over the past few years, the "Walk a Mile In Her Shoes" campaign has been taking off - a march of men in high heels, walking against violence against women. Now, of the speakers that stood up to the open mike, the majority were men.

This is a difference of some import.

I asked the crowd, when I was talking, to come up and tell us why they came to the Red Umbrella Day event. One of the men who stood up said "Violence is wrong for anybody". True story. I'm in agreement with him, but for so long I've heard "what do you expect when you work in that profession" or "you make your bed" or "people who put themselves out there are kind of asking for it". My favourite is the acknowledgement "Of course it's wrong that people do that to sex workers... but don't poke the tiger. It isn't right, but you already know what's going to happen". I've heard that from men and women alike.

I am heartened to see men stand up. In fact, all but one of those at the open mike were men. This makes me feel like things are changing. It makes me feel like we, as a community, are standing up to the violence and not sloughing the responsibility for solutions on the people who are most affected by the crimes.

I'm not interested in placing responsibility where there is no culpability. But I'm pretty sure that none of the guys that got up to talk had beaten up a hooker lately. I feel safe in that assumption. The fact that non-sex workers got involved was the first piece of the community puzzle. And I thank all of you for doing your part. The men are the next piece of this. Individually, personally deciding that this is an issue that negatively affects all of us.

Thank you. All you dudes. Thanks for the insight, sense of responsibility, and compassion that allows you to be part of the solution to this problem. Thank you for not taking it so personally that you don't want to touch it. Thank you for assuming your place in this fight without getting defensive, or simply paralysed because you don't know what to do. Thank you for acknowledging that we are all human beings. 

Now, go talk to your friends.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Re/Max Victorial Idol 2011 Finale!

This is going to be a night you don't want to miss with red carpet, paparazzi, contestants, judges and entertainment arriving via LA Limo. Be there early to take pictures. 
Raffle, Silent Auction
Come on out for an evening of entertainment. Special guest performers, celebrity judges, and more. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fuelled By. Not Caused By.

Red Umbrella Day is this Friday. It's a big deal. Red Umbrella Day is the march to end Violence against Sex Workers.

I've been fielding interviews for a couple of days now. I've heard it a lot: "violence is an occupational hazard in sex work" or "well you know what you're getting into when you start doing that kind of thing".

It galls me. It rankles. It makes my teeth itch.

Violence against sex workers has increased by 56% over the past three years in Victoria according to the Victoria Police Department. When I say violence I don't mean some abstract "bad things" are happening. I mean sitting with someone who is crying, scared, with angry red welts on their face. I mean someone walking with a limp because they were kicked so hard in the leg that the muscle is bruised and swollen and cramping. This is real. It is appalling.

I would like to argue that sex work is not dangerous. The work itself I mean. Instead, I'd argue that there are a tiny percentage of people (almost exclusively men) who are violent to sex workers. These particular individuals are dangerous. They are dangerous. They are dangerous to everyone. And the more vulnerable you are, the more dangerous they are to you. It seems like we're laying responsibility in the wrong direction again.

The violence many sex workers face is fuelled by, not caused by, the vulnerability of their position. Our job, as a community, as a society is to collectively come to the conclusion that we value each member of our society. Our job is to ensure that our children are well taken care of instead of blaming the families that fall while leaving them to sink or swim. Our job is to ensure that life's upsets don't end up trapping people where their dignity gets stripped away layer by layer. Our job is to explore the stereotypes we belief and the stigma we hold and our part in perpetuating both.

It is our job. Our job as human beings who care what happens to other human beings to fight against the forces that create environments where sex workers are more vulnerable, instead of less. Ridiculous laws, outdated ideas about women and sex, misunderstandings, and laying responsibility for violence at the feet of those being beaten has to stop.

There are many sex workers who won't show up to the march on Friday. The fear of being publically recognized as a sex worker is a valid one. This recognition could result in their children being taken away - even if they are fine parents, or losing a 'straight' job, losing family & friends. It saddens me that they can't show up to the march that is about making things safer for them because of fear.

Did you hear that?

"I can't go to a public march because I'm afraid of the consequences".

In Canada.

Victoria, can you hear that?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nothing Stays Silent

Anyone who attended our Annual General Meeting in May saw firsthand the exceptional work that is being produced in our Friday morning poetry writing group. Led by local poet Dvora Levin, we spend two hours every week learning poetry techniques and styles, hearing works by other poets, challenging ourselves to be free of the confines of our ‘logical brains’ and unleashing our creativity. We spend the first half of the class writing, working on a different “assignment” from Dvora each week. During the second half of the class, we read, discuss and critique our poems. The results are sometimes poignant, sometimes funny and always provocative poems that speak to themes such as love, pain, joy, fear and resilience. The poets are brave, imaginative and deeply supportive of one another.

Inevitably, upon starting classes, the participants have one of two responses to the news that they’ll be joining a poetry writing group on Fridays; it’s either “Oh great! I love writing!” or, “Are you kidding? I don’t know anything about writing poetry.” But it has sometimes been the most reluctant converts who produce the most passionate work. “The workshop has allowed me to express thoughts, feelings and words that have previously been unknown and unheard,” wrote participant Neela* about her experience attending the group, and others have echoed her opinion: “I was afraid of writing before but now I really like it,” wrote Mariane*, and Janis* added that, “We discover together the potential to be and do anything we individually imagine.” As a co-facilitator, I have been astounded many times by the creativity that seems to lie just below the surface in each one of our participants, and by the confidence that they display, and then further build, by getting to create and share their work. It’s not just about the poetry, either. Friday classes can be about processing difficult emotions, sharing life-altering experiences and building trust within the group.

A couple months ago, we started talking about how to get the word about our poetry out into the community, and the result of those conversations has been two projects. The first, a “chapbook,” or small booklet, is an anthology of poems produced in the class that the participants have decided to distribute around the community to places where there are waiting and/or reading spaces (community agencies, coffee shops, etc). The chapbook, which the participants named Nothing Stays Silent - Peerless Poetry, will introduce the project to the broader community, promote poetry-reading in public spaces, and will let readers know how they can support PEERS. It is also a precursor to our next project, a lined writing journal, that will be produced and sold in the new year. The journal will be decorated with participant-made cover and will contain participants’ poems scattered throughout. Keep your eyes peeled for them; they’re due out in the Spring.

In the meantime, Cowichan Bay artist Kristine Payton ( has generously donated a number of luscious writing journals that she produced entitled “Big Beautifuls – Journal For the Self” that we’re selling along with a copy of the Nothing Stays Silent poetry chapbook as a bonus. They make excellent holiday gifts for your loved ones. Please support Elements and contact us to get yours!
*names have been changed for privacy

Monday, November 29, 2010

Snow Day

Monday we had a snow storm. It was -8 with windchill hitting -16 according to Environment Canada. The roads were treacherous. We had to ground our Outreach RV. Luckily there was another agency out doing some outreach so the sex workers on the street weren't left with nothing.
As I sat in my warm, dry suite I was eternally grateful for the roof over my head, the electricity that allowed me to make a hot cup of tea and my big puffy duvet on my bed. I thought back to the last winter that I worked on the street.

I wasn't "hooked up" with services. In fact, the services at that time were far fewer than there are currently in Vancouver. I was scared of them and I didn't know any of them and I would turn away when they drove by. I didn't want to talk to them thank you very much.

It was -14. A cold snap for sure in the usually moderate Vancouver. The pavement sparkled that sharp, pointy light that a good freezing spell will create. I was wearing a pair of tights, a short skirt, a cardigan and dollar store gloves. You know those little throw-away ones. It was starving out. I might have seen 10 cars the whole time I was out. I stayed out until almost 4am that night. I broke twice. The last guy was a walk-by and I took him into the alley behind my corner. He kept complaining how cold my hands were even though I was handling him with my sleeves over my gloves. Eventually I got mad, thinking "it's uncomfortable for YOU?" I gave him his money back and told him to keep walking.  I think I made 60$ that night. Chump change.

Monday night the wind was blowing ice and snow all over the place. Great swathes of the Islands were without power. Cars were stuck in the ditches and in intersections. My little suite was even chilly and I had a space heater going that night. I started bitching in my head. Bitching about the cold, bitching that I couldn't get my truck out of my parking spot. Then I remembered.

It will never be that again. It will never be me on the street at -14 with some guy complaining that my hands are too cold. For me. But it's still that for the others working the street though. Our RV wasn't out and although many of the shelters had opened extra beds, you can't make money in a homeless shelter. AND some of the people working the street had homes... just no money. When I was out there I had a home. I was still freaking cold that night.

Today it's snowing; it's been snowing for four days now. The people who could make the decision to not go out to work on Monday during the really cold snap are starting to go back out. They're running out of money or food or cigarettes. Rent day is coming up and summer is a long way away.

This is not an "oh look at the poor hookers" story. Just me remembering what it was like, in the winter, working the street and knowing someone else is there now. Someone referred to us as "tissue people". Pull one out and another takes their place. Although I resent the implication that I'm a tissue, I understand the feelings of hopelessness and futility sometimes.

Then I see the people around me. People who've gotten out and started doing other things. People who've moved their work inside. People who've found warmer, safer and more lucrative ways to work. We, as a community, aren't tissues. We are, however, a work in progress.