My safety is more important than your privacy.

Screening, the law, and a plea for sex worker safety.

I know — that’s a really sensationalistic headline put out there to grab you and get you to keep reading. I’m sorry for leading you on. But I’m not entirely kidding. It’s hard to comprehend that some people, particularly some clients, aren’t aware of the dangers sex workers face. Sex work has considerable risks involved, given the nature of the work and the clientele it can attract, so sex workers must take precautions to protect themselves whenever possible.

Screening is one of those precautions. It’s a common practice among sex workers to prevent violence and robbery, ensure clients are safe and will pay the agreed upon fee, and aren’t acting as law enforcement. In this sense, sex workers are attempting to validate clients and determine their authenticity [1], and use this information to make a decision on whether to proceed with a date. It’s a necessary step, as sex workers are disproportionally more likely to be victims of assault and violence than the general population, particularly trans and street-based sex workers [2].

Screening practices vary among sex workers, but generally consist of employment verification, ID verification, blacklist searches, asking friends on their opinion of a client, Google, or using screening sites. More subjective methods include references from other providers, assessing body language vocal tone, and eye contact, and sometimes age, overall attitude, social class, and sobriety level [1].

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

“What’s law got to do, got to do with it?”

(Sung in my best Tina Turner voice… ok, ok).

Criminal laws in Canada have a significant impact on how sex workers conduct their business. In Canada, Bill C-36 [3] was brought into legislation in December 2014 after the previous prostitution laws were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark Bedford v Government of Canada case. Under this new Bill, Canada has adopted the Swedish (or Nordic) model of prostitution law, an abolitionist approach that frames all sex workers as victims and equates sex work with human trafficking.

With the Nordic model, sex workers themselves aren’t persecuted for selling or advertising their own sexual services. Instead, clients are criminalized, as are other business practices such as facilitating advertising (promotion of prostitution of others) and supporting someone with money you make from sex work (receiving material benefit from someone else’s work). One of the consequences of this is that clients are now committing an offence by purchasing sexual services. This in turn makes clients less willing to comply with screening, or any screening that is done is inadequate or rushed [4].

Those in support of Bill C-36 and other similar models argue that it improves safety by ending a demand for prostitution, reduces violence, and encourage “victims” to come forward to report violent acts from criminals. However, research has shown the abolitionist approach is failing the workers they claim to help. For example, a 2004 report comparing the purchase of sexual services between Sweden and the Netherlands, release just 5 years after the Nordic model was implemented in Sweden, indicates sex workers are being exposed to more dangerous clients because clients are now afraid of screening out of fear of persecution [5]. Sex workers who are victims of assault are actually less likely to report violence or exploitation, and locations where sex work is criminalized have the highest reports of abuse to workers [6]. Criminalization also limits access to HIV and STD screening [7], which creates a healthcare problem, particularly in marginalized populations.

On the contrary, sex work decriminalization has been shown to reduce violence against sex workers, reduce incidence of sexually transmitted infections and human trafficking [8], and improve access to health programs [9]. In 2016, Amnesty International released a report outlining the harms and human rights violation of sex work criminalization, calling for global decriminalization [10]. Research from New Zealand and the Netherlands confirms the fact that decriminalization is essential to prevent trafficking, reduce harm associated with sex work, and improve the well-being of sex workers [9].

My luxury lived experiences

I raise these points not to jump on a soap box of why sex work should be decriminalized, but to speak about how criminalization has a direct negative impact on sex worker safety by reducing access to adequate screening. I also argue that sex worker safety is indeed more important than client privacy.

I’ve been fortunate to have the majority of my clients agree to my screening protocols, I can refuse the ones who don’t, and I’ve learned (mostly) from mistakes I’ve made when I didn’t screen adequately. Except for recently, when I failed to do enough due diligence on a five-hour booking; the client didn’t show, gave a lame excuse on why he “forgot”, and refused to pay any sort of cancellation fee. Bummer.

Then there was the time I somehow let a crazy guy (we’ll call him Franklin) into my life, and soon found out he harassed a bunch of my friends, too. It took calls with my lawyer, and a call to Franklin’s associate by my friend in an attempt to investigate his real identity, to finally be rid of him… until he tried to book me under a pseudonym with a fake reference. This time I recognized his writing style and declined the booking. I was then met with several threatening emails, saying if I told anyone else about him, he’d come after me. Fun times!

A couple weeks back I received an email from a client who tried to argue the fact that my name being a pseudonym is justification for why he shouldn’t have to provide full screening to me, akin to “Well, I don’t know who you really are, why should you know who I am?”. I don’t think he realizes that I’m more likely to get assaulted while working than he is having his privacy disclosed. He said part of the reason he was concerned with providing me with screening info, is he’s afraid my email might get hacked, or that I’d be compelled to provide client information to law enforcement if subpoenaed. I’ve heard the hacking claim (which is why I’ve since switched to ProtonMail), but the police informant one was new.

All this creates a perceived chicken and egg problem with respect to client screening: Sex workers want clients to screen to protect their safety; clients won’t screen to protect their privacy or prevent criminalization. Who wins?

Not all sex workers have the luxury of screening

Many sex workers are unable to refuse bookings from clients, for various reasons. Saying no may mean not paying for childcare this week. Maybe it’s been a slow month and rent is due, and this is an opportunity to make sure things are covered. Perhaps there’s been extra medical expenses this month, or a pet gets sick, and cashflow is tight. Contrary to popular belief, many sex workers are not wealthy, and many are barely making ends meet. Survival sex work is very real. I guarantee you know people in these categories. Screening is a luxury not every sex worker has, and this is true for indoor and street-based sex workers.

When screening is limited or missing, clients who might normally be refused slip through and gain access to sex workers, where abuse and unsafe sex practices become increasingly possible [11]. For example, criminalizing clients means condoms can be used as “evidence” [7], putting the worker’s health at risk. This is anecdotally reported by sex workers in the US and Canada. When I worked with an agency, I was told to bring my own condoms, because the agency wouldn’t supply me with any out of fear of persecution. Abuse isn’t just limited to mouthy clients who push boundaries. Sex workers in Baltimore, MD reported getting shot, stabbed, sodomized and raped [12].

Supposedly, Bill C-36 is designed to reduce violence against sex workers and eliminate prostitution altogether. But among some sex worker groups, the Bill hasn’t resulted in any change in workplace violence they experience [11, 13]. Particularly marginalized groups of sex workers — street-based, identifying with a sexual or gender minority, those with substance use disorders — are especially at risk of violence and abuse during work [14,15].

Street-based sex workers are particularly at risk of work-related violence, and targeting clients hasn’t solved the violence issue. Following Bill C-36’s implementation, Vancouver police stopped targeting sex workers, but continued to target their clients. More female sex workers now felt their screening process was rushed, up from 8.9% before the Bill was passed, to 14.6% following the change [16]. Rushed screening means compromised screening. In Vancouver, where client targeting by police is high, street-based sex workers instead often resort to directing their clients into less populated areas where police are less likely to see them interact [11]. More seclusion means less visibility, which also means a sex worker is less likely to get help in a situation if they need it. In short, criminalizing clients means sex workers can’t adequately screen, which means it’s harder to protect ourselves against unsavoury, or downright dangerous clients.

Bill C-36 also hasn’t reduced the prevalence of prostitution. In Vancouver (where a lot of research is produced), sex workers report they now have to work longer hours to make an equivalent amount of money (compared to before Vancouver Police Department implemented their new policy) which is contrary to the goals of Bill C-36 of reducing prostitution. When police target clients, it causes sex workers to limit service negotiation, it displaces them to rural areas to avoid being caught by police, and prevents them from accessing police services when they do need it [11].

What police targeting does do, is create fear in, and oppression of, clients and sex workers.

Let’s agree to agree

With this knowledge base, I think we can all agree screening is essential to sex worker health and safety.

But it doesn’t always work out — particularly when law enforcement doesn’t enforce the law. For instance, last year I had a guy from Edmonton want to book me, and proceeded to fill my twitter inbox with messages that got increasingly needy and began harassing me. I eventually blocked him, at which point he began to email me with similar language. And then proceeded to contact every other escort in Toronto…and Canada, it seems. He literally tried to book dozens of escorts all on the same day and time. He sent and cancelled deposits by e-transfer “because he could.” This guy, interestingly enough, provided me with an ID. So I called my lawyer and asked her to go after him, and after several weeks and hundreds of emails to other escorts later, he was brought in for police questioning. He continued his behaviour, though, because an idle threat from police isn’t sufficient if someone is hell bent on making life miserable for a group. This guy continues to harass and waste time of sex workers to this day, popping in and out of the circuit every so often.

And this brings us to a point: often times, the police are not our allies. Sure, selling sex isn’t illegal per se, but many of the activities around it are (see above). I know very few sex workers who report positive interactions with the police as a result of sex work-related incidences.

I can hear some readers now; “Well if the police didn’t do anything with this guy, they probably won’t do anything with me, why should I bother giving info to sex workers?” It’s a sad state of affairs when the police services of a community fail to adequately protect those who are most vulnerable, and particularly when it’s a key argument in Bill C-36’s justification. If the police won’t protect us, we need to do it ourselves. That’s why we screen.

We’re lucky in Canada.

Marijuana is legal, diversity is welcomed, healthcare is free, and public education is good. But despite our country’s attempt’s at improving the lives of all by breaking down barriers when it comes to stigmatization of certain behaviours, we have a long way to go when it comes to sex work. When it comes to sex work, we’re stuck in the dark ages with law makers who refuse to acknowledge our individual and collective needs as sex workers, and our basic human rights.

References

[1] Armstrong, L. (2014). Screening clients in a decriminalized street-based sex industry: insights into the experiences of New Zealand sex workers. Aust & New Zeal J Crim, 47: 207–222.

[2] Lyons, T., Krusi, A., Pierre, L., Kerr, T., Small, W., Shannon, K. (2017). Negotiating violence in the context of transphobia and criminalization: The experience of trans sex workers in Vancouver, Canada. Qual Health Res, 27: 192–190.

[3] Canadian Department of Justice. (2017). Technical Paper: Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gc.ca/Eng/Rp-Pr/Other-Autre/Protect/P1.Html.

[4] Krusi, A., Chettiar, J., Ridgway, A., Abbott, J., Strathdee, S.A., Shannon, K. (2012). Negotiating safer sexual risk reduction with clients in unsanctioned safer indoor sex work environments: A qualitative study. Am J Pub Health, 102: 1154–1159.

[5] Ministry of Justice and the Police, Norway. (2004). Purchasing sexual services in Sweden and the Netherlands. Legal regulation and experiences. An abbreviated English version. A Report by a Working Group on the Legal Regulation of the Purchase of Sexual Services.

[6] Decker, M.R., Crago, A-L., Chu, S.K.H., Sherman, S.G., Seshu, M.S., Buthelezi, K., Dhaliwal, M., Beyer, C. (2015). Human rights violations against sex workers: burden and effect on HIV. Lancet, 385: 186–199.

[7] Anderson, S., Shannon, K. Li, J., Lee, Y. Chettiar, J., Goldenberg, S., Krusi, A. (2016). Condoms and sexual health education as evidence impact of criminalization of in-call venues and managers on migrant sex workers access to HIV/STI prevention in a Canadian setting. BMC Int Health Human Rights, 16: 30–39.

[8] Albright, E., D’Adamo, K. (2017). Decreasing human trafficking through sex work decriminalization. AMA Journal of Ethics, 19: 122–126.

[9] Harcourt, C., O’Connor, J., Egger, S., Fairley, C.K., Wand, H., Chen, M.Y., Marshall, L., Kaldor, J.M., Donovan, B. (2010). The decriminalization of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers. Aus New Zeal J Pub Health, 34: 482–486.

[10] Sex workers at risk. A research summary on human rights abuses against sex workers. Amnesty International. (2016).

[11] Krusi, A., Pacey K., Bird, L., Taylor, C., Chettiar, J., Allan, S., Bennett, D., Montaner, J.S., Kerr, T., Shannon, K. (2014). Criminalization of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada — a qualitative study. BMJ Open, 4: e005191. 10p.

[12] Decker, M., Pearson, E., Illangasekare, S.L., Clark, E., Sherman, S.G. (2013). Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetrator. BMC Public Health, 13: 876–885.

[13] Prangnell, A., Shannon, K., Nosova, E., DeBeck, K., Milloy, M-J., Kerr, T., Hayashi, K. (2017). Workplace violence among female sex workers who use drugs in Vancouver, Canada: Does client-targeted policing increase safety? J Public Health Pol, DOI 10.1057/s41271–017–0098–4.

[14] Rhodes T, Simic M, Baros S, Platt L, Zikic B. Police violence and sexual risk among

female and transvestite sex workers in Serbia: qualitative study. BMJ. 2008; 337: a811.

[15] Grant JM, Mottet LA, Tanis J, Harrison J, Herman JL, Keisling M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: a report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

[16] Landsberg, A., Shannon, K., Krusi, A., DeBeck, K., Milloy, M-J., Nosova, E., Kerr, T., Hayashi, K. (2017). Criminalizing sex work clients and rushed negotiations among sex workers who use drugs in a Canadian setting. J Urban Health, 94: 563–571.