Ontario: Society must humanize women of the street

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Most of the 48 victims U.S. serial killer Gary Ridgeway admitted to killing were sex workers.

“I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing,” Ridgeway said in his plea bargain statement back in 2001. “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

A disturbing number of sex workers started going missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the 1980s. It took until 2002 for police to arrest Robert Pickton, who has so far been convicted of six murders.

These are two severe reminders of the dangers facing sex workers, who find themselves on the fringes of society.

“I think what we need to do is have sex workers become part of the community and part of the social fabric, as opposed to outside of the community” said Christine Schmidt.

Schmidt organized a seminar about survival sex and prostitution on Wednesday at the Salvation Army Church on Lorne Street.

More than 50 people, most representing social agencies, gathered in the church basement for the event.

The audience heard the story of a former teen prostitute, who wished to remain anonymous.

Laurentian University professor Gary Kinsman also gave a presentation about the history of criminalization and moral regulation of sex workers.

This criminalization and stigmatization prevents prostitutes from going to the police or other agencies for help.

He said he hopes the agencies will lobby to have prostitution- related activities decriminalized. That would make it “clear to the sex workers that they are not people who are trying to criminalize or victimize them.”

Kinsman said he hopes the social agencies represented at the seminar all discuss how they can deliver non-stigmatizing services and support.

“I think one of the most important things is to begin to listen to sex workers themselves and allow them to define and to develop projects within the mandates of various groups,” Kinsman said.

Schmidt spoke about the stigma these women face. She said many will not seek services because they fear being found out. This is something Schmidt considers a violation of human rights.

“If one agency behaves badly, it reflects on the rest of us,” Schmidt said.

Public health nurse Vicki Kuula-Ross does sexual health counselling and sexually transmitted infections testing for the Sudbury and District Health Unit. She was at the seminar.

“Some of our clientele are sex-trade workers,” she said. “I just wanted to have a better understanding as to how they are feeling.”

She said she will discuss what she learned with her coworkers.

“We will discuss some of the ways we approach people and perhaps a more user-friendly way to get more of these people in for testing or services,” Kuula-Ross said.

Outreach worker Kelly Richer supplies harm reduction items such as condoms to sex workers on the streets of Sudbury.

“We deal with a good number of the working girls in Sudbury. We have built quite a good rapport with that population,” Richer said.

“The more we can be informed and be educated around this population, the better for us in carrying out our duties as outreach workers,” Richer said.

“Everything that I have heard today has been very relevant and brought forth in a really good way.”

Greater Sudbury Police Sgt. Guy Renaud was at the event.

“We are here to listen. We are here to try and develop a system where everyone can work together,” he said.

Schmidt said she hopes the agency representatives will think more critically about issues surrounding sex work and survival sex.

“They might start to formulate specific policies that make agencies much more receptive and knowledgeable so they can meet service needs,” Schmidt said.

She said if even one or two of the people at the seminar change their approach to a sex worker, the event was a success.

Link to original on the Sudbury Star

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