Sex worker support groups join forces, hope to create provincial 'bad date' list

Credit to Author: Zak Vescera| Date: Fri, 09 Aug 2019 19:01:06 +0000

Advocates for sex workers hope to create a provincewide list of potentially dangerous clients.

Living in Community, a collective that includes advocacy organizations, health centres and law enforcement, formed a working group in May that will aim to create a provincial “bad date sheet.”

The idea is a system, perhaps eventually a smartphone app, where sex workers and advocacy organization can easily make reports about negative or dangerous experiences and just as easily check on reports for their area, without involving police. 

Bad date lists are an essential resource in an industry where violence against workers is common, says the executive director of the WISH drop-in centre, Mebrat Beyene. Reports range from clients who are rude or verbally abusive to cases of sexual assault, forced confinement or attempted kidnapping.

Data is limited, but a 2009 study of 237 female B.C. sex workers found 57 per cent had experienced violence in an 18-month period. “We can’t even use the term post-traumatic stress, because it’s constant. It’s just ongoing,” said Beyene.

Just last week, a Port Alberni man was charged with a string of assaults on Nanaimo sex workers. Stephen Bradley Ewing, 40, faces three counts of sexual assault causing bodily harm for incidents alleged to have happened between March and October of 2018. Now police are reaching out to the community to see if there are other victims who might come forward.

WISH regularly emails a red light alert of bad dates to over 800 recipients, mostly in the Downtown Eastside. But the work is largely unfunded, Beyene says, and is done “on the side of the desk.”

WISH is an agency that works to promote the health and safety of sex workers, and helps workers who want to get out of the sex trade.

“All of us have many years of bad date reports at our respective organizations, but have never had the resources or capacity to do a deep analysis,” she said. Advocates have no idea yet how much a provincewide system would cost.

“It’s terrible that it has to exist, but the amazing thing is that the sex worker community is coming together and keeping themselves safe,” said Kenzie Gerrand, acting executive director at the PACE society, which promotes sex worker safety and rights.

Gerrand says a lack of “pooled data” and limited options for sex workers to submit reports means current lists might not be adequately serving different groups of sex workers. The threats an outdoor worker and indoor worker face, for example, may be different, and they may not have access to the same networks or information. And these lists, typically photocopied or emailed lists, may not be updated with any frequency.

Kerry Porth is a community developer with Living and Community, a sex work police consultant for Pivot Legal Society and a former sex worker. Steve Bosch / PROVINCE

Kerry Porth, a community developer with Living and Community, a sex work police consultant for Pivot Legal Society and a former sex worker, says that can be fatal. “Limiting the length of time that a sex worker can consult a bad date sheet outside a vehicle can mean the difference between life and death,” said Porth.

Porth said current lists are also limited by geography. A predator who assaults a worker in Vancouver, for example, might not appear on a Victoria bad date sheet.

“You’ve got a bad date sheet for Kamloops, for Grand Forks, for Vancouver, for indoor workers and outdoor workers. But we know predators move around,” said Porth. “To have a searchable database for sex workers, like a phone app, these kinds of things are well beyond the financial scope of any individual organization.”

Advocates say sex workers are typically unwilling to bring these reports to police, fearing they will not be taken seriously. WISH says only one in 10 sex workers will typically be willing to speak to police.

Steve Addision, a media liaison for the Vancouver Police Department, says police in Vancouver have long “stopped treating sex between consenting adults as an enforcement priority.” The force retains a dedicated sex worker liaison and an anti-exploitation unit (formerly the vice unit).

He acknowledges bad date reports can be “valuable tools” to bridge the divide, though he encourages workers to report crimes to police. “It’s a dangerous enough industry to be working in. We’re not out there trying to make things more dangerous for them,” he said.

Bad date reports carry other complications.

Beyene says WISH has faced threats of legal action from people identified in reports, and notes many sex workers may not report bad dates for fear of retaliation. She says funding for legal and professional advice will be essential to make the list a reality.

“The red light alert has to fly under the radar, but still has to be visible enough and detailed enough for sex workers to be able to report,” she said.

Gerrand says the steering group is hoping to secure funding from the provincial government and other donors.

She notes the list will need to be customized to best serve workers in different communities, but envisions it could one day be nationwide.

Beyene says a similar effort for a provincewide hotline was suggested in 2006 in the aftermath of the Pickton murders, but never came to fruition because of a lack of funding

She hopes this time will be different. “It’s too critical to continue to try to do off the sides of our desks,” she said.