PACE Society is a sex worker charity based in Vancouver Canada. Started in a bedroom by sex workers and allies they are committed to advancing the idea that sex workers are valuable members of our community and therefore entitled to the same rights as anyone else. We talk to them about their campaign to decriminalise sex work, colonialism and the problems of working on unceded indigenous territory, their work with trans, non-binary and two-spirit sex workers and what we can do as allies.
How did PACE begin?
PACE started in 1994, by a group of sex workers and allies, in response to the violence and stigma sex workers faced in Vancouver at the time.
Can you explain why the criminalisation of sex work creates danger for those workers?
The criminalization of sex work creates and exacerbates the dangerous working conditions that exist for sex workers for a number of reasons. It reinforces the harmful stereotypes and narratives that convey sex work as inherently immoral and violent. When something is criminalized, it sends the message it is a danger to society. Specifically, when clients are criminalized (as they are in Canada), it reinforces the narrative that sex workers are victims, and removes their agency and autonomy. This stands in the way of safe and clear negotiations of the terms of their service, and differentiating between consensual transactions and non-consensual assaults. Sex workers are often unable to access criminal justice and police support knowing they could be criminalized, or their clients could be criminalized.
Criminalization also pushes everything further underground. When clients are fearful of being caught, they’re less likely to engage in screening practices that keep workers safe, such as providing their real name. Clients will also rush negotiations, and seek dark, isolated areas without surveillance such as back alleys to avoid police attention and arrest. Workers don’t have the time to make sure they are getting into a safe situation. They get ripped off because they are rushed and aren’t able to check and make sure the money they are given is real. In Canada, communicating with sex workers in public places is criminalized, (there are three separate laws criminalizing communication related to sex work negotiation and both clients and workers are criminalized. One criminalizes impeding traffic, one criminalizes communicating for the purposes of obtaining sexual services, and the last criminalizes ‘communicating for the purpose of offering or providing sexual services for consideration in a public place, or in any place that is, is in view of, or next to a school or playground’.) sex workers are unable to have clear communications with clients and clients can use scare tactics and black mail against workers. This means workers make concessions they typically wouldn’t and shouldn’t have to, and increases the risks to violence. Under the current laws, sex workers are unable to work together, which means its unlawful to maintain networks for safety or hire third-party safety people, such as spotters or drivers. When sex workers are unable to advertise on official, secure platforms, they have to find less secure platforms and are often pushed outdoors to find clients. All of this combined means that workers are unable to access the basic labour rights and protections that are available for other professions due to criminalization. Can you think of any other job where the service is legal to sell but illegal to purchase?
Like the UK, Canada has a free healthcare system, how does this system work for sex workers?
Canada has public health care, but in most provinces, it is semi-privatized, meaning that people with more money can skip wait times, have their pick of doctors, etc, while people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale are left with extremely long wait times, and often sub-par service. On top of these barriers, sex workers frequently face mountains of stigma from health care providers. For example, when a worker goes to see a psychiatrist to treat their depression and is told they just need a new job, or when a worker goes to a clinic to discuss family planning and is told ‘you should have an IUD with the work you do’. The fear of discrimination then prevents sex workers from feeling safe talking about their work when accessing care, and in some cases from accessing health care services at all.
Vancouver has a large first nations population, how does colonialism continue to affect the lives and work of indigenous sex workers?
Yes, it’s critical to acknowledge that PACE’s work takes place on the stolen lands of the Coast Salish peoples because this recognizes that colonization is ongoing, and the root cause of the marginalized position of Indigenous folks. Indigenous people face disproportionately higher rates of poverty, unemployment, trauma, poor health and mental health outcomes, and suicide as a result. Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in sex work as it is a low-barrier employment option and means of survival living in a capitalist colonial state. Indigenous sex workers are also much more likely to face violence and lack access to police protection due to structural oppression and systemic colonial violence. Colonial values create barriers in the form of by-laws, or in oppressive police treatment, and lead to over representation of Indigenous workers in jail, in shelters and the foster system. Colonization and the patriarchy have been working together for a couple hundred years to ensure people are disenfranchised, poor, and lack access to the services they need.
A lot of your activism is centred around working with trans and non-binary sex workers, including indigenous people with feminine and masculine spirits can you talk about the work you do with these groups of sex workers?
Due to transphobia and gendered based structural oppression, trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people are also overrepresented in sex work, as it’s a low-barrier employment option. The work we do meets people where they’re at and we support folks who come to us with their self-identified needs, recognizing they are the experts in their lives. Working with gender diverse folks is no different, but we do our best to advocate for the rights of trans, non-binary, and two-spirit folks to increase their safety, choices, access to services and justice. We provide the services that meet our members need, and since we have a large percentage of trans-identified members, we do also have two streams of programming specific for trans, non-binary, and two-spirit folks. Our Gender Self-Determination Project provides financial assistance and support for folks to change their name and gender marker on government issued IDs. We also have a weekly social dinner for trans folks participating in sex work.
What can a good ally do to help sex workers?
Being an ally is about continuous and reflexive action, not just a title you give yourself. With that in mind, an ally must stand with and respect sex workers. This means recognizing that sex work is work, to believe folks when they say “I’m okay with what I do”, and to not “rescue” workers. An ally should educate themselves and others, and call out stigmatizing treatment and language when it happens. They should boost the voices of sex workers, not place their lack of experience above those who have experience. An ally should practice giving up power where they have privilege, and not just to gain credit for doing so. An ally should be writing letters to editors and the media about stigmatizing language, and petitioning elected officials to improve working conditions. Allies should, when possible, give financially to organizations that support sex workers and provide relevant services.