How Sex Workers Are Protecting Themselves — Because No One Else Will

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In her three years as a sex worker, Lyra McKee has faced her share of exploitative and downright scary interactions, from people refusing to pay her to clients stealing personal items from her home. She never contacted authorities about these events. “There are a lot of incidents that I would have reported if it had been a little bit more accessible to do so,” says McKee, the co-executive director of PACE Society, a Vancouver, Canada-based support organisation for current and former sex workers. “I wish I had some kind of support around safety.”
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Now, McKee is helping to create that support. Thanks to a $1-million (£800,000) donation from the Law Foundation of BC and an anonymous donor, she and other sex workers and provincial organisations are building a province-wide “bad date” reporting system. Once complete, sex workers will be able to report their experiences with predatory clients in an online database in order to warn others in the industry about them.
What makes for a “bad date” is up to the individual, but it’s generally understood to be a type of exploitation. “A bad date is where something that is non-consensual, or that was not agreed upon by the sex worker and the client, occurs,” McKee says. That can range from being bailed on by clients with appointments, to not being paid, to verbal abuse, to more violent incidents of physical and sexual harm. 
Unfortunately, these violations happen far too often. According to a 2014 study, one in five sex workers in Canada experience physical and sexual violence. Things have only gotten worse during the pandemic. The decline in overall business and the fact that many sex workers are unable to apply for government relief has left many in precarious financial positions, which can lead to taking on a client who hasn't been vetted or conducting business in more private, and therefore riskier, locations.
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Going to the police often isn’t an option, given the ongoing stigma and criminalisation of sex workers in Canada, who face some of the most restrictive sex-work laws in the Western world. “Distrust of the police, poor relationships between law enforcement and the sex-work community, previous bad experiences, fear of being outed, fear of making their various legal or criminal justice files worse” are all reasons sex workers may choose not to report bad dates, says Mebrat Beyene, executive director of WISH, a Vancouver-based organisation that offers support to street-based sex workers. For immigrant or migrant individuals in the industry, reporting to police can be especially dangerous as it can potentially lead to deportation. 
Left to advocate for themselves because no one else will, organisations for sex workers across British Columbia have typically relied on more localised methods of reporting bad dates. In Victoria, PEERS, a grassroots organisation for sex workers, relies on clients recounting incidents to staff, who then input reports and share the information with other sex workers in the area. At SWAN Vancouver, a nonprofit that supports migrant and immigrant sex workers, executive director Alison Clancey says warnings are passed along via text. But, these methods have their limitations. “If a predator is travelling or working in different locations, and he's carrying out violence against sex workers in multiple locations, these localised systems that exist currently might not pick up on that,” says Clancey.
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Which is why the launch of the database is so crucial. No date has been set for it to go live — the organisations are working on hiring a team to conduct a review of existing bad date reporting tools both across Canada and around the world in order to figure out what will work best in British Columbia. They’ll also consult with the sex-work community to ensure that any system will cater to their needs.
While there’s been talk of a phone-based app, Beyene says the actual format of the system is still up in the air. “Among the most-vulnerable and most at-risk are people who maybe don't have access to phones or the internet or Wi-Fi,” she says. “There has to be a way for that group to be covered.” As for whether or not we may see this system cross-country one day? Beyene is optimistic. “Who knows — we’ll see what conversations this sparks."
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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