This is how sex workers tend to be portrayed in the news.

There’s a whole mess of social assumptions tangled up in why sex workers tend to be portrayed like that – all short skirts, shattered lives, and crack pipes.

Social assumptions about sexual women that intersect with social assumptions about race and class.  Social assumptions about whose bodies are more or less available for sexual consumption, about whose lives are disposable because what they’re doing with those lives is culturally coded as filthy or shameful.

News papers are one of the many ways our culture has of confirming and reinforcing its own worldview.

What a story like this says is:  “You know how you thought that prostitutes are all drug-addicts with disposable lives?  You were right.  Here’s an(other) example of exactly that.”

 

According to the article, Jennifer’s family tried to get her help with regards to the addiction that landed her working in the most vulnerable area of sex-work.  They said that they’d offered her help and that she’d turned them down.

You know that line from The Little Prince?  The one about “I drink to forget that I drink”?

Let me talk a little bit about all those intersections that I mentioned just now.

When you are an aboriginal woman living in a culture that says “aboriginal women are only good for one thing” and that backs up that statement with actions like police turning a blind eye when aboriginal woman are raped and murdered.

When you are a poor woman living in a culture that says “poor people deserve their suffering” and backs up that statement with actions like frequent cuts to funding for subsidized housing and social assistance programs.

When you are a sex worker with children in a culture that declares over and over that “hookers are unfit mothers”.

When you are a woman in a bad situation living in a culture that asks “Why didn’t she just leave?” or “Why didn’t she get help?” while undercutting her options to get out by delaying the building of women’s shelters or refusing to fund harm-reduction programs like needle and inhaler- exchanges.

When you are a poor woman of colour doing street work, who has lost your children and is now addicted to crack, living in a culture that says woman are only valuable when they are white, middle-class, chaste, maternal, and not on drugs – and who heap shame, indignity, and outright harm on women who don’t measure up to that standard – you are fighting a battle against culturally reinforced self-loathing that is damn near impossible to win.

And you have to win it before you can accept any help that is being offered.  You have to win it, to believe that you are worth saving, in order to even get yourself to the rehab centre door.

And the sad thing is, if you get there (IF you get there – because the self-perpetuating cycle of shame heaped on shame is a really hard one to overcome), you are far too likely to be met with an agonized social worker who can’t do much more than put you on a months-long, sometimes even years-long, waiting list because they just don’t have enough beds.

Here’s the thing.  Recently, and behind locked doors (instead of in the House where these things are supposed to be debated and discussed if they are going to be decided upon), Stephen Harper made an addition to the Criminal Code stating that the operation of a common bawdy house will now be considered “organized crime” and carry with it an additional sentence of up to five years in prison.  This isn’t going to help anyone.  All it will do is make massage parlours, shared apartments, and other group-based, indoor (and therefore significantly safer) sex work environments that much more vulnerable to the attentions of the law[1].

It sure as hell won’t help people like Jennifer Stewart.

What will help them is the speedy implementation of harm-reduction strategies like needle-exchange programs and safe inhalation site.  What will help them is the decriminalization of sex work.  What will help them is more funding given to rehab centres and organizations like POWER and the ACO.

According to this article Jen had only started using crack a few years ago, after she lost custody of her children.  I can’t help but wonder:  If sex work weren’t criminalized, if Jennifer Stewart hadn’t ended up with a criminal record based entirely on sex-work related arrests, would she have lost custody of her kids?  If she hadn’t lost custody of her kids, would she have turned to drugs the way she did?  If our socially-sanctioned system for dealing with street work and addiction – shame, blame, and criminalization – were different, if we focused on harm-reduction instead of “street sweeping”, if we took violence against sex-workers seriously instead of treating sex-worker lives as expendable, is it possible that Jennifer Stewart would still be alive?

Think about that.

– Ms. Syren.

[1] Thankfully,people are questioning this change in the Criminal Code.