A local network of support and service providers wants approved agencies to put small red umbrella stickers in their windows and doors as a symbol of safety to sex workers in the region.

The Sex Workers Action Network hopes the red umbrellas will do for sex workers what the rainbow flag sticker has done for members of the LGBTQ community. 

"We're sort of pioneering it, just to see if it's something that can be effective," said co-chair Amy Venner. "We feel as though it can be. You know, the rainbow flag is universally accepted and that started from somewhere."

'Sex workers weren't really using the services they need, because they were experiencing a lot of stigma.'  - Amy Venner

​Venner said that when members of the LGBTQ community see a rainbow flag in a store or agency window, they know the space is able to safely and respectfully respond to their unique needs. 

When sex workers see a red umbrella in a window, Venner wants them to have a similar response — to know that the space is a "safe and supportive environment."

Amy Venner, Sex Workers Action Network Waterloo

Amy Venner is part of SWAN, and said the decals are important for increasing confidentiality, trust and respect for sex workers in the Waterloo region and abroad. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

The sticker initiative grew out of a need to help sex workers overcome some of the barriers that were preventing them from accessing the services they required.

"Sex workers weren't really using the services they need," Venner said, "because they were experiencing a lot of stigma." 

To receive a sticker, staff at an agency will have to complete sensitivity training, and the agency will have to agree to a Welcome Declaration.

Although the training curriculum is not complete, Venner said it will include important lessons on stereotypes, mindfulness of assumptions, the importance of language and the value of focusing on the person and not the work they do.

Stickers to appear next spring

The program is being developed by SWAN with the help of an individual who is currently involved in sex work, to make sure they are addressing real issues and concerns.

'A lot of time people automatically think that violence is a part of sex work, when it's not.' - Amy Venner

"We're hoping to start small right now and focus on key agencies we know sex workers are currently trying to access," Venner said.

She wants to have the red umbrella sticker in the windows of public health buildings and other social assistance offices by the spring of 2018.

But while the idea seems simple, and Venner anticipates a number of challenges and increased areas of need, especially as issues like poverty and substance abuse continue in the sex worker community.

Sex workers action network red umbrella

The red umbrella is a symbol used by a number of sex worker advocacy agencies around the world. (SWAN Waterloo - Sex Workers' Action Network of Waterloo Region/Facebook)

'Bad date line' also in the works

The network is in the process of setting up a "bad date" line — a number sex workers can call if they are harassed or abused on the job, or if they want to report a client to was rude or a waste of time.

'We want to ensure that volunteers, or whoever's taking the calls, won't be assuming that they should just be telling the sex worker to be getting out of the industry.' - Amy Venner

​Venner said Waterloo region used to have a number like this, called the Guardian Line, but it was associated with the police and sex workers did not trust it. 

"We're trying to deviate away from using the policing system and creating more of a community response," Venner said.

The network has formed a partnership with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, which has agreed to receive calls from sex workers. Venner said all that needs to happen now is for the centre's volunteers to be trained to handle these kinds of calls.

"A lot of time people automatically think that violence is a part of sex work, when it's not," Venner said. "We want to ensure that volunteers, or whoever's taking the calls, won't be assuming that they should just be telling the sex worker to be getting out of the industry."

Drop-in session project

The network also wants to start hosting drop-in sessions for sex workers in Waterloo region; although Venner admitted that this initiative is only a thought. 

They wouldn't be the first to run a drop-in for sex workers. The Sex Workers Ally Group started one in February for workers in Guelph and Wellington County.

Once a month, the group brought a variety of services together under one roof. Sex workers who came out could receive acupuncture, massage therapy, counselling, and advice from a sexual health nurse, not to mention harm reduction supplies like condoms and safe injection kits. 

"We were just talking about the different barriers and how, as service providers, we could do things outside of the way we normally do them to make them more accessible," said Jessica St. Peter, a public educator with Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis who's also involved with the Guelph group. 

They had committed to host the drop-in for six months, regardless of how many sex workers showed up. In June, the sessions were put on hold due to low turnout. 

"It wasn't like we're abandoning this," St. Peter said. "We're looking at, based on the feedback and conversations we've had in the community, what other kind of approach could we take?"

She said one reason why the drop-ins may not have been successful is that sex workers may not want to publicly identify themselves as sex workers.

She said the group has decided to host a series of women's health workshops in the fall, with the first one planned for Sept. 27.