British Columbia

Vancouver advocates call for more protection of Asian women in sex industry after Georgia shootings

Women’s advocates in Vancouver say the Atlanta-area shootings are one example of how racism and misogyny lead to violence against sex workers after six of the victims were identified as Asian, and seven were women. 

'Unfortunately this type of violence is not new to us,' says women's advocate

Books on the topic of sex work in the SWAN Vancouver office on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver advocates say more needs to be done to protect Asian women in sex work after a gunman killed eight people at Atlanta-area massage parlours Tuesday.

The shootings came amid a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus in Canada and the United States.

Women's advocates in Vancouver have said the shooting is just one example of how racism and misogyny lead to violence against sex workers after six of the victims were identified as Asian, and seven were women. 

"We are outraged and deeply heartbroken about the Atlanta massacre," said Alison Clancey, executive director of SWAN Vancouver, a non-profit organization offering support for migrant and immigrant sex workers. "Unfortunately this type of violence is not new to us at SWAN."

Alison Clancey, executive director at SWAN Vancouver, says immigrants in particular are afraid to speak out if they face violence as sex workers because they fear deporation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Many of the women that seek support from SWAN are Chinese. Clancey says it isn't easy for Asian sex workers to report the violence they experience to police in Vancouver.

"There's only ever two outcomes. The first being the woman herself becomes the target of an anti-trafficking or prostitution investigation. Or she is arrested, detained and deported on an immigration violation."

Suzanne Jay, member of Asian Women for Equality, a grassroots feminist organization, says that sadly it often takes widely reported murders for people to recognize the violence Asian women in prostitution face.

"Prostitution is an industry that markets and brands Asian women. It has a real investment in cheapening racism and increasing sexism," she said.

Asian Women for Equality is a grassroots feminist organization whose members believe that all prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation and campaign for the abolition of prostitution. (Submitted by Asian Women for Equality)

Jay says Asian women are over-represented in prostitution, particularly in storefront establishments like massage parlours. Her group believes that all prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation and campaigns for the abolition of prostitution.

She says prostitution reinforces harmful stereotypes about Asian women by over sexualizing them. 

"Men are being trained by the prostitution industry. They're being encouraged and allowed to orgasm to inequality," Jay explained. "This has an impact on Asian women who have to deal with these men, whether they're her brother, boyfriend, co-worker or a teacher or a boss."

Canadian legislation criminalizes sex buyers

SWAN takes the opposite approach and says prostitution should be further decriminalized so women are protected by labour laws like any other industry.

"If we could just bring it out into the open and recognize it as a work sector that needs protections and laws like any other, I think that is the one hopeful thing that could make a difference," said Clancey.

Clancey says current Canadian legislation around immigration, prostitution and trafficking criminalizes Asian women in the sex trade and needs to change.

Bill C-36, Canada's prostitution legislation passed in 2015, is based on a 1999 Swedish law, which essentially criminalizes the purchase of sex, but decriminalizes its sale. 

Jay says the Canadian legislation actually protects women in prostitution by decriminalizing them and the real problem is that police forces aren't enforcing the law and arresting johns and pimps.

"[The law] recognizes that women who are in prostitution are usually there out of inequality, racism, sexism, poverty [and that] is what pushes them in and makes them vulnerable to the pimps and to the men who are trying to buy them."

Both Clancey and Jay say current immigration laws prevent many women from reporting violence for fear they will be deported. Jay believes one of the simplest ways of protecting migrant and immigrant women would be for the federal government to grant them landed status as soon as they arrive in Canada.

With files from Andrea Ross