Nova Scotia

Sex-trade workers fear violence in business

Sex-trade workers who gathered in Halifax this week say the violence they suffer is at epidemic proportions and many in the public never hear about it.
Joanne, who has been in the sex-trade business for four decades, said she fears for her safety. (CBC)

Sex-trade workers who gathered in Halifax this week say the violence they suffer is at epidemic proportions and many in the public never hear about it.

"I was attacked by a man with a knife. I had to hold the blade of the knife to keep him from cutting my throat," said Joanne, who has worked in the business for four decades.

"At that time I did finally get away from him without being murdered."

Joanne is not the woman's real name. She fears for her safety, like many current and former sex-trade workers who attended a conference Friday called Green Light, Red Light: Regulating the Sex Trade.

A focal point of the conference was a ground-breaking case currently being tried in Ontario, which would legalize their trade if an Ontario Supreme Court ruling is upheld.

The federal and Ontario governments are appealing an Ontario Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down laws against keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purpose of prostitution and living on the avails of the trade.

Justice Susan Himel ruled the laws were contributing to the danger faced by prostitutes and violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by forcing prostitutes to choose between their liberty and their security.

In arguments filed with the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the federal government said Himel erred in assuming that Parliament has an obligation to "minimize hindrances and maximize safety" for people in such activities.

The appeal is scheduled to be heard over several days in June.

Alan Young, the lawyer for the sex-trade workers in Ontario involved in the case, said Friday that the government is putting up a fight.

"I sort of laugh at them and say, 'But you never used the tools. Now suddenly you care like a child whose toy is taken away.' Never played with it, now you want it back."

Joanne said legalization is a matter of life and death to people in her business.

"The women and men who now have to be in unsafe situations such as jumping in cars before they're seen, sneaking into dark allies to apply the trade, would have safe places to be," she said.

There are a number of unsolved murders of sex-trade workers in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Rene Ross, the executive director of Stepping Stone — a support and advocacy group working with former and active sex-trade workers in the province since 1985 — said little attention is paid to any crime committed against a prostitute.

"We've actually lost a couple of women this year who we work with and most of the city doesn't even know that happened," she told CBC News.

Joanne said the public and the politicians have to realize sex-trade workers need the same protection as everybody else.

"We are tired of the fact that we read headlines like, 'Hooker and a woman killed.' Unless that hooker was male, there were two women involved there," she said.

"We're just tired of it."

With files from The Canadian Press