Dangerous liaisons

Gentrification and new construction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is driving out sex workers.

That may seem like a good thing, but according to a new study, it pushes them into unsafe and isolated spaces, increasing the risk of violence and harassment. 

Trans sex workers are particularly at risk, according to research by the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

The study is among the first aiming to better understand how rapid gentrification may impact the health and safety of those in the sex trade. Most research on the industry focuses solely on women.

Between 2012 and 2015, 33 sex workers were interviewed for the study. 

“The construction activity taking place in the Downtown Eastside, coupled with current federal legislation criminalizing sex work, made working conditions more unsafe and contributed to the displacement of trans sex workers,” said Dr. Lyons, first author of the paper.

“Some sex workers had to work in isolated fenced-in areas, and had cut holes in surrounding fences as an escape route in the event of an unsafe interaction with a client.”

The changing neighbourhoods have influenced the sex trade by:

  • Disrupting client traffic and forcing trans sex workers to see clients in more isolated and unsafe spaces, such as railway tracks and abandoned lots.
  • Increasing private security guards’ presence and harassment of sex workers.
  • Increased tickets issued by police for offences such as loitering or trespassing.
  • Increasing verbal harassment and calls to police by residents and businesses.

“These changes have real and sometimes devastating consequences for trans sex workers – greatly affecting where and how they work,” said Leslie Pierre, a trans woman and former staff member at Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education (PACE) Society, a co-author of the research. 

“This research raises significant concerns about how the criminalization of sex work continues to isolate the most marginalized sex workers, thereby increasing risks for violence and harassment,” said Dr. Kate Shannon, senior author of the study.

“Three years ago, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Canada clearly recognized the rights of sex workers to have safe working conditions. An urgent need remains to repeal the harmful criminalized approach to sex work in this country.”

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