One-third of Canadian sex workers don't call 911 due to fear of police

Sex workers don't call 911

A new study finds that almost one-third of sex workers in Canada are afraid to call 911 due to fear of police detection of themselves, their co-workers, or their managers.

The study, conducted by the University of British Columbia's Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity and the University of Ottawa, draws on data from a community-based research project with sex workers in five cities across Canada.

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Sciences this week, which highlight the "serious harms to sex workers, including disproportionate harms to Indigenous sex workers, caused by an 'end demand' approach to the sex industry," explains a news release from the CGSHE.

While almost one-third of sex workers Canada-wide felt afraid to seek police assistance while they were in danger, Indigenous sex workers were twice as likely to report being unable to call 911.

“The ‘end demand’ criminalization framework reproduces many of the same life-threatening harms to sex workers as previous criminal laws. We see this most explicitly with the experiences reported by Indigenous street-based sex workers. Our research shows that the laws urgently need to be changed,” said Dr. Anna-Louise Crago, PhD, first author, CGSHE Project Lead, and Banting Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Ottawa.

'End demand' legislation forces sex workers to forego police protection

Crago explains that the 'end demand' legislation forces sex workers to forego police protection because calling 911 may put "themselves, their co-workers or their managers in potential legal jeopardy."

“This criminalization framework was justified as necessary to protect the most marginalized in the sex industry and to assist sex workers in reporting violence against them. But our data demonstrate that the legislation has clearly failed to achieve its stated goals.”

Experiences of recent police harassment were also directly associated with five times the likelihood of sex workers reporting being unable to call 911 in a safety emergency.

“Police and proponents of end-demand legislation defend tactics, such as following sex workers, carding them, or detaining them without arrest, as necessary or “protective”. But the data show how such police harassment of sex workers threatens access to police protection in a safety emergency,” explains. Crago. “This is a finding with broader implications for the police targeting of Black and Indigenous communities with practices like carding and street stops.”

Who is helping sex workers escape situations of violence and confinement?

The study also offers the first known data in Canada on who is helping sex workers escape situations of violence and confinement. The most commonly reported source of assistance was other sex workers (40.5 %), followed by friends, family or partners (29.7 %), and clients (24.3%). Police were one of the least reported sources of assistance, at 5.4 per cent.

“This research highlights the urgent need to recognize the harms of the 'end demand' criminalization framework on sex workers and the immediate need for law and police reform," says senior author, Dr. Kate Shannon, PhD, Professor of Social Medicine and Executive Director of CGSHE at UBC.

Shannon notes that the findings call for urgent policy recommendations, including full decriminalization of sex work and an immediate end to the targeting of sex workers by police and the practice of police carding and street stops linked to racial and social profiling.

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