Ignorance allows hatred, violence to breed

Every year, members of our community gather on Red Umbrella Day to support sex workers in The Capital

Simon Nattrass

Every year, members of our community gather on Red Umbrella Day to support sex workers in The Capital and to highlight their struggle to be heard, accepted and protected by a community that has chosen instead the veil of wilful ignorance and moral superiority.

This year, that deliberate ignorance was crystallized in the words of provincial inquisitor Wally Oppal, whose report on the circumstances surrounding the botched apprehension and prosecution of Robert Pickton was released on the same day (Dec. 17) as sex workers and allies marched through city streets around the world.

While Oppal notably fails to integrate the visceral experience of families impacted by the Pickton case and repeatedly declines the opportunity to place blame for the tragedy on anyone other than the vague culprits of “society at large and … the police”, the inquiry remains a boon to many in the community of sex workers.

For Marion Little, executive director of PEERS Victoria, the report highlights the unacknowledged role of community and law enforcement in the lives of sex workers. “The inquiry points to a level of violence in our community that’s dangerous for the whole community, and it’s a mistake for anyone to think that violence is somehow contained.”

According to Little, sex workers are 60 times more likely to be killed or injured in the course of their work than anyone else. With over 500 street-level sex workers, potentially 1,500 more working behind closed doors, and tens of thousands of family members, social workers and clients, the effects of that violence reach every corner of our city.

The Pickton inquiry examines in painful detail the bigotry and vicious apathy that allowed the Vancouver police, mainland RCMP, and court officials to ignore not one but three serial killers preying on sex workers in the lower mainland. Neither serial violence nor the institutional numbness that enables it are unique to Vancouver, and it is only through the work of PEERS and its clients that two serial assaulters have been taken off the streets in recent years.

Today we are reminded that it is law, prejudice, and ignorance — not some undefinable inborn hazard of sex work — which allows violence to make its home in the heart of our community. M

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