Winnipeg—May 2019—Winnipeg Police Services’ Counter Exploitation Unit claims, on their website, that they partner with “sex trade workers themselves” to fight street prostitution. The Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition is not one of these partners. SWWAC’s goal is to make things safer for sex workers. Criminalizing and arresting those who buy sex, as Winnipeg police currently do, puts sex workers at risk. Here’s why:
Tracking and arresting clients creates risk for sex workers
Essentially, any legal framework that criminalizes either the selling or buying of sex puts those who sell sex at risk, especially if they really need the money. For example, criminalizing sex workers’ clients endangers sex workers by pushing both indoor and outdoor workers to negotiate client services in very generalized or coded language to avoid catching police attention. Without clear communication about services being negotiated, serious misunderstandings can happen. At best, this puts sex workers at heightened risk of unwanted sexual contact for all persons involved and/or unsatisfied clients who won’t/don’t pay. At worst, such miscommunications can result in sex workers being sexually or physically assaulted. In contexts where police are tracking potential clients—by patrolling streets, for example, and watching or following cars—street-based sex workers experience pressure to get quickly into clients’ cars, or to move quickly to more secluded and poorly lit areas to negotiate transactional terms—practices that can be life-threatening for obvious reasons.
Equally important is the fact that fewer clients for sex workers—whether because clients are scared away or arrested by police—leaves sex workers with fewer options in terms of who they do or don’t see. It’s not like sex workers’ bills and other expenses go away just because some clients have gone, or been arrested and taken away. This means that those who really need the money are more likely to take on clients they wouldn’t normally see, or agree to services or behaviours they wouldn’t normally offer. This very much increases risks of violence and poor mental health for sex workers.