The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) launched a program two weeks ago that seeks to aid sex workers and other victims of sexual exploitation in the Montreal area. The project, called “Les Survivantes” – “the Survivors” – is mandated to provide counselling and better care from the police department for victims.
The project, which has received mixed feedback, is the result of joint efforts by the SPVM, the Centres d’aide aux victimes d’actes criminels (CAVAC), and former sex workers, who will work as consultants with police officers.
SPVM Commander Antonio Iannantuoni, who has been heading the project since its inception, explained that the project intends to aid sex workers who, under this project, are regarded as victims of sexual exploitation.
According to an SPVM press release, sexual exploitation is a broadly-used concept that has many definitions. The term includes street prostitution, escort agencies, erotic dance, and pornography.
“The main goal of Les Survivantes is to bring prostitutes and other victims of sexual exploitation out of their situation, because it is really a context of exploitation and manipulation,” said Iannantuoni.
According to Iannantuoni, the project seeks to foster a broader understanding among police officers about the situation of sex workers so that they can better understand victims and their struggles.
“[The project aims] at enabling the police officers to have an open mind. People think the girls, they are doing it freely – they don’t see the whole picture I think,” said Iannantuoni.
Karine Lasanté, a CAVAC spokesperson, explained why the SVPM and CAVAC decided to team up for this project.
“We helped the victims in the past, and [the SPVM] realized that we were very specialized in our services, and that we were the resource to help those kinds of victims. So that’s why they invited us to join the project, just to help, to make the victims better know that we exist and we can help them,” said Lasanté.
Iannantuoni spoke to the importance of having former sex workers as consultants on the project.
“They were themselves victims, they went to testify, they went to the police and the criminal system. Because they went through the whole system, they know exactly where we could improve,” he said.
“[They] gave us their output, they told us how they felt when we spoke to them.”
Valerie, a former sex worker and consultant for the project, explained that she feels she is better able to help victims of sexual exploitation in Montreal because she has been able to identify with them.
“I lived the same things they live, I am the person who does everything the police cannot understand,” she said. “[The police] can say they understand what [sex workers] live, but it’s not true. I am the one that can truly say that.”
According to Valerie, the project would have had a great impact if it had existed when she was a victim of sexual exploitation.
“Now they have all these resources where they can go and get out. So the best thing I can say is that they are not by themselves anymore,” she said.
However, not all groups feel that the project has been a success.
Émilie Laliberté, director general of Stella – a Montreal-based sex worker advocacy group – explained that, although the project addresses some issues, it leaves the fundamental problems for sex workers unresolved.
“The real problem here, especially regarding sex work, is that sex work is being criminalized, so if you really want to make a change and have the women come forward and press charges when they do suffer an assault, they shouldn’t be the ones considered criminals,” said Laliberté.
“You have to make a distinction between sex workers who are consensual adults, and victims of violence and exploitation. It’s a really important difference to make,” she added.