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Sex and the SPVM

Every year, beginning in the spring and early summer, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) plants fake police officers disguised as sex workers on corners normally occupied by outdoor workers, in an attempt to target and prosecute clients seeking sexual services.

Sex work – the exchange of sex or “sexually-charged” acts for money or other valuables – is legal in Canada. However, it is incredibly difficult for sex workers and their clients to engage in this exchange, given the stringency of legal particulars.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, sections 210-213, it is illegal to keep a brothel or “common bawdyhouse,” to transport or direct a person to one of these “bawdyhouses,” to “procur[e] a person” to engage in prostitution, to live off of the avails of prostitution, and for sex workers and clients to communicate in public places, including motor vehicles. Section 213, the communication law, is the section most commonly upheld by the SPVM.

“Client-based approaches are dangerous for sex workers,” says Émilie Laliberté, a former sex worker and the general director at Stella, a community organization that works to provide support and information to sex workers, sensitize and educate the public about sex work, fight discrimination, and promote decriminalization of sex work.

“Whenever there’s a raise in the persecution of [Stella’s] clients on the streets [by the SPVM], we have way more descriptions on the bad tricks list.” The “bad tricks” list is a section of a monthly bulletin released by Stella that provides workers with descriptions of violent assailants recently seeking services, and the act, and location, so that the workers may better protect themselves.

However, instead of pulling from this list, the police target whoever approaches the officers disguised as sex workers, and frequently arrest non-violent clients. According to Laliberté, the SPVM might arrest anywhere from 50 to 75 clients in one week. Fewer clients on the streets leads to longer hours spent soliciting, more tension and stigma from area residents, and less choice and control over clients. Reports of violence against sex workers increase.

“They’re going to accept clients that they would have not accepted before, and they’re going to accept less for services than they would have done before. Sometimes they will have the instinct that maybe someone doesn’t look good or they get a bad feeling, but they’re not going to listen to it because they’ve been waiting on the corner for three hours, and so they’re going to jump in the car.”

Sex workers in Montreal greatly mistrust the SPVM because it sees them as criminals rather than members of a community. As a result, they are unable to ask for the services they need, and are forced to choose between obeying the law and maintaining their own personal safety.

“One of the major issues regarding sex workers and [lack of] police protection…is that all the violence faced by sex workers goes unresolved. We have about 15 to 20 bad trick descriptions of events of assault, sometimes rape, sometimes attempts of murder,” Laliberté told The Daily. “These sex workers that come to us with a number, address, description – they won’t necessarily press charges against the assaulters because they don’t believe in the system and they’re afraid they’re going to be the one ending up in jail.”

In Montreal, Stella annually records between fifty and sixty cases of violence, including rape, brutal beatings, and attempted murder against sex workers. These statistics, and the information that accompanies them – sometimes as specific as home addresses of the assailants – are available to the SPVM, often only nominally investigated. Only four or five cases reach the courts every year.

Intense scrutiny by the police is dangerous for the workers, because it gives them less time to analyze a potential customer for threats, decreasing their control of the situation and making it more likely they’ll be attacked.

171 female sex workers were murdered between 1991 and 2004, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report. Because many such killings go unreported, a House of Commons sub-committee declared that these numbers were “almost certainly lower than the real figures.”

The Daily attempted to interview three sex workers in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district about their experiences with police repression, but they refused to comment because they thought a lengthy conversation might be confused for communication or solicitation, and end up in their arrest. One woman sitting in a doorframe said, “even if I don’t get arrested, I’ll get humiliated.”

If a sex worker is found to be in violation of section 213, they commonly receive a quadrilateral restraining order, which restricts them from entering certain neighbourhoods – not only for solicitation, but for other things like picking up their child from school or buying groceries. Most of these people live in the areas in which they work and then suddenly, after they receive this “quadrilatère,” they can no longer be seen there by police, who, in areas with a fair number of sex workers, are everywhere.

“They don’t need to be charged with anything anymore,” said Laliberté, “they just need to break their condition and they are thrown in jail. And so they lose their apartment, the guardianship of their children. We do intervene in the provincial prison, and we see that sex workers are over-represented in prison.”
“The current law makes them criminal[s], and it does send a message to the assaulters and violent men that they can target sex workers and they won’t be charged. There is a huge need for the situation to change.”

It is of fundamental importance to distinguish violence institutionalized by the state through repressive policies like those seen in sections 210-213, and the violence enacted on sex workers by individual officers. The SPVM are, in most situations, just doing their job. But this job is still an extension of institutionalized systems of repression, and violence does still happen. Like the woman in Hochelaga said, intimidation and humiliation are commonplace, and the ambivalence and confusion within courts and the legal system makes it incredibly difficult for police to balance their prerogative to protect these workers with their attempts to crack down on outdoor sex work.

In 2008, three sex workers named Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott organized to challenge sections 210-213. The Superior Court came to a decision in 2010 and the judge decided to decriminalize these sections. But the government appealed the decision less than two hours following the judgement, and so the women took it to the Court of Appeals, which, in March of 2012, agreed that it was unconstitutional to criminalize 210 “bawdyhouses” and 211 “living off of the avails”, but maintained that public communication was illegal.

“On June 12, the Supreme Court will hear [this] case. We have the intention of intervening in that case. We’ll be looking to the Supreme Court to make a decision that could make it much safer for all sex workers to work in Canada and receive as much protection from the police as any other citizen,” says Laliberté.
The Daily called multiple SPVM quartier-based bureaus, but they all declined to comment.
Laliberté said, “So we asked the SPVM what are their priorities? Is it to prosecute the assaulters, the rapists? The guys that should be in jail but are circulating freely? The guys whose phone numbers we have in our bad-trick list? Or is it that you arrest the people who are exchanging sexual favours for money?”
Stella said “they’re looking [onward] to the [June 12] Bedford case.”

For more information, visit Those who believe in the full decriminalization of sex work are encouraged to write to their deputies to advocate police protection for all.