On Sex Workers, Sex Criminals, and Police Indifference.
A few weeks ago, the Pickton case report was made public. For those who don’t know who Pickton is, here is a brief summary.
Robern Pickton is a convicted serial killer, who from the 1997 to 2001 tortured and killed on his pig farm a number of prostitutes from Vancouver Lower East Side, B.C.. The exact number of the women Pickton killed is not known. He was convicted of 6 murders, charged with 20 more. Following the arrest, in a conversation with an undercover police officer who posed as his cellmate, Pickton confessed to 49 murders in total, adding that he was really going for 50, but got sloppy. There is evidence that Pickton mixed the body remains of his victims with pork and handed it out to friends and family, it is also likely that he fed the bodies directly to his pigs (more on Pickton).
As early as 1999, there was clear evidence of Pickton’s connection to the missing women. There were eyewitness reports of bloody women’s clothing found on his farm, and one witness (a prostitute who’d been previously stabbed by Pickton) claimed to have seen a human body hanging from a meat hook in his barn. Yet Pickton was not arrested until 2002, and committed several more murders in the meantime.
The 400 + report into the Pickton case investigated what went wrong and why it took the police and RCMP so long to arrest and charge him. In the press conference that took place on the day the report was released, it was stated that miscommunication between the Vancouver Police and RCMP was to blame for the errors and delays in the missing women’s case.
The relatives of the murdered women (and many others) don’t buy into that explanation, maintaining instead that the authorities handled the case as carelessly as they did precisely because the missing women were prostitutes (and thus seen as disposable to society). One of Pickton’s victims was an unidentified Native American woman, whose extremities were found on the farm, while her skull surfaced elsewhere in the area. During trial, the Judge dropped the charge of her murder altogether.
Having been convicted in the deaths of 6 women, Pickton received the maximum sentence available in Canada for murder- life in prison with no parole for 25 years. A few weeks ago, the decision was made not to try him for the murders of the other 20 women (not to mention dozens more whom he claims to have killed). No one will answer for the remaining 45 murders. Case closed.
Or is it?
The view of sex workers as expandable and disposable faceless beings isn’t really new. Although we may claim to have come a long way since the days of Jack the Ripper, on the whole we are still a lot more fascinated with the lives, the psyches and the personal stories of serial killers than we are concerned about the suffering and the rights of their victims. Especially so if the perpetrator is a sex criminal and his victims are sex workers. We pathologically continue to mythologize the killers, giving them tons of room to play in our popular culture. How else would one explain the numerous criminal investigation shows (a few, incidentally, ran episodes that alluded to the Pickton case). How else can we explain songs such as ‘Hooker Fortified Pork Products’, written about Pickton’s atrocities by the Seattle band the Accused? The song goes on to describe the ‘pork products’ as full of heroine and AIDS. Is it not an example of our complete social detachment and indifference to the suffering of those whom we, as a society, view as lesser humans?
This attitude is disgusting, its inhumane, its wrong in every way.
But its too slow to change.
Have you heard the popular hooker joke? It goes like this: If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?
I’ve heard it too many times, but not once have I found it remotely funny. I’ve heard many other stories about prostitutes and strippers beat up or set on fire – all discussed as entertainment, with laugher. I’ve seen strippers get beat up with club furniture while other patrons ‘politely’ looked the other way.
I’ve heard the way some men talk about sex with trafficked and abused women who are in the sex trade by coercion, not choice. Business is business, they say. If I pay, it’s rightfully mine. Regardless of whether the woman consents to it.
I remember a dancer who got raped by 2 men she’d been dancing for hours earlier- but I cannot recall any police investigation of the rape.
I remember another dancer, who was saying ‘no!’ but was too drunk to fight back when a guy tried to mount her. I was told not to interfere, because ‘what does it matter, he’s horny and it’s free for the taking’( I did interfere, by the way. And was criticized for it later.)
And I’ve seen police turn a blind eye and dismiss reports of abuse against sex workers—and heard stories about crimes that were never reported, because they ‘would be dismissed anyway.’ Ironically, I’ve caught many glimpses of police officers strolling through the club VIP and eyeing the naked dancers whenever police were called to the area for any reason.
For a consumer society where sex, ideas and allusions to sex are continuously used to sell just about any product from cars to floor mops to yogurts, refusal to extend basic respect, protection and consideration to sex workers is pretty damn hypocritical to say the least.
Now, I’ve digressed. What I actually wanted to talk about in this post is my own experiences with danger (or lack thereof) during the years I’ve spent dancing. Unlike many women I know, I have been very lucky. But there were several occasions when I seriously wondered if that would remain the case.
In 2004, after Pickton was already arrested, I worked a lot of evening shifts. One night, there was an older, chubby client who sat by the bar turning away every dancer who approached. When I came up to try my luck, the man looked me up and down and suddenly became overly friendly. We chatted for a bit and he told me that he was from out of town. He didn’t want a dance, but had a strange request. He wanted me to walk from the bar, past the stage and toward the DJ booth, with my back turned to him, as fast as I could. Better yet- he wanted me to run. Every time I did the walk, he gave me a $100 bill. I repeated the walk 6 times, and he kept paying, requesting ‘one more time’ and getting very turned on, giggling and grabbing himself. Uneasy about what was going, I asked him what it was about the walk that he found so exciting. Without hesitation, the man told me that the sight of me running away in my heels is something that he would be enjoying at his farm later that night, and that what he was seeing now was just a teaser.
Was I creeped out? You better believe it. I excused myself to use the washroom and informed the bouncers. One of them monitored the man, while the other stayed with me as I changed into my street clothes, then he walked me to my car and made sure I was safe to go home. I was told the man left the club about an hour after I’d left, that’s all I know of him.
More recently, I acquired a new daytime regular client, whose generosity grew every time he came to see me. A couple of weeks after I’d met him, the average sum he’d spend on me per visit (he never stayed more than an hour) increased from $500 to $1,500. But his tendency to pry and attention to every detail also increased. Tim wanted to know absolutely everything about me: when and where I was born, whether my family was living nearby and if I was close with them. He asked if I was married, or living with a boyfriend, often repeating his questions to check for consistency in my (mostly made up) answers. Tim wanted to know where I lived, how late I worked and if anyone came to pick me up from the club. In no time at all, he figured out what car I drove, and deducted where I went to school (and what I studied) by the University notebooks that I’d accidentally left in the back seat.
It was creepy. But Tim was spending, and as long as I only saw him at the club, I didn’t feel particularly threatened. Then one day he decided it was time to meet on the outside. We played this game for a while, me promising a dinner together one day, him insisting on more and offering a generous compensation. Finally, he started to demand that I set the time for us to meet, so – carefully – I gave him a date a month away. Tim got excited beyond belief, started talking and giggling to himself, as if he was unaware that I was even there. He was planning out our date – dinner, oysters, champagne, sensual massages, a bath tub… His excitement was entertaining – right up until the point when the monologue about ‘us’ evolved into a barely comprehensible babble about what he would later do to my body and where he would take it once he was done with me.
I silently freaked out, waited a few minutes, and lied to him that I’d already notified a friend who’d be driving me to our meeting and hanging around to pick me up when it’s over- ‘safety reasons, standard procedure, nothing personal.’ Upon hearing this, Tim’s overstated delight turned into rage – he yelled that everything was to be done in secrecy, no one was to know about him, and that by telling a friend I’d ruined all the fun for him. He stormed out the club, sent me one nasty email later that night, and was gone for good.
Unlike those strippers and other sex workers who’ve encountered abuse, rape, torture or even death at the hands of their clients, I’ll never find out whether either one of these 2 clients ever posed any real threat to me. This makes me very lucky and very grateful indeed.
Not wanting to ever find myself in a situation where the answer to that question is a painful and inescapable YES is what keeps me sober and on guard in all my strip club interactions. As tempting as it sometimes is to let go and indulge- to have a few drinks, to relax and to accept a generous offer that seems too good to be true, I try to never forget that the only person who can ultimately ensure my safety is me.
Because by the time the police get involved, it’s often far too late.