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Sex workers in Canada say a wave of john stings is making life more dangerous for them

Sex workers say a wave of john stings is making life more dangerous for them

As police in Edmonton, Alberta, clamp down on the demand for paid sex with mass “john stings” in the name of protecting women, sex workers and experts say such efforts are ineffective and have already made conditions more dangerous.

Canada implemented its revamped prostitution laws in 2014 making it legal for people to sell sex but illegal for people, or “johns,” to buy it. Sex worker advocates have long decried that approach, known as the Nordic model, for nevertheless harming those who sell sex and doing little to curb the ever-present demand for their services. Police forces across Canada have since taken different approaches to implement the law, or not, with the 2015 “John Be Gone” sting in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, that saw the arrest of 27 men being the most notorious.

So far this year, the Edmonton police have carried out one sting a week on average, resulting in 63 arrests, the vast majority of which involve men. The force says it’s on track to arrest more than 200 johns in 2017, nearly twice the 104 arrests made last year.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of trafficking and victimization that’s occurring,” Staff Sergeant Dale Johnson told CBC News.

Johnson’s team recently changed its name from the vice unit to the human trafficking and exploitation unit, and conducts most of its john stings online by posting fake ads to attract clients. He added that the vast majority of men caught in the sting are first-time offenders who typically get diverted into so-called “john schools” where they’re taught about the reasons not to patron sex workers in exchange for not facing a criminal charge. It’s unclear how many people, if any, were charged with human trafficking, or other violent crimes.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of trafficking and victimization that’s occurring.”

But for one long-time Edmonton sex worker, who works in a body rub parlor and wished to be identified by her pseudonym Betty Lynd, even the threat of law enforcement going after clients makes things more dangerous for her and her fellow workers.

“An overwhelming number of clients hear that what they’re doing is illegal and then they get scared that the cops are waiting just outside of the door to get them. And then they start demanding that we meet them in a more private setting,” she said. “I get asked all the time if I would either go into a car, their car, where they’re pretty sure they’re not going to get popped [charged] there. Or they ask if I can accommodate them at my place … I don’t think it’s the safest thing, not just from a personal safety point of view, but I also don’t want them to come after hours and ransack the place”

She says police have gone after clients in the area for years, but not to this extent. Still, she says it won’t have an impact on the overall demand, and it won’t capture those who might want to cause harm to sex workers.

“I don’t know how setting up a sting on a client is going to help you find somebody violent. These guys just want a basic human needs service. They’re not exploiting or trafficking anybody,” she said.

“How it is I can give sex away and nobody cares, but as soon as I capitalize on it, it’s a problem.”

“How it is I can give sex away and nobody cares, but as soon as I capitalize on it, it’s a problem.”

Chris Atchison, a sociologist at the University of Victoria who has conducted extensive research on those who purchase sex, says he’s spoken to hundreds of clients in Canada who say that john stings typically don’t end up curbing the demand at all, but send it further underground.

“It also increases the levels of stigma, reduces the chances that sex workers and clients will report acts of violence to the police, and it creates more dangerous conditions,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an inherently bad client or sex workers. Bad people can only do bad things in bad conditions.”

He added that he’s seen no evidence that “john school” is effective in changing the desires of clients, and they are primarily run by groups that seek to abolish the sex trade — not make women safer. “These programs are based on a very particularly moral agenda based on misinformation and fear mongering,” he said.

Still, the police are convinced that their work is making a difference by removing the nuisances associated with the industry. “You know, open drug use to cruising, to men soliciting young girls on their way to school and mothers just walking to buy a loaf of bread,” Staff Sgt. Johnson told the CBC. “Things like that really hurt the community and the reputation of the community.”

Cover: Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press

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