With two recent murders and prostitution still in the grey market, sisters are taking their safety into their own hands

The strangulations of prostitutes Cassandra Do on Aug. 25 and Lien Pham on Oct. 13 — Do working from home, Pham from an agency apartment — have underlined for Toronto’s sex industry that hooking, like driving a cab, can be dangerous. As the so-far unsuccessful search for the killer or killers goes on, another escort posted a report on an internet bulletin board in early December that she had been beaten, warning others to be careful.

Prostitutes have many safety concerns: doing business they are naked and in close contact with their clients; often they are working alone at home or in the home of a client; and even good clients often try to hide their identities for fear of embarrassment, making prosecuting assaults or preventing those in the future difficult.

Perhaps worst of all, the nonsensical, shaky legal situation of prostitution (the act itself is legal but many of the business practices that accompany it — soliciting, running an agency, maintaining a regular workplace — are criminal) means it is nearly impossible for sex workers to maintain the type of safety standards they’d like. Or even to call the police when something goes wrong for fear they’ll get booked for one of the ancilliary offences they have to cop to in the process of reporting the crime against them.

“The whole catch-22 is you still have police, working morality or vice or whatever you want to call it, arresting prostitutes,” says Anastasia Kuzyk of the Sex Worker’s Alliance of Toronto (SWAT). “So the cops on one hand are asking us to trust them and provide them with information [about crimes] and on the other hand, they’re still making arrests.”

Indeed, sex workers working from their own homes risk being charged with keeping a “common bawdy house” if they are discovered by the police (or being evicted by scornful landlords who may discover what type of home business they’re running). Owners and employees of escort agencies risk being charged with living off the avails of prostitution, and so often discourage calling the police in case of trouble.

A man who runs an escort industry website, who goes by the name of Y-lee Sardonicus (a handle he hopes will shield him from prosecution for living off the avails), sums up the problems. “If they call the police — when it could be a potential emergency situation or what have you, a girl could be in danger — then they’re putting themselves in a really precarious situation … there’s no safety net to fall back on.”

In the wake of the recent violence, many sex workers are trying to build such a net, much the same way the taxicab industry, following the murders of of two cab drivers in 2000, adopted security cameras and external emergency lights to protect drivers. Of course, both programs in the cab business are now required by the city’s licensing agency. No such body exists for the sex industry, so the initiatives are of necessity ad-hoc and scattered.

Shortly after Do’s murder, and again after Pham’s, industry bulletin boards such as the Toronto Escort Review Board (see sidebar below for more info) were flooded with sex workers and clients mapping out strategies for protection: retired prostitutes offered to telephone and check up on those working outcalls (where a prostitute visits a client’s home or hotel room), or even to sit in the next room during incalls (in which clients visit a prostitute’s home). Others began organizing self-defence classes, with regular clients volunteering instruction and space.

Sex worker Shemale Dee was one of those who felt the need to act to protect herself and others. “I was a good friend of Cassandra’s. We had known her for about 13 years and basically because of what has happened just recently, and having always been concerned with safety myself, I approached some software, security and systems people,” she says. “I told them about the business we are in and how we do business and everything else, and wanted to do some brainstorming with them about the most ideal, easiest-to-use, easiest-to-implement system that would offer the biggest stick, the most amount of security.”

What Dee and those computer people came up with is a system they call Capture and Send, which uses a camera that fits into the peephole on the door to an apartment to take a picture of clients before they come into the apartment and sends it to the owner’s computer and to remote locations (friends’ computers or a central image-vault service) as an encrypted file for storage. The files are stored off-site so that clients who may get out of line cannot just steal a computer to destroy the evidence; they’re encrypted with a code so that only the sex worker and whomever she gives it to (a lawyer, a family member) can access the photographs. If nothing goes wrong, clients should have no serious concerns about the future of the image because it is, after all, just a picture of them standing in a hallway.

“So there’s a lot of thought in the process. When I go to the door, let’s say for example, buddy comes to the door and I want to let him in. I’ve sent the images to a dozen friends and on my door I have a little warning saying ‘premises under surveillance.’ So they know ahead of time what they’re dealing with. And when I go to the door, I crack open the door — I still have a steel bar that doesn’t allow anyone to push their way past me — so I’m still within my safe territory, and if they say ‘Hey, I have a problem with the whole security issue,’ then I say ‘I’m sorry I can’t do business with you.’ And that’s still from the safe side of the door. If I decide to let them in, and he decides to get a little testy and out of line, I’m able to tell him ‘Hey, you’ve been warned at the door, and you can see that a security system is in effect and your picture has been sent to a dozen of my friends before you even came in here. So I suggest you leave’ — 99.9 per cent of the people in that situation would likely leave. I’m convinced that if Cassandra had had this system and she had said that to her attacker, he would have probably left.”

Dee has been operating the system in her own home for a month, and says it’s working well and that none of her clients has complained about it. She’s marketing it to others in the business for $1,000.

Sardonicus, who used to work as a driver for escorts before setting up his website, is founding an organization called the Toronto Escort Alliance Marketing Service (TEAMS), which he says will provide several safety features for women in addition to helping them advertise their services, such as a business line that cannot be traced to the worker’s home address and can be forwarded to their cell or home phone. One service he’ll provide for no charge to any independent prostitute is something he calls “call safe”: “They can call the hotline and provide the information of where they’re going, how long they’re going to be, when they plan to come out. We’ll then call them out of that call — which gives the impression they have someone watching out for them, and if we haven’t heard from them by the appointed time we will follow up and exercise due diligence and bring in the authorities if need be. If we can’t get a hold of that girl, we’re calling the cops,” he says.

Other safety measures that should be standard practice for prostitutes are being reinforced in the wake of the violence. Those working in incall agency apartments are advised never to work alone. (Lien Pham worked in such an apartment and under normal circumstances would have had a co-worker in the apartment with her. Her break with routine proved fatal.) Those working outcalls should always tell someone they trust the location and phone number of where they’re going, who they’re going to see and how long they expect to be there. All sex workers are advised to screen their clients, to be sure to get a working phone number and to verify that the number they’ve been given is listed to who the client says he is.

In addition, sex workers’ organizations run by current and former prostitutes such as Maggie’s and SWAT provide bad date lists and other safety information, and TERB provides an electronic bulletin board where workers can post messages and share information.

And yet all of these measures may still seem a little piecemeal. Kuzyk says the biggest obstacle to safety is the legal situation of the business and the public attitudes behind it. “I think the obvious thing is decriminalization,” she says, pointing to the example of the Australian state of New South Wales, where prostitution is completely legal. “What they’ve found in New South Wales is that there isn’t any violence against sex workers. It’s not tolerated because they have status as workers.”

She says that feminist, labour and political organizations need to be a more vocal force for completely decriminalizing prostitution so that the rights of workers can be protected. “Regardless of your moral convictions, whether they be religious or whatever … we all have an understanding of workers’ rights, in terms of health and safety. And that’s what we want to address. We’re not asking people to give us their stamp of approval. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who look down on people who have working-class, low-paying jobs, too. If you work in a factory, you make sure you’re safe when you do your job. Well, why can’t I have the same privilege? Workers’ health and safety should be a right, not a privilege.”

Though the federal government is not currently discussing the subject of further decriminalizing sex work, Kuzyk says the ongoing violence against sex workers should put the issue at the top of the legislative agenda.

“I’m tired of us dying,” she says. “It’s an epidemic, and people constantly excuse it. The violence in sex work is due to the apathy that exists [in the general public] towards sex work. People say it’s a dangerous job. Well, why is it a dangerous job? Because it lacks status. Give it some status.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 18, 2003.