Interviews, part 2

Alleyway graffiti

The alleyway where we spoke with Allison

Allison* was my second interview, and I didn’t expect her to be a working girl, but Andy was told by a friend that she was and had been for some time. I was a little bit more nervous about approaching her, it didn’t feel quite as natural as meeting Susan. I said hi, asked how it was going, then thought to myself, “fuck it,” and said, “Hey, I’m just gonna be straight with you; we’re doing interviews for a documentary about women who live and work here in the DTES, would you be interested in talking with us? 20-30 minutes, we’ll pay you twenty bucks.”

Honesty and respect is truly the best way. People can spot a phony, and people who live and work on the streets are better at spotting who’s out of place. They’d immediately know if I were faking it out there, and that in itself would feel disrespectful. But she agreed to talk with us.

Allison was so friendly and bubbly; she was easygoing and had a quick laugh. I couldn’t help it at one point and said, “you’re so bubbly!” and she slapped her knee and laughed more. I liked her right away and hoped she was as open as she seemed. She was concerned about her anonymity, saying she didn’t want her mom to find out it was her. She has close family, including two other sisters whom she later disclosed also come downtown to “work” as well.

Doorway with graffiti

Doorway with graffiti

Allison also used the phrase “working girl;” I’ll have to remember to ask my next interview which term they prefer. Researchers tend to say “sex workers” but I wonder if we’re imposing our “presumed”  objectivity onto people who prefer another term. It’s fair to use the words they choose to identify as. We ask people how they define their sexuality, their ethnicity, ability or challenges… why do we then decide how to describe the way someone makes their living if it isn’t our own? Again, I need to respect the people in the community by using their words.


Close-up of the message at the bottom of the door

Allison also talked about how some girls will rob a client or take the money without doing their date, and said that wasn’t right; that “you don’t do that to people.” Cathy had said the same thing, but that some girls are so desperate that they get to another place where this is an option. It reminded me also that some people out here in the “straight” community only view the people living and working in the DTES as criminals, when the residents have a very “straight” view of moral and/or ethical behaviour. Allison told me that people share what they have with others because it’s just how you live. I said, “so you pay it forward?” and she said, “No; you just give things to others when they need them. I don’t need anyone to pay it back, sometimes when they have it they’ll give me five bucks. That’s just what you do.” Funny that those of us in the “fortunate” communities haven’t learned this.

We talked about safety and feeling safe, and Allison said people have to “trust your instincts” and be street smart to be safe on the streets. She said that she knows other girls who work in the area and they often work in pairs, taking turns writing down license plates and keeping track of time. She said people look out for each other down there, and said her spot was where she always works, and friends & family can always find her there. I said, “so it’s where you go to work; it’s like your office,” and she laughed; “Exactly! That’s my office!” She said she doesn’t often go with anyone she doesn’t already know, and that she has mostly regular clients.

We asked her about the first time she ever did a date, and I couldn’t believe she’d share that; it seemed so much to ask. But she did; she said it was hard, and felt so bad after he paid her, thinking, “this is my life now,” that she broke down crying. For a brief glimpse I saw that feeling come to her, and I worried about bringing up those feelings again. While I want to listen to whatever someone is willing to tell me, I don’t want to hurt anyone by asking them to reopen their old wounds.

The second part of our interview with her was in an alley between a church and a recovery house in the Strathcona neighbourhood, and we could hear the church choir singing. Such a diverse place, with so many different communities sharing one geographical place. I remarked at the juxtaposition of meeting Allison at her “office” just kitty-corner from a recovery home, and I asked her, “so what’s keeping you from going in that door?”

“I don’t know; I gotta think about some things, see if I’m ready to get straight.”

Hold On

Hold on…

Change is difficult; even a bad routine is comfortable because it’s still a routine.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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Updates, semi-thesis progress, and interviews

Oh my gosh, so long since I last posted. This isn’t a blog so much as an annual checkup. There have been a lot of things going on, personally, professionally, with my health… I’m deep in edits & rewrites for my thesis and after working on it all day I don’t always want to rehash it and write about writing my thesis, it just seems like too much. My stats prof says if I hate it, I’m doing it right. Well I hate it, I want it to be over and just move on to the next step.

One of the more interesting things about just posting this blog is having connected with local filmmaker Andy Fiore at Fiore Films ( He contacted me last year about participating in his documentary 10 City Blocks about women working in the downtown east side, and of course I said yes. It was aired recently on Shaw Cable’s community access programming, which was interesting; I’m still not used to seeing myself on screen, and find it very weird.

But it was a great experience, Andy gave me great feedback, and the film itself was received well with surprise from some viewers regarding the experiences disclosed by some of the women interviewed. The violence that women, men, and youth experience in the sex trade here in Vancouver surprises people, even those who knew of Gary Ridgway – the Green River killer in Seattle – and Robert Pickton in Coquitlam. Some expressed a challenge at getting past the descriptions of the violence to be able to watch the rest of the film.

I think that’s spurred Andy to continue exploring this part of life in Vancouver’s DTES; he contacted me a few months ago to see if I’d be interested in collaborating on another documentary. Not a follow-up per se, but new interviews with different women, and interviewing them with the goal of getting to know who these women we see on the streets are; as people, as women who have/had dreams and goals, lives before the DTES, their plans to leave, and what they want for their futures. Andy’s vision was to focus more on the camera work and have me approach our potential interviewees and then lead the interviews and hopefully be able to develop enough rapport to encourage them to open up.

I couldn’t say no. If you want to know a person you have to meet them, talk with them, and be willing to interact with them in their place, on their terms. With experience in working with people in recovery, with my students at SFU, and teaching active listening and interviewing skills, I felt it was the best way to use and practice my own skills. I could really test myself; could I make someone feel comfortable enough to share difficult and traumatic experiences with me, a complete stranger? Would they trust me right away? And could I approach people in such a way that doesn’t come off as phony or faking it? Are the skills I’ve taught my students truly effective? Can I do it the way I say they should do it? So many questions, but the possible rewards outweighed any of my own nervousness.

We started our interviews on Sunday, August 19th, with the hope that a late Sunday morning might find us people who weren’t too anxious about getting their fix or who maybe weren’t coming off of a rough night. Andy would let me walk ahead about a block and let me approach people to see if they would be willing to chat with us, and if they were, I’d wave him over. Hopefully me approaching them alone would be less threatening or just less weird, in general.

We got two interviews and they were amazing.

Cathy and Allison* were so open and forthcoming, willing to answer all my questions and not shying away from much. They’re women who came downtown for different reasons and from different backgrounds, but what struck me were three of the messages they each shared with me.

  1. Show people respect and they’ll show respect back
  2. Don’t rob other people; be good to your clients
  3. Trust your gut instincts; don’t go if it doesn’t feel safe

Cathy came from “straight” life in North Vancouver; she went to university, was a legal secretary, had a home, family, kids, job… she sounds like me; she could be me… she came to the DTES to help a loved one who has been so victimized & abused as a DTES resident that she can’t help herself anymore. “Doing dates” was just to make extra money to help Cathy’s loved one but says that she herself is stuck there now because of addiction to crack. She shared with me that she’s been through rehab for alcohol and it worked, and wants to go to rehab for drugs, but lost her spot because she was discharged from detox before the program called and were told that she had left. She is still on the waitlist and says she’ll go when they call, but she echoes the words of other DTES residents and outreach workers that unless there is a place to go right away when someone says, “I’m ready,” many people will change their minds even just a couple days later.

She told me that services are lacking; not enough detox beds, not enough rehab beds, not enough GOOD rehab beds away from the drug dealers out on the streets, and that programs are not long enough or intensive enough for real recovery. She also shared that there is a terrible lack of safe, clean housing; not only safe from violence and drugs outside, but safe buildings that meet City building and health codes. Buildings that have clean, usable bathrooms and with kitchen/ette facilities instead of desk staff making $20-30 an hour with brand-new security cameras.

In discussing safety we talked about making it safer for women to work on the streets; she didn’t necessarily want to see a “red light” district but indoor spaces where there could be security or at least other people around in case you got into trouble. She said the old SROs of downtown Vancouver may not have been the best but at least they were a place to go where there were other people around.

Cathy also viewed the police relatively positively and said she hadn’t had any bad experiences with them herself. She said the police are just doing their jobs and don’t want to see any of the “working girls” hurt, and she wouldn’t hesitate to report violence to the police. Unless someone had drugs or was selling drugs, the police largely don’t bother the girls. It sounded like the police in the DTES respected the rights of working girls and give them space to make their living.

I felt like Cathy and I had a good rapport even in such a short time. I hope she felt that I was respectful of her as a person and not coming across as being judgmental of her. I don’t know if she could tell how much of a noob I was at just walking up to people; I don’t want anyone to think I’m “profiling” them as working girls based on their appearance or where I come across them, that’s as much as saying I’m judging them. I need to be more demonstrative that I want to talk to them because it’s their community; where they live, work, and socialize; that they are the ones who know the community’s heart and soul.

I’m also trying my best to remain present and focus on what people are telling me, and avoid using stupid jargon or buzzwords – which itself is a stupid portmanteau “buzzword” itself – because it cheapens what they are saying. While I want to be able to capture the essence of what they share with me, I don’t want to disrespect them by distilling all the emotion and humanity from it.

Cathy kept her sunglasses on during the interview; I looked closely to see her eyes behind them, but I wish I’d asked to see her without them. As open as she was with me, perhaps it was just a small measure of self-protection. I didn’t feel I could intrude on her space more just to ask that of her. I have her my mini-card, so I hope I’m lucky enough to see her again.

Tomorrow I’ll post about meeting Allison.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

SRO: single-room occupancy hotels

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Harm Reduction

I apologize to anyone who may still be curious about this blog. It’s been near an entire year since I’ve posted, for a number of reasons. First have been some challenges with my health. Nothing terribly serious, but I do have Crohn’s Disease and had a flare-up almost three years ago. It’s currently under control and 95% stable with Remicade (infliximab) treatment, but there are times when I’ve eaten something that disagrees with me vehemently and it takes me a few days to get back to normal. Accompanying the Crohn’s is a form of inflammatory arthritis that we Crohn’s patients are susceptible to, and the closer I get to treatment date the more it starts to bother me. Living in a temperate rainforest climate does make it uncomfortable at times but for the most part Tylenol and a natural anti-inflammatory called Infla-Heal Plus from New Roots Herbal keep it largely under control. Then – yes, there’s more – I’m still getting used to living with tinnitus, which started about 18 months ago, possibly linked to flying with a sinus infection which also spread to an ear infection. These days it doesn’t bother me quite as much as I am able to tune it out most of the time, but after a long day at work in front of a computer monitor under fluorescent lights, there are days when it overwhelms me. And then I have to continue the thesis writing process in spite of it.

The second main reason I haven’t posted in so long is mostly due to more mundane reasons: working. I took on a teaching assistant position this spring and also had my regular job which has nothing to do at all with my thesis or my education, but it’s been busy in our industry and lately have been putting more hours in at the office.

Yet I can say that there has been progress. I am working on re-framing my current draft, and in doing so with my supervisors we have been able to uncover the main elements of my project I wish to discuss and start re-organizing the draft into a more coherent format.

One of the biggest realizations I’ve had during the whole research and writing process of my damn thesis – yes, that’s how I refer to it now – is that the concept of harm reduction is applicable not only to the issues of addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) and other “inner city” areas of Greater Vancouver (e.g. Surrey, where I live). Harm reduction is a principle that can be easily extended to the challenges of women involved in sex work in our communities, and this is one of the main elements that is coming to light in my research. (Because my own work experience and the bulk of the research available examines women working in the sex trade, I am not ignoring the young men who have chosen sex work as their option, it simply has not been part of my work and research.)

Harm reduction is working in terms of Vancouver’s policies regarding addiction. The InSite safe injection site’s reports have shown that Vancouver’s injection drug users are being helped; users have been treated for overdose by the on-site medical staff, people ready to stop have been referred to treatment and rehab programs, which then gets them in to housing and job training services.

Using this model, then, we could well expect similar successes for women who are still involved in sex work but who may not be ready to exit. Providing them with a safe environment and conditions in which to work, programs and services that do not require them to stop working immediately (e.g. counselling, job readiness, primary health care, self-defence & safety training), and outreach services in areas during the hours when most women are likely to be working (i.e. the MAP van by PACE and WISH, the Maka Project), are ways in which service providers can connect with these women and start to build trust and relationships.

In my last post I talked about working with women “where they are”, and I realized that I meant that literally as well as figuratively. Since that post, I was contacted by Andy Fiore of Fiore Films for a documentary he is working on about survival sex work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One of the questions he asked me was whether I was in favour of a “red light” district for Vancouver. At first I wasn’t sure how to answer that; I want the women working in the sex trade to be safe, to be protected from violence, and safe from harassment whether by people on the street or from the police.

But the reality is that it doesn’t matter; young women I’ve worked with have confirmed that sex work still goes on, whether at street level or in indoor venues in Vancouver such as strip clubs, “gentlemen’s clubs”, and the “entertainment district” downtown. One need only turn to the classified section just past the Sports section of the Vancouver Province newspaper to see all the “business personals” advertisements including exotic massage, bodysage, and “outcalls”.

The argument over whether Vancouver should allow sex work to occur is moot; it’s already here and has been for a long time. Moving it to a restricted geographical area is no solution if there is no means of ensuring the safety of the women who are still choosing to work in the sex trade.

Harm reduction can work for those who wish to get out of sex work but aren’t sure how to do it. Service providers can connect with women and help them to identify what they need in order to get out, without pressuring them that they have to get out. Trust me, these women know there’s a better way. Whether it’s supporting women to have safer working practices and environments, or to assist them to find a new way to support themselves and their families, we need leadership and policies that show people that at-risk and disenfranchised women in our communities are valued and protected.

Posted in At-Risk People, Prostitution | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How I got started

I first got involved in researching prostitution during my first practicum for my Bachelor’s degree, deciding that instead of working at a community police station filing paperwork I wanted to do something more hands-on, more than just clerical work. My practicum supervisor suggested the Provincial Prostitution Unit – now disbanded – doing research for the inter-departmental unit. I worked under Sophie Mas, who still works in non-profit with marginalized youth in Vancouver, and my main project during my term was to confirm a list of organizations that offered services for at-risk, exploited, and street youth across Canada.

As part of my education with the Unit, I learned a lot about the realities of life for street youth in Vancouver, the adult and youth sex trade, and where the prostitution strolls were. I even met experiential youth – young people who had exited street life and were working with other non-profit groups – and learned their stories. I knew that I was going to learn a lot in this placement, but I wasn’t sure about just how much I didn’t know.

I learned about the sex tourism industry, and about websites where men posted information about the “kiddie strolls” with underage and young-looking women, even information about the youth working the streets and descriptions of their experiences. The government had to give me special clearance through their firewalls to be able to search out websites with the words “prostitution”, and “sex” in order to conduct any research and to email organizations across North America.

I met community groups that worked to raise awareness about the existence plight of street youth in and around Greater Vancouver. I met parents who lost their children to the lure of living on the streets, youth who had run away from home to escape abuse, dysfunction, or to engage in their drug habits.

But I still believed that there was a way to “rescue” these young people, who were often not much younger than me, who came from homes and communities like mine, who had similar backgrounds. Of course you want to rescue them, to take them off the streets and make them better, why wouldn’t you? It’s what we’re taught to do, right? I believed that given the choice between living on the streets with the threat of violence, the elements, and no security, most people would go into a shelter and work towards transitioning back to “straight” or “square” life.

What I didn’t understand was that for many young people, and adults who had left home at a young age, even a poor choice made on your own may be preferable to having no choices of your own. Living under one’s own rules, even without the security and comfort of a home, may be more desirable than having to defer to someone else’s authority. This is something I am still understanding, and have only just come to accept about those who live their lives differently than we may think they should.

But that’s what my research is leading me to; a better way to work with people where they are and allow them to make their own choices, and hopefully make better, healthier choices.

Posted in At-Risk People, Life on the Streets, Prostitution | 7 Comments

Back alley, Downtown Eastside Vancouver

This is what we’re used to seeing when we think of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This is the place we want to rescue people from, thinking that no one would choose to live here.

But sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes people have made this choice. It’s not a great choice, but then, when this is the place that someone thinks is best, it’s likely that they had other similar choices, or – worse yet – no other choices at all.

This is one of those realizations I’ve been having recently as I’m researching articles and books for my literature review for my MA thesis.

There will be more posts starting with how I got into prostitution research, my perceptions and beliefs about it, and my experiences working in a non-profit assisting female youth exiting the sex trade.

But it’s the research I’ve been reading lately from good academics, experiential people, and other service providers with lengthy histories that is showing me my perspective was wrong; that to help people move forward you have to work with them where they are.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll have some realizations of your own.

Posted in Downtown Eastside, Life on the Streets | Tagged , , | 1 Comment