YWCA Hamilton: Voices

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Vancouver’s Missing Women

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Photo of Sarah de Vries via

Last fall I was fortunate enough to hear Maggie de Vries speak at an event put on by Wesley Urban Ministriesin Hamilton. de Vries is the sister of Sarah de Vries, a woman whose remains were found on Robert Pickton’s now infamous pig farm. Listening to de Vries was interesting for many reasons. Of course, she had a first hand experience of losing a loved one- whereas the rest of us had heard about the awful crimes of Robert Pickton on the news, de Vries lived this reality. More than that, what I took from her presentation was a lesson in assumptions and language.

de Vriesspoke of her personal pain and anger of “losing” her sister to drug addiction and the sex trade. She spoke of her judgment towards her sister’s lifestyle. How she feared for her safety when she would visit her, how she discounted that any goodness coming from Vancouver’s lower east side.

After her sister was killed de Vries was given Sarah’s journals- which were her sister’s art and long time modeof expression. de Vries spoke of how she felt “allowed” to read and share her sister’s work because she had been so open with it herself.

What made this particular talk  so striking was that de Vries showed us, her audience, WHO her sister was, even after her death. The humanity and life that was Sarah de Vrieswas not dismissed by the fact that she was a drug addict, or a sex trade worker. She was first and foremost loved.

de Vries talked about how she was proud of her sister and how if she could go back in time- she would have judged less and loved more. The irony of retrospect is that it is often too late to practice the things we have learned from a given situation- but the beauty is that this lesson carries over to a million and one different circumstances. Maggie cannot bring her sister back so she can love her freely despite her addiction and life choices, but we have the opportunity to love those around us despite their inadequacies. We still have that chance.

Maggie de Vriesalso said that language can perpetuate or condone violence. Sex work has always existed and will probably always continue to exist. Often those in the sex trade, especially low track, have come to it because of an addiction that must constantly be pacified. Others however, may chose sex work because they are able to make more money, feed their children, or put themselves through school.

There is a common phrase that is often used to describe the transaction between a sex trade worker and his or her client: “selling your body.” It is this conception that one can “sell their body” that silently excuses violence against sex trade workers. de Vries made the argument that no one can ever sell their body. It is inherently owned- nothing we do can sell our own bodies.

Using this language, innocent or as common as it may seem, appears to give ownership to the client “purchasing” the body. Take for example a masseuse. When a client gets a massage they make a transaction with the masseuse, for a set number of minutes that masseuse will use their hands to rub the clients back. Yet we do not think that this masseuse has “sold” his or her body. When someone receives a massage and buys the service, they are not allowed to do whatever they want to the hands of the masseuse- they cannot break his or her fingers. There is a contract- services and fees are exchanged and both people go on with their day. Yet the stigma of sex and sex work in particular, has us believe that when a sex worker makes a contract with a client, a sexual act for a set payment, they have somehow signed over control of their body to this client. This conception of “selling one’s body” is so problematic because it means that the sex worker can set no boundaries, has no rights, and thus can be violated or abused in any way that the client sees fit.

After listening to de Vries, I would suggest that most women (and probably most men) who sell sex have been beaten or raped numerous times. We need to rethink our use of language around sex work. Yet this will still only be a first step in combating the violence that happens to so many on our Canadian streets. As I mentioned above, many but not all sex trade workers have drug addictions. In light of this,  it seems that many sex trade workers are some of the most marginalized in our society before they began to sell sex. Whether from abuse, poverty, social exclusion, addiction- marginalization and oppression occurs.

 The problem is compounded when one enters the sex trade because further ostracization occurs. Think about it- selling sex is “yucky”- and normal “good” people do not want to see it on our streets. de Vriestalked about how originally many sex workers in Vancouver worked on streets that were more residential, with more people to see them and to notice if anything went wrong. However, “good, upstanding” citizens did not want to see sex workers on “their” streets, so the police became more forceful in removing them from the areas- not only for selling sex, but for simply being there. So, naturally, the sex trade was further pushed to the margins, into the industrial, run down, virtually empty east end, making it easier for predators like Robert Pickton to simply whisk women away.

What I learned more than anything was that a person can never be boiled down into a single category. The women that Robert Pickton killed were not only sex workers- they were sisters, mothers, lovers, friends, aunts, readers, cooks. They, like all of us, deserved to live without the fear of violence, whether they chose to sell sex or not. We cannot and should not create these small boxes for those we love to live in. Doing this can lead to dualistic thinking where one person is “saviour” and the other is “failure”. de Vries noted that when she went to visit her sister in the slum house she lived in she always felt weighed down by her feeling of being a “failed saviour” and she imagines now that her sister felt equally crippled by her feeling of simply being a failure. We need to learn to love people as they are and give ourselves the freedom to love others without questioning how that person’s choices or actions make us look.  

Lastly and perhaps most importantly I have learned that nothing, not even through selling sex can you “sell your body”- because it is irreconcilably your own. Violence is never, ever warranted, regardless of the transactions we participate in.

For more,  Shameless Blog put up a great piece about Pamela Masik, a Vancouver artist who is creating a portrait series titled “Forgotten” depiciting the missing women from Vancouver.

See also, the Globe and Mail’s video about Pamela’s work.

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