Review: Shocking

Street Sex Work appears calculated to rattle Middle Canada. It is provocative and edgy. It dives into the deep end on morality, race and prostitution. The result is wantonly shocking.

“The street sex trade has come increasingly to be represented as a particularly urban menace,” writes Prof. Shawna Ferris, of the University of Manitoba; even the term “prostitution” carries “pejorative and morally inflected connotations”.

Ferris prefers the term “sex worker”, similar to “transit worker” or “bakery worker”. One provides bread to strangers, another public transportation to strangers, the other sex to strangers: same thing, Ferris implies. Morality is irrelevant. Street Sex Work even badgers Vancouver tourism managers for “trite rhetorical euphemisms” in telling visitors which neighbourhoods to avoid; Gastown makes a nice “daytime stroll” (emphasis added) while streets in Chinatown are “partially located in a more graphic part of the city”.

“In the name of urban safety and orderliness, increased police budgets are sold to the public in cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg; and the drug-addicted, the poor, the homeless, those who work in the survival sex industry, and others who our society has failed through systemic racism, inadequate health care, and an increasingly ragged social safety net are further criminalized and victimized as police move them off city streets and into court,” says Street Sex Work; “More and more street-involved sex workers of all races are being harassed, bullied or otherwise targeted by police as well as private citizen groups and violent criminals.”

The book casts guilt on all of us for the very presence of prostitution, though most Canadians have nothing to do with the trade. It shames those who’d express moral qualms, though everyday discourse judges people who wear fur or drive Cadillacs or read the Sun.

Then, just as readers are agitated, Professor Ferris makes a compelling point.

Why did the murder of 14 white, educated women at École Polytechnique in 1989 inspire parliamentary outrage and a legislative response from the Department of Justice, while the “disappearance” of 65 poor, mainly Aboriginal women in Vancouver was treated as a police matter? “The fourteen women in Montreal got massacred and that’s horrifying,” Street Sex Work quotes one social worker; “We don’t have Canada-wide coverage of all the women that die right here in the Downtown Eastside. Why is that? We’re not university students. We’re not across the country. We’re right here. We’re dying every day.”

Canada tolerates no capital punishment but has been oddly indifferent to the death penalty meted out to “missing” women, Ferris writes. They are Canadians, too. Street Sex Work concedes urban neighbours may have a right to complain over the sex trade, but with a subtle observation: “I acknowledge neighbourhood complaints about the traffic, noise, littering of city streets with condoms and needles, and the sexual harassment of non-sex workers by cruising johns that seem inevitably to accompany street-involved sex work as legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, however, too often residents take such concerns to politicians and police without discussing them with those who are arguably most directly able to address them: their neighbourhood sex workers.”

Street Sex Work shocks. It is also insightful and dark and worthwhile for any reader who is not afraid to dive in the deep end.

By Holly Doan

Street Sex Work And Canadian Cities: Resisting A Dangerous Order, by Shawna Ferris; University of Alberta Press; 288 pages; ISBN 9781-7721-20059; $21.90

Back to Top