PACE Society fights the stigma of sex work in Vancouver

Image from PACE Society’s Facebook: Red Umbrella March in Vancouver

By Alli Hayes
@alliwildcard

Sex work can be found in many forms throughout Vancouver at all price points. From quietly-owned, high-end escort agencies, to LeoList.com, acquiring sexual acts for a charge isn’t unheard of, despite the varying stigmas surrounding it. For many, it’s a way to make money and numerous men and women do well in the industry, but when you are at a desperate point in your life where you’re most concerned with when you are going to eat next, it doesn’t seem as glamorous.

During Homelessness action week, Loose Lips attended an open house at the PACE Society, a non-profit organization that supports sex work in the Downtown Eastside. The society hosts workshops, and engages in public education and research and the open house put the current community problems to the forefront of the conversation.

“Feminists haven’t always been our best friends,” revealed Laura Dilley, executive director and grant writer at PACE.

“We found it strange because we see sex work as a women’s issue; it’s that a disproportionate number are women. A lot of the feminist groups that we’ve come up against see sex work as violence against women. We see sex work as work, and that sex workers have the right to work safely. People might not agree with sex work, but that doesn’t mean the sex worker has to live in violence because you’re morally opposed to the idea of exchanging sex for money.”

Dilley explains that she’s been labelled a pimp, and has been accused by feminist groups of funding PACE through Johns, pimps, and clients.

“In reality, we get very little donations, and most of the money we receive comes from grants that I write. From provincial and federal governments, to various foundations is where we get our money from.”

The PACE Society receives less than $10 thousand in donations per year, which Dilley delves is a very small amount for a non-profit.

“We’re audited, we put our financials online, so it’s silly that people like to spread these alarming stories about what we do in promoting sex work,” she says. “Sex work exists; it’s a low-barrier form of labour. As a woman if you have no property, no resources, and you’re trying to survive, sex work is the one job that you can do right now.”  

Speeches from the open house also touched on the isolation that impoverished sex workers in the medical system. From gender transition to hospitalization, many women are not receiving the support or attention they need. PACE is especially helpful for transwomen in providing proper identification and other health services. This is even more challenging for those that have unstable accommodation.

“If you’re going through the shelter system, you shouldn’t have to be worried about being sent or directed to the wrong side of the shelter,” Breanna Bezanson, communications and liaison at PACE, adds.

Alex Collins, a PhD student and research coordinator at the faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, gave an overview of conducted research on men and women going through the shelter system. The trend for women   in evictions, homelessness, and everyday violence in the Downtown Eastside is prevalent. 

Before the study begins, Collins explains that most of the participants, which includes 19 transwomen, were evicted from single room occupancy buildings (SROs). As a very male-centred housing model, Collins continues, it’s not appropriate for female sex workers to be cohabiting around gendered hierarchy and violence within the buildings. Women going through these models are not obtaining an overall sense of agency over any type of physical or personal space, are feeling pressured by landlords and management to get out of their SRO as fast as they can.

“This fear of repercussions, this intimidation, is causing women to often not be able to exert their rights, also this lack of who has rights to the space, so the lack of tenancy rights for women created not much wiggle room for women to fight back during times of eviction,” Collins said.

One such situation was of a  46-year-old First Nation woman who had been in a fight with her live-in boyfriend. When police showed up, they forced her to leave the home because her name wasn’t on the lease.

“Rushed evictions lead to loss of material items for many people, this includes medications, ID’s, and things that people hold very close to themselves,” Collins said. “This loss of physical spaces leads to disruption in income generation, it can really take a toll on people’s self-esteem, and disrupt feelings of place that people have to leave their apartment.”

Taylor SJ, a young Vancouver writer and a Political Science academic, is one attendee who gave a more detailed context on what it’s like to be homeless as a female youth attending post-secondary education (you can read her article on VICE). Although not being involved in sex work herself, Taylor illustrated what many people face in searching for somewhere to call home with limited options and resources.

Between taking care of her ill grandmother and trying to get papers done at the university library, Taylor hid the fact that she was living in a shelter. She was ashamed.

Since then, she has spoken out on the challenges that many youth face at Homelessness Action Week.

“I ended up spending 11 months in the system,” she said.

“There are many barriers when dealing with homelessness, everyone deals with them differently, there is no singular reality. Just as for sex workers, there is no singular reality. If you have experienced homelessness, regardless if you have done sex work or not, these communities tend to overlap.”

We caught up with Taylor at the end of the open house to talk about her story with juggling school, taking care of her grandmother, and keeping her homelessness a secret.

Taylor eventually pulled herself out of poverty once she was finished school, a positive product of hard work and persistence. She now volunteers at PACE after having thrown a women’s rights panel discussion and fundraiser at her university, where creative writing and stories alike were shared.

“I self-identified at this point as a caretaker, because that’s what I was doing while I was in school, and it was a priority. I had worked in the service industry for a long time as well. What happened is I couldn’t do it anymore, I was burning out, I was hospitalized briefly. I had very limited income options, eventually I realized I didn’t have a safety net. I wanted to stay in school, but I’m probably going to have to do it living through a homeless shelter.”

The difficult fight for sex workers and homelessness in the city of Vancouver continues. 

Social holes are inhibiting a woman’s potential and the community from progressing in local housing and income quality. Non-profits such as PACE Society aim to loosen the stigma behind transitional housing and sex work to give women a voice in lobbying for rights. 

alli-bio-picAlli is a wildcard. Faux fur is her wingman. She is constantly moved by art, cool parties, and independent film, and continues to create her own projects. She wishes her photographic memory did her Instagram more justice.  Check out her blog at thewildcardwins.com