Putting Sex Worker Rights Front and Centre at SlutWalk Toronto

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Putting Sex Worker Rights Front and Centre at SlutWalk Toronto

What began in Toronto in 2011 has now grown an international movement against sexual violence and victim blaming.

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SlutWalk in 2011. Photo via Facebook.

SlutWalk will be hitting the streets of Toronto on August 12 calling on Torontonians to join the fight for sex worker rights and recognize how sexual violence is impacting the city’s most vulnerable communities.

The march will begin at 2 p.m. in Barbara Hall Park on Church Street and end in Allan Gardens.

The grassroots initiative started in 2011, after Toronto Police Const. Michael Sanguinetti told a group of York University students, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not be victimized.” In response, more than 3,000 people gathered at Queen’s Park to express their outrage.

The movement has since sparked more than 200 sister protests worldwide. In Toronto, Marcy Jenkins is one of 10 volunteers organizing SlutWalk this year.

“There is basically a want for space, for people to be able to speak out and resist against sexual violence,” she says. “Even though the march started years ago, there still seems to be an appetite for the community to speak out.”

One in four women in North America will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. Marginalized women, such as Black and brown women, Indigenous women, trans women, and sex workers, are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence, police violence, and criminalization.

This year’s SWTO is focusing on intersectional violence and raising awareness about communities where women experience sexual violence at a significantly higher rate.

SWTO organizers have teamed up with Maggie’s Sex Worker Action Project and Silence Is Violence. Migrant, Indigenous, and Black sex workers will speak at the march about how sexual violence and criminalization impacts sex workers’ safety, as well as their experiences when dealing with the police.

“We want to make sure the work is centred on bringing awareness to sex worker rights which has been a goal from the very beginning, but we wanted to put that on the forefront for this year,” says Jenkins.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation concluded that across Canada, police dismiss one in five sexual assault complaints as “unfounded.” The report highlighted many reasons why victims of sexual assault decide not to report to police.

However, within sex work communities, violence goes almost completely unreported.

“What we’ve seen is not only are (police) not equipped to deal with reports, violence, and the investigative process. It’s really important to listen and respect the work of sex workers when they point out that, more often than not, law enforcement can be the perpetrators of sexual violence. I think that paints policing in an entirely new light,” says an organizer with Maggie’s, who asked to remain anonymous.

Since 2006, sexual assault has remained the second highest misconduct complaint against police in Ontario. In 2015, Toronto Police held the highest numbers of sexual assault allegations in the province. That year, three Toronto Police officers were charged with gang sexual assault against a Toronto parking enforcement officer while off duty.

Despite Sanguinetti’s written apology to York University for his offensive remarks that inspired SlutWalk, similar rape myths are still being used in the courts involving Toronto Police.

During a cross examination, one of the lawyers defending the three Toronto cops accused of gang raping a female colleague asked, “Did you wear a really low cut top to team-build or network?”

On August 9, all three Toronto Police constables were acquitted, despite the judge’s admission that there were inconsistencies in both the accuser’s and the officers’ testimonies.

The first SlutWalk march ended at police headquarters on College Street. This year, organizers say they acknowledge that the sight of police could be triggering for many attendees.

A majority of women who reported their sexual assault to the police said their experience was negative. 

“For a lot of survivors of sexual assault, the police system, the court system, and the judicial system is not a system of comfort or justice. It’s a system of even further oppression and hurt, even though you’ve already gone through something traumatic to start off with,” Jenkins says.

Although SlutWalk is committed to creating safe spaces and a community dialogue about sexual violence, organizers say challenging police culture is not on their agenda.

“The police are not a body that we prioritize actively negotiating with,” Jenkins says. “We’re not going to go to our oppressors and be like, ‘Hey, could you be just a little more nice when you violently target our community?’”

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Toronto SlutWalk 2011. Photo via amusingplanet.com.

Paulette Senior is the president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, an organization that specializes in supporting women dealing with violence and poverty. Senior has spent her life as an activist and working with grassroots movements. She says initiatives like the Women’s March and SlutWalk are necessary actions.

“It’s an important part of an overall strategy to not just raise awareness, but to bring visibility,” she says. “If people feel strong enough about an issue that they will go out and march, which is not typically a Canadian thing to do, then it brings it to the attention to those who are responsible for policy making.”

Senior says that the CWF found fewer than 10 per cent of sexual assault cases are reported to police. Of that 10 per cent, only about one per cent actually get prosecuted. She says that our society fails to recognize the long-term repercussion when we don’t have a system that provides justice for survivors of sexual violence.

“We’re seeing perpetrators getting away with it on a daily basis,” Senior says. “There’s no other kind of crime to which this is happening on that kind of level. And, in fact, it’s not going down because perpetrators know they can get away with it … so the chances of them being repeat offenders is very high.”

To keep the momentum after the march, Senior says, there needs to be a cultural shift.

“Sometimes we end up talking about police training, but what we often leave out is the culture. The culture needs to change. Whether it’s the culture of policing, or our own larger societal culture, or both needs to change.

“I don’t think police would do what they are doing in terms of poor investigation or low prosecution if we didn’t live in a culture that turned a blind eye,” she says.

“What we do know from the statistics and what we know from what women tell us, it’s that perpetrators are people we know and people that are trusted.”

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