Date: March 16, 2005
Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver: End of an Era
By Andrew Sorfleet
March 15, 2005
"I am very proud today to announce that the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver (SWAV) has officially disbanded," opened a public statement from Vancouver's only sex-worker activist group. After over ten fantastic years of fighting for law reform and human rights for sex workers the principal directors of SWAV have determined that the Alliance had achieved its principle goals.
"It's time to move forward"
Now, with funding from the Law Commission of Canada, $WE@&R!, a prostitute-directed initiative, has worked over the last 18 months on a full-scale nation-wide consultation with sex industry workers about law reform and regulatory legislation.
Among the $WE@&R! project's advisors are a director for the international Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), Anastasia Kuzyk from the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto, veteran activist and writer June Callwood, Dan Allman of the University of Toronto and activist Deborah Waddington, who also has a job as a sexual health educator at the Toronto Public Health.
The $WE@&R! ($ex, Work, Education, Advocacy & Research!) project will be launched at "Forum XXX," a sex workers' conference in Montreal marking the 10th aniversary of the sex worker organization, Stella. (www.chezstella.org)
"Our actions precede us"
In 1994 the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver set out on a campaign to educate the public in Vancouver and Canada about the human rights issues faced by sex workers and the need to discuss changes to Canada's criminal laws that prohibit sex work. Today, more than ten years later, we finally see the Federal Government of Canada initiate national consultation to address prostitution law reform and to assist parliament to prepare a new review of the sections in the Criminal Code used to prosecute prostitutes. Twenty years after the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution published its first parliamentary report, the House of Commons Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws has set out across the country to consult again about prostitution law reform.
"We never pandered to anyone"
"We can retire this group (SWAV) with the comfort of knowing that we never pandered to anyone," said Raigen D'Angelo, the primary spokeswoman for SWAV for ten years. The Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver did not provide services for sex workers and never applied for, nor received, any form of government funding. "It's appalling to think how many organizations out there use their government funding to lobby the government," says Andrew Sorfleet, long-time coordinator for the group. SWAV was an informal alliance between sex workers and their friends that acted as a watchdog for the sex industry in Vancouver. "Rather than thinking of us as another group of social workers, try to think of us more like the New Avengers," was the sarcastic response you'd get when making telephone inquiries that expected SWAV to be a government-funded service.
Highlights in history
SWAV was started in October 1994 in response to a public "Shame the Johns" campaign meeting in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver. The founders were two young men who had worked as prostitutes when they attended. At the meeting SWAV's first hand-out, "Shame on You," was distributed.
In January 1995, Sorfleet arrived from Toronto and immediately began coordinating additional SWAV efforts, starting with the Bad Calls List which was distributed through the "West Ender" the weekly newspaper most used by sex workers for adult classified ads. It was through an article in the West Ender that spokesperson Raigen D'Angelo and Andrew Sorfleet met. The Bad Calls List had been dedicated to Grayce Baxter, a high-class Toronto call-girl who was murdered by a client. Grayce had been an old friend of both Sorfleet's and D'Angelo's.
Sorfleet and D'Angelo became good friends and did many public events together. In 1996, they attended the "XI International AIDS Conference" held in Vancouver, locally hosting the international Network of Sex Work Projects (www.nswp.org). At the "When Sex Works Conference" in Montreal that September, D'Angelo appeared on the cover of "Photo Police," under the headline, "Je suis fiere d'etre une pute." ("I am proud to be a whore.")
"A hooker is a person in your neighbourhood"
In 1997 "Town Hall" meetings that reported to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Prostitution and a media frenzy about prostitution in East Vancouver led to the dispatch of the Vancouver Police Mounted Squad to patrol the area around Macdonald Elementary. D'Angelo and Sorfleet drove around interviewing and photographing police. They stickered the streets with the slogan, "A hooker is a person in your neighbourhood." An interview with D'Angelo on the stroll made the CBC News. (www.walnet.org/csis/groups/swav/whore_wars/)
In October 1997 Sorfleet attended the "10th Annual British Columbia Conference on HIV/AIDS" and delivered a stinging critique ("The Vanguard of Sexploitation: Vancouver research hurts those it claims to help") of a research project by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS studying risk factors in young gay men that had maligned male sex workers. As well, Sorfleet engaged in a debate in Vancouver's "The Province" with VPD columnist Mark Toner: "I myself will rejoice the day that school counsellors present sex work as a legitimate career choice as, say policing."
In 1998 Raigen D'Angelo delivered a powerful speech at Prisoners Justice Day:
"Welfare is $500 a month, is that enough to live on? Well, is it? Many women who work the streets do it put three square meals a day on the table, to buy clothes for their kids. Women are put in jail and hated by society for putting food on the table. You tell me what the hell is wrong with that."
In 1999 SWAV co-sponsored M is for Mutual, A is for Acts: Male Sex Work and AIDS in Canada, a joint venture with Health Canada, AIDS Vancouver and a study unit at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto written by Dan Allman and published in both French and English. (www.mutualacts.com)
Over the last decade SWAV members have frequented informal drop-ins. For example, between 1997 and 2000 SWAV was inconspicuously located on Granville Street at Davie. Located over a row of peep shows and porn stores and minutes from both high track and the boys stroll, the second-floor apartment beside the St. Helen's Hotel had once been Vancouver's first all-male massage parlour. Almost all of SWAV's members shied away from publicity and public events, prefering anonymity for some very good reasons. One member, for example, had her children taken away from her by social services, after her partner turned her in to police for being a prostitute. Another male member worked as a woman on Vancouver's high track for girls without ever being discovered. Members kept the organization informed about the current affairs in Vancouver's several different prostitution venues including the streets, the ads and the massage parlours.
Leading the virtual revolution
When the World-Wide Web was still in its infancy in 1995, the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver created a strong on-line presence as their primary strategy for public education. SWAV's websites including the Commercial Sex Information Service (CSIS) became hugely popular, winning awards, being featured in university textbooks and eventually serving to more than a quarter million web visitors a month. SWAV's wealth of self-published educational materials have included various health and safety hand-outs, as well as "Trials of the Sex Trade: A survival guide to Canada's legal jungle," a legal primer for sex workers which was also featured on-line. (www.walnet.org/csis/legal_tips/trials/)
The principal directors of the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver want to send out a huge Thank You to all of our supporters over the last decade. It's been an amazing and productive ten years. For a glimpse of some of SWAV's history, please see www.walnet.org/swav/.
Neither Andrew Sorfleet or Raigen D'Angelo will be giving interviews at this time.
Created: March 16, 2005
Last modified: March 16, 2005
Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710