Fighting violence against women in Vancouver's sex trade

It's been 22 years since the Montreal massacre. We talk violence against women, and ways to end it, with survival sex work organizer Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen's Kitchen. She experienced violence in the survival sex industry first-hand, but today, she supports those in the trade and pushes for change.

Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen's Kitchen, experienced violence in the survival sex industry first-hand - and today she advocates for those in the trade. Photo by David P. Ball

Jennifer Allan knows first-hand what it's like to sell one's body in order to feed it.
 
About ten years ago, the 34-year old founder of Jen's Kitchen – an advocacy, outreach and food relief service for women in Vancouver's survival sex trade – found herself pacing the streets of Calgary and Vancouver, the pain of hunger in her belly.
 
“I remember (...) walking around in tears from pain because I was starving,” she told the Vancouver Observer, over supper at a West End Denny's. “The only way I could get food was to sleep with men.
 
“I entered the sex industry when I was 18. I got a lot of bad dates – I got robbed of $160, I got physically attacked and sexually assaulted, and then I had a guy pick me up, drug me and dump my body somewhere. When I got beat up and sexually assaulted, I got really hardcore into my drug addiction so I wouldn't have to deal with the reality of what happened to me. Just by luck, I didn't end up dead.”
 
Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the Montreal massacre – when 14 young women at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec were murdered by a feminist-hating young man. The 1989 massacre sparked a country-wide soul-searching about violence against women, gun control, and feminism – and its legacy today is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
 
But while numerous memorial events are planned in cities across Canada – including two in Vancouver (see below) -- few address violence against survival sex workers or Indigenous women, a decades-long crisis that has only recently come to prominence because of the Missing Women's Inquiry.
 
But with more than 600 women missing across Canada, many of them Native, and hundreds of sex trade workers murdered in Vancouver, Allan hopes that others will begin addressing these issues as urgently as they do domestic violence, trafficking and sexual assault.
 
“If we're going to talk about violence against women, we need to include all women,” she said, estimating that Vancouver has roughly 600 street-level sex workers. “We need to stop violence against all women, including sex workers and survival sex workers.
 
“When you talk about social justice, you don't get to cherry-pick who deserves it and who doesn't. Why are we as a society so willing to put services in place for battered women and human trafficking victims, but let survival sex trade workers die on a pig farm? I'm sure when they first fought for shelters, people said, 'It's just a waste of money – who cares?' The domestic violence issue took 40 years to get where they're at -- and we're just starting.”
 
What Allan started, in fact, is an experiment in radical hospitality and unconventional advocacy – literally out of her home. But it was a long journey there for Allan, an Indigenous woman who was adopted into a white Nova Scotia family, and making contact at 17 with her family on a reserve in the Yukon.*
 
Entering the sex industry in 1995, at age 18 – first for two pimps (who she says describes as kind but codependent) in Prince Rupert, B.C., then in a woman-run brothel. Four years later, Allan entered the survival sex industry.
 
The sex trade encompasses “anyone who chooses to sell their body for money,” Allan said, including escorts, massage parlour workers, and independents, most of whom work in relatively safe conditions and have the right to decide how much to charge (usually between $160 and $300 an hour, she said) -- and the ability to say, 'No.'
 
But it is what she calls the “survival sex trade” where most violence occurs, Allan said – and that's where she found herself at 22, strolling on Calgary's street corners.
 

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