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.
“A survival sex worker is someone who doesn't necessarily want to work in prostitution, but they have no other economic alternatives at the time,” Allan said. “They work in the most dangerous working conditions, they get the most bad dates, they get the most criminal charges – and they don't have the right to say no.
“They're the ones that serial killers and serial rapists go after. They didn't get up when they were 12 years old and say, 'I want to sell my body for money.' They entered into it because they were put there by someone, or due to poverty, due to addiction – something happened in their life that that became their only choice in the moment.”
In 2004, when she was 26 and only just out of the sex trade – she left, thanks to a sex worker support agency, after a would-be pimp beat her up – Allan decided to head back to the streets to support other women in the survival trade.
But unlike some organizations, her goal was not to convince women to exit the trade or to stop prostitution in society. The point was empowerment – and reducing violence against women.
“I started off by making 12 sandwiches and I had 12 condoms – and I walked the street,” she recalled. “It was October – it was freezing cold and raining.
“I gave out sandwiches and condoms to the girls. Then I got my friends to come volunteer and help me, and we just kept on doing it. I just looked at all the stuff that caused women to stumble back into the survival sex trade. What if you provided women with those basic needs? Unfortunately, not everyone is in the economic situation right now to leave the survival sex trade. We understand that.”
Allan was joined by a growing team of volunteers, making sandwiches, then suppers, and later full food hampers in her West End apartment -- and distributing them to women in streets, alleys and, today, even some of Vancouver's illegal, underground brothels.
Every so often pulling her black hair to the side of her face, revealing a piercing above her left eyebrow, Allan exudes confidence and pride as she recalls growing up around constant hospitality on her family's reserve near Whitehorse.
Describing herself as descendant of generations of human rights activists, Allan said she is most inspired by her grandmother and mother – who insisted on offering refuge to women in the community fleeing spousal abuse, or seeking to recover from addictions. Allan recalls her mother always having guests on the couch -- her family would go to their guests' houses to sweep, clean and chop wood.
“I grew up with people sleeping on our couch – people in different conditions, from taking care of crack babies to taking care of elders,” she recalled. “In the city, you couldn't get anyone to do that.
“I think I took all I learned from my grandma and my mum, and invented Jen's Kitchen – except I organized it and gave it a name and a business number.”
One of the reasons people had to depend on each other on her reserve, Allan believes, is only partly because of its remote, cold conditions. Although abuse, addiction and incest were common, she said, the subjects were largely taboo – and many felt they had to fend for themselves in order to avoid involving the police.
“There's been a bad relationship between First Nations people and police,” she said. “With my own Native family, you don't call the police when something violent happens to you – you deal with it internally, with each other, because the police are seen as the enemy.
“They're the ones who come to take your kids away, they're the ones who'll beat you up, they're the ones who'll accuse you of stealing property. They're the last people you'll call.”
Today, Allan cites several helpful police officers she has known over the years – including one in Calgary who checked in with her every week when she worked the streets there, to ensure she was safe – as well as officers who taught Vancouver sex workers self-defence skills under an award-winning programme in 2003.