Thursday, 6 November 2014

Violence, survivor-blaming, and sex work in Newfoundland

By E. A.

Reports of gang rapes and sexual assaults have been reported by sex workers in St John's, Newfoundland since October. As early as October 2, there have been reports of sex workers being called into and then abducted in hotel rooms with as many as 20 men. Although there have been multiple reports, it is feared that there could be a much greater rate of violent incidents that have not been reported because sex trade workers face a high degree of stigma.  The alarmingly large number of these attacks has created controversy, not just from the repulsion of such vicious acts, but also from the lack of legal retribution. The reports of, and subsequent warnings against, the sexual assaults stem from an outreach group (S.H.O.P) that provides social assistance to the sex work community. As of now, there is nothing more than word of mouth and personal warnings that protect the community in St John’s from these incidents.  

Worth noting is the lack of response from law enforcement. They defend their inactivity by stating that no incidents have been reported to them by survivors. It has been reported that the rift of communication between the two parties is based on social stigma. In a small community like St John's, workers find themselves open to exposure and shame. The problem is compounded by the common misconception (stemming from both law enforcement and common discourse) that sees the issue as the fault of the survivors.  Workers complain that when they do go to police to report incidents of this nature (assaults or robberies) they are often seen as responsible for the assaults, creating understandable tension and mistrust. 

Although the survivors include both women and men, we can see that there is a strong objectification of femininity at the cause of these issues. Firstly, those who engage in the horrific acts against sex workers may see it as a thrill or an act of violence. Regardless, sex trade workers are targeted due to the perceived stigma that they are beneath attackers either socially, economically, or both. This reinforces the archaic dichotomy that sees women as objects, a conception furthered by the socio-economic conditions surrounding sex work. Women (and men) who are engaged in prostitution or other fields of sex work are stigmatized; there is a stereotype that sees them as destitute, wayward, poor, or unable to assimilate into society. These conceptions are dehumanizing and are furthered by patriarchal notions that define women as disposable tools for the gratification of male selfish desires (whether they be violent, sexual, or anything else). The women who engage in sex work, through no fault of their own, become a vehicle for the reinforcement of dominant, masculine ideology.

Secondly, the reaction from law enforcement reflects broader social attitudes: victim-blaming and a lack of response point to a belief that such crimes are to some degree justified. The insidious "she was asking for it" motif underlines these conceptions. There is still an institutional acceptance that the appearance and attire of an individual (specifically women) can create a legitimate justification for the sordid violence perpetrated by predatory individuals (typically men). 

The issues outlined in St John's are as complex as they are disconcerting and speak to broader social attitudes that simultaneously legitimize the objectification of women and blame survivors of sexual violence for its perpetration. In order to create a society that is safe for women of all occupations, we need to acknowledge just how deeply-rooted these patriarchal beliefs are. Sexual violence is not a problem instigated by women ever, regardless of appearance or occupation. It is a problem endemic to a society that tacitly legitimizes the objectification and dehumanization of women.

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