As an alleged serial predator targets sex workers in downtown Ottawa, the safest thing to do is suspend the laws that prosecute sex work, says an Ottawa advocacy group.
When Zoey Jones first heard the news of a wanted and unknown man sexually assaulting three sex workers in the span of nine months, the grief was immediate — a sadness that her work is necessary.
"We've forever said sex workers are particularly vulnerable to violence on the streets when sex work is criminalized," Jones said. "This is exactly the situation that we fight to avoid."
Jones is a board member of Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER), an organization in Ottawa led by and for sex workers.
Suspect targeting sex workers: police
Last week, Ottawa police issued a public warning to sex workers about a man detectives believe is a serial sexual assault suspect.
From December 2020 to last month, police said they received three reports of sexual assaults where a suspect approached women and "pulls them off the street to sexually assault them."
All of those reported attacks took place in the area of Murray Street, King Edward Avenue and Dalhousie Street. And all targeted sex workers.
Police said the suspect is typically on foot.
"All we've heard is fear," Jones said. That's coming from people concerned for themselves and their community, but Jones also fears what might be done in the name of preserving women's safety.
"One of the serious concerns is that this is going to result in increased police presence in the area," she said.
Police presence has 'chilling effect' on client traffic
Sex workers themselves are protected from criminal prosecution for selling their own services, but current Canadian laws that criminalize their clients have maintained an unsafe environment, she said.
Laws have criminalized the demand, but not the supply, Jones added. The act of purchasing sex services is now illegal. But that puts sex workers, especially those working on the streets, in an untenable position.
"You don't want your clients getting arrested," Jones said. "More police trying to supposedly catch this person might not actually be better for sex workers. It might push them further into the fringes and further away from street lamps or witnesses."
The area where the attacks allegedly took place has a high proportion of street sex work, and Jones said workers have had negative interactions with police there.
"We need decriminalization now. Criminalization kills. We don't want this to continue. We don't want this to escalate even further."
POWER wants an immediate suspension of sex work laws. The group also wants police to communicate to sex workers they can work without fear, and workers can hire someone to look out for them.
"We need decriminalization so sex workers can work where they feel safest, they can work with groups if they want to, they can work with their friends, they can hire security and they can make their own choices to keep themselves safe," according to Jones.
Concern about 'gravity' of assaults
POWER also calls for the pandemic eviction moratorium to be reinstated, which would help sex workers stay housed and avoid riskier conditions just to pay their rent.
Jones, too, is afraid of what the number of reported incidents means for workers. That three sex workers, a population that has been traditionally fearful or suspicious of police, reported their assaults, suggests to her what happened to them was significant.
"I'm concerned about the gravity of the assaults."
So, too, are police, who also fear there could be other victims who have not reported what's happened to them.
The suspect is described as an English-speaking Black man, between 20 and 30 years old, standing about six feet tall, with a thin build and short black hair.
Police ask anyone with information on the case, or anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious to call the Ottawa police sexual assault and child abuse unit at 613-236-1222, ext. 5944.