By her own admission, 32-year-old Lee-Ann Gould's story isn't pretty.
She became a sex worker at the age of 15, working the streets of Sudbury and Toronto for the next 10 years.
Gould, one of the guest speakers at an International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers event in Sudbury Dec. 17, said she's been raped at knifepoint and gunpoint by her clients.
She's also had Johns try to drop her off in the middle of the highway.
“A lot of these crimes, I felt at the time that you can't come forward and talk about them, because it was also some of the higher members of society that were also picking some of us girls up – police, judges and lawyers.”
She said she had some regular customers who were nice, but the large majority of Johns are “not that nice.”
Gould said her years on the streets seemed to go by slowly, as she struggled with a cycle of violence, homelessness and drug addiction.
“It seemed like the time was lagging on. You're going through that and you figure that's all there is to life.”
At some point, she began to frequent social service agencies such as the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth. Gould said she learned there that not all people are bad. She eventually decided to turn her life around. She's now working as an addictions and community service worker, helping other women do the same thing.
“I wanted to be able to go out there and help a lot of these girls understand they're not alone, that there are a lot of resources out there for them, regardless of what they're going through.”
Christine Schmidt, the founder of Project PEACE, a team of women with “lived experience of prostitution,” organized the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers event.
“All women matter,” she said. “All men matter. People with that label – sex workers – have the highest rates of violence directed at their person.”
Street-level sex workers have a 60 to 100 times higher chance of being murdered when compared to the general population, Schmidt said.
The chances of these crimes being solved is less than half when compared to the general population.
They're also at the most risk of “any other group” of assault and sexual assault, and the least likely to report these crimes, Schmidt said.
“Sex workers, as a population, have been tested at stress levels comparable to active war veterans,” she said.
“However, for them the war is never over. There's no going home. There's no ceasefire, because typically there's no home to go to. That home is lost the moment the label of sex worker or prostitute is applied.”
But with the co-operation of Greater Sudbury Police, things are changing for local sex workers, Schmidt said.
Thanks to work done by a police advisory committee of women with lived experience of prostitution, Greater Sudbury Police are focusing much less on prostitution enforcement and much more on helping sex workers, she said.
“In the last year and a half, I've noticed tremendous differences,” Schmidt said. “Police officers are becoming more responsive. They're treating women differently. Arrest enforcement is not the first tool in their toolkit anymore.
“They're starting to be seen by women as caring. The police officers are enforcing their rights, not just the rights of other people.”
Acting Sgt. Randy Hoskin said when the police service used to focus on prostitution stings, it seemed like nothing they were doing was helping. But the advisory committee has helped tremendously, he said.
“I started meeting with ladies with real-life experience in this issue,” he said. “I'm telling you, it's been a real eye-opener for sure. I know more about this than I ever imagined I would.”
Greater Sudbury Police has even developed a draft of a pamphlet to hand out to sex workers, stating that the police service will not tolerate crimes against sex workers, and telling them how they can report crimes.
“If they're subject to violence or human trafficking or being pimped out, they have a voice, and we're going to listen,” Hoskin said.
“We're there to investigate the person that's offending against them, and not them. I don't care that they're prostituting. That's not the issue. They had the crap kicked out of them. That's the issue.”