On my second shift working relief at a sex worker resource centre in the Vancouver area, I was stopped by a program participant named Arlene[1].  Arlene is an older Indigenous woman with a kind, sincere smile; she knows everyone and she always sits in the same chair.  She stopped me to introduce herself and we chatted for a while about the centre, her grown up children, and that night’s dinner menu.  After around ten minutes of casual chit chat about our families, her face suddenly fell and she said to me “I haven’t seen my sister in a long, long time.  She was one of the ones they found on the serial killer’s farm.[2]” 

              That was as jarring for me as if all the windows around us had suddenly smashed.  Like most of us, I am very familiar with that case, however my experience with it was purely academic.  I had read and talked about it at length, but suddenly my safe and comfortable distance from the reality of it was shattered as I hugged a woman now heaving with sobs.  

Red Dresses outside Port Coquitlam courthouse during Sagmoen trial in February 2019

              In 2018 Battered Women’s Support Services became involved with the Curtis Sagmoen case, a case which bears many similarities to the previous serial killer case.  Sagmoen has a many year history of hiring sex workers, usually Indigenous women, to work at his properties both in the Vancouver area and near Vernon and viciously assaulting them, resulting in an extensive criminal history including brutal attacks with a hammer, guns, and using a spike belt to slash tires and prevent a woman from fleeing from his property.  Then, in late 2017, RCMP investigators found the remains of a missing 18 year old girl named Traci Genereaux on his family’s property outside of Vernon. 

               Yet, despite a lengthy criminal history of violence against women, the RCMP have continually abetted his violence by failing to properly investigate, stigmatizing the victims and survivors, and displaying bias against them based on their occupations, race, and gender.  In 2013 the Maple Ridge RCMP described the woman Sagmoen viciously beat a woman with a hammer, as “a known Surrey prostitute with an extensive criminal record[3].”

              The word prostitute is an ugly word.  It is a power-laden word hurled at women working in sex economies that robs them of their own power over their bodies and labour.  While some sex workers have reclaimed the word on their own terms, it is generally used only to degrade, objectify and dehumanize sex working women.  In 1978 Carol Leigh coined the term “sex worker” to more accurately describe the highly skilled customer service work that takes place within sex economies. 

              The use of the slur “prostitute” by the RCMP to describe victims of crime makes agonizingly clear who is and who is not seen as deserving of basic protection from the state.  The RCMP’s mandate is to ensure the safety of all people in the territories we call Canada.  Yet, how can they claim this to be their mandate when they are abdicating responsibility for properly investigating attacks on Indigenous women, sex workers, and women living in poverty?  How can we feel safe or protected by a police force, or within a system that clearly demonstrates its belief that some people are not deserving of protection?

             That bias is hardly committed solely by RCMP or police broadly speaking, but it is up to each one of us to commit to undoing it because of the violence against women that this bias causes and excuses.  It is all of our responsibility to commit to properly interrogate and dismantle racist bias, anti-sex worker bias, and misogynist bias.

              Violence against women on the basis of their gender does not take place in a vacuum.  It is not an isolated phenomenon that takes place between two people.  Rather, it is a social phenomenon that is made possible by widespread de-valuing of women and feminized people.  This de-valuating takes place when we tell jokes degrading sex workers, use violent language about women, or assume specific roles and behaviors based on gender.  These and many other social forces conspire together to teach us that women are “supposed” to be obedient, to sexually gratify men on demand, yet simultaneously to be modest and nurturing. 

              We are all complicit in sustaining this system, called patriarchy, in which women who fail to meet their unattainable assigned roles are seen as deserving of punishment.  If she dresses in certain ways or dates multiple people, we feel it is understandable if she is sexually assaulted.  If they trade sex for food, shelter, or money, we feel it is understandable if they are murdered.

              I use “we” because this is a system-wide phenomenon.  It is so much bigger than the “good” people vs. the “bad” people.  This is about all of us examining what we’ve been taught to assume about women, about sex workers, about Indigenous people, and discovering in ourselves the ways in which we’ve been sustaining this system of de-valuation.  Even in the conflation of Indigenous women with sex workers we display a dangerous ignorance in suggesting that two distinct groups of people are one and the same.  Indigenous women are overrepresented in sex economies because of the conspiring of forces of colonialism, racism, and misogyny but we must be clear in our language that sex worker does not imply Indigenous woman, nor does the reverse.  For me, it’s been a long-term process of listening, learning, and updating my language and actions. 

              When we start to notice the bias in our own thinking, language, and actions, we are less able to excuse the brutality and violence within police reports describing a victim as “a known Surrey prostitute with an extensive criminal record.”  I do not personally know the woman who Curtis Sagmoen beat bloody, but I do know many, many people who can be described as “known prostitutes with extensive criminal records,” and I’d like to tell you about them.

              One is Arlene, mother of 5, sister of 11, and a teacher of Indigenous history and culture at several local organizations.  One is a writer and loving daughter who never forgets to call her parents on their birthdays and holidays.  One drives a tour bus for a local company.  One works out of her home earning in a month nearly what I earn in a year.  Each is someone I consider a friend.  Each has been arrested numerous times in their lifetimes for crimes of poverty or crimes of self-defense.  Each are kind, intelligent, and funny.  

              At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether you or I like, dislike, agree with or disagree with any given sex worker; they do not deserve to die for their profession.  Curtis Sagmoen has, for nearly a decade, been acting as judge, jury, and executioner to Indigenous women and sex workers in the Vernon area and the greater Vancouver region.  On September 9th 2019, Sagmoen will appear in the Vernon courthouse to enter a plea in his latest trial for violence against women.  Staff from Battered Women’s Support Services will be on the ground.  Please join us at 9am September 9th, 2019 at the Vernon Courthouse located at: 3001 – 27th Street in Vernon BC in solidarity with survivors and those who did not survive their interactions with Curtis Sagmoen. Read the press release here. 

              Curtis Sagmoen is responsible for inflicting violence directly onto these women, but it is up to each of us to find ways to challenge the system that teaches men like Sagmoen that violence is how to solve problems, or that some people do not deserve protection from the state.  Someone I love is a sex worker, and statistically speaking, someone you love is too.

[1] Name changed for privacy

[2] We do not say his name because his history isn’t important, the women he killed and their loved ones’ histories are important

[3] https://bc.ctvnews.ca/victim-s-record-as-prostitute-one-reason-first-sagmoen-probe-derailed-documents-1.3845417