By Susan Davis
(Trigger Warning: physical/sexual assault; fear; poverty; trauma; migration)
Thirty years ago I migrated from Nova Scotia to BC.
You see, I had worked as an escort in Halifax after working for a catering company, as a hotel chamber maid, as a roofer, and in a health spa.
I remember making $4 – $5 / hour which was not enough to live on, so I started working massage and escort to cover the bills.
Escorting was good money until I fell, while going on an outcall, and dislocated my shoulder.
One of my regular customers offered to help me by “fronting” me some LSD to sell so I could pay my bills. 25,000 hits to be exact.
I managed to sell most of it before a “friend” who was battling addiction reported me to Crime Stoppers for the reward.
They would pay $2000 in those days for reports resulting in arrest (which was, coincidentally, the price of an ounce of cocaine).
We had been out to see Metallica on their “And Justice for All” Tour.
Friends were staying at my house for the weekend, so I decided to stay at my boyfriend’s house to create an extra bed for someone to sleep in at my place.
I came home the next morning to see if people wanted to go out for breakfast.
Everyone was gone….My LSD was gone…the apartment was upside down as if there had been a fight.
I was so mad. I thought one of my friends had taken it.
I sat down in my usual spot on the couch to think, and looked down at the table…..RCMP business card….oh crap…..
I called the number on the card and spoke to police who said, “You can either come down here or we will come and get you.”
So, I packed my toothbrush and surrendered to police.
As soon as I arrived, I claimed the drugs and made a statement stating that none of my friends were involved and the drugs were solely my responsibility.
I can tell you my friends were really happy to see me. Some who had been our guests for the weekend were really scared.
I saw the charges through and was sentenced to 6 months in prison.
When I was released from prison, there were still no livable wages and I was facing numerous failing industries, job markets, and general economic collapse in the Maritimes.
Many of my fellow east coasters left during that time. It was a large migration of people all fleeing economic hardship.
We all migrated west trying to find ways to create better lives for ourselves, our families, and our communities back home.
My friend and I set out on Highway 1 outside of my hometown, Dartmouth.
Her dad dropped us off and I remember him saying “See you at dinner!”
He didn’t think we were actually going to hitchhike across Canada.
It was a long and dangerous journey. Over 6100 kilometers.
I remember that one of the first rides we got was from a guy who was returning to Ontario to face a murder charge. He was nice enough but needless to say, we had our guards up.
He took us all the way to Toronto, where we got stuck for a week living in shelters and trying to work on street.
It was brutal, we did not know the town or where sex workers were working. We got into a taxi and asked the driver to take us where the sex workers were.
He dropped us off on the “low-track” where clients proceeded to offer me $10 – $20 dollars for service.
My friend was acting as security as I got into cars with clients and tried to make some money for us to eat and find a room.
We met a rock n’ roller type guy who generously offered to let us stay at his place in Kensington Market.
We didn’t know before going there that there was a garbage strike on in Toronto and that Kensington was a large fresh produce market.
I remember cockroaches and rotting vegetables all over the streets.
Shop owners were simply throwing food waste into the middle of the street where cars and trucks were driving over it turning it into mulch.
It was a heat wave and as anyone will tell you about summer in Toronto, so humid it was almost unbearable. The smell….I will never forget the smell….
It wasn’t the best night of sleep as the man who offered us a place to stay expected sex in return for his charity.
I had to watch my friend provide service to this man almost the entire night. So much for his good will and us getting some rest. We knew we couldn’t stay there again.
The next day we went to welfare and applied for emergency checks. We also secured beds in emergency shelter so we wouldn’t have the same problems we had had the night before.
While we waited for the money to come through, we decided we would go to the beach on Lake Ontario.
We needed to bathe and clean ourselves up, so coming from the “City of Lakes,” we immediately thought this would be a good idea. There are 110 lakes in my home town.
Well, we had no idea the state of Lake Ontario.
There was nothing alive in the lake. I mean nothing. Small pieces of algae floating sporadically…that’s it.
We noticed that there was also a smell in the air but ignored it and jumped into the water. It was cool and we felt refreshed.
We realized after leaving that we could still smell something. What was the smell? Where was it coming from?
It was us! I smelled like the lake for 3 days even after showering in the emergency shelter!
After six weeks of travel, we finally made it across the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains, and arrived in Vancouver.
We only knew two people in Vancouver. Once again, sex was expected and sleep ever elusive.
We had to move out if we were going to get some rest.
We first went to welfare and once again applied for emergency money. I then went out to work on the street and once again asked a cab driver to take me to where the sex workers were.
He took me to downtown Vancouver, Richards and Nelson Streets.
I could see other sex workers, they were dressed up beautifully. Wigs, stilettos, some in bikinis.
I picked a corner which had no one standing on it and began to meet clients.
It was good pay, $100 to $300 dollars depending on the kind of service.
Some of the clients were asking me if I was trans. I was a bit confused….then I realized I was standing in the wrong section of the stroll!
I moved over and was immediately greeted by another sex worker. She was friendly and wanted me to meet her “man.”
She told me we could share him. She said she would be the “wife” and I could be the “wife in law.”
I had been involved with some pimps in my home town but now that I was in Vancouver I felt nervous about this, so I decided to change strolls to avoid interactions with them.
The next night I went to the “mid-track” located on Quebec Street and Main Street between 7th Ave and 2nd Ave.
There were sex workers living in a hotel there called the “City Centre.” My friend and I also took a room there.
It was convenient for clients we picked up on the street and we finally had a safe space for sleeping.
The room cost $60 a night, which, if you think about it, was highway robbery.
The hotel owners knew we were all desperate in one way or another and the rooms were actually our homes. $1800.00 / month in 1990 for one room.
The police would come periodically and “sweep” the hotel, knocking on everyone’s doors and asking for ID.
They kicked people out who had too many in one room or who did not have ID.
I had lost everything including my ID when I had to leave my possessions hidden in a bush while I visited a client in his car.
Another client felt bad for me and used his ID to book a room for me to live in.
When the police came to once again sweep the hotel, the room was not in my name.
I had no ID, so I was kicked out and forced to walk the street til morning when I could find a place to sleep in a park during the day.
I washed my hair and bathed in a Burger King bathroom so I could go back to work at night.
I found paid lockers at the Main Street Train Station so the few remaining possessions I had were safe at least while I worked.
During this time I met other sex workers and learned about their pimp families.
I operated as a “renegade” and stayed under the radar of the pimps for a while by buying beers and smoking joints with the workers who had pimps.
Eventually I was caught by the pimp family known as “North Preston’s Finest” and was moved into a townhouse complex where they had two houses.
Ads in the Buy and Sell newspaper and the Burnaby News were a new way to contact clients and so the clients began visiting us in the houses.
I witnessed terrible pimp violence against my friends.
I remember the pimps surrounding a woman who had tried to flee and cutting her hair off in front of the rest of us as a warning.
She was allowed to shower and go to sleep in the house where I lived and I was tasked with preventing her escape. I was told that I would be held responsible if she was to get away.
She came down in the middle of the night with her possessions and was trying to leave. I begged her not to. I begged her to wait until they took us out to the street to work the next evening.
She stayed. She stayed and protected me from repercussions at the hands of the pimps.
I remember my friend getting angry at her pimp and him beating her with an iron fire poker in front of us.
I remember another friend being punched so hard by her pimp in the face that it knocked her right out of her shoes and her wig. She was unconscious for at least 10 minutes but never went to the hospital.
I started using hard drugs to cope with all of the violence I was experiencing and witnessing. I used crack and heroine.
At first I smoked but eventually began intravenous use…a reflection I believe of the self harm I was experiencing as a result of the PTSD which I was accumulating.
It was also during this time when I met “he who shall not be named and who is responsible for the case of the missing women.”
I jumped into the car with him after my friend said she did not want to go with him. I looked back and she looked scared.
He took me to the spot I frequently used to visit clients in cars.
He asked me if I had change for $100 bill and as I was looking in my boot for the money he ambushed me. He assaulted and raped me.
He was delusional in a way, he offered to drive me back to the corner as if everything was normal.
I took my chance and dove out of the car being careful to memorize the license plate.
I tried to report him on three separate occasions to no avail.
The police were not interested in violence against sex workers.
They told us that if we didn’t want to get raped, we should not come there to work.
Then, I escaped my pimp.
He found me working on street, caught me and beat me. He hit me so hard in the face I fell over a fence backwards.
I got away that night but now had to fear him finding me again.
Then a kind of miracle occurred.
I had met an outlaw biker as a client during my time with the pimps. He had become my regular.
We would go out together riding his bike, going to parties and shows. He was an amazing man and made me feel safe.
When he went to the pimp house to see me and I wasn’t there, he left. He then returned with another man.
This man had a notebook and gun. They demanded to know where I was.
When the pimps didn’t know, they demanded to know any place I might go.
They then went to every place I had ever taken the biker and questioned people there in the same way they had questioned the pimps.
They eventually found me and confirmed that I was alright only after scaring the shit out of the pimps and almost everyone I knew.
This had a lasting impact.
No pimp ever messed with me again and my new Vancouver friends were careful in how they dealt with me.
This man, this biker….had saved my life…for no reason…for no money…simply because he liked me.
I am still friends with him now.
There is so much of this time which I have not included here. So many friends I lost to murder, overdose and disease.
Violence was a daily occurrence. People were always ready to take advantage of us. The police were not interested in helping us. The community wanted to get rid of us.
I believe it is because of these experiences I can empathize with international migrant sex workers.
Arriving in a place where you don’t know anyone and don’t know how the sex industry works locally. Being far removed from your family and support systems.
Having no one to trust and not speaking the language. Facing exploitation at every turn.
I know the kind of courage it takes to migrate.
When I wake up everyday I remember. I may be poor. I may struggle to get ahead…. but I am a long way from where I was when I arrived in this city.
I have built networks and friendships and a life here so far from my home.
I have been incredibly lucky.
I remain steadfast in my support of migrant sex workers and ending the vulnerabilities they face when they come here.
There can be friction between migrant and locally born sex workers over many things.
We need to remember the challenges migrants face and their strength to endure it and even thrive.
We need to support each other, where ever we are from.
We are all sex workers.
Together we can make our lives safer.
We need to do better, for all of our sake’s.
About the Author
At the time of writing this, Susan is a 32-year sex working veteran and 16 years sex workers rights advocate. She has worked with government and police towards safer communities for sex working people.
She has appeared in the media over 400 times and has given evidence or testified to 2 Supreme Court cases, the Commission of Inquiry on missing and murdered women, the City of Vancouver Task Force and the Parliamentary Sub Committee on prostitution.
She continues to work towards safety and equality for sex workers in Canada via complaints to the office of the commissioner of lobbyists and has submitted many briefs to government committees working on these issues.
As an extension of her “flesh trade work,” Susan also owns a small meat market with her partner in Vancouver where she continues to work as a sex worker upstairs where she lives.
Calabria Meat Market has been a 7 year passion for Susan and she enjoys supporting small local growers and promoting sustainable food security.