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Bronwyn McBride and Margaret Erickson are both PhD students at the University of British Columbia and Research Associates at the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity, Vancouver, Canada.

On Jan. 22, 22-year-old Marylène Lévesque – a vivacious, generous woman with a bright future – was found dead in a Quebec City hotel room. Ms. Lévesque, a sex worker, was meeting a client at the hotel instead of at the erotic massage parlour where she regularly worked. Eustachio Gallese, a convicted murderer out on parole, has been charged with second-degree murder in her death.

Sex workers warned that Canada’s new sex work laws would result in more violence. Ms. Lévesque’s death is a devastating example of how these laws put sex workers’ lives at risk.

In 2006, Mr. Gallese was sentenced to life in prison after killing his partner, Chantale Deschenes. Ms. Deschenes was beaten with a hammer and stabbed repeatedly. Released to a halfway house and deemed a “moderate” risk, he was granted day parole by March 2019. Viewed as a potential danger to women, Mr. Gallese was required to report all relationships with women (sexual or not) to his parole officer. However, he was allowed to meet sex workers, “only for the purpose of responding to [his] sexual needs”. Why was Mr. Gallese permitted to see sex workers when deemed a risk to women? Because pervasive stigma and discrimination allow authorities to view sex workers as unworthy of protection.

Sandra Wesley, head of Montreal-based sex workers’ rights organization Stella, highlighted in an interview with the CBC how the justice system positioned sex workers as the guinea pigs in Mr. Gallese’s rehabilitation process: “They identified that this man was a potential danger to women and wasn’t ready to have proper relationships with women, but figured that he could then go see sex workers. It really tells us what they think about us.”

In Canada and other settings where sex work is criminalized, the disproportionate violence faced by sex workers is fuelled by perpetrators’ recognition of sex workers’ devalued status and their lack of access to police protections. These experiences are exacerbated among Indigenous, racialized and other more marginalized women, and often lack the media coverage of Ms. Lévesque’s case. Given Mr. Gallese’s violent history, it’s revolting and egregious that the parole board did not deem sex workers worthy of the protections extended to other women. Ms. Lévesque deserved to be protected.

Despite their purported aim of protecting vulnerable communities, Canadian sex work laws create an enabling environment for violent aggressors to target sex workers. Erotic massage parlours are forced to operate illicitly because sex work clients and third parties (i.e., massage parlour owners/managers/security guards) are criminalized under federal law, despite robust evidence that these managed indoor work environments can provide critical security and client screening that enhances sex workers’ safety.

Alarmingly, following Mr. Gallese’s release on day parole, he was allegedly banned by management at the massage parlour where Ms. Lévesque worked after becoming violent toward other women there. However, in Canada’s criminalized context, erotic massage parlours are unable to report violence to authorities due to their risk of inviting criminal charges. It’s unacceptable that Mr. Gallese’s ongoing violence against women was able to go unrecognized until it escalated. Had the massage parlour been able to report Mr. Gallese’s violence to the police, his parole board could have re-evaluated his risk for re-offense and taken immediate action to keep all women – including sex workers – safe.

This case highlights the blatant hypocrisy of federal laws ostensibly claiming to protect sex workers as a vulnerable community, while this parole board – an institution meant to protect the public – encouraged a violent offender to access this marginalized group.

To prevent tragedies like Ms. Lévesque, laws and institutions must urgently acknowledge and act on sex workers’ recommendations on making work safer. Ms. Wesley of Stella stated “we are the experts of our needs, but no one listens to us,” and emphasized that sex work criminalization encourages women to work in secret, increasing their risk of violence. We must enable sex workers and their workplaces to report violence – without repercussions – through full decriminalization of sex work in Canada. No woman should ever face violence or murder at work.

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