The Toronto Star, August 2, 2005
For your info.
"Prostitutes identify `bad dates' on website
Site tracks violent clients
In some cases, pictures posted
Wendy Babcock became a prostitute when she was 15 years old. She left the business about two years ago after her best friend met with a client — and was found strangled in a bathtub the next morning.
Since then, Babcock, now 26, has been working Toronto's streets and cyberspace, trying to help other sex professionals avoid a similar fate by providing information on violent clients, or "bad dates."
She and long-time lobbyist and sex worker Valerie Scott started the Sex Professionals of Canada website two years ago. Scott, too, had lost friends and colleagues on the street at the hands of violent dates.
"That was part of the motivation to develop a bad date list online," said Scott. "It gets to me somehow when people I know are dead — murdered."
What worried Scott and Babcock were the cases of sex workers in Vancouver and Edmonton who simply disappeared, only to be found murdered years later. Neither wanted women here to end up that way.
So they launched the website for Sex Professionals of Canada. Their goal: to save lives and empower the city's sex workers. And now the website has become a must-read for Toronto's sex workers, providing information on bad dates as well as lobbying efforts to decriminalize prostitution.
But it is the bad date list that draws many — both the pros and the curious. The website graphically lists the names, descriptions and possible whereabouts of violent clients. In some cases, pictures are posted with names. In other cases there are no names, just descriptions, perhaps a licence plate number or a sexual proclivity.
"It has potential to save lives and help women from being beaten up and raped," said Scott.
And she's not the only one who thinks that. The Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit, which runs its own bad-date tip phone line, has welcomed the site. Officers have used the site to ask for information on an assault or for gathering intelligence about an attacker. What's more, the police believe it provides some protection for the sex workers who are without a doubt constantly in danger.
"There are very few safety issues in place for sex workers in our society," said Det. Wendy Leaver with the sex crimes unit.
"I think the site, if it's used, is good," said Leaver, who conservatively estimates that a typical sex worker is assaulted at least once a week.
"People should be able to do their job without being sexually assaulted. ... Only if sex workers have this information are they safe."
That's why posting the information is so important, said Babcock.
And it doesn't just benefit sex workers, but also helps all women in Toronto.
"Often, these guys end up attacking other women," said Babcock.
"Bad dates are serial attackers. It's good to know what's out there and of course to let the whole sex worker community know about it."
"If someone is raping, murdering, assaulting, robbing or threatening someone, the sex workers have a right to know," said Laurel Ronan, a Toronto sex worker and member of Sex Professionals of Canada. Ronan is a strong advocate of the bad date list.
"I have no problem publishing a bad date's name or personal information if he can harm one of us. People need to know."
For her, being a sex worker is "not a job or a hobby, it's an act of political resistance." But it is also a life, she stressed, that requires a safety net.
There are other bad date lists on other sites on the web, the pair acknowledged. But many of them are associated with private escort services and require a password to gain access to the information. Babcock and Scott's site is free.
The pair count on women on the street to provide accounts of any bad experiences they've had, including descriptions or names of bad dates. In turn, other sex workers can protect themselves should these men turn up at their door or pull up in a car.
"The site works," said Scott. "It's all-volunteer. I have had phone calls from women who said they got calls from a guy and they checked the site and he was there and they didn't go. We've also had reports where a guy is up on the site and women will call in and say they've seen him too."
But the site is not without legal problems.
Last March, a man threatened to sue Scott for libel for posting his name on the website. But he withdrew the lawsuit after being told two prostitutes were prepared to testify against him, said Scott.
"We truly do believe this is the right thing to do," said Scott.
"I don't want to invade anyone's privacy. And we would never just publish someone's name for being a date. But I figure you forfeit your privacy when you're violent."
Leaver believes the site offers some much-needed protection for sex workers.
"Many women in this field don't come to police," she said. "Where are they going to go? The bottom line is, to be a sex worker is not a criminal offence ... but we afford very little protection to them.
"That's what Val does. She has set up a mechanism for these girls. They can keep it in the back of their minds. It's the only mechanism of safety they have."
Leaver and her fellow officers at the sex crimes unit hope this will change one day and sex workers will turn more regularly to the police to report assaults and bad date information.
"It doesn't matter if they're a sex worker — no means no," she said."