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Sex Work, Indigeneity, and the Right Kind of Victim

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In Canada, as stated by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.” These rights are considered to be universal and inalienable, but when examining the rates of violence that have been allowed to be perpetrated so disproportionally against certain groups of people in Canada, it seems that society treats some citizens as more worthy than others of having their right to safety protected. As the numbers of Indigenous women in Canada that are considered missing or murdered continues to steadily climb, it seems as if they are a demographic that Canadian law cares little about; however, there is a particular case that I believe highlights one of the most deadly yet least remarkable intersections of societal location: the series of indescribably violent murders of predominantly Indigenous women working in the sex trade in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the mid 1980s to the early 2000s committed by Robert Pickton. In this case, the intersectionality of the victims as women, and particularly as sex workers and Indigenous peoples, made them unsurprising targets and the “wrong kind of victims” to garner real urgency in the search for justice, which allowed further violence to be perpetrated against them. Simply put, the fact that they were Indigenous women engaging in prostitution meant that nobody cared whether they faced harm, and in fact assumed that they would due to the normalized narrative of violence against women, sex workers and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, often nicknamed “Canada’s Poorest Postal Code” is an area on the waterfront of Vancouver’s metropolitan downtown, the borders of which are generally thought to span the 10 blocks adjacent to Oppenheimer Park, the home of Vancouver’s most prominent “tent city.” Despite the networks of resources that have come to focus on this neighbourhood, it is widely known to be an area in the city where homelessness, prostitution, and drug use, particularly opioids, is rampant. From 1983 to 2002, 65 women in the Downtown Eastside went missing, some of whom were immediately reported, some of whom went unnoticed for years, and all of whom were women involved in the sex trade. Many of these women were Indigenous. Police response was generally thought to be remarkably slow, with the Vancouver Police Department refusing to connect the disappearances to a serial killer until 1999, and no arrests made until 2002. The man ultimately arrested, Robert Pickton, was a pig farmer in the neighbouring Coquitlam. He was known to the police for the attempted murder and sexual assault of an Indigenous sex worker, and several witnesses had suggested his involvement to the police throughout the investigation, only to be dismissed by officers as not credible due to homelessness and drug involvement. 49 of the murders have been attributed to Pickton, but he was charged with 25 and convicted of 6. All of his victims were female sex workers, and it is thought that roughly 17 of them were Indigenous women. Pickton was found guilty of 6 counts of Second Degree murder the deaths of Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Mona Wilson and Brenda Wolfe.

In the scope of the argument presented by Kristen Gilchrist (2010), there are several qualifiers which determine the amount of media coverage the victim of a crime will receive; these include the shock factor or remarkability of the case, and the aspects of the victims life that allows them to be painted sympathetically in news coverage; essentially, this determines if they are the “right kind of victim”. Gilchrist proposed that a violent crimes garner more media attention, alluding to the often-quoted phrase, “if it bleeds it leads,” and suggested that normative connotations of femininity and purity allow for female victims to be painted in an innocent or sympathetic light, especially if they are white, middle-class, and can be interpreted as leading “respectable” lives deserving to be avenged. Examining the statistics of violent crimes against women in Canada, I would argue that women categorically embody this Right Type of Victim due to the nature of gender stereotypes and patriarchal violence. Women are already victimized by a patriarchal society, and violence against them is overwhelmingly painted as taboo and tragic rather than preventable. The fact that Pickton’s victims were women meant that they fell into the stereotyped category of the innocent and helpless woman tragically victimized by a man representing the violent and sinister. As described by Gilchrist, “the presumption in the news media is that male offenders are guilty only to the extent that their female victims are innocent.”. This perpetuates the idea of the Right Kind of Victim; the death that society is allowed to mourn is that of an innocent life taken needlessly. Too often do we see this relationship play itself out; in Canada, women are eleven times more likely to be sexually victimized by men and account for a quarter of all hate crimes in the country. Even though violence against women, particularly that which is sexual in nature, is so insidiously incorporated in our collective unconsciousness, the perceived vulnerability of the female gender means that news outlets have the perfect opportunity to equate femininity to victimhood. The paradox of these crimes against women is that while they are more frequent and more violent in nature, the gendered incitement of the violence they face is precisely what makes them most grievable to the world after their death. The media transforms them from just being women to being mothers, daughters, sisters, icons, and emblems of the tragically fleeting nature of life as a symptom of womanhood. All 49 of the murders attributed to Pickton were enacted against female victims, and the rarity of a serial killer undoubtedly would be considered unusual enough to entertain in media; so, why was it that so little attention was paid to the gross loss of human life in the Downtown Eastside? What made these women the Wrong Type of Victim in the eyes of the media and law enforcement? My argument is that some people are seen more deserving of violence than others, and some more deserving of public outrage; it is the intersection between societal location, prostitution, and Indigeneity that permitted many of Pickton’s victims to be ignored by Canadian society.

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Much like violence against women, violence against individuals engaging in sex work, survival sex, prostitution, and other forms of erotic labour is nothing shy of overwhelming. It just so happened that Pickton’s victims all landed in the intersection of these two categories, leaving them doubly exposed to violent crimes. As of 2014, 57% of homicides against sex workers have been determined to be directly linked to their engagement in sex-based services, and 96% of sex workers killed are women, many of whom were Indigenous women, falling under an intersection that is described as “overrepresented”. These murders statistically have less likelihood of being solved than those involving women in less “high-risk” professions, and much like in the case of Robert Pickton, many sex workers who are murdered were killed by an individual who had killed 2 or more sex workers in the past, or otherwise demonstrated violence against these women categorically. Given this data on the prolific violence against women in sex work, and the fast appearing trends presenting themselves in the Downtown Eastside from 1983-2002, the slow response of the police should be surprising; yet, progress on connecting the 65 disappearances and taking measures to prevent further harm crawled. The fact that all of the women killed by Pickton were sex workers meant that they were no longer considered newsworthy for being ground-breaking and rare, as rape and violent crimes against sex workers is seen by many as simply an inevitability and a hazard of a trade they should have avoided if they wished to prevent themselves from being raped or killed. Women engaging in sex work are no longer seen as the Right Kind of Victim, or even the right kind of woman. I think the sentiment is exemplified well by sex-work advocate Melissa Grant: “we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women.”. At the time, in Vancouver, the general sentiment was that these women were seen not as human at all, but as “hookers,” a species separate from the women known and loved by the general public, and solely responsible for the consequences of her own recklessness. The fact that Pickton’s victims were engaged in sex work meant that Vancouver law enforcement and Canadian media society saw them as people who would not be missed because they were unworthy of being deemed human enough to be newsworthy. The value placed on their lives was weighed against the stories that the public can feel sympathy for- women with “respectable” jobs, who would not be so foolish as to engage in survival work. Gilchrist argued that “in order for there to be a ‘bad,’ ‘unworthy,’ ‘impure,’ ‘disreputable’ woman/victim there must simultaneously be a ‘good,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘respectable’ woman/victim against whom she is judged.”, illustrating how sex workers are presented inherently as the vice to the “undeserving” woman. Relevant as well is the notion that, “… if [a victim] engages in sex for money, she is likely to be constructed as, at least partially, responsible for violence against her.” Perhaps Pickton deliberately chose sex workers as his victims because he knew, on some level, that they weren’t the Right Kind of Victim to garner media attention. Perhaps the Vancouver Police Department and the Coquitlam RCMP felt that their “high-risk lifestyle” made them a lower priority on the hierarchy of human lives lost. In absence of speculation on the misogynistic motivations behind the crime and response, it is abundantly clear that sex workers face disproportionate levels of homicide and sexual violence, and that the painstakingly slow response by Vancouver authorities is representative of the broader notions in Canadian society of whose lives are valuable and who is right kind of person to be deserving of justice.

In the context of the Pickon murders, it is impossible to examine the response by media and authorities without also taking into account the indigeneity of many of his victims. As I argued in the previous paragraphs, whilst their womanhood simultaneously made them sympathetic but unremarkable victims, their engagement in sex work meant that the loss of their lives was seen as self-inflicted occupational consequence; however, as if these women were not already being dismissed as the Wrong Kind of Victim, the fact that many of them were Indigenous further reinforced the sentiment that their lives were utterly disposable and undeserving of mourning. In the broader historical context, violence and genocide against Indigenous peoples in Canada has been seamlessly woven into our subjective and romantic understanding of colonialism- Indigenous lives were simply a barrier to resources, their death a necessary measure in domination. This sentiment continues to be perpetuated in Canadian society, as demonstrated by the utter lack of interest in the loss of Indigenous lives in the Downtown Eastside during Pickton’s killing spree. It is so normative to see Indigenous peoples in Canada through the lens of violence and victimhood that a narrative of perpetual victimhood has become what Chimamana Adichie described as Canada’s “single story” (2009) of indigeneity- what they are homogenized and essentialized to be seen singularly as. Statistically speaking, Indigenous women have double the likelihood of facing violence than white women in Canada, and that fact must not be ignored in the inspection of the deaths of Pickton’s victims. I would argue that the normalization of the narrative of colonial violence contributed to why these women were seen as the Wrong Kind of Victim, as violence against them has been scripted to be thoroughly unsurprising and therefore not newsworthy. As Gilchrist so powerfully explained in her work: “Aboriginal women’s degraded place in Canadian society has marked them as “inherently rapeable.”. Pickton’s victims were seen as more deserving of violence and less deserving of justice due to these pervasive sentiments in Canadian society. Essentially, “missing/murdered Aboriginal women are seen by the media ‘less as victims deserving rescue than as bodies that simply do not matter.’”. This effect was magnified again by the women’s engagement in sex work, making them, in the eyes of the media and police, entirely responsible for their own deaths by nature of their very existence, and unworthy of public outcry.

In her work “Newsworthy Victims?…” (2010), Kristen Gilchrist hypothesized that there is a “right kind of victim” to garner media attention in the events of violent crimes- this victim is respectable, white, upper-middle-class, and the violence against her is remarkable by the nature of its dramatic rarity. When Robert Pickton murdered 49 women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver from 1983-2002, there were 3 characteristics that influenced the amount of media and public attention their deaths received: first, they were all women. This meant that while high rates of violence against women made their cases unremarkable, this trait allowed them the opportunity to be painted sympathetically due to essentialized notions of victimhood and femininity. Second, they were all sex workers- this meant that they no longer had notions of purity and respectability to garner dismay at their deaths, which also show a statistically higher occurrence. Finally, many of them were Indigenous women, which meant that normative colonial narratives of violence and death led to public desensitization and apathy surrounding their murders. Examining these factors separately, one can see that there were many ways in which their deaths would be considered societally as tragic but not unexpected; however, it was the intersectionality between the categories of womanhood, prostitution, and indigeneity that made these women entirely the Wrong Kind of Victim to inspire swift justice, media equality, and urgency. The lack of efficient response by Canadian media and Vancouver police illustrates the sentiment that these women has tarnished their own eulogy with their intersectionality. One may wonder if Pickton chose his victims specifically to commit violence against women, to exploit sex workers, or out of hatred of Indigenous peoples, but I would argue that it was the overlap of these three issues that made them convenient victims less likely to be missed or mourned by society than the Right Kind of Victim. In the case of public attention, Gilchrist noted that in regards to the sentiment that violent crimes create the Right Kind of Victims, “‘it really depends on who is bleeding”.

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Sex Work, Indigeneity, and the Right Kind of Victim. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-indigeneity-and-the-right-kind-of-victim/
“Sex Work, Indigeneity, and the Right Kind of Victim.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-indigeneity-and-the-right-kind-of-victim/
Sex Work, Indigeneity, and the Right Kind of Victim. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-indigeneity-and-the-right-kind-of-victim/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Sex Work, Indigeneity, and the Right Kind of Victim [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-indigeneity-and-the-right-kind-of-victim/
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