Sex workers say abolitionist approaches increase danger, but not everyone wants more prostitutes in the neighbourhood.
Susan Davis has been working most of the day, and now she's sipping an afternoon bottle of Moosehead in the Cambie Pub. She's unassuming, draped in black clothing, her hair tousled, and she is immersed in discussion with three other patrons about the state of sex workers. It's a depressing conversation. Aside from her pro-sex-work bias–and the incessant ringing of her cellphone–one might never suspect Davis is an escort.
She chose a life in sex work 21 years ago. For the past five, she's been in the vanguard of sex-worker activism, fighting for improved rights and respect for such workers throughout the city. She has the intelligence and charm to make headway in the upper echelons of society, and she communicates the needs and concerns of disenfranchised sex workers to everybody else.
"Time and time again it's been proven that the workers hold the answers," she says. "Through their lived experience we can prevent the harms that have happened in the past."
The Coalition of Experiential Women and the Living in Community project–Davis has been an integral part of the latter–are just two of the local initiatives fighting to make fundamental changes in how we view the sex trade and its workers.
Davis argues sex work isn't going away and never will. Working toward prohibition is counterproductive. Our current laws don't reflect this attitude, however, and 60 women, at least, disappeared from the Downtown Eastside in about six years.
"It's a reflection of these old, tired ways of looking at things and about how harmful these things can be," she says. "For 30 years now we've been asking for some very basic shit, and this is the end result. This is what doing nothing gets you."
"Society doesn't really have a place for you," says Amanda Bonella, a sex-trade activist and a friend of Davis's, "because just as much as people don't want us to be there [in the sex trade], they don't want us to marry their sons, either, or take their jobs."
Bonella, 30, was in the trade from 15 to 23, working in the subculture of sex workers, pimps, and drug dealers that shaped the only community where she felt welcome.
When she finally mustered the courage to exit the Salvation Army's vision of hell, her year-and-a-half transition from sex worker to "standard" member of society was anything but easy. She had no practical skills. She didn't even know where to put her change when she got on a bus.
"There were moments that made me go back to the trade because I was like, 'I'll never fit in; I'll never belong,'" Bonella says.
"When you talk about community, often sex workers were defined as separate from the community," says Lisa Gibson, the coordinator of the Living in Community project. "That was one of the big underlying pieces of Living in Community: trying to redefine 'community' as inclusive of all these different parts of society."
The Living in Community project's 27-action report, released in June, is the first of its kind for this city. It's a collaborative effort that addresses the sex trade from all sides, taking into account everyone's needs and concerns and keeping in mind that the trade affects everyone, not just its workers.
Neighbourhood houses, community policing associations, and residents initiated the project because of shared concerns about the sleaze that is associated with street-level prostitution: discarded needles and condoms, vandalism, and increased petty crime. They also noticed that as the workers were pushed from one area to the other over the years, none of these underlying problems were solved. The group enlisted sex-trade workers, the Vancouver police department, and aboriginal groups. It consulted numerous sex workers and allied organizations, put a proposal together, and got more than $200,000 from the Vancouver Agreement to put together a report that took two years to complete.
The result calls for, among other things, more involvement by all levels of government, better health and safety regulations, standardized curricula in schools to avoid exploitation of children, and cooperative massage parlours run by sex workers themselves.
"This is a way of making it safer for people and providing a space and a place and a way that people can work together and support each other," Gibson says.
Escort agencies won't hire sex workers with criminal records, nor will they hire unattractive or "over-the-hill" people. The co-op would be set up for women who have nowhere else to go, who couldn't find employment elsewhere. It would be about improving choices and safety for people already working in the sex trade.
Gibson says she realizes that the report isn't an end-all solution. It was never meant to be; it's essentially a steppingstone to facilitate ongoing dialogue in this city. It might also be a good indicator of where Vancouver attitudes are heading.
"It's a human issue," Gibson says. "When we start to connect to that, the morality of it falls away and we can address it in a much more pragmatic way that addresses basic human rights. We all have the rights to safety, security, shelter, food, a home, feeling safe in neighbourhoods. We all have that right, so how do we support that right for everyone without taking away the right of someone else?"
BUT TO HELL WITH mainstreaming: Megan Smiley, spokesperson for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, hates prostitution.
"The argument is how do you make women who are already in it safe? You can't; it's not safe," she says in the organization's basement office in Vancouver. The walls are lined with bookshelves stocked with files and feminist literature. A book titled Mass Rape rests face out on a filing cabinet.
Smiley opposes normalizing the sex trade in any way. She can't fathom how a co-op will stop a john from beating up a worker. She doesn't understand how anybody will enforce condom use. There's no way to achieve a safer work environment, she says, short of exiting altogether.
"You make them safe by taking them out of the situation. You make them safe by giving them a viable alternate life. You can't make safe something that is by nature oppressive and exploitative. You have to alter it entirely."
Rape Relief has been devoted to altering public consciousness of prostitution since its inception in 1973. Apart from taking distress calls 24 hours a day and housing victims of abuse, the group has positioned itself against every major report that advocates normalizing the sex trade. It favours the Swedish model of prostitution legislation, which pegs men who pay for sexual services as the real problem. (In 1999, Sweden decriminalized the sale of sex but criminalized its purchase.)
"If you look at it from the perspective that prostitution is violence against women, it's predominantly men buying and selling women," Smiley says. Prostitution, by nature, is sexist and oppressive.
Smiley doesn't see any positives in the sex industry because she deals, day in and day out, with the women who have been victimized. When she says "prostitution is ugly; it's a shitty way to make a living and the women that are stuck in it, most of them don't want to be there," she's right: that's the reality for those particular women.
There is no question that the trade is unsafe and the atrocities are a reality, but large numbers of industry women, especially off-street workers–at least 80 percent of Vancouver prostitutes–have experienced no violence at all.
In her master's thesis, Off-Street Commercial Sex: An Exploratory Study, SFU student Tamara O'Doherty reports that 59.4 percent of off-street sex workers surveyed said they had never experienced violence. Almost half of the women asked to report the most serious incident they had experienced said they too had never experienced violence. One participant in the survey even asked that the question be reworked to exclude the assumption that sex workers must have faced violence.
The sex trade is not a monolithic entity, according to SFU criminologist and prostitution authority John Lowman. Although violence is a reality, it's not the reality.
"The only way you can empirically make that argument [that sex work is inherently violent] is if you define prostitution as violent," Lowman says in his university office. "But if you use any commonsense notion of violence, it's not inherently violent."
Lowman believes the abolitionists' efforts to derail all initiatives to regulate the industry have actually contributed to the sex trade's escalating violence instead of curbing it.
"By creating the situation where it says we cannot countenance any kind of legal prostitution where prostitutes can be safe–because prostitution is violence against women–it thereby creates the situation where these women are marginalized and can be raped. It creates the situation where somebody can pick up women from the Downtown Eastside and have them disappear without anybody doing anything about it."
Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, but bawdyhouses, procuring, and living on the avails of prostitution have been since 1913. Escorts can and do work legally, but they must obtain a permit through the city to do so. "When someone asks me what a pimp looks like," Lowman says with a chuckle, "I say, 'He wears a suit and tie and sits on city council.'
"The municipalities are themselves pimps because they license prostitution and therefore violate the criminal law by living, in part, on the avails of prostitution." Lowman shakes his head, fuming that government ineptitude has led to so many deaths.
"Our current laws were written by men in suits long since dead, according to a moral script and a culture that disappeared years ago," he says.
His hundreds of pages of research contend that the legislation concerning prostitution, and not the industry itself, is primarily what hurts women. As part of the Fraser Committee in 1985 (which issued a report titled Pornography and Prostitution in Canada), Lowman urged the federal government to define where and under what circumstances prostitution could occur, since it had been occurring legally for so long. The special committee also insisted the government not implement the "communicating" law that same year, which would ban on-street communication for the purpose of buying or selling sex. It argued the law would have serious consequences because of the displacement of sex workers into industrialized areas. The government ignored its request and enacted the law.
Lowman predicted violence. He had no idea how bad it would get.
According to Lowman, the first documented homicide of a sex worker in B.C. occurred in 1975, three years after a new law prohibited on-street solicitation and around the time police shut down Vancouver's notorious Penthouse Cabaret after a long investigation, causing a drastic increase in on-street sex work in the next few years, specifically in the West End. That B.C. number steadily increased to 11 prostitution-related homicides by 1984–and grew to at least 107 by 1999, by Lowman's count. Statistics Canada recorded 78 homicides nationwide related to involvement in the sex trade between 1992 (the year after the agency started tracking occupations of murder victims) and 1998. In truth, there's no way to tell how many are dead and missing because nobody really knows. Lowman told the Straight he thinks there have been between 200 and 300 sex-worker homicide victims in Canada since the federal law against communication in a public place took effect in December 1985.
The Vancouver police department made the Downtown Eastside a de facto red-light district a decade ago. In a February 1997 news release, the police stated they would stop arresting sex workers so long as they stayed away from residential areas and school zones. These, conveniently, all exist south of Hastings. This left all areas north of Hastings and east of Main Street right through to Victoria Drive open for business.
The VPD maintains that any police action is strictly complaint-driven. When the strategy was imposed, police presence became less frequent because no one was complaining. So long as they stayed in their zone, sex workers were left alone. That's when most of the 60-plus women started to go missing.
IT WASN'T ALWAYS like this. During the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the West End was a haven for sex workers, an unauthorized red-light district where they could conduct their business without the scrutiny of a stiff society wagging its finger. But they wore out their welcome pretty quick.
"It wasn't really just about prostitution," Gordon Price says. He's sitting in his downtown SFU office, hands pressed together at his chin. "In fact, as an indicator, it was about what I call the Line." The director of SFU's city program (and former city councillor) draws a horizontal line in the air. "Societies have very coached behaviour. In other words, where is that Line that can't be crossed?
"The Line moves–and it's different for different people at different times in different communities–but there is a Line, and if it's transgressed, any number of things can happen. The Line may move: what was previously unacceptable behaviour may become tolerated."
But this is not what Price was concerned about when he helped form the group Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) in 1980. He says the area had become a "24-hour sex bazaar", crawling with activity on Davie Street between the strictly residential blocks of Bute and Nicola streets. The Line had disappeared.
"It was crowded. My God, was it ever crowded," says Jamie Lee Hamilton, notorious sex-trade activist and sex worker. She's a trailblazing advocate and a vocal critic of how poorly the system has treated sex workers. She has also worked the streets on and off for more than 35 years, and is one of the last vestiges of the old Davie days.
The West End days were the Golden Age of Prostitution as far as she is concerned. She says there was a great camaraderie among the workers: they ate together, lived together, took breaks together. They looked after one another. Business owners loved them–hotel owners especially. They built a community.
"They were great people," says Jim Deva, owner of Little Sister's Bookshop on Davie. "They were people."
He says he got to know many of the sex workers during those days, Hamilton especially. His store was a bit of a haven for them.
"There were businesses they could go in and socialize. They were really integrated into our community, and it was much safer for them."
By the early 1980s, it had become a concern for some residents. They had to manoeuvre through and around gaggles of prostitutes. But for Price, it wasn't just the prostitution that troubled him but the idea that this could occur at all. In his view, society wasn't able to regulate what was "acceptable" and "unacceptable". He took it upon himself, with CROWE, to redraw the Line.
In 1984, Price says, after much lobbying by CROWE for "a standard of behaviour being established so you know what the rules are", and the social influence of Shame the Johns (another grassroots West End organization), provincial attorney general Brian Smith stepped in and got a court injunction that ordered prostitutes out of the West End by mid-July. They had no choice but to go.
"We couldn't work there any longer; we couldn't even live there," Hamilton says. Overnight, the West End was cleared. The workers moved to the east side of Granville Street, where the injunction allowed them to be. The Line had been drawn.
LAW REFORM pertaining to sex work sits in limbo. Efforts have been made: from 2003 to 2005, an all-party parliamentary committee, including Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, studied the current prostitution laws. Its final report stated that the status quo is not working but stopped short of asking for full reform.
Vancouver lawyers Katrina Pacey, of Pivot Legal LLP, and Joseph Arvay launched a challenge on August 3, claiming that three provisions in the Criminal Code–those against communicating, operating bawdyhouses, and living on the avails of prostitution–contribute to the escalating violence against sex workers. With no solid recommendations for reform, however, change at the federal level is unlikely anytime soon.
Nothing can be done at the city level until long-term sustainable funding comes from higher levels of government. Non-Partisan Association city councillor Kim Capri tells the Straight in her City Hall office that the issue hasn't even been officially raised in council.
The tragedy is that many people striving for the same things–better choices for women, better housing, better exiting and prevention programs, more equality, and mutual respect for everybody–are in opposing camps: one side is adamant that prostitution has always existed and always will and the other is adamant that abolition is possible.
All that sex-trade workers are asking for, which abolitionism won't allow, is a respectful solution that will allow the sex trade to continue with proper choices for those involved and without the negatives. That, unfortunately, would take a drastic paradigm shift for some.
"People in our society are uncomfortable talking about sex in the first place," says Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre Society for female sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. The women working the shelter are on the front line of an urban war, emotional and mental supports for the low-track sex workers. It's not a job that just anyone is willing to take on. The idea of sex work is too uncomfortable for a lot of people.
"It means they have to examine where their charitable sense”¦and where their compassion is," Gibson says. "It's not just the sex trade that they don't want to look at. People are very uncomfortable with others who have mental-health problems. They turn away from them."
But Vancouverites have been sensitive to uncomfortable issues in the past. The Insite injection sanctuary never would have been an option if we weren't. Still, whether or not Vancouver is on the leading edge of some radical change is up for debate. Many people might have their hearts in the right place, but there hasn't been much of a change in working conditions for those in the sex trade.
Living in Community might promote the dialogue. But everybody needs to be talking in order for it to work.