Sex workers and those of a more libertarian mindset might be troubled by some of the commentary in the Vancouver council chamber last night.
The mayor of Vancouver thinks it's a good idea to use social media to expose the customers of prostitutes. His chief opponent spoke glowingly about reinstating a "john school". In the 1990s, these "schools" were popular sentencing-diversion programs designed to discourage men from buying sex.
As far back as 1996, the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver was condemning john schools because they overlooked the reality that prostitution is legal in Canada. Therefore, it's not a crime to buy sex from an adult, as long as the transaction is not negotiated in public.
"John 'schools' fail to recognize the diversity of sex workers and clients alike," wrote P. Marlowe on the sex workers' site. "Sex workers are categorically portrayed as victims of exploitation, while clients are categorically treated as psychopathic manipulators out to satisfy their sexual addictions. While both of these stereotypes may be true of specific individuals, they deny the reality that often sex workers and clients are simply engaging in a mutually agreeable act between consenting adults."
However last night during a council debate on preventing sexual exploitation, Gregor Robertson said it's important to examine this issue through a "gender lens".
"The johns is something that we do have some tools to use to look at," Robertson said. "I would say there is a real opportunity to use social media in this respect. We see it working successfully to identify the riot perpetrators. There may be an opportunity to modernize the approach to dealing with johns and those who are exploiting people in our community, women primarily."
Gregor Robertson talks about using social media against the johns.
Council voted unanimously to accept all the staff recommendations, including identifying "effective options for sentencing johns".
In addition to the communicating law, it's illegal to operate a common bawdy house or live off the avails of prostitution. However, an Ontario Superior Court justice recently ruled that these laws are unconstitutional because they infringe on sex workers' constitutional rights. For example, a sex worker, unlike any other businessperson, cannot employ a security guard in her legal business because that guard would be living off the avails.
Robertson's chief opponent in the November mayoral election, NPA councillor Suzanne Anton, also had some harsh words for the customers. She noted that the word "johns" only appeared once in a lengthy staff report, and then claimed that there used to be a "fairly effective prostitution-offender program"—which was a "school for johns".
NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton wants to crack down on sex-trade customers.
"Certainly, discouraging the customers is a good way to help women who are in the trade," Anton, a former prosecutor, said, before quickly adding, "discouraging the trade".
Anton also said that "nobody sets out to work in the sex trade" and "nobody wants their kids to be working in the sex trade".
More tough words from Suzanne Anton on prostitution.
The staff report recommended the creation of a citywide task group to advance a series of actions. The "partners" are identified as "community organizations", "researchers", and "senior governments". Sex-worker advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton has called for representation from sex workers, with one spot reserved for a transgender male-to-female person in the trade.
Meanwhile, another advocate for sex workers, Esther Shannon of the feminist group FIRST, told the Georgia Straight that she worries about cities and provincial governments designing programs to collect federal funds and advance the Conservative government's agenda on the sex trade and human trafficking.
The federal government has appealed the Ontario court decision. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet are adamantly opposed to decriminalization.
"They believe that sex work and trafficking are the same," Shannon said. "And they are extraordinarily different in as far as trafficking involves coercion, fraud, and kidnapping, whereas the great majority of sex workers are working by choice. And they are not coerced into sex work. We're talking about adult consensual sex work."
Esther Shannon says the public should be concerned about the Conservative government's agenda.
Shannon mentioned her group fears that the Conservatives' ideology will influence their antitrafficking programs, even though "the great majority of women who are trafficked into Canada are deported very quickly—certainly by the end of six months, and especially if they're not prepared to testify against their traffickers".
"I don't believe that at the local level, there is a great deal of expertise around trafficking—around what needs to be done to combat trafficking, and around who governments need to talk to," Shannon explained. "For example, sex workers are almost never consulted on trafficking issues—I would just say, never consulted, yet they are the people closest to the ground in these issues and would be the best source of information, not to mention the best people to develop public-awareness campaigns on trafficking."
When asked why governments wouldn't consult with sex workers if they're well-suited to offer assistance, Shannon replied: "Only the most progressive countries have understood that sex workers can play a real important role in combatting trafficking. And I'm sorry to say that the federal government does not present itself as a progressive government on issues of sex work and on issues of trafficking."
In elaborating on that point, she said that governments are almost entirely focused on trafficking for sexual exploitation, but have ignored issues around migrant workers and failed to protect their labour rights.
"This is a major problem with the Tories' trafficking agenda," she noted.
Esther Shannon wonders why governments don't seem to care about migrant workers who are not in the sex trade.
There is much to admire in the staff report, which evolved out of the Living in Community project. But if Vancouver city council does not include sex workers on its citywide task group, it will offer a clear indication that the real priority is pleasing the federal government.
However, if council puts strong advocates for sex workers' rights on the committee—including someone like Shannon or a real live sex worker like Sue Davis—then the public can feel more comfortable that the mayor and the city manager, Penny Ballem, aren't trying to suck up to the Harper Conservatives for more money.
These are serious issues. The judge in the Ontario case, Susan Himel, looked at the evidence dispassionately and concluded that the existing legal structure is jeopardizing women's lives. (As an aside, the city staff report's online link to the Himel decision didn't work, which deprived visitors to the city website, including members of council, of an opportunity to read her ruling.)
SFU researcher John Lowman has linked these laws to the carnage that occurred in Vancouver.
One of the speakers at last night's council meeting, Tracy Porteous of the Ending Violence Association of B.C., correctly noted that council and provincial government decisions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in sex workers being pushed out of heavily populated areas and into remote locations, where they were more susceptible to predators.
Vancouver has the notorious reputation as being the host of the worst serial killer in Canadian history. We still don't have a regional police force to deal with a similar situation in the future. We still don't have politicians on council who are willing to publicly link the current legal framework to the tragedy that unfolded in Vancouver over many years.
Instead, they talk about shaming johns on social-media sites and sending them to school to improve their behaviour. Somehow, I don't think that's quite sufficient to deal with the Willie Picktons of this world.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.