Back in 1906, Vancouver police chief C.A. Chisholm reported that there were 41 brothels in operation and 153 prostitutes known to be working in those streets we now know as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. His tally preceded a vice crackdown that closed all the bawdyhouses but only reduced the number of streetwalkers to 64.
Nowadays, about 2,000 sex-trade workers operate discreetly out of various enterprises throughout the city, but street prostitutes still congregate on Kingsway and around Seymour and Nelson, and there are still roughly 150 women working the “low-track”, high-risk strolls of the Downtown Eastside.
The more things change, the more prostitution appears to remain a confounding, disturbing, insoluble public-policy dilemma, and so one of the most helpful things about the just-published Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade (Subway Books, $22) is that it doesn’t pretend to have something bold and new to say on the subject.
Author Daniel Francis, the prolific social historian who was the guiding hand behind the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, has no particular argument to make and doesn’t approach the subject from any deep theoretical conviction. He does something far more useful.
Francis simply provides a well-told story about prostitution in Vancouver from the earliest days, and in the effort he also provides a history of the ideas and attitudes that have animated the city’s approach to prostitution. Inevitably, it’s also a history of class, race, and poverty.
Recently, the RCMP arrested more than 100 people in a sweep of Lower Mainland massage parlours, a parliamentary committee looking into Canada’s prostitution laws concluded three years of investigation with a report that contains practically nothing of any obvious value, and jury selection wrapped up for the trial of Robert Pickton, a Coquitlam pig farmer charged with murdering 26 Vancouver prostitutes.
The one case that Francis does make—and it’s made so convincingly, by letting the historical facts speak for themselves, that you hardly notice—is that all those murders that ended up with Pickton standing accused as a serial killer were a direct result of the way public policy toward prostitution evolved in Vancouver.
Over the past quarter-century or so, Vancouver’s street prostitutes have been hounded to the margins. And it’s there that they always end up dying.
During the first half of the 20th-century, Vancouver’s sex trade was subjected to a series of eradication sweeps as the public mood waxed and waned between reluctant toleration and prohibitionist fervour. After an interregnum that lasted through the 1950s and 1960s, the crusades picked up again in 1975, with the raid on the famous Penthouse Night Club, a Vancouver landmark on Seymour Street.
The Penthouse raid was pivotal to a series of developments that pushed prostitution back out onto Vancouver’s streets. Suddenly there were hookers everywhere, especially along Davie Street, and City Hall careers were built and broken on Vancouver’s streetwalker controversies.
Hookers were driven from the West End to Richards Street, and from there to Mount Pleasant, and then to Strathcona, until by the 1980s they were back to the bleakest and darkest East Side back streets where the trade had begun a century before.
The law, meanwhile, had evolved in a way that also tended to leave street prostitutes especially vulnerable. Prostitution itself is legal, but pretty well every activity associated with it is illegal, leaving street prostitutes incapable of discerning a “bad date” in the furtive encounters that precede a transaction. By the time you know your trick is a twisted sadist, it’s usually too late.
It was under these conditions that women started going missing in Vancouver in the late 1970s. Those conditions persist, and any psychopath who wants to murder a woman in Vancouver and get away with it will choose a street prostitute because the odds of getting caught are next to none.
The story Francis tells in Red Light Neon is not a story in which attitudes evolve from the reactionary to the liberal, or from the primitive to the sophisticated. The remarkable thing is the dominant attitudes haven’t really changed at all, and they tend to defy conventional political categories.
Vancouver socialist Lyle Telford was distributing free condoms and risking jail by running a birth-control clinic during the depths of the Depression, but after he was elected mayor in 1939 he was just as happy to run the hookers out of town as was notorious antilabour mayor Gerry McGeer.
Meanwhile, the “white slavery” frights of a century ago are being played out again in the pages of Vancouver’s daily newspapers these days, with only slightly different language, in the coverage of the RCMP’s recent massage-parlour raids.
In Red Light Neon, Francis writes with great empathy for Vancouver’s sex-trade workers, and in the end his main conclusion is that if the rest of us can’t help these women get out of the sordid business, the least we can do is help them go to work with some safety and dignity.
In the end, that may be all any of us can do.