Wally Oppal report sheds light on dangerous work

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The spot below the Hastings Street viaduct is a scary place at night. It’s menacingly dark on one side, where train tracks lie. On the other side, where Raymur Avenue runs, two lampposts cast pale yellow light, barely illuminating the strip.

      Surrounded by shadows and the din of vehicles rushing overhead, it would be easy to disappear unnoticed from this industrial corner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Yet it’s an area where many women and men come to sell and buy sex.

      Lawyer Katrina Pacey doesn’t know whether convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton stalked some of his victims here. But on the evening of December 17, the day that former judge Wally Oppal released Forsaken, his report on the missing and murdered women, Pacey and about 150 other people marched to this spot.

      On this same occasion, the grounds blossomed with red umbrellas, the symbol marking the annual observance of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

      “It illustrates what happens when you have law enforcement and neighbourhoods that push sex workers into dark and isolated corners of the city,” Pacey told the Georgia Straight. “It’s a place, we can imagine, where there’s very little assistance when you’re in trouble. We’re here to mark this moment and acknowledge the realities of street-based sex workers.”

      The litigation director of Pivot Legal Society is encouraged that Oppal noted in his report that prostitution laws and police enforcement displace sex workers to deserted places, where they are vulnerable to violence.

      “That’s very much the result of the criminal law that criminalizes aspects of prostitution,” Pacey said. “And saying that had a direct impact on sex workers’ safety is essentially saying that the criminal laws and law enforcement are partly responsible for the dangerous conditions in which they work.”

      Pacey also represents the Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, a plaintiff in a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws. In a media conference at the Pivot offices before the march, SWUAV’s D. J. Joe pointed out that little has changed in the war against prostitution.

      “Police are always hiding somewhere,” Joe said. “Now they’re having officers hiding in unmarked cars around the corner.”

      In his multivolume report (full name: Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry), which runs 1,448 pages, Oppal states that although it is not within his commission’s mandate to assess Canada’s “contradictory” laws on prostitution, he also observes that enforcement “has become mostly about the control of public space”.

      According to Oppal, it is “for the most part about curbing the visibility of prostitution rather than about morality or protection of individuals engaged in the sex trade”.

      Although selling sex is not illegal, laws prohibit communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution, and maintaining a bawdyhouse. Although only five to 20 percent of prostitution is carried out through solicitation on the street, Oppal notes that up to 95 percent of arrests are for this type of sex trade.

      “I conclude that in the period leading up to and during my Terms of Reference there is a clear correlation between law enforcement strategies of displacement and containment and increased violence against women engaged in the sex trade,” Oppal writes.

      Although Pivot director Kerry Porth isn’t pleased with some aspects of Oppal’s report, the advocate for sex workers’ rights is glad that the former B.C. attorney general touched on the effects of Canada’s prostitution laws.

      “I don’t think it was within his mandate to recommend decriminalization, but I think the report actually supports that in terms of talking about what makes—especially street-based—sex workers less safe,” Porth said during the media conference at the Pivot offices.

      According to Oppal’s report, the murder rate for women engaged in street prostitution is estimated to be between 60 and 120 times greater than that for other females.

      Chloe Clarkson lit a candle during the red-umbrella march as a sign of respect for women in the sex trade. The journalism student noted that laws and discrimination prevent these women from working in safer places and conditions. “The stigma around sex, the illegality of it all, causes great harm,” Clarkson told the Straight.

      With white chalk, one marcher scribbled “I deserve to be safe” on a concrete brace of the massive columns supporting the viaduct. The sign caught the eye of another participant, Sarah Jensen. She said that although she wished Oppal had pinpointed people who actually dropped the ball in the police investigations regarding the missing and murdered women, it’s more important to her that there be meaningful changes in the working conditions of those in the sex trade.

      “Everybody else is safe in their jobs,” Jensen told the Straight. “And why wouldn’t a sex worker be?”

      When active sex workers return to that dim and lonely place beneath the Hastings Street viaduct, they’ll probably find comfort in some of the messages written by the marchers on its western wall. One reads: “You are much loved!”



      Rick in Richmond

      Dec 20, 2012 at 6:11am

      People quoted here contradict themselves.

      We are first told that “It illustrates what happens when you have law enforcement and neighbourhoods that push sex workers into dark and isolated corners of the city,” Pacey told the Georgia Straight. “It’s a place, we can imagine, where there’s very little assistance when you’re in trouble. "

      Then, we read that “Police are always hiding somewhere,” Joe said. “Now they’re having officers hiding in unmarked cars around the corner.”

      Which is it?

      Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but its advocates have to get their stories straight.

      And BTW, it is not "work". To quote Hilla Kerner of Vancouver Rape Relief, writing in an earlier Straight piece, "Prostitution is a paid rape... Paying for the use of her body dehumanizes her, reduces her to a commodity, to an object that he can use in whatever way he wishes to."

      When people resort to euphemism and Orwellian language, you know that efforts are being made to disguise actual meaning.

      The women at Rape Relief are more candid, and more to be believed, than the people cited here.

      The 99

      Dec 20, 2012 at 8:49am

      A well-written and heartfelt piece of journalism, written about a protest against the devastating and inhuman treatment of women in our society. Such unbiased, descriptive reporting is an important piece of the puzzle we must assemble to envision and then declare a better future for everyone.


      Dec 20, 2012 at 11:43am

      Native Women's Association of Canada, in a clear position, against full decriminalization states: "When people speak about legalizing prostitution, they often mix together decriminalizing the women who are prostituted and decriminalizing the men who buy and pimp them. It is wrong to criminalize Aboriginal women who are being prostituted. This only further punishes women for their poverty and exploitation. It also contributes to the high numbers of Aboriginal women in prison and the separation of Aboriginal women from their children. NWAC supports the decriminalization of women who are prostituted.

      It will not help Aboriginal women in prostitution to also decriminalize the men who buy and sell them. Johns and pimps routinely inflict physical and sexual violence and control on Aboriginal women in prostitution in all locations, whether indoors or not. They cause real harms to Aboriginal women and girls by exploiting their poverty, addictions, and add to their histories of abuse. They maintain the system of prostitution and profit from it. NWAC supports the criminalization of the purchase of sex. We also support criminalizing those who profit from the prostitution of women and girls."


      Dec 20, 2012 at 3:56pm

      It's hard to think of any work that is free from the possibility of exploitation for money. How humanizing is it to serve drinks to catcalling drunks? How humanizing is it to clean sewers?

      The issue should not be whether the act is gross (not much argument from me on that) but whether it can be done safely and voluntarily by informed, consenting adults.

      I understand antisolicitation laws -- you don't want the johns coming into a residential neighbourhood and creeping up the area where your kids are walking to school.

      But that doesn't mean that these people have to right buy what is being peddled (legally) or that those who are selling should be victimized.

      Until the law can be rationalized, I think it is an extremely GOOD idea for the police to be in their unmarked cars nearby, just in case there is a need for some heroics.


      Dec 20, 2012 at 7:17pm

      Crack cocaine and crystal meth amphetamine addicts
      break into homes and steal stuff, shoplift
      mug people
      sell drugs to kids to support their own habits.
      prostitute themselves and spread disease to others and themselves,they'll very mobile while tweaking out and will go with anybody and do anything for the next crack rock
      Thy will pimp vulnerable young people and kids to support their habits
      Crack dealers often shoot at other drug dealers catching the innocent in their cross fire.Most women resort to prostitution , men have to thieve and it is a very expensive habit with addicts going with out sleep or food for days.when crack user Smoke a hit, and the only thing you want is another hit and repeat until your broke and then the crime begins.. Once you get hooked you will likely have destroyed your self image so thoroughly that you can't even remember what it was like before you met your crack master.crackheads are very good manipulators and exceptional liars; they have to be because absolutely every single word out of a crackhead's mouth is a lie. Crackheads burn their lips on the pipe, causing scabs. Cokeheads and crystal meth users both pick at their skin, causing scabs. And yes, I have known a couple of crackheads. They would sell their grandmother into white slavery for 20 bucks Cocaine can just turn a friendly person into a conceited asshole.People go out of their minds on that stuff!!!. If you suspect a crack head lives near your neighborhood Please make sure you are locked in good at night i would get a dead bolt if you don't have one!!!

      Kerry Porth

      Dec 22, 2012 at 9:29am

      The Swedish Model, or criminalizing the purchase of sex, does nothing to decriminalize sex workers. They will still face criminalization for communicating in public and working in safer indoor spaces (brothel keeping). This is simply an additional layer of criminalization which has had the effect of pushing sex work further underground and undermining sex worker relationships with the police in Sweden. It also presupposes that every sex worker is female and that every sex buyer is a violent male ... both of these suppositions are incorrect. Removing an individual's method of earning a living without providing comprehensive services and supports to compensate for that removal will result in greater desperation. We have robust laws prohibiting sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, extortion, forcible confinement, assault, sexual assault and murder but sex workers are rarely protected by these laws as they fear reporting to the police while their work is criminalized. NWAC should listen to the members of SWUAV, nearly all of whom are Aboriginal sex workers, and who are engaged in a legal battle to decriminalize sex work. There are lots of people who speak on behalf of sex workers while sex workers should be supported to speak on their own behalf ... they are the experts, after all. The current legal regime has failed by every measure ... the laws do nothing to stop sex work and contribute to an environment where it is very difficult to do sex work safely. Mr. Oppal correctly noted that the current legal regime had an important role in defining the relationship between sex workers and the police as well as enforcement measures that pushed the women to ever more dangerous areas. Sex workers, around the world, are mobilizing for their rights and demanding decriminalization ... it's way past time that society listened.


      Dec 24, 2012 at 2:37pm

      Women who sell sex for money - whether you call them 'sex workers' or prostituted women (and the vast majority globally are women) - do not speak with one voice on this issue. Prostitution is a very hierarchicalized industry and those speaking for full decriminalization are a small minority at the top (Bedford has declared she will become a brothel owner if she wins the case). But mostly it is the industry that is fighting for full decriminalization - brothel owners, pimps and johns who have the most to gain. As for SWUAV - it appears to be a creation of PIVOT, put together for the purpose of launching a Charter case against the prostitution laws. There may very well be Aboriginal women in this group but who knows? Maybe they have an opinion on NWAC's statement, who knows? For that matter has anyone ever heard a SWUAV member, Aboriginal or otherwise, speak on behalf of decriminalization - I've only ever heard academic researchers or lawyers speak on behalf of SWUAV. I think I'll take NWAC's understanding of the collective situation of Aboriginal women and girls over that of unaccountable academic researchers and lawyers any day.