Morality takes back seat to violence

Prostitution: The public mood in B.C. seems to be shifting to where to allow the sex trade to happen

Doug Ward
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Emaciated sex trade workers are offered $100 to pose for photographs that will be placed on an Internet site for those turned on by heroin chic.

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun. Some criminologists argue public policy should address the question of where and under what conditions prostitutes and clients may meet.

A john uses a gun to threaten a prostitute he picks up on Kingsway. Another offers a prostitute $40 and then locks the car door and assaults her. Other women are choked, robbed, thrown from vehicles or gang raped.

The violence against prostitutes in Vancouver has raised the question of whether old-fashioned moral objections to prostitution -- the notion of the "fallen woman" -- should be jettisoned in favor of public policy -- perhaps decriminalization -- that might give sex trade workers more protection.

This policy shift shouldn't be that great a stretch. Canadian lawmakers already appear to believe that most voters have no moral problem with the selling and buying of sex so long as it isn't happening on their street corner or near the neighbourhood school.

The proof is that with rare exceptions, 80 to 95 per cent of prostitution in Canada -- especially escort services and body rub parlours -- is legal or ignored by the authorities. This newspaper, for instance, carries ads for out-call escort services and prostitutes working from their own homes.

It's one of the many issues being examined in a major Vancouver Sun series called Crime and Consequence.

Pornography -- that other so-called crime against morality -- is available everywhere -- especially now on the Internet. Our personal e-mail accounts are often deluged with spam promising sexual ecstacy. Possession of pornography -- except for most forms of child pornography -- is legal.

"When you look at the consumption of sexual imagery all around us, clearly there is a vast number of people who don't believe that either prostitution or pornography is immoral," said Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman.

A 1992 public opinion poll found that 52 per cent of Canadians believed prostitution should be legal. Earlier surveys found a majority would accept prostitution if it was taken off the streets. In 1994, a survey found that 70 per cent of Lower Mainland residents believed prostitution should be legalized. It's hard to imagine that support for legalization today wouldn't be as high, given the highly publicized murder and disappearance of prostitutes in Vancouver.

The state has gradually pulled away from meddling with the sexual fantasies of the nation -- except when those fantasies involve victims -- for instance, the children involved in kiddie porn.

Many prostitutes are clearly victims -- especially those sex trade workers standing on street corners.

Yet some criminologists, politicians and agencies working with prostitutes worry that Canada's criminal laws aid this victimization rather than stop it.

Lowman said public policy has sidestepped the crucial issue of where and under what conditions prostitutes can meet their customers. "Because we haven't answered that question, over 100 women are dead."

The prostitution laws have created a "discourse of disposal" in which prostitutes, according to Lowman, were seen as a public nuisance to be moved from one neighbourhood to another.

"Their physical marginalization occurred as police used the communicating law in combination with other harassment laws to displace prostitutes out of residential areas into darkly lit industrial back streets."

Many of these prostitutes are addicts, aboriginal, young and very troubled. They have few skills to trade other than sexual favors to pay for their next fix or for rent.

New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, whose Vancouver East riding is where most of the murdered and missing women once worked, has tabled a private member's bill calling for a review of laws related to soliciting.

Ottawa must bring in new prostitution laws to stop the murders of prostitutes across Canada, Davies said.

"The communicating law makes it illegal to communicate for soliciting," said Davies. "This immediately means that a lot of women are getting into cars to conduct business. They are then driven away and God knows what happens."

The inquiry proposed by Davies would be the first serious review of Canada's prostitution law since 1986. In that year, prostitution became legal under the Criminal Code, but many activities associated with practising prostitution became illegal, including soliciting or communicating in a public place, operating a common bawdy house or living off the avails of prostitution.

The murders and assaults on prostitutes rose sharply after the anti-soliciting law was enacted in 1986, Lowman said. Between 1964 and 1974 there were no recorded murders. There was one in 1975, 12 from 1978 to 1984 and four in 1985. During the past two decades there have been 75 murders in B.C., with the police currently investigating the disappearance of up to 45 prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside.

Davies said Canadian politicians should consider whether decriminalizing street prostitution might save lives -- in much the same way that many policy makers believe safe injection sites are one way to stop the overdose deaths of drug addicts.

"If we've learned anything, it's that the blunt instrument of the Criminal Code didn't solve this problem," Davies said.

"It's just pushed it from one neighbourhood to another."

Sergeant Doug Lang of the Vancouver police department agreed that dispersal is a problem. But the vice squad veteran rejected the notion that police enforcement drove any of the missing women or murdered prostitutes from residential neighbourhoods on to the unsafe street corners of the Downtown Eastside.

"The missing women -- bless their souls -- were picked up in the Downtown Eastside area. I don't think they were displaced from other strolls in Vancouver."

Lang said there are four main "strolls" -- areas where prostitutes congregate --in Vancouver: A "high-track" stroll on Seymour Street, which is run by pimps and organized crime. A "mid-track" stroll along the Kingsway corridor with some activity along Fraser Street and Joyce Avenue. A lower-rung stroll in parts of Strathcona and the nearby industrial area in East Vancouver. A "low-track" stroll in the Downtown Eastside that isn't pimped and usually involves women who turn tricks for little money -- just enough for their next fix.

It's this low-track stroll where most predators lurk. Here, the women are desperate, addicted, cheap and vulnerable.

"The vulnerability of these women makes them ready victims for these men," said John Turvey, executive-director of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society.

"Our group puts out a trick sheet on bad dates every 10 days and there is never a shortage of reports."

The risks for women walking strolls on the Downtown Eastside or on Kingsway have increased over the years, said Char La Fontaine, who worked as a prostitute for 20 years in Vancouver's tenderloin area.

La Fontaine, who now works for the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE), said Canada's prostitution laws are "breeding grounds for violence and unsafe working conditions."

While most of the sex trade is allowed to exist, street solicitation remains illegal, La Fontaine said.

"Why is it okay for 95 per cent of the sex trade to flourish under business licences but it's not okay for the people on the street -- marginalized people with no access to safety or housing or food?"

Groups like PACE believe society is slowly moving away from the evangelical Christian and radical feminist view that prostitution should be abolished to one in which the focus is on making conditions safer for the more vulnerable street prostitutes.

"It's just like with the war on drugs. People are realizing that you just can't just say no and everybody is going to stop using drugs. Well, it's the same with the sex trade."

Bowen similarly said that some feminists will always see prostitutes as victims. "They don't see that a woman who has a nursing degree might choose prostitution because it's more lucrative and because she is safe and can control her environment.

"Some of us have been involved in the sex trade and did not feel victimized. We weren't able to obtain the prices we once we're able to get and that's why many of us left."

Lang has a less positive take on prostitution. "I've interviewed tens of thousands of prostitutes in my career and I've never met one who said she enjoys her work. I've had hundreds of them, sitting with me in a cafeteria, ending up in tears as they describe their lives."

Lang said many street prostitutes are introduced into the world's oldest business at the age of 12 or 14. Most come have backgrounds of troubled families and sexual abuse. They form relationships with pimps and often become addicted to drugs.

"The story never stops for these people. They are prey. They've been victimized all their lives. They are disposable people. And the story of the missing women is just the ultimate level of this victimization."

Ex-prostitute La Fontaine of PACE said her group and the Vancouver police department are increasingly on the same wavelength.

"There are officers who are sensitive to the issues of the sex trade.

"We work together as colleagues and they have the women's best interests at heart. And that didn't used to be the case."

Lang said police typically don't arrest prostitutes for soliciting and take them to jail. "We usually give them an appearance notice to appear in court 10 weeks later. We tell them how we can get them out of prostitution. We also don't expect them to be working in Vancouver up until their court date."

Police also use enforcement to persuade prostitutes to either live the lifestyle or help them charge pimps. "The most effective way to charge pimps is getting to the women. We have no desire to put them in jail. But we want to destabilize the pimp structure."

Lang isn't convinced that decriminalization would stop street prostitution. "Putting them into warehouses in the Downtown Eastside isn't going to stop the problem. There are still going to be predators and pimps making money off these women." 

 Copyright  2003 Vancouver Sun

Courtesy of

Vancouver Sun Crime & Consequences Series



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Updated: August 21, 2016