Courting death: (Part 1)

The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas and into dark alleys, making them easy prey for murderers.

Dan Gardner
The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, June 15, 2002

On a Tuesday evening, Vancouver's commuters are heading out of the downtown core for the distant suburbs. The driver of a white minivan snaps his head to the side and makes a sharp turn onto a side street. He drives around a residential block and back to the busy road, rolls down a window and leans over to talk to the hooker on the corner.

(Streetwalkers, Street Stalkers)

Sitting in the unmarked police van across the road, we watch in silence as the platinum blonde woman, dressed in a shiny faux-leather jacket and tight pants, smiles and leans in. She tells him to pull into a parking lot, where they negotiate a price: a criminal act under Canadian law. The woman makes the casual gesture the observers are waiting for.

Instantly, two cars roar into the parking lot, police lights flashing. Plainclothes officers pull the driver from the van.

As blue and red lights flicker in his eyes, the would-be john stands frozen in place, his face blank with incomprehension. The police take his picture with a Polaroid and hand him a notice to appear in court. Within a few minutes, he's sent on his way, the parking lot is cleared, and the undercover policewoman takes her place on the street corner, smiling at the passing traffic.

Scenes such as this are played out every day in cities across the country. In 2000, police reported more than 5,000 incidents involving prostitution laws. About 93 per cent of those incidents involved street prostitution, and virtually all of those involved violations of the law against communicating for the purpose of prostitution in public. The prostitution laws may not figure much in public debates these days, but they are still very much enforced.

And if John Lowman is right, that's a tragedy. "The law is killing people," he says.


The Ottawa Citizen

John Lowman, Simon Fraser University criminologist.

Mr. Lowman, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University and one of Canada's leading experts on prostitution, believes that stings such as those run by the Vancouver police, and other forms of law enforcement, set in motion a chain reaction. At the end of that chain, says Mr. Lowman, is the mass murder of prostitutes.

Mr. Lowman reached his conclusion after some careful detective work. By sifting through police reports and the archives of two daily newspapers, he and his researchers were able to identify and chart the murders of Vancouver prostitutes going back decades. From 1940 to 1974, they found no recorded murders. From 1975 to 1979, Mr. Lowman says, "there were three; 1980 through 1984, there were eight; 1985 to 1989, there were 22; 1990 to 1994, there were 24. Now if we go (to) 1995 to 2000, we're probably looking at 50 or 60, depending on how many of these missing women have been murdered."

Mr. Lowman cautions against seeing Vancouver's epidemic of murder as a plague unique to that city. In 1991, the occupation of murder victims was included in statistics for the first time. From that year to 2000, according to Statistics Canada, 72 prostitutes were murdered while working (that number is understated, as it includes only cases where the police had confirmed the victim was a prostitute working at the time of the murder). Of those murders, more than two-thirds were committed outside British Columbia. One quarter of the murders were in Ontario.

Even using StatsCan's estimate, the murder rate of prostitutes is by far the highest of any occupation. And most of those murders remain mysteries: A 1995 StatsCan study found a little more than half of the cases involving murdered prostitutes went unsolved, compared with only 20 per cent of other homicides. The situation is so grim that, in 1998, an intergovernmental working group suggested provinces set up "High-Risk Homicide Registries" to collect identifying data from street prostitutes in case they are murdered.

The symbol of this unfathomable violence is a pig farm a short drive outside Vancouver. Behind barricades and police tape, in a scene reminiscent of Kosovo or Rwanda, investigators are sifting every inch of the black soil. They are looking for evidence against the owner, Robert "Willie" Pickton, who stands accused of murdering seven women from Vancouver's downtown east side. Including the seven for whose murders Mr. Pickton has been charged, there are currently 54 women listed as missing from those bleak streets.

If John Lowman is right, a line can be traced from the police stings on Vancouver's streets to Mr. Pickton's pig farm, or wherever it is the missing women may be. And that's not the only line that can be drawn. In cities across the country, he says, the Criminal Code is directly responsible for the deaths of scores of women.

"It's not the law that's wielding the knife. It's predatory, misogynistic men. But the law is creating the situation where they can do that."

It's hard for most people to imagine just how much violence is inflicted on street prostitutes, says Raven Bowen. "I knew a woman that, in one night, she got robbed. She went back to work that same night. Then she got raped. She went back to work, OK? Then she got majorly beat up. In one night."

Ms. Bowen, a worker at a downtown east side drop-in centre for prostitutes, says another time "a woman came through that door and said, just off-hand, 'Yeah, I was raped and robbed.' And I went, 'Are you OK?' She says, 'I'm fine. My nerves are just rattled a bit. I'll just do my hit'. "

Operated by a group of former prostitutes called Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE), the drop-in centre is the eye of the downtown-east-side storm. All around, the hustling and hurting never stop. Just a few hours before I spoke with the women at PACE, a prostitute had been robbed in front of the drop-in centre. It was about noon when a john dropped her off and "two guys jumped her," says Marika Sandrelli, a PACE worker. "I went running over across the street to chase them off but they already got her money. She was in tears. She came in here. She works hard for that money and now she has to go turn another trick." That prostitute, Ms. Sandrelli adds, is just 18 years old.

Stories like that are as common as discarded needles in the downtown east side. And yet, as rife as the violence is, not all prostitutes suffer it. In Vancouver and cities across Canada, women who work the most desirable streets, the so-called "high track," tend to be much safer than those in bottom-end strolls such as the downtown east side. Safer still are women working in off-street prostitution -- such as massage parlours and escort agencies -- which makes up an estimated 80 per cent of the sex trade. Virtually all of the prostitutes murdered in Canada worked on the streets, and most of those likely worked in the lower end of the street.

It's not hard to see why off-street prostitution is relatively safe. In massage parlours, brothels and hotels, customers know other people see them when they enter and leave. They also know there is always someone close enough to hear a cry for help.

Escort agencies also offer a degree of protection by recording addresses and phone numbers. Often they take down credit card numbers. Some agencies provide their employees with drivers.

And agencies, as well as women working independently from home, can screen callers. At the very least, says Monica Valiquette, an Edmonton prostitute who works from home, women working off-street can always tell someone where they're going. "Gals that I know that don't have a driver and don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend at home, they just write a note and leave it on the kitchen table and, that way, if they don't turn up, somebody's going to find that note and know where they were."

"High-track" hookers have none of these advantages, of course, but they do have other safety measures. Pimps may offer modest protection. And because their customers tend to have more money, high-track prostitutes are more likely to have sex in hotels rather than in a car parked in an isolated spot.

But more important is the fact that high-track strolls usually consist of a few blocks in the commercial districts of a city's downtown core: Ottawa's high track is in the Byward Market; Vancouver's lies near the city's business and entertainment districts. This makes high-track strolls brightly lit and busy. With many women working a small area, prostitutes on the high track almost never work alone, and they protect each other. Ms. Valiquette, who used to work Edmonton's high track, says "we hopped in the car and if we weren't sure, if there was something irregular about him, we'd yell back to the girl behind us, and there's always one, and say, 'Take the licence number.' And then we'd hop in the car and go on our way. Whether the girl did or not was irrelevant. He would think so."

But not everyone can work the high-track strolls, since pimps usually control them and pimps aren't interested in women at the bottom end of the sex trade.

It's even harder for these women to work off-street. The addicted, mentally ill, homeless and battered women who work on the streets are often just not able to behave like regular employees. Those who can still find themselves shut out by municipal licensing systems that require women working in massage parlours and escort agencies to be individually licensed, but won't give licences to women with a criminal record.

Streetwalkers can, in theory, set up their own off-street sex business, but new licences are often not available. If they are, the cost is usually prohibitive. Very poor prostitutes cannot afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars cities typically charge for escort licences. In cities that don't licence escorts, such as Toronto and Ottawa, prostitutes who want to go off-street still have to pay for phone lines, advertising and a car to get to dates. For women at the extreme margins of society, that's a pipe dream.

Even the opportunity to turn tricks in the relative safety of a hotel is usually denied bottom-rung street prostitutes. Police frequently bust cheap hotels that rent rooms by the hour, so they have become rare or non-existent in many cities. And customers of street hookers -- who may pay as little as $10 for sex -- can't or won't rent rooms for the night. Even if they did, bedraggled street prostitutes are barred from entering most hotels.

So the most vulnerable prostitutes have nowhere to go but the street. And the streets they walk are often the darkest and emptiest.

In Vancouver, the downtown east-side stroll where most of the missing women worked is a desolate zone of warehouses, back alleys and railway tracks running alongside the city's harbour. During the day, the area bustles but, at night, it is barren. Spread out along many blocks, the women stand at dark street corners, usually alone. There is little traffic. The few who come to these back streets are usually johns.

A man can easily stop here, pick up a woman, and drive away without ever being seen.

Jamie Lee Hamilton, a prostitutes' rights activist who has worked on these streets, showed me around. The danger isn't limited to the pick-up, she says. Skid Row prostitutes have no safe place to have sex. Hookers used to take clients to a sauna on a main commercial street nearby, Ms. Hamilton says, but the police threatened to charge the owner with running a bawdy house so management now bars streetwalkers. A cheap hotel next to the stroll that rented rooms by the half-hour was also threatened with charges. It closed.

The Vancouver Province

Jamie Lee Hamilton, Prostitute's rights activist.

To fill the void, Ms. Hamilton and others rented a small apartment next to the stroll where prostitutes could take johns and use a room for a nominal fee. The police laid bawdy-house charges and shut it down. Ms. Hamilton is now challenging those charges in court on the grounds that they violate the right of prostitutes under the charter of rights to "life, liberty and security of the person."

Street prostitutes often try to minimize the risk by telling customers to park where there might be someone around to hear a cry for help. That usually means residential neighbourhoods. But doing business there inevitably draws a furious backlash.

"There were condoms everywhere," says Peter Wohlwend, a volunteer with the "Dickens Community Crime Watch," a group organized to push prostitution out of one Vancouver neighbourhood. "One morning, I woke up and three prostitutes were shooting up, doing their business right in front of my house on my bench." Residents mobilized. They demanded and got a police crackdown, including john stings. In less than a year, says Mr. Wohlwend, there was "an 80-per-cent reduction."

Of course, this didn't cut prostitution overall, but it did drive it elsewhere, which is all the residents asked for.

"The squeaky wheel drives law enforcement," says Mr. Lowman. While police would not put it in those terms, they agree. Neighbourhood complaints are always cited by police as the primary factor they consider in determining when and how to enforce the law on street prostitution.

It's not an unreasonable approach, but the ultimate result is not what anyone would want.

When street prostitutes are arrested, punishments are predictable. On a first offence, a woman is likely to receive a conditional discharge, which means she won't get a criminal record. On subsequent offences, she'll get a criminal record and a fine of several hundred dollars. She is also likely to get boundary restrictions that forbid her from returning to the stroll where she was arrested.

If a woman has been convicted before, she may get a couple of weeks or months in jail. A Statistics Canada study in the mid-1990s found that 17 per cent of prostitution convictions were punished with an average of 15 days in jail. It's also common for convicted prostitutes to be found in violation of prior court orders, such as boundary restrictions, or to be convicted of other crimes, such as drug possession; 44 per cent of streetwalkers charged with multiple offences are incarcerated.

None of these punishments is likely to convince women to abandon prostitution because they do nothing to change the circumstances that landed them there. On the contrary, they can actually put more pressure on women to turn tricks.

Criminal records put up yet another barrier to a regular job for women who already face many obstacles, including poor education and few job skills. Jail time only introduces prostitutes to others in the criminal subculture: It certainly can't scare away women who are undeterred by the threat of assault, rape and murder.

Fines are even more counter-productive. "When you're fined," says Char LaFontaine, a former prostitute now doing outreach work for PACE, "you've got to go out and work to make the money to pay the fine."

Women end up on a treadmill, going from the street to jail and back again. "They have to come back," says Ms. LaFontaine. "They don't have a roof over their head. A lot of them are homeless. They live in abject poverty. Where are they going to go? They're not getting out of jail and hopping off to the University of British Columbia."

But if law enforcement does not stop women from prostituting themselves, it does change their behaviour in other ways. After a woman is convicted and released, says Marika Sandrelli of PACE, "she's going to say, 'Gee, now I know how not to get arrested again. I'm not going to get connected to support services. I'm not going to be a mark.' "

In street jargon, "a mark is someone who's easy to be found, either by drug dealers or by the police or by agencies. It's someone who's well known to the establishment."

That can be dangerous. "A lot of people who end up being labelled a mark don't do well on the street because they think you're in bed with the police."

To avoid becoming a mark, a woman will "disconnect and go underground," says Ms. Sandrelli. "She'll get a lot better at being invisible."

Pushed even further out on the margins of society, these women experience daily violence and victimization. And yet they almost never turn to the police. Police are not protectors. They're the enemy.

"You can interview every woman imaginable on the streets and, without fail, each of them have the same horror stories," says Jamie Lee Hamilton. "The police do not treat us with dignity or respect. They do not believe what we say. They could not care less about our lives. That does not foster trust."

Ms. Hamilton is right about prostitutes' attitudes. The Citizen spoke with many streetwalkers in Vancouver's downtown east side and all said they hated and feared the police.

The most common complaint is that police do not take violence against prostitutes seriously. Some officers even blame them when they report attacks. "Well, you shouldn't have gotten in the car" is what one prostitute says she was told when she reported a john who attacked her with a knife.

Another, very typical, story told by a former prostitute involved a friend who "almost got murdered. She just got out of there, no clothes on. She banged on the door of one of the houses and a woman gave her some clothes and called the police. The police came and she was a basket case. Her heart was beating a mile a minute. And they listened to her, they never wrote anything down, and she asked for a file number. And they said, 'You want to report this?' "

The alienation felt by Vancouver prostitutes is particularly striking because the city's police are not a hard-line force. On the contrary, Vancouver's police are renowned for being liberal. In recent years, they have scaled back arrests of streetwalkers and instituted sensitivity training. Char LaFontaine says the city's vice cops, in particular, "are more sensitive now than they were."

But even for conscientious police officers, earning the trust of prostitutes is a struggle. "You're dealing with a group of people that generally don't trust other people and, particularly, a group of females that don't trust men," says Det. Raymond Payette of the Vancouver vice unit. "You have to treat everyone with respect. We look at them as human beings stuck in a bad, bad situation."

Mr. Lowman agrees it's critical for the police "to build those relationships. But one of the biggest impediments to building those relationships is the criminal law itself." Prostitutes will never trust the police as long as the police continue to arrest them.

For the former prostitutes at PACE, that simple fact is summed up in the issue of outstanding warrants. When a person reports a crime to the police, it is standard procedure to check the complainant for outstanding criminal warrants -- to "run" that person, in street slang. But street prostitutes very commonly have outstanding warrants, usually for missing court dates, failing to pay fines, or other small matters. For that reason alone, they cannot go to the police for help.

Marika Sandrelli says a prostitute once came to the PACE centre after a john slammed her head into the dashboard for refusing anal sex. Bleeding from a gash on her forehead, she still refused to report the attack. "She said to me, 'I have an outstanding warrant, Marika. I can't go to the police.' "

Adding to the threat of warrants is the fear of getting "dope sick" -- suffering the hellish symptoms of drug withdrawal -- that will happen if an addicted woman is held by police for even a day or two. "We had a woman who came in, badly beaten, and we did first aid," says Ms. Sandrelli. "She said, 'I'm going to report this.' She'd had enough." Ms. Sandrelli called the police and asked them to agree not to 'run' the woman if she reported the beating. The police refused, Ms. Sandrelli says, but still the woman wanted to report the crime. So she and Ms. Sandrelli went to the police station.

Afterward, "we came out, we walked one block from the station, and the sirens came up behind us. They picked her up. This was a Friday and she spent the whole weekend in jail, dope sick. Now, is she ever going to report a bad date again? She hasn't even come back here again. She doesn't trust me."

As a result, the police only hear about a tiny portion of the attacks on prostitutes. Ms. LaFontaine guesses it's "about one per cent. If that."

Alone on the streets and hiding from the police, prostitutes sometimes look for protection from pimps. By driving a wedge between prostitutes and the police, says Mr. Lowman, "the law creates the niche for the pimp to occupy."

But even the dubious protection of the pimp is rarely available to low-end street prostitutes, since pimps have little interest in ravaged, addicted women who can generate just $20 or $30 for sex. For these women, safety lies in becoming invisible.

The first step is to disperse. Working in a group will attract attention, but one woman alone might be overlooked or at least ignored. Prostitutes are given added incentive to move on when they are slapped with boundary restrictions that bar them from the strolls where they have been arrested in the past. Together, these pressures make streetwalkers scatter.

Aurel Leblanc, a vice detective with the Edmonton police, says this is exactly what heavy law enforcement did in his city. In the 1980s, before the crackdown on street prostitution that followed the 1985 communication law, Edmonton's low-end stroll was "all within a few blocks." Women worked in groups and there was always someone watching when a prostitute got in a man's car. Today, after years of arrests and boundary restrictions, the stroll is so scattered there might be just one or two women across 10 blocks.

"We don't want it to spread out but it happens when you do heavy enforcement in an area. The girls are just going to say, 'We'll move to this other area and see if it's a little quieter and we'll be left alone.' "

It becomes a process of trial and error. Women work a few blocks until residents complain and police mobilize. Then they move on. Eventually, after being pushed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, they land on streets where their presence doesn't spark complaints and the police leave them alone. The result is the formation of "informal zones of tolerance," in the words of the 1998 intergovernmental working group report.

With few residents and little traffic, these informal zones tend to be dark, empty, isolated places. There's no one to see the john picking up a prostitute working on a barren street corner. There's no one to answer a terrified cry. Standing alone in the dark, all but invisible, desperate to make a few dollars, low-end street prostitutes are defenceless against the men who would prey on them.

And there are many such men, men seething with a hatred that can explode into raw rage. When they murder, they often use what police call "overkill" -- vastly more force than needed. In one case, a man stabbed a prostitute 99 times.

But it's not prostitutes the men hate. Mr. Lowman and other researchers have found that most men convicted of attacking prostitutes typically have prior convictions for "violence against other women. That tells us that this is more about misogyny and hatred of women than hatred of prostitutes."

However, most women cannot be attacked with impunity. Only bottom-end street prostitutes can be picked up in total anonymity, driven to an isolated spot, and assaulted at will.

And for that, the predators can thank the criminal law.

(Continued on next page)

 Copyright  2002 The Ottawa Citizen

The Ottawa Citizen 

John Lowman's prostitution
research page

an information site of the missing 54 women

Do some women really choose to be prostitutes?-June 9, 2002

Courting death: Part 2-The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas-June 15, 2002  

The hidden world of hookers (Part 1 and 2)-June 8, 2002

Part 4
How cities 'license' off-street hookers-June 16, 2002



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016