Twenty women have 'gone missing'

Friday, March 12, 1999. The Toronto Globe and Mail

IN VANCOUVER -- The lights on Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge are separate one from the other, draped from the two spans the way pearls are strung apart, whereas the lights running down the ski runs on Mount Seymour, Grouse Mountain, and Cypress Bowl can rarely be distinguished. Their heat in the frigid air mixes with the powdery snow and creates a delicate mist so that, to anyone looking across Burrard Inlet from downtown, it seems as if those parts of the mountain are steaming.

These lights that form such an engaging backdrop also look down on a part of the city where life is dirty and dangerous, where drug and sex are the staples of trade. In the past year 11 women who worked the streets of the downtown east side have disappeared. In the past four years, a total of 20 women have "gone missing."

None of these women have contacted their families, told their friends they were leaving town, taken any of their personal possessions or collected their welfare cheques. Think of the uproar if 20 "respectable" women had vanished this way.

So where are they? Does anyone -- except their families and a few east-end social workers -- care? What are the rest of us supposed to do, think or feel about these missing prostitutes? They stand on street corners in the rain with hardly anything on, they get into any van or car whose door opens as it cruises by. They do their business in some darkened corner or some grotty room where anything can happen. Many of them are drug users. It's scarcely surprising that when one of these women disappears many of us feel, along with a sense of decency and pity, a sense of smug affirmation about the stupidity of the risks they've taken. A reasonable reaction, enough to dampen outrage.

The police react to outrage and, as most of Vancouver's citizens are benignly indifferent to the fate of these 20 missing women, there has been little action. Most of these women disappeared days, weeks, months before anyone noticed.

Is there a serial killer out there? The police doubt it. But then, as they haven't found one body, dead or alive, not one shred of evidence one way or another, how would they know?

Faced with this mess of drugs, prostitution, disease, violence and possibly murder, why doesn't the city bite the bullet and legalize prostitution? It's as much a part of life's realities as death and taxes. It has flourished as a supply-demand, buyer-seller business throughout recorded history, and even in today's free-sex society it still flourishes.

Perhaps it's time for cities to accept this reality, license some brothels, set some health and safety standards, and even keep a registry of prostitutes as a recognized occupation. Organizing prostitution inherently means limiting it, and any limitation would be better than the dirty, dangerous and diffused situation that exists today.

I suggested this to 65-year-old Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen, who reacted with a surge of fire and energy as if two electric cables had accidentally touched. He fulminated against legalization of brothels as a theoretic, academic approach that made no sense, and envisioned Vancouver becoming "a magnet for johns from all over."

When he speaks of the judiciary's role in reducing the problem, his tone turns sour. He believes that inroads could be made if the judiciary were on-side. Three years ago police wiretapped 58 johns, and every one got a conditional discharge. He cites this as "really offensive."

Still, he admits that if other cities licensed brothels he might consider the possibility, but "we're not going to lead the pack." Meanwhile he is hoping that the inauguration of a "john school" next month will have some impact. These all-day sessions, which employ prostitutes to explain what the business is all about to convicted clients, have had some success in Edmonton.

Detective Bob Davies of the Vancouver police force also hopes the idea will have an effect here. After working Vancouver's streets for 27 years he sees the women as victims. They go into prostitution for easy money, get trapped by pimps and drugs, and can't get out. Yet for some reason they have a blind sense of invincibility when it comes to dealing with their clients.

Most of the 20 women who are now missing had this same sense of invincibility. Your guess is as good as mine where or what it got them. When you think about that, the licensing of brothels by the city council would be a sensible, practical thing to do. To feel it would lower Vancouver's moral tone is, in view of the reality of 20 missing women, utterly fatuous.

Lisa Birnie is a writer living on Bowen Island near Howe Sound. She writes this column every fourth Friday.




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Updated: August 21, 2016