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Vancouver is already prepared for the new world of sex work

December 23rd, 2013 · 7 Comments

And this is how people in Vancouver (as opposed to everywhere else in the country) viewed the Supreme Court ruling on sex work.



In the city where serial killer Robert Pickton picked up more than two dozen women from the Downtown Eastside sex trade, the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that essentially decriminalizes prostitution was greeted with relief by advocates and city politicians.

And many said Vancouver likely will not have to make many changes because both police and the city have moved to new policies that emphasize protection for sex workers over charges and prosecution.

“For us, it’s an incredible victory. And, here in Vancouver, we have a template in place other cities can draw on. We’ve already been doing something,” said Sue Davis, who a sex worker for 28 years and a vocal advocate for changing the law. “I do hope now there will be a balanced approach across the Lower Mainland – across the province.”

The Missing Women Inquiry into the Pickton murders heard from many people who said Canada’s prostitution laws put the victims at risk.

Because the current law makes it a crime to communicate for the purpose of prostitution or to provide a support service, many women on the street in the worst parts of town would face criminal charges if they tried to hire someone to watch out for them or negotiated with clients about conditions.

A lawyer working with PIVOT Legal Society, also impressed with the court decision, said the city is a step ahead of many others.

“Vancouver had to face this in a way that probably other cities didn’t,” Elin Sigurdson said. “And the [Vancouver police department] has agreed to make policy that’s much more humane.”

But Ms. Sigurdson said there is still a lot of work to do, as the ruling keeps the law in place for a year until a new one can be written. Within hours of the court ruling, some groups called for a new law with the same kind of controls as the old one, because they believe either that decriminalizing prostitution would lead to more exploitation of women or it would wreak havoc in communities where prostitution is rampant.

Laura Dilley, acting executive director at the prostitute-advocacy group PACE, hopes that does not happen.

“We call on the government to reject these calls and work with sex workers to develop approaches that respect the agency, dignity, and rights of sex workers,” Ms. Dilley said in an e-mail.

But, in Vancouver, much of that battle is over.

The police department formally adopted a new policy last year that makes charging people for prostitution a low priority.

“Our policies already reflect the concerns of the Supreme Court,” police spokesman Constable Brian Montague said Friday. “The safety of sex workers is a priority for us and enforcement is a last resort.”

The Vancouver police, which created a new post for a sex-worker liaison, has seen its charges for prostitution plummet in the past decade, from a high of 513 in 2003 to 47 in 2012 and 69 so far this year.

The City of Vancouver this week voted to adopt new bylaws it has been working on in conjunction with sex-workers’ advocacy groups that essentially treat brothels like any other business.

City councillor Kerry Jang said the court decision validates everything Vancouver has been working on.

“The law forced people underground,” Mr. Jang said. He added that the city got rid of bylaws that were specifically aimed at massage parlours (the euphemistic name for brothels).

New bylaws spell out rules for any business that creates a community disturbance or employs people under 19 when it is not allowed to.

“It makes the rules very even. Then if we do an inspection, it’s not on a discriminatory basis,” Mr. Jang said.

B.C. Attorney-General Suzanne Anton, a former Vancouver councillor, said in an e-mail her ministry will assess the decision’s effects on the province.

“I will be discussing the ruling with my federal, provincial and territorial counterparts and working to find long-term solutions to protect vulnerable and at-risk women.”

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  • Dan Cooper

    This ruling benefits many of the relatively upscale “sex workers” (and more-so those who make m0ney off them). That’s assuming, of course, as many “sex work” advocates (and those who make money off “sex workers”) do, any who are not taking part in the “industry” voluntarily. On the other hand it does nothing for the brutalized, often addicted women and men who are selling themselves on the streets for others sexual gratification and are so down and out that they will not be welcomed into all the lovely new brothels, but still at the mercy of the Picktons of the world. It will of course benefit those who make money off of such abused people, since they will be even more free to do so. That is why so many Aboriginal women’s organizations and the like oppose this kind of thing, even though the more upscale “professionals” are loving it.

  • Dan Cooper

    *sigh* The second word in the second sentence above should be “ignoring” not “assuming.” Mea culpa.

  • Michael Gordon

    Dan, I appreciate you weighed in with comments and got to say I do follow this blog and when I see a comment from you I take the time to read it and reflect on your thinking/comments and often find myself ‘on the same page.’ It’s interesting this topic seems to not be many want to comment on…unlike other topics.

    I come to this question from the perspective as a City staffer who has gone on quite a few ‘ride alongs’ with VPD and one memorable night I was with Dave Jones who at that time was in charge as Chief Inspector of District 2 of the VPD – the downtown peninsula. For a couple of hours we drove down the back alleys on both sides of Hastings Street from Granville to Clarke. Every time he saw someone, he stopped his car and spoke to those in the alleys….well they were either street sex trade workers or lost or addicted folks. I learned a lot that night, gave me a lot to reflect on – seeing life from the front seat of his police car in parts of town I do not frequent.

    Also as a bit of a historian and I have studied Vancouver history, my family were here before the railway arrived….brothels, the sex trade etc has been a part of this city since it began in 1886…the book Vancouver Noire gives a good history of it. So it’s part of our past, present and definitely our future…the question is how we are to address it.

    So when I consider this question, I primarily think about the folks I saw and frankly, do not think prison is the way to reduce the ‘risk’ they are dealing with, but apparently our federal Justice Minister does and I am concerned….but I have no easy answers otherwise. I just remain concerned about them and their safety and their futures. I have not given much thought to those working in the higher end of the sex trade… I see that is what you highlight. In any case, good for you that you weighed in with what you thought. It’s just I am remain troubled by what the sex trade workers on the street are dealing with.

  • Dan Cooper

    One m0re note: When I mention people who make money off of prostituting the vulnerable, I am very much not talking about organizations that provide harm-reduction programs such as housing but unlike pimps and brothel-operators do not take a “cut” or base rent on the nature of the “business,” solicit clients, or try to keep people in prostitution (but usually of course much the opposite).

  • teririch

    @Dan Cooper:

    You are very much correct, this ruling will do nothing to protect those that work the streets to support their habit – those that are targeted by the likes of the Picktons. Nothing changes for them.

    If you want to see the impact of their life on the streets, visit one of the shelters like WISH after or during a long weekend. See how many ‘beat up’ women will come through. Black eyes, split lips, bruises, cuts and it goes on.

    And try to get your hands on a ‘bad date’ sheet. It is put out weekly – it will allow you to see just what type of sick individuals are still out there and still targeting these women and girls.

    As for the brothels, I have mixed feelings. I worry about making it easier or almost legal for sex trafficking – which in the US, I understand stands behind drugs and guns for illegal/gang/mafia income.

  • waltyss

    It is not the job of the courts to find solutions to intractable problems like prostitution. The SCC’s ruling is aimed at reducing reduceable, not finding a “solution”
    The solutions to the extent there is a solution to the 2nd oldest profession at least for the brutalized women of the DTES is to treat it as a social medical issue. Address the addictions and medical illness by medical care including providing the drugs on maintenance programs so they don’t have to prostitute themselves to feed their habit. Provide housing for these women and their children so that the medical and other issues can be addressed. Regrettably, the present federal government fights treating it as a medical issue and the province while it provides some, does not provide nearly enough housing.

  • Bill Lee

    Lots of ‘new’ adverts in the back pages of the Georgia Straight giving Vancouver street addresses for brothels at end of February. Probably took a month to get the leases signed and phones and other things installed.

    Meanwhile, in a similar city south of us,
    Sex industry’s growth jumps in Seattle area, study finds

    Thursday, March 13, 2014 – Page updated at 01:00 p.m.
    Sex industry’s growth jumps in Seattle area, study finds
    By Christine Clarridge, Seattle Times staff reporter

    A comprehensive new study into the sex trade in eight U.S. metropolitan areas found Seattle-Tacoma offers the nation’s most diverse marketplace for prostitution, from street and online prostitution to massage parlors, home-based brothels and escort services.

    But even more surprising was the region’s ready market for prostitution, according to the findings of the policy-research group Urban Institute. The underground commercial sex industry in Seattle-Tacoma showed the highest rate of growth of the areas examined, expanding from $50 million a year in 2003 to an estimated $112 million in 2007.

    “It will be interesting to see why Seattle increased that much,” said lead researcher Meredith Dank.

    Capt. Eric Sano, of the Seattle Police Department’s Coordinated Criminal Investigation section which oversees the vice unit, is not surprised by the numbers. But, he says, there’s good reason for them: better reporting of prostitution-related crimes by Seattle-area law enforcement over the past decade.

    Then there’s the location.

    “It’s an international port city next to the Canadian border,” he said. “It’s a destination city on Interstate 5 and Interstate 90.”

    Released Wednesday, the [5]340-page study by the Urban Institute and funded by the Justice Department, examines the underground commercial sex economy in Atlanta; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; San Diego; Miami; and Seattle-Tacoma.

    [ 5 ] Linkname: 340-page study
    16 page PDF [ 2.4 Mbytes, PDF ] of above interactive graphics pages
    The 340 page PDF [ 5.2 Mbytes, PDF] of the March 2014 Urban Institute Research Report study “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities

    The study is the result of more than 250 interviews with pimps, sex traffickers, prostitutes and child pornographers, law-enforcement officials and attorneys. Those interviews produced a wealth of data on pricing, market structures and the sex workers’ motivations.

    Researchers acknowledged in their findings that reliable data and statistics were hard to find for the underground industry. In fact, the purpose of the study was to rectify the lack of raw data available to policymakers, researchers said in their introduction.

    The study’s economic conclusions relied on information gathered in 2003 and 2007, according to Dank of the Urban Institute.

    Other information, including how pimps run … [ MORE ]