To: editor@straight.com
From: Chris Bearchell <seabee@island.net>
Subject: "Childhood Lost"

Date: Sunday, August 16, 1999

The Georgia Straight
1770 Burrard Street, 2nd Floor
Vancouver. BC
V6J 3G7

Attention:
senior editor Martin Dunphy

Dear Mr. Dunphy,

I was very disappointed with your recent cover story (August 6-13, 1998) "Childhood Lost" by Tara Shortt. Maybe my expectations for you are too high. Or maybe I just "know too much" about the subject under discussion.

I was once a young "runaway" myself. When I landed in town from Edmonton a couple of years later, one of the first legal ways that I had to make a bit of cash was to sell the Georgia Straight -- for 25 cents a copy -- "on some of Vancouver's meanest streets." (I've had a "soft spot" for the Straight ever since. And I've been gratified to see it survive the changing times: evolving into an alternative weekly with high journalistic standards, unafraid to tackle complex and difficult stories and willing to explore them in the necessary detail.)

Much later in Toronto, I was (for eight years) involved in providing services (mostly STD-prevention) to young people on the streets and to prostitutes, both on the streets and indoors. So I know how difficult it is to confront the problems of someone who is young, unemployed, homeless, hungry and desperate "from both sides of the desk." And I know a lot about the sex industry -- most of it contrary to the standard media hype and in defiance of middle-class stereotypes.

It has always infuriated me that mass media treatment of both street kids and prostitutes flies in the face of what I know -- from my own experience and from the experience of friends. So you can imagine how frustrated I was to find that "Childhood Lost" was just an uncritical re-hashing of every tired cliche and stereotype I've seen in every other piece of careless, sensationalistic journalism.

I hope you don't take offence at my presumptuousness in presenting you with the following four quick "sketches" of how you might have approached this subject differently, approaches which might have allowed you to remain truer to the Straight's journalistic standards:

1. Rather than reproducing a typical, panic-mongering article full of the inconsistencies and outright contradictions, you could have done a careful, critical examination of such journalism.

Some examples of those contradictions and inconsistencies in your story:

  • "Childhood Lost" says that there are three strolls, one of which is for boys, but it only discusses the experiences of women. Why? What is the role of the "sexual double standard," as opposed to commercial sex, in oppressing female prostitutes?

  • How can a woman be "worth $1000 a night to a pimp" when the johns are "dickering them down from $20 to $10 a trick"? Are you saying that they are turning up to 100, or even 50, tricks a night?

  • How could Cherry Kingsley have started working at 14 -- eight years ago -- and now be 28 ("in her late 20s")? What does that 6-year discrepancy mean? How did she get to the Stockholm conference? Or go "visiting prostitution strolls across Canada and Latin America"? How does one become a professional "ex" -- ex-prostitute, ex-street-kid, ex-drug addict, etc.? And what is it like to have such a career? (ie, What did she mean when she said: "On a personal level, after you tell your story to people so many times, you sort of disconnect from it..."? What is the impact of stigma in these situations? Stigma which Kingsley describes so powerfully: "How people don't let you back in once you've worked on the street -- you're tainted. People would drive by and yell and throw things at us. The fact was that someone could rape, beat and even kill us and there would be no one to complain."

  • Are there 100-150 underage prostitutes in Vancouver, as the cops say? Or are there 1000, as Shortt speculates that there may be? She offers no evidence for her guess, other than a researcher's likewise unsupported speculation that there are probably more underage women working indoors than on the strolls. This is the kind of assumption that only someone who knows nothing about the sex business would make: you can't see them when they're indoors, so that must be where they hide the really young ones; that's why we can't seem to find very many of them out here on the street. Just think about it for a minute. In order for you to be able to work indoors customers still have to be able to find you. Advertising must be placed and paid for, phones installed and answered, and a relatively private venue for sex provided. How many agencies (licenced by the city, no less) providing these means to do business would be willing to jeopardize their investment in such infrastructure by hiring underage women? How many poor, under aged women (or their strung-out boyfriend "pimps") are capable of providing such infrastructure themselves? In my experience, there are very few young women working indoors -- precisely because these factors mean that it offers less, not more, anonymity -- and more, not less, hassle.

2. Why are young people drawn into the sex trade?

If all kids in the trade have been sexually abused and have low self-esteem, why should parents be afraid to let their kids hang out at the mall? Why are we not allowed to hear from the young people themselves in these articles? Why are the young people referred to as "children" (which suggests that they are pre-teens) throughout? (And how is a 18-year-old, with a $500 cell phone bill, "a runaway"?) If there are so many underage prostitutes on the streets, why couldn't the reporter find anyone to talk to who was underage? The best she can do is try to undermine the credibility of one informant by saying that she "claims she is" 18 and to stress the youthful appearance of a police-certified 18-year-old.

Of the three women quoted in the article (two of whom are 18 and the other, now, is 28): one had a cocaine habit, one had a $500 cell phone bill, and one "lived in 20 different foster homes" between the ages of 10 and 14. What prospects for the future did these young women have *before* they began working in the trade? How many street kids were children of abject poverty who were chewed up by the foster care system before they ended up on the street? Where does choice enter into this picture? Where does it enter into the picture of any employment situation? Wouldn't everyone "choose" to be independently wealthy, or to work in a glamorous, lucrative job if these things were simply matters of choice?

What future/job prospects do most young, working-class (or poor) Canadians have? Why? What is the role of our ailing economy in promoting the entry of new workers into the sex industry? (Is anyone surprised that dramatic increases in the number of new sex workers seem to correspond to downturns in the economy?)

3. You could have looked critically at those who purport to offer solutions to the problems of young people working in prostitution.

Just what are the records of the police, the social agencies the detox and drug rehab programmes? What are there actual "success rates" -- and why are they so low?

If these kids are in such bad shape, why won't they accept the help that's offered? Why do cops and social workers want to be able to force "help" on them? (Can it really be help if it has to be forced?) What do these young people have to say about their would-be saviours, their problems and possible solutions to them? To what extent are they "trapped" more than young people in other kinds of work are?

How will passing laws that further restrict the rights and independence of young people help them? How will raising the age of consent to 16 from 14 -- where it's been -- for straight, consenting sex (for non-virgins, anyway), since long before I was a 16-year-old "runaway" -- help? How will it affect rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission?

How "long-term" are the proffered solutions (emergency housing, counselling, detox), relative to the duration of the problems?

Thirteen more safe houses throughout BC do not amount to more jobs for needy young people; they amount to more jobs for middle-class professionals. What stake do those professionals really have in establishing a wider range of options for young people (as opposed to comfortable jobs for themselves and their colleagues)? What about the politicians and policy makers who are also advancing their careers by flogging this "issue"? What investment do they have in finding real, permanent, economic solutions?

What are we to make of the social worker, police and media view that all of these kids are "victims of sexual abuse," that they suffer from "terrible self-esteem," that "once they've been sexually assaulted, it's too late -- they'll just keep going back for more abuse"? What impact does holding these views have on professionals' ability to relate to their "target population"? How can such beliefs, and the attitudes that they engender, be reconciled with the need to address the stigma associated with prostitution? How much are they a product of the class biases of the would-be helpers: their moralistic assumptions about "chastity" and romantic notions about the relationship between sex and love?

4. Are there historical antecedents to the present panic about juvenile prostitution that could be examined to draw comparisons and contrasts?

This was an old "problem" 150 years ago when the English campaign against "White Slavery," which later carried over into America, took off. That campaign parallels today's in that:

  • it could not have forced the passage of a law, as it did, without the cooperation of a mass media, which was willing to use sensationalism and manipulation (invoking the spectre of seduced or kidnapped children) to stimulate public interest, oversimplify the causes of prostitution, and make solutions seem clear

  • these events were part of a long struggle to define the legal status of prostitution; Victorian England was developing a view of sex as an acute problem while it was in the midst of profound economic depression, political turmoil and social upheaval

  • the campaign served to recast the prostitute -- from a villain, to a victim worthy of pity. The customer was given the role of villain instead

  • it was a campaign orchestrated by middle-class reformers who deliberately obscured the class realities of the situation: they portrayed novelty-seeking, VD-ridden aristocrats "ruining" middle class girl-children -- as a way to whip up public ire to accomplish their political ends -- when the young women in question were usually the daughters of the working class (or poorer) - those skeptical of the campaign's claims were presumed to be guilty of the crimes under discussion

  • since reformers denied that many young girls engaged in prostitution because their choices were so limited, they were not forced to recognize that the causes of prostitution were to be found in the structure of the economy and so could justify limiting their efforts to rescuing the "ruined"

  • the campaign reinforced the Victorian obsession with female chastity and purity, which was founded on the belief that women had no desire for sex (or experience of lust) and thus it was unthinkable that a woman would choose to work as a whore. A woman would, it was assumed, rather be dead than "ruined."

  • it promoted a view that resulted in prostitutes getting some public sympathy out of their new victim status, but in so doing it also served to emphasize the helplessness of women and thus to undermine women's claims to legal, social, and economic equality with men

  • in spite of whatever greater sympathy they might have had, some prostitutes refused to define themselves as victims, thus highlighting the fact that there were different sexual mores and values within different classes

  • the end results of the campaign were that some newspapers were sold and some political careers were made, but the "problem" of prostitution and the confusion about its causes remained

  • no one was ever prosecuted under provisions of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which passed in 1885 as a result of the campaign. Nothing happened, as a result of these efforts, to resolve class antagonism, redistribute wealth, provide real employment opportunities for women, raise wages or improve working conditions, improve the personal lives of the urban poor, or ameliorate any of the social and economic problems that sometimes propel the unwilling into prostitution.

    The only major difference between this campaign and today's is that it's focus on "white" slavery gave it a specifically racist character. Distilled, the argument was that white women's (voluntary) work in prostitution was as bad as, or worse than, the actual enslavement of an entire race of people.

If you've read this far, thanks for hearing me out.

As I said in the beginning of this letter, and as is probably evident from the detail in my suggestions, I am not your average reader when it comes to this discussion. As a result, I have complex and detailed objections that would make it hard for me to toss off a four paragraph "letter to the editor" in response to "Childhood Lost." And I have no particular desire to reprimand the writer or editor of this piece for its selection or direction. They no doubt did the best that they could with the material that they had and with only the best of intentions. The social forces orchestrating our collective discussion of juvenile prostitution have successfully created a political atmosphere -- their own "moral panic," if you like -- in which this is virtually the only version of the story that it is possible to tell.

I also hope that you take this criticism in the spirit of solidarity with which it was intended as I would very much like to contribute to your fine publication sometime. My hope is that Georgia Straight, of all places, will someday be among those publications prepared to make room for other, perhaps less official or more critical, voices to be heard so that other versions of "the story" of juvenile prostitution -- closer to the real life experiences of its supposed subjects and possibly more genuinely helpful as a result -- finally get told. Maybe you'll even invite me to flesh out these criticisms into such a piece someday.

Sincerely,
Chris Bearchell

cc: Sex Workers' Alliance of Vancouver

SWAV



"Childhood Lost"... [SWAV Letters] [Rights Groups]

Created: August 26, 1998
Last modified: March 28, 1999
SWAV Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710
Email: swav@walnet.org