THE BODY POLITIC
January/February, 1984, No. 100

Danny Cockerline


pp. 7-8.

Pressing and Persistent

Controlling street prostitution: Who wants to? And why? An analysis

This past summer I spent many evenings cruising in Allan Gardens, a Toronto park, and if I was lucky, I would go home with someone or have sex in the bushes. (I wasn't lucky very often.) Not far from the park, on the corner of Jarvis and Gerrard, another kind of cruising takes place. Street prostitutes have been working this busy downtown area since the mid-60s. After my park romp I would often wander over to the corner to watch the action and talk with the prostitutes. It's a lively, colourful spot — a rarity in Toronto.

Not everyone is as appreciative of the prostitute's contribution to a city's diversity. Some residents of cities like Vancouver, Halifax, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary have recently been complaining to their city governments that prostitutes are taking over their neighbourhoods. Some have begun organizing to drive out the prostitutes.

In Vancouver, Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) has asked the federal government for changes in the Criminal Code. The police claim they need the changes to deal with the concentration of street prostitutes in the area. Gordon Price, one of the many gay residents of the West End and a spokesperson for CROWE, told Vancouver's gay magazine Angles that "Street prostitution is incompatible with a residential street. It causes disturbances, restricts people's right to use the street and attracts violence. The social fabric of the neighbourhood is displaced; banks redline the area in terms of potential loans and mortgages."

At a public meeting on street solicitation in June, Alison Hegarty told Toronto City Council's Neighbourhoods Committee that "we as property owners (and taxpayers) in the area have little or no right to quiet enjoyment of our property, whereas the prostitutes cannot be effectively prevented from disturbing the peace and quiet and inflicting their lifestyle, with its attendant violence, on our area."

Municipal politicians have been trampling over each other to hop on the anti-prostitution bandwagon. Vancouver Mayor Michael Harcourt has been leading the pack. He argues that the federal government, by not strengthening the Criminal Code, is protecting the rights of "prostitutes, pimps and drunks over those of honest citizens." Most other major Canadian cities have followed suit, with the exception of Ottawa. Mayor Marion Dewar supports the decriminalization of soliciting.

The media, too, have jumped in to the fray. Toronto Star coverage of the June public meeting, headlined "Toronto joins in national fight against prostitution in the streets," totally overlooked presentations made by the Toronto Area Caucus of Women and the Law, the Elizabeth Fry Society, and the Right to Privacy Committee, all of whom urged that soliciting be removed from the Criminal Code. The article also failed to mention a submission by Katherine Melon, of Jarvis Street, who said, "I am married and have a child. I do not fear the prostitutes in this area. … My child's morals are not being corrupted, for she is being presented with a world different from her own." She concluded, "Please do not let the Puritans of Toronto force their views on us again, as they have so many times before."

While most Canadians recognize that prostitution is not going to be eliminated by passing laws, many people demand that it be kept off the streets and out of sight. This is a hypocritical impulse like accepting gay people "as long as they don't flaunt it." And it leads to moralistic and hypocritical laws — Like the present soliciting and bawdy-house sections of the Criminal Code — which empower the police to, in effect, harass and terrorize prostitutes. Criminalization relegates prostitutes to a criminal undenuorld where, isolated and stigmatized, they are prey to violence and abuse from pimps, cops and customers.

Prostitutes want to be free to sell sexual services and to be open and proud of what they do. Is it really more exploitive to make a direct exchange of sex for money than it is to exchange sex, personal autonomy and unpaid labour for "love:' protection and material support in marriage Or to exchange any for labour for money?

Prostitution and marriage are two sides of the same coin. Prostitutes exist to meet the sexual needs of men (and sometimes women) who want to "fool around on the side" with a minimum of complications. Because of this, prostitutes are forced to bear the brunt of society's' hypcritical attitudes to sex outside marriage, and to women in general.

Women are increasingly refusing to compromise themselves in marriage. They struggle instead to make their way in a "man's world." And some turn to prostitution.

Peggy Miller, a veteran prostitute and now activist, has argued before city and Metro Toronto committees that prostitution should be decriminalized by repealing the soliciting and bawdy house laws. This would free prostitutes to work out of their homes and the concentration of street prostitution would decline, she explains. Less isolated and stigmatized, and hopefully more confident of their rights, prostitutes would be better able to protect themselves from pimps and customers.

Legalization of prostitution is also posed by some as a possible solution — one not to be confused with decriminalization. Legalization implies regulation of prostitutes, usually by local governments who, through licensing or zoning ("Red Light" districts), substitute for the pimps and, at the same time, reinforce police control. And since the government would profit from legalization they would be even less interested in changing the circumstances which make women and young people economically dependent on men. This proposed solution is also offensive because it allows state interference in an individual's use of their body and over private sexual behaviour. How would it be determined, after all, if someone was picking up a trick for money or just for fun?

Obviously, decriminalization can only be the beginning of a solution. Problems would still persist: police and pimps would be reluctant to relinquish their control, moralists would persist in attacking prostitution as sinful, and most women and young people would still be dependent on men. Until these conditions are altered, prostitution will continue to be a risky, but necessary, venture. Necessary not just because it meets some of the sexual needs of the "cheaters" or the "unattractive," but because it provides another option for women and young people who need to escape the nuclear family.

But right now the idea of decriminalization is just a dream in Peggy Miller's head. and the essential ingredient of a brief she plans to present to a seven member committee, appointed by Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan, which is touring the country trying to determine if a consensus can be reached on how to deal with street prostitution. The committee seeks public views on three options — criminalization, legalization or decriminalization.

Miller's brief will challenge a proposed amendment to the soliciting section of the Criminal Code that would make it illegal to buy or sell sex in public. The Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes will also oppose the amendment (the alliance recently organized this country's first prostitute's rights demonstration in Vancouver — see TBP, September). And it will be challenged, in turn, by such groups as the recently formed anti-prostitution lobby Allied Concerned Residents On Street Solicitation (ACROSS), which supports the amendment. The committee will also be hearing proposals on modifying the ob obscenity section of the Criminal Code (see 78P, September). The committee will meet in Calgary January 9, then head to Vancouver and work its way east.

The anti-prostitution movement has been carefully orchestrated by the police. Residents and politicians have been little more than pawns in a police play to win back the power, that they lost in 1978, to regulate street prostitutes.

While prostitution per se has never been illegal in Canada, police have long seen it as their mandate to regulate the profession. Their reasons for wanting to control prostitution are not so much moral as pragmatic. Criminalizing the sale of sexual services makes it the police's business to regulate what would be a prostitute's private affairs. This creates jobs for cops as well as giving the police enormous power over people's lives.

Married women are "protected" by individual men. But prostitutes are controlled by pimps and cops. In exchange for money and sexual favours, prostitutes receive protection. "Outlaws," prostitutes who work without pimps, are often harassed or beaten by pimps or police until they submit to the system of control, says Miller. (Feminists and civil libertarians have been working to undermine this systemic abuse of prostitutes for the past 15 years). The vagrancy law empowered polite to ask any woman to "give a good account of herself." If she refused to, or if the cop was not satisfied with her account, she could be arrested and detained overnight for a court appearance the next morning. The court could hold the woman in custody for five days for a medical check. Conviction for vagrancy meant a criminal record.

This section of the Criminal Code was replaced in 1972 with the present section. The new section was intended to "protect the public against nuisance… by common prostitutes," according to its precedent-setting case law. It was designed to prevent the police from harassing women who were not soliciting but, because of its broad wording, it still allowed police to harass prostitutes. Abuse of this law usually involved entrapment, requiring tremendous police resources in the form of undercover cops.

In 1978, the Supreme Court of Canada put an end to these police shenanigans by ruling that, to be an offence, soliciting must be "pressing and persistent." This decision was reinforced , in 1981 by another Supreme Court ruling that said the prostitute had to be "pressing and persistent" with one client at a time. Police had been using the law to charge prostitutes who propositioned several men in a short period of time, hoping that judges would interpret this as "pressing and persistent."

At a meeting of the police commission, Metro Toronto Police Chief Jack Ackroyd told complaining residents that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) "have been asking the government since 1978 to do something about a law that is almost, virtually unenforceable."

On June 23, the federal government proposed to make it an offence for customers to solicit prostitutes. Ottawa Deputy Police Chief Thomas Flanigan, chairman of the law amendments committee of the CACP, told the Globe and Mail that, without removal or alteration of the "pressing and persistent" restrictions, "our hands are still tied in enforcing the law."

The police want that law back — and they want the power to control prostitutes that it gives them. As Dianne Martin, chairwoman of the legislative committee of the Criminal Lawyer's Association, points out, "The police attitude is, 'We know who is a prostitute and we want to charge them when we want to charge them, whether or not they are pressing and persistent.'"

Simply telling the public that police hands are tied was not enough: the public needed proof. Such "proof' was not long in coming.

"I see the number of prostitutes increasing visibly by the month because the girls know we can do very little to them," Sergeant Thomas Stephen of the Metro Toronto Morality Bureau told the Globe and Mail.

While the police claim the number of prostitutes is rising because the law is ineffective, the media has acknowledged that, since 1978, unemployment has been steadily increasing and that women and young people — who are the hardest hit — are often forced into prostitution to survive. But there is another reason for increased street prostitution. In a recent report entitled "Street Prostitution In Our Cities:' the Bureau of Municipal Research pointed out that police actions against body-rub parlours and escort services in cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary have forced prostitutes out onto the streets. (Police use the bawdy house section of the Criminal Code to accomplish this — the same one found so handy in their attack on gay baths.) Miller has talked to several women who are presently facing bawdy-house charges. "The girls would rather face a misdemeanor on the streets than a criminal charge for working indoors," she explains.

The police are refusing to experiment to discourage street prostitution. Toronto aldermen John Sewell and Jack Layton have been urging police to post officers at street corners to deter potential customers. But a report from a police superintendent says the idea won't work. Layton believes the police want an amendment to the soliciting section and, until they get it, are refusing to deal with the problem.

In June, Vancouverite Barbara Brett of ACROSS told a public meeting on prostitution in Toronto that the prostitutes had been using commercial streets in Vancouver but that a police crackdown drove them into the residential areas. The effect of police actions has been to drive the prostitutes onto the streets. And, in response, the moralists come out of cold storage to demand that the police do something to clean up the mess.

It's dark. Several men are walking around the park or sitting on benches. Two men disappear into the bushes. A few minutes later, a police cruiser drives up with its headlights on and sits waiting while the men slowly disperse. A few of the braver ones stay put. Defiant. The cruiser — satisfied — leaves the park and heads back over to Jarvis and Gerrard to play the same sort of games with prostitutes. All in a night's work.

Danny Cockerline… [Toronto '84] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: November 30, 1996
Last modified: May 1, 2003
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