THE BODY POLITIC November 1984, No. 108. Chris Bearchell p. 14
It's been a long hot summer. And for women and men who sell sexual services on the streets of Canadian cities, there's no sign that fall will mean it's cooling down.
As the three main political parties and their many minor challengers tried to sell their supposed solutions to this country's socio-economic crisis during the election campaign, police in several cities were busy implementing a few solutions of their own. By whipping up residents' concerns about the nuisance aspects of street soliciting, they've conducted a campaign to increase their own power through the criminalization of street soliciting.
State plans to interfere with how anyone, particularly women, use their bodies should be cause for alarm to any feminist worthy of the name. Why, then, when the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) had all three party leaders and much of the nation's TV-watching public in its hands for a televised debate on women's issues, did it decide to overlook the anti-sex, anti-woman moral crusade against prostitution?
NAC president Chaviva Hosek said their questions to the leaders during the August 15 debate were designed to focus on issues "that were impending rather than on issues where a lot of education was needed," that they "wanted to get at the hotter issues and knew that the justice bill would not be coming up soon."
NAC wasn't surprised at the September election results any more than anyone else. Nor will it be able to claim surprise at what the new Tory justice minister, John Crosbie, no doubt has in store for hookers.
This sample from a total of 24 headlines, over a 16-day period after the election in three Toronto dailies, reads like a handbook for a police crack-down that includes everything from re-routing traffic to gunfire on Yonge Street. "Road maze used to fight prostitution." "Hooker demands red-light rights." "A-Gs to get Crosbie view of soliciting." "Sisters 12, 14 found working as prostitutes." "A busy night on the track life in a meat market." "Cops predict violence as the number of hookers increases." "Provinces alarmed 'let's get tough on hookers.'" "Complaints by residents spark police crack-down on prostitutes." "Teen's pimp hit by cop's bullet."
Buried in the middle of this press hysteria was an article headlined "400 women march for safe streets." Unlike the National Action Committee, the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre (TRCC) knows a hot issue when it sees one and is not about to shirk responsibility for education around an issue just because it might not be politically expedient. The TRCC devoted much of its time during and since the election campaign to organizing their annual "Take back the night" march through the "track" to demand the decriminalization of prostitution as well as an end to violence against hookers.
The 600 or more women who marched against violence September 21, and the dozens of working girls who cheered them on, made an impressive show of strength. However, in trying to publicize the event through the mainstream press, according to TRCC spokeswoman Stacy Michiner, the march organizers sensed resistance: "When they discovered it wasn't an anti-hooker march, media interest seemed to wane."
To the Toronto police, the Tory landslide clearly means the war against hookers is on with or without new laws. If nothing else, it shows what they could have been doing, all along, to curb soliciting-related street nuisances. For the two weeks that the media were busy churning out inflammatory stories, Metro police were busy setting a 29-member task force to work, undercover, identifying 329 women (contacting 795 others) and 114 men (contacting 162 others) who work as prostitutes (and identifying 36 men as pimps).
The task force reports to Staff Superintendent Frank Barbetta, who responded to a *Toronto Sun* query about the project: "Harassment? Let's just call it persistent police presence."
Barbetta's crusade does not stop at prostitutes who work the streets. Not only do cops need tougher laws, he says, but judges should be handing out stiffer sentences; he cited light sentences to first offenders convicted in bawdyhouse busts as an example of the problem. The Toronto Star reports that, in addition to charging would-be johns with 506 seatbelt, impaired-driving and other traffic violations, and laying 45 criminal charges of gross indecency and counselling to commit and indecent act (which they freely admit are difficult to get convictions on), the task force has chalked up about 40 charges involving public morals. According to its coordinator, Staff Sergeant Joe Wolfe, information gathered by the unit enabled the morality bureau to raid a house and lay 24 found-in charges; the bureau expects to pick up 30 more women, he says.
It's interesting how, once the full weight of the law is being thrown around, the press forgets its grave concern for 12-year-old runaways (and its campaign to return them to whatever environment drove them to prostitution in the first place) in favour of playing spectators to police heroics. And it's sad how little effect the efforts of the rape crisis centre seem to have when their cause is less popular than usual.
But it's infuriating how a relatively powerful, cross-country organization like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women can get away with ignoring those women who face some of society's harshest condemnation and whose rights are under a direct assault by the state, in favour of playing power-broker with the boys on Parliament Hill. It's time they re-established connections with women at the grassroots who are working on today's survival issues.