Monday, February 24, 1997


p. A10.

Buyer beware

The prostitute's customer now is Vancouver police top target

How times change. Six years ago Vancouver's police chief persuaded city council to lobby for tougher federal laws against street prostitutes. Today, the Vancouver police department plans to not charge prostitutes at all, but will instead go after customers and pimps.

Arresting prostitutes hasn't worked, says Inspector Ken Doern of the vice squad. The 9,000 charges laid against prostitutes between 1988 and 1995 haven't made a dent in the street trade that is ruining several Vancouver neighborhoods.

The police are apparently acting on the results of research showing that arrest doesn't deter prostitutes, but does curb their client's behavior. About 80 per cent of Vancouver prostitutes arrested between 1986 and 1992 went back to the streets, says Simon Fraser criminologist John Lowman. In the same period, 2,045 men were charged with communicating for the purpose of prostitution, but only 44 repeated.

The police, with Mayor Philip Owen's support, also make the more controversial argument that arresting prostitutes only victimizes people who are selling sex precisely because they are already victims. Indeed, the Provincial Prostitution Unit has found that prostitutes in B.C. start performing "survival sex" at an average age of 14, with a majority running from abusive homes.

However, 14-year-old prostitutes grow into adults (the average of prostitutes arrested in Canada in 1995 was 28) who can make choices. They and their johns in turn victimize citizens who have nothing to do with their sordid business. Some Vancouver residents daily step over used condoms and needles and see people having sex in their yards and back alleys.

Vancouver's new approach may bring new problems. Some residents worry that prostitutes will be free to do whatever they want, wherever they want, without fear of legal consequence. As well, prostitutes are a transient group, and researchers say that removing the threat of arrest could be an incentive for more to move to Vancouver.

Residents of neighborhoods used by prostitutes say they are happy to try anything the police think will work. Removing the customer from the pimp-prostitute-john triangle may have dramatic effects. "Without him, there is no prostitution," Mr. Lowman wrote in a 1996 report called Men Who Buy Sex. Given that 67 per cent of men charged since 1991 were driving at the time of their arrests, neighborhoods may also get relief from constant car cruising on residential streets, one of their chief complaints.

Call the plan progressive or call it foolish, Vancouver's police force is clearly frustrated enough or adaptive enough to try a new approach to a problem that seems as far beyond the community's control as ever.

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Created: February 24, 1997
Last modified: July 2, 1997

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