July 10, 1997. No. 102

Tomiye Ishida

p. 15.

MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH: Vancouver's prostitutes keep showing up dead in trash compactors, notes activist Jamie Lee Hamilton. Photo by Tom Bowen.

The issue that won't go away

Sex trade workers demand safe working conditions

Lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats and neighbourhood groups view prostitution variously as a legal issue, a moral issue, a public nuisance issue or a situation requiring a social service approach. But a grassroots based alliance of sex workers and their supporters contend that prostitutes are neither criminal or victims, but agents of their own sexuality. They are "autonomous workers" who require workplace safety.

There is considerable connection and overlap with prostitutes and the gay and lesbian communities. Many women who work as prostitutes are lesbians in their private lives while male prostitutes, whether they identify as heterosexual or homosexual, engage primarily in what would be termed "gay sex" for money. Historically, lesbians and prostitutes, drag queens and gay men have been clumped together and ghettoized as sexual outlaws, deemed to be indecent and immoral. It was no accident that Davie Street at one time synonumously referred to both the "gay ghetto" and "the stroll".

After decades of struggle for sexual self-determination, gays and lesbians, though still an oppressed group, enjoy far more legal protection and social acceptance than before. Evidence of this rise in social status ws the impressive list of openly gay or lesbian candidates running for Vancouver city council and park board in 1996.

One such candidate, neither gay nor lesbian, but honoured as one of our own by way of her transexual status is Jamie Lee Hamilton, a longtime social activist and former sex trade worker. One week before the 1996 civic election Hamilton quit the centre-left COPE ticket (Committee of Progressive Electors) because, she said, the group vetoed any public discussion of her proposal to license prostitutes.

Hamilton's proposal, still in draft form, focusses solely on street prostitutes, who generally form the lower end of the prostitution trade's hierarchy in price and quality, but includes the more discriminating "high track" street workers as well. Any proposal to license prostitutes as street vendors is significant in that it redefines the prostitute as a licensed worker and would require legitimizing the activities surrounding prostitution.

Prostitution itself has never been a crime in Canada, but activities associated with it are subject to criminal sanctions. Activities prohibited by the Criminal Code include:

Section 210 -- ...keeping, being an inmate of, being found without lawful excuse in,and allowing a place to be used for the purposes of, a common bawdy house;

Section 211 -- ...transporting, or direction or offering to transport or direct, another person to a common bawdy house;

Section 213 -- ...in any manner communication for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.

A "common bawdy house" is defined in the Criminal Code as, "...a place that is (a) kept or occupied, or (b) resorted to by one or more persons, for the purposes or the practice of acts of indecency.

Hamilton's proposal also suggests that hours and locations of operation be set by the city's licensing department, with "vendors" being required to meet a minimum age requirement, a six month residency requirement with proof of fixed address, and recommends a monthly medical clearance.

City Council's role, aside from providing licences which impose some control on street prostitutes would be, "to ensure safety in the streets, in the parks and throughout our communities."

Hamilton is not without her supporters at City Hall. "she and I think exactly the same," Nancy Chiavario of the Mayor's Prostitution Task Force emphatically replies. "I think it would be a significant answer to some of the problems."

Both Hamilton and Chiavario would follow up licensing with a social service approach. They agree that safe houses, or transition houses and harm reduction centres would assist those who wish to get off the street.

City Councillor Gordon Price is no stranger to the issue. A gay man who prefers to keep his sexuality secondary to his role as an elected official, Price is widely remembered as the driving force behind the civil injunction of the mid-1980s that drove the sex trade off Davie Street and out of the West End as a "public nuisance".

The sex workers have since established strolls in Mount Pleasant and the Downtown Eastside, where they are more vulnerable to violent assaults and death, and increasingly the focus of irate neighbourhood groups. A 1995 report on violence against persons who prostitute in BC by John Lowman and Laura Fraser reveal that of 50 murders of women reported to be working in the sex trade, 34.6 percent of the cases mention the Hastings Street stroll and 19.2 percent mention the Mount Pleasant stroll. Though there is a lot of information missing, the numbers suggest that violence against prostitutes is disproportionate in East Vancouver strolls.

Furthermore, RCMP data from the same report shows that the majority of prostitute victims are Caucausian, but Native women who constitute only one to two percent of Canada's population comprise 27 percent of the victim population. This is greater also than their proportion in the general population of street-involved women.

License prostitutes? "An interesting discussion point, but not an option for the city," says Councillor Price. "We would first have to make changes in the [Criminal] Code and the federal government is not about to do that." Besides, he adds, "It ignores the profound question of morality and there's no doubt that it is a morality question."

But whose morality? Chiavario questions a morality that ignores the dangerous conditions that prostitutes are forced to work in.

Price raises an excellent point when he asks the question, "What about those who don't want to be controlled?" Harsher penalties?

The Attorney General's office, though unavailable for comment on the licensing proposal, was eager to share the current initiatives of the Provincial Prostitution Unit which is indeed lobbying for changes to the Criminal Code. The changes however, will not benefit prostitutes, but would make it easier to prosecute adults who purchase sex from minors. The three-fold plan is to enforce laws that target pimps and johns, work with neighbourhood groups to address the nuisance issues, and prevent youth from entering the sex trade.

Andrew Sorfleet is a spokesperson for Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver (SWAV), a group founded in 1994 and modelled after a similar Toronto-based prostitutes rights organization. This grassroots organization consists of both male and female sex workers in Vancouver, and a handful of allied volunteers. SWAV exists to support and educate, and to organize for the rights of prostitutes. They recently campaigned against an increase in police harassment of prostitutes in the downtown Eastside neighbourhoods.

Sorfleet emphasizes that prostitutes are not victims, but autonomous workers, and agents of their own sexuality. "If we had to be licensed we should be licensed by a workers' union or a professional association of our peers. It's not prostitution per se that harms people, it's the hazards in the workplace. The discussion about prostitution does not belong in the arena of criminal courts and social services but rather in the sphere of workplace safety. The sole problem specific to prostitutes is that there is no legal workplace."

SWAV members are concerned about any proposal to license prostitutes. It is likely that anyone with a previous criminal record or a problem with drugs would not qualify for a licence, says Sorfleet. Should there be a moratorium on licensing this would limit private enterprise. Rather than brothels, Sorfleet suggests that establishing legal and known "trick hotels" with hourly rates would give prostitutes a place to work. They should have safety deposit services to secure the cash and good security in case of a "bad trick".

Aside from the obvious benefits of lucrative self-employment, Sorfleet lists high self-esteem and a sense of sexual agency and empowerment as some of the positive effects of his work. Some cross-generational connections he has made in the trade have developed into valued mentors.

When the real issue is poverty however, prostitution is the most rational economic decision for some people. Even a university graduate can make more money as a prostitute, and work less hours. The hard question is why more do not.

Tel: 688-WEST xt 2290
Tel: 709-9906

SWAV letter... [Vancouver '97] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: August 8, 1997
Last modified: October 4, 1997

CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710
Email: csis@walnet.org