Canada’s laws on sex work put women in danger. While sex work is legal, communicating in public to solicit sex, running a bawdy house, and living off an income procured by sex work are all criminal offenses. This constitutional catch-22 forces sex workers onto the street, increasing their vulnerability to violence. Putting their activities outside the law promotes the idea that sex workers are criminals, thereby perpetuating that they deserve abuse rather than respect. “People most harmed by this legislation are women,” says Hedy Fry, Vancouver MP and chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
“We want to be allowed to come back inside,” states Susan Davis, a Vancouver sex worker and the coordinator of the British Columbia Coalition of Experimental Communities (BCCEC). Across the country, sex workers are demanding the same thing. Last week, ex-sex worker Sheryl Kiselbach took the stand in the B.C. Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn a ruling that dismissed her constitutional challenge to prostitution laws on the basis that they intensify the dangers of sex work. A similar legal battle is being fought by dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and others in Ontario.
Davis has taken a different route to get sex workers safely inside. The BCCEC proposed opening a cooperative brothel owned by sex workers in time for the 2010 Olympic Games. Its approval depended on an exemption from the clause criminalizing bawdy houses. The BCCEC was twice denied federal funding for such a project. Instead of supporting this groundbreaking initiative and the improved working conditions it entails, the Games are turning out to be “a disaster for sex workers in the East End and the West End,” says Davis.
“The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is really sandwiched between multiple Olympic venues, and the entire community is concerned about the influx of tourists, media, and security forces into this small community,” says Kerry Porth, executive director of Prostitution Alternatives, Counseling, and Education Society (P.A.C.E.). Porth anticipates that security, traffic restrictions, and congestion will make sex work more difficult, and speculates that this could lead to workers putting themselves in riskier situations than they otherwise would.
In addition to increased dangers, the Games will not be the payday many were hoping for. “Increased security means we will be cut off from clientele,” says Davis. The period before the Olympics is turning out to be especially sparse. “People have been migrating here expecting big money for the Olympics. Right now, there’s just what money there usually is, being divided between more people,” she explains. “We’re starving.”
Fry also notes concerns that an increase in the demand for sex caused by the Olympics will aggravate trafficking and exploitation. She explains that in preparation for the games, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women met with the RCMP and Canadian Border Services, whose plans involve a public awareness campaign.
BCCEC, P.A.C.E., and other organizations are providing support for sex workers during the Olympics. The Mobile Access Project van, operated by WISH Wellness Centre and P.A.C.E., will continue its services seven nights a week. The van provides nighttime services and supplies like juice, water, condoms, and clean needles for working women. And P.A.C.E. will have some food outreach for the duration of the Games, says Porth.
Davis and Porth note that these organizations will be distributing media packets to prepare sex workers for the increased number of reporters in the area. These are the same packets they distributed during the Pickton trials, and they outline sex workers’ rights to refuse interviews. The packets also provide a list of questions they might be asked if they do choose to speak with reporters.
Many media outlets incorrectly reported that P.A.C.E. would be holding media training for sex workers in November. “I found it very interesting that this erroneous story was picked up internationally and treated, in some cases, as some kind of a joke,” notes Porth. Even more troubling is that this inaccurate story is some of the only attention given to how the Olympics will affect sex workers.
Reactions to the brothel
“Olympics or not, these women need stability and safety now,” says Davis, explaining that the proposed co-op brothel aimed to provide a clean and secure place to work, including a panic button in each room and facilities for workers to wash after entertaining clients.
But BCCEC’s proposed brothel was met with diverse emotional responses. Frontline workers in the Downtown Eastside, former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, MP Libby Davies, and the Vancouver Organizing Commitee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games were among the project’s supporters. Opposition came from escort agencies that were threatened by organized competition, and women’s groups opposed to any sort of legitimization of sex work. In the end, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson refused the initiative.
Media coverage of the debate pitted Davis against Daisy Kler of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, the brothel’s most vocal opponent. Kler told press outlets that the brothel “entrenches prostitution as legitimate, and therefore legitimatizes pimps and traffickers.” Kler ignored The Daily’s repeated requests for an interview.
“The anti-brothel campaign lied about the intention of our enterprise,” says Davis. “They have misinterpreted us in so many ways, saying we are trying to profit off vulnerable women. It’s a co-op; sex workers own it; they have developed and designed it…. No one profits. We don’t want to round people up. We don’t support red light districts.”
Kler’s opposition seems based in a conviction that an industry that includes exploitation and human trafficking should never be legitimated or legalized. But Davis sees regulation as the only way to rid the sex industry of these deplorable aspects: “We need balance, acceptance, and transparency in the industry. We need to be able to weed out the people are exploiting [sex workers].”
Davis had ambitions that the brothel could be a safe place, but also a space for celebration. Her plans included a museum and gallery showcasing the history of prostitution and showgirls, and artwork by sex workers. “We wanted sex workers to put on a play during the Games so they could connect with the cultural aspect of the Olympics,” she adds.
The Olympic Games was a missed opportunity for Canada to spotlight innovative initiatives that would give sex workers security and respect. “They might have seen it as a chance to prove we are at the forefront of something…. They could have shown the world that we are doing something meaningful,” says Davis. “It’s so hard to watch us being destroyed on the international stage.”
“Solicitation laws currently in the criminal code leave exploited women more vulnerable. This must be dealt with before Canada can play a leadership role,” notes Fry.
It’s unfortunate Canada hasn’t yet made these necessary changes in legislation. However, the Copenhagen climate conference – which levelled a harsh blow at Denmark’s legalized sex industry – demonstrated that laws need to be coupled with an attitude of respect and acceptance. Copenhagen’s city council sent postcards to each delegate’s hotel room reading “Be Sustainable – Don’t Buy Sex.” The Sex Workers’ Interest Group fought back with a system that turned these warnings into coupons for free sex.
On the plus side
Davis illustrates the innovative partnership between sex workers and the Vancouver police: “Nowhere else is there a sex worker liaison officer.” She also notes the positive steps that have been made through the two parties working together over the past few years as a result of the Sex Industry Workers Safety Action Group.
Despite the disappointments that the approaching Games have brought her cause, Davis applauds the police’s interaction with sex workers in the lead-up to the Games. Due to the location of the Olympic headquarters, sex workers have been displaced from Seymour stroll, a street with some of the highest earning potential in the city, where one can make $200 to $600 per client, says Davis. “They didn’t arrest anyone; they just told them to move down the street. It’s harmful to be displaced from where they can earn a high wage, but it’s still a leap forward,” she explains. “It shows a shift from punishment to protection.”
That the Women’s Memorial March is maintaining its date and route is another source of consolation. Because of the Olympics, the city initially attempted to change its itinerary. A petition was launched, which Davis notes was successful. As a result, the 14th-annual march commemorating missing or murdered women will keep its usual schedule.
History of violence
There is a correlation between high rates of violence against women and the criminalization of the peripheral activities of sex work. “The year they kicked us out of supper clubs and bars was the year the first murder took place of a sex worker,” says Davis. The communication law came into effect in 1985 and aimed to reduce the visibility of sex work in response to residents’ complaints of it being a nuisance. In “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution,” John Lowman finds a dramatic increase in the murders of sex workers after 1985. This law makes sex workers vulnerable because they cannot properly judge their potential clients. They legally cannot take time to talk in a public place and ensure that they feel secure in the situation.
“There must be a change in the laws that deal with communicating for the purposes of soliciting, with living off the avails of prostitution, and with running a bawdy house,” Fry explains, citing that this was the conclusion reached by both the recent Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws, of which she was a member, and the 1985 Fraser Commission. She adds that Liberal and NDP members of the committee recommended decriminalization.
Fry urges more than a constitutional amendment: “Just changing legislation is not enough; there must be a program of public awareness.” She notes that this program must work to prevent exploitation and provide assistance and tools for women who want to exit the profession.
Development in the area escalated by the Olympics creates an uncertain fate for the residents of the Downtown Eastside, where many of the city’s sex workers live and work. Plans to sell the property as condos and rental suites have quelled rumours that the community may be transplanted to the athletes’ village. However, as the high end developments of Gastown creep closer and closer to the Downtown Eastside, the survival of the community is in jeopardy. Rent will inevitably rise with property value nearby. Davis also notes that the Downtown Eastside itself is some of Vancouver’s most valuable property. “Ultimately, the area will be developed,” she says.
The city has already renovated many of the old hotels in the neighbourhood. Davis says that while this improves living conditions for residents, development has been coupled with stricter rules. “They were some of the last places where [residents] could freely live, doing drugs and turning tricks,” she says.
On the whole, development is positive, according to Davis. While the benefits of the Olympics are not yet palpable, she is sure they will reveal themselves in time: “I think that all the infrastructure that came with the building for the Olympics will make this into an international city. A good economy is good for sex workers.”