Red Light, Green Light: The Sex Industry in Vancouver

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Vancouver prostitution
Image by: Nik West
Mia Bella is quite comfortable with the work she does. Other people are less so. She's a prostitute.
A peek inside the dark and light of a juggernaut industry in Vancouver: sex.

Mia Bella is quite comfortable with the work she does. Other people are less so. One time last summer, she explains, she was out picking up some groceries at the Save-On-Foods near her home in Victoria when a friendly older woman at the produce counter asked why she needed so many blueberries. As Bella shared her favourite recipe for blueberry oatmeal, the two got talking. The woman asked what she did for a living. “I’m an escort,” replied Bella.

“You mean like, when new people come to town, you show them around?”

“More like a prostitute.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Oh? I really like it.”

“But you seem so nice.”

Bella (not her real name) says she first did sex work four years ago because she wanted to go on a two-month fishing trip in Fiji. She needed the cash to advance her rent, and a girlfriend suggested they do a few jobs at a body rub parlour. Her friend didn’t enjoy the experience. Bella, on the other hand, loved it, and today the 24-year-old works as an independent escort. She rents a four-bedroom house near downtown Victoria, works between one and five hours a day and usually brings in between $4,000 and $10,000 a month. She’s adamant this is a job she chose and one that she loves, and repeatedly insists her clients are “great guys.” “It’s a healing, therapeutic profession,” she says. “I get emails and phone calls years after seeing some guys; they just have to touch base and thank me because I made such a difference in their lives. . . . Those kinds of things are so rewarding.”

The common perception of prostitution – fed by such tragedies as the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – is that of desperation, addiction and abuse. It is not of successful, self-assured entrepreneurs like Bella, and that bothers her. She doesn’t see herself as a victim or a criminal; she sees herself as a businesswoman. However, prostitution in Canada is far from a legitimate business, despite the fact the practice is technically legal. A bewildering mix of rules is in place to restrict it, making it almost impossible to run a legal business involving sexual contact. So prostitution is an outcast industry – hidden in dark alleys, hushed apartments, anonymous hotels, and small businesses with no windows. According to many who study the industry, that’s a big reason why it’s so rife with exploitation and abuse.

 

Bella is one of many B.C. sex workers fighting to make the industry a legitimate part of the business landscape in an effort to improve working conditions. With the help of an experienced escort manager and a pair of activists, she launched Victoria Independent Providers in June: a licensed escort agency that charges escorts fair fees for booking and promotion services and doesn’t rely on intimidation and extortion. The business model will, in theory, attract talent away from abusive workplaces, while also appealing to clients who want to know they’re not playing a part in another person’s misery. “We want to change the way things are run in the industry,” Bella says.

Another group of sex workers is pushing for a co-op brothel in east Vancouver to bring street-level sex workers indoors, while a third is launching a legal challenge to strip away Canada’s prostitution laws altogether. And much like the controversies surrounding Insite, Vancouver’s landmark safe-injection drug facility, talk of decriminalization and/or legal amnesty for sex workers has drawn intense protest. There are two points, however, where the opposing sides in the prostitution debate generally agree: what has been done in the past has not worked, and it’s time to try something new. With the Olympics coming and the world’s eyes about to train on our most glaring urban sore – Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – B.C. is becoming a battleground where we might finally have to decide how prostitution fits in our society.

Historically, keeping the sex industry out of sight was relatively easy, with authorities and residents chasing outside sex workers from one neighbourhood to another. The Downtown Eastside has long been the exception: sex workers have had a near-constant home there since the birth of the city over 120 years ago. But with the agreement in 2004 to turn the central Woodward’s building into a condo complex, the area has been the focus of a flurry of gentrification, and many are wondering if the new, more upscale denizens will tolerate the area sex trade. History indicates they may not be. In the early ’80s, West End residents obtained an injunction against street-based sex workers in their neighbourhood. Similarly, in the early ’90s, Mount Pleasant residents teamed up with police to carry out “shame the john” campaigns, publishing the names of sex workers’ clients, and in 2003 Yaletown residents pressured city hall to forbid escort agencies and massage parlours from operating in its live/work areas. If the same sort of thing happens in the Downtown Eastside, where will the trade go next?

That question worries Patricia Barnes, director of the neighbouring Hastings North Business Improvement Association (BIA), whose territory covers the commercial strip along Hastings Street east of Commercial Drive as well as a swath of light industry stretching south from the Vancouver port. She was hired in 2001 – almost 20 years after the first name was included on a list of more than 60 women to go missing from the Downtown Eastside. The industrial area Barnes represents has long been host to street-level prostitution – a result, she says, of a city-sanctioned strategy to get sex workers away from residential neighbourhoods.

“Along with the sex workers came the pimps, the drug dealers and the johns. So light industrial areas became these areas of human misery,” Barnes notes. She describes used needles and condoms in the alleys, homeless people sleeping in doorways and acts of public violence. Business owners have complained over the years about the safety of their late- and early-shift employees, and about the impression the neighbourhood leaves with suppliers and clients. For Barnes the problem became acute in 2002, when the number of sex workers in the industrial lands suddenly spiked. Violence and drug use increased, and johns circled the streets constantly; soon, says Barnes, members were calling the BIA office, demanding to know why the problem was getting worse.

Turns out Vancouver police had recently carried out a vice operation on a sex-worker stroll on Kingsway around Knight Street, pushing them out of the area. The women moved into Strathcona and Hastings North in search of new places to work. It left Barnes with a dilemma. When police enforce anti-prostitution laws in one area, sex workers simply relocate, she explains – and when residents of the next area complain to the police, it can often get pushed right back to where it started. Now it was her turn to choose. Would she lobby to have the sex workers pushed out yet again, or would she try something different?


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