Is Prostitution a Business in Vancouver?

The fight is on in the courts over what we do about the plight of Vancouver sex workers – if anything.

The fight is on in the courts over what we do about the plight of Vancouver sex workers – if anything.

There’s been a major new development in what I feel is one of the most compelling social issues of our time: prostitution. A year ago, my feature story on the subject ran in BCBusiness. Since then, thanks to lovely readers such as yourself, it has become one of the most-read articles on the entire site. I point that out not to brag (OK, maybe a little bit) but to show that a lot of people have taken an interest in the topic. So I felt we could all use an update.

The background is that sex workers are getting organized to challenge Canada’s prostitution laws, saying these make their work unsafe. And even the people who can’t agree about anything else seem to agree that these laws are absurd.

Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society helped launch a Charter challenge to have these laws struck down, but that was disqualified. However, another big court case in Ontario is now in full swing. (I recommend a search for “prostitution” at for complete coverage.)

The court challengers, all sex workers, are arguing that Canada’s laws make prostitution legal but impossible to conduct safely. For example, it is illegal to communicate a transaction involving sex and money in a public place. So for a street-level sex worker to talk to a client legally, she usually has to enter a car first. It’s also illegal to run a brothel, which means sex workers can’t work in groups under a single roof. Also it’s illegal to live of the money generated by prostitution, which outlaws pimps, but also makes it illegal for a sex worker to hire security, for instance.

And so we have sex workers on one side asking for changes and the federal government on the other arguing for the status quo, and a judge will ultimately decide whether we need to overhaul the entire system (after we repeat the process a couple of times in the appeal and supreme courts, of course). But if the judge does strike down the laws, we’ll have to redesign how this business is carried out.

But that’s the central question, isn’t it? Is prostitution a business? Because if it is, in fact, a legal economic activity, sex workers should enjoy the same workplace safety standards as any other profession. One person I spoke to for my article put it this way: you might not like the munitions industry either, but the factory workers making bullets still deserve a safe workplace.

However, according to another perspective, there is no such thing as violence-free prostitution because prostitution IS violence. So from this point of view, the very notion of safe prostitution is a contradiction. And in my research, I never found a clear logical reasoning for this argument. It’s like trying to explain why murder is wrong; it just is.

Anyway, this is going to be an ugly, vicious fight that’s going to make a lot of people upset and uncomfortable. All the same, I encourage everyone to keep up with the developments in the case and learn a bit more about the topic. This is the province that gave the world Robert Pickton, after all, so let’s not turn a blind eye. We’ve done that for long enough.