Red Light, Green Light: The Sex Industry in Vancouver

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?

vancouver prostitutes

Curiously, despite all the attention street-level sex workers get, experts estimate only 10 to 15 per cent of the sex industry in B.C. is based outdoors, with most of it taking place in homes, hotels or municipally licensed businesses. The City of Vancouver offers two business licences that appear designed to facilitate prostitution: escort agencies and body rub parlours. Although neither licence specifically mentions the practice, it’s arguably implied by omission. In contrast, a licence for a health enhancement centre explicitly forbids prostitution from taking place in the business, and it costs $200 a year. The body rub licence doesn’t have that rule, and it costs $8,600 a year – more than any other business licence in Vancouver except for a Class-2 casino, a horseracing track and the PNE.

In Canada, despite these quasi-legal arrangements, most people who engage in sex work are technically breaking criminal law; it’s difficult not to. It is, for example, illegal to operate a “bawdy house,” or brothel, meaning a sex worker can’t use her home to meet clients. It’s also illegal to assist another person to engage in prostitution, which criminalizes business relationships between sex workers, or to live “on the avails of prostitution of another person,” which makes pimping illegal, whether it’s exploitive or not. Also prohibited: communicating for the purpose of prostitution in a public place.

SFU criminology instructor Tamara O’Doherty says these laws shoulder much of the blame for sex workers’ dismal working conditions, because they exclude them from society, making them vulnerable to predators. O’Doherty also chairs the Vancouver Police Department’s sex industry worker safety action group and is a founding member of First, a feminist organization lobbying to have prostitution decriminalized in Canada. The communicating law, she says, is particularly galling. When a client pulls up to the side of the road to pick up a sex worker, that sex worker can be arrested for speaking to him about any kind of transaction involving sex and money – unless she steps into the car first, since the car is legally not a public place. This law is not designed to keep sex workers safe, O’Doherty argues; it’s a law against nuisance, designed to give police the means to keep them off the streets. She asks, “Is targeting nuisance enough to force people to face the violence that they’re ­facing, to isolate them from the protective services of police?”

A 2006 parliamentary subcommittee examining these laws was not able to agree on much, but did conclude the status quo was unacceptable. The majority of the committee agreed with past findings that the current laws do more harm than good, and that the government should not interfere with the sexual activities of consenting adults that do not harm others, regardless of whether there’s payment involved. But the Conservative government largely ignored the findings, with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson replying, “This government views prostitution as degrading and dehumanizing. . . . This government condemns any conduct that results in exploitation or abuse, and accordingly does not support any reforms, such as decriminalization, that would facilitate such exploitation. Commodification and exploitation of women is never acceptable.”

Such responses by politicians are typical, according to SFU criminology professor John Lowman, an expert on prostitution law in Canada. In an analysis of the prostitution laws he wrote for the subcommittee, he noted that politicians often say they want to protect women from exploitation, and yet only the street-level sex trade is routinely policed – the part that causes a public nuisance. While politicians denounce prostitution, Lowman writes, they have not made it illegal, and if it is, indeed, legal, they should be saying how it is to be carried out. The price of this doublespeak, he warns, is that politicians are reluctant to address the social problems related to sex work, much less propose solutions, for fear of appearing to support the practice. More pointedly, he argues the communicating law played a pivotal role in creating the environment in which the murders of the Downtown Eastside women could occur. He concludes that prostitution should be decriminalized in Canada, that “a system geared to eradicating prostitution would make it more difficult, if not impossible, to develop safe working conditions for prostitutes.”

Confronted with the rush of sex workers into Hastings North in 2002, BIA president Patricia Barnes and her board decided to make a pact with their neighbouring BIAs in Strathcona and Collingwood. They would stop pushing the sex trade back and forth and try to find other solutions. So they talked for six months in 2004, bringing together business owners, community leaders, police and sex workers to try to find a better answer. It was a painful and difficult process, Barnes says, as sex workers shared their experiences with police officers who had arrested them and business owners who had spat on them. But an understanding slowly emerged that everyone wanted the same thing: the elimination of “survival sex work,” the selling of sex based on desperate need. “The biggest thing that came out of it was a human face from both sides,” Barnes says. “Talking to people as people takes everything to a completely different level.” [pagebreak]

Sex around the world

The selling of sex is a global concern, and each country has its own way of dealing with it. New Zealand, for example, passed the Prostitution Reform Act in June 2003 to decriminalize and regulate prostitution. Sex workers there must be over the age of 18 and ply their trade in licensed establishments (and those who run such places must hold a valid operator’s certificate). According to the government, the aim of the Act is to provide social and legal control over New Zealand’s sex trade workers while also ensuring their health and safety. Sweden, on the other hand, criminalized the buying of sexual acts in 1999 through their Sex Purchase Law, although it remains legal to sell sex; the thinking there is that prostitution is never a voluntary act. As the Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, Nyamko Sabuni, laid out in a speech last February, combating prostitution and human trafficking for exploitation is part of the government’s plan to “[ensure] women’s and girls’ safety, security and freedom from violence.” (Subsequent amendments to the act extended criminalization to all forms of human trafficking.) In Japan, meanwhile, organized prostitution has been illegal since 1956 – though liberal interpretations of the law have resulted in a flourishing sex trade. Soaplands, which are essentially brothels where clients can go to be soaped up and rubbed down, masquerade as bath houses, while “fashion-health clubs” offer services equivalent to that of a Canadian massage parlour. Most notably, the definition of what constitutes prostitution is restricted to sexual intercourse in Japan, making the sale of sexual favours such as oral sex perfectly legal. – Alexandra Barrow

The effort, dubbed Living in Community and funded through the City of Vancouver, set out to explore how the sex industry and the surrounding community affected each other, and to find ways to improve the harmful conditions that had developed. In 2007 the group produced a report concluding that many things had to happen to combat the survival sex trade, including long-term support for housing, drug treatment and skill development; secure funding for existing social services dedicated to sex workers; and an education curriculum to fight sexual exploitation and sex-work recruitment. While Barnes admits these largely long-term recommendations aren’t satisfying for area businesses looking for a hard and fast solution to the problem, there is a bigger picture involved: “The only way to get survival sex trade off the streets is to help the women get off the drugs, get out of the cycle, get out of poverty – to help them get into a different way of life.”

Susan Davis agrees with Living in Community’s recommendations for broad social support, but says she believes there’s a much faster way to reduce the violence faced by street-level sex workers: give them a safe workplace. Davis has been a sex worker for 22 years and acts as an organizer and spokesperson for the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities. Last December coalition members announced their intentions to build a brothel in east Vancouver as part of a broader plan to form a sex-worker co-op.

At a downtown café, Davis beams with pride as she pulls out a stamped certificate from a folder, the result of months of hard work: a provincial licence given to her and her colleagues in February validating the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals. Although it’s little more than a legal entity now, the co-op would be the owner and operator of the brothel – if it’s ever built.

Davis matter-of-factly counts off the benefits of a ­brothel: working in a house full of other sex workers would be much safer than getting into strangers’ cars; it would keep sex work away from the public and other businesses; and ­clients would know where to go, which would reduce cases of non-sex workers being propositioned by johns. The idea gets more complex as Davis goes on, though. She also wants a catering service, an art collective, a publishing ­program and other side projects to help sex workers transition out of the profession if they choose to. “This is common ground ­between all stakeholders,” Davis says. “It addresses all of their needs.”

The wrinkle in the plan, of course, is that such a site would be illegal, clearly violating the law against operating a bawdy house. To work, the brothel would need a legal amnesty – similar to Vancouver’s safe injection site. But the federal ­government, already vocal about its opposition to Insite, has rejected the notion outright. And opposition is not just restricted to conservative politicians. Several women’s organizations have spoken out against the concept, launching a campaign called No 2010 Brothels to condemn any official sanctioning of prostitution.

Daisy Kler, an organizer with the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, says she’s opposed to the plan because prostitution fundamentally violates the notion of women’s equality. She challenges the notion that sex workers are safer working indoors than on the streets, and says the idea sex workers are victims of violence because they’re ostracized is “ridiculous.” “Stigma does not create violence against prostitutes,” she argues. “Sure, it can push women to darker corners on the street. But men do the violence – it’s not the nighttime, it’s not the dark, it’s not the outdoors or the indoors.” Kler, like Davis and O’Doherty, wants the actions of sex workers to be decriminalized; however, she wants the buying of sex to become a crime instead. The end goal of such a law, she says, is to abolish prostitution entirely.

But after more than 20 years of parliamentary studies and recommendations, there’s no indication the Conservative government – or for that matter, the Liberal Opposition – is willing to touch the laws. It seems like the only way change will occur is through the courts, and that’s precisely what another group of B.C. sex workers is attempting. Currently there are two court challenges arguing Canada’s prostitution laws are unconstitutional, in that they deny sex workers rights guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of the cases was filed in August 2007 by Vancouver’s Sex Workers United Against Violence, with help from the Downtown Eastside-based Pivot Legal Society, and is expected to be heard by the B.C. Supreme Court next February; the other was launched in March 2007 by the Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada. Depending on how the courts decide, these cases could potentially nullify Canada’s prostitution laws.

And yet, even if the laws restricting prostitution vanish, if street-level sex workers are given indoor workplaces and indoor sex workers start to enjoy working standards comparable to other Canadians, there’s still the question of the woman selling blueberries in Victoria and her opinion of sex work. Mia Bella hopes legal changes in Canada can encourage a growing acceptance of the sex industry, but she concedes it will take generations before being a sex worker is seen as no different than being, say, a postal worker – if it ever is. She says her father supports her because she’s happy and self-sufficient, but that doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with what she does for a living. “I mean, of course he doesn’t want me doing this for a job,” she says. “The people in my life, I know that, even though they’re supportive of what I do, they’re also waiting for me to quit. It’s something that they’ll never be able to understand.”

Bella (who left Victoria Independent Providers shortly before this story went to press) is adamant in her belief she’s doing meaningful work benefiting society, but she’ll never try to convince anyone to start if they’re not already interested. It’s simply not for everyone, she says. Sex work is, ultimately, a business unlike any other: one fraught not just with complicated legal and political obstacles, but enduring moral opposition. And the morality of sex work, unlike the laws surrounding it, can’t be solved in a courtroom.