It’s snowing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but the soggy January weather hasn’t dampened the market for sex. On the corner of Jackson and Cordova streets, just a couple of blocks from the First United Church mission, three thin women stroll through the sleet. One exposes her bony, bare legs, marked with deep purple bruises. She teeters in dirty heels. The other two wear open overcoats over their skimpy clothes. They’re waiting to jump into strangers’ cars and get paid for sex.
Canadians have long decried the working conditions of Vancouver’s street prostitutes. In 1985, the federally sponsored Fraser report on pornography and prostitution detailed the hazards of being a sex worker in Canada: violence at the hands of customers and pimps; rates of STDs and other infections comparable to the developing world; a lack of detox programs that could offer workers a way out; and a litany of laws that penalize working in safer conditions off the streets, such as in brothels.
More than 25 years later, the status quo remains abysmal. While most would agree that the human rights and dignity of sex workers must be safeguarded, what’s the best way to achieve that? Is prostitution, as the decriminalization lobby argues, “the oldest profession,” deserving of legal protections to ensure the safety of the adult women and men who have chosen sex as a career? Or, as the other side quips, is it “the oldest oppression” and should remain criminalized because it is inherently tied to exploitation, degradation and violence?
To Susan Davis, a 43-year-old sex worker who lives in Vancouver’s West End, the answer is obvious. Sex work isn’t going away. Changing the laws that make it a crime — as Ontario’s Supreme Court ordered the provincial government to do in a ruling last September — is essential to giving sex workers the same rights to employment safety and dignity that other adults in Canada enjoy.
“I’ve seen 30,000 men [since getting into the business at 18], and most of them are vulnerable, afraid and lonely,” she says in an interview at a Starbucks on Robson Street. Davis, who is also the spokesperson for the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities, claims to work safely, without drugs and free of exploitation — and offers compassionate services.
“What about the guy with the Coke-bottle glasses who women won’t look at? Should he have to be alone? The man who has lost his penis for medical reasons? The man whose wife is dying — should he be alone? It’s not as cut-and-dry a profession as people make it out to be.”
Davis hopes that within five years, she’ll be able to work within the law, pay taxes and set up a sex worker licensing course to help professionalize the industry. To that end, she testified in the landmark Ontario Supreme Court case last year.
That decision was the first of its kind in Canada, and it’s unlikely to be the last. On Sept. 28, 2010, Justice Susan Himel struck down three laws as unconstitutional: communicating for the purpose of prostitution; keeping a common bawdy house (a brothel); and living on the avails of prostitution. At the time of the ruling, one of the plaintiffs, a sex worker named Valerie Scott, said, “[Now] we don’t have to worry about being raped and robbed and murdered. This decision means that sex workers can now pick up the phone and call the police and report a bad client. This means that we no longer have to be afraid, that we can work with the appropriate authorities.”
The decision was stayed so Ontario laws could catch up with the ruling. But legislators aren’t rushing to comply. The Ontario attorney general and his federal counterpart will challenge the ruling next month at the Ontario Court of Appeal. Decriminalization advocates will be watching closely, and if the decision is upheld, the case will likely be duplicated in other provinces.
In other words, Canada may be well on its way to following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, New Zealand and some parts of Australia and the United States in decriminalizing prostitution. Yet so far, the United Church has remained silent in the debate. Mary-Frances Denis, the General Council’s media co-ordinator, confirms that no staffer at the national office is researching the ethics of sex work, working on a position paper or wading into the lobbying fray. Nor did the 2009 General Council consider a position on decriminalization.
It’s time that changed, according to outspoken veteran journalist Victor Malarek. Caring Canadians need to start looking at international research that demonstrates decriminalization leads to further exploitation. “A lot of women [former prostitutes] are speaking out against decriminalization and are ignored. The tragic stories outweigh the ‘happy hooker’ stories 100 to one,” Malarek says. But the media likes to focus on the sex workers who claim to love what they do. “Everyone just runs to her,” says Malarek. “‘Oooh. Tell me more.’”
Canada should be a human rights leader and refuse to decriminalize prostitution, Malarek argues. Instead, we should spend money on programs that offer women and men a way out.
He points out that since 2007, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen has been cracking down on the city’s infamous red light district, closing hundreds of brothels. It’s an effort to stop the rampant organized crime and human trafficking attracted by the area’s decriminalized status. He adds that more than three-quarters of the women working in the Amsterdam sex industry are from Eastern Europe. Well-cared-for Dutch women, Malarek says, don’t want to work as hookers.
Before he wrote The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade in 2004, Malarek believed in decriminalization. In researching the book, he says he realized that the vast majority of sex work is about making money for men in organized crime, and exploiting women who are poor, young and powerless. For his 2009 book, The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, he interviewed hundreds of customers. His thesis is that most men who buy sex do so to degrade women.
“They don’t want a ‘sex worker,’” he says. “They want a whore, a prostitute, a slut.”
If the United Church wants to weigh in, Malarek notes, it faces the same problem as the ex-prostitutes who are anti-decriminalization. Most media assume that all churches represent a puritanical perspective, so the United Church could be written off. To gain media traction, he advises, the church should support those who talk about ending sex work in terms of human dignity and rights.
Indeed, many prominent anti-decriminalization lobbyists are right-of-centre. For example, the socially conservative women’s group REAL Women of Canada was an intervener in the Ontario case and has been actively speaking out against the social acceptance of sex work.
“If the state legalizes [prostitution], then people think it’s okay to buy sex,” says spokesperson Diane Watts. “It’s easy to assume that certain classes of people are not vulnerable to this kind of thing. But even in the middle classes, pimps will get young girls to fall in love with them. Then, the families will be unable to get them out.”
In a decriminalized environment, Watts cautions, preventing teens from entering the sex trade — a relatively high-paying “job” that requires no formal education — will become even more difficult.
Remarkably, sex worker Davis agrees with Watts on one point. While prostitution will never go away, no one wants teens coerced into having sex for any reason, she says. Decriminalization, she argues, will allow adults who have chosen to work in the sex trade to do so safely; consequently, it will also provide an easier environment for police to crack down on underage pimping. “If your adult daughter is going to choose sex work, wouldn’t you want her to be safe?” Davis asks.
In the meantime, Canada’s policy-makers and compassionate citizens are waiting for Justice Himel’s precarious decision to settle. And on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — as in every major city — women and men working the sex industry continue their vulnerable stroll.
Pieta Woolley is a Vancouver freelance journalist.
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