Friday, September 12, 2003

Rod Mickleburgh

Vancouver council okays residential sex

VANCOUVER — On the eve of opening North America's first safe-injection site for drug users, Vancouver City Council has now sanctioned the right of sex-trade businesses to operate from local residences.

In a surprise move, councillors voted 4-3 to include elements of the sex trade among approved businesses that a person can run from their home in the city's increasingly residential downtown core.

Such a move would certainly be a Canadian first, said Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman, an expert on prostitution law.

"Hats off to city council. This is a step in the right direction," Prof. Lowman said, citing the scores of street prostitutes who have died at the hands of customers in recent years.

The council vote overturned an attempt by city officials to exclude "any dating service, entertainment service, exotic dancer business, social escort service or other similar business" from the expansion of commercial activity to be allowed in ground-level, downtown residences.

The vote took place after Jamie-Lee Hamilton, a well-known advocate for prostitutes, spoke out against excluding sex-oriented businesses from the city bylaw.

"It was very discriminatory," the transgendered Ms. Hamilton said yesterday. "It would have allowed lawyers, consultants, graphic designers, etc., to operate from their residences, but say no to escort agencies and the sex trade. That's discrimination.

"Instead of treating sex workers as oddities, they should have the same rights as everyone else in society."

Previously, all home businesses in Vancouver were limited to so- called "craftwork" type operations, with no outside employees, on- site sales or signage.

Now, some people in selected areas will be able to run larger operations from their residences. Employees may be hired, some sales conducted and signs allowed. Sex-oriented businesses, including escort agencies, are among those covered by the change.

Although Mayor Larry Campbell was not present for Wednesday night's vote and was unsure yesterday about the implications, he praised council for its chutzpah.

"If this means Vancouver is 'out there,' so be it," Mr. Campbell said, noting the city's landmark safe-injection site, which opens Monday, and its current study of all aspects of gambling. "We're a city that is not afraid to discuss things."

The mayor said something must be done to protect sex-trade workers, particularly in light of the scores of prostitutes who have gone missing from the poor, Downtown Eastside.

However, Mr. Campbell said he personally favours regulated "red light" districts as the best way to do that, rather than permitting residential brothels.

It was not clear whether the new bylaw goes that far, since keeping a common bawdy house remains a Criminal Code violation.

"We're talking about a municipal bylaw here," Prof. Lowman said. "Unfortunately, the Criminal Code trumps that."

But he congratulated Vancouver City Council for confronting the issue of Canada's prostitution laws, which he said are hypocritical and dangerous for prostitutes.

Councillor Peter Ladner, who voted against the bylaw change, criticized the decision to include parts of the sex trade among permitted residential business operations.

"Does an escort service actually mean sex-trade workers right on site? Does it include body-rub parlours? There are a lot of unanswered questions," Mr. Ladner said.

"I think they [those who favoured the bylaw change] got carried away with the plight of sex-trade workers and listening to Jamie-Lee Hamilton, and were blinded by the reality of what they were doing.

"I mean, if an escort service just means a greasy guy with a computer, who cares? But if you call the escort service and they say 'come on over,' then that's a lot different."

Escort agencies and body-rub parlours, as in other Canadian cities, are licensed by the municipal government, although they operate in a murky legal environment.

Councillor Anne Roberts said she voted against excluding sex-trade businesses from the so-called Office Live-Work bylaw because she felt it was discriminatory to leave them out when they are already licensed and regulated by the city.

Ms. Roberts added that the bylaw includes a "good neighbourhood" agreement, ensuring that neighbours are not disturbed by unruly behaviour.

Councillor Tim Louis, another supporter, called the move an experiment. "We will watch and listen. We are open-minded about this."

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Created: September 12, 2003
Last modified: April 22, 2004
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