Friday, December 12, 2008

Mark Hasiuk

Vancouverites indifferent to plight of prostitutes

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter wrapped up a two-week awareness campaign on human trafficking and prostitution. The Shelter is part of a growing local movement, alive in churches and community centres around the city, which aims to reset the "prostitution" debate.

According to a U.S. government report, more than two million people worldwide are trafficked for sex each year. The Salvation Army estimates that trafficking accounts for up to 16,000 new arrivals to Canada each year, and many of these people—mainly women from China, Korea, the Philippines and other Asian countries—help feed Vancouver's flourishing sex industry.

During his inauguration speech Monday, newly minted Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson expounded his concern for homelessness—yet never mentioned prostitution.

Because most people don't care.

Sixty-five de facto brothels—officially known to the city as "health enhancement centres"—operate unfettered in Vancouver. (They pay a $217 yearly business licence penance to city hall.) An unknown number of underground brothels, which rely heavily on human trafficking, operate in private residences and businesses around the city.

Pimps and gangs rule the industry. Women, mainly uneducated immigrants, are often duped or blackmailed into prostitution. They are physically and mentally abused. They live a tortured existence.

And most people don't care.

Why? Racism, perhaps.

If Vancouver brothels were filled with blue-eyed girls from Maple Ridge, Robertson would pay attention.

Sexism, maybe. Paternal mores on prostitution have crystallized over millennia of male rule.

Or perhaps simple nostalgia drives public apathy. Subjugating poor, brown-skinned immigrants—who speak adorable pidgin English—calls to mind the glorious colonial days of yore.

During this fall's civic election campaign, while real estate developers lavished city councillors with expensive gifts, the prostitution issue was largely ignored.

However, in October, NPA mayoral wannabe Peter Ladner and a gaggle of NPA council candidates participated in a West End rally to support Jordan Smith, who'd been suckerpunched on Davie Street while walking with his boyfriend.

Gay people vote. Asian prostitutes don't.

To be fair, Robertson answered a few questions about prostitution during his election campaign. He said: "I'm not in favour of legalization, at this time," and promised to form a "roundtable on prostitution."

Those are worrying words for legalization opponents who foresee a roundtable packed with "harm reduction" aficionados and semi-retired "sex trade" workers.

Arguments for legalization—it will help purge the industry of crime and abuse, it will help sanitize the industry of addiction and disease—are refuted by current events.

Last Saturday, citing rampant "criminality" and human trafficking, Amsterdam city council shut down dozens of brothels. It was the second such crackdown in the past 14 months and further evidence of Amsterdam's conscience revolution. Australian professor Sheila Jeffreys, an expert on global prostitution, points to Sweden where "customers and purveyors of prostitution" were criminalized in 2005. Sweden's prostitute population has dwindled to an estimated 800 souls, while more than 300,000 prostitutes toil in Germany's legal brothel system, which is owned and operated by organized crime.

Yet despite the changing winds in Europe, Vancouver-based "advocates" and politicians beat the drums of legalization.

In February, members of Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society will fly to Ottawa for a Supreme Court appearance. They'll argue that Canadian laws relating to prostitution endanger the health and lives of prostitutes.

What about dangerous pimps and abusive johns who use frightened women like plastic blowup dolls? What does Pivot think about those guys?

Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but we no longer live in the Stone Age. Legalization proponents echo the faded voices of defeated Southerners in the U.S. and their arguments that government-sanctioned slavery protected Negroes from barbaric privateers. Abolition shattered the chains of bondage, but modern-day slaves still exist.

Just visit your local health enhancement centre.

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Created: January 23, 2009
Last modified: June 20, 2009
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