THE BODY POLITIC September 1984, No. 106. Chris Bearchell

p. 18.

Combat Zone

The dubious art of "vice" management

"If we make any observation of soliciting for companionship, they'll be charged. It doesn't have to be for money."

– Inspector John Lucy, head of Vancouver's vice squad (Angles)

More than 300 Vancouver hookers and hustlers have been served with copies of an injunction ordering anyone the police choose to stop soliciting. Those served with the injunction can later be charged with breaking a court order (and if convicted, serve up to two years in jail) if the cops see them so much as "crooking a finger, stopping guys in cars, waving a car down or hitch hiking," according to Inspector Lucy.

The reason there is trouble in paradise is the reason there is prostitution: more than 15 per cent of the work force of British Columbia is out of work — the worst unemployment since they began keeping statistics in 1945, according to Stan Persky, writing in the August issue of the Vancouver gay paper, Angles.

As anyone who reads the daily papers knows, the BC government has responded to the depression by slashing social service budgets, and is in the process of dismantling its human rights commission. It appears that almost anyone who could benefit from a little distraction of the population has discovered the tool of the "morality campaign."

It helps that there are "nuisances" associated with street soliciting — drunkenness, sometimes violence, but especially noise (often abuse hurled at prostitutes). It doesn't matter that the bawdyhouse laws force hookers onto the streets. It doesn't matter that "nuisances" are created by customers and onlookers, that they have little to do with the buying and selling of sex, but are simply produced by the conditions under which the sex trade takes place.

Enforcement of anti-noise and nuisance-related bylaws would not be convenient for the police. They are heeding the advice of the Canadian Association of the Chiefs of Police — declining such solutions and claiming their hands are tied until they are given tougher laws against soliciting itself. Since the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities were out of their jurisdiction in passing bylaws against prostitution, politicians in Vancouver and elsewhere, acting on information from the police, have been very obliging about lobbying Parliament for those Criminal Code changes.

With the recent moves of BC's Attorney General, Brian Smith, the cops' strategy seems to be really paying off. West End residents formed a new organization, Shame the Johns, to avoid appearing to harass prostitutes by concentrating on driving away their customers (and livelihood). Angles reports that there seemed to be many gay men among the shamers, no doubt men who think of themselves as "decent homosexuals," proud of helping to "clean up" their neighbourhood.

It's so much easier to whip up public sentiment against hookers than against negligent cops. And it's effective:

The need for scapegoats and the desire to keep people distracted from the realities of the depression are not going to go away until the economic crisis itself is dealt with. Street prostitution is increasing elsewhere than in Vancouver. Other cities — Niagara Falls, Halifax and Toronto — have seen the development of groups like Shame the Johns, and other politicians are looking into "the BC solution," notably Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry.

Morality campaigns seldom restrict themselves to one issue or group; they have a way of reaching out to ensnare other deviates. Vancouver gay activists are taking the vice squad's determination to interpret the injunction as loosely as possible as a warning to gay men who might be tempted to have sex in the park.

While the paper itself doesn't publish editorials, Angles's news coverage of Shame the Johns and the harassment of hookers has taken an increasingly pro-hookers'-rights stand. In the August issue, reporter Richard Banner comments, "Rather than attempting to ban activities related to prostitution, a more functional approach may be to decriminalize it, making it subject only to ordinary business regulation procedures. This approach would alleviate the threat to civil liberties that is created when governments try to regulate the legitimate activities of residents."

The "decent homosexuals" of the West End still need to be firmly reminded, however, that it takes only one cruise of a vice cop to turn a "decent homosexual" into a criminal deviant.