September 16 - 23, 1994

Taras Grescoe

p. 9.

No Haven for Hookers

No Haven for Hookers

The prostitution debate is as old as the neighbourhoods at the eye of the storm

The apartment building I live in is close to all the amenities. There's a welfare office across the street for the last Wednesday of the month, a Legion hall next door for weekend nights, and a church across the lane for Sunday mornings. Transportation isn't a problem: a southbound freight train judders through the railway cut every evening, Surrey-bound Sky Trains pass the kitchen window nearly every other minute, and 18-wheelers thunder along the thoroughfare by the railway tracks. The greasy spoon down the street serves a bottomless cup of watery coffee all night long, and condoms are available at the corner store till four in the morning.

My girlfriend and I like our building, and we like this East End neighbourhood. There's nothing particularly romantic about it, but the food in the restaurants and delis is good, and people around here have stories to tell.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, a tall woman with long hair, high heels, and velvet slacks poked her head into the kitchen and asked my girlfriend if she could use the bathroom. She had been pacing up and down the exterior corridor alongside our apartment, her stiletto heels clicking against the planks, as though she were trying to keep out of sight of the back alley. In the apartment, she washed her face quickly, then came out of the bathroom and sat down at the kitchen table. The cops were cruising up and down the alley, she said, and would it be a problem if she sat down for a couple of minutes?

My girlfriend didn't know what to say; the woman had already made herself at home, dumping her makeup and compact onto the table. As she covered her face with a layer of paper-white foundation, she said her name was Alma. Whisking her lashes into rows of inverted commas with a mascara brush, she looked around the room: the apartment was cute; how much was the rent? She was looking for a place about this size, she said, transforming her brows into black parenthesis, because she wasn't getting along with her roommate.

After applying two periods of blush to her high cheekbones, she looked up from her compact. The conversation had all too obviously become a monologue, so she stood up and stuffed her belongings into her packed purse, which she snapped shut by pressing it palms-down against the table with the full weight of her body. She said she should really go — but thanks for the use of the bathroom. Half an hour later, when my girlfriend took out the garbage, she noticed that Alma was still hiding from the police, this time in the stairwell underneath the porch.

Our building is about three blocks away from the prostitute stroll on the eastern fringe of Mount Pleasant. Alma is one of the girls who regularly work the little side street; when the presence of ghost cars has spooked her mid-day clientele, she'll sometimes come over to Commercial Drive for a quick lunch at the greasy spoon on the corner.

Her arrival certainly hasn't brought any noticeable decline in the neighbourhood standards. There were always used syringes in the parks and gutters around here — as in many of the city's poor neighbourhoods, whether they play host to prostitutes or not. There's been no change in the amount of noise either: it's hard to outdo the racket made by the half-dozen boys who get together on summer afternoons to play street hockey in the lane. The only thing that has changed is the number of police cars, marked and unmarked, endlessly cruising the side streets and back alleys and occasionally forcing a harassed woman to huddle under our porch for up to an hour at a time.

When construction of our building was completed in 1906, Mount Pleasant was a far-flung suburb of Vancouver. Prostitutes didn't work the streets; they worked in the safety of the rows of houses that lined Dupont Street, a two-block stretch of present-day Pender Street between Main and Cambie. In a town where most of the citizens were male, and 85 percent of them were single, prostitutes had been tolerated — and patronized — by city officials since the incorporation of the city in 1886. Originally, the brothels had been scattered throughout the town site, operating on the Hastings Mill property at the foot of Gore Street, amidst the saloons on Water Street, or in Shanghai Alley. But with the completion of the railroad, wives and children came to join their husbands, and by 1906, the managers of the so-called disorderly houses had been convinced to relocate to a single restricted district — Dupont Street.

Although there were national laws on the books that made pimping or keeping a bawdy house an offence, in Vancouver they were overlooked as long as the prostitutes worked in a few designated areas. When the aldermen noticed that the civic coffers were empty, they'd send the constabulary out to round up the prostitutes, collecting enough $20 fines to tide city hall over for the next few months. The madames of the day, tough former prostitutes such as Birdie Smith and Blanche Douglas, looked on the fines as a routine operating fee. But the city's population was growing — it would quadruple in the first decade of the century — and something like a high society was beginning to emerge. The ladies of Mount Pleasant were sporting beaver hats made from the pelts of animals shot at Trout Lake; society women were gathering in a different West End home every weekday afternoon to drink tea and discuss social issues.

One of the topics of discussion in the drawing rooms of the day must have been "those women" on Dupont Street. Across Canada, there was a move to eliminate what was being euphemistically referred to as "the social evil." Middle-class local women, many of them recent arrivals from the east, came to the conclusion that their adopted city was a hotbed of white slavery. Suddenly, the brothels on Dupont Street were not just a banal institution that long predated the founding of the city, but "a seething hell of immorality," the ultimate destination for women kidnapped from respectable homes to be sold into vile slavery. The fact that almost all of the houses on Dupont were owned and managed by women, many of them longtime residents of the city, suddenly seemed irrelevant. Pressure groups, from the East End Improvement and Protection Association to the Vancouver Moral Reform Association, presented petitions to council asking for the elimination, or at least relocation, of these vice colonies.

The leagues for morality elicited blustering statements of goodwill from city hall, but it took arguments of downtown property owners to move the civil servants into action. Mayor Neelands came to the conclusion in 1903 that "the location of these houses is far too central to be allowed to remain, now that the city is showing such a tendency to grow in that quarter. When Pender Street is opened, as I hope it will be shortly, Dupont Street will be then one of the main thoroughfares, and I think it would be a disgrace to the city to allow the resorts in question to remain." Even as the police started arresting the women of Dupont Street, warning them to never return, the same property owners who had petitioned council started to buy up the suddenly vacant homes — on what they had been assured would be a prosperous main thoroughfare.

Strangely enough, the closing of the houses didn't eliminate the social evil — for some reason, the prostitutes didn't suddenly migrate to Seattle or decide to cloister themselves in a nunnery. Within a month, the Magdalenes of the restricted district had established themselves in dozens of different homes in neighbourhoods throughout the city, including Mount Pleasant. Immediately, a group of outraged residents demanded that the new arrivals be ousted because "their presence there would be inimical and detrimental to the moral and material interests of Mount Pleasant." But they didn't stop there. "We would further suggest that the City Council take immediate steps to eradicate the evil from the city entirely."

A fine idea, but how to implement it? A concentrated hotbed of vice — that is to say, a few safe, well-managed homes on Dupont Street that happened to interfere with the ambitions of local businessmen — had been successfully "cleansed," only to re-emerge instantly all over the city, provoking outraged reactions from concerned citizens. One prominent alderman suggested that the women be located in some isolated section of the city, preferably an industrial area, where they would bother no one. The Moral Reform Association suggested that the names of the frequenters be taken by policemen standing outside the doors of known disorderly houses. Finally, nothing was done — the controversy blew over until four years later, when another group of civic reformers realized that the city's prostitutes had established a beachhead on Shore Street, just west of Strathcona, and had opened no fewer than seven brothels. It was a pattern that would be repeated over the decades as legislators, seeking votes or ceding to lobby groups, orchestrated crackdowns on ever-shifting centres of moral degeneracy.

The evil as existed, is present and will exist. If any attempt is made to clear out the streets where it is now present in a concentrated form, the result would be distribution of the class all over the city.

– Vancouver Police Chief Chisholm,
quoted in the Vancouver Daily Province August 8, 1906

I don't think you can ever eliminate prostitution. All we can do is keep moving it. It's a special problem.

– Vancouver Police Chief Ray Canuel,
quoted in the Vancouver Sun July 8, 1994

IT'S EASY to recognize the hypocrisy of another age. The terminology of Vancouver's first prostitution debate, so obviously based on naive, turn-of-the-century assumptions about human nature can only sound quaint today: "frequenters," "restricted zones," "disorderly houses." Nine decades later, however, it's only the names that have changed: the residents of Mount Pleasant are taking down licence-plate numbers of johns rather than the names of frequenters; politicians are suggesting that isolated Industrial Avenue, near Main and Terminal streets, be turned into Vancouver's restricted zone; and the keepers of disorderly houses — now referred to as bawdy houses under the Criminal Code — are actively prosecuted. Meanwhile, prostitutes are still being shifted around the gridiron of Vancouver's city streets like pawns on a sprawling chessboard.

From a moral and business standpoint, the removal of the women from Dupont Street is imperative. Shall we drive these women from the city, or shall we allow them to locate in some isolated section? There is the whole question. I am not going to suggest any solution today.

– Alderman Odlum,
quoted in the Vancouver Daily Province June 15, 1906

[Premier Mike] Harcourt said a safe zone would be in a non-residential area, possibly on the waterfront. He insisted he was not proposing legalized bawdy houses or a red-light zone.

– The Vancouver Sun
July 25, 1994

JOHN LOWMAN, an SFU criminologist and major contributor to the 1983 Fraser Committee report — the largest study of prostitution ever undertaken by the federal government — points out in that study that "street prostitutes in Canada seem to be particularly prone to a certain brand of male violence." In other words, they tend to be brutally assaulted or murdered. When it comes right down to it, the biggest difference between being a Magdalene on Dupont Street in 1906 and being a hooker on East Broadway in 1994 is that the turn-of-the-century harlot could expect to live longer. There were 26 unsolved street-prostitute murders in Vancouver between 1982 and 1992, and literally hundreds — probably more like thousands — of assaults.

Until 20 years ago, most prostitutes in Vancouver worked in bars or hotel rooms. In 1975, after a six-month investigation, the owners of the Penthouse Cabaret — where up to 50 prostitutes could be found on any given night (in contrast, there are almost never as many as 50 prostitutes working the streets at one time in Mount Pleasant) — were charged with living on the avails of prostitution. For Lowman, "this police action more than anything else was the main reason for the substantial increase of street prostitution in the West End." In other words, civic policy has hounded prostitutes from the safety of houses, where they were managed by women (often former prostitutes), into bars, where they were exploited by businessmen, then, finally, onto city streets, where they have been killed by sociopaths.

Why do street prostitutes prefer to work in residential areas rather than isolated industrial districts? Kara Gillies, a prostitute and a spokesperson for a Toronto-based prostitutes' support group called Maggie's — formerly the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes — says experience in her city has shown that the safe strolls proposed by politicians and residents' groups are helpful to no one but killers. "For a potential assailant, knowing that you're in a residential area, and knowing that there are people around, are both major deterrents. So-called safe zones are really ghettos, and extremely dangerous ghettos, at that. An industrial area tends to be a wasteland — there's no one to look after you, and experience has taught us that cops spend more time harassing us than protecting us."

The decision to [prosecute brothel owners for nuisance offences] reflected the thinking of police commissioners and the police department. Prostitution couldn't be stamped out, so control it as much as possible.

– Joe Swan, "The Golden Age of Prostitution, 1906-1912,"
British Columbia Police Journal, Winter 1982

We are not out to stamp out prostitution. We want the city and the police to effectively manage prostitution.

– Mount Pleasant antiprostitution campaigner Doug Jameson,
quoted in the Vancouver Sun July 19, 1994

ACCORDING TO the police, about 500 prostitutes are now working the streets of Vancouver. Because of a controversial 1984 court injunction that forced hookers from the West End, many now work in the two poorest residential neighbourhoods in the city, Strathcona and Mount Pleasant. These neighbourhoods, two of the few within city limits where affordable single-family homes can still be had, are attracting new residents; in Mount Pleasant, the average household income has risen $7,125 in just five years.

Alicia Priest, a Vancouver Sun reporter who recently bought a house in Cedar Cottage — a neighbourhood that borders on Mount Pleasant — wrote about her own frustration in July. "As the price of a Vancouver home continues ever skyward, the West Side creeps ever eastward," she observed. "When yuppies have to live with hookers, pimps, drug dealers and johns, politicians will hear about it. ... Johns and hookers are not going to go away, so where are they going to go? Away from families. Away from children. Away from people's homes. Vancouver will always have a sex trade, but not in my backyard." Another neighbourhood where prostitutes — often longtime residents in the area — can work the streets with a modicum of safety is being declared off-limits by nearly arrived home owners.

Most protesters and home owners are quick to say that they have nothing against prostitution per se. Anyway, it has always been around, the oldest profession and all that. What they object to are the needles and used condoms that their children inevitably stumble upon, and the noise and nuisance that always seem to accompany the street trade. They don't care where the prostitutes go; all they know is that they want them off their streets. Unfortunately, Vancouver is reaching the saturation point: the low-income neighbourhoods where prostitutes could once work with some small degree of safety are disappearing while, as Priest says, "the West Side creeps ever eastward."

At first glance, prostitution appears to be a civic issue, a question of turf. Hookers work on city streets; city cops arrest them and their clients; and there are city bylaws against some of the nuisances associated wit prostitution. Couldn't the mayor simply banish the hookers to another area? Couldn't the police chief instruct his officers to lay more charges?

That's exactly what they've been doing for the last century. Whenever prostitution becomes a nuisance, whenever inconvenient lobby groups — from the Moral Reform Association to Mount Pleasant's current Shame the Johns campaign — put pressure on city hall, civil servants lamely propose safe strolls, and the number of arrests temporarily increases. In order to clear Vancouver's streets of prostitutes once and for all, SFU's Lowman estimates that it would be necessary to increase the holding capacity of Canada's prisons for women fivefold.

I can do better for myself in a week at Josie's than a year in somebody's bloody kitchen!

– Julia Ann Carver, an accused prostitute, when told in 1886 by Vancouver's police chief that she had been rescued from Josie William's brothel to be sent to Victoria as a scullery maid (as quoted in Betty Keller's On the Shady Side)

We're all in the business for different reasons, and it's hard to talk about someone making a free choice, because free choices are limited by your environment and what your needs are at that time. There are varying degrees of necessity: there are some people who want to put their kids through college; there are other people who need to put a roof over their head. For me, a professional prostitute is someone who has clearly and voluntarily made the decision that they are going to make their living doing sex work.

– Kara Gillies, working prostitute and advocate

IT'S NOT ILLEGAL to be a prostitute in Canada. About 1,500 of the city's prostitutes work indoors: in massage or shiatsu parlours, in their apartments, for escort services, and in brothels. If these indoor workers are beaten or raped, they can't go to the police, because doing so would be an admission that they were working in or keeping a common bawdy house. For this reason, many prefer to work the streets. They can screen their clients, and often they're surrounded by coworkers who will take licence-plate numbers and alert them to bad dates. As the law stands now, if a woman takes a john back to her place, he can beat her, rape her, steal all her money, knowing full well that if she goes to the police, chances are that her complaint will only be considered, if not a pretext for laughter or arrest, simply another good reason for her to get out of the business. It should be no surprise that many women prefer East Broadway or Gore Street to their apartments.

According to police-department figures, 90 percent of the prostitutes in Vancouver are adults. the 200 prostitutes in Vancouver under the age of 18 can be arrested for any involvement in the sex trade. Some feminists argue that all prostitutes, no matter what their age, are victims; they have internalized abuse or patriarchal attitudes to such an extent that they cannot be considered capable of freely choosing their fate.

For Kara Gillies, this is condescending nonsense. "There's an argument that in a society in which men and women were equal socially and economically, prostitution would disappear. I don't believe that's true, and I feel personally resentful that a lot of feminist academics have come up with this theory without talking to the women who actually work in the business. It's a job, and a lot of people, if they had all the financial freedom in the world, wouldn't do anything, but there are plenty of prostitutes who have actively chosen prostitution over other similarly lucrative jobs."

Many, probably most, of the prostitutes in Vancouver are working in the sex trade because they see it as the best of a limited number of options in their lives. Critics of prostitution cast it as the worst of options: compared to other trades, there are high levels of drug addiction, violence, and disease. Others prefer to look at it as modern-day "white slavery," pointing out that some prostitutes in North America are forced to work because of continual violence and intimidation. According to this argument, nothing should be done to make prostitution an easier trade to get into.

Despite this, in editorial after editorial, we're told that prostitution has always been around, that it's the oldest profession, that the sex trade is here to stay. Anthropologists such as Helen Fisher, author of the controversial book The Anatomy of Love, point to research that shows prostitution is a constant in human societies, even those without capitalist economies.

According to Fisher and others who have studied the history of prostitution, women and homosexual males use sex as a strategy for obtaining food or social status in dozens of tribal societies. One United Nations study suggests that at least 10 percent of women in urban areas throughout the world earn all or part of their living from selling sex.

Even if you accept the doubtful proposition that in the best, most egalitarian of all possible worlds, the act that we call prostitution wouldn't exist — despite evidence to the contrary — you can't accept the violence and ghettoization undergone by millions of women in the here and now precisely because of the moralistic laws that govern every gesture in a prostitute's life.

Because of federal laws in Canada — the most recent of which were upheld by four Supreme Court judges, all of them male, despite the opposition of two female judges — anything a prostitute now does to earn a living, from talking to a potential client in a public place to taking a client home to have sex, makes her an outlaw. As an outlaw, she risks interfering with her own living if she goes to the police about being beaten or raped while working. If she gives the money she earns to a lover or child going through school, he or she can be charged with living on the avails of prostitution. If she recommends a friend to a good client, she can be convicted of procuring. Although current laws have the magnanimity to acknowledge the existence of prostitutes, they also ensure that they remain the most powerless members of society, susceptible to threats or intimidation that any other citizen would immediately report to the police.

I suspect that this is exactly how the lawmakers like it. Married men with established reputations have good reasons to fear giving prostitutes more power, and they'll probably do everything they can to confuse the debate as long as they can.

But the debate shouldn't be confusing. It boils down this: should prostitution be criminalized, decriminalized, legalized, or left in its current limbo? Proponents of criminalization believe that prostitution is an activity that should have no place in our society; according to a Martin Goldfarb poll, they are vastly in the minority. Those in favour of legalization believe that the state should have the right to regulate both the bodies and the activities of prostitutes. Proponents of decriminalization acknowledge the existence of prostitution as a human activity and the rights of those who choose to undertake it. Apart from a few Supreme Court judges, it is hard to find anyone who seems to support the current state of things.

Decriminalization would involve removing all (or most) references to prostitution from the Criminal Code so that adults could work out of their own homes or in hotel rooms. Prostitute collectives would be permitted to operate escort services and/or clubs where prostitutes and clients could meet. Just like anyone else, prostitutes causing a nuisance would be subject to generic public nuisance laws (whether criminal or civil) and pimping would be controlled by criminal laws prohibiting extortion.

– John Lowman, in the Vancouver Sun
March 27, 1992

There should be no law which implies systematic zoning of prostitution. Prostitutes should have the freedom to choose their place of work and residence. There should be no law discriminating against prostitutes associating and working collectively in order to acquire a high degree of personal security.

– World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights, International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights,
Amsterdam, February 1985

IF, TOMORROW, all references to prostitution were struck from the Criminal Code, it would not immediately eliminate the problems confronting the residents of Mount Pleasant.

But it would do something for the woman hiding under our porch, and, frankly, she's my first concern. To begin with, Alma would have a better chance of getting to her lunch date without worrying about being stopped by the cops. If her lunch client hit her, she might decide to report him to the police, which she could do without having to worry about being arrested for having "communicated" with him in the first place.

The thing is, in a few months Alma might find that decriminalization had opened up an alternative to working on the streets. She would be able to share an apartment with a couple of girlfriends without worrying about her friends being arrested for living off the avails of prostitution. Pretty soon, the customers would start to realize that these women wouldn't hesitate to run to the cops if there were the slightest question of violence or nonpayment. Eventually, the roommates might decide that they'd be better off in a bigger place, and one of them might start scanning the classified ads for a house to rent.

Prostitutes are the most powerless
members of our society,
susceptible to threats that others
would report to the police.

At first, the prospect of groups of prostitutes scouting Vancouver's residential neighbourhoods for a home to operate in is a disquieting one. As a neigbour, you'd live in dread of all the attendant nuisances. But Vancouver's existing illegal brothels suggest that, once they're off the streets, prostitutes make pretty good neighbours — certainly better than your average group of college students. When a brothel operating in a house at 40th and Trafalgar was closed in 1992 — after several months of operation — many of the neighbours said there had been no undue disturbance: one resident went so far as to say that the regular operation of the church on the same block was far more disrupting.

As the law stands now (federal brothel law hasn't changed much since the turn of the century), managers of illegal brothels try to keep as low a profile as possible by avoiding noise complaints. If working out of a residence were made legal, Alma's continuing livelihood might well involve running a quiet household. Not only would a nervous landlord be ready to evict on the slightest pretext, but the police would be freed from patrolling prostitute strolls for more useful work.

For Alma, decriminalization might offer a degree of security and independence. But the scenario could easily go another way. Although 70 percent of Vancouver's prostitutes claim to work independently or in partnership with their boyfriends, the remaining 30 percent work for what the police call "hard-core" pimps.

One day, a tough bastard from Calgary might show up — maybe one of Alma's old boyfriends — and start slapping her around and demanding her earnings, making her too afraid to go to the police. This is already happening to millions of terrified women through North America. Most of them are wives. A change in prostitution legislation would have no effect on this kind of violence against women. It's one of those problems, like drug addiction, for which there are no quick and easy solutions. Only a prolonged commitment to creating alternatives and changing attitudes will eliminate the violence associated with marriage. However, something can be done for the 2,000 prostitutes working in the city right now. Decriminalization wouldn't eliminate the street trade, but it would offer a way out for many of the 500 people working the streets.

The brothels of Dupont Street — with the names of the madames spelled out in mosaic tiles on the sidewalks — were the safest havens ever created for working girls in this city, but they existed in an ever-narrowing gap between what civic leaders could get away with allowing and what polite society professed to believe; they were doomed to disappear. Re-creating the safe working environment that prevailed at the turn of the century shouldn't involve a city-wide embrace of 19th-century hypocrisy. It simply means accepting the humanity of prostitutes — something our laws refuse to do — and giving them the legal power to fight the violence in their lives.

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Created: June 17, 1999
Last modified: April 6, 2000

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