Thursday, March 13, 1997

Bruce Macdonald

p. A15.

The business of sex: Then and now

A hotbed of sin greeted the first transcontinental train passengers as they arrived in Vancouver.

Ever since the first loggers and millhands arrived on Burrard Inlet in the 1860s, prostitutes have worked their trade in Vancouver. Then, the vast majority of the population was single and male. There were saloons and gambling for entertainment, but virtually no female companionship, except at a price.

From the city's incorporation in 1886 to the present, there have been some constants in the conduct of the "sex trade" and its regulation.

Then, as now:

  • MOST commercial sexual transactions quietly occurred behind closed doors and were generally tolerated.

  • THE "TRADE" was located in the downtown east side, away from family residential neighborhoods and near the waterfront industrial lands where many single men on the margins of society lived. This is where men tended to go out at night to spend money and get drunk; they still do, although their intoxicants of choice have increased over the years.

  • PUBLIC PRESSURE to shut down sexual commerce has commanded great media attention from time to time.

  • DESPITE THIS, the response of the authorities to these public demands hasn't succeeded in shutting down the trade, just displacing it and publicizing its presence further.

Today, the "geography" of the trade is under siege; some of the prostitute "strolls" in rundown areas are facing redevelopment into new apartment districts; elsewhere new prostitutes sometimes spill into residential areas. Consequently they are becoming more visible -- again; their work is news -- again -- especially when it is conducted in a residential neighborhood or near a school; and the demands that something must be done are being heard -- again.

The first clean-up call occurred in 1887, shortly after the founding of the city and just after the arrival of the first transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway passenger train. The hotbed of sin for years had been the Indian Rancherie at the remote far eastern end of town. The first sight of Vancouver encountered by the first train passengers was the unsavory and ramshackle Rancherie. Just over a month later the city's chief of police evicted all its occupants.

Prostitution didn't leave town but its centre moved to the industrial False Creek waterfront at Dupont Street, today the unit block East Pender. An 1889 map reveals this one city block contained mainly tenement buildings for housing single men and six buildings labelled "ill fame"; two labelled "gambling"; two saloons; one lottery house; and one opium factory. In 1891 the first census of the new city showed Vancouver was still predominantly populated by young single men. Men outnumbered women in all parts of the city: more than three-to-one around Gastown and about two-to-one in the areas to the south and east.

The police of Victorian Vancouver worked to contain prostitution in the Dupont Street brothels by fining prostitutes arrested there $20 and prostitutes arrested elsewhere $50. This resulted in a concentration of 44 brothels by 1907. That year also brought pressure from groups like the Moral Reform Association and new property owners who forced the police to arrest the Dupont Street prostitutes. Business shifted one block west and, then two blocks south by 1910.

Some prostitutes attempted to move into Mount Pleasant and the west side of town but again were dealt with more severely by police, in effect restricting prostitution to the downtown east side. In the 1980s a similar move by prostitutes into Mount Pleasant on Broadway east of Cambie led to a similar result.

In 1911 more public pressure brought widespread arrests, leading to the appearance of new brothels in the 500-block Alexander Street. This marginal site on the industrial waterfront was adjacent to the location of the former Indian Rancherie. The police left it alone until 1912 when the authorities decided to no longer tolerate any red-light district in the city. They closed Alexander Street brothels and prostitutes dispersed over a wider area of the city in 1913.

Who are the men who buy sex? John Lowman of the criminology department at Simon Fraser University Information knows them -- statistically. He and his research colleagues obtained information from court files on 434 men charged between 1991 and 1995 in Vancouver with communicating, in a public place, for the purpose of buying a prostitute's services. There were 440 charges, with sex men being charged twice.


ETHNIC ORIGIN, as recorded in police terminology: Caucasian, 52 per cent; Asian or Oriental, 17.1 per cent; East Indian, 15.7 per cent; Native Indian. about three per cent; and Black, less than two per cent.

(Ethnic origin of the sellers: Caucasian, 73 per cent; Native Indian, 18 per cent.)

MARITAL STATUS: Single, 43.4 per cent; married or in a common-law relationship, 42 per cent.

RESIDENCY: Vancouver, 48.9; the suburbs and the Fraser Valley, 44.2 per cent; outside B.C. two per cent.

THEY TRAVELLED: by bike, .7 per cent; on foot, 8.2 per cent; by van truck or recreational vehicle, 23.9 per cent; and by car, 67 per cent.

THEY TRAVELLED: Alone, 84 per cent; in pairs, 10.3 per cent; as a party of three, 3.6 per cent; of four, 1.8 per cent; and, of five, once.

In the 1970s the closure of the famous Penthouse Cabaret, home base to 60 prostitutes on an average night, contributed to the dispersal of the trade to new locations in the street. This increased visibility brought public outcry that caused police to clamp down on the prostitutes in the west end. This contributed to the move into Mount Pleasant in the 1980s and the ensuing public outcry there.

To this day prostitution is mostly contained in the downtown eastside and industrial waterfront areas and nearby commercial strips where many men still live, work and seek nightlife. As in 1891, so in 1991: Men still outnumber women three to one in the area around Gastown and two to one in the areas south and east.

Recently Vancouver police announced that their principle target for prosecution will no longer be the seller, but the buyer. Prostitutes will be arrested only to keep them away from residential and public areas and to prevent the sexual exploitation of young people.

This new policy is "an extremely advanced and intelligent move," says John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University and student of the sex trade whose 1996 study I consulted in preparing this commentary.

Our history asked this question: Dare we hope that this newest containment decision will not result in the trade reinventing itself to test the tolerance of the public and tactics of the authorities -- again?

Bruce Macdonald -- the urban historian and cartographer whose atlas, Vancouver: A Visual History, won the 1993 Vancouver Book Prize.

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Created: April 9, 1997
Last modified: July 2, 1997

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