Friday, September 19, 1997

Douglas Todd

Criminologist who favors legal prostitution wins controversy prize

JOHN LOWMAN: Winner of '97 Sterling Prize for Controversy.

A B.C. criminologist who favors repealing all prostitution laws has won this year's $5,000 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy.

After researching the sex trade for 20 years, Simon Fraser University Professor John Lowman lambastes municipal governments, for what he calls their "hypocrisy" in calling for prohibitions on prostitution at the same time they draw taxes from it.

While Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen and councillors have opposed prostitution in general and bawdy houses in particular, Lowman says they have conveniently ignored how the city earns tax money off the licensing of escort services and body-rub parlors, which Lowman says are the fastest-growing and most lucrative component of the prostitution trade.

"Most politicians continue to point a moral finger," Lowman says. "St the same time, behind their backs, local governments are taking money from the very trade they are condemning. The extent of the trade can be seen in ads for escort services and massage parlors in the Yellow Pages across Canada."

The Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy honors work in any field that provokes valuable controversy. Previous winners include SFU criminology student Russel Ogden, who discovered AIDS sufferers who had died from assisted suicides, and SFU economist Parzival Copes, who wrote in 1972 that the Newfoundland fisheries were a massive make-work project. The prize is named after retired SFU computer scientist Ted Sterling and his wife, Nora.

While hammering Vancouver council and cautiously praising Toronto city council for considering licensing prostitutes and red-light districts, Lowman said: "We should repeal all prostitution laws, and start over. We must create viable choices for people who see prostitution as their only option for making a living, and develop programs of harm reduction for sex sellers who want them."

Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen rejected Lowman's "hypocrite" label, saying the SFU professor's views reflect those of a "theoretical academic," not someone who has to deal with the complexities of prostitution in the big city.

Owen acknowledged Thursday that the city of Vancouver charges high licence fees for its rising numbers of escort services -- as much as $3,000 a year.

"Council has decided escort services are a fairly lucrative business. And, to discourage everybody from getting into it, we keep the fees up," Owen said.

Owen says escort-service ads appear to promote little more than female accompaniment for "lonely senior men," but admits many are probably prostitution rings. "But you've got to prove it. And is that really a priority for our police force?"

Owen also rejects Lowman's proposals about setting up places where prostitutes could run their own non-profit businesses. Vancouver residents, Owen says, rise up in fury whenever a bawdy house is suggested for their neighborhood.

Lowman's research shows the murder rate of Canadian street prostitutes has risen dramatically since the 1980s.

He believes violence against prostitutes has jumped because "local politicians, residents' lobby groups and police have joined the shrill campaign demanding more punitive measures to sweep prostitution from our streets. I believe this anti-prostitution rhetoric made it that much easier for sexual predators and other mysogynists to justify violence against street prostitutes."

Lowman sees four goals for the campaign to decriminalize prostitution:

  • Protecting prostitutes from pimps and customers.

  • Using generic public-disturbance criminal laws and street-commece bylaws to protect neighborhoods from nuisance caused by street prostitutes.

  • Preventing sexual procurement of children and youth.

  • Establishing non-profit self-employment agencies for prostitutes in "appropriate locations."

Lowman will speak about his research into the sex trade at a lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m., at SFU Harbor Centre in Vancouver.

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Created: September 22, 1997
Last modified: March 21, 1998

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