Mar 21, 2002

Document Tools

Print This Article

E-mail This Page

Font Size
S      M      L      XL

Related Stories

vol. 23, no. 6

Stopping Violence against prostitutes

We will need much more than an inquiry to stop violence against prostitutes, and it will take much more than the arrest of a single offender, even if he is a serial killer.

By John Lowman
A growing chorus of voices is calling for an investigation of the Vancouver police department (VPD) for its failure to adequately investigate the growing number of disappearances of women from the Downtown Eastside after 1995.

According to a series of articles in the Vancouver Sun, the VPD did not begin any kind of investigation until 1998. From 1998 through 2000, the investigation was beset with problems. Initially just two officers were assigned to the case. Later, the department claimed that up to nine people were assigned to the missing women, but it turns out that most of them were part-time or working two jobs at once.

Police were reluctant to add names to the missing women list. Officers distrusted one another and withheld information from each other. The computer system experienced data entry problems. Some officers are said to have lacked the training necessary to deal with such a complex case. It was not until the formation of the joint RCMP-VPD missing women's task force in April 2001 that any real progress was made.

As a result, we now know that Robert Pickton, the man charged with the murder of two of the missing women, was well known to Vancouver police and had previously been charged with the attempted murder of a prostitute. We are left with the distinct possibility that if VPD had taken decisive action sooner the two women Pickton is accused of murdering would still be alive.

Of course, it also is possible that newspaper reports are not accurate and an inquiry would vindicate the VPD. But either way - and here is the most important point - we will need much more than an inquiry to stop violence against prostitutes, and it will take much more than the arrest of a single offender, even if he is a serial killer.

Of 50 homicides of sex workers in B.C. that I and Laura Fraser examined during a 1994 study into violence against prostitutes, funded by the federal department of justice, there were charges in 17 cases. None of the accused men was charged with more than one murder, although several of them may have killed more than once.

Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of VPD's three-year denial that a serial killer was responsible for women going missing is that the department already possessed evidence that several homicides in the mid 1990s were linked. In the media frenzy surrounding the Pickton case, the 60 or so prostitute homicides in British Columbia from 1985 through 1998 - as compared to only three from 1964 to 1979 - have all but been forgotten. And, of course, these homicides represent only the extreme end of a continuum of violence against street prostitutes.

How do we stop this violence? Generally the two options that are presented reflect a deep rift in feminism. On the one side, radical feminists argue that prostitution is female sexual slavery and inherently abusive, that no woman who could truly exercise a choice would ever choose to prostitute, and that as the ultimate male objectification of the female body, prostitution hurts all women.

From this standpoint, the solution to violence against prostitutes is to criminalize the men who purchase sex and everyone involved in pimping and procuring. In opposition to this view, a choice-first feminism asserts that female sexual slavery and prostitution are different, that a woman's right to control her own body must include the decision to prostitute, and that radical feminism is just one more form of oppression. For the choice-first feminist, the solution is to decriminalize prostitution and concentrate police resources on violence, coercion and sexual exploitation of youth.

Unable to settle on either philosophy, Canadian governments have developed a multiple personality disorder regarding prostitution. The political strategy is to say one thing and do another. There is no better example of this doublespeak than the proclamations of Vancouver city councilors. In 1996 the city of Toronto recommended that prostitution be decriminalized. Vancouver's mayor Philip Owen and city councilor Gordon Price both spoke against the proposal on the grounds that they did not want to be seen to condone prostitution. Shortly thereafter, another Vancouver councilor, Lynn Kennedy, proposed establishing a john school to educate men charged with communicating in a public place for the purpose of buying sex.

Although the communicating law prohibits nuisance - the acts of buying and selling sexual services are legal in Canada - the john-school curriculum is a moral and pseudo-scientific invective against prostitution.
And yet this same city council licences an extensive and lucrative prostitution trade in escort services and body rub parlors and does not hesitate to charge a premium for the privilege. The fee for a body rub parlor - where sexual touch is permitted - is nearly $7,000 per annum, the third most expensive business licence behind the Pacific National Exhibition and the racetrack. In contrast, for a massage parlour licence, an establishment where only therapeutic touch is allowed, the annual licence fee is under $200.

The result of the council's willful blindness is the creation of a class system of prostitution. Men and women can buy and sell sex in off-street venues with impunity. Escort service and body rub sex workers are not being murdered, mainly because someone monitors most of the transactions. Meanwhile, the women at the lowest-priced end of the prostitution trade are left unprotected because doing something for them could be seen as condoning male exploitation of women. Instead, British Columbia police authorities are talking about establishing a DNA bank for prostitutes to enable the identification of the bodies that end up in a morgue.

Surely the priority should be stopping the deaths in the first place.
Back in 1985, the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution recommended that the federal government completely overhaul Canadian prostitution law. The Committee suggested that as long as prostitution is legal, we should decide where and under what circumstances it can occur so that we may more effectively combat female sexual slavery, sexual exploitation of youth and the nuisance attributed to the street trade in residential areas.

Seventeen years later, we still badly need a blueprint to sort out what we are trying to achieve, as even judges on the Supreme Court cannot agree about the purpose of Canadian prostitution law. In the long term, our objective should be to create a society in which no person is forced to prostitute because of poverty, drug addiction, drug law, or another person. But this would also be a society that protects the right of a person to prostitute and protects them from violence in the process.

Until we figure out solutions to poverty and drug addiction, which is probably what the women on the Downtown Eastside would prefer, we need to develop simple and expedient harm reduction strategies so that the women

Search SFU News Online