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Despite Pickton trial, Canada's government abandons sex workers to danger.

Daniel Francis 23 Jan

Vancouver writer Daniel Francis has just published Red Light Neon: a History of Vancouver's Sex Trade (Subway Books). He writes regularly for Geist. Look for more Tyee collaboration with Geist in the near future.

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Needed: pragmatism over posturing

Vancouver's very own "trial of the century" has started, and with it comes the glare of publicity from members of the media who have gathered from around the world. Unhappily, what they see does not reveal the city, or the country, in a very positive light. Even though we have known for 20 years that Vancouver street prostitutes have been dying in unprecedented numbers at the hands of one, probably more, sexual sadists, we are forced to admit that no steps have been taken to do anything about it.

For instance, it is now certain that as long as the Conservatives remain in power in Ottawa, there will be no change to the legal situation of sex workers in Canada. This much is clear from the report (PDF) issued before Christmas by the parliamentary subcommittee studying the prostitution laws. The report is titled "The Challenge of Change", which is ironic, considering that change is the last thing the committee wants.

Job safety issue

On the one hand, the parliamentarians recognized that the present laws victimize sex workers, especially street prostitutes, by leaving them vulnerable to violent assault and murder at the hands of sexual predators. On the other hand, they decided to do nothing about it.

The apparent paradox is resolved if one considers the basic premise adopted by the Conservative members of the committee. (The Liberals, Bloc and NDP members took a slightly different view, but they were outnumbered.) No woman, the Conservatives believe, would choose willingly to engage in commercial sex. In the absence of choice, coercion is the only explanation for the persistence of prostitution. "The most realistic, compassionate and responsible approach to dealing with prostitution," the report states, "begins by viewing most prostitutes as victims". And because the state cannot condone victimization, nothing should be done to make it easier or safer for prostitutes to ply their trade.

In reaching this conclusion, the Conservatives on the committee appear to have listened to the sex workers who appeared at the hearings, but not to have heard them. Like everyone else, sex workers are divided about what changes they would like to see made to the prostitution laws. But it is fair to say that one thing they are agreed on is that they are not all victims. Some are. They are forced into prostitution by economic necessity, a drug habit or a controlling pimp. But many more are not. Much as the Conservatives refuse to admit it, many women, and young men, do indeed choose to engage in commercial sex as a viable way of making a living. Why should their safety be of less concern to Parliament than the safety of any other worker?

Like all prohibitionists, the Conservatives refuse to face the fact that experience has shown that increased penalties, against either johns or prostitutes, merely forces the sex trade deeper into the shadows, placing its participants more at risk. No, prohibitionists know better than the women themselves what is best for them, and what is best is that they leave the trade. Sensible report ignored

Conservatives are not alone in taking a hard line against commercial sex. Prohibitionists do not conform to conventional political divisions. Any number of left/feminist voices make the same argument that Conservatives do: prostitution is oppression and should be eradicated, not regulated and certainly not decriminalized. As a result, it was easy for the majority of the committee to take a "do-nothing-more-study-is-needed" approach.

A more sensible report appeared a couple of months before the parliamentary one. It was issued in Vancouver by the Living in Community project, a community-based attempt to work out some of the problems associated with the commercial sex trade. The project involves sex workers, police, neighbourhood groups, business associations and health agencies in a series of public meetings intended to "encourage dialogue" and promote safe communities. And that means safe for everyone, including sex workers.

The report, called "Balancing Perspectives on Vancouver's Sex Industry", set out a draft action plan (PDF) to actually do something about the situation that many sex trade workers find themselves in. It eschews the language of victimization. Instead it accepts that "individuals have the basic right to make decisions about their own bodies." It adopts a pragmatic approach to the challenge of reconciling the existence of a commercial sex industry with the need for public safety and propriety.

Already, a variety of programs have been launched in Vancouver to improve the safety of street prostitutes, including drop-in centres, self-defence training, detox facilities, emergency housing and so on. If any improvement is going to take place in dealing with the challenges presented by the sex industry, it is much more likely to come from this community-based process than in the moral posturing of federal politicians who, with the release of the parliamentary report, have made themselves part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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