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The effort, dubbed Living in Community and funded through the City of Vancouver, set out to explore how the sex industry and the surrounding community affected each other, and to find ways to improve the harmful conditions that had developed. In 2007 the group produced a report concluding that many things had to happen to combat the survival sex trade, including long-term support for housing, drug treatment and skill development; secure funding for existing social services dedicated to sex workers; and an education curriculum to fight sexual exploitation and sex-work recruitment. While Barnes admits these largely long-term recommendations aren’t satisfying for area businesses looking for a hard and fast solution to the problem, there is a bigger picture involved: “The only way to get survival sex trade off the streets is to help the women get off the drugs, get out of the cycle, get out of poverty – to help them get into a different way of life.”
Susan Davis agrees with Living in Community’s recommendations for broad social support, but says she believes there’s a much faster way to reduce the violence faced by street-level sex workers: give them a safe workplace. Davis has been a sex worker for 22 years and acts as an organizer and spokesperson for the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities. Last December coalition members announced their intentions to build a brothel in east Vancouver as part of a broader plan to form a sex-worker co-op.
At a downtown café, Davis beams with pride as she pulls out a stamped certificate from a folder, the result of months of hard work: a provincial licence given to her and her colleagues in February validating the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals. Although it’s little more than a legal entity now, the co-op would be the owner and operator of the brothel – if it’s ever built.
Davis matter-of-factly counts off the benefits of a brothel: working in a house full of other sex workers would be much safer than getting into strangers’ cars; it would keep sex work away from the public and other businesses; and clients would know where to go, which would reduce cases of non-sex workers being propositioned by johns. The idea gets more complex as Davis goes on, though. She also wants a catering service, an art collective, a publishing program and other side projects to help sex workers transition out of the profession if they choose to. “This is common ground between all stakeholders,” Davis says. “It addresses all of their needs.”
The wrinkle in the plan, of course, is that such a site would be illegal, clearly violating the law against operating a bawdy house. To work, the brothel would need a legal amnesty – similar to Vancouver’s safe injection site. But the federal government, already vocal about its opposition to Insite, has rejected the notion outright. And opposition is not just restricted to conservative politicians. Several women’s organizations have spoken out against the concept, launching a campaign called No 2010 Brothels to condemn any official sanctioning of prostitution.
Daisy Kler, an organizer with the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, says she’s opposed to the plan because prostitution fundamentally violates the notion of women’s equality. She challenges the notion that sex workers are safer working indoors than on the streets, and says the idea sex workers are victims of violence because they’re ostracized is “ridiculous.” “Stigma does not create violence against prostitutes,” she argues. “Sure, it can push women to darker corners on the street. But men do the violence – it’s not the nighttime, it’s not the dark, it’s not the outdoors or the indoors.” Kler, like Davis and O’Doherty, wants the actions of sex workers to be decriminalized; however, she wants the buying of sex to become a crime instead. The end goal of such a law, she says, is to abolish prostitution entirely.
But after more than 20 years of parliamentary studies and recommendations, there’s no indication the Conservative government – or for that matter, the Liberal Opposition – is willing to touch the laws. It seems like the only way change will occur is through the courts, and that’s precisely what another group of B.C. sex workers is attempting. Currently there are two court challenges arguing Canada’s prostitution laws are unconstitutional, in that they deny sex workers rights guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of the cases was filed in August 2007 by Vancouver’s Sex Workers United Against Violence, with help from the Downtown Eastside-based Pivot Legal Society, and is expected to be heard by the B.C. Supreme Court next February; the other was launched in March 2007 by the Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada. Depending on how the courts decide, these cases could potentially nullify Canada’s prostitution laws.