Monday, August 30, 2004


Underbelly of Vancuver
Downtown Eastside


Hi All!

Here is my perspective on Safe Work Sites for Sex Workers. The Sex Trade occurs in two arenas. It involves Indoor and Outdoor Sex Work.

Currently, indoor prostitution occurs in municipally controlled and regulated escort agencies and massage parlors cross Canada. Various Cities in Canada through their land use and zoning departments, usually license prostitution through four different categories. They include: escort service, body-rub parlor, massage service and health enhancement centres.

These types of facilities provide some measure of protection to Sex Workers, however, their sole purpose of being in business is for profit. Many sex trade workers choose not to work in these city sanctioned brothels because they can be highly exploitive. For instance, the house usually takes 50% of your fees even though you're the one actually doing the work. Not all sex workers can work in these places because they may not have the look that these agencies require. Many of these service agencies also prefer hiring women in their late teens or early 20's. If you have a criminal record for prostitution as many sex workers do, the city has a requirement that only those free of criminal convictions for prostitution be allowed to work in these establishments.

In Vancouver for example, The city through its permits and licensing department, along with the Vancouver Police approve all indoor licenses in the City. A requirement for obtaining the license is that Sex workers must be interviewed by the Vice department to ascertain their suitability for a city-issued license.

Vancouver like other large urban centres in Canada have outdoor areas where the police and City have created de facto red light zones of tolerance. These red light districts, often are in industrial, deserted after dark, poorly lit sections of the city. The police often leave these areas alone since they are located away from schools and playgrounds.

It is these areas from which most Sex Trade Workers have been subjected to violence. It is easier for bad johns to target women and men in these areas as there is no protection or record of the customer. Vancouver along with other large Cities have seen an alarming trend in Sex Worker violence. More often than not, prostitution murder cases remain unsolved.

Many outdoor sex workers would prefer to have a safe place to conduct their business. But these places are considered bawdy houses and are illegal. Consequently, the majority of street prostitutes must turn tricks in locked cars in dangerous deserted areas.

Vancouver in 2000, witnessed a collectively started wellness centre run by sex workers for sex workers. The house was set up on the edge of a red light district in an industrial part of Vancouver. The girls brought guests to the house and for a small guest fee of ten-fifteen dollars could have guests over. The Sex worker would off-load this fee to their paying customer.

This house was staffed and no Violence occurred in it's 8 months of existence. At this small scale Guesthouse, condoms and feminine hygiene products were offered at no charge. There was a shower and bathrooms. Clean sheets and towels> were provided. There was always some food available if the sex worker hadn't eaten. Vitamins were kept on hand and there was an extensive library where the members could take books from. Peer Counselors were also present to provide emotional support, if needed.

Pandora's Box, as the brothel, was called operated from a mandate of collectivism rather then profit. The well-being,safety and dignity of sex trade workers was the guiding principle.

Pandora's Box would be the most suitable model of what a Brothel for outdoor workers might look like. It was based on a harm reduction philosophy and humane approach to the risky, active outdoor prostitution business.

Cities through its licensing departments could provide non-profit licenses to a group, or collective of individuals who wish to establish a safe brothel for their work. Vancouver has lead the way in opening a safe injection site for drug mis-users. Its progressiveness of being a leader around harm reduction should be extended to the issue of safe work sites for sex trade workers.

Vancouver, compared to other cities in Canada, has born witness to the highest rate of violence toward its sex workers who work outdoors. It should now begin a program to offset this reputation of being the Sex Crime capital of Canada. Vancouver must join groups pushing for removal of bawdy house section 210 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

Only then will street prostitutes be safer from the horrendous situation which places them in harm's way.

Jamie Lee Hamilton
(604) 781-3361