Monday, February 06, 2006


Posted below is an article which appeared today in 24 Hours. While the Pickton voir dire is on, we need to be reminded how unsafe, street level sex trade workers are--Jamie Lee.

How safe are the streets of Vancouver?


Ask Susan Davis when the last time she had a 'bad date' was, and the Vancouver sex-trade worker doesn't have to think too far back.

"Last night," Davis says. Her 'date' was drunk, and got a little too rough. But Davis didn't even think about telling the police.

"It's amazing what we get used to," she shrugs, by way of explanation. "An assault to me is relative to the number of times I've been assaulted. And I've been assaulted so many times I can't remember."

Davis isn't Vancouver's average sex-trade worker. She's also an outspoken advocate, chairing the support group PACE, speaking with prying reporters whenever asked. Nor does she work on the street any more, instead plying her trade through small classified ads in the backs of newspapers. She's a licensed escort; she even pays taxes on her earnings, a hushed sort of government- condoned part of the industry.

But Davis's profession is once again in the spotlight after the start last week of the high-profile Robert Pickton trial. The Port Coquitlam pig farmer is accused of being Canada's worst serial killer, with 27 murder charges on his indictment.


Many of the women Pickton is accused of killing were street sex trade workers in the city's troubled Downtown Eastside. Davis doubts women on the street are any safer today.

"It's right back to where it was," Davis says. "There are missing women posters up in the Eastside right now."

Long-time activist Jamie Lee Hamilton agrees.

"You still get anecdotal evidence of women who are victimized," Hamilton says. "And so while there hasn't been the [alleged] serial killings, the victimization is still occurring."

But while the police were at one time accused of ignoring assaulted sex workers, Hamilton says the relationship between the department and the neighbourhood has improved.

"[The police] often come down to the strolls, and they are, I think, a lot more open to hearing about when someone's been hurt," Hamilton says.


But the police are handcuffed by laws that allow governments to quietly accept taxes from 'indoor' sex-trade workers like Susan Davis, while turning a blind eye to street prostitution, says SFU criminologist John Lowman.

"Police are in a no-win situation," Lowman says. "What they've done in Vancouver is essentially set up informal red light districts."

It happens when street prostitutes are quickly shooed out of residential areas because of the inevitable outrage from local residents. Instead the women move to scarcely populated industrial zones where few will complain.

"We've put a target on them and invited serial killers to pick them up," Lowman says bluntly.

Lowman, winner of the 1997 'Sterling Prize for Controversy,' wants prostitution to be decriminalized and the discussion on how to make it safer moved forward.

But he admits that will be unlikely with the new Conservative government taking office. In fact, a parliamentary committee report on prostitution law was shelved before the election, and there's some question as to when it will see the light of day.


In the meantime, the cycle of the street sex trade continues. A 'shame the Johns' campaign has moved many of the women from their traditional strolls. Some have returned to more residential neighbourhoods, like along Kingsway Avenue.

"They're being pushed into areas where the community's not used to seeing them," says Susan Davis, who acknowledges there are no easy solutions, or even easy targets to blame.

"This isn't necessarily the fault of the police," Davis says. "This is the cost of cutting back social programs. Cutting money to addiction services. Cutting money to mental health services. Cutting services for women who have no capacity to help themselves."

And even SFU's John Lowman admits changing prostitution laws isn't the answer for the so-called 'survival sex trade workers,' some of whom are addicted to drugs, or abjectly poor, or both.

"They may choose to be a prostitute but they choose to do so in circumstances where they have no other choice. Law is not the issue at all," Lowman says. "But until we can figure out how we can solve their real problem, I would prefer to see them protected."

- Irwin Loy, 24 hours