PIMP MY CITY!
Rhiannon Coppin answers the timely red-light question
Politicians are like prostitutes—always resorting to tricks. It is too much to ask for leadership on a health and safety issue that has reached Olympic proportions?
What will be the perfect, lovable, cuddly mascot for Vancouver and Whistler’s stab at 2010 Olympic glory? Perhaps the rare white Kermode “Spirit” bear or the dwindling Vancouver Island marmot. Some have also suggested the hoary marmot, known as “the whistler” due to its shrill vocalizations, which is Whistler’s namesake. Problem is, some say, that the media would have a field day.
The other problem is that none of these animals will be visible during the games, preferring to burrow down in winter. Another hoary creature, however, will be quite abundantly visible, and cuddly to boot. A snow-loving prostitute may end up being the most representative, and visible, form of wildlife during the games. Mascot problem solved.
Every Olympic host city welcomes hordes of tourists, many of whom desire to commune with the natural and unnatural wildlife of the region. The sex trade rises to meet demand. As the maxim goes: If you bid it, they will come.
Athens modified city policies to ramp up legal brothel activity before the 2004 games. Sydney, where brothels are legal, saw an estimated 10,000 sex workers work the streets, strip clubs and bars in 2000; they reportedly serviced as many as 150,000 clients per day. Back in 1984, prostitutes haunting the Los Angeles summer games warranted their own trading pin: the LAPD Prostitution Task Force pin, featuring a scantily clad blonde against a five-ring backdrop.
Vancouver, already catering regularly to Americans seeking more bang for their buck, has already seen the upswing—and backlash—that a world event can bring to the sex-trade scene.
Back in the days of Expo 86, when the Science-World/TelusSphere, Canada Place, and SkyTrain premiered, occasional reports warned that “hookers” from LA were bringing their bad habits—like drugging potential clients—to Vancouver. That summer, West End and Mount Pleasant residents held confrontational protests and scuffled with ladies of the night, while city engineers erected street barricades around Seymour and Helmcken to dissuade cruising johns.
Given that our world fair featured communication as one theme (the other being transportation), it’s perhaps ironic that 1986 was the first year that Vancouver hookers (as they were called back then) faced the anti-communication law. Though prostitution itself remains legal in Canada, legislation passed in late 1985 made it an offence to communicate in public for the purposes of making a deal to trade sexual favours for material gain.
No communication? Material gain? Sounds like a different piece of law. One sex-trade worker quoted in a 2004 Pivot Legal Society study put it thus: “If the sexual act is between two consensual adults, where the woman is willing to do what the man wants in exchange for something—how is it any different from what married people do?”
Well, the only difference at present is which side of the law you’re on.
Politics, not prostitution, is the world’s oldest profession. After all, before human tribes developed the idea of trading food or shiny pebbles for sex, we had to devise a way to avoid talking about it. The recent Vancouver civic election brought a brief flash of sex-trade issues to light: a transsexual who has had charges brought and dropped for madam-ism ran for a council seat; Sam Sullivan managed to deflect the impact of his late-‘90s stint of supplying $40 a day toward the drug habit of a 20-year-old prostitute; and ex-councillor Tim Louis lost his seat after agreeing with a Vancouver Sun editorial team that a city-run brothel—non-profit, of course—doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
In the pre-election brouhaha, Sullivan was quoted as saying that he didn’t want to get “in the business of being a pimp.” Then he went and got elected, and became one.
As Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman has told the media, Vancouver allows for-profit sex through “health enhancement clubs,” “massage parlours” and escort services. Though most small businesses pay an average annual licensing fee to the city of about $150 (restaurants pay closer to $600), a new escort agency is required to pay $982 per year. Each escort pays an additional $175 out of his or her pocket. A new body-rub joint pays the city an annual licensing fee of $7,914.
Vancouver, clearly, is already in the business of prostitution; we’re just not up-front about it. Our police force could choose to ignore the communicating laws and even turn a blind eye to rules against bawdy houses. The conundrum is this: If we choose to facilitate the sex trade, will more young men and women be drawn into it both as buyers and sellers, some less willing than others? Yet if we make the sex trade prohibitive or more criminal, do we risk sending more men and women, who must then hide from the public and police, to their graves?
Anti-poverty groups rightly want to see “survival” sex-trade workers (those who sell sex to cover day-to-day needs) provided for, so that they don’t have to stalk the streets. You shouldn’t have to use your mouth, so to speak, to get dental care.
It may be a despicable notion to some--moralists, some feminists, social workers, and even some prostitutes among them--but perhaps the city should, after all, invest in a whorehouse of its own. Look no further than the city-acquired Woodwards building, with its ominous scarlet W.
Alcohol and gambling, two previously illegal vices, have become acceptable forms of entertainment under government license. Prostitution won’t cause cirrhosis of the liver, and is less likely than gambling to deplete your son’s college fund--unless you’re quite perfervid. The only real difference between these so-called vices is that prostitution may involve unwilling, coerced, indentured participants: victims. Some say this is exactly why we need to legalize and regulate it. Give prostitutes labour rights and better access to health care, and treat the profession like any other: tax it.
Like Greece, Australia, and the US, Canada never signed the 1951 un treaty declaring prostitution “an affront to human dignity.” (The treaty calls on signatories to prosecute any person or group that facilitates it, through pimping or in any other way.) So, in other words, we still have the green light on the red light.
Prostitution is difficult to talk about because it combines so many taboo subjects: acceptable behaviour and notions of morality; addictions, both substance and sexual; public health and the spread of STIs; power and exploitation. It takes quite a bit of bravery to stand up at city hall and start talking about the sex trade. But it takes even more courage to stand on a corner north of Victoria and Hastings past midnight.
Copyright © Rhiannon Coppin, 2006