It’s illegal to pay for sex in Canada, including Vancouver. But the odds of getting arrested are slim.
And it’s that situation that has united people from an unlikely range of backgrounds; abolitionist feminists to religious community groups, and ordinary neighbours who have been calling on Vancouver Police and the city to stop the demand by stopping the men who buy women.
The case for arresting Vancouver’s Johns and pimps, Part One: Myth or consent?
The first step they say is recognizing prostitution as male sexual violence.
That’s in stark contrast to the message we often see in popular culture about prostitution; that it’s a victimless crime between two consenting adults, that sex workers can sell themselves because women do have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and that sex workers are labourers in an industry that is unfairly and prejudicially labelled “prostitution.”
But that’s not everyone’s experience.
Heather is one such woman, who says she was trafficked in the 1980s, drawn in unwittingly through her job at, of all places, a law firm.
As a 19-year-old she became friends with an older female colleague who began to introduce her to wealthy men.
“There were a couple of lawyers, and they were just there as her ‘friend.’ Looking back on it now there was obviously something else going on there but I didn’t think anything of it.
She says eventually the meetings escalated to the point where she was taken on a yacht in Vancouver where she was drugged, and used.
“I was drugged on several occasions. She was one of the people who was doing it.”
Heather says she has no doubt that the same predators are active today, often drawing young women in from the most unlikely places.
“It was a large network at the time. It was operating out of the Penthouse, it was operating through brothels, massage parlours, strip clubs. They had a whole network of sex trafficking going on. Now it would be even more prevalent because of the internet. It happened in law firms, transnational corporations, where I was set up in a board room.”
Victim or sex worker?
Undoubtedly, books such as The Happy Hooker, as well as Hollywood’s re-imagining of the Cinderella fantasy as Pretty Woman, and TV shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl have played role in society’s own re-imagining from its hateful depiction of the prostituted woman as something less than human, to somebody that matters.
But for some the phrase “sex worker” hides a reality about prostituted women, and says a reluctance by police to clamp down on the Johns puts those women in as much danger as they’ve ever been.
“I understand that some of the rationale for not arresting johns is that sex work can be consensual; so if paid sex is consensual then what’s the money for?”
“The money is used to coerce consent, and under Canadian law consent must be given freely. The money shows there is no consent.”
That’s according to Vancouver-based feminist Jindi Mehat who was speaking to a Vancouver Police Board meeting earlier this year.
Mehat called on the VPD to start arresting Johns because, for one thing, it’s the law.
“By not arresting Johns, the VPD tells men that men’s desire to get off trumps women’s safety and freedom, that men are, in fact, entitled to our bodies and you’re leaving women to deal with the consequences alone.”
Mehat also told board chair Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was sitting just a few feet away, that the board needs to act because Robertson already promised that he would.
“Mayor Robertson, in 2009 you signed a declaration that named prostitution as violence against women. The declaration you signed after last year’s Modern Slavery and Climate Change workshop committed to ending all forms of slavery including prostitution.”
“In light of those commitments I’m disappointed that as chair of the Police Board you haven’t ordered the VPD to use Bill C36 to arrest johns especially considering the province had said it will apply the law whenever police bring forward charges.”
Months later police haven’t said whether or not a single charge has yet been made against a John under Canada’s prostitution laws, Mehat says it’s because the city is pressured not to act.
“You know a lot of so-called liberal-feminists have really accepted this pro-sex work argument and unfortunately they’re a very, very vocal group and right now the city and the police are listening to them.”
“It is a bit of a disadvantage but we have the facts on our side and I think it’s really important to understand we are the only groups (as) abolitionist feminists who do not have a financial interest in this argument, are lot of groups who are pro-sex trade are actually working with pimps and brothel owners so you always have to question their motives.”
Mehat is a proponent of what’s described as the Nordic Model, it’s one that recognizes the demand for prostitution coming from men who pay for sex, and says they and the pimps who exploit women need to be arrested. The women themselves are the victims of sex trafficking, they are not the ones who have committed a crime.
Activists aren’t the only ones calling for action.
Amy is a resident of Vancouver’s Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood, who says she’s frustrated watching the sex trade operate openly- sometimes right in front of her house.
She says she understands some people may see prostitution as a choice, but she says she sees girls who are “young, manipulated, and clearly living in poverty.”
“So how is it a choice then? It’s a choice of desperation at that point, and when they’re at the hands of someone who’s willing to give them money. How can that be consensual?”
She says along with the trade comes it’s trappings, like drugs and discarded needles, and that the trolling Johns are raising safety concerns among women and children.
“People in this neighbourhood have been approached by men, who were not prostitutes. I’ve heard stories were people were waiting for the bus and were aggressively approached by pimps who were with their prostitute.”
WATCH: Neighbour speaks out about prostitution in her neighbourhood
The case for arresting Vancouver’s Johns and pimps, Part Two – Heather’s Story
Hurt the Johns, hurt the sex workers
But Andrea Krüsi, Research Associate with the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative at the BC Centre for Excellence says the Nordic model is wrong, and says criminalizing any aspect of sex work is harmful to those same women.
“What we’re talking about here is consensual sex between adults.”
“And there’s often a tendency to conflate sex work with trafficking or forced sex, and that is not what we’re talking about and currently there are laws on the books that deal with aspects of sex work the proponents of (what) an abolitionist or a Nordic Model (proponent) are talking about such as coercion, trafficking in persons — we have laws that already deal with these aspects and so we don’t need another law that specifically regulates sex work.”
Read more: VPD guidelines for sex work enforcement
Krüsi says her own study has shown that criminalizing clients creates the same risks of violence and poor health as criminalizing prostituted women.
“In our work we interviewed sex workers and our findings indicated that the criminalisation of clients increases the risk of violence for sex workers due to, first of all the inability to screen clients and negotiate the terms of sex work transactions.”
“So that could mean the inability to negotiate condoms, the type of service that’s provided, where the transaction takes place because it remains in the shared interest of the client and the sex worker to avoid detection by police and therefore there’s a time pressure on this initial negotiation piece.”
It’s not an opinion Jindi Mehat shares, arguing Johns aren’t safe to be with under any conditions.
“The violence in prostitution comes from the Johns.”
“What they are doing is essentially exploiting and sexually using these women. There’s very clear evidence in Sweden that what the Nordic Model actually does is decreases the violence in prostitution, it decreases trafficking and it reduces the demand for prostitution.”
“To say that it drives prostitution underground is a bit confusing to me because one of the key tenants of the Nordic Model is to decriminalise the women in prostitution out of recognition that they are essentially being exploited by men who want to sell and buy their bodies.”