It’s time for Mayor Gregor Robertson to follow through on his commitment to address prostitution in Vancouver

Gregor Robertson

On Wednesday, November 18th, in East Vancouver, about a dozen people from the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood attended a panel discussion called Creating John-Free communities. Panel members from Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity (REED), human rights lawyer Gwendoline Allison, and Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating (EVE) discussed the exploitation of prostituted women and encouraged local residents to write to Suzanne Anton, BC’s Minister of Justice, asking her to enforce anti-prostitution and trafficking laws across the province and provide funding and programs to help transition women out of prostitution.

Prostitution is a well-publicized issue in Vancouver, so I was surprised to hear, for the first time, that a declaration mayor Gregor Robertson signed this summer pledging action to address climate change also committed to “ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of modern slavery, which are crimes against humanity, including forced labour and prostitution.”

Robertson has made battling climate change a key part of his platform, even going so far as to commit to making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. Unfortunately, his position on prostitution has been less consistent and, given the city’s recent position on Bill C-36, downright dangerous.

Not that long ago, Robertson expressed concerns about prostitution, speaking out against legalization during his first election campaign. In his first term, he signed a declaration naming prostitution as violence against women and committed to stopping, in his words, its “sexual enslavement of women and youth.” A few years later, in 2011, Robertson suggested using social media to expose “johns and those who are exploiting people in our community, women primarily.” So it’s clear that, not long ago, Robertson understood prostitution to be dangerous and exploitative, a view that’s hard to debate given the history of violence against prostituted women in Vancouver that continues today.

Prostitution exists throughout Vancouver — in licensed brothels, massage parlours, strip clubs and, most visibly, on city streets. Our Downtown Eastside, a diverse and complex neighbourhood whose success stories and strong sense of community are too-often overlooked, is infamous not only for its open air drug use, but also for its highly visible street prostitution scene, where poor, mostly Indigenous women are pimped, exploited, abused, and murdered.

Although Vancouver’s abolitionist community is diverse and determined, the city’s dominant narrative around prostitution has been shaped by well-funded organizations (and sex industry profiteers) who lobby for full decriminalization based on the misguided (and profitable) notion of harm reduction. These groups who claim so-called sex workers are harmed by stigma, but not by the pimps, johns and traffickers who abuse and exploit them, advocate to reform and regulate the industry, to treat it like any other type of work. Claiming to speak for “sex workers,” their pro-legalization stance ignores prostitution’s roots in colonialism, its racism, sexism, and the ways prostitution reinforces male entitlement and the objectification of women. Those who rely on harm reduction models in order to fund themselves also have a financial stake in ensuring the marginalized remain so.

Treating “sex work” like other types of work ignores the brutal realities of prostitution in Canada, where, of those in prostitution, 76 per cent have been raped (and of those raped, 67 per cent have been raped more than five times). Reducing stigma doesn’t change that 95 per cent of prostitutes, when asked, “What do you need?” answered “to leave prostitution,” followed by 82 per cent who needed drug and or alcohol treatment, and 66 per cent who said they needed a home.

Given that reality, watching our mayor contradict his early position in order to align himself with those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns has been disturbing. These days, the mayor, the City, and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) now stand firmly behind “minimizing harm” but not working to dismantle prostitution, and firmly against Bill C-36, Canada’s new federal legislation that criminalizes pimps and johns in keeping with the Nordic Model. It’s no coincidence that the City’s approach is the least costly and least labourious way to address the interconnected issues of poverty, addiction, marginalization, and prostitution.

The Nordic Model targets the demand for commercial sex that feeds human trafficking. This framework, which has been shown to reduce both the demand for prostitution, and violence in prostitution has three prongs: it criminalizes buyers, decriminalizes prostituted women, and invests in programs and services that aid women to exit prostitution, and offer them real support once they’re out.

Bill C-36 is Canada’s imperfect interpretation of the Nordic Model. To be fair, the Bill falls short by criminalizing communicating for the purpose of selling sex near a playground, school, or daycare, plus, the federal government needs to commit more funds towards exiting services and social safety nets. Still, by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, it’s an important first step towards protecting Canada’s most vulnerable women.

You would think a mayor who has already recognized prostitution as violence against women and who suggested publicly naming johns to deter them from buying sex would support and work to strengthen legislation that recognizes the inherent exploitation in prostitution — especially after signing a declaration that commits to ending that exploitation and counts prostitution as modern slavery and a crime against humanity. Instead, Robertson is now, essentially, supporting men’s right to buy and sell women, shutting out local abolitionists, and blatantly ignoring Canada’s laws.

If Robertson is serious about ending prostitution, and not just playing politics, there is a clear path forward. A path that includes working with the new federal government to strengthen the aspects of C-36 that criminalize pimps, johns, and traffickers.

In the meantime, since, under Robertson, Vancouver has demonstrated willingness to opt out of enforcing C-36 altogether, it could instead opt out of enforcing the communications prohibition alone, and begin using C-36 as a tool to hold traffickers, pimps and johns accountable for their exploitation. The city could offer prostituted women real alternatives: increase exit services, drug treatment programs, and double down on the mayor’s failed pledge to end homelessness.

On the other hand, if Robertson signed the declaration to attract more publicity for his climate change agenda, with no real intention of acting to end prostitution, I hope he thinks carefully about who he has sacrificed and who he is betraying in doing so. Either way, Gregor Robertson has questions to answer and contradictions to explain — and I look forward to joining Vancouver’s abolitionist community as we push him to respond.

Jindi Mehat is an East Vancouver-based second wave feminist who is reconnecting with feminism after several tours of duty in male-dominated corporate land. Follow her @jindi and read more of her work at Feminist Progression.

Jindi Mehat
Jindi Mehat


Jindi Mehat is a Vancouver feminist activist and general rabble rouser.

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  • Tangelo

    Excellent article, covers the issue very well. Thank you.

    One request: the home page link to this article has a picture of prostituted women standing on night streets. It’s always been a peeve of mine that news organizations use these type of photos to accompany stories about prostitution, even when their focus is on the harms johns do to children and trafficked women. I’d be happy to see these stories illustrated instead with unflattering photos of johns curb crawling. Johns are really the face of prostitution, as they drive the business. Should center them in the photos.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Very true. And every time I post about the problem of men buying sex, I try to find ones that have johns in the image and it’s next to impossible! I tend to think it’s less problematic so long as the images don’t sexualize the women… I mean, Gregor is meant to be helping those women, standing there on the corner….

  • Tangelo

    A bit of topic, but I just read another blog that had a link a recent White House PSA video on sexual consent.

    The White House , wittingly or not, appears to support the abolitionist view that men who pay to prostitute women are rapists. In the first 10 seconds, the PSA actors state:

    “There’s one thing you can never have sex without. It’s not something you buy. Or something you take. It has to be given to you. Freely. It’s consent. Because sex without it, isn’t sex. It’s rape.”

    🙂 Truth.

  • Meghan Murphy

    it’s very frustrating

    • lagattamontral

      Illustrations could work, if they are afraid of lawsuits. A man in a minivan or SUV, with “baby on board” in the back window. We used to see them all the time at one of the strolls near the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. One stroll for girls, one for boys. A lot of the users of boys were also heterosexually married men. And I use girls and boys advisedly; both groups were mostly teens from the very poor neighbourhood on the Montréal side. And the ciients there, from South Shore suburbs. Using hungry kids.

  • Tera

    We have the same issue with our Mayor Don Iveson in Edmonton. I have seen johns who travel to Edmonton to buy sex comment on those awful review sites like perb/cc that Edmonton has a “great variety” of licensed massage parlours. Although, unlike Robertson, Iveson has shown no interest in the issue of prostituion as either slavery or a gender issue whatsoever and has never called it out at all–saying only that The City is making the best of a bad situation (by giving licences to MP/brothels)
    I was fortunate to be there for Rachel Moran’s talk here yesterday; during the open question period I asked her about the issue our city seems to have with enforcing c-36, that giving licences is at odds with the new law and asked what her thoughts were–she said they were wilfully ignoring the law and mentioned Vancouver as well.

    Call me naive, but isn’t the federal law the law? How is it that individual municipalities are able to arbitrarily interpret this to mean what ever they wish it to mean? Edmonton has got its self quite the human sex trafficking problem and there is little connection being drawn to these erroneous licences and the legitimacy and power it gives to those who exploit.

    Afterward, one person told me mine was somewhat of a controversial question, what a lot of people are thinking but not wanting to ask. I’m thinking controversial? This is blatant! There are a small group who have spoken up, but have been totally ignored as I’m told. On my way out after Moran’s talk, I got what felt like a rather intimidating stare from an Edmonton city police officer, perhaps I was being paranoid, but one has to wonder…what is going on?? this seems ludicrous.

    • omphaloskeptic

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Edmonton is giving out licences for escort services — the service of accompanying someone to a social event (basically, being a date) — rather than for sexual services. Escort services are not prohibited by the Criminal Code.

      • Tera

        That may very well also be the case, but they are giving out licenses to massage parlours/body rub brothels as well. There’s about 40 or more of them all apparently licensed by the city.

      • Tera

        They are also aware that they are being used for prostitution. Totally separate from legitimate message therapy, although from what I understand, those legitimate businesses and RMTs have are all under the same bylaws as the brothels and the prostituted women in them.

  • Nunovit

    The link behind “misguided (and profitable) notion of harm reduction” is broken but it did go to UBC Open Library theses and I would be interested in reading the article.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Sorry about that — have fixed.

      • Thanks, Meghan. I’m honoured, too.

        • Meghan Murphy


  • Susan Naomi Davis

    wow…way to misrepresent work done in vancouver….your nordic model is in place all over canada…some areas are enforcing….is it having a positive impact there?

    why don’t you look into areas who follow your preferred approach of arresting everyone and report back about how great they are doing and how sex workers lives have been positively impacted by the enforcement….

    i guess the vancouver task force and the broad approach taken by the city isn’t good enough for you….housing, exiting, addicitons….and many other aspects of this issue are being adressed…but if they don’t all out arrest every indoor worker, close every massage parlor and arrest any many who even looks in the direction of a sex worker…it’s not enough eh?

    your side has had over a year to prove your nordic nonsense…..where’s the promised out comes…? where are women safer….?

    you got your wish, the nordic model is in play….why not find out what it’s doing? why focus on our work? why not see if what you have done is working….?

    you never write anything about the impacts of your much lauded bill c-36….come on….you said it was great….show me how great it is….find one place in this country where it’s working…

    oh, right…’s not working yet because of men in power…..if only they would enforce against everyone…then you could prove how good it is….

    what a crock…..and in the mean time….sex workers once again pay the price for your arrogance…

    i thought you wanted to help sex workers…..where are the exiting programs… me the magic land of nordica where all my problems and financial woes are expelled….


    • Meghan Murphy

      Vancouver’s policy has been to outright ignore the new laws. They are not arresting johns, nor have they provided exiting services for prostituted women. We got the law, yes, but it needs to be enforced (and the government needs to follow through with funding as well as fully decriminalizing people in prostitution). There are, as a result, hardly any impact to write about. I’m not sure why you’ve come to complain here — why not complain to Gregor Robertson or the police? Oh that’s right, because you’ve pressured them into ignoring the law completely…

      • Susan Naomi Davis

        right….me….i pressured them….what ever meghan… wasn’t me who pressured anyone…it was everyone but you and your abolitionist ilk…. who were opposed to the movement forward here…with your alarmist rhetoric and no practical suggestions for stabilizing people’s safety….

        your nordic magic show is on across canada….nowhere where it’s enforced is showing your Utopian outcomes…? exiting and housing and addictions and police response to violence and many other aspects were discussed in the vancouver task force on these issues and many solutions are underway….but you don’t mention those things…ever….and link to your own articles as some sort of proof that you are right …

        saying it doesn’t make it right…

        and wait….it didn’t work in sweden either…shocker….

        when will abolitionists come on board with stabilizing the safety of ALL women….not only those willing to renounce sex work….

        and meghan…i came over here because you used this article as a link to prove mayor robinson was bad some how…..and i wiil always challenge your position especially when it is based on false claims and cherry picking of data….you should know we will not stand by while you try to undermine our safety and stbility for the sake of your ideology….

        you are not a sex worker, you are not impacted

        we are

        • Meghan Murphy

          Not you alone, of course, but there is documented evidence where you yourself admit to working with the police to get them to let johns off/not enforce the new law.

          And all women are impacted by prostitution. All of them. The girls who have not yet been prostituted, the ones who are trying to escape or already have, and the women who will never themselves be prostituted.

          Your claims about Sweden are equally as ignorant as the rest of your comment(s).

  • Meghan Murphy

    You aren’t defending prostituted women, Susan. You are, as you admit to here, defending men’s right to buy sex. That is not feminism, that is men’s rights advocacy. Where have I called names? In any case, if you don’t like name-calling, I suppose you disapprove of your friend Joyce Arthur’s comment calling survivors “clowns?”

    • Susan Naomi Davis

      clowns…? she never said survivors of violence are clowns….and i am not saying it’s a “right”….jeez….i defend our rights as consenting adults….it’s my body…my time….my work….

      you always twist our perspective into somehow violent towards women…you make us sound like monsters…who want to silence women and who support exploitation and abuse…why do you do that when you know its not true…?

      my comments about abolitionists not caring about the safety and happiness of consensual sex workers is true….read babble…it’s been said to me over and over….

      i have always said the experiences of people who survive exploitation and violence are important…..and that i have experienced violence and exploitation myself…never anywhere have i dismissed the voice of any sex worker…abolitionist or not….

      but consistently…you and your supporters name call and undermine our voices…dismissing us as privileged….calling us men’s rights activists…

      how is that feminist? do we not have a right to be heard? especially since it affects us?

      • Meghan Murphy

        OH ok. What exactly does “Oh look, a clown car full of ideologues,” with reference to a group of survivors speaking out against prostitution and in favour of the Nordic model, describe to you?

        Listen, Susan. Your manipulations just don’t work here. Your lies don’t work here. We all know why it is you are invested in this fight and it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the human rights and dignity of women. It is about greed, pure and simple. You want to open a brothel. Just like Terri Jean Bedford does. I don’t care what men OR women who pretend they are fighting for ‘sex worker rights’ say who ONLY care about profit.

        If you wanted to help women, you’d call out and try to stop men from abusing and exploiting them, pure and simple. Prostitution will NEVER be good for women and girls. Never.