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.