Prostitution has moved indoors, which means safety for sex workers and privacy for clients. But did anyone check with the neighbours?
Another gloomy afternoon in November. The only relief comes from the glow of a nearby convenience store and, further down the street, a few perky mom-and-pop-type ethnic eateries and an insurance office. There is one bright spot on this nondescript block of Hastings Street: a string of white lights circling a brightly lit Open sign on a clear glass door that, if you were driven to enter, then to climb the meagerly carpeted red stairs, pass through the shabby office with its small Christmas tree, greet the manager, and be led into the warren of hallways and rooms beyond, would deliver you to Christine, who would be happy to explain to you how she ended up offering hand jobs for a living. “First I try to find another job,” she says in English that is colloquial but still accented despite studying hard with a Taiwanese professor at Metrotown. “But I could only get, like, fast food part-time.” A friend told her about this place. You mightn’t guess her profession to look at her. A tiny woman, she wears sheepskin-lined slippers and something that looks like a lab coat over black stretch pants and a low-cut tank top. No lipstick, no eye shadow, no makeup (except giant false eyelashes) on her round, friendly face. No rings, no nail polish, no earrings. For an hour of her time, I have paid her a $60 “tip,” plus to the manager the standard rent of $60 (as specified on the office’s wall chart) for the room, with its leopard-patterned couch, cheap wood panelling, single bed with bright green and blue quilt and then towel on top, TV with doily, and (getting down to business) tray with tissues and hand cream. Both Christine and her husband—factory workers in a big government operation in their hometown of Shanghai—came to Canada four years ago. He eventually went back, discouraged, unable to find work. She decided to stay on, fed up with China and the way people can’t do what they want. “There, you have no opportunity to make money. We worry about our future. Canada is a nice country. They follow the law.” The job isn’t too bad, she insists. “It’s not like some people think. It’s work like the same in restaurants.” From time to time, a guy shows up drunk. They’re disgusting and sometimes weird. But she gets to choose who she goes with and how far she goes (mostly hand jobs—“Someday we still want to go back to family, find a boyfriend or husband”—but if she likes the guy, maybe a bit more). “Some drunk says, ‘Put it in your mouth.’ I say no. We don’t want to get too dirty.” The manager, a tall woman wearing an overcoat in the chilly office, is there for backup. And the other women are okay, though there are only two or three at a time at this particular massage parlour, which doesn’t get the high volumes of bigger, fancier, more central places. When Christine isn’t working (10 a.m. to 10 p.m. three days a week) she studies for the LPI English test. She knows she doesn’t want to—can’t—do this work forever. “You must be young.” She wants to become a realtor, thinks her Chinese language skills will be an advantage. “Vancouver has lots of rich people coming. If you make a deal, you get a good commission.” Eventually, she wants to buy a condo of her own; she’s already saving for the $50,000 down payment from her earnings, which aren’t what they could be given the economy—a little better than what she might have made at McDonald’s. Ten minutes on the internet will reveal to anyone with the mildest curiosity where Vancouver’s many brothels operate. Google “massage parlour Vancouver” or “Vancouver escort review” and a long list of locations springs up. There’s also more information than a person might want to know about what “Jessie” at West Tenth’s Bex is willing to do (and apparently do very well—a satisfied customer on the Vancouver Escort Review Board gives her a 9 out of 10), complete with the abbreviations (hands, mouths, orifices, liquids, condoms, creams, and gadgets) endemic to for-pay sex acts. Progressive politicians in Vancouver have frequently provoked horrified headlines when they’ve suggested the city should allow a red-light district. But in reality, there are now mini red-light districts everywhere, from the upscale West Side to Kingsway all the way to Abbotsford. Our brothels—part of the 80 to 90 percent of the sex trade that most researchers say happens at indoor locations—are evident when you’re walking the street as well, if you pay even a little attention. Some have the strings of lights. On East Hastings near Boundary, a business on the ground floor of an office building advertises with a simple sign that has the business name in pink neon and the phone number in yellow. Strung sloppily to the fence in front is a yellow banner with a more explicit message: “Ultimate Relaxation Service.” Across the street is a shop that, with its gilded pineapples at the roof line and fake-Roman plasterwork stands out from its neighbours, which on this block include two liquor stores and five bridal boutiques. Today it sells lattes and aromatherapy wheels, but back in 2010 it was a business called ISHQ, an Arabic word meaning “love.” It’s a prime example of our erratic approach to prostitution. Vancouver police arrested Jasmine Mangat and Vanessa Hernandez in October of that year after an investigation discovered “sexual services were exchanged for money.” The operation, with its considerable investment into décor, was shut down. Mangat, whom others in the business say was destroyed by the publicity, left to study nursing outside Canada. Nineteen months after she was arrested, the charges were stayed. Such arrests are usually splashed briefly in the media in breathless stories that, gosh, sex is for sale in the city, then are quickly forgotten. According to Crown counsel spokesman Neil Mackenzie, only 28 files related to operating a bawdyhouse were concluded in the last five years. Of those, half led to convictions; 11 of them, like Mangat’s, had their charges stayed. Two were found not guilty. To eliminate the pointless investigations and stayed charges, many cities are changing the way their police monitor brothels. That change is especially freighted in Vancouver for one sad reason: Robert Pickton, who murdered what are thought to be dozens of Vancouver street sex workers even while their families and other women argued in vain that a serial killer was at work. The VPD, which can be expected to experience another dump of bad publicity when the Pickton-related Missing Women Commission of Inquiry releases its final report early this year, now has an officer dedicated to the sex industry, Const. Linda Malcolm, whose job is described by police as “a unique approach directed towards blurring the line between enforcement and advocacy.” The department has also developed new draft guidelines for handling sex work. Among the consequences: more leeway for businesses offering sex services. “We are trying to strike that fine balance,” says Insp. Cita Airth, head of the special investigations unit and a co-writer of the guidelines. If a massage parlour or a “health enhancement centre” or whatever the place calls itself generates complaints about criminal behaviour, it will get a visit. If there’s suspicion of gang activity, trafficking, or child exploitation, her team will act. But they’re not after the Christines of the world or even their managers, who are technically living off the avails of prostitution—a Criminal Code offence. As Airth says, “It’s super-important to make sure we protect the workers.” The results show in the statistics. (See chart to right.) People in the industry say Vancouver police have come a huge distance—though the same can’t be said of other police forces in the region. The city, too, is revamping its approach. Vancouver is already well known for tacitly endorsing indoor sex work through its licensing system. For a mere $9,684, an entrepreneur can get a body-rub parlour licence. Or, for $1,145, a social-escort service licence. Almost no one applies for these anymore, because of the price and the ease of operating through the internet. But those who are still bothering to get a licence are choosing the “health enhancement centre” category, at $237. Those are issued as time-limited development permits, so if city staff think there’s a problem, they can deny an extension. Since May 2008, it has only refused four extensions to the approximately 75 licensees (some of whom are actually non-sex-related “therapeutic touch” practitioners). Three are still operating as health-enhancement centres under different names. But now, a city staff team is working with sex-work advocates (including one madam) and outreach groups that visit the region’s indoor-sex locations regularly to work out an even better, less-intrusive approach for businesses in compliance. Together, they are hashing out when staff need to intervene and what to do. “The premise is that sex work is relatively safer when it takes place indoors. We prioritize enforcement action based on what are the issues in the community,” says the city’s deputy chief licence inspector, Tom Hammel. If the neighbourhood is unhappy about condoms left on the street, or men coming and going at all hours, or noise, the city steps in. But it no longer sees itself in the business of regulating sex for sale. Which brings us to the actual opponents to brothels—not the police, not the city, not health workers. Amapola Massage in Kerrisdale doesn’t have little red lights outside. No neon signs advertise intensive massage or ultimate relaxation or other euphemisms. It only became apparent to neighbours what was going on when they realized the doors were always locked, the business hours seemed to extend to near midnight, and none of the customers were women. When the business, previously called Windsor Spa, tried to get its development permit extended earlier this year, residents showed up in numbers to oppose it. (The city denied the permit, but the operation still keeps going and the owner is now suing the city, claiming that it has no legal right to regulate prostitution.) The argument from the general public, who get hysterical about any suggestion that selling sex should be tolerated, is pretty focused: condoning brothels means that children will be trafficked. When Patricia Barnes, executive director of the business improvement association on East Hastings, collaborated with sex-trade worker Susan Davis on a 2007 plan that eventually recommended safe zones for street prostitutes, she was vilified by some in the media. When UBC faculty of medicine assistant professor Kate Shannon published research earlier this year showing that women able to work out of their apartments at Atira and Raincity social housing complexes are safer, local columnist Mark Hasiuk went after Atira for running a brothel with taxpayer money. Setting aside those particular types of hostilities, many people who are liberal on almost every other issue are squeamish and repulsed by the concept of sex for sale. They also worry about what’s happening with the women working in brothels. When opponents complained to Vancouver’s board of variance about Amapola (then called the Windsor Spa), some of them said they feared the women working there had been forced into the business, were underage, were vulnerable, and perhaps were being held prisoner. What many of these concerned citizens don’t realize is that outsiders are going into these places, checking for exactly such suffering. But not finding it. The problem with the police and city is that they’re unpredictable, says Scarlett Lake, who operates a website and management service for women offering sex. We’re sitting in a back booth at Save-On Meats, close to the house she operates as a madam. Lake, a good North Vancouver girl who started dancing at Izzy’s nightclub a million years ago and moved from there to parties to perching on bar stools in hotels to the exciting new technology of advertising in newspapers and then to the even more exciting new technology of the internet, is Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty come back to life. Calm, wry, with long blond hair cascading down in curls, she’s still a looker albeit with a few lines on her fine-skinned face. She’s here today with her friend and assistant James (bookings, photos, website management), whose fine white hair, soft voice, and glasses give him an air of one of Santa’s more experienced elves. “The police and licensing people know where these places are. If they want to have some investigation, it takes them two minutes,” says Lake. “Once they’re there, they can think up all kinds of infractions.” Lake used to get a business licence but doesn’t anymore—she figures it just puts her on a list of places easy for police and the city to bust, gives anyone from the public too much information, and doesn’t give her any advantage. Lake has operated out of four different downtown locations in the past few years and is working with the city’s task force on improving licensing guidelines, but her basic position is that all the authorities should just back off and accept operations like hers as straight-up businesses. “I would definitely set up a licensed operation if I thought it wouldn’t be targeted with these kinds of nuisance complaints.” From Lake’s perspective, and that of many others, off-street sex work is far less dangerous for women than when they are forced onto the street. They also make the case that, in contrast to the popular stereotype, most women are choosing sex work. The coalition supporting that take is growing. It includes some neighbourhood organizations, the outreach groups who make regular visits to the region’s massage parlours, and researchers like SFU’s Tamara O’Doherty and UBC’s Shannon. Both academics have been examining in the last few years what it means for women if they can sell sex inside (in hotel rooms, in their own apartments, or in a massage-parlour-type business) instead of on the street. O’Doherty’s PhD thesis noted that other researchers have found that off-street work has its own problems: women have to give up to 60 percent of their earnings to an agency, they don’t always get to control how many clients they have or what services they’ll be expected to perform. (Some women prefer either the street or their own homes for that reason: they can choose exactly what is on the menu and whether they’ll see 10 clients in a day or none.) Yet it’s still safer. Those who work closest with women selling sex also take exception to the very premise that women have been railroaded into prostitution to begin with. “I don’t dismiss that trafficking can happen. But the women I meet, they were not trafficked. It was not necessarily a pimp forcing them to do something they don’t want,” says Fereshteh, a young Farsi-speaking woman whose impeccable English is marked by just the tiniest lisp and tendency to pronounce “women” as “vimmen.” “By saying they are all exploited, we are dismissing their rights and their options. These women don’t need to be saved. They are ordinary women, mothers, raising their children, not necessarily drug addicts.” Fereshteh is one of nine outreach workers who are part of the little-known SWAN (Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network) Society. Using a harm-reduction guiding principle, a version of feminist discourse that doesn’t consider all sex workers to be exploited, and the language skills of a team that speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Spanish, and Tagalog, this group, working in pairs, makes monthly visits to about 40 massage parlours around the region. Started 10 years ago as a pilot project of the Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS, it is run today with trickles of money from the province’s civil-forfeiture program, the City of Vancouver, and the Law Foundation of B.C. The outreach workers’ technique is basic: knock on any door they guess or have been told is an indoor sex work site and ask to come in. Sometimes they succeed on first try; sometimes it takes more visits to find a sympathetic manager or a less busy time. They offer information about English-language education, legal issues, health services, employment options. Sometimes women call later to get help registering for a program or going to a doctor. Fereshteh and her colleague Vanessa speak on condition that their last names aren’t published. Because, they say, there is a general lack of understanding about the complexity and diversity of the sex trade and there is often no distinction made between sex work and child sex trafficking. Vancouver, in particular, trades in a narrative that every Asian woman in sex work must have been trafficked, part of a stereotype that Asian women are passive. That creates, says the group, a drama where someone has to barge in and save them. Police, for their part, say that trafficking does exist in Vancouver and is keeping them very busy. But there have been no publicized arrests related to trafficking at the known and advertised brothels. The first British Columbian charged with trafficking underage girls, Reza Moazami, was operating out of a house in South Vancouver when he was arrested last August. Whatever anyone’s opinions are about the sex trade and whether it exploits or empowers, the legal ground is shifting under everyone’s feet. It’s not illegal in Canada to take money for sex. It’s everything around that transaction—negotiating over what you’ll do and for how much, hiring a driver or bodyguard as security, running a place with rooms for rent, providing a management service (all activities that women in the industry say help protect them from robbery, assault, and, in the worst cases, murder)—that is illegal. Yet all of those pieces of the Criminal Code are now under fire across the land. An Ontario Court of Appeal ruling early in 2012 effectively legalized brothels, saying that they give women a safer place to work than the street. The federal government has appealed that case to the Supreme Court of Canada. It is now fighting a second battle there, after a group of sex workers from the Downtown Eastside also mounted a challenge to the country’s prostitution laws in mid 2012. The wheels of these cases are likely to grind very slowly. But when the decisions finally come down, they could provide for thousands in the country a true happy ending.