3 min

Prostitutes are our neighbours

We need to deal with prostitutes, not discard them

Veda Hille sings this great song about her neighbourhood in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She starts off by playing the Sesame Street refrain about “people in your neighbourhood,” and then she goes on to describe the junkies, prostitutes and homeless people on her street, all in a perky refrain.

I thought of that song a couple of months ago, when I attended the first Ottawa City Social Forum. I eagerly attended a workshop titled “Building a Village in Your Neighbourhood,” presented by members of the Hintonburg Community Association. I recently bought a house in Hintonburg, an inner city neighbourhood just west of Chinatown, and have been impressed by its diversity and character. Still, the community is saddled with a bit of a “bad reputation,” and my neighbours expressed relief when I moved into my house, thrilled that I wasn’t a crack dealer.

What I learned at the social forum disturbed me. Apparently, Hintonburg is held up as a model city-wide for neighbourhoods that have been saddled with the “prostitution problem.” You see, my street used to be a popular stroll for sex workers, and the neighbours used to wake in the middle of the night, to the sounds of glass breaking, and pitched screaming matches between prostitutes and pimps.

The neighbours mobilized and started a phone tree. When one of them had a noise complaint, they would call 10 other people, and ask them to make the same complaint. That sent the cops in with guns blazing, and swept the hookers off the street. And according to the good people from the community association, this constitutes “community-building.” Sweep away the undesirables, and push them off on some other unsuspecting neighbourhood. I’ve been told that many women now ply their trade in Vanier, or along deserted Barrhaven streets where they flag down truckers in almost complete isolation, away from the sensitive ears of residents.

That image should be chilling to anyone, especially after 27-year-old Kelly Morrisseau, a known sex worker, was found dead in Gatineau Park after being sexually assaulted and stabbed multiple times. This was in the same week as police in Ipswich, England arrested two men suspected of murdering five sex-trade workers. Meanwhile, the trial is opening in BC against Robert Pickton, charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder against women, most of them prostitutes and drug addicts, that he allegedly lured to his farm and tortured. The families of those murdered women are hoping that the trial will somehow honour the memories of more than 60 women who have gone missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over the last few years.

All of this horror and brutality makes a few noise complaints seem rather trivial, don’t you think? Especially since the exchange of sex for money isn’t illegal in Canada. What is actually criminal is “communicating for the purposes of prostitution” — or, put another way, the ability for sex workers to negotiate safe working conditions for themselves and to suss out their “dates” before jumping into a stranger’s car. It’s also illegal to operate a “common bawdyhouse,” and to “live off the avails of prostitution.” These same laws are used to punish patrons of gay bathhouses, leaving them open to police raids and harassment.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights delivered its report on Canada’s prostitution laws in December, and its recommendations were hampered by the Conservative members of the committee who refused to acknowledge that sex trade workers deserve some modicum of control over their working conditions. This abolitionist attitude, sadly embraced by many liberal feminists in the 1980s, argues that because prostitution is often used as an economic survival tactic, the people involved in the trade aren’t really “choosing” to participate.

This kind of paternalism doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it continues to marginalize sex workers by preventing them from defining their own experiences. And the community also loses out. Who else could be better equipped to make recommendations about how to make the streets safer than the people who work on those streets every day?

Besides, lots of people work at jobs purely for economic survival. Does that mean that we should ban Wal-Mart or Starbucks? Should workers in shitty retail jobs be denied the ability to negotiate better working conditions that protect their health and safety?

The women involved with the Sex Professionals of Canada are sick of this mistreatment, and recently announced that they are planning to challenge Canada’s antiquated solicitation laws in court. As members of the queer community, we have a responsibility to jump on board. Because when the government criminalizes any consensual sexual activity among adults, it always harms our community.

After all, sex workers are people in our neighbourhood.