By Joanna Chiu
Susan Davis, leader of the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals (WCCSIP), smiles wistfully when asked what will happen if her dream of a co-operative brothel materializes.
“It will be so good for morale for everybody—oh man, for the girls!”
Davis has been an escort for 24 years and is one of the best-known sex workers’ rights activists in Canada. Her tough-minded and cautiously optimistic attitude keeps her going, despite laws that punish sex workers and, in particular, those who work indoors.
Davis first thought of forming a sex workers’ co-operative after meeting members of India’s thriving sex workers co-operative, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee a feminist conference in 2006.
“They started a sex workers’ co-operative in 1995, and it now has 65,000 members. They have used it to improve their quality of life on so many different levels,” says Davis.
Davis found enthusiastic support for her idea and since 2007 the WCCSIP has been working to build community and promote solutions that will minimize the potential risks of sex work. Since outdoor sex workers face disproportionate dangers, the WCCSIP’s programs are particularly focused on working to end violence against outdoor sex workers.
The group’s most ambitious project is its proposed co-operative brothel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The WCCSIP is offering the City of Vancouver detailed plans on how it intends to create a place where sex workers could bring their clients and rent affordable rooms, starting at two dollars, for the amount of time they need, rather than pay for expensive hotel rooms. The co-op brothel would offer safety features such as emergency buttons in each room, 24-hour security and front desk reception.
When Davis first moved to Vancouver from Halifax 20 years ago, she worked on the streets for three months, and she does not want to go back. Once Davis established herself in the city, she started to work out of her own home—a situation that provides her with safety and peace of mind. However, she still believes brothel environments offer the most safety for sex workers:
“If something goes wrong, I’m hoping that my neighbours will hear me. But if you’re working in a brothel, then people are all around you,” Davis explains.
Davis spoke to Herizons on a sunny summer afternoon in her apartment in downtown Vancouver. She explains that she and her boyfriend sleep in the living room area, while she reserves the bedroom for work. She describes the bedroom as “what you would envision for a room in a brothel,” with black velvet drapes hanging from the walls, a king-sized bed and plenty of sex toys and lingerie.
“Within my own apartment,” says Davis, “I control the situation…Whereas if I went on outcalls, I would go into foreign territory. I would not know if the client had a gun. When you look at it from that perspective, it’s all about control of space.”
Katrina Pacey, a lawyer at PIVOT Legal Society who has represented sex workers and residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, echoes Davis’s sentiment about the importance of sex workers having control over their workplace.
“Women and men who work indoors are able to control the conditions of their work. They could have all the harm-reduction things, such as condoms, that they need to be safe and healthy in the workplace. If you’re working on the street, you just don’t have the same level of control,” Pacey says.
Although the majority of sex workers do work indoors, the minority of sex workers who work outdoors are unsurprisingly the most at risk for violence and exploitation. The WCCSIP’s proposed co-op brothel would offer all sex workers the opportunity to take control of their safety. The recent case of Robert Pickton, convicted of killing women who lived and or worked on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, demonstrates the need for laws that allow all sex workers affordable access to safer indoor workplaces.
“With the way the laws are now,” Davis laments, “outdoor sex workers have to jump into the car before they negotiate their terms of employment. So they don’t get to say that they’re not willing to be tortured for five dollars. When they get into the car, they have to negotiate their way out, and that’s just not safe!”
In addition to providing a safer alternative, the profits from the co-op brothel would improve other aspects of the lives of sex workers. The WCCSIP would direct profits to scholarships for sex workers, to offer micro-loans for sex workers to start their own businesses, and to provide alternative employment opportunities for those who wish to exit sex work.
Interestingly, government and the courts—those with domain over Canada’s prostitution laws—appear to be heading in opposite directions. In September, Ontario’s Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down three components of Canada’s prostitution laws—the bawdy house law, the communication law and the law that prohibits living off the avails of prostitution—in a 131-page ruling which concluded that Canada’s current prostitution laws violate the Charter rights of sex workers. The case is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court.
This decision is in sharp contrast to the Conservative federal government’s views. In August, Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson announced harsher regulations for those involved in sex work under the guise of “strengthening the ability of law enforcement to fight organized crime.”
The new regulations, passed without public hearings, impose sentences of five or more years for anyone involved in the operation of brothels. This may include managers of brothels, as well as drivers, security guards or anyone else the courts may deem to be living off the avails of prostitution.
Prostitution is not a crime in Canada, although many aspects of prostitution remain criminalized—at least for now. It is illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution, to keep a bawdyhouse, and to live off the proceeds of prostitution. Section 210 of the Criminal Code defines a bawdy house as “a place that is kept or occupied, or resorted to by one or more persons for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency.”
Ontario’s ruling could be a pivotal first step in redressing Canadian laws that focus on prohibition rather than harm reduction. In Vancouver, Katrina Pacey is one of the lawyers leading the constitutional challenge of Canada’s prostitution laws in British Columbia.
“The bawdy house law does not achieve any valid objectives around sex workers’ safety or protection,” she says, “and in fact, does the exact opposite, which is to make sex workers work in much more dangerous and vulnerable circumstances.”
Pacey also points out that Ottawa’s recent toughening of the regulations relating to bawdy houses has had the biggest impact on the most vulnerable of sex workers. This is in keeping with the findings of Simon Fraser University criminology researcher John Lowman, who has demonstrated how enforcement patterns are related to violence patterns. As enforcement increases, Lowman found sex workers are displaced and pushed into even more dangerous circumstances.
Pacey says it’s a shame sex workers “have to choose between their liberty and their safety.” She hopes that the Ontario ruling will set a precedent for the decriminalization of bawdy houses and lead to the adoption of other provisions for sex workers’ safety in other provinces. “This is an exciting time, and I’m optimistic about our constitutional challenge coming up next year in Vancouver.”
Whether or not British Columbia courts strike down Canada’s prostitution laws, the WCCSIP continues to gather public support for the co-operative brothel idea and hopes to proceed without having to break any laws.
Davis explains: “Just like at the Pan Pacific Hotel, prostitution may occur there, but that doesn’t make it a brothel because of the privacy of their rooms. With our plans for the co-op brothel, sex workers would rent private rooms—therefore avoiding breaking any laws. We will apply for the same licenses that steam baths and massage parlours have, so I don’t think we will need a federal exemption from the Criminal Code.”
There is potential for legislative change that could make a real difference in sex workers’ lives, but there is still a long way to go. Despite possible setbacks or struggles to acquire funding, activists such as Davis and Pacey will continue to fight for sex workers’ human rights.
“We will keep pushing our plans for the co-op brothel forward,” says Davis. “I think that this project could really transform our community and build momentum for all efforts to improve sex workers’ rights.”
For more information or to make donations to the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals, go to www.wccsip.ca. For more information on the decriminalization efforts underway in Canada, see the decision from Ontario Superior Court at http://www.ontariocourts.on.ca/scj/en/. And visit Out of the Shadows: Why Canada Must Decriminalize Consensual, Adult Sex Work: http://www.firstadvocates.org/.