Friday, December 7, 2007

LOVE this letter!

Plans for Vancouver brother opposed by activists - An Article in the Vancouver Sun that is rife with inaccurate suppositions by feminist opposition.

The following letter was included in an email to me, but I'm not sure where it is published or if it is published for that matter. So if you know, please send me the link:

Re: Plans for Vancouver brothel opposed by activists

I encourage everyone to read the full story before considering their move on this one - from my research into brothel prostitution in Vancouver at the turn of the century and later, it was the closing down of the brothel system that created the problems that we see today: pimp control, street prostitution, drugs.

At the turn of the century, the trade was centred in women-owned and controlled brothels (I found no evidence of male ownership except for some houses that were rented not directly owned by a madam), in a 'restricted district' where the police knew and tracked residents but mostly condoned the trade if it was controlled and orderly, with perhaps a "yearly raid" that amounted to a tax (but heavily enforced the laws on sex work done elsewhere). Women who worked in the district were remarkably free of police intervention, though I found careful monthly lists kept of all women in the trade from 1899-1900 (almost entirely without a single matching arrest) that suggests that the police tracked the area but did not prosecute known workers.

After 1901 and into the 1920s, several waves of middle-class 'moral reformers' and matching crackdowns by the city meant that the nature of the trade changed drastically and for the worse, scattering sex workers to isolated individual environments including the street, introducing pimps for protection, and mixing prostitution with drug use (not one sex trade worker before 1902 had a drug-related charge, though there were a few drug arrests of other women).

Now, I realize there can be many hidden factors here and data lost to time, but the gist of it was a woman-controlled system with checks and balances with the police and better safety - not only did the clients have to come to them and pass muster with the madam, many houses had a piano-player/all-round jobs guy for security, or even a separate bouncer.

Yes the system was open to all sorts of corruption, - the brothel could have an 'arrangement' with the police to pay a yearly 'fine' or what have you, but that could change at any time and did with moral reformers pushing the mayor to "act". And no saying that madams were 'nicer', they were hard-nosed businesswomen and indeed profited from the trade.

Legal licensed brothels may avoid some of those problems, taxed and regulated like any other business and thus protected like a business from the vagaries of police intervention, customers, and the public.

So I found it very interesting to hear the side of the sex trade workers in the article:

But Susan Davis, a sex worker who is spearheading the brothel planning, said the co-op is aimed at the most marginalized prostitutes. "We're completely designed, developed and owned by the sex workers from the Downtown Eastside community," she said. Davis said the co-op will provide a safe, supervised environment in order to minimize the dangers and the community impact of street-level sex work. "Having nowhere to work is killing us," she said. The co-op will also provide sustainable exit strategies and "alternative income opportunities" for sex workers, Davis said, such as administration, cleaning and even a catering business.


This plan looks like it aims to end the exact problems that closing the brothels started a century ago. And the "administration, cleaning and even a catering business" part is also a very real historical phenomena - the communities around the restricted district were service providers and many people got their livelihood from tailoring, catering, and other services for the brothels.

The fact that it is experiential people (workers in the trade) themselves spearheading this, makes me take real pause before I get on my privileged (White middle-class well-paid) horse and say "no you can't do that."

Yes, prostitution is deeply rooted in patriarchy and male dominance. But if we accept that beyond the abuses of crime, drugs, clients, and sexism, that sex work is *work*, then we need to give these people a safe and dignified place to do that work - and thus we'll have a real shot at eliminating the problems that have developed around that work, in good part caused by moral crusades in the past.

Eliminating women's right to do that work isn't the answer - that goes back to the old "women's sex/bodies are sinful" paradigm, right along with "men can't help it," which means limiting women so that male/patriarchal crimes don't take place. That's the backwards logic of patriarchy. Instead, eliminating the bad conditions under which they do that work, and certainly the negative reasons clients purchase those services, should be our goal.

So it is worth looking into in a serious way - I would be very interested indeed in hearing actual evidence/studies whether licensed brothel prostitution in Northern Europe for example has resulted in the 'exponential' increase in the sex trade mentioned earlier (which implied that drugs, pimps, and crime rose as well). And what measures have been taken - or were not taken - to combat these issues. I would also like to see
stats on the work experience of adult women, as the letter we've seen seems to lean towards child prostitution, and that is not at all what the proposed Vancouver plan is about.

There's no saying that a brothel in Vancouver will work out as planned - but history does teach us that what we have now is not inevitable, nor is it better than solutions we used to have.

Jenea Tallentire


MVL said...

Michael said...

I will contact her and see if i can find out.

Jenea said...

Hi - I'm Jenea Tallentire and this post was sent to PAR-L, the Canadian feminist policy/action list. (

A very truncated version was sent to the Mayor & Council of Vancouver as well. No newspapers.


Annie Temple said...

Thank you, Jenea, for your articulate letter to Par-L. I am lucky to have had it shared with me since I'm not yet a member of that discussion group. A friend of mine recently said we should form a political party called the "common sense" party. Your letter reinforces the common sense of a cooperative safe sex work space. Thank Goddess for people like you who are willing to speak the truth about what they've learned.

Michael said...

Amen, Annie!