It’s Time for Mayor Gregor Robertson to Address Prostitution in Vancouver

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), Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating (EVE) and human rights lawyer Gwendoline Allison discussed the exploitation in prostitution 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 firmlybehind “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 pledgeto 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.


A Reminder for the Left: No One is Free Until All Women Are Free

On Friday, September 25th, 1200 people gathered at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver to hear three preeminent speakers discuss socialism, oppression, and rebellion. The event, a roaring success – packed to the gills with local Lefties, desperate for change – was organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRR) and Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), with proceeds from ticket sales going to support their work helping women escape male violence and fighting for women’s liberation. It was programmed with the intention of incorporating a discussion of women’s oppression into socialist activism and so Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges’ speech was bookended by powerful talks by Alice Lee of AWCEP and longstanding feminist activist Lee Lakeman, who worked with VRR for over thee decades before retiring in 2013.

All three speakers demonstrated the way in which women’s oppression should be a logical focus of socialist rebellion, a critical and timely message given the Left’s embrace of policies and behaviours that actively harm women.

AWCEP is a feminist group that recognizes prostitution as violence against women, and works to abolish it using an anti-oppression framework. Lee’s speech centred women of colour, explaining that human trafficking is a product of capitalism, colonialism, and a sense of male entitlement that normalizes sexual access to female bodies, pointing out that all of this is central to patriarchy.

Chris Hedges began his speech by expressing solidarity with AWCEP and VRR’s abolitionist position and reminding us that, in the spring, a few liberals tried to have him banned from speaking at Simon Fraser University on account of his critiques of the sex industry and alliances with groups like AWCEP and VRR. Moving on to discuss corporate malfeasance, climate degradation and the need for a united socialist response to neoliberalism and capitalism, issues covered in his new book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges mentioned the dangers of masculinity and repeatedly wove women’s oppression into an ultimately grim sermon aimed at motivating decisive anti-capitalist action.

In her talk, Lee Lakeman recounted incident after incident of male violence against women covered in the media, offering these incidences as examples of a sustained attack on women’s liberty. She reminded us that we have heard these stories before, that they aren’t isolated, they’re not going away, and that they will not go away if the Left doesn’t fully incorporate feminism into their activism and begin fighting on behalf of abused and marginalized women.

Lee, Hedges and Lakeman all demonstrated how a movement that aims to free citizens from the oppression that is capitalism must free all citizens, including women beaten or raped by men, and women exploited by men on porn sets and street corners.

It’s an important message at a critical time when neoliberalism’s focus on unquestioned individual choices threatens feminist progress. A moment when Amnesty International, an organization that claims to promote and protect human rights, has decided to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, legitimizing male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and relegating a class of mostly brown-skinned, mostly poor women to sexual servitude. A moment when the Left embraces pornography as empowering, without bothering to question the violence and degradation on screen, consider the working conditions, or the demand pornography creates for sex trafficking.

The Left’s dismissal of women’s oppression isn’t a new phenomenon. Much has been written about sexism in the civil rights movement and how the hippies’ pursuit of “free love” was a pursuit lead by men for expanded sexual access to women’s bodies. Like many feminists of her time, Andrea Dworkin’s activism began in the civil rights movement, where she learned that so-called progressives fighting for human rights don’t bother themselves much when it comes to women’s rights – certainly not at the expense of their erections:

Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat… The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

The Left’s refusal to “get it”, this gaping blind spot, is dangerous for women, and although Alice Lee, Chris Hedges and Lee Lakeman shined light into that dark corner, I was disappointed to see a number of audience members stream out immediately after Hedges’ finished speaking, continuing to trickle to the doors while Lakeman reminded us, in her powerful speech, that women continue to be raped and murdered while the Left stands by. While most of the audience stayed, moved and inspired by Lakeman’s courage and willingness to tell the truth at any cost, I was not surprised to notice that most of those walking away were men.

So Lefties, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop patting yourself on the back for protesting sweatshops and human trafficking then going home and getting off watching women degraded in pornography and not thinking about the connections. It’s time to stop embracing “sex work” as empowering choice while ignoring that the majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy, and who want out. It’s time for leftist men to stop thinking sexism and oppression are what other men do to women and start looking at yourselves.

Because feminists see you, women see you. We see your hypocrisy and your refusal to examine your own behaviour and challenge your entitlement. We make decisions about whom to trust, ally with, and fight alongside, and we see you abandoning women. We see you not seeing us at all.

[Originally published on Feminist Current.]