Vancouver’s Cedar Cottage residents are mounting a campaign to address what they say is a sharp increase in street prostitution in their neighbourhood in recent months.
And they say the city’s new sex work response guidelines are making the situation worse.
Jessica Leung is among the residents who started a new group — the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood Association — to build a stronger community and counteract what she describes as a “ramped up” sex trade in the Kingsway and Fraser area.
“It’s really disenchanting to see what I see on a daily basis,” said Leung. She would like Vancouver police to confront what she sees as “predatory behaviour” by johns and pimps.
“It really weighs hard on me as a mom and as a woman to think that this is just so commonplace and to see how hurt these women are and to see how accepted it is that they can be bought,” she said.
Leung says she has not had much response to her calls to the police.
“We have heard so many times from different outlets of the police that the police don’t think the prostitution is an issue,” she said. “So collectively we are trying to do initiatives like just cleaning up the streets outside of our own houses and picking up the condoms and the needles.”
Group members have also taken on tasks such as contacting businesses along Kingsway for support and meeting with representatives from the city to discuss the situation.
Leung said the group wants the city to enforce the laws that were brought in last year as part of Bill C-36 — laws which criminalize the buying of sex.
But Vancouver’s policy on sex work, created in the wake of the Robert Pickton murders, is founded on the position that those laws put the lives of sex workers at risk of increased violence.
City of Vancouver senior social planner Debbie Anderson Eng says the city has been trying to explain to Cedar Cottage residents why a prohibition policy isn’t the best option.
“We actually have worked a fair bit with this group, but at the end of the day they really want us to eradicate the sex workers and move the sex workers and we know through evidence-based research that that, in fact, does more harm than good,” she said.
Eng says the city has been helping with the clean-up of drug- and prostitution-related litter.
“We have to make sure that we’re taking a balanced approach in dealing with this,” she said. “We want to certainly make sure that we’re responding to the complaints and the needs of citizens but we also need to balance that with the health and safety needs of sex workers.”
These groups advocate against enforcing the laws against johns, saying this would result in less safe working conditions and the displacement of the sex trade into more remote and dangerous neighbourhoods.
But a former sex worker who came out to speak at a Cedar Cottage public information session says she does not understand that rationale. Trisha Baptie is the co-founder of EVE, a non-profit made up of women who used to be in the sex industry.
Baptie, who worked in the sex trade for 15 years starting at age 13, says decriminalization is not the right approach to prostitution.
“I worked Fraser and Broadway when I was younger. I worked Downtown Eastside at Franklin and Salisbury. I worked all over the city,” she said. “And it was never the location that I was in that was unsafe. It was the man I was in that location with that made it unsafe.”
Baptie and other groups have been giving similar talks around east Vancouver. All of the organizations involved in the panel discussions – including Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution – disagree with the city’s approach, saying it will lead to an increase in exploitation and human trafficking.
They support the Nordic model – an approach to prostitution that’s in place in Sweden and other countries. In addition to educational programs and long-term assistance for women exiting the sex trade, the Nordic model decriminalizes women selling sex and criminalizes johns and those who profit from the sex trade.
“We would like to see the police arrest the johns,” said Baptie.
“The right approach is to go after the demand. Because that’s what makes the communities unsafe.”