Sex on Mean Street

Robert Miller April 15 1985

Sex on Mean Street

Robert Miller April 15 1985

Sex on Mean Street


Robert Miller

Prostitution, a desperate and sometimes dangerous business, has experienced unprecedented growth in Canada’s cities since a 1978 Supreme Court ruling effectively opened up the streets to the sex trade. Across the country, streetwalkers—often disturbingly young, in some cases male and in all cases almost immune to arrest for soliciting— have become steadily more brazen in their work. Their presence offends, titillates or exasperates various elements within the downtown neighborhoods where they congregate to solicit customers. And they pose a growing social and legal problem which has left the nation’s lawmakers wary and its police frustrated. Said Staff Sgt. David Morrison, head of the Calgary vice squad: “They jump out in front of cars, wave people over, whistle at them —and it is all legal.”

Loathing: That openness may soon disappear.

This spring, after years of losing ground to street prostitution, society is preparing to push back with new federal legislation aimed at the country’s streetwalkers. Later this month the federal justice department will release a long-awaited report by a seven-member special committee, which former Liberal justice minister Mark MacGuigan set up on June 23, 1983, on prostitution and pornography. The committeee, chaired by Vancouver lawyer Paul Fraser, commissioned public opinion polls, held hearings across the country and received more than 500 briefs from concerned organizations and individuals in the course of its $800,000 inquiry. Said committee member Mary Eberts, a Toronto lawyer and human rights activist: “Both in the area of prostitution and in the area of pornography we have made legal recommendations—and also recommendations that go beyond the law.” The committee did not find any broad

consensus among Canadians—except for a near-universal loathing of sexual exploitation of children and juveniles, either by pornographers or procurers. But, in common with much of the rest of the world, Canada is divided on the question of adult prostitution. It is a debate almost as old as the practice itself, ebbing and flowing according to the shifting tides of public opinion and private morality. Still, in a preliminary

report released in November, 1983, the Fraser Committee said the federal government had three basic options: it could criminalize prostitution, decriminalize it or legalize it. And the committee went on to say that the fundamental choice for Canadians is whether prostitution and its attendant activities—loitering, street soliciting, procuring and bawdy houses—ought to be covered by criminal law at all.

Convictions: For his part, Conservative Justice Minister John Crosbie is expected to follow the report’s release promptly with Criminal Code amendments intended to curtail a trade that cannot —and, many people argue, should not—be eradicated. Indeed, the justice department was at work on the new legislation relating to streetwalk-

ers even before the final Fraser report was delivered, and Crosbie himself expressed impatience when the committee missed its Dec. 31, 1984, deadline. Still, according to senior department official Richard Mosley, Crosbie kept up with the Fraser Committee’s work and read many of the briefs it received. Said Mosley: “It’s not something that we’re starting from scratch on. The minister has had the benefit of that work.” Among

the many options open to Crosbie: a rewording of the section of the code dealing with soliciting, to help police obtain convictions; tougher provisions relating to buyers of sexual services, as a means of deterring the trade; and a broader definition of what is a public place, to stop prostitutes from providing their services in automobiles.

According to Liberal justice critic Robert Kaplan, new legislation should go beyond stricter control of street soliciting and deal with what he called “the four evils of the business—the number of young people involved, the close link between drugs and prostitution, the domination of women and organized crime’s involvement.” The New Democratic Party favors a different approach. Since 1981 it has called for the

decriminalization of soliciting and repeal of laws relating to bawdy houses. Said NDP justice critic Svend Robinson: “We feel it is a mistake to approach the question of prostitution by further criminalizing women. It should be recognized as a socioeconomic problem.”

Elusive: Canadian politicians, aware that prostitution is a moral issue and that consensus will always remain elusive, traditionally have been cautious in their attempts to deal with it in law. Because it has never been a crime in Canada to be a prostitute, legislation has focused on where, how and for whom prostitutes work. In Ottawa streetwalkers solicit almost in the shadow of the Peace Tower, working in the capital’s downtown market district. Still, a 1983 attempt by MacGuigan to strengthen antiprostitution laws foundered in Parliament. It failed in part because the then-opposition Conservatives argued that his proposals were not strong enough to clean up the streets and because the Liberal government was divided on whether public opinion would accept more stringent laws.

Shortly afterward, MacGuigan established the Fraser Committee, deferring any government action. But Crosbie’s anticipated amendments will likely be more successful because the new Conservative government enjoys a massive parliamentary majority. Still, whatever changes Crosbie introduces, eventual appeals to the Supreme Court appear to be inevitable—most probably under the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Most criminal lawyers oppose tougher laws. Said Pierre Gauthier, a Hull, Que., attorney whose clients include owners of striptease clubs: “The state has no right in the pants of the people.” Added Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby: “There is a serious crime problem in this country and part of it is not prostitution. I do not want to see scarce and very expensive judicial and police resources squandered.”

Pressing: In the more than six years since the Supreme Court ruled that Vancouver prostitute Debra Hutt had not been “pressing and persistent” in soliciting an undercover policeman and could not be convicted under the Criminal Code, prostitutes have become much more visible—and more numerous —from Vancouver to Halifax. Said Jean-Yves St. Laurent, morality squad director for the Montreal Urban Community Police: “There is no doubt that prostitution has become more visible since 1978. And as the phenomenon becomes more visible, it creates a higher demand for the service.” The effect of the Hutt judgment was to make it almost impossible for police to enforce the law against soliciting. According to Staff Sgt. John Fournier of the Métropolitain Toronto Police morality squad,

which last year laid only two soliciting charges: “The prostitutes have to virtually arm-wrestle the john up the alley before we can charge them.”

With the police almost neutralized, the streetwalkers have begun to emerge in strength. Day and night, they line city sidewalks or huddle in shop doorways, offering themselves to pedestrians and passing motorists. The sexual encounters they negotiate are brief, expensive and sordid: impersonal couplings in seedy rooms, parked automobiles and even alleyways. Said a blond, 25-yearold prostitute who solicits on downtown Winnipeg’s Albert Street: “We do not kiss, we do not hug. Sometimes I wonder why these men pay $100 for 10 minutes of just very mechanical sex.”

Acceptance: Still, the demand for prostitutes’ services remains strong, despite relatively recent developments which—theoretically, at least—ought to diminish it. For one, there is the risk of contracting such sexually related diseases as genital herpes and the lifethreatening acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). For another, there is supposedly greater sexual permissiveness among the general public now than there was among earlier generations. According to Vancouver researcher Jillian Ridington, author of a new report on prostitution prepared for The National Association of Women and the Law, a social stigma remains attached to men who buy sex. Said Ridington: “If anything, public acceptance is probably down, given that sexual relationships with single women are more possible now.”

But no fewer than a dozen men sent genuine replies to a Maclean’s-purchased classified advertisement in the Vancouver Sun requesting interviews with people who patronize prostitutes. Vancouver criminologist John Lowman, 34, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, says prostitutes’ clients “are men—you cannot generalize beyond that.” Lowman’s contention seemed to be confirmed by the 12 who responded to the advertisement. They ranged in age from 26 to 59. Two of the 12 were married, and the group included a computer salesman, a discjockey and a truck driver. Most of them said that they decided on impulse to hire a prostitute, several said they later regretted the expense, two said they felt prostitutes performed a valuable service, and none expressed any sense of guilt or moral failure. Said one, a 30-year-old psychology student: “It is a good service for men who are single and for men who have an extra-strong sex drive—even married men.”

At the same time, the streetwalkers who Maclean’s interviewed across the

country generally shared common characteristics: young, undereducated, often strangers to the cities where they work, unable or unwilling to find normal jobs and frequently frightened of encountering violence on the streets that they prowl. They are caught up in a dangerous environment, working at the lower level of a disreputable business, far beneath the rarefied echelons of highpriced call girls (page 44). Whenever a streetwalker climbs into a stranger’s car, he or she is risking a beating—or worse. On March 8, Halifax prostitute Cathy Wright, 26, was stabbed to death in the south end. Police are working on the theory that a customer killed her. In the United States police estimate that as many as four prostitutes are murdered every day. Kathleen Barry, a sociologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who has made a 20-year study of prostitution, told Maclean’s'. “The violence is accelerating, and there is an increase in customer demand for severe perversions. In part, it is a reaction to the new role women are playing in society.”

Money: The overwhelming reason why prostitutes undertake such risks is simply to earn money. At the higher levels, call girls and so-called escorts usually receive and keep large amounts. Though many streetwalkers said they,

too, generated large sums—$300 and more a day—few seem to retain much of it. Usually, they give their earnings to pimps or boyfriends or use them to buy illicit drugs or to support infants. According to Bart Craig, founder of Calgary’s Exodus I, Alberta’s only halfway house for prostitutes, most streetwalkers are victims of the society upon which they are often accused of preying. Craig told the Fraser Committee that half of the estimated 200 streetwalkers in Calgary are under 16 and that 80 per cent of them are victims of incest and molestation. Said Craig: “The problem lies in troubled homes.”

Conflict: Still, many street prostitutes have legitimate ambitions. Among the most frequently cited goals: saving enough to start a business, retiring to a more conventional family life and acquiring more education. Similarly, all have legal and social rights. Said Fraser Committee member Susan Clark, dean of human and professional development at Halifax’s Mount St. Vincent University: “We were very impressed with the thoughtfulness of people in their concern for the rights of prostitutes — and for their customers.”

But in the tenderloin areas of urban Canada, I where streetwalkers z gather, prostitutes’ Q rights are often in direct

conflict with the rights of property owners, tenants, landlords, merchants, motorists, pedestrians, students and even churchgoers. Indeed, that conflict underlies part of the perceived political pressure for government action to control the sidewalk sex trade. And it was partly responsible for the establishment of the Fraser Committee. The conflict arises from a struggle for territorial control between ordinary citizens, who normally look to the police for protection of their rights, and the flesh pedlars, who until the 1978 Hutt decision tended to run at the sight of a blue uniform. Increasingly, the citizens are voicing their anger. Said Howard McNutt, president of the Downtown Halifax Residents Association: “People are saying, ‘Hell, this is my home, and this is intolerable.’ ”

Residents of inner-city neighborhoods are forming new organizations to

fight for what they see as their rights. And as taxpayers they are winning strong support from their municipal and provincial governments. In Montreal last year, streetwalkers began moving from their long-established territory at the seedy East End intersection of St. Laurent and St. Catherine Streets, known as “the Lower Main,” to the quiet, residential Laval Avenue. Said Monica Berger, wife of Liberal MP David Berger: “On Sunday afternoons the traffic was like St. Catherine Street on a Saturday night.” She and her neighbors formed an action committee and the city responded by changing the directions of one-way streets to make quick, successive tours of Laval Avenue impossible.

But the traffic control tactic does not

always succeed. Winnipeg police responded to complaints about streetwalkers and motorists with a well-publicized program in 1984 to charge motorists cruising the Albert Street strip with obstructing traffic. According to Winnipeg Police Supt. Clarke Peckover, the results were comic: “We not only had prostitutes and their customers, we had every car in Winnipeg down there driving around. We had traffic jams in every direction.” The program was dropped.

Banned: One of the most successful —and dramatic—citizens’ rights victories took place in Vancouver. When streetwalkers began appearing in force in 1981 in the middle-class West End, near the trendy downtown shopping area, they were countered by such citizens’ groups as Concerned Residents of the West End and Shame the Johns, an organization which sought to deter

prostitutes’ customers by recording their licence numbers. Last July, Brian Smith, British Columbia’s attorney general, won an injunction from the province’s Supreme Court banning prostitutes from loitering or working west of Granville Street. The streetwalkers moved to the less elegant Mount Pleasant district in the East End. There, they have maintained a relatively peaceful coexistence with the area’s working-class residents. Declared Mayor Michael Harcourt: “The residents of the West End got their community back.”

In the case of the Toronto area known as “the Track” residents have only begun to organize. A new group, the MidTown Residents Association, scheduled

its inaugural public meeting for April 16. Its objective: to mount pressure on the streetwalkers. In or near the Toronto tenderloin district are such landmarks as Maple Leaf Gardens, as well as offices, luxury apartment buildings and schools. Said James Lockett, a Roman Catholic elementary school principal: “Some of the girls working the street corners are only a couple of years older than our oldest girls, who are sometimes mistaken for prostitutes.”

Because of the dimensions of the problem and the absence of a federal solution, it is not surprising that municipal and provincial leaders are trying to protect their constituents. But like the police, the lower levels of government are frustrated. Calgary’s effort to clean up its tenderloin—along 3rd and 4th Avenues S.W.—with a local bylaw collapsed with the so-called “Westendorp ruling.” In January, 1983, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the conviction of Jackie Westendorp, who was arrested in Calgary on prostitution charges in July, 1981. The ruling—to the effect that charges arising out of prostitution are Criminal Code offences and beyond municipal jurisdiction-set a precedent which was used to overrule a similar Montreal bylaw in December, 1984. The city of Vancouver withdrew another bylaw.

Debate: With the impending release of the Fraser report and the expected legislation from Crosbie, the debate over prostitution in Canada will undoubtedly intensify. But prostitution will endure just as it always has, despite changes in public attitudes. A generation ago, in 1967, then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau introduced amendments to the Criminal Code with the observation that “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” Many Canadians, including those who preferred to think of themselves as sexually modest, applauded the change. But since the Hutt decision, the bedrooms of at least some of the nation have moved out of doors—to the sidewalks where the streetwalkers work —and there is little applause.

Gregory Fjetland

R. Bob Hogarth

Suzanne Zwarun

Don MacGillivray

Poul McGrath

Ann Walmsley

Alison Hare

Dan Burke

Sherri Aikenhead