Used condoms, dirty syringes, pills, and even human excrement litter front yards, doorways and lanes. Evenings are disrupted by foul language, assaults, bumper-to-bumper traffic and the blatant sale of drugs on street corners. In at least half a dozen cities across the country, streetwalkers, pimps and endlessly cruising johns are doing battle with increasingly outraged local residents. In frustration, Toronto city council voted 10-7 last month to ask federal Justice Minister Allan Rock to decriminalize adult prostitution. The principal
aim, proponents of the motion said, was to curtail the activities of streetwalkers by licensing prostitutes and perhaps relocating them to an official red-light district. But across the country, there was little support for the Toronto proposal. “It’s a facile, naïve solution,” said Ottawa city councillor Richard Cannings, who chaired a 1993 municipal task force on prostitution. “This is an incredibly complex problem that goes right to the heart of our society.”
The notion of regulating prostitution, of course, is not new. The official red-light districts of Hamburg and Amsterdam are often cited as models that provide safer environments for prostitutes. But Cannings and other Canadian observers say that the benefits of that approach are limited. A limited number of successful prostitutes tend to dominate the regulated brothels in such districts, while others, many of whom cannot be licenced anyway because of their youth or drug addiction, simply move to other neighborhoods as
streetwalkers. Among Canadian cities, Vancouver has come closest to creating districts for prostitutes. Since the mid-1980s, police have not harassed streetwalkers if they stayed outside so-called “no-go” residential neighborhoods. Vancouver officials called the Toronto proposal ineffectual—because it would not eradicate streetwalking—and misguided. “What we need to do is rescue the underage girls,” said Mayor Philip Owen. “Most prostitutes start when they are in their early teens—that is the source of the problem.”
Some cities, including Vancouver, are now trying a two-pronged approach that attacks the nuisance factor while simultaneously establishing a support system for prostitutes who wish to leave the sex trade. Edmonton police have used a vehicle equipped with a video camera to discourage men from approaching prostitutes. The city also helps support three residential centres for prostitutes who are trying to get out of the business. And in Montreal, a new program jointly run by the city and Concordia University provides drop-in centres where prostitutes can obtain counselling and support.
Many officials advocate crackdowns on johns and pimps, particularly those who prey on young girls. Greater financial assistance is also required, to help young women drawn into prostitution by poverty, ignorance and early sexual abuse. As with so many social ills, treating the symptoms rarely leads to a cure.
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