The Impacts of Prohibition

In the Vancouver area from the 1920’s all the way up until the early 1970’s the sex industry enjoyed peaceful and profitable times. The industry for the most part existed in what were called “Supper Clubs” where a gentleman could be entertained with a nice dinner, an escort to keep him company, and a Las Vegas style exotic dance performance. Dancers, escorts, cigarette girls, waitresses, and bartenders all worked together under the same roof. This was a community where everyone worked within their own personal boundaries and (at risk of romanticising the past) in relative safety, within a supporting work environment.

In 1975, after a 5-month long police investigation involving 12 undercover officers collecting evidence by way of electronic eavesdropping[1], the Penthouse Show Lounge was shut down and the owners, the Filippone brothers; charged with living off of the avails of prostitution for allowing the escorts to come to the club to meet customers. As a result, NO supper club owners in Vancouver were willing to work with escorts anymore. Immediately, the visible street level trade in Vancouver emerged and the first recorded murder of a sex worker in Vancouver took place as a possibly unintended consequence of a good intention. However, regulation activities undertaken without a clear understanding of sex industry structure, interdependence and consultation has negative effects on the lives of those most affected: sex industry workers.

In 1985 the federal criminal code law revisions governing sex work had equally disastrous effects as the mortality rates of Vancouver sex workers increased by a staggering 500%. Further, in 1990/91 the City of Vancouver threatened Downtown Eastside Hotel owners with criminal charges and the loss of their business licenses if they continued to allow sex workers to use hotels rooms on an hourly basis. The hourly room rentals provided sex workers with off street location where they could at least wash after entertaining a client. The City of Vancouver applied pressure to the hotel owners and, as a result, owners were no longer willing to facilitate the safety of sex workers and workers were ‘discharged’ to the back alleys of the city.

This left nowhere for sex workers to meet their clients except for the dark, isolated industrial areas by the Port of Vancouver. The number of sex workers that went missing dramatically increased in that year and three serial murderers/ rapists were arrested for killing and torturing Vancouver sex workers. Once again an attempt at social regulation caused significant harm to Vancouver sex workers and the loss of this relatively safe work environment.

Recently the targeting of Health Enhancement Centers and increased enforcement against Exotic Show Lounges has once again jeopardized the safety of Sex Industry Workers. The need for a community based process through which the sex industry can govern itself and where workers can have collective input into their future and their economic, social and political stability is all the more urgent.

We call to action all sex industry professionals, coworkers, allies and sympathizers. We have an opportunity now during this current charter challenge to ensure that adult voluntary sex industry workers fall within the protective potential of Canadian legislation, law enforcement and the community. Perhaps we can work toward the end to the slaughter of sex industry workers in Canada and the end to harmful policies and prohibitions.

[1] Brock, D. (2003). Making Normal: social regulation in Canada. Edited by D. Brock, Nelson Learning Canada INC.

 This excerpt was taken from the Forward of the Leading the Way report.


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