Conservatives must retreat on changes to bawdy-house law

Vancouver Sun August 19, 2010 9:55 AM

While prostitution has never been a particularly safe profession, there is
abundant evidence that it is much safer when practised indoors.

Prostitutes who work for massage parlours or escort agencies are much less
frequently assaulted than those who work on the street. Of the well over 100
prostitutes who have been murdered in Canada during the past few decades,
almost every one has been a street worker.

Prostitutes who work indoors also don’t face the wrath of the public, as do
street prostitutes. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say.

Since the members of the public aren’t confronted by prostitutes who work in
massage parlours or escort agencies, they don’t complain to the police.
Consequently, police often don’t enforce bawdy-house laws, which criminalize
running, and being found in, a place used for prostitution. Indeed, such places
even receive business licences from municipalities.

As odd as that might seem, it’s been a good thing, since it helps to drive
prostitutes indoors, where they’re likely to be a good deal safer.

But it was not always so. Two high-profile murders in massage parlours in Vancouver and Toronto
in the 1970s led to a police crackdown. Many bawdy houses were closed, which
meant that prostitutes were forced onto the streets.

Needless to say, many people were not happy about the increased visibility
of prostitution, and they made their displeasure known to the police and politicians.

The crackdown appeared to have another effect.

While the murder of prostitutes had been a rarity before the bawdy-house
raids, a Simon Fraser University
criminologist documented 12 murders between 1978 and 1984.

This isn’t proof that the raids contributed to the murders, although since
there were more women working the street, and since we know the street is
dangerous, it’s reasonable to assume the raids played a role.

The police learned their lesson, though, and went back to allowing bawdy
houses to operate unmolested by the criminal law.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the government has failed to learn the same

As part of its professed attempt to crack down on organized crime, Ottawa last week
designated a list of crimes as “serious offences.” This will give
police increased powers to investigate such crimes, and could increase
dramatically the sentences for those convicted of the new serious offences.
Among these is keeping a common bawdy house.

This means that under the guise of fighting organized crime, police will be
able to crack down on bawdy houses, just as they did in the 1970s.

And the result will almost assuredly be the same: Women will be forced into
the street and will face significantly greater danger. And the public will be
forced to confront an increase in street prostitution.

It’s unfortunate that the federal government would make this move given our
experience in the 1970s. But given that the justice system has just finished
dealing with Robert Pickton, who murdered many street prostitutes, it’s nothing
short of astonishing.

If Ottawa is
genuinely concerned about the plight of vulnerable women, it will reverse this
short-sighted move in short order.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver


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