Susan Davis

VANCOUVER, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)–Susan Davis considers herself one of the lucky ones.

In her 21 years as a sex worker, Davis, 39, has known countless peers who have died of suicide, murder, AIDS or drug overdose in Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside.

She herself has experienced four heart attacks from smoking crack cocaine and survived several assaults by violent clients while working on the streets.

"I’m a one-percenter," Davis said, referring to the notion that the other 99 percent fail to survive this impoverished, drug-infested neighborhood. "It’s nuts down here."

Now, Davis and other local sex workers have banded together to establish Canada’s first cooperative brothel in an attempt to offer women a safe place to work.

The group, formed by a sex workers’ alliance based here, called the British Columbia Coalition of Experiential Women, will incorporate next month and is already setting the groundwork to open the co-op brothel.

Members have begun scouting for a location and are enlisting the backing of local businesses, police and labor organizations.

Faced with the task of cleaning up the city to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver authorities said they are open to the idea.

"We would be willing to explore anything that . . . would be helping the situation of sex trade workers, and make it safer for them and make it better for the community," said Vancouver police spokesperson Howard Chow. He noted one requirement: "It has to be something that is lawful."

Aiming for Official Exemption

Prostitution itself is legal in Canada. However, since most activities associated with it are not–such as soliciting sexual services in a public place, operating a bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution–the group is planning to appeal to the federal government for an exemption.

The government has already allowed the operation of a safe, supervised injection site in the city, where authorities give amnesty to intravenous drug users.

"Vancouver truly is the testing ground for new ideas," Davis said, citing the site as well as other initiatives, such as free needle exchange programs and the testing of prescription heroin on addicts.

"We can’t do anything that would put police in a position to arrest us," she said. "So, what we’re saying is, ‘This is such a little place. Let us try and demonstrate to you what we think will happen, which is it will greatly diminish the complaints from the neighborhood and will greatly increase the safety of the sex workers of the Downtown Eastside.’"

The Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter objects to the idea of a co-op brothel, as it views prostitution as a means of perpetuating violence against women.

An overwhelming majority of prostitutes would leave the sex trade if given a choice, said shelter spokesperson Daisy Kler.

"The idea that there are women who, given an autonomous decision, given all other options, would stay is a fantasy," she said.

She added that a co-op would not protect Vancouver’s most vulnerable women, as those who work the streets solely to survive would not likely have the money to join.

Cracking down on pimps and johns would more effectively improve the safety of sex workers than offering a place where men could continue to exploit women, Kler said. "We don’t think men should be entitled to buy and sell women to satiate themselves."

Not Alone in Choosing Sex Work

Davis acknowledged that, ideally, those women who wanted to leave the sex trade could do so. But she maintained that she entered the trade on her own accord and she is not alone in choosing sex work.

"This is hard for feminists to swallow," Davis said. "Having your own destiny is really appealing to everyone. There’s a lot of people with no lived experience trying to impose what they think is right on us."

The proposed brothel is welcomed by some frontline workers in the area, where more than 60 women, many of them sex workers, disappeared between the late 1980s and 2001. Those disappearances led to an investigation into Canada’s worst suspected serial murder case.

The suspect, Robert William Pickton, a local pig farmer, was arrested in 2002 and was charged with 26 counts of murder. He is being tried for the deaths of six women. A second trial is expected to follow.

Kerry Porth and Sheri Kiselbach, coordinators of the Vancouver-based nonprofit Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society, said little has been done to ensure the safety of sex workers since the high-profile investigation.

Prostitutes who work out in the open continue to be preyed upon by violent clients, they said. And while opponents of the co-op brothel plan disagree, Porth and Kiselbach said that the incidence of violence is greatly reduced–though not eliminated–when sex workers work indoors, such as in massage parlors or through escort services.

"Every time you go out there, you don’t know what’s going to happen," Porth said. "You don’t know if it’s your last night out there and that’s a ridiculous amount of stress for any individual to live with."

The society has for years been fighting to decriminalize the sex trade, which has been pushed underground and forced women to work in isolation and in dangerous conditions, Porth said.

Davis, who is spearheading the co-op brothel, said she envisions a space that would bring back the "golden age of sex work," when bawdy houses freely operated.

Showgirls, Dinner and a Room

The incorporated group would operate a museum and gallery to showcase the artwork and history of showgirls and prostitutes, she said. It would also run a dinner club with burlesque performances under the same roof as the brothel.

Any sex worker could join for a nominal fee and be able to rent clean rooms cheaply, she said. Although they would share expenses, members would set their own fees and keep their profits. The co-op would also enforce labor standards.

So far, some of the strongest opposition has come from escort agencies threatened by the prospect of organized competition, Davis said. Politicians and local businesses have largely been supportive. Davis said the sex workers’ group aims to have the co-op brothel and museum fully operating in time for the influx of tourists expected during the Olympics.

Since part of the Olympic organizing committee’s mandate is to support local economic development, she said, the cooperative could fit that description, providing a thriving business while keeping the sex trade in check.

Porth and Kiselbach noted that international sporting events, such as the Olympics, customarily attract a massive inrush of sex workers.

Ahead of this year’s World Cup soccer matches in Germany, for instance, politicians and women’s rights groups there had predicted the trafficking of up to 40,000 women into the country to serve in the sex trade.

Regardless of the debate on the rights and wrongs of the sex trade, a proactive approach to sex workers’ safety is desperately needed, Davis said.

"We can continue the debate about morality. I don’t think that should stop . . . but we can’t deny it exists," Davis said. "I mean how moral is it to let people die?"

Wency Leung is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada.

For more information:

British Columbia Coalition of Experiential Women:

Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter:

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