Sex Work In Vancouver’s Eastside: Second Location Report

We’re considering possible locations for gameplay: here’s the second.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada, with “a high concentration of social problems: poverty, mental illness, open substance use and addiction, drug dealing, prostitution, crime, inadequate and insecure housing, high prevalence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis, and lack of access to meaningful employment” (Newnham, 2005, p.4).

The Downtown Eastside has approximately 16,000 residents, of which 6,000 are active drug users. Until recently, the rate of drug overdoses in the area was higher than any other city in North America (Cler-Cunningham & Christensen, 2001). It is estimated that 80% of the female injection drug users work in the sex trade. Sex workers supporting a drug habit are likely to charge less, and this is particularly prevalent in the Downtown Eastside. Sex workers in this area earn from $20 to $80 per client, or even less (Lowman, 2000).

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has one of the highest HIV/HEPC infection rates in the Western World, and was declared a medical health disaster in 1997.  Cler-Cunningham and Christensen (2001) contend that while $3 million was spent in response to this, it did little to improve the situation. In Vancouver, the HIV infection rate is much higher among female injection drug users than men, a rare occurence in the developed world.  Cler-Cunningham and Christensen argue that this speaks to the terrible conditions of the street-level sex trade.

The Downtown Eastside has become an unofficial tolerance zone, and police have told sex workers that they would not be charged if they remained in this neighborhood (Matas, 2012). Though sex workers had previously worked in other areas of the Downtown Eastside, opposition from residents led police to move the stroll to a five-block area north of Hastings Street in 1988 (Lowman, 2000).  Consequently, sex workers now find themselves working in isolated, poorly lit back alleys.

A study in 2000 found that 70% of street sex workers in the Downtown East Side were Aboriginal women under the age of 26 (Culhane, 2003). Aboriginals represent only 1.7% of Vancouver’s population.

The city of Vancouver has a history of ignoring the plight of street sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. At least 61 women from the area have gone missing since 1983, many of which were Aboriginal women (Cler-Cunningham & Christensen, 2001). Police and other authorities largely ignored requests to look into these cases.

Robert Pickton was arrested in 2002 in connection with at least 33 murders of sex workers taken from the Downtown Eastside (Ferreras, 2011). Pickton has been officially tied to women who had gone missing between 1997 and 2002.  In 2012, the BC’s Missing Women Commission Inquiry concluded that “systemic bias towards Downtown Eastside sex workers was a key factor that allowed Pickton to spend years hunting his victims” (Keller, 2012, n.p.).

Cler-Cunningham and Christensen contend that while the Downtown Eastside is vastly stigmatized in the media, there are many great initiatives in the area that work to fight the obstacles residents face. Since the 1970s, feminist organizations have established shelters, drop-in centers, and housing options in the neighborhood. Aboriginal women have organized and participated in anti-poverty and anti-violence movements, which started to gain national recognition in the 1990s. An annual Valentine’s Day memorial for the murdered women of the Downtown Eastside was established in 1991, and is now recognized across the country.

The Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society has been representing sex workers from the area in fighting to change prostitution laws in Canada since 2007. In September 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the organization had legal standing to challenge the laws. This case is similar to the one initiated in Ontario, though this organization is particularly focused on street-level sex work (MacCharles, 2012).

Criminologist Kim Rossmo estimates that there are 1300-2600 sex workers working on Vancouver’s streets (Cler-Cunningham & Christensen, 2001). It is estimated that the number off-street sex workers is 6-10 times higher than the number of street sex workers in Vancouver.