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Exploring Prostitution in Vancouver

Compiled by the Canadian Sexuality and History Research staff

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There are currently 1,500 prostitutes working in Vancouver. In 1992 the Vancouver Sun estimated they generated $63 million in revenues for the local economy. Today vice cops point to a disturbing trend on the city streets--prostitutes and pimps as young as 13 years old with plenty of customers in pursuit. The cops, the lawmakers and the morality crusaders have all tried to expunge prostitution from Vancouver. But they have failed to budge the sex trade which has always found Vancouver to be a bountiful home.

The politicians, the police, the pious and the city's prostitutes were always uneasy bedfellows. After the Great Fire of 1886 Dupont Street (now East Pender) became the brothel bazaar for the city. Many women were imported from China to be lodged in homes run by white madams like Mattie Davis, keeper of the posh house on Dupont. Up the road at Lady Caroline's only judges, lawyers and professional gentlemen were admitted as clientele.

Brothels on Canton and Shanghai streets in Chinatown and those on West Hastings and in Mount Pleasant were so-called "restricted districts"--areas sanctioned by police, making them, in fact, Vancouver's first red-light districts. Police protection money ensured peace and quiet but a Daily Province probe in 1906 led to the firing of chief constable Sam North for taking bribes from brothel operators.

Exploring Prostitution in Vancouver  

Prostitution arrests increased from 20 in 1900 to 500 in 1920. Fines ranged from $15 for the prostitutes to $50 for the keepers. Prisoners' records at Vancouver City Gaol show a third of the prostitutes were former domestic servants who lost their jobs and perhaps had no other alternative livelihood.

In 1939 it was the spread of venereal disease that prompted police chief Col. W.W. Foster to launch yet another crackdown by his "morality squad." While venereal disease rates continued to climb well into the 1970s, the effects of the arrival of AIDS on the prostitute population have not been well documented.

In 1976 the owners and management of the Penthouse Cabaret on Seymour Street were charged with keeping a common bawdy house. The Penthouse Six, as they were called, included Joe Philliponi, a celebrated cabaret figure. In the 1950s and 1960s the Penthouse billed Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. It was alleged however that, in addition to presenting music, the venue provided a welcome place for 80 to 100 prostitutes to pick up clients each night. The trial was a sensation. There were undercover tapes, liquor inspectors on the take and stories galore (like how the Japanese Navy "invaded" the Penthouse one steamy summer night in 1975). During the trail Philliponi pleaded for leniency, claiming a conviction "would kill my mother." The trial regaled packed courtrooms for months, before all six finally walked free after successfully appealing the conviction. Fate caught up with Joe Philliponi in 1983 when he was shot dead during a robbery.

In 1979 police seized a little brown book at the apartment of a well-known Vancouver prostitute. In it were the names of 800 men, many of whom constitute a who's who of high society, including a high-ranking member of the B.C. judiciary. Wendy King pleaded guilty to keeping a bawdy house and was fined $1,500. But the notebook was sealed by a B.C. supreme court justice and the names were never revealed.

In recent years local residents have taken to the streets to remove prostitutes from their neighbourhoods. For example there was the Mount Pleasant revolt in 1991 during which the Vancouver police published the names of johns nabbed in the area after the city's newspapers refused to do so. In 1984 Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE), led by former Vancouver Centre MP Pat Carney, fought a street-battle with streetwalkers. Council, led by then- mayor Mike Harcourt, had passed a street-activity bylaw a couple of years before, imposing fines of up to $2,000 for a prostitution conviction. But like so many attempts to legally control prostitution, it failed to stick in the courts. The ensuing protests forced the hookers to simply move elsewhere. Currently the East End and the Downtown Eastside are still the main drags, as they were a century ago.

It seems the city can do nothing to stop the killing of its prostitutes. Since 1985 some 60 prostitutes have been murdered by tricks, pimps or pushers, making Vancouver the most dangerous place in Canada to streetwalk. Police suspect women have died at the hands of at least one serial killer and among those suspected is the infamous Green River Killer, who is still at large.

And finally police say that three out of every four prostitutes in Vancouver are drug addicts, mostly heroin and cocaine abusers. The legalization of prostitution in Canada, or at least a more equitable de-criminalization context, that is inspired by diverse European societal milieus and constitutional legal frameworks, would hopefully provide a context for government redressing the vital public health, social, and human rights issues that is associated in Canada.

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