No, Doctor, Women are not safe in brothels

November 30, 2011
Sarah M Mah
Published in Sister Outsiders - what you won’t hear inside the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry

On October 17th and 18th, Dr. Kate Shannon showcased her research findings for the Missing Women Inquiry. She studies prostituted women. Euphemisms flowed as prostitution was squeezed into her ‘scientific framework’. Johns are “clients,” brothels are given the palatable label “indoors.” The circumstances of women’s lives are reduced to vague and arbitrarily defined categories – “for the purposes of this analysis”. “Police harassment.” “Enforced Displacement.” “Working in outdoor spaces.” She calls these factors “predictors of an increased risk of violence,” and passes them off as the causes of harm to prostituted women, even though these “predictors” are in fact correlations. Causation of violence is, of course, the john and the pimp.

Simple science aside – it is these factors, Dr. Shannon says, that interfere with women’s ability to “look for indications of potential violence” in a john, and her ability to “negotiate safety,” such as condom use. Repeatedly she reinforces the rigid and narrow nature of her study, and her goal to “focus on the context of how violence impacted negotiation and safety.” Her solution: remove laws against prostitution and allow women to work indoors, “[allowing] sex workers to have some measure of safety, access to services and reduced exposure to violence.”

The world that Dr. Shannon advocates for, as an academic in public health and epidemiology, is a world where women are expected to bargain for their safety and their health, and the state is expected to grant them that “freedom”. But women have fought for so much more from the state and for international and human rights laws that affirm that women shouldn’t have to negotiate for their survival.

Dr. Shannon’s proposed world is not a hypothesis. It’s a tried-and-failed reality. Women are already expected to rely only on themselves for their survival and that of their children. Prostituted women are already expected to negotiate with power they do not have over a john. Women already get zero interference from police and the state when violent men threaten their lives. And women are already ‘indoors’ in Vancouver – and still face beatings, rape, and murder. The problem? Dr. Shannon never includes these cases, “for the purposes of this analysis”.

Dr. Shannon proceeds to identify Kingsway and Victoria as one of four “geographical hot spots” where prostituted women on the street experience a “higher than normal” pressure from johns to skip condoms. She goes on to argue that it is the law and police enforcement of the law that displaces women away from services and endangers them. It is in places like this, she suggests, that women would have the most to gain from full decriminalization which would allow them to move indoors.

Surely, one at the helm of this research would know this area well for its reputation. The newly-branded “Little Saigon” is a district well known for its abundance of Asian massage parlours – just like its namesake, devastated by American troops, has been made synonymous with pimping and brothels. It’s no secret that Asian women are prostituted and often trafficked into these brothels. Local newspapers profit from ‘adult ads’ that use the appeal of racism to sell Asian women. An AWCEP survey of the now-defunct Craigslist erotic classifieds revealed 60% of the online ads featured Asian women, and most highlighted race and racist stereotypes. Coercion, language barriers, violence, and threats of deportation are all too common and familiar to women in these circumstances. If the Inquiry is going to consider prostitution law reform in the name of ‘safety’ it should consider these women too.

And yet, trafficked and prostituted Asian women have been made invisible at the Inquiry. The commission will not hear about the women beaten in massage parlours. They will ignore the Asian women indoors who face dangers from pimps and johns, not to mention the profits members of organized crime make off these women. What we are left with is the racist assumption that Asian women, in particular, want to prostitute, and the racist decision to erase Asian women from the Inquiry because they are assumed to be safely indoors.

Brothels have failed Asian women here, and around the world. No, doctor, prostitution is not safe for women. Not even indoors.