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Reject Red Light Districts as a Solution to Violence Against Women

By Suzanne Jay
March 1, 2003

Presentation at the Raging Women’s Conference in Vancouver, BC

I have spent hours in the courtroom with Robert William Pickton. I was there for his first day in court. I’ve watched him sit in the bullet proof glass case that was built especially for him. I’ve heard his voice on tapes that the police made of their interrogations. Reporters refer to the case as the case of the century. That may well be the case for Canadian women.

I’ve been a collective member of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter for 9 years now. Together with 30 other women, I operate a transition house for battered women and a 24 hour rape crisis line. When Pickton was first arrested I called a press conference so that feminists could claim a voice about the case. I’ve been to the Pickton farm many times, I’ve talked with family members of missing women, and I’ve talked to women who escaped the Pickton Farm.

While I’m in the courtroom I started to think about Jack the Ripper. How Jack the Ripper’s violence has been promoted to us and kept in the public consciousness of westerners usually through commercially made movies, documentaries, books and tourism. I think about how the circumstances that allowed Jack the Ripper to kill, escape and become legend are mostly forgotten.

Millions of dollars are being spent on the Pickton Farm case. There are media reports, books are being written and probably movies. This case is a massive money maker. But the money is not being distributed to the things that could challenge another man’s ability to create another pig farm and it isn’t even going towards preventing you or me from being beaten or raped tonight.

William Robert Pickton may or may not stay in our collective memory. But we need to understand the circumstance that helped Pickton rape, beat, drug and kill so many women. I’m at the beginning of analyzing what the global corporate agenda, the provincial cuts and sexism have to do with the creation of monsters like Pickton and Jack the Rippers and how women are delivered into their hands. I’ll also agreed to answer how this is all connected to wife beating and rape.

I’m going to use some examples from the last 3 months of Vancouver Rape Relief’s work to analyze from. Some of the situations are severe, but I chose them because they expose a lot about women’s oppression through violence.

Two months ago, Jane moved into our transition house. She had been charged with assault. Her husband picked fight and wouldn’t let her walk away and she knew he was building up to hit her. She says she grabbed a knife to in self defense and he cut himself when he lunged at her. He says she stabbed him.

Jane is from the Philippines. She is part of the global migration of women that is part of that country’s policy of exporting women to earn foreign currency. And she is part of Canada’s policy of bringing in low paid labour to provide domestic services, mostly childcare. Canada has established terms that so that her employers don’t have to follow the same standards as for Canadian workers and the Canadian government isn’t obliged to provide medical or welfare services. It has also made it very difficult for domestic workers to get citizenship. In Jane’s case, she has Canadian citizenship now.

She has asked Vancouver Rape Relief to help her defend against the criminal chargesand get custody of her children. Her husband has them and says he wants to keep them.

Now if the government was interested in protecting and advancing women’s equality, Jane would be guaranteed to have a lawyer. Someone who is trained to understand and interpret the law and defend Jane’s freedom and her rights.

Instead, the provincial government cut legal aid by 40%. They made this cut to a budget that the NDP had already weakened by almost 18 million dollars. The 18 million was from a tax on lawyers fees that was supposed to be added to the federal contribution to legal aid, but the NDP put that money into general revenue.

Jane does have a lawyer to defend her on the criminal charges, but I don’t know about custody yet. Women can get legal aid for family matters in cases of male violence, but remember, the police charged her.

The other complication is that a social worker could get involved and decide that neither parent is acceptable and take the children into care. There is no legal aid for anyone trying to prevent the apprehension of their children by the government.

Jane should have been able to stay in the Philippines and had a happy life there. Or she should have been able to immigrate here without having to live in servitude and constant danger of deportation if she didn’t please her employer. At a minimum, Jane’s immigration should have included immediate landed status and entitlement to all social services, settlement help including English as a second language training, an introduction to civics and to civic services. With these things she might have been able to make her husband change right in the beginning, or she might not ever have needed him.

Margaret has not lived in our transition house, but she did live in one last year. I met her at the Pickton trial. She’s a very attractive 44 year old woman, she’s been married, she has adult sons, she works out in the gym everyday. Right now she is living on welfare. Last week I found out that she hasn’t been going to AA for the past month because she didn’t have bus fare. She has to decide between spending her welfare money on bus tickets or on food.

Margaret split with her husband 6 years ago. She worked in a hair salon and had her own apartment. A couple years later her boyfriend introduced her to crack cocaine. She was addicted for 2 years, and lost everything she had in that time period. The boyfriend was also using crack. He started to pressure her to act in porn movies and to go with other men at parties. He told her she could earn them some money to pay for the drugs. She refused and ran away. It’s more complicated than this, but you need to know that she got away. Margaret has been off crack for 2 years. She says that it was easier for her to get off it because she was in her late thirties when she started. She had a life to go back to.

In the last 3 months that I’ve known Margaret, she has lived in 4 different places with four different room-mates. She can’t find her own place at the welfare rate. One of the room-mates expected to be her boyfriend. He monitored her calls and questioned her whenever she went out. After he told her that he had people watching her – she moved out. She asked Vancouver Rape Relief to be with her when she went to the police to tell them what she knew about Pickton and the Pig farm. We also offered to help get her busfare so she can go to AA.

Despite the North American war on drugs, the international drug trade has increased In fact the United States is the biggest importer of illegal drugs in the world. American’s and Canadians demand access to drugs. Poor people of colour are targeted by the large scale dealers and turned into users and street level dealers. The addiction makes people easier to control. Power and resources continue to flow away from women, people of colour and the working class. Corporations depend on a controlled population to be their market and to be their labour pool. Corporations exert enormous pressure on national government agendas. And Poor countries have come to rely on the export of drugs to support their economies.

If the government were committed to protecting and advancing women’s equality, Margaret would have enough money to eat and get to her AA group.

The provincial liberal government cut Margaret’s welfare cheque from $521 To $510.If I were to give Margaret a gift of $10.00 or $100.00 it will be taken off her cheque. She is not allowed to have more than 510.00 per month. She can’t earn any money either. If I give her a gift and she doesn’t tell her welfare worker, she has committed fraud. Anyone committing welfare fraud can now be kicked off welfare for the rest of her life. This is the first time in Canada since welfare was put in place that someone could be kicked off for life. Somehow it’s become acceptable to leave someone to starve to death.

I don’t think that welfare will bring about feminist revolution, but we can’t make feminist revolution if half of us are starving to death or have no safe place to live. Welfare should be guaranteed to anyone who walks into a welfare office. The Welfare rate must be enough for food and shelter at market rates and include access to public utilities, like telephone service, heat and hot water and bus fare. Women should be able to walk away from a violent husband and know that welfare will be enough to live on. A woman should also be able to quit a job where the boss is abusive and get welfare. A woman should be able to provide for herself and her kids without having to do the poverty crimes of stealing or prostituting or drug trafficking. This would be the start of fair income redistribution in one of the richest countries in the world. There is no reason to force women into the degradation of breaking the law in order to eat.

Sara lived in the transition house two years ago. She was 26, and had grown up in a small town. She came to the transition house to get away from her husband. He had punched her in the stomach repeatedly after finding out that she was pregnant. Sara thought she could go on welfare while she had the baby. Welfare disqualified her. Before this last round of provincial welfare cuts, a battered pregnant woman with no means of support could not get welfare. The welfare worker told Sara that she should go into adult entertainment if she needed quick money When Sara questioned her, the welfare worker told her that escort services have business licenses and are perfectly legitimate work.

Some of you might know that some members of Vancouver City Council support the idea of establishing a red light district. A red light district would be a designated area of town where men can buy prostitutes. It’s supposed to protect us from seeing prostitution in our neighborhood, but keep it easy for men to find prostitutes. In other cities, like Amsterdam, Bangkok, Roppongi, Melbourne, the red light district is also called an “adult entertainment district”.

There is a debate going on around the globe about prostitution. Capitalists are pushing for red light districts in cities all over the world. Whole countries, like Thailand have been turned into red light districts. It is an enormous pressure on government to create the conditions that would push women into prostitution.

On December 28, 2002, the Financial Post ran a front page story about a brothel in Australia going public. People could buy shares in the brothel on the stock market. At the time 2 men owned the brothel it is called the Daily Planet. It has operated since 1971 and was legal since 1985 when brothels were legalized in parts of Australia. Investors are promised 10% return on their investment. The company is debt free and is projecting earnings of A1.1 million dollars per year. The owners expect that people will buy a minimum of 6.2 million dollars worth of shares.

The women are not employed by the brothel, they are considered free agents, the hotel has little to no obligation to any of the women. 150 women are free agents in an 18 room brothel. The brothel owners charge each man 115 for every hour he spends in each room. It seems that fire regulations are the only limit on the number of men allowed in each room with a woman.

The Daily Planet will be the model for any new brothel anywhere in the world. It isn’t a new model, it’s just the most public right now. And as of December when the story was written , there were plans for expansion into different cities. The plans were for Australia, but the brothel owners are already talking about how poor countries like Colombia and Brazil are desperate for their expertise.

People buying register retirement savings plans or making any kind of investment that involves mutual funds may eventually be buying shares in brothels.

Here in Vancouver the Pickton Farm is used to provide the background and justification for arguments about establishing a red light district. The 15 women he is charged with killing were prostituted. Pickton was a well known john. The chief argument for a red light district is that it will be safer for prostitutes. People who are worried about the safety of women in prostitution are being told that the police will come faster and more reliably in a red light district.

At this time, vancouver police are looking for a man who targets prostitutes. He hires a prostitute from the street, he drives her out of town and strangles the woman while he rapes her. The police are describing him as “the guy with the wonky eye.” The first report to the police was in February 2002 right after Pickton was arrested. Three weeks ago, the police started telling the public about this guy. A CBC reporter asked the vancouver police why they waited so long to release information. In their own words, the police said they “didn’t think he was a danger because he limited his attacks to prostitutes.” Since February 2002 he has raped and strangled at least 4 more women. I’m not convinced that police will suddenly start protecting prostitutes because they work in a red light district where prostitution is legalized.

Some people argue that even if the police won’t respond to a prostitute, they will respond when the brothel owners call. The rationale is that brothels owners will want to maintain a reputation that is acceptable to the men using the area.

I can also say this as, don’t worry, capitalism will make women safe.

Daily Plant shareholders will not be happy if there are any publicized situations that make the brothel look bad. Most cases become public because they are recorded by the police. The media generally depend on police to release information about violence cases. It is far more likely that places like the Daily Plant will have a private security firm to take care of any incidents. The police will not be alerted and any attack on a woman in the red light district will be hidden by the privatized security. The official police record of violence against women and by extension the official media record of violence against women will be reduced but not because the attacks are not happening.

Dara Culhane ‘s research shows that most of the men who buy street prostitutes can actually afford to buy women through escort agencies or in massage parlours. The question is then why would a man who has enough money to buy sex in a safe, clean setting choose otherwise? Dara’s research shows that the men are actually buying the degradation of women, not sex. Robert William Pickton had money. He could have bought women from escort agencies. But he didn’t. Historians speculate that Jack the Ripper was from the upper class and that he may even have been part of the extended Royal Family.

If women’s degradation is what the consumer demands, the capitalists are sure to provide it.

If the government was committed to protecting and promoting women’s equality they would have given Sara welfare at a livable rate. Feminist Advocacy centres would be core funded to work without government control. Government would stop all planning for a red light district and be talking about how to stop women from being turned into prostitutes. They would seek our advice about how to promote women’s escape from violence. They would plan with us about how to prevent the rape and the assaults that will come with the Olympics. COPE members met with women’s groups during the election campaign and agreed that money to women’s groups from the city was “doable”. Since the election, that offer has disappeared.

Jack the Ripper and Robert William Pickton both operated in a time when there was a huge redistribution of people, power and resources. For the Ripper, the economic agenda was shifting from agriculture to industry. For Pickton the economic agenda is shifting from national control to globalized corporate control. For both killers, women were in a mass migration to get to jobs that paid very low wages and where there weren’t enough jobs to go around.. Women were disconnected from their regular social networks. For the Ripper social services were minimal I think mostly church based. And we all see what is happening to our social services in Pickton’s time.

For both killers, there were red light districts. Jack the Ripper’s was the downtown of London and for Pickton I would argue that it was his Farm that served as the red light district. Mass media was well developed for both men and used the mystery and luridness of the murders to sell newspapers or advertising time. Media itself is now globalized under a corporate agenda. Neither governments at the time were actively invested in protecting or promoting the status of women. There was no formal legal protection.

Fear of these men was used to control women in each time period.

In our time period, the fear of Pickton is generating the localized pressure to create a red light district in Vancouver. This is a plan that proposes a gross level of control over women. This control will be most apparent on the women who are prostituted in the district, but it will be felt by every woman.

On paper, women may have achieved formal have equality. Feminists won laws on violence, affirmative action, and charter protection for equality. A government approved red light district will reverse that legal ground. Anti-Sexual harassment policies are impossible to apply when the woman’s job is to be nude and available to any man in the establishment.

When the sexual assault law was written, the government recognized that a man had to get a woman’s consent to sex without using coercian. In a red light district women will provide sexual contact they wouldn’t otherwise agree to if they weren’t being coerced by their need for money.

As for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, The Charter’s guarantee of security of the person becomes meaningless when a woman must be penetrated in order for her to have access to food or shelter.

If the government does create a red light district, it will be delivering women into the hands of killers like Pickton and Jack the Ripper because we are now living in circumstances that allow that kind of man to emerge.

In Closing, I’m asking you to foment dissent against a red light district and smash back at patriarchy.

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