Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Golden Age of Sex

Sep 12, 2016

Interesting that this week a group of Vancouver sex trade activists will be unveiling some kind of memorial to one of the most acrimonious episodes in the city's history: the West End "sex wars" of the late 1970s, early 1980s.

The story is told in my book, Red Light Neon. Briefly, once the police wrongheadedly cracked down on prostitution taking place in the relative safety of downtown clubs in 1975, hundreds of sex workers were forced back out onto the streets to conduct business. This led to an uptick in soliciting near popular tourist locales and to a migration of sex workers to a strip along Davie Street in the West End.

For several years the alleys and sidewalks of this neighbourhood became what local residents complained was an open-air sex bazaar. I note that one activist has called this the "golden age" of prostitution in the city but for many people it felt more like a dark ages. Condoms littering the sidewalks, noise all night, pedestrians and prostitutes being hassled by lookie-lous, etc. Violence was a constant threat both from rednecks who descended on the neighbourhood to harass the sex workers and from residents who wanted their streets back.

Local politicians failed to deal with the situation -- which increasingly came to be called a "crisis" -- until finally in 1984 the BC Supreme Court handed down an injunction banning sex workers from the neighbourhood. The decision was very much in the tradition of the local response to street prostitution: force sex workers out of one area into another, usually much less safe. Eventually the city ended up with the missing women scandal and Robert Pickton, the worst serial killer in Canadian history.

This week's marker is sponsored by the West End Sex Work Memorial Project. Details of their initiative may be found here.