Putting the spotlight on a problem

Sept. 21, 2013 Note: If you buy sex, please participate in a confidential online survey that hopefully will to inform the development of education, service delivery, policy, and legislation that better meets the needs of ALL people involved in Canada’s commercial sex industry. 

Formerly titled: Prostitution in east downtown Kitchener

Early one morning, a young woman stood in front of a mirror. She was grooming herself for the day ahead. A common scene across Waterloo Region. But in this case, the mirror was outside, built into the exterior of a building. As I sat in my breakfast meeting at the Morning Glory Cafe, I could only feel sad for her.

By the time I left, I was pretty certain how she earned her income. And in the subsequent weeks, it became even more obvious. Perhaps she was the same young woman that I once saw a guy across the street call out to and warn that there was a police officer down the street.

Prostitution has long been a problem on King Street East in downtown Kitchener. There have been some successes in addressing it over the years but there is more that needs to be done. Long associated with King and Cedar, the strip worked extends from about Scott Street to nearly Ottawa. It has even been spotted in nearby residential neighbourhoods.

A year ago, after circling the block many times, a car stopped to pick up a young woman in front of my house that is on a street lined with homes. It was mid-day on Easter Monday. Incredibly, my wife and three year old daughter were outside at the time. Shortly before, a neighbour was approached about a “date” as he left for work in the wee hours of the morning. On another morning, a girl was taking a stroll up a nearby residential street. Reports were made to the police and the memory of these incidents faded away.

With the return of the warm weather, the sex trade has again become more visible. Sometimes its not obvious because the woman is not dressed stereotypically but being all alone, the slow aimless walk and changing direction for no apparent reason are definitely indicators.

This past Thursday morning at about 8:30 a.m., shortly after leaving my home, I saw a young woman hanging out just between KW Counselling and the entrance to Tim Hortons. Her shear black top with no bra was clearly inappropriate to wear in public at nearly any time or place–and definitely not at that time or place. So I stood on the other side of the street and quietly waited until she knew I was there and that I would wait there until she moved away.

These incidents are more than simply anecdotal evidence as demonstrated by this week’s Kitchener Post article about a recent crackdown by police. As an aside, my initial tweet on this matter came before I read this article.

My heart aches for these women. I understand the complexity of the issues that can lead them to this line of work. The vast majority of these women, if not all of them, are not there because they are empowered to make money from their sexuality. They have not chosen this life except as the result of a series of other poor choices and quite likely a series of circumstances over which they had little if any control.

But that does not mean that I am willing to sit back and tolerate this activity so close to my home and my neighbourhood. So I tweeted that it was time to be in touch with the Sex Workers Action Network (SWAN) and the police.

I used the hash tag #notinmyneighbourhood that lead to accusations of NIMBYism. My response was that street prostitution did not belong in my neighbourhood, your neighbourhood or any neighbourhood. For obvious reasons, I care about the health of east downtown Kitchener and especially the women who live and work here though so  naturally enough it is my primary concern. But I’m not looking to simply shift it from where I live to where someone else lives.

My concern is twofold
  1. I want a neighbourhood that people want to live in: Women should be able to walk in this neighbourhood without being concerned that someone might think they are a prostitute or try to engage their services. Children should be able to play outside or take a walk with their parents without seeing sex for sale. For existing neighbourhoods to flourish, these type of expectations must be possible. With the downtown targeted for intensification, this issue is also about the future of east downtown.
  2. The negative stigma attached to an area known for street prostitution: Deserved or not, areas known for prostitution must deal with the inevitable negative perceptions. These perceptions can affect the area’s ability to attract the diverse range of people to live there that makes a downtown flourish. They also make it difficult to attract new businesses and new and customers for new and existing businesses. My neighbourhood is a great place to live and do business and should not need to risk being stuck with a negative label. Good things are also happening in other nearby downtown neighbourhoods.

While I tend to focus on the women, I realize that the men who are their customers are also at fault. Unfortunately, the women are the most visible sign of prostitution. By standing on the street, they advertise that sex for sale. But I realize that a demand must exist for the service for it to be sold. Both sides must be addressed. One of my objectives with the post is to put a spotlight on the problem that will keep the men away.


15 comments on “Putting the spotlight on a problem

  1. Hmmm … I too am concerned about the women and why they are doing this as a ‘job’. Most times it is due to being forced into at some point of their lives and not because they are taking advantage of their sexuality as a good business woman. Yes, there are some that do it as a choice. I find it complex however as how is legal prostitution handled in other countries? I have never witnessed so therefore don’t know how is displayed. As for children – during my childhood there was apparently 2 females that had visitors and displayed themselves in public – making offers to trades and service men, but as a child I didn’t know what they were doing, but just found odd that dressed with so few clothes at 6 am. As an adult my mother informed me of their ‘profession’. It didn’t have any effect on me as a child or an adult. It was not going on inside my house I suppose.
    I have heard a few arguments about legalizing prostitution will clean things up – take off the street and only those that truly are in business as a choice. I don’t buy that completely, but possibly it is true. It will not happenn however without a mind change in our society, allowing it to be a choice rather than evil and dirty.
    In other countries it is accepted – again I don’t know who is correct.

    If not in your neighbourhood – where should these women be? Off the street entirely and able to market themselves elsewhere would be a start. Prostitution is not likely to go away, so it is a matter of dealing with it properly and helping the women/girls who don’t want to be part of it get into a better lifestyle.

    Why stop the men? Currently it is illegal – but if it becomes legal we are accepting it exists and allowed. As far as I am concerned if they are willing to pay for sex then it is not my concern. If they are in a relationship that again is not my concern nor can I judge them.

    The sex trade is active on Twitter and other social networks -so maybe that is where it should live. We don’t have to view it then unless we are interested.

    Currently I don’t think there is a good answer, but clearly our methods are not working to either stop the activity or help the girls get off the street

    • Thanks for your comment Darleen. I think that you show that it is a complex situation without easy answers. But I think the point you make that the sex trade is occurring in other places and often more discreetly is a good one. But I don’t think out on the streets of any neighbourhood is an acceptable option.

  2. I complete disagree with the connotations and implications of what is being said here, and I do so with all due respect.

    Prostitution is not a problem of the resale value of your home, small-business capital or the image of your neighbourhood. This is my understanding of the phrases that you don’t want to “tolerate this activity so close to my home and my neighbourhood,” and “street prostitution did not belong in my neighbourhood, your neighbourhood or any neighbourhood”.

    You are right to point out that prostitution is a result of many unfortunate circumstances, but to co-opt it into a neighbourhood beautification campaign is a disservice to the human beings who must walk your streets in order to keep food on the table and the violence and degradation they face on the job.

    The only way to genuinely get rid of prostitution in your neighbourhood, my neighbourhood and anyone’s neighbourhood is to address the underlying problems of the institutions that allow it to happen, and the source of the personal circumstances that lead to the decision to sell oneself.

    If you think about it, the job you have is the result of education, perhaps life experience. In other words, you have capital (education, etc.) to trade for a pay check. If you were a farmer, your capital would be land and fruit. If you were a pilot, your capital in the job market is your pilot’s licence. When a person is at that level of poverty, the most lucrative capital they have to sell is their body.

    This isn’t really about police action, this is a matter of cultural change. You touched on this fact at certain points, but I think that gets obscured by the other things you said that carry connotations of slut-shaming and NIMBY, even if it extends to everyone’s neighbourhood.Further, even if you deal with the demand side of the sex trade, I think this particular blog post has glossed over a lot of the reason there was a supply to begin with.

    • Yes I agree with you and however can see James viewpoint – it makes many people uncomfortable to have these women selling in their neighbourhoods. We don’t have a quick fix and mrthods tried don’t resolve anything.
      We could argue forever about the right or wrong of prostitution and men people that take part – there is also male prostitution. There are several sociologic issues involved. Our first concern should be the same as we have for steet people – offer them tools so the prostitutes have other options. The difficulty is that they can make a higher wage selling their bodies than working behind a desk. Plus there are heavy duty pyschological issues involved. Why does a market exist? I beileve it exists due to fact we don’t talk about sex in the correct ways for everyone to be sexually healthy and mature.

      Yes we need a culture change and that is not about to happen quickly. Legalizing the sex trades may be the first step?

      • Thanks for this response Darleen. You’ll see in my next post that all three of us have a reasonably similar perspective. My objective in this first point was to highlight the issue.

      • “Why does a market exist? I beileve it exists due to fact we don’t talk about sex in the correct ways for everyone to be sexually healthy and mature.”

        I think that with this point, you make an incredibly astute and completely accurate observation. It’s incredibly profound and hits the nail on the head. (Would you mind if I used it in a blog post sometime? I want to explore the idea a bit more further down the road because you’ve brought up something important that we need to consider as a population.)

        When you say that “it makes many people uncomfortable to have these women selling in their neighbourhoods” this is exactly what you are speaking to. Our dialogue about sex is so convoluted that when we see sex being used as a tool for power and oppression, our first thought is about how unsightly it is, and the wellfare of those involved is an addendum. I think this is less about morality and BTOTC (but think of the children) than it is about an extremely negative patriarchal view of female sexuality.

        I really, really like the point you made about why the market exists in the first place. I’ve already said it, but I really do.

        I’m supportive of a decriminalisation of prostitution, if only to shift the cultural perspective that it is not a crime, it’s a tragedy.

        I looked into the SWAN service that James mentioned in the post, and it sounds to me like a lot of what they do isn’t empowering. It sounds like a lot of what SWAN does just says “don’t sell your body, it’s bad and you’ll get gonorrhoea. Now go do community service,” and this is the response they have to have because of the constraints of the current legal attitude.

        So yes, I think a move towards decriminalisation/legalisation would be an excellent first step, so as to not undermine the current, potentially positive work being done. Further, some women do indeed sell their bodies as an empowered celebration of their sexualities, and legalisation (different from decriminalisation, I know, but I can’t decide which is better) would allow these women the freedom to pursue their empowerment without the judgement of the judgemental.

    • Thanks for your comments A.Y. I hate to disagree with you but with all due respect I think we have more in common on this issue than disagreement. If you don’t believe me now, I hope you will when you read my next post which I is already pretty much ready to post.

      I regret the connotations and implications you attribute to my words. That is how you read it and not as it was intended. For the vast majority, I see these women as victims and I am not blaming the victim. I see the people that are involved but yes some of them are my family and neighbours. Each person involved has interests to be considered.

      • I will definitely read your next post! I read them all anyway, but I’m especially eager to see where this goes! 😀

        I would argue with you about your intents letting you off the hook though. Good intentions are good, but they don’t magically relieve us of the burden we face. If anything, intending goodwill makes the kinds of statements you made even more insidious. It is so ingrained in the way we think that we assume it’s ok, and don’t challenge it.

        If I accidentally step on someone’s foot, my intention to walk down the road without bumping into someone doesn’t make their physical pain go away. You’d apologize, and they’d let it go. Actually, that was a bad analogy because I don’t actually think you have anything to apologize for-you made valid claims- but do you get what I’m trying to say?

        Intentions are important considerations, and I’m aware that you meant no malice in your words. I know you’re not victim blaming, but arguing prostitution from the angle of the harmful effects it has on small-business doesn’t benefit those women either. A thousand individual water droplets can erode a boulder.

        Anyway, let me shut my big fat mouth and just wait till your next post. I’m kind of looking forward to it now. 😀

      • Thanks again A.Y.

        Just to clarify, my mention of the effect on business and even neighbourhoods was to point out that there are important implications as a result of on the street prostitution to community building and that it’s not just a question of whether it is acceptable or even legal. Our communities are complex organisms and the interests of one does not trump all the others. The challenge is to find the best common solution.
        Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

    • Kudos. Absolute kudos, A.Y. Nailing it with critical thought and rationality instead of cloaked reactionism.

      • Cloaked reactism? I don’t think so.

        I don’t see any reason why I should be comfortable with sex for sale in my neighbourhood and so I’m trying to do something about it. And in both this post and the subsequent one I demonstrate that I am not taking a sex is bad or even a selling sex is bad position.

        But the fact of the matter is street prostitution is regarded by people as a sign of an area that is in decline. And when you look at this stretch of King compared to the sanitized uptown Waterloo, it is.

        I like some grit in my downtowns as you do Terre but there are limits and in this case something must be done to help this stretch turn the corner.

  3. Also, there is way more to it than just this. This is complex and beyond “selling your body” and doing desperate things to keep buying crack. There is *some* sensitivity in your rhetoric.

    I like the dichotomy of this:
    “Our communities are complex organisms and the interests of one does not trump all the others. The challenge is to find the best common solution.
    Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network”

    Notice the last line of that… there is some irony. And no, that isn’t some coy reference to the brand or device in particular… look at what you are talking about from your privilege and how privileged that last line is.

    James, I am glad you blogged about this. There are solutions but I don’t think you are looking in the right spots necessarily, but thank you for even bringing it up.

    • Yes, its a hugely complex issue. One that defies easy answers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I know that I am not alone in seeing it as an issue that needs attention. I just hope that my posts help generate some fresh thinking and new energy in addressing it.

  4. Wow…alot of good points, alot of good concerns, alot of unfounded ones as well…I see and hear so much talk and so many people complaining and others complaining about the complaining and talking about the talking.
    Many of these women (and men) working the streets of kitchener/waterloo are my personal friends. My point of view is that until poverty, homelessness and addictions (drug and alcohol) are wiped out in KW area then we are going to make no headway whatsoever in addressing the issue of prostitution. So let the people work the street that choose to work the street. Ensure help is available to those that want out of the lifestyle and just let them have the life they choose.
    If you want to be a close minded individual and give in to stigma and prejudice then so be it you have that right just like they have the right to do what they want with their bodies.
    Remember: every time you point a finger there are 3 fingers pointing back at you.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective here. It’s good to know that we’re essentially on the same page. I agree that addressing poverty, homelessness and addictions is very important to helping the people involved. It’s why instead of simply calling for a tough on crime approach, I prefer a smart on crime approach.

      I’m glad to see that you have started your own blog. It provides insight into another side of what we discuss here. I hope the power of blogging and social media help you to change lives as you want to do.

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