Understanding Sex Work

History of Sex Work in Vancouver
Impacts of Sex Work
Sexual Exploitation of Children & Youth
Understanding the Law

History of Sex Work in Vancouver

Sex work is part of Vancouver’s history, shaped by the legal, economic, political, and social conditions. Birdie Stewart opened Vancouver’s first brothel in 1873 at the corner of Water and Abbott Streets in Gastown. At the time, a significant population of Chinese and Japanese women worked in the area.

Until after World War II, a brothel-style Red Light district thrived on Dupont Street (now East Pender, between Cambie and Main) and in the area around Chinatown. At that time, the brothel style of sex work was replaced by a more decentralized model in which sex workers met their clients at clubs and hotels. The only stroll, an outside area where sex workers worked, was in the Downtown Eastside where many of the women were addicted to heroin.

The raid of the Penthouse in 1975 was pivotal in the history of sex work in Vancouver. At the time, 30 to 150 sex workers worked from the Penthouse on Seymour Street each night. Once the enforcement of the laws against indoor sex work displaced it to outdoor venues, street-based sex work increased dramatically. The women who had worked at the Penthouse worked on the streets of the West End until residents’ protests led to a court injunction banning soliciting west of Granville.

Since then, sex workers have worked throughout the city, changing neighbourhoods in response to pressure from police, residents, and businesses. Escort services and massage parlours have continued to operate in less visible locations and have flourished due to their low profile. Male sex workers have had a stroll in Yaletown since the early 1980s when sex work was moved out of the West End. Although this stroll still exists, many male sex workers have moved online and are members of virtual communities. The online sex industry has expanded with the rise of the internet among all sex workers.

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Impacts of Sex Work

Sex work has an impact on individuals, community groups, and on society at large. Each group feels the impacts differently, including sex workers, children and youth, businesses and residents. By talking with residents, sex workers and businesses since 2004, Living in Community has been exploring the concerns of different community members in regard to street level sex work.

Listed below are some of the many grievances shared by Collingwood community members. This information is intended to create awareness around the impact that street level sex work has on all members of our community. This will help us move towards common ground as we start to improve the health and safety of our neighbourhoods together.


Residents Sex workers Business
Increased traffic in neighbourhood Being blamed for everything that is wrong with the neighbourhood regardless if it has been done by a sex worker because they are an easy target Customers being harassed
Residents being harassed by johns Judgment & discrimination Hard time keeping female staff because of safety concerns
Garbage Threats Businesses broken into
Property values are affected Labeled Decreased business
Strangers in our neighbourhood Violence Using the entrance of the businesses as a washroom
Not enough police Poverty Drug paraphernalia and condoms
Fearful for children’s safety Lack of support services Increased amounts of garbage
Recruitment of children by pimps Sexual exploitation Verbally abused by sex workers
Increase in criminal and drug activity Businesses have hired security guards who shame and humiliate workers Not wanting to stay open late
Noise Drug addiction Property damage
Being harassed by sex workers Homelessness Criminal activity
Threats from sex workers Death Businesses have given up reporting break-ins and damages because it becomes an insurance issue
Drug dealers STDs Having to hire increased security
Don’t feel safe walking at night Pimps Negative opinion of neighbourhood when there is visible sex work
Sex workers having sex with customers in public places Recruiting
Sex workers standing in front of residents houses and working Discredited due to drug use
Seniors fear for their safety Objects getting thrown at them
Gay bashing
Victims of crime
Poor lighting or lack of lighting
Hopelessness
Worthlessness

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Sexual Exploitation of Children & Youth

Sexually exploited children and youth face all of the same health risks, levels of violence and abuse, and stigma as adult sex workers. However, their vulnerability and level of exploitation are often greater because of their age, developmental stage, and innocence. It is important to remember that many youth engage in the exchange of sexual services in order to fulfill basic needs such as food and shelter. While this is considered exploitation in the eyes of the law, many of these youth do not consider themselves exploited and therefore, do not foresee the longer term negative impacts that their actions will have.

There are also risks associated with street-based sex work for children and youth who are not themselves sexually exploited. Dirty needles and condoms in neighbourhoods, in streets, and in playgrounds pose serious health and safety hazards. The potential impact on children and youth’s development from exposure to street-based sex work is also a community concern.

If you are concerned that a child or youth is being exploited and are looking for more info or resources, go here.

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Understanding the Law

Sex work has never been illegal in Canada. However, some of the activities connected to sex work are illegal. The Federal Government through the Criminal Code regulates some of the activities associated with sex work as follows:

  • Running or frequenting a bawdy house, or an indoor premise where sex work takes place (section 210)
  • Transporting a person to a bawdy house (section 211)
  • Procuring or living on the proceeds of the prostitution of another person (section 212)
  • Obtaining or attempting to obtain the sexual services of someone who is under 18 in exchange for money, clothes, shelter, or anything else of value (section 212.4)
  • All forms of public communication for the purposes of prostitution (section 213)

For more info on the Law in Canada related to sex work, go here.

The Police

Municipal and provincial governments do not have jurisdiction over regulating sex work, though some of their laws and policies impact places where sex work takes place.

The Collingwood Community Policing Centre was opened in April of 1994 and continues to serve the Collingwood-Renfrew Area. This was a new form of community policing never before seen in North America. Its goal: To bridge the gap between the local community, the city of Vancouver, and the Vancouver Police Department. The CPC is made up of Vancouver police officers, who work in partnership with community volunteers and outreach teams. The Collingwood CPC is located at 5160 Joyce Street and is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm. The CPC can be a refuge and you can feel safe in accessing supports and services there.  For more information, please visit the Collingwood Community Policing Centre webpage.

The police are the main body that enforces the prostitution laws.  In Vancouver, this is carried out by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). The focus of the police is on ensuring the safety of all citizens, including sex workers, business and residents. While some activities related to sex work are illegal, anybody is free to stand in public spaces, i.e. in front of businesses, bus stops or anywhere on the sidewalk.

The VPD deals with sex work and sexual exploitation through a number of different departments, some of which are listed below:

  • Sex worker liaison: police officer who provides support and interventions for sex workers. This position works closely with sex worker organizations and provides referrals.
  • Youth services: pursues a safe, secure and positive environment for all youth through, asset building, youth programs, prevention initiatives, interventions, information gathering and partnerships.
  • Sex crimes and child abuse: dedicated Child and Sex Assault/Assault team with an in-house counselor.
  • Domestic violence: collaboration between Family Services of Greater Vancouver and the VPD to support women and children experiencing violence in their relationships.
  • School liaison program: liaison between the school and the criminal justice system that provides schools with the presence of a police officer to deliver safety and crime prevention lessons and info about sexual exploitation to students, staff and parents.
  • Vice unit: focuses on child exploitation investigations, internet luring and child pornography. Vice also works on street level prostitution, bawdy houses, pimping investigations and human trafficking files
  • Diversity unit: works with specific populations within the City that have significant public safety issues, including sex workers.
  • Sister Watch Project: a multi-faceted operation designed to combat violence against women in the Downtown Eastside and make the community safer for everyone who lives and works there.
  • Gang Squad:
  • Housing Liaison: Supports citizens about housing
  • Outreach cars: Yankee 10 and Yankee 20 for youth, and Car 87 for mental health.
  • Missing persons: Investigates

For more information, go to www.vpd.ca or call 604-717-3535.


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