VANCOUVER – Suburban prostitutes are more vulnerable to attack or even murder because of a lack of support services compared with their big-city counterparts, says a former sex-trade worker who once strolled the streets of small-town British Columbia.
Ceejai Julian, a support worker with the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society, says she fears for the safety of women in the suburbs after the arrest of a man police allege is an accused serial killer.
Dave Butorac, 29, a resident of suburban Aldergrove, just east of Vancouver, is charged in the second-degree murder last year of two drug-addicted prostitutes – one in Abbotsford and the other in Langley, B.C.
The body of a third woman was found near his home two years ago but Butorac has not been charged with her death.
Julian says there’s been a lot of attention focused on the services available to prostitutes in the Downtown Eastside after serial-killer Robert Pickton was convicted last month of second-degree murder in the deaths of six women. But the needs of vulnerable women in other areas can’t be ignored.
“Willy Pickton is gone but there’s so many other women who are continuing on in the lifestyle of sex-trade work that’s really risky that there’s not enough support for them,” she says.
Julian, 39, knows the violence prostitutes face on the streets from pimps and drug dealers because she was one of them until she succeeded in her third attempt in a decade to leave behind a life that included drug addiction.
“I still have scars on my body from those experiences,” she says, adding she suffered severe beatings from “bad dates” and a left hip broken by a pimp.
After finally turning her life around six years ago, Julian says she now worries about others who work in isolated and industrial areas where no one can help them.
Pamela Willis, executive director of the Women’s Resource Society of the Fraser Valley, says there’s an increasing number of street prostitutes in the region, a network of smaller towns and cities within 80 kilometres of Vancouver.
“The women on the streets say the streets are getting worse, that it’s more dangerous out there,” Willis says.
Sex-trade workers don’t feel any safer after Butorac’s arrest because they’re easy prey for other men bent on taking advantage of their vulnerability, she says, especially if they’re homeless and addicted to drugs.
Compared with the Downtown Eastside, where Pickton was known to pick up prostitutes and where federal funding at PEERS was cut last June, women who work the streets in some suburbs have virtually no support, Willis says.
“The Downtown Eastside has had a significant infusion of resources and I think that’s excellent, and I wouldn’t take a penny of that away,” she says. “But it hasn’t helped us out here at all and there’s very, very little out here.”
Just over a year ago, Willis says her agency started providing hot meals, clothes and personal care items to women on the streets of Abbotsford and Mission after asking them what they needed.
“We have a couple of transition houses and a couple of outreach offices as well but no services that are geared specifically toward the complicated needs of sex-trade workers,” she says.
Some of the women have sought counselling and have forged enough trust to start coming to a drop-in time, Willis says.
“They’re used to being seen as freaks and as disposable human beings and often people don’t look beyond that presentation of prostitute,” she says.
The lack of provincial funding to provide services for sex-trade workers means the agency has had to rely on $3,200 in funding from the Abbotsford police board and the John Howard Society, Willis said.
John Lowman, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in suburban Burnaby, says the difference in resources between urban and suburban areas is not the main problem when it comes to the safety of sex-trade workers who are victimized because of Canada’s laws.
Prostitution is legal in Canada but it’s illegal to solicit someone in a public place for the purpose of prostitution.
A police crackdown on some show lounges in Toronto and Vancouver in the 1970s put sex-trade workers on the street, leaving women in potentially dangerous situations, says Lowman, one of Canada’s leading experts on prostitution.
But many women who face violence fear contacting police, he says.
“What we’ve done for the last 30 years is talk about the need to dispose of street prostitution and in the minds of certain predatory, misogynistic men that translates into disposing of prostitutes,” Lowman says.
Prostitutes on the strolls face more dangers than those who work in massage parlours or for escort services, often because they’ve been junkies for so long that such establishments don’t want them, Lowman says.
“There’s nothing any social-service provider can do when a woman is out on the street, being picked up where nobody can see her,” he says.
“A serial killer isn’t going to go to an escort service where he leaves a trace or more particularly a massage parlour or some other kind of indoor venue where he’s going to be seen.”
Canada’s laws must be changed to decriminalize prostitution altogether or women on the streets will continue to suffer, Lowman says.
An all-party subcommittee examining Canada’s laws toured the country for three years in a bid to make recommendations for changes but a final report produced in December 2006 did no such thing, he says.