Turning on the lights
You may never see it, but it’s here; Cowichan’s secretive world of sex for sale.
Prostitutes — for men and women — may be soccer coaches, grandmothers or hitchhiking students, local police said after Thursday’s VIU Cowichan-campus screening of Michelle and Jared Brock’s daring 2013 documentary Right Light, Green Light.
It gave locals a blunt, international peek into the grim lives of victimized women living and working in a seedy, criminalized profession — enslaved by fear, drugs, poverty and other forces.
The exact depth of prostitution and sex trafficking in Cowichan is unknown to local authorities. They answered questions, but had no hard data about the scope.
Less than 10 incidents of prostitution are reported each year in Cowichan, said Lita Watson, domestic-violence co-ordinator with the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment. But she believes that’s only a glimmer of the activity actually happening.
“I can’t tell you how much there is in the Cowichan Valley,” she said. “(But) the numbers are astounding.”
Kendra Thomas, victim services worker with Cowichan Violence Against Women, agreed.
“It’s happening here, we just don’t see it; partly because of the internet, and because you don’t have to stand on a street corner these days.”
But there’s really no typical prostitute portrait — other than they mostly advertise sex services on Craig’s List, and elsewhere, she explained.
“What does a sex-trade worker look like here?” Watson asked the crowd. “There’s no age or race definition in Cowichan. What you don’t see is where the problems are.”
The Brocks’ documentary talks to various counsellors, and sex workers. Some Red Light women escaped the hell of hooking; one is still regrettably selling herself; another professional prostitute seemed to enjoy her chosen, lucrative career.
But that Dutch woman, interviewed on voice tape, was among just 2% of women fitting a gentler stereotype of ‘the world’s oldest profession.’ The rest are coerced by economic needs (35to 40%) such as escaping poverty, or become enforced sex slaves to brutal pimps, dope or booze (about 55%), the film explains.
Terror tactics by pimps, and other hoods, can involve blackmailing needy women into turning tricks after threatening their families.
“We had no idea this was going on, and that people were being bought and sold around the world,” Michelle said of women seduced or forced into sex trades, many from poor places such as Brazil, Africa, the Orient, and Eastern Europe.
Back in Cowichan, and other western communities, the night’s panel of experts indicated global reasons for hooking may be similar, with some pimps charming their way into women’s lives by posing as boyfriends.
Jassy Bindra, an RCMP human-trafficking co-ordinator, said some 75% of B.C. prostitutes may be First Nations’ women.
“North Cowichan is interested in preventing sex trafficking. Are there traffic files in Duncan? Absolutely.”
But busting traffickers is tough, as many hookers fear reporting their pimps or others — sometimes even boyfriends — to the cops. Bindra noted very few sex-trafficking convictions happen in B.C.
Inspect. Ray Carfantan of the North Cowichan/Duncan detachment, was rattled by local parameters of prostitution and human trafficking.
“I really don’t know how to wrap my head around this whole thing,” he admitted. “We need laws and enforcement capabilities, and the (community) participation.”
The Brocks’ film showed in some U.S. communities, police can report the names and license-plate numbers of johns to the press, for shaming purposes. But Canadian privacy and constitutional laws foil that option.
Asked by the News Leader Pictorial if his staff could provide local johns’ information, Carfantan replied, “I’d be happy to do that, then look for employment.”
But he, Bindra and Watson signaled john schools, that can help expel demand for prostitution and sexual addictions, could be an option here. A reformed addict tells the Brocks he spent about $300,000 hiring prostitutes.
“John schools are an issue for your municipality,” Bindra said.
Rob Hutchins, Cowichan Valley Regional District chairman,and Duncan Councillor Michelle Staples, attended Thursday’s screening, but did not comment on that option.
Hutchins did ask Watson what a typical pimp might look like in the Cowichan Valley.
That profile involves “a high number of men in their 60s and 70s,” she said, but stressed diverse descriptions.
Canadian law allows deportation of sex traffickers, and up to nine years in prison; charges for forced prostitution can spell a seven-year jail sentence, Bindra noted.
Panel members also agreed more publicly funded resources for organizations such as CWAV are needed to help prostitutes safely break their chains.
“This issue is in the shadows,” said Thomas. “When we talk about it, we turn on the lights.”
Filmmakers lobby for new sex trade law
The Brocks are lobbying against legalizing prostitution in Canada, while petitioning Ottawa for the Nordic model. That model, used in Sweden, basically makes buying sex illegal, but decriminalizes the selling of sex.
That way, johns can be charged, while prostitutes avoid being busted. They can also seek help to leave a profession involving violence, diseases, and other risks.
Red Light, Green Light explores several models of prostitution, including Holland’s legalization. The Brocks believe legalization will mean more sex-trade trafficking — demand will feed supply, driven by profits for sex traffickers preying mostly on women.
One interviewee said “If something’s illegal, you’re less likely to want it.”
The feds are currently wrestling with the legalization question, tasked by the Supreme Court to rewrite Canada’s prostitution laws by December.
“If we say nothing, we’ll have legalized prostitution by December,” Jared Brock said.
But Cowichan MP Jean Crowder, explained the issue isn’t that clear.
“It’s been demonstrated prohibition doesn’t work. Women in the sex trade aren’t unanimous on this either. People are naive if they think trafficking isn’t happening now, in Canada, and there is a criminal codes to address it.”
Ontario’s so-called Bedford case was brought forward by prostitutes sick of being charged. It was upheld by the Supreme Court, striking down laws about keeping brothels.
“The judges said women have the right to be safe and secure. There are questions about if the Nordic model would respect that,” said Crowder. “They (Conservative MPs) only have until December, then the court decision (Bedford legalization) applies.
“No one in their wildest imagination thinks (Justice Minister) Peter MacKay will legalize prostitution.”
Crowder prescribed funds to help women exit the sex trade, tough enforcement of sex-trafficking laws “and education (about the sex-trade scourge) for men, starting at a young age. It has to do with respect.”