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Проститутки Б.С. утверждают, что секс-кооператив даст им контроль над индустрией

"We want it to be above board," said Raven Bowen, one of two authors of Developing Capacity for Change, a report written to explore the concept and need for a sex trade co-op in Vancouver.

"The whole idea is to pull the industry out from the shadows into a more, not public, but legitimate environment."

Among the options being considered is an actual bricks-and-mortar establishment that would offer a safe space for prostitutes to bring clients or act as a booking agency for their solicitation.

Workers could share the cost of marketing and pool resources to buy supplies.

Job training would be provided, as would health and safety services.

Membership would have its privileges, but the group intends for the services of the co-op to be accessible to all tiers of the sex trade - from the survival worker on the corner to the high-class madam.

The report came out of a series of focus groups held with women working in businesses called escort agencies or massage parlours in the Yellow Pages but considered by many to be licensed sellers of sex.

Cities reaping thousands of dollars from the licensing of escort services while politicians continue to balk at changing the laws surrounding prostitution is the ultimate hypocrisy, said John Lowman, a professor at Simon Fraser University who has been researching prostitution law for 20 years.

"I've talked to politicians who say 'well, we don't really know what goes on in escort services,"' Lowman said.

"To which I've always responded well you better resign so someone who is in touch with the realities of contemporary Canadian society can take your place."

The city of Vancouver has had numerous debates on the issue of escort agency and massage parlour licences.

There are rules in place governing their operation, but regular inspections aren't carried out.

"The conclusion is we will license any legitimate business as long we have the understanding they are intending to operate legitimately," said Paul Teichroeb, chief licence inspector for the city.

"We're certainly not licensing any brothels and escort agencies aren't permitted to carry out any activities on the premises themselves."

The group behind the co-op said it could simply apply to be a massage parlour or escort agency under city bylaws, but is not interested in running another clandestine brothel.

Which means it'll need exemptions from the law or face getting charged by police.

For example, said Sue Davis, the report's other author, the section in the Criminal Code that prohibits living off the avails of prostitution could have implications for a co-operatively owned business in which part of the money the women make will be funnelled back in.

"There's a lot of legal questions we have to answer before we can move ahead," Davis said. "But we have to do something to take control."

Teichroeb said exemptions from municipal bylaws aren't granted - the entire regulation itself would have to be changed.

On the federal level, said Prof. Alan Young of Osgoode University, gaining exemptions from criminal law is all but impossible.

The Criminal Code would need to be amended or a constitutional exemption would have to be granted in court.

"People can't just apply for exemptions from the law," said Young, who is also handling a constitutional challenge to the prostitution laws filed in Ontario last week

But they can push at it, as in the Charter challenge, and hope the courts make a change as advocates for the sex trade say they're tired of banging their heads against the doors of the House of Commons begging for new laws.

"The community has been so divided by the way lawyers and politicians have controlled the sex trade," said Davis.

"We need to unite and start making the changes for ourselves."

Vancouver activist Jamie Lee Hamilton tried to push back at the legislation seven years ago.

She opened Grandma's House, a not-for-profit society that offered condoms, referrals, showers and food to prostitutes. And for a fee, the workers could also use a room for their clients, a space similar to what the co-op group is trying to achieve.

She was arrested and charged with running a bawdy house and had hoped to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the charges were later dropped.

"It's about providing safe spaces for women to work," Hamilton said.

"It has to be where it's not about profit but about people."

Though street prostitution is the public face of sex work, researchers generally agree that 80 per cent of all prostitutes actually ply their trade through indoor agencies, and it would be those workers that the co-op would primarily target.

The report found that escort workers often live a life of indentured servitude to the agency or their pimp.

Workers pay hefty fines for such transgressions as unmatched underwear or dates who don't show up as promised.

All of the workers interviewed said they'd been fined or punished for protecting themselves rather than providing services to a customer.

Nor do they keep the money they make - workers must shell out for advertising, driver fees, security and laundry and have little or no say on how the money is spent.

Police do crack down on escort agencies known to be breaking the law.

In February, a joint RCMP-Vancouver police team arrested who they believed was the most successful pimp operating in the Lower Mainland.

Police estimated her agency made more than a million dollars a year.

But advocates argue that crackdowns only result in more women being on the street.

Women like the 26 prostitutes Robert Pickton is accused of killing.

It's this case, said Lowman, that proves that spaces like the co-op and changes to law are literally life-saving.

"How much longer can we just fail our women like this?," he said. "How many more people have to die?"

Brooks Bulletin, Canada

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