Understanding Sex Work


Sex work is intertwined with Vancouver’s history, shaped by 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.

A brothel-style red light district thrived on Dupont Street (now East Pender between Cambie and Main) and in the area around Chinatown until after World War II. Then the brothel style of sex work was replaced by a more decentralized model in which sex workers met their clients at clubs and hotels[i]. The only stroll, an outside area where sex workers work, was in the Downtown Eastside.

The raid of the Penthouse Night Club 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. When enforcement of the laws against indoor sex work increased, sex workers needed to find new locations to work and street-based sex work increased dramatically. The women who had worked at the Penthouse moved to the streets of the West End until residents’ protests there led to a court injunction banning soliciting west of Granville Street.

Since then, sex workers have worked throughout the city, frequently moving to different 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 now use the Internet and are members of virtual communities. The online sex industry has expanded with the rise of Internet use by many sex workers.

Starting in the mid-1990s, sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside began to disappear. Many family members, friends and community social service agencies pressured the Vancouver Police Department to launch an investigation into these cases and ultimately,serial killer Robert Pickton was arrested for 31 murder charges and convicted of 6 counts of second degree murder. The Missing Women case, as it came to be known, was the catalyst for many new approaches aimed at improving sex workers’ health and safety, including Living in Community.

[i] Lowman, Submission to the Subcommittee.