Health and safety for sex workers and communities impacted by sex work, and the prevention of sexual exploitation

While the laws regarding sex work fall under senior government jurisdiction, Vancouver is the first city in North American to take a proactive approach to improving the health and safety of sex workers and the communities in which they live and work. The purposes of our approach:

  • Ensure fair and unbiased treatment towards sex workers and promote sex worker safety, dignity, and well-being
  • Encourage an equitable and non-discriminatory approach with all individuals engaged in the sex industry
  • Mitigate negative impacts of sex work on sex workers, residents, and neighbourhoods
  • Promote safe environments for all residents and neighbourhoods
  • Build positive relationships with individuals and businesses engaged in the sex industry and individuals, businesses, and neighbourhoods impacted by sex work

Priority issues 

We have identified five priorities to support the safety of sex workers and reduce the harmful effects of marginalization and stigmatization of sex workers.

  1. Enhance prevention and awareness of sexual exploitation.
  2. Address the gaps in services and support for sex workers, including opportunities to transition from sex work.
  3. Increase safety through access to a range of housing and shelter options.
  4. Provide training and awareness to City staff to more effectively respond to the needs of sex workers and to prevent sexual exploitation.
  5. Align City by-laws to support the health and safety of sex workers and Vancouver neighbourhoods. Adult, consensual sex work is in itself not a by-law violation. 

Progress with this initiative

Created Sex Worker COVID-19 Resource Guide 

2020 - Working with sex work support organizations and lived experience peers through peer stewardship programs, we compiled the information to create the Sex Worker COVID-19 Resource Guide for service providers, sex workers, and sex work affected community. 

Sex work training for City staff

2019/2020- We have worked in partnership with Living in Community since 2012 to deliver training designed to build individual and organizational capacity to best respond to the health and safety needs of sex workers in Vancouver.

This training has been provided to front-line and managerial staff from:

  • Animal Control
  • The Vancouver Public Library
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Property Use Inspections
  • Non-market Housing

The commitment to ongoing training helps to counter the stigma that increases the marginalization of sex workers and develop non-discriminatory and effective responses.

Hastings Corridor, Kingsway work area and citywide sex worker engagement strategy 

2019/2020 - To use anti oppressive practice principles to foster an environment for a comprehensive engagement and consultation process in conjunction with plans as they are developed for Hastings Corridor and other sex worker safety projects. Plans to follow will have the benefit of recommendation from consultations that centre lived experience voices and those who are from or concerned about sex work affected communities. 

Women Deliver Conference

2019 - We offered a series of free workshops and discussions on gender equity at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch. These satellite sessions were a complement to the Women Deliver 2019 Conference and aimed to connect the local Vancouver audience to gender equity issues through free talks and workshops. All sessions were free to attend. Learn more and watch the sessions

Supporting sex workers along Kingsway Corridor

2018- RainCity Housing and Support Society was provided with funding for a pilot program to provide supports to sex workers along the Kingway corridor. 

Read Council report (522 KB)

West End Sex Workers Memorial 

2016 - Long-time sex worker advocate, Jamie Lee Hamilton and UBC professor Dr. Becki Ross worked tirelessly to create a memorial to the sex workers who were pushed out of the West End of Vancouver in the mid-1980s. We paid for the memorial – a cost that was equal to that of the $28,000 in fines collected from sex workers through a 1982 City anti-sex worker by-law that was later deemed unconstitutional. The memorial is located at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell streets, in front of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. The memorial is a retro-style light pole and is inscribed:

Dedicated to a diverse community of sex workers,
In memory of their ongoing struggles for equality,
People who lived and worked here from mid-1960s-1984.
Today, we commemorate and honour their lives.

Guidelines created how City responds to sex workers

September 4, 2015 – The City of Vancouver Sex Work Response Guidelines were developed to promote a balanced and coordinated approach across City departments when responding to issues relating to sex work.

In 2013, the Vancouver Police Department adopted their Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines that are centered on "balancing the needs of the community and the safety of sex workers".

The City of Vancouver Sex Work Response Guidelines outline a similar approach for all City employees. They promote consistent, nondiscriminatory, and respectful treatment of anyone engaged in sex work when accessing City services or interacting with City employees.

The guidelines reflect our ongoing commitment to address the issues of sex work from a human rights perspective to create safer and healthier communities for all.

The City responds to the passing of Bill C-36

November 7, 2014 – The City responded with concern to the passing of Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, as research confirms that criminalization of sex work puts those involved at further risk of increased violence.

The passing of Bill C-36:

  • Undermines the health and safety of sex workers
  • Increases social exclusion and pushes sex workers to work in more isolated areas
  • Read news release

City sends second letter to Senate in response to Bill C-36

September 5, 2014 – The City sent a second joint submission to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, written in partnership with Vancouver Coastal health Authority, in response to Bill C-36 Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

City asks for new law to consider evidence-based approaches

June 25, 2014 – The City submitted a joint brief in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health Authority to the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights in response to Bill C-36 Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, tabled by the Minister of Justice on June 4, 2014.

In the report, the City and health authority say that law should consider evidence-based approaches that strive to prioritize the human rights of sex workers.

City focuses on health and safety of sex workers in its position on the Bedford Decision 

March 17, 2014 – The City sent a response to the federal government's online one-month public consultation about the December 2013 Bedford Decision (where the Supreme Court struck down three provisions that surrounded prostitution). 

The response is an evidence-based human rights approach with an equal focus on the:

  • Health and safety of sex workers
  • Prevention of the sexual exploitation of children and youth
  • Mitigation of the negative impacts of sex work on residents and neighbourhoods in Vancouver

City Council approves report on the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and City Task Force on Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation

December 18, 2013 – City council approves the report back on the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and City Task Force on Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation.

The report:

  • Responded to three recommendations directed to the City in the report “Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry” (2012)
  • Contains actions underway and further recommendations for Council’s consideration

City responds to Missing Women Commission of Inquiry recommendations

January 29, 2013 – The City responded to Missing Women Commission of Inquiry recommendations by:

  • Continuing to commit to the priority actions identified in the Living in Community Action Plan
  • Hiring two City social planners to implement these actions

City Council approves formation of the task force

September 2011 – City Council unanimously approved the formation of the City of Vancouver Task Force on Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation to carry out actions from the report "Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Protecting Vulnerable Adults and Neighbourhoods Affected by Sex Work: A Comprehensive Approach and Action Plan". 

Ensuring the health and safety of all residents – a framework for action

Sex workers often operate in isolation and with limited resources and support. They face many barriers in accessing common health-, legal-, and social support because of socio-economic disadvantages, discrimination, and lack of support networks.

The most vulnerable of sex workers are affected by barriers in the health system, poverty, racism, unstable housing, and substance abuse. Sexually-exploited youth also experience many of these conditions as well as unsafe family situations, inadequate foster placements, and the lack of necessary care.

To ensure that all residents have a right to dignity, safety, and well-being, the City worked with the community to develop a comprehensive framework for action to:

  • Address the needs of vulnerable adults involved in sex work
  • Prevent the sexual exploitation of youth
  • Mitigate the impacts on neighbourhoods

Five elements of the framework

1. Leadership and coordination

We are committed to the ongoing development of coordinated approaches between government, law enforcement, community groups, businesses, and researchers. We will maintain a lead role in enhancing the health and safety of sex workers.

2. Prevention and awareness

Raising the profile and awareness of sexual exploitation and prevention among youth, parents, teachers, and community organizations is a City priority, as is the ongoing support of youth- and child-development services.

3. Promoting health and safety for all citizens

Our actions include reviewing opportunities to use existing City infrastructure as safe spaces to protect all citizens, including those most vulnerable:

  • Children
  • Women
  • Indigenous people
  • Self-identified male and females
  • Immigrants 

4. Investment in services, supports, and exiting

Significant gaps exist in services and support for sex workers, and we will continue to provide grants for sex worker-, women's-, Indigenous-, LGTBQ-, and youth organizations. We will work with funding partners and senior governments to include all citizens in social services.

5. Alignment and coordination of regulation and enforcement efforts

Multiple departments within the City, together with the Vancouver Police Department and community services, can work cohesively to prevent sexual exploitation, enhance the health and safety of citizens, and promote responsible businesses practices.

Work leading up to this initiative

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI) was established in September 2010 to examine investigations by the police between 1997 and 2002 and failures within the justice system in regard to the missing and murdered women.

The inquiry report, "Forsaken", was released in December 2012 and included 63 recommendations to all three levels of government as well as law enforcement agencies. The following three recommendations were directed to the City of Vancouver:

  1. That all entities with proposed responsibilities under the Living in Community Action Plan commit to these priority actions which together form a strong basis for enhancing the safety of women engaged in the survival sex trade (MWCI Recommendation 5.2)
  2. That the City of Vancouver create and fund two community-based liaison positions to be filled by individuals who have experience in the survival sex trade (MWCI Recommendation 5.5).
  3. That the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department take proactive measures to reduce the numbers of court warrants issued for minor offences (MWCI Recommendation 5.9)

The City has addressed all three recommendations.

In response to the complexity and diversity of sex work and sexual exploitation in Vancouver, the City created the Task Force on Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation in 2011.

The task force worked for two years to start implementing actions from the report "Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Protecting Vulnerable Adults and Neighbourhoods Affected by Sex Work: A Comprehensive Approach and Action Plan”. This report identified the need for a coordinated approach of key stakeholders to prevent the sexual exploitation of youth, increase the health and safety of sex workers, and mitigate community impacts.

As recommended by the MWCI, City social planners were handed over the work of the task force in 2014 and now lead the project together with other City staff and community partners.

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