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Sex workers look into launching co-op Add to ...

The lonely girl in a pleather skirt and stilettos waiting vainly on the corner for a date isn't a typical image associated with a member of a business co-operative.

Neither is the busty blond woman leering out from the E section of the telephone book.

Group-owned and controlled by its members, co-ops are the traditional purview of credit unions, farmers and artists.

But a coalition of prostitutes in Vancouver sees no reason why it can't join that list.

Tired of unsafe working conditions, the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Women is exploring the idea of starting a sex workers co-operative, where the selling of sex and its accoutrements would be controlled not by the need to pay off drug debts or pimp fees but by the prostitutes themselves.

"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 would 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,' " Prof. 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 group behind the co-op said they could simply apply to be a massage parlour or escort agency under city bylaws, but they're not interested in running another clandestine brothel.

Which means they'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," she said. "But we have to do something to take control."

No one from the City of Vancouver returned a call seeking comment on the role bylaws would play in a sex-trade co-op, but gaining exemptions from criminal law is all but impossible, said Alan Young of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, who is also handling a constitutional challenge to the prostitution laws filed in Ontario last week.

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," Prof. Young said.

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.

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 agencies known to be breaking the law.

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, Prof. Lowman said, 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?"

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