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Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade

By Daniel Francis

Review By Dara Culhane

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 162 Summer 2009  | p. 198-9

Prostitution is a complex and politically charged issue that defies simple analysis. Daniel Francis’s new book documents attempts to regulate the sex industry in Vancouver, a city where the subject has occupied a central place in public discourses for over a century. The story begins in 1873. Francis represents pre-First World War Vancouver as a multiracial frontier society where madams with business acumen ran flourishing brothels alongside bars, hotels, and opium and gambling houses. The interwar period was marked by the rise of a criminal underworld, corruption scandals involving city council and the police force, and anti-vice campaigns that focused on prostitution. Francis argues that the criminalization of prostitution stigmatizes sex workers and excludes prostitutes from mainstream society and, thus, from legal and political protection. These effects result in their disproportionate vulnerability to violence and murder, particularly when they are forced to work outside, on the street. He marks the closing of the infamous Penthouse Club in 1975 as the event that “caused an increase in the number of women on the street, which led to the muddled attempts in the 1980s to clean up the West End, and led, as well, indirectly, to the tragedy of the Missing Women” (8). 

Red Light Neon’s narrative anchors contemporary debates in historical origins. For example, Francis describes similarities between moral panics about “white slavery” in the early years of the twentieth century and current concerns about “human trafficking.” He offers an account of hypocritical posturing by politicians who have both exploited and abhorred prostitution, and outlines ongoing tensions between choice and coercion as explanations for why women and men may engage in commercial sex work. Francis’s central argument can be represented by two quotes. First: “There have always been violent men taking advantage of women who work the streets, but never with such frequency as now. It is impossible to believe that the cause is anything other than misguided public policy” (132). The problem, so defined, leads Francis to a solution: “In my view, what they need is not pity but sensible public policies that allow them to exit the industry if they wish or to carry on their business in safety if they do not” (11).  

Like any history of the present, Francis’s narrative includes some voices and excludes others, selects some evidence and ignores other evidence, and asserts logical and causal connections between some forces and processes while effecting a disconnection between others. The book marshalls evidence to support contemporary campaigns that support “decriminalization” or “legalization” and that oppose the “abolition” of prostitution. While Francis outlines the complexities of these three positions, he repeats the error of omission for which the decriminalization/legalization advocates he supports have been repeatedly criticized: he offers no serious consideration of the particular relationship between Aboriginal women and children and the BC sex industry. Francis is careful to differentiate between indoor and high-track sex work, on the one hand, and outdoor, street-based “survival sex work” (131), on the other. He states that Aboriginal women and children constitute a significant majority of the persons employed and exploited, historically and contemporarily, on the lowest echelons of Vancouver’s sex industry and of those counted among the “Missing Women” (145). However, he fails to analyze what the implications of this classed and racialized difference might be for the argument he puts forward. I would encourage readers to consult the Aboriginal Women’s Association of Canada (awan) website (http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/racism.html) for one statement of such a critique. 

There is no single voice or single position that represents the heterogeneous category “Aboriginal women and children,” any more than once voice speaks for all “sex workers.” However, it is the case that Aboriginal women and children will be significantly and distinctly affected by any policy change in this area, and this fact alone should suffice for their analyses to be central to public debate a “fourth” position, perhaps. Furthermore, as is the case regarding so many other issues in Canada, Aboriginal perspectives may offer more sophisticated thinking and stimulate more incisive public debate than that currently circulating, and they may inspire us all to imagine alternative possibilities and to construct futures not entirely determined by the supply and demand logic of the free market or the celebration of the atomistic “choice-making” neoliberal individual. 

Red Light Neon is well written. The language is clear and accessible, and the narrative is well crafted; problems are succinctly though narrowly defined, and solutions potentially achievable within the pragmatics of the status quo are persuasively argued. However, Francis’s rhetoric of certainty, conveyed by absolutist language, leaves no opening for dialogue or for the admission of voices hitherto excluded from debate. An implicit assumption that the historical “facts” that make up his narrative are singular and incontrovertible permeates this firmly closed text. Red Light Neon is a quick read, a straightforward map with easy-to-follow directions a place to start, but not to end.