Sunday, December 16, 2018

Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (1981-1987)

By Andy Sorfleet

The 1970s: Dawn of a Modern Movement

In 1977 a Toronto stripper, Margaret Spore (also known as Baba Yaga) founded “Better End All Vicious Erotic Repression” (BEAVER), inspired by San Francisco's “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” (COYOTE), founded in 1973. BEAVER membership was mainly strippers and getting prostitutes to join proved difficult. Nonetheless, BEAVER brought sex workers' rights perspectives to the public for the first time in Canada.

COYOTE founder, Margo St. James, speaking at Wages for Housework
protest against violence against women, San Francisco, May 9, 1977.

On February 7, 1978, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Hutt v. The Queen, that in order for conviction of soliciting in a public place, the soliciting must be “pressing and persistent.” The case involved a Vancouver police officer in plain clothes, driving an unmarked vehicle.

Even if the word "solicit" were given the widest possible definition, there was, until the time the automobile door was closed, no demonstration that the intention of the appellant was to make herself available for prostitution. It would be ridiculous and abhorrent to say that every female pedestrian who requests a free ride in an automobile is soliciting.
“Prostitute Bill causes controversy in
Canada” ~ India Today, April 30, 1979
Whether or not a car was a public or private place was not before the court, and so they ruled as if a car was a public place. In the end, Debra Hutt was acquitted on the dictionary definition of “soliciting” — “to accost” or “to confront,” “to importune”:

The appellant did not enter the officer’s car uninvited. The officer returned her smile and he admitted … the reason he immediately returned the smile was to encourage her to solicit him. The appellant’s conversation with the officer demonstrated nothing more than that she was available for prostitution. There was nothing pressing or persistent as was required.

Eager to build alliances, BEAVER joined with some sympathetic feminist lawyers. The lawyers were offended by the name BEAVER, however. In late 1979, BEAVER became the Coalition Against Street Harassment (CASH). CASH brought the public’s attention to the violence prostitutes faced on the street because of hostile laws and attitudes.

The 1980s: Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes


Following the Hutt decision, which made the soliciting law unenforceable, controversy over street prostitution escalated. Street prostitution flourished in Vancouver's West End, and the city was called the "Prostitution Capital of North America" in the media. There were reports of sex workers and pimps coming up from the U.S. Citizen groups started taking things into their own hands. Local West End resident, Gordon Price founded "Concerned Residents of the West End" (CROWE).

Canada's earliest prostitutes' rights group—at least in modern times—was perhaps, Vancouver's Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP). Sometime in early 1981, local prostitute activist (and mom of two) Sally deQuadros approached Vancouver Rape Relief seeking to educate them about violence against sex workers and find ways to work together to end it. Vancouver Rape Relief was a socialist feminist collective in the early rape-crisis-centre movement founded in 1973. The Rape Relief collective and Sally agreed to form an alliance and Sally joined the collective. A small committee of three people was struck that would become the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes. This committee would work to educate the feminist collective as a whole on the issue of prostitution.

In response to pressure from CROWE, the City of Vancouver adopted a West End Traffic Plan in August 1981 and began installing concrete traffic diversions and additional street lighting to impede the flow of sex-trade customers. In October of 1981, CROWE organized a day-long conference at the West End Community Centre attended by social planners, police and politicians to address the "prostitution problem." The Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes made their first public appearance at the community conference.

In December 1981, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled (in two Vancouver cases R. v. Whitter and R. v. Galjot) that not only does soliciting mean “pressing and persistent” (Hutt v. The Queen) but, that “pressing and persistent” refers to the practice of repeatedly soliciting the same person.

As a result of this ruling, police forces in major cities stopped enforcing the soliciting law altogether, claiming that their hands had been tied by the Supreme Court. Police, using a community-policing model, advised citizens to form residents’ associations for the purpose of reporting neighbourhood crime which could then be used to pressure politicians and governments to address the street crimes and nuisance associated with street prostitution. Calgary City Council was the first to enact an anti-loitering bylaw to use to target street prostitutes.


By early 1982, Montréal, Niagara Falls and Halifax had followed Calgary's lead, with their own municipal loitering bylaws to address these residents groups' complaints. In April that year, Vancouver City Council passed the "street activities" bylaw that imposed fines from $350 to $2,000 for purchasing, attempting to purchase, selling or attempting to sell, sex. The city collected $28,000 in fines in the first six months.

Sally learned that Margo St. James (founder of COYOTE) was visiting family in nearby Bellingham, Washington. The nascent committee (Sally, Lee and Eileen) drove across the border to meet Margo, and also to meet filmmakers Janis Cole and Holly Dale who were doing research for a film on prostitution in major cities throughout Canada and the United States. (Janis Cole and Holly Dale released their film, "Hookers on Davie" on April 5, 1984.) Margo encouraged Sally to stick with the feminists. The committee's membership was subsequently changed by the collective, and Sally was instead joined by Joni Miller, and Marie Arrington who felt that Margo's tactics glamorized prostitution.

Margo St. James, COYOTE founder.
September 10 1980. Photo: Chronicle/John O'Hara
Sex workers together with lawyers challenged City of Vancouver's anti-prostitution bylaw as unconstitutional. In September 1982, B.C. provincial court judge David Moffett upheld the Vancouver bylaw and cited Alberta's Appeal Court earlier ruling on Calgary's bylaw:
"The buying and selling of a prostitute's services on the streets of Vancouver has been prohibited by an elected body in our democratic society for the sole purpose of remedying a nuisance 'the need to protect citizens who use the streets from the irritation and embarrassment of being unwilling participants in the [sex] market.'"


By 1983, Sally and Marie were going out on street patrol to meet local Vancouver women and began distributing Canada's first "bad trick sheet"—a list of descriptions of assailants and of their cars—which they published in their newsletter called "Whoreganizer." ASP held weekly meetings and encouraged safety measures such as a using buddy system and recording licence plate numbers. With up to 150 prostitutes working in the area at any time, membership in ASP swelled. Working collectively, sex workers remained independent and managed to maintain a "pimp-free" zone.

In January 1983, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled (Westindorp  v. The Queen) that City of Calgary By-Law 9022 was unconstitutional:
The by-law is ultra vires as invading the exclusive federal power in relation to the criminal law. …To remain on a street for the purpose of prostitution or to approach another for that purpose was so patently an attempt to control or punish prostitution as to be beyond question.
 This made any such municipal bylaws—including Vancouver's—all illegal.

Hookers on Davie

Filmmakers Janice Cole and Holly Dale came to Vancouver and worked closely with ASP. After spending two months on Davie Street talking with sex workers, the filmmakers were able to gain their trust and confidence. Sex workers agreed to wear radio microphones and were filmed by a hidden camera in a parked van, while they worked the corner, and openly negotiated with clients. They also spoke candidly about their experiences during breaks at a local restaurant.

CROWE submitted a request for the federal government to amend the Criminal Code. The police claimed they needed the changes to deal with the concentration of street prostitutes in the area. Price, a gay resident of the West End and a spokesperson for CROWE, told Vancouver's gay magazine Angles that:
Street prostitution is incompatible with a residential street. It causes disturbances, restricts people's right to use the street and attracts violence. The social fabric of the neighbourhood is displaced; banks redline the area in terms of potential loans and mortgages.
On April 20, 1983, members of ASP marched along Broadway Street and up to Vancouver City Hall to protest CROWE's request for a new soliciting law. ASP member, Michelle carried a sign which said, "Harcourt is our pimp" (referring to the city's fines, Mike Harcourt was Vancouver's mayor) and made a speech. They handed out leaflets and chanted "Hookers unite! Fight for your rights." (You can view footage of the protest at

Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes on Broadway, April 20, 1983.
Film still from Hookers On Davie, by Janis Cole and Holly Dale.

Neighbourhood Residents Incite National Controversy

More anti-prostitution residents' groups came out in support of the Criminal Code amendment including Allied Concerned Residents On Street Solicitation (ACROSS). In June 1983, Vancouverite Barbara Brett of ACROSS told a public meeting on prostitution in Toronto that the prostitutes had been using commercial streets in Vancouver but that a police crackdown drove them into the residential areas. The effect of police actions has been to drive the prostitutes onto the streets.

First Protest, Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes
April 20, 1983. Photo: Macneill, Vancouver Sun
On June 23, 1983, Ottawa Deputy Police Chief Thomas Flanigan, chairman of the law amendments committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), told the Globe and Mail that, without removal or alteration of the “pressing and persistent” restrictions, “our hands are still tied in enforcing the law.” According to Metro Toronto Police Chief Jack Ackroyd: "The CACP have been asking the government since 1978 to do something about a law that is almost, virtually unenforceable.”

The prostitution debate drew a lot of controversy in Parliament. In an attempt to move the debate out of the House of Commons, Liberal Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan appointed a seven-member Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution to tour the country to determine if a consensus could be reached on prostitution law reform. The committee sought public views on three options—criminalization, legalization or decriminalization. Called the "Fraser Commission," the committee was chaired by lawyer, Paul Fraser. ASP prepared a report for the Fraser Commission (submitted January 1984). To quote the Alliance's brief: "We're not criminals, we're poor women trying to earn a living."

Sent by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Marie went to a conference at the Northwest Centre Against Sexual Assault—a U.S. network of rape-crisis centres. There Marie met Kathleen Barry. She brought home Barry's book, Female Sexual Slavery (1979) which opened the large debate about prostitution within the Vancouver Rape Relief collective. Sally and Marie were critical of Barry's analysis that prostitution reduces women to commodities for market exchange and is the foundation of women's oppression, socially-normalized. By 1984, Sally and Marie had quit the Vancouver Rape Relief collective, and took the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes out on their own.

International Socialist Influences

The now-independent ASP became affiliated with "Wages for Housework." The International Wages for Housework Campaign was founded in Italy, by the International Feminist Collective, part of an emerging Autonomous Marxist movement, Operaismo. The Italian Operaismo (workerist) movement contended that the sphere of capitalism had expanded beyond the factory on to society as a whole, and proposed a guaranteed income or citizen's wage.

Based on the revolutionary principle that women's unpaid housework under capitalism should be remunerated, Wages for Housework also became involved in organizing domestic workers as well as prostitutes. The English Collective of Prostitutes was founded in 1975.* In the U.S., the U.S. Prostitutes Collective (USPROS) in San Francisco was founded in 1982, and "No Bad Women Just Bad Laws" was founded by Ruth Taylor Todasco in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981, with chapters in Boston, Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Portland Oregon.

For more insight on Wages for Housework's feminist application of Marxist philosophy, see: The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1975) by co-founders Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James. (Selma James was married to C.L.R. James, a Marxist humanist originally from Trinidad, who co-founded the Trotskyist Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party.) Italian-American, feminist scholar Silvia Federici, who also co-founded the original group in Italy, created Wages for Housework chapters in the U.S.

Wages for Housework Committee, International Women's Day, NYC, 1977
(Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute / Bettye Lane)

Shame the Johns 



On May 25, 1984, CROWE started a "Shame the Johns" campaign. Shame-the-Johns tactics included photographing, writing down licence plate numbers and postering this information on neighbourhood poles and billboards. Their campaign quickly turned into picketing and verbally harassing sex workers. Shame the Johns also provided B.C. Attorney General Brian Smith with 40 affidavits complaining of loitering, littering, fighting, screaming, use of insults or obscenities and public sex.

On June 8, Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes held their own counter demonstration protesting CROWE's harassment.

Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes counter-pickets the
Shame the Johns protest, Friday night, June 8, 1984.

On June 11, 1984, B.C. Attorney General Smith, now armed with CROWE affidavits, filed an application for an injunction that named 30 people as prostitutes and "public nuisances." A week after copies of the application for the injunction appeared on street lamps, a large protest of sex workers and supporters descended on the West End with whistles and noise-makers, proclaiming themselves the thirty-first "public nuisance."

“Demonstrators protesting effort to clear prostitutes
from the West End tied up traffic with a half-hour parade
Friday night. Police described the march as ‘peaceful.’”
Vancouver Sun, June 9, 1984

Then on June 19, sex workers peacefully migrated out of the West End's residential area to a nearly deserted ill-lit commercial district east of Granville Street, in the hope of negotiating the withdrawal of the writ for injunction. On June 20, 12 members of ASP presented themselves at the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in the middle of the afternoon service and began a four-day occupation. They were welcomed by Archbishop Douglas Hambridge, who invited ASP spokeswoman Sally de Quadros to address the congregation and explain the prostitutes' need for protection from police harassment. Residents of the West End had complained of prostitutes patrolling the Georgia Street sidewalk adjacent to the cathedral. Sally deQuadros said she chose the cathedral because of the tradition that churches serve as sanctuaries.

On July 4, 1984, B.C. Justice McEachern granted B.C. Attorney General Smith the injunction (A.G.B.C. v. Couillard), to be served on anyone on the street "apparently" for the purpose of prostitution or any form of "carnal copulation." The "Quiet Zone" injunction gave the B.C. Attorney General Smith leave to extend the order to any part of the City of Vancouver. Police served the injunction to stop soliciting to more than 300 Vancouver sex workers. Those served with the injunction could later be charged with breaking a court order (and if convicted, serve up to two years in jail) if the police saw them so much as "crooking a finger, stopping guys in cars, waving a car down or hitch-hiking."
"If we make any observation of soliciting for companionship, they'll be charged. It doesn't have to be for money." ~ Inspector John Lucy, head of Vancouver's vice squad

In December 1984, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia applied to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court for a similar injunction to restrain the public nuisance caused by prostitutes in the City of Halifax. The application was refused on the basis that the province was trying to control by civil procedure a matter that fell within criminal and hence federal jurisdiction. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal also dismissed the application as ultra vires in March 1985 (A.G.N.S. v Beaver 1985).


In March 1985, ASP started the "Hookers' Defense Fund," to pay for appeals, copies of transcripts, etc. and to raise money to help women who had been incarcerated and who needed to send their children to the care of family members.

The federal Liberals lost the election of September 4, 1984. Canada's new Progressive Conservative government was now headed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney when the Liberal's Fraser Commission released its report in April 1985. The Special Committee held 22 public hearings and received 575 submissions. Their report stated that the law at that time was failing to achieve its objective of reducing prostitution, or of even controlling it within manageable limits. “Moreover it operates in a way which victimizes and dehumanizes prostitutes.” It was the first official government report to make a connection between the country’s prostitution laws and violence against prostitutes. The committee also recommended small-scale brothels be considered, and they strongly urged there be more robust social programs, including assistance for women who want to exit the sex industry.

In response to the Fraser Commission's recommendations, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-49 to replace Canada's old soliciting law in October. The law was passed December 28, 1985. The new "communicating law" stated that:
 “Every person who, in a public place or open to public view, stops or attempts to stop any motor vehicle, blocks any pedestrian traffic going into or out of any building, stops or attempts to stop any person or in any manner communicates or attempts to communicate with any person for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute, is guilty of an offence punishable on a summary conviction.
Prostitute confronts man with
"Make Mount Pleasant a
Hooker Free Zone" sign.
May 1986.
Peter Battistoni, Vancouver Sun


On Saturday, January 18, 1986, street demonstrations across Canada called for the review and repeal of Bill C-49. ASP organized "wave-ins," to show support for prostitutes with more than 100 supporters. ("Waving" could be considered "communicating" and result in arrest.) There were protests in Toronto, Calgary, Montréal and Ottawa. By February 19, 1986, 117 women and 57 men had been arrested in Vancouver; 180 women and 53 men in Toronto; and 22 women in Calgary.

Expo '86

The 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication (May 2 to October 13) served as extra motivation for amplified policing efforts to expel sex workers from Vancouver's downtown.

In April 1986, B.C. Attorney General Smith—now armed with the new "communicating" law—instructed prosecutors to ask the courts to impose area restrictions on accused prostitutes and clients both as a condition of bail and upon conviction. As a result, more than 300 people sentenced in the province between April and September were subject to area restrictions.

ASP noted increased police violence towards sex workers, and attempts to evade police had driven women out of the West End. According to Arrington, the women no longer have time to decide if a potential customer is a cop, or maybe violent. The women are also no longer able to work in groups, which gives them some safety, but are working alone trying to avoid the police. "I'm doing a lot of crisis calls in the middle of the night," said Arrington.

May 1986 saw residents and sex workers facing off in the streets again as protests erupted in Vancouver neighbourhoods such as Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, Kensington-Cedar Cottage and Grandview-Woodlands.

By September 1986, Sally deQuadros and Marie Arrington had split, and Marie had founded a new organization, "Prostitutes and Other Women for Equal Rights" (POWER) and continued to produce and distribute bad trick sheets.

Sex worker Michele Lee McLean challenged her charge of "communicating for the purpose" under the Canada's constitution, arguing that the law was vague, uncertain, that it limited freedom, was inconsistently worded in the two official languages and attempted to control traffic which is a provincial jurisdiction.

Several lower provincial courts ruled that C-49 infringed on freedom of association and freedom of expression and therefore was of no force (because it violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Court challenges in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba led to conflicting interpretations of the new law. The Manitoba government asked the Supreme Court of Canada to consider whether prohibitions on communicating and operating bawdy houses violated constitutional rights for freedom of expression and the right to life, liberty and security. The Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled that the communicating law (s.195.1 of the Criminal Code) was within reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society (R v Skinner, 1990).

Work Safe

In September 1986, ASP published its first safe sex pamphlet, with both English and French, in collaboration with Montréal General Hospital and Health and Welfare Canada.


In April 1987, amendments to B.C.'s Health Act (Bill 34) were introduced by Minister of Health Peter Dueck that enabled Medical Officers of Health to order HIV-positive individuals, whose sexual practices were considered “unsafe,” into “isolation, modified isolation, or complete quarantine.” The legislation was met with well-organized protests at the Vancouver Art Gallery organized by the Vancouver Persons With AIDS Society, the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (led by Jamie Lee Hamilton) and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. This would be the last public appearance of ASP. In the end, the bill never passed the legislature.

* CORRECTION: An earlier version stated that the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) was founded by Selma James, and that U.S. Prostitutes Collective (USPROS) was founded by Silvia Federici. These errors have been corrected. For more information on the the ECP and also on USPROS see: Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry edited by Frederique Delacoste, "Part 3 – United We Stand. Divided We Die: Sex Workers Organized." Thank you to the attentive reader who pointed out this out. I apologize for this error. ~A.S.


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